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Knockout Poker

PlayingcardsThis game was originally called Mexican Poker, but to avoid confusion with other games with the same name I have renamed it to Knockout Poker. Like Indian Poker, it has very little to do with Poker! It was designed for one simple purpose: to be played while queuing up for rides at a theme park, and originally played more than a decade ago at Alton Towers, the UK's biggest theme park. It has the benefit of not requiring any materials other than the deck of cards and players (most card games require at least a table) and is a great time waster for when you are waiting in line with a lot of friends. It's a game of simple negotiation, with excitement, relief and schadenfreude being the primary emotions of play.

How to Play

The basis of Knockout Poker is to survive each round of play by having the group agree to a value that is between the two cards you have been dealt. It requires at least 5 players, and is better the more players you have. The maximum number of players is 26, but 7-9 is optimal.

Here's a step-by-step description of the order of play:

  1. Deal two cards to each player. Your goal in each round is to steer the group towards agreeing a number between the values of your two cards, or equal to one of their values, e.g. if you are dealt a 4 and a 10 the round number must be 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10 for you to survive. A is high, and 2 is low, so if you are dealt an A-2 you can't lose, while if you are dealt 7-7 you will only survive the round if the agreed number is 7.
  2. Players then negotiate verbally to agree the number for the current round. Negotiations end when half of the players (round up) agree to the same number, so with 7 players you need 4 for consensus, and with 6 players you need 3. See below for tips on negotiating.
  3. Once the number is agreed by the required number of players, those players reveal their cards immediately to confirm a consensus has been reached, and to end the round. Everyone then reveals their cards. Anyone whose card range include the number chosen survives the round - everyone else loses a life. (You can use a three letter word for lives, so the first time you use a life you gain a "d", say, then an "o" then a "g" at which point you are knocked out).
  4. Repeat from step 1, bearing in mind that when you lose a player the number of players required for a consensus will change.
  5. The game ends when there are only two remaining players - both these players win.

Tips on Negotiating

How do you negotiate for the number? Well there are no rules about this other than the negotiations ending when half the player agree and then reveal their cards. Here are some useful tips.

  • It's good to start vague, so you can begin by saying things like "something high, I think" or "perhaps we should go low". This encourages other people to make vague statements which will clue you in to the general state of play.
  • You obviously want to form a consensus that will allow you to survive, so you need to pay attention to where everyone else is aiming and see where the power block is. Sometimes you will see the momentum is against you and there will be little you can do, but often you can influence the negotiations slightly.
  • You may find yourself in a situation where survival is impossible. In this situation you can either try and cause the players with the most remaining lives to lose, or you can try and cause as many players as possible to lose lives. If you can find other players who are in your predicament, you may be able to form a "spite consensus". Aiming for A or 2 is usually the best bet in this case, as few people will have the highest or lowest card in their hand.
  • Bluffing is an important part of the game. Once you have noticed that people are negotiating against you (especially when you are well in the lead in terms of lives) you can trick them by trying to negotiate for a number you don't actually want - e.g. suggesting a high number when you really want a low number. Carefully played, you can bluff your way through to surviving a round.
  • While it is dirty play to actively bribe players, or to threaten them, you will catch more flies with sugar: be nice to the other players and they will be more likely to co-operate with you.

This game is so simple to learn, and easy to remember, that you can teach it to anyone. Bring a deck of cards the next time you're going somewhere with a large group of friends and expecting to be in a long line and give it a go. Have fun!

Female Players

What does the DGD2 survey data tell us about female players?

Well, first and foremost it tells us that female players consistently rate themselves lower than male players in terms of their gaming skills. This doesn’t mean that aren’t as skilled as their male counterparts – we have no way of assessing this from survey data – but it means that (depending upon your perspective) either female player underrate themselves or male players overrate themselves, when compared to the other gender. (A t-test showed that this finding was significant at the 0.01 alpha level, which means this finding is extremely significant in statistical terms).

We also found some interesting patterns in the self-assessment of emotions of play. Once again, the trend was for men to enter higher numbers into the survey, but there was a statistically significant pattern to the deviations. (The significance of the t-statistic is given in brackets in the rest of this piece).

In the case of emotions such as excitement and surprise, which we relate to the neurotransmitter epinephrine, men self-assessed higher than women (0.10), and in the case of the emotions such as anger and schadenfreude, which we relate to the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, men also self-assessed higher than women (0.16). Similarly, men self-assessed higher the importance of fiero (triumph over adversity) in their play (0.13). All of this collectively can be interpreted as meaning that female players are slightly less interested in gameplay resulting from the fight-or-flight response than male players, and that this distinction is statistically significant at the 0.05 alpha level.

One more finding in connection with emotions: female players rate lower the importance of curiosity to their play (0.0). This one is especially mysterious as it is the opposite of what might have been predicted. However, this may be a consequence of the wording of the curiosity question, which may have narrowed the meaning of the term artificially. Further investigation is recommended.

On the subjects of negative emotions (such as sadness, disgust, contempt, guilt, embarrassment), social emotions (gratitude, naches, envy, belonging) and amusement there was no discernible difference between genders, nor on the issue of obsessive play (which was the only emotions measure in on which women scored more highly than men, but the difference was extremely small and not statistically significant).

When examining the patterns of play respondents enjoyed, a similar trend was revealed: women, for the most part, gave lower numbers than men. This was true for games of fiero i.e. certain forms of agon (competition) and alea (chance) (0.13) and games of excitement i.e. ilinx (vertigo) (0.09), as well as games of escapism i.e. certain forms of mimicry (simulation), paidia (unstructured play) and social ilinx (e.g. “sandcastle stomping”) (0.00). Furthermore, male players rated ludus (structured play) higher than female players (0.02).

So what patterns of play did female players rate higher than male players? Well although they scored more highly on what we term role-play (various forms of mimicry) this finding was not statistically significant in this sample. However, women did rate higher than men the importance of sandbox-type play to their enjoyment (0.10), which was an expected result.

Overall, the main finding of this part of the statistical analysis is that which was introduced at the start of this piece: women consistently provide lower numbers to describe their game playing competences, the importance of emotions to their play, and their enjoyment of various patterns of play. However, it is also telling in which specific areas this finding proved statistically significant.

It is probably premature to make a statement of the kind that women are less interested in fiero or excitement than men, but the findings in respect of gender do suggest that men are more interested in gameplay generated by the fight-or-flight response than women, and that women would in general prefer to play in an apparently unstructured way, or in a form with few penalties for experimentation (e.g. sandbox games).

Remember, however, that these are trends that have been detected at a statistical level: you can’t reason from the general to the specific in this case, so what seems to be shown by a sample of 141 women tells you nothing about an individual you meet who also happens to be female e.g. the fact that statistically most women likes flowers doesn’t allow you to assume that every women you meet likes flowers – they might have a pollen allergy, or an anti-barbie complex, or they might simply not like flowers. You just can’t know anything about individuals without talking to them as individuals.

Also, it is worth nothing that there were more than 6 times as many male players in the DGD2 sample (891 vs 141) which in itself shows up a problem in gathering data about female players in an industry which has geared itself quite heavily towards making games for teenage boys.

More DGD2 number crunching soon.

Unitarian Shootings in Knoxville

I am very distressed to learn today of senseless murders at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville by an unemployed gunman filled with psychotic rage at "liberals". The Knoxville News Sentinel has the full story. There seems to have been no religious aspect to the murders: the gunman singled out the TVUUC because of its liberal stance - they like to advertise their openness to the gay community, for instance, and have a "Gays welcome" sign prominently on display.

While in Knoxville, my wife and I would often go to the other Unitarian Church (the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church), to meet up with friends from the Pagan community in Knoxville, who have a drum circle there every week, and once for a wedding. The two unitarian churches have quite close ties to one another, and although I don't know anyone involved in this incident personally, it is still unsettling to have something like this enter even the corners of your life.

There's really no need to express your sympathies to me, I'm sure we all feel for those involved, I just felt the need to mention it here. Please don't let this incident interrupt your enjoyment of Only a Game, and please continue discussions in the comments as usual.

Germs! (and other scientific superstitions)

Germs May contain nonsense. 

They’re all around you… they’re out to get you… beware the germs! You can’t see them, but they’re lurking in every corner of your house, every space in your world, and they mean you ill – they mean to make you ill. And if you don’t stop them, they’ll kill you and everyone you know! Oh no! The germs are out to get us!

Don’t touch the toilet seat… don’t shake hands… don’t eat out in a restaurant whatever you do, because the germs will find you and then they’ll get you. Be afraid… be terrified… don’t ever leave your home, and even there you aren’t safe as the germs are in every inch of your house! There’s no escape! The germs are coming to get you! 

This is a classic scientific superstition, in that it originated in a genuine scientific development, but now consists mostly of a heady blend of paranoia and mysophobia (fear of infection). Yes, there are micro-organisms in the world that could kill you, but you are exceptionally unlikely to be exposed to most of them, and in point of fact, many of the micro-organisms that could make you ill are already living in your body.

Stand by for your reality check. 

In the nineteenth century, the germ theory was landmark science. Previously, there were all kinds of crazy ideas about where infections came from, including the miasma theory (which held that there was a noxious form of “bad air” that caused disease). But Victorian-era scientists such as Agostino Bassi, John Snow, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch demonstrated and proved that the cause of disease was actually tiny microscopic organisms which they called germs.

The term has stuck, and has in particularly been spread far and wide by the bountiful generosity of the advertising industry, who love to play on the housewife’s fear of infection (“Think of the children!”) to stress how dangerous the household surfaces are, and how vital it is that you defend you and your family against the insidious threat of microscopic germs. 

So where does this all go wrong?

The problem is that while it is correct that many diseases are caused by microscopic organisms, most microscopic organisms you are likely to encounter are harmless in the population sizes we usually experience. The idea people often have in their heads is that when you get out of the shower you are clean and pure without a trace of micro-life upon you. But in fact, every part of your body is a place where bacteria live, and in fact most of these bacteria are utterly benign. (Some, such as the micro-flora in your stomach, may indeed be beneficial). 

Rather than all micro-organisms being hostile to human life – the paranoia fostered by the Madison Avenue germ campaigns – bacteria can be seen (from a certain perspective) as the real inhabitants of our planet. They were here first, there’s way more of them than there will ever be of us and, let’s not forget, we are all essentially built from bacteria (albeit super-powered, highly specialised bacteria): every cell in your body is descended from an ancient form of bacteria, so from a certain perspective we are all colossal colonies of bacteria.

Furthermore, most of the familiar infections we might catch, such as the common cold and influenza (flu) aren’t caused by bacteria at all, but by viruses – tiny replicating packets of genetic material which “borrow” other cells for a while to replicate, and occasionally screw around with the order of things by copying bits of peoples DNA into weird places. As I have mentioned before, viruses copying bits of DNA to different places in our genome may be the chief source of genetic novelty (what I call “the cut-and-paste hypothesis”) since individual mutations by, say, radiation, are almost always fatal. You cannot usually change even one codon in a gene without it causing it to malfunction, and almost always these malfunctions cause death. The Marvel Comics idea of radioactive mutation causing superpowers is another scientific superstition much like the kill-you-dead germs.

You are most likely to have problems with bacterial infection if you get the wrong bacteria into a sensitive place (such as the eye), if you have a cut that gets bacteria into it (always clean your wounds before dressing them!), or if you ingest the wrong bacterium. And note here that being terrified of the dreaded e. coli (escherichia coli) is ridiculous, because there are billions of e. coli living in your stomach right now, preventing the intrusion of other bacteria by taking up the available living space, and even in some cases manufacturing helpful things like vitamin K2. Food poisoning related to e. coli is caused by variant strains of e. coli which release toxins, but the common or garden e. coli is a friend to humanity, not an enemy. 

What makes the situation worse is that fear of germs causes people to buy anti-bacterial kitchenware or anti-bacterial soaps which are almost entirely unnecessary outside of a medical context. Washing up your cookware with a mild detergent is more than enough to remove any bacteria on them, you don’t need to bring out the big guns. And when you do, what actually happens is the bacteria – plucky little fellows that they are – try to adapt to the new, more hostile conditions, and thus by trying to protect yourself from the evil germs, you end up breeding tougher, hardier strains of bacteria that are far more likely to hurt you!

Neither are doctors immune from falling prey of Germ Madness: far too many medical doctors prescribe antibiotics as a default solution to some vague and general problem, but this has the same effect as the anti-bacterial cookware: it helps breed stronger strains of bacteria who are immune to the antibiotics we have. When your doctor gives you antibiotics for the flu, they are being manifestly incompetent, since influenza is a virus and antibiotics are entirely ineffective against viruses.

So what should you do? 

Firstly, chill out. Yes, bacteria is everywhere, but most bacteria is harmless to you as long as it stays out of your more sensitive areas – most bacteria is not a germ in the sense this term is usually used. Yes, you could die if exposed to, say, bubonic plague, but the odds are vastly in your favour that you will never come with even a thousand miles of bubonic plague, particularly if you live in the US or Europe, unless you happen to fall into a time vortex and get sucked back to the Middle Ages (and if you do, I recommend investing in the heavy plough – I have a hot tip its going to be a hit!)

Secondly, don’t worry too much about getting infections from your immediate environment. Almost all germs – whether we are talking about bacteria or viruses – don’t survive for long outside of a suitable environment. If bacteria dries out, it dies. Viruses are even more fragile – most break down once they get away from the host body. You can catch a cold from another person (say, if they sneeze on you) but you are very unlikely to catch a cold from touching something another person touched, say, a few hours ago. The door handle may well get touched a lot, but overnight any bacteria upon it are quite likely to die, and most of the bacteria that end up on the door handle are harmless while they are just on your skin.

As for the toilet seat, it's actually one of the cleanest places in most buildings.

Thirdly, and most importantly, wash your hands with soap. Regular household soap is one of the most effective things to use against bacteria, because the soap molecules bind tightly to the bacteria allowing it to be washed away by the water – bye bye germs! You don’t need to use anti-bacterial soap, because your goal needn’t be killing the bacteria, just getting it off you; as before, using bigger guns than you need just breeds stronger bacteria. After using the bathroom or before meals are sensible times to wash your hands with soap, but any time after you have had contact with soil or other living things (people, dogs, cats, rabbits etc.) it wouldn’t hurt to wash your hands.

May I also at this point dispel a third scientific superstition (along with “all bacteria is deadly” and “radiation causes superpowers”), which is that urine is infectious. Urine is effectively sterile. You need to wash your hands after peeing because you’ve touched parts of your body which have populations of bacteria you don’t want to spread elsewhere, not because the urine itself is dangerous. 

Let me just reiterate the previous point: washing your hands with water is a refreshing bath for bacteria. You only get the bacteria off you if you use soap. I’ll say this again for maximum overkill: use soap. It works.

We sometimes like to think of superstitions as things from our past history without foundation, like the prohibition on walking under a ladder as unlucky. Except some of these classic superstitions have sensible roots: it really isn’t wise to walk under a ladder when you could walk around it, as the person on the ladder could drop something on you, or the ladder could slip and you could be injured. Garlic might not ward off vampires (although I haven't been able to test this yet), but it is packed full of anti-oxidants which help protect you from damaging free radicals (of the particle kind, not independently minded revolutionaries). In fact, every era has its own superstitions – and because science is the most prevalent and well-established belief system of our day, it is arguably becoming the principle source of modern superstitions. 

Despite the success of science in fuelling the technological development that characterises our era, scientific superstitions – like omni-fatal germs, radioactive superpowers and infectious urine are all around us, and are generally as ill founded as the most ridiculous superstitions from our past.

Waning Aftershock

It's always something of an adventure when I post on the more explosive topics in the domain of religion/nonreligion, but Thursday's piece seemed to generate more discussion than personal attacks, so I have to feel I am making some kind of progress! It is nice to be able to talk about Dawkins in this context without getting hopelessly enraged like I once did... talking about the distressing aspects of my childhood is helping sooth the raw nerves. I still have one story to tell in this regard, but I don't feel now is the time.

A few brief thoughts...

  • Sega Bass Fishing on the Wii... a total joy for me, although probably not of much interest to many of the people who come here! So thrilled that not only have they made another version, they have kept the best of the original and expanded upon it. Why can't all sequels get this right?
  • And the ghost of Sega also presents Nights: Journey of Dreams, which while not awful could certainly have been better. The narrative content in particular grates - I hope Naoto Oshima is not too offended by this mauling of his original piece.
  • Peter - I feel like I should offer you the role of Deputy, since when the bigger flows of comments arrive you are always there to help field some of the contention! Thank you!
  • Sirc - hope I haven't scared you off! Apologies for my paranoia if you are still here.
  • Have nearly completed the statistical analysis for the DGD2 data, but it's already feeling that we won't be able to produce a working instrument at this stage of the research. Will post a few pieces going over some of the correlations here, then work on a paper and see what happens.

Hope everyone's week goes well!

The Blue Sky

Bluesky Why is the sky blue?

The scientific materialist says that the atmosphere diffracts light from the sun to different degrees according to its wavelength, and the blue light is scattered more than the lower frequencies, hence giving the sky a blue tint. But really, this explanation provides the mechanics of the outcome, but it doesn't necessarily address the question. The ultimate reason the photons behave this way is brushed under the carpet, part of the assumed background of the materialistic explanation: things are how they are, all that is available to us is mechanical explanations.

The theist might say that the sky is blue because it is God's will. Is it God's will that the sky is blue (as opposed to, say, purple), or God's will that blue light is scattered more than lower frequency photons? Such mysteries cannot be wholly addressed, since any genuine idea of a supreme deity renders God entirely beyond human comprehension. Thus, this explanation serves to avoid exploring the issue further, although in doing so it ironically offers a more wide reaching explanation that the materialist approach. Remember Laplace's retort to Napoleon about the place for God in his celestial mechanics? "I have no need of that hypothesis." Napoleon, greatly amused, discussed this later with Lagrange, who replied: "Ah, but it is such a great hypothesis - it explains so many things!"

The Buddhist, or follower of a similar contemplative path, might take another tack entirely. The sky is blue because we, as beings who have experiences of an apparent external reality, perceive it thus. We can see here the compliment to the theist view - in one, the architect of the universe sets up the rules, in the other we, the individual soul, give the rules substance by experiencing them. This is the hidden meaning behind the Zen koan "who is the master who makes the grass green?" (or indeed, the sky blue.) When you understand what is being gestured at here, the answer is clear: it is you!

So what is the real answer here? Why is the sky blue? Since questions of this kind are almost always teleological, that is, they involve constructing stories concerning purpose, one's own belief system is the primary factor in determining the answer. If your focus is epistemology (study of knowledge), the materialist explanation may seem complete. If your focus is theology (study of the divine), the theist explanation may seem complete. If your focus is ontology (study of existence), the contemplative explanation may seem complete.

The scandal here is not that there are vastly different approaches to answering a question that begins "why" (as when belief in a single answer provokes outrage at alternatives, as we see in the materialist's horror at the Creationist, or vice versa), but rather that we would ever assume that there should only be one such answer.

Bright Pride?

200px-Bright_Logo.svg The Brights – a united community of non-believers – have arrived! But are they an equality movement, or something quite different indeed?

In 2003, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell founded a new social movement intended at connecting and galvanising non-religious people into uniting the self-styled “community of reason”. Hoping to borrow from the successes of the Gay movement, Geisert decided to coin a new meaning to an existing word that could be used as an umbrella term to describe the entire community of unbelief: that word was ‘bright’. Thus, the Brights Movement was founded.

Before discussing this matter any further, it may be necessary to dispel a misconception about myself. Some bloggers, seeing the extent to which I am willing to defend Young Earth Creationists, assume some pro-religious or Christian evangelist agenda. To be sure, I am pro-religious, and indeed multi-religious (I identify five religions for myself), but the value that compels me to defend the Creationists is not religious solidarity but my firm commitment to freedom of belief. I may have few beliefs in common with the Brights Movement (or, for that matter, the Creationists) but I defend to the death their right to believe in whatever they choose to believe.

Indeed, if the Brights Movement were only concerned with “Athiest Pride”, I would have no issues with them whatsoever, and would be delighted to support them. I have long suggested that even if one does not believe in God, styling oneself as an atheist is choosing to identify by what one opposes, rather than what one supports, which in the game of identity politics is often asking for trouble. In this regard, I wholeheartedly support the Brights goal to “promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements” – this shift away from non-believers identifying as “godless” and towards identifying as believers in a naturalistic or materialistic view of reality is, I believe, very healthy indeed.

So where is the problem? Well, an initial problem is that the choice of the word “Bright” as a label was either monstrously naïve or hopelessly arrogant, a point that forms part of a comprehensive critique about the choice of word by Chris Mooney, who in principle should fit snugly under the Bright umbrella. When atheists already have a PR problem in that some people (erroneously) perceive them as ‘all reason and no emotion’, styling oneself as “Bright” is a political own goal.

Perhaps a wider problem is the Brights movement use of evolutionary theoretician and anti-religious firebrand Richard Dawkins as a major spokesperson. I do not deny that with his personal fame and influence, Dawkins is a potential asset to the Brights, but remembering that a major goal of the movement is to “educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such people” a certain amount of caution is required in who you allow to publicly endorse your group. If you wish to be recognised as an equality movement, like the Gay movement the Brights founders sought to emulate, you cannot afford to be perceived as bigots, and having Dawkins in a prominent position invites this interpretation.

Since at this point we will be switching from examining the goals of the Brights movement to examining Dawkins’ personal agenda, I feel it is necessary to underline that the community of unbelief holds Dawkins in high esteem and has no reservations about being connected to him. Witness the recent decision by Doctor Who reviver Russell T. Davies to feature Dawkins on his show. Davies announced about Dawkins visit to the Doctor Who sets: “People were falling at his feet… We've had Kylie Minogue on that set, but it was Dawkins people were worshipping.” Furthermore, on the specific importance of Dawkins as a figure, Davies declared: “He has brought atheism proudly out of the closet!” As a prominent member of the Gay community, this claim by Davies can be seen as more than just an endorsement of Dawkins agenda, but also (perhaps) as a validation of the underlying claim of the Brights to be a liberation movement parallel to the earlier Gay movement.

Put another way, the fact that Davies makes a direct parallel between what it means to come out of the closet as a Gay person and what it means to come out of the closet as an atheist seems to reaffirm the need for an equality drive for non-believers. This is a rather extreme comparison, however, as the extent of persecution against the Gay community at the time the Gay movement accelerated (which is often credited to the Stonewall riots of 1969) was tangible – homosexuality was officially a mental illness, for instance, and many Gay people were beaten or even killed by homophobic bigots. It is considerably less clear that the modern atheist suffers so greatly, especially when one looks at the financial and social success of prominent atheists such as Davies (recent recipient of an OBE from the Queen) or Dawkins (who lives in palatial luxury at Oxford university, one of the most prestigious universities in the world).

Returning to the issue of the logic of unequivocally supporting Dawkins as a figurehead, let us take a brief aside to examine Dawkins personal agenda. Since 1976, Dawkins has published books which alongside perfectly reasonable scientific ideas include open prejudice against religion and religious practitioners. This is less evident in his middle work (the finest of his books, in my opinion), but it re-emerges on centre stage with the publication of The God Delusion in 2006. Even the title of this book encodes prejudice, inviting the interpretation that Dawkins believes all theists are deluded, but to remove any ambiguity here, Dawkins expressly develops this idea within his text, dressing up his bigotry as being scientifically validated.

The problem with The God Delusion is that it goes far beyond the remit of the equality movement the Brights aim to be, and tips over into intolerance. Dawkins claims the book contains four “consciousness raising” ideas. Two of these – that atheists can be happy, balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled, and that atheists should be proud because atheism is evidence of a healthy independent mind – are more or less in line with the Brights movements hope of equality. A third idea, that theories of natural selection are superior to a “God hypothesis” in explaining the living world and the cosmos, badly confuses metaphysical issues and scientific issues, and falls into a classic teleological trap, but is somewhat beyond the scope of our discussion today. Suffice it to say that trying to apply God in a solely epistemological (knowledge-based) role not only misses what God means to most theists, it steps far beyond testable claims, and thus out of modern science entirely.

So the problem with Dawkins’ agenda (and thus with the Brights movement in so much as it shares this agenda to some unspecified extent) lies in his fourth “consciousness raising” idea, which is that Children should not be labeled by their parent’s religion, and that terms like “Catholic child” or “Muslim child” should make us flinch. This idea is developed ultimately into the principle that raising children in a religious tradition can be seen as a kind of ‘mental abuse’ – Dawkins attacks the Amish (who are greatly respected by many people as an example of a self-sufficient religious community) by claiming that society is in effect guilty of allowing the Amish to abuse their children. Dawkins argument is strident: “Isn’t it a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?”

It is precisely in this attack on religious freedom that Dawkins goes too far, exceeding the boundaries of equality for atheists, and tipping into anti-religious bigotry. Usually when arguing against this thread, I take the impersonal moral high ground by pointing out that what Dawkins is proposing is widespread violation of human rights that the Western world usually enshrines as the very basis of the modern notion of freedom. An argument of this kind can be found in my piece on the Ethics of Metaphysics, which is recommended reading for exploring this issue more fully. In brief, our societies agreed after the terrible religious abuses conducted in World War II that we would honour and respect freedom of belief, and that parents would be allowed to choose how their children would be educated: any argument that runs contrary to this (such as the one advanced by Dawkins) is thus advocating human rights violations.

Today, however, I’d like to respond to this claim on a more personal level. Dawkins advocates, in effect, that children should be “protected” from religion until they are age eighteen, when they have the intellectual capacity to handle such issues. This is a viewpoint which is terribly seductive to people who do not belong to a religious tradition, or who have made a forcible break from one, and indeed I had at least one guest here on my blog who attempted to expand this thought in a reasonable and entirely unprejudiced fashion. The logic of this argument rests on the prioritising of personal autonomy – when one’s ethical values place individual freedom in especially high esteem, and one has little experience of religious traditions (or a confused idea about them), it seems logical to support Dawkins’ viewpoint that children should only be introduced to religion when they come of age.

To find what is wrong with this idea, it is necessary to actually appreciate what it means to be raised in a religious tradition. A parent – whatever their beliefs – teaches their children how to behave, which is to say, the parent passes their ethics on to the children. In terms of explaining those ethics, the parent will draw upon their own personal metaphysics (their untestable beliefs) – this is equally true for religious parents as for non-religious parents, since the justification of ethics cannot avoid a metaphysical component. Since the very essence of a religious tradition is its metaphysical and ethical beliefs, it is quite impossible for a parent to isolate their children from their own religion – the idea that this is possible comes from the non-believers misconception that religion is something that can be set aside, like a hobby that you never mention to your friends. But the devout religious parent can no more set aside their religion in raising their child than the atheist can set aside their disbelief in God: it is essential to their very identity.

This does not mean that religious parents cannot respect their children’s choice if they decide to break away from the family religion, nor that there are not parents on the fringes of religious practice who are able to compartmentalise their religious background. What I am expressly stating is that when a particular religious tradition constitutes a quintessential part of who you are, you cannot help but pass some part of this experience onto your children, and neither should you be expected to try to resist this outcome.

Dawkins tries to argue that religious identity should be like political identity – something that only comes into play in adulthood. But religious identity is far more like national identity – something that forms part of the unavoidable background of existence and which cannot be opted out of until maturity. Just as you cannot realistically set aside the fact that you were born in the USA, or the UK, or wherever, in terms of how this affects the sense of who you are as an American, or a Brit, or whatever (although you can in adulthood change this identity by emigrating), you cannot set aside the religion you were born into because your parents, as the people who most influence your upbringing, quite naturally pass aspects of their religious identity on to you just as they pass aspects of their national identity on to you. This is not ‘mental abuse’, as Dawkins contends, it is the very nature of parenting.

Now at a deeply personal level, what offends me about Dawkins argument here is that by equating raising a child in a religious tradition to mental abuse, he is simultaneously insulting my childhood and the memory of my parents (something I expect other people from religious backgrounds to fully appreciate). He insults my parents by intimating they were bad people to not wait until adulthood to introduce me to their religion (putting aside the point that this would have been entirely impossible), yet sharing in the religious experiences of my parents was one of the most wonderful aspects of my youth. Even though I later drifted away from Christianity (only to later – and much to my surprise – drift back to it, as one religion among many that I identify for myself), I never resented my parents for sharing the foundations of their spirituality with me, because that experience gave me a tremendous head start on the road we all must walk to find our own personal spiritual identity. 

Furthermore, to suggest that religion was the primary source of abuse in my childhood is doubly insulting to me, since as a teenager I was bullied by atheist children (that is, children raised by atheist parents who naturally adopted some of their parent’s atheist beliefs) because of my Christian beliefs. This is the only aspect of growing up in a religious tradition which brings a negative slant to my experience, since my Christianity was a source of considerable personal and spiritual joy for me – and I never, under any circumstances, tried to push my religious beliefs onto other people, but simply tried to live up to the example set by Jesus to “love one another”.

Now of course, there is an irony here in that by admitting to this backstory I expose myself as a distorted mirror image of Dawkins, but since I contend that one cannot be expected to wholly eliminate metaphysical bias on subjects such as this, I hope that by exposing my bias it will allow for more fruitful debate. (I also wish to explain why previously it has been difficult for me to write about Dawkins’ anti-religious views without becoming angry). Despite having a pro-religious bias, I am thoroughly open to discussion on this subject, and also staunchly in support of the non-believers right to their unbelief.

Finally, when people such as Dawkins or, even more distressingly, my atheist friends, express a view that children should be isolated from religion until adulthood, I am personally horrified because this is a viewpoint that, seen from my perspective, effectively wishes that I did not exist. My Christian upbringing is a part of who I am – it is not something about which I have regrets, and I never did, even when in my late 20s I was as far from Christian metaphysics as any atheist. I am in fact tremendously touched by the extent with which my parents shared their spirituality with me: it helped make me the person I am today.

Dawkins says you should shudder at the idea of a ‘Muslim child’ or a ‘Christian child’ – well I was a Christian child, and I am horrified at the suggestion that you should have found me a source of disgust. Christianity was a wholly positive experience for me as a child – except in so much as it was a reason for other children to persecute me.

This, then, is the problem with the Brights movement unequivocal employment of Dawkins as a figurehead: along with his message of “Atheist Pride”, Dawkins also presents a rather horrifying anti-religious bigotry, something that Davies does nothing to dismiss in his newspaper interview regarding the Dawkins guest spot on Doctor Who, thus suggesting solidarity on this issue. But the Brights movement cannot be an equality movement if any part of its goals concerns denial of freedom of belief to others.

Part of the reason that atheism has acquired a bad name for itself is that the “New Atheist” movement of the 1990s and 2000s is far from the first time atheists have tried to unify, and non-believers have not demonstrated much of a willingness to address this historical source of anti-atheist sentiment. It is not early twentieth century atheists, such as Bertrand Russell, or Max Weber (who famously accused anyone who could maintain religious views of either naivety or intellectual dishonesty) that are the problem, nor the sad failure of the Humanist movements which followed, but totalitarian political systems such as Stalin’s interpretation of Marxism, which dominated certain countries in the wake of World War II.

By adopting and centralising a particular atheist belief, and using this as the basis to deny religious freedom and viciously abuse believers for decades, Marxist extremism savagely tarnished unbelief’s image. Atheist bigots such as Christopher Hitchens do nothing to aid this situation when they try to explain why the atheist Marxists don’t reflect badly on atheism since they were really a religion (at least in his view), instead of admitting to the fact that any belief system – religious or non-religious – becomes a horror when it tips into totalitarianism.

The Brights movement represents a minority, collecting together some 38,000 people from around 150 different nations. In so much as they represent an equality movement, striving towards equal treatment for the members of the community of unbelief, whether materialist, naturalist, atheist, or otherwise, they have my full support. But while it is not willing to take a stand against anti-religious bigotry, the Brights movement cannot honestly represent itself as an equality movement. Someone needs to stand up and say something along the lines of ‘we respect Dawkins for his vehement defence of our right to be atheists, but we don’t support his anti-religious sentiments’, and if (as seems to be the case) no-one is able to do this, the movement’s stated goals of equal treatment will likely remain frustratingly out of reach.

Whatever your metaphysical background, please share your views on this issue in the comments.

The Change in the Market

Graph How much has the videogame market changed in the last four years? Following on from last week’s analytical rant about the change at Nintendo, this week I’d like to illustrate some of the changes in the marketplace by looking at the UK retail charts. (The UK market is very similar to the US market, except for changes in license brand value e.g. Madden means a lot in the US but not the UK, and Football Manager means a lot in the UK but nothing at all in the US).

I’ll be using the ChartTrack data for the week ending 12/07/08. I only have chart positions, and not sales figures, but fortunately the application of a little logic allows one to unravel the situation quite comprehensively.

Here are the top 20 titles on all formats that week:

1.    Wii Fit (Wii only)
2.    Lego Indiana Jones (all formats)
3.    Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii only)
4.    Top Spin 3 (360, PS3, Wii)
5.    Battlefield: Bad Company (360, PS3)
6.    Big Beach Sports (Wii only)
7.    Wii Play (Wii only)
8.    Beijing 2008 (most formats)
9.    Kung Fu Panda (all formats)
10.    Mario & Sonic: Olympic Games (Wii, DS)
11.    Guitar Hero III: Legends (PS2, PS3, Wii, 360)
12.    Mario Kart Wii (Wii only)
13.    Grand Theft Auto IV (360, PS3)
14.    Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training (DS only)
15.    Carnival: Fun Fair Games (Wii only)
16.    Wall-E (all formats)
17.    Unreal Tournament III (PC, PS3, 360)
18.    Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3 only)
19.    Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (360, PS3, PC, DS)
20.    FIFA 08 (all formats)

Also, here are the top titles on each platform’s separate chart:

  • Wii: Wii Fit
  • Nintendo DS: Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training
  • PlayStation 2: Lego Indiana Jones
  • PS3: Metal Gear Solid Four: Guns of the Patriots
  • PSP: Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
  • PC: The Sims 2: Double Deluxe
  • PC (budget): Football Manager 2008
  • Xbox 360: Battlefield: Bad Company

What’s the first thing you notice? Not only is a Wii title number one, six of these titles are Wii exclusives (and one a DS exclusive) with the only non-Nintendo platform exclusive being Metal Gear Solid 4 which pulls in a wimpy 18th place. That’s not all the trouble in Sony-land, however, as Metal Gear Solid 4 is also the top selling title on PS3 (according to the separate PS3 chart), which means in essence Sony is doing very badly indeed with its next generation platform.

Furthermore, the PSP shows how weak it is too: it’s top charting title (Crisis Core) doesn’t even show up in the all formats Top 20, and in fact limps in at a poor 32nd place for the week in question. Still, Sony are the only company to have challenged Nintendo’s dominance of the handheld space and achieve anything more than abject failure, so the poor chart performance should be seen as reflective of their small market share and not necessarily of the failure of the PSP as a format.

But it’s not all bad news for Sony. Look at the number 2 title: Lego Indiana Jones. Number 2 fast selling title this week, but on what platform is it selling? Well to help you work this out let me point out that it doesn’t appear on the Top 10 list for the PS3, Wii, Xbox 360 or PSP at all, and it’s number 7 in the DS Top 10. Figured it out yet? Yes, Lego Indiana Jones scores second place in the all formats sales charts entirely on the back of sales on the PlayStation 2. 

This actually underlines the horrible situation Sony find themselves in: their new platforms are underperforming badly, but they are still doing okay thanks to the continuing enormous success of the PlayStation 2 – this ameliorates Sony’s shame and saves their cashflow, but it shows that mass market consumers simply aren’t interested in the PS3 yet. Perhaps in a few years when Blu-Ray discs are more established, but right now Sony isn’t firing on all cylinders with its new platforms at all.

I’d like to further underline how titanically screwed Sony are right now by quoting Sony CEO Howard Stringer who this week said: “I’ve played a Nintendo Wii. I don’t see it as a competitor. It’s more of an expensive niche game device”. Yup, an expensive niche game device which is kicking your ass on all fronts. Enjoy your denial, Mr. Stringer, it’s all you’ve got to comfort you other than strong sales on your previous generation of games console.

What about Microsoft, are they doing any better? Well, since Battlefield: Bad Company is the top selling 360 title, but it’s number 4 in the PS3 charts (remembering the number 1 PS3 title is at number 18 in the all formats), one can only conclude that Microsoft while still being far, far behind Nintendo in terms of market performance is at least courting a strong gamer hobbyist following who would generally rather buy a multi-format title on the 360 than the PS3. GTA IV underlines the point: it too must be selling considerably more on the 360 versus the PS3 because it weighs in at number 13 overall, while the top PS3 title is (you’ll recall) number 18.

The funniest thing to come out of E3 this year was Microsoft’s enthusiastic display of love for itself, while simultaneously releasing their “New Xbox Experience”, which is to say, their new 360 interface which strips away the hobbyist-friendly Blade interface and replaces it with something so stunningly reminiscent of both Nintendo’s Mii’s and Sony’s Home that one can only conclude that Microsoft have absolutely no idea what they are doing when it comes to courting the mass market. Do Microsoft really believe they can draw mass market players away from the cheap and accessible Wii by copying key features? Really, this only makes Microsoft look very feeble indeed. They should realise their edge right now is that they have lured the hobbyists away from Sony and Nintendo and work hard to keep them. Trying to cash in on Nintendo’s market (while, of course, denying that Nintendo are having any success) risks alienating the very base of Microsoft’s rather marginal next generation success.

And what about Nintendo? On top of the domination of Wii exclusives (4 of the top 7 titles in the all formats are Wii only), they have Brain Training. This game has been out for two years and is still ranking in the top 20 (14 this week, 12 last week); some weeks it breaks back into the top ten – and this is, I repeat, more than twenty four months after release. This is the power of the mass market – the mass market players don’t want to buy many titles, but the titles they do want can sell in huge numbers, as Brain Training (BrainAge in the US) demonstrates.

Finally, what about the lowly PC? It’s top title – The Sims 2: Double Deluxe – doesn’t even show up in the Top 40 all formats chart at all. The PC market isn’t dead, it’s just considerably less lively than even the PlayStation 2. And let’s not forget that a lot of revenue in the PC world isn’t coming from direct retail any more but rather MMO subscriptions and ad revenues on casual games, so this somewhat obfuscates the reality of the situation.

Overall, the analysis of the market in the UK I have presented here says one thing: Nintendo can make and sell games for the mass market, and are making a fortune doing it. Everyone else is running around like a headless chicken, trying to downplay Nintendo’s extraordinary success this time around (they haven’t been this successful since the original NES back in the 1980s) while simultaneously trying to ineffectively copy Nintendo’s ideas in the hope that this will magically bring mass market players to expensive overpowered machines tailor-made for the hobbyist market.

It’s a golden age... but only if you happen to be Nintendo.