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January 2010

The Joy of Swik

Legoreindbottb Among the many Winter Festivals that are practised, none is stranger than the Discordian festival of Swik, pronounced 'swik' or 'christmas' – although not to be confused with the Christian festival with the same pronunciation and dates. An ancient Discordian tradition, dating back at least twenty years, states “the joy of Swik is Getting, Shouting, and Passing out”, but it is widely recognised that Swik is a festival to be endured rather than enjoyed (much like a Klingon rite of passage). One does not have to be a Discordian to be participating in Swik... most people are simply trapped in the festival through no fault of their own.

No-one is really sure when Swik piggybacked onto Christmas, although it happened a long time after Christmas piggybacked onto the Pagan Solstice celebrations, which also fall at this time each year. Perhaps it was the Victorians who began to ignore the religious aspect of Christmas and focus instead upon the sale and purchase of an unnecessary profusion of gifts, which has now escalated to such a violent spectacle of intense consumerism as to make the shops utterly impassible to anyone not comfortable with someone's elbow stuck in their nose. Fortunately, Swik also brings with it a spirit of alcoholism and debauchery which salves the pain of the shopping horrors, not to mention the discomfort of strained family unity that many must find a way to survive.

In recent years, Discordians in the United States have also began to use “swik” to refer to unwanted presents, and thus divvy up their swik (or loot) to interested parties in the aftermath of festivities. This builds upon the long standing tradition of Discordians giving the tackiest most unbearably awful plastic frippery as presents to one another for Swik. The Japanese produce the most incredible tat for Swik each year, and one has not lived until one has hung some bizarre talking plastic ornaments on the Swik tree.

To all those doomed to endure Swik, I wish you godspeed or, as the Klingons put it, K'plah! To everyone else, according to your traditions, Happy Kwanzaa, God be with you followers of Bahá'u'lláh, felicitations on the birth of the tenth Nanak, Happy Islamic New Year 1431 AH, Merry Christmas, Serene Buddhist New Year, Happy Hannukah, Merry Yalda, Auspicious Makara Sankranti and last but not least, Happy Solstice and rejoice for the Sun King has returned!

Only a Game will return in January.

Coming Soon

I'll be tying up for the Winter Festival tomorrow, but I thought I'd just briefly share some of the things coming up for Only a Game in the Gregorian New Year.

The biggest news right now is that I am on the brink of getting approval for a new book project - and it's a philosophy book, which would mean I would finally level up to the rank of Professional Philosopher! I hope to share some of the thematic points in some form or another here on the blog, but I need to discuss this with the publisher, and I should probably wait until it's confirmed before saying anything more.

Apologies to anyone waiting for the Philosophy of Mind serial, but a massive influx of books at the sharp end of my reading list puts this one out of commission for the time being. Might get to it later next year, but we'll have to see how it goes.

What will be coming up in January is a two-part series on Kant's Critique of Judgement entitled "Kant on Aesthetics" and "Kant on Intelligent Design". I haven't had time to work on this yet, but I have finished reading the source material and am looking forward to thrashing it out. If it works out too long, I'll turn this into a serial. Either way, it should be an interesting stepping point for discussion.

Nothing else planned right now, but you can expect more spirited exploration of philosophy, ethics, religion, science fiction and other nonsense over the months to come.

Photo Frenzy! Sacred Buildings (The Minigame Court)

Starting today over on The Minigame Court, the inaugural game of Photo Frenzy! with the theme of Sacred Buildings. Submit links to photographs of sacred buildings (on Flickr, personal sites, blogs etc.) in the comments of the courtside post to enter into one of the following two categories:

  • Most Beautiful Sacred Building
  • Ugliest Sacred Building

Each player may enter each category once. Deadline for entries is Thursday 31st December 2009. Winners get their names inscribed on the Virtual Cup.

Autonomy and the Hermit

9Hermit The hermit, who hides away from society, seems at first glance to be the paragon of autonomy. But what the hermit achieves for certain is only self-sufficiency, and the ideal of autonomy requires more than this. Similarly, the digital hermit who takes refuges from the world within the internet and videogames is only autonomous in a profoundly shallow sense.

What do I mean by the ideal of autonomy? By this I do not mean Kant's communal autonomy, the “Realm of Ends” that might be achieved through ethical co-operation, but rather the psychological ideal of autonomy as a step towards self-actualisation (the realisation of one's potential). The term has been used in slightly different ways by numerous psychologists, but perhaps the most influential view is that of Abraham Maslow, whose “hierarchy of needs” is still widely taught.

Maslow writes in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature:

The autonomy and strength which is found in emotionally secure people is different form the autonomy and strength of insecure people... insecure autonomy and strength is a strengthening of the personality as over against the world, in an either/or dichotomy in which they are not only quite separate but also mutually exclusive, as if they were enemies. We might call this selfish autonomy and strength.

Maslow links this to what psychologists studying university students called insecure high dominance and contrasts it against secure high dominance. He refers to the former as low autonomy, and the latter as high autonomy, which he describes as follows:

Here there was affection for the world and for others, big-brotherly responsibility and a feeling of trust in and identification with the world rather than of antagonism and fear toward it. The superior strength of these individuals was therefore used for enjoyment, for love, and for helping others.

This is the ideal of autonomy I referred to above, and we can immediately see why I would suggest that the hermit fails to reach Maslow's high autonomy – the hermit sequesters himself (or perhaps herself) from the world because they want no part of it. But Maslow's high autonomy is based not on a rejection of the world of other people but a positive integration into it. As Maslow describes the process of self-actualisation, the emotionally secure individual is a part of society, and it is principally from this foundation that one able to hope to achieve what he termed a peak experience, a joyous and ecstatic sense of transcendent unity.

The digital hermit, who alleviates their boredom, social anxiety and sense of isolation with whatever distractions they can muster up from videogames and the internet, is also likely to express Maslow's low autonomy. They have the independence of a young adult, but not the emotional security of a fully actualised person. They can look after themselves, they think, but sealed away from the world of others their chances for fulfilment are limited. Peak experience, in Maslow's terms, is cut off from them, and the best that can be hoped for are transient pleasures (such as victory in a videogames); an enjoyment that quickly passes, returning them to their loneliness.

(One might feel cause to object at this point – yet if you are objecting, is it because you recognise yourself in my description of the digital hermit? And if so, are you really raising an objection to my claims, or merely trying to defend yourself against the outer world which you have chosen to reject? And if medicine's paradigm of sickness provides you with a label to hide behind, you may even claim helplessness in the face of this... yet I do not believe you are helpless, no matter what biological or psychological cards fate may have dealt you. Your path to self-actualisation may be unique and distinct from other people's, perhaps nothing like one might imagine, but it is still there to be found, and no-one reaches the summit of life without enduring the perils of the ascent).

None of this is to suggest that there are not people who self-actualise in hermitage (digital or otherwise) – perhaps the mountain-man, as in the tale of Jeremiah Johnson, can achieve high autonomy away from their society, or the secluded eremite might find God amidst nature. Perhaps there is a transcendence to be found in the digital world, although as of yet I have heard of no-one who has experienced it. But I think, perhaps, that the hermit runs away from the world because they think they want no part of it. Yet, still, if they cannot find their own way to be in the world of others, they can never truly be themselves. It is this flight from one's potential which traps one in low autonomy, and places emotional security forever out of reach.

I'm a PC, and I Hate It

You may have seen the Windows 7 advertisements that make rather spurious claims that Microsoft took guidance from their ordinary users in deciding what to put into the new version. Well, as a person forced to use Windows for work, what I would like to see in Windows is a resource-light, quick-starting, swiftly-running foundation of software that does little more than co-ordinate the hardware layer, allowing me to install what applications I choose over the top, and which is so robustly constructed that it remains in service for decades and not merely years. Computer scientists call it an "operating system". Any chance you could make Windows into one of those?

Does It Pay To Advertise?

Currently, none of my blogs run ads. But I'm quite often getting good traffic through them, and my Google listings are good enough that I now receive spam asking if they can advertise on one of my blogs. Does anyone have any experience of running blog ads they can share, or have an opinion on this topic they'd like to voice? I don't want to inconvenience my readers with adverts for just a few extra pennies, but on the other hand I don't want to turn down revenue that might be available.

Thoughts and opinions welcome!

Open Letter to Yehuda

Dear Yehuda,

I've been meaning to engage you in a discussion on your views on games for a while now, since at least the time you posted the interesting proposal to have videogames share their rules with the players (perfectly possible and perfectly sensible, by the way). In this case, I began to write a reply in your comments but it radically became an uncontrollable ramble, so I have moved it here. Perhaps I can interest you in a brief exchange of perspectives?

In your piece, Watching vs Performing vs Mastering, you say there are two distinct aspects to boardgaming:

These are: luck and strategy. Passive and active entertainment. Watching and performing.

I'm going to raise some points of dispute here, and it comes from two sources. Firstly, your reducing on the one hand alea (games of chance) to passive or watching, which in my estimation undersells this form of play radically; and on the other hand, the characterisation of active entertainment/performing as being strategic - which reads to me as picking out one particular activity over others.

Ultimately, we're going to accord in your conclusion of different players enjoying different things, so really this is just my nitpicking of minutiae in the hope that something I offer is interesting!

1. Are games of chance passive?

You want to make the claim here that a game of pure chance (Caillois' alea) is passive, and can be compared to watching a movie. I believe you are phenomenologically mistaken here. I can well believe that for you this claim is true, but this does not describe this kind of play universally for other people. The participant in a game of chance is psychologically invested in a play-activity which for them has agency (albeit, in an apparently illusory fashion). The throw of the dice is their action. It does not involve any calculation or decision (i.e. it does not involve deploying the orbito-frontal cortex), but it is still worlds apart from the pure mimicry of theatre, film and book storytelling, in which the participant has no action or agency at all.

You can see this clearly in role-playing games. The player recalling a good session does not recount the actions of their character as if they were recounting a story they read, they recount the actions of themselves in the fictional world – and the die rolling is as much a part of this experience of ownership over the outcome as the decision making. For many players, it is more important. This is not a form of passive entertainment at all – one is taking the action and discovering the unknown outcome for oneself. Similarly, if you think the player of a lottery scratchcard is enjoying passive entertainment I encourage you to look more closely!

The same, I will claim, is true of the role of chance in boardgames and card games. Yes, I'll grant you, that there is a distinction to be made here between the enjoyment of the ebb and flow of chance and deliberative play, but I cannot endorse “passive” as characteristic of the former. To describe the compulsive gambler as addicted to a passive entertainment is a very strange claim indeed!

2. Is all active entertainment strategic?

I also find troubling your suggestion that the “active” aspect of boardgames can be understood as expressly strategic. I'll try and put aside the fact that I use strategic as one of many in a suite of terms for player skills, and focus on how you deploy the word: as a description of the act of decision making (or calculation) within a game i.e. the action of the orbito-frontal cortex, which I term the decision centre in virtue of its key cognitive function.

You write:

When you're called upon to think or make a decision, you are enjoying active entertainment. There are different levels of active entertainment, from the simple (trivia: do I know it or not?) to the complex (how do I get my battalion to that base?). Regardless of complexity, you can rank better or worse players, and most of the time you can work to improve yourself.

So you distinguish here between (say) trivia and the decisions of a strategy game. But wait one moment – should you really be conflating trivia with decision-oriented play? Trivia is a form of memory play, like the game Memory and its ilk, although one based on one's long-term aggregation of information rather than short or mid-term memory. You call this simple – and in terms of decisions it surely is simple, it doesn't involve the decision centre at all except, perhaps, when judging between competing memory fragments. But I would suggest that it shouldn't be considered under the framework of decisions at all. (I'll certainly bet the hypothalamus is the main activated brain region in trivia games, not the orbito-frontal cortex).

Neither is the only aspect of boardgame play which is essentially decisionless, or at least, for which decisions play a lesser role. PitchCar is based on a physical skill, for instance, although one might object in this case that there is a decision element in that one can attempt clever moves on the track. But take Jenga or even KerPlunk – yes, there may be a decision (which block or stick do I remove?) but it's a miserly take on all these games to suggest that this is what the play is about for the players. It in effect ignores the physical dexterity element of these games to characterise their play as being “strategic”.

And so too with Pictionary or Oddles of Doodles, and here the required skill has changed in character quite considerably, as the ability generating play here is that of communicating with the other player(s) via pictures rather than words. This requires more than just decision making skills, it requires an ability to conceptualize the other player's mental framework sufficiently in order to determine the best way to get an idea across to them. Decisions are involved in this, certainly, but characterizing those decisions as “strategic” seems to miss what is interesting about them.

Concluding Remarks

I write these challenges to your piece in the full knowledge that your ideas were not meant as a grand theory, but rather an exposition inspired by your thoughts on various matters relating to boardgames. I hope you will take this exploration in the spirit it was intended, as a stepping point to perhaps expand both your and my own future thinking in this regard.

We are in agreement that there are different forces at work in play, which result in players enjoying different activities. Also, I agree with you (in respect of the latter half of your piece) that it is unfair to cRPGs to suggest there is not a skill element to be mastered. Indeed, part of the appeal of the very form for its staunchest adherents seems to lie in the player's systematic tackling of the vast array of questions relating to the efficient options for advancement. That it is possible to substitute mere quantity of time for this kind of problem-solving in order to progress is one of the great strengths of this form of game. Would that other games had this safety net in place to help the “amateur” or new player from getting stuck!

You are and remain my favourite commentator on the subject of boardgames, and I continue to enjoy your blog for the unique perspective it brings to bear on the subject.


Only a Game

The Nuts (ihobo)

Over on ihobo today, I muse about the experience of holding the nuts (the best hand) in poker and possible parallels in videogame play. Here's an extract:

How would one construct a “nuts” experience in a videogame? Let us consider one possible example. Suppose that a particular cRPG has in its random treasure tables an item – let's call it the Nuts Orb, for convenience – that when activated guarantees that one will beat any boss it is used against. However, when activated the player has a short period of time in which to fight the boss (with radically improved attributes) in order to earn additional experience, such that they also have the possibility of beating the boss via combat, rather than just having the Nuts Orb hand them the victory. This seems to meet the requirement: holding the Nuts Orb gives you the hit of knowing one has already won (you will beat the boss) but gives you the opportunity for additional reward (by giving you a chance to beat the boss with superior power and earning additional experience).

You can read the whole post here.

Moore's Paradox and the Belief in False Things

GEMoore It is alleged that after G.E. Moore gave the lecture in which his now-famous paradox was first formulated, Wittgenstein rushed around to Moore's quarters (for the two were at Cambridge together under the tutelage of Bertrand Russell) and insisted he repeat it in full. Whether or not this is true, Moore's paradox has become cemented into the philosophical literature by Wittgenstein's interest, as Philosophical Investigations invests a page or so to its consideration.

The heart of the paradox is simple, and rests on what is termed Moore's sentences, which have the logical form 'P and I do not believe P' (or 'P and I believe not-P'). The most commonly cited example is “It is raining but I do not believe it is”. At the heart of this is claimed to be a contradiction – we can say “it is raining” and “I do not believe it is raining” but not both at the same time. Yet curiously, we can make the same claim in the third person (“it is raining but she does not believe it is”) or in the past tense (“it was raining but I did not believe it was”) without any problem at all. What is going on?

This philosophical oddity has special meaning for me. When I was pursuing my Masters degree, I took a unit on introduction to philosophy led by a computer scientist with the unfortunate name of Pratt. This was the first and only formal course of philosophy I took, as thereafter I took to studying philosophy independently. At one point during a particular lecture, I believe discussing some aspect of Bertrand Russell's views of logic, Pratt remarked that it was not possible to believe things that were false. I spoke up and replied that it was perfectly possible, and indeed I did believe some things that were false, to which Pratt replied flatly “no you don't” and continued with the lecture. I was rather exasperated by this turn of events, and did not attend any more of his lectures.

Imagine my surprise when reading Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations earlier this year I found that Wittgenstein supported Pratt's view! He writes: “If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely’, it would not have any significant first person present indicative... “I believe . . . ., and it isn’t so” would be a contradiction.” That said, I'd like to think that had Wittgenstein been my teacher he would at least have had the decency to ask me why I professed to believe in false things, since anyone who claims to be practising philosophy but is not interested in the peculiar oddities that people express therein is a meagre sort of philosopher indeed. (As to examples of false things that I believe, I will get to this in due course).

Moore's paradox rests on the sense that there is a contradiction between asserting a fact (“it is raining”) and believing the converse (“it is not raining”), and this intuition arguably hinges on the understanding of knowledge as justified true belief which originates with Plato. The contradiction in a Moore's sentence is evident if one takes knowledge to be justified true belief – that is, something you believe constitutes knowledge if it is true, and you have a legitimate justification for its truth. But I contend that Plato's model does not reliably describe how we get to a state of knowledge, nor what that state entails. I claim it is perfectly possible for us to believe in a proposition that is false (i.e. 'not P and I believe P' or the equivalent) – and when we dismiss this possibility it is because of our beliefs about what constitute both knowledge and belief.

Philosophers considering Moore's paradox routinely take knowledge as corresponding to objective states and belief to entail a striving towards those states, that is that belief is always an attempt at knowledge. Plato sets up this possibility by saying that for something to be knowledge it must be true and the means that we determine it is true must be correct. Yet it is a virtual impossibility to confirm one's beliefs against objective reality (since we never directly experience this), and equally impossible to verify one's methods of justification (and for similar reasons). In Plato's allegory of the cave, he never seems to seriously consider that after leaving the cave one might still be ill-equipped to establish truth with any confidence.

What we consider knowledge can rarely if ever be ratified by a procedure akin to Plato's; rather, we tend to grant information the status of knowledge either by virtue of its usefulness or by the (often tentative) elimination of competing claims. Thus Newtonian mechanics, while strictly false (Einstein having supplanted them with a more accurate system) are still knowledge in the sense that they are still useful (in engineering, for instance), while “Elvis is dead” is knowledge by virtue of the existence of evidence in support of the claim, and the dearth of credible evidence to the contrary. The latter could cease to be knowledge tomorrow if a 74-year old Elvis were to come out of hiding, but until such an event it comfortably qualifies as knowledge whether or not it is objectively true.

This sheds light on why Moore's sentences feel paradoxical, but not on why I can believe false things; for this, we may need some examples. Consider, as a simple case, that I believe in the fundamental goodness of human beings while knowing that this belief is objectively false, or at least, unverifiable. Since empiricists routinely equate unverifiable with false (e.g. if I cannot verify it is raining, it is not raining), the disconnect felt in Moore's paradox creeps in, but it need not. As another example, I can go to a meeting believing that I am perfectly prepared for every eventuality when pragmatically I simply could not be – I still choose to believe in my preparedness (even though I know it is false) because it helps me act confidently in the meeting to do so. This is similar to the case of the batter who believes he is going to hit a home run for certain, whilst knowing (deep down) that it is far from certain he will do so; the false belief has utility, and this outstrips logical necessity in everyday life.

Beliefs do not necessarily constitute truth claims – this is merely an assumed foundation placing objective knowledge as the goal of belief. Beliefs, in practice, may reflect personal aesthetics, moral choices or other subjective criteria. Consider, as another kind of example, that an emotivist such as Ayer or Stevenson will treat moral principles as expressions of approval or disapproval, rather than as logical propositions. An emotivist may say “rape is wrong” while denying “rape is wrong” is genuinely true. This risks inconsistency, a critic might allege, given the usual practice of speaking of truth whereby if rape is wrong then “rape is wrong” is a true proposition. But one can hardly claim that this particular practice in logic is a necessity rather than just a habit, and as such it need not be followed. Thus the emotivist can believe “rape is wrong” while knowing that “rape is wrong” is objectively a false proposition (or at least, cannot be asserted as true).

The conclusion that this leads to is that the sense of paradox in Moore's sentences comes from our unwillingness to admit of ourselves that we believe false things – our pride, you might say, conditions us into wanting to be right at all times, and although we are content to admit we were in error some time before (the past tense case), or that other people are in error (the third person case) we are not generally prepared to admit that we are wrong now. If we are wrong now, we presume we correct our mistake immediately and instantaneously and thus we must be correct at all times in the present moment. And this despite the fact that we are frequently wrong, and sometimes we even know that we are wrong, as I know I am wrong when I choose to believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity but, frankly, do not care, because it helps me (to be happy, to act positively towards others) to believe in this false thing.

As Nietzsche observes in The Gay Science, both truth and untruth have constantly proved to be useful – it is only a metaphysical commitment to the primacy of the true, a dogmatic “will to truth”, which causes us to deny the value of false things, and he tracks this stance justifiably back to Plato. Personally, I place no restriction on myself as to whether the things I believe must be true, and thus (perhaps) free myself from Moore's paradox. I frequently find it useful to believe in things which, through pragmatic eyes, I know to be false. I see no problem with this. In fact, I find it a constant source of blessings.

A Proposed Alternative to Dismantling Religion

Discord There are at this time several prominent intellectuals committed to the rather implausible goal of dismantling (or abandoning) religion. In many respects, such people are reminiscent of those who want to ban boxing because of the physical harm that it causes. It is certainly the case that boxing causes physical harm – that is rather the point of the exercise – but humanity has never prohibited things solely on the basis of the harm they cause, else we would have banned war long ago.

As an alternative to the abolition of religion (ironically, an entirely metaphysical goal, and one that I suspect is quite impossible to achieve except by rendering humanity extinct) I propose the following plan of action.

On the one hand, that religious people adopt Charles Taylor's half-serious suggestion to treat “an unfounded total belief in one's own truth” as heresy. I would even go so far as to suggest calling such self-certain individuals “heretics” were it not for the strange aura of cachet that has attached itself to the term. Thus, within any particular communion, faith or religious tradition, anyone who acts as if they are possessed of the total metaphysical truth would be considered an idolater, and condemned in words (while being – in all practical terms – left alone, free to believe in their arrogant version of reality).

On the other hand, that non-religious people do exactly the same in the community of non-believers and condemn (in words alone) those people so consumed by their prejudicial horror of religion that they become, to neutral observers at least, a hilarious (or disturbing) caricature of that which they claim to abominate; high priests of atheism railing against the corruption of mankind by the consummate evils of religion, from which we must repent in order to be redeemed by the true light of reason and progress.

Or if this is too much to expect (for within this “culture war” sides have already been drawn up, making it harder to turn upon one's putative allies no matter how distasteful they may seem) then let the religious people scorn solely those non-believers in the other camp who dishonour the intellectual pursuits by pugnaciously presuming to have pre-empted the philosophical enquiries of metaphysics, while the non-believers decry solely those representatives of religion in the opposite camp whose actions or speech are blatantly hateful – for no-one who follows any of the world's major religions sincerely can endorse hate, and thus those who claim to follow such a path in hatred are charlatans.

That this proposal will undoubtedly prove unsatisfactory to the zealots in both camps only goes to reinforce the idea that what it is truly worth opposing or dismantling is not religion at all, but the tyranny of truth that flows from arrogant self-certainty of all kinds, both religious and secular.

The opening image is Discord from (c) Shoshanna Bauer All Rights Reserved.