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1,000th Post!

1000Counter It is with great pleasure that I announce that Only a Game has reached its one thousandth post! What a lot of nonsense there's been over the years... and no doubt  more to come in the years ahead.

As usual, the blog will be 'closed' for the Wheel of Fortune festival in November, but I'll be back in December to celebrate the Winter Festival with my usual ramblings. Go ahead and leave comments; I'll be checking the blogs for the next week or so, and even after that I'll get to the comments as soon as I return. (Also, feel free to re-open old topics if they interest you).

Finally, as a glimpse into the future, I have a whole host of new themes to explore next year as I set off into the uncharted waters of philosophy of fiction, look at souls in science fiction, ponder the ethics of science fiction and fantasy, and further examine the role of fiction in games. I hope you'll come along for the ride.

Addendum: Please note that I have changed the settings so that commenters are now required to sign in, because the volume of spam had become  intolerable. My apologies for any inconvenience.

Back soon!

What game are you looking forward to?

It's that time of year once again when publishers throw out some of their strongest titles to compete in the vicious Winter market, where titles that might have enjoyed commercial success fail because only the biggest games get the requisite promotion and shelf space at Christmas. Some publishers such as Ubisoft even have their own titles competing against each other in this insane fight to the death! But are there any games coming out now, or in the near future, that you are looking forward to? What forthcoming title or add on pack fills you with the excitement of a child waiting for Santa to bring them their loot?

Cross-posted from ihobo - please share your thoughts at the original post!

Midgley on Philosophy

Mary Midgley.2005 To bookend the Pentenary special, Enemy: A Morality Tale, the esteemed British moral philosopher Mary Midgley, whose books were a major inspiration for the serial, kindly agreed to an interview. I asked her about her work, her views on play and games, and the various controversies she has been embroiled with throughout her distinguished career.

Chris Bateman: In your first book, Beast & Man, you make a strong argument for the idea of human nature, and it seems that in many respects you were trying to balance the books in the nature vs. nurture debate. However, your publisher pushed you into responding to E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology, which you critique quite devastatingly.

Mary Midgley: When I wrote Beast & Man I was well aware that a major war was going on about nature/nurture questions. I understood that warriors were making powerful attempts to use the authority of science misleadingly by applying it to these general philosophic questions. So I did not expect the extreme, overly reductive accounts of it that were current to give way quickly to my objections – or to those of other better-known champions such as Gould and Lewontin. On the whole I thought the response that I did get to my book at the time was quite good seeing that I was an unknown author, and references to it since then have been reasonably fair.

Chris: Is it frustrating to see that this kind of overly reductive account still dominates discussion of behaviour in many scientific circles?

Mary: The tide of reduction has, I think, slackened slightly since then and some questions are certainly being much more realistically handled than they were. But God (if he is watching) knows we have still a long way to go.

Chris: You were one of the first people to contend (in Beast & Man) that "anthropomorphism" was being applied excessively as a criticism against interpreting the motives of animals, and that it was in fact perfectly possible to understand animal motives if one has the requisite experience. Have you been pleased that discussions of animal behaviour in books and nature documentaries have become more sophisticated in this regard?

Mary: I certainly have been pleased to see that discussions of animal behaviour have become more sophisticated – one might say, less totally barbarous – than they were when I was first involved in them. We owe this to a devoted army of observers and arguers – in the first place to Peter Singer and then perhaps most notably to the female primatologists – who have forced the facts on people's attention. But again, we still have a terribly long way to go.

Chris: Can't We Make Moral Judgements? can be seen as an impassioned defence of the value of moral philosophy. You suggest at one point that the development and prominence of moral thinking in human culture is related to the sense of continuity through time. This sounds very close to what Heidegger calls Dasein, being in time. Had you read any Heidegger before writing this book, and what do you make of his contribution to philosophy?

Mary: No, I'm afraid I have never read him. I was always put off by that special language – it runs counter to my deep identification with everyday speech. But of course I know something of what he said, and I have the impression that, if one seriously studies him, he can do the same sort of liberating sort of job for one's thinking that Wittgenstein does – again, provided that one works to understand him properly. But, as I've got Wittgenstein, I'm leaving Heidegger on one side for my next reincarnation.

Chris: I enjoyed your paper "The Game Game", which may have been the first attempt at bringing Johan Huizinga's ideas into a philosophical context. In this paper, you have a dig at Wittgenstein's concept of 'family resemblance', following a line of argument inspired by Julius Kovesi. When you suggest that games can be understood as ritualised conflicts, doesn't this overlook other things we also call 'games', like children's games of make-believe or singing games like 'Ring a Ring a Roses', which are not conflicts?

Mary: Yes, non-competitive games are an interesting issue. 'Ring o'Roses' certainly is one, and it's possible to play games like Boggle and Scrabble co-operatively. Small children can sometimes be led to do this. But of course many children's games do centre on conflict – look at 'Cowboys and Indians', or 'French and English'. And 'Oranges and Lemons' ends by cutting people's heads off. The co-operative element is certainly usually present; it has to be, to make people keep to the rules. But a trifle of competition very readily comes in to make things more exciting, and when the word is used emphatically to make an important point they tend to be central.

Chris: If the notion of a 'game' contains multiple, distinct aspects (as for instance Roger Caillois suggested, following Huizinga), isn't Wittgenstein's idea of 'family resemblance' an appropriate metaphor for how we recognise a game?

Mary: In "The Game Game" I said that games are, 'among other things, ritualized conflict' (p.141). This was as an example of my general point that such words have neither a single, fixed meaning (which was what Wittgenstein pointed out) nor merely a vague string of resembling meanings (as his idea of family resemblance suggested) but a definite shape, an underlying organic unity which is often mysterious but must be present in the background to account for e.g. their being usable as metaphors. Thus, as I remarked (p.134), he puts great reliance on the term 'language game' which calls for the word 'game' to be understood in quite a subtle way that would only be possible if we have a general grasp of the concept.

Chris: So you point relates to the way we communicate with concepts; how he can build upon general ideas in novel new ways?

Mary: Yes, extensions through metaphor like this are often a crucial part of new thinking. They work through exploring further the paradox at the heart of the meaning – e.g. games are cut off from the rest of life yet are also deeply continuous with it. Non-competitive games have, of course, their own connection with the rest of life in the general context of 'play', which Huizinga deploys so well.

Chris: My copy of Evolution as a Religion is covered in angrily scribbled pencil notations by someone who seems absolutely determined to reject your core argument. Weirdly, he seems to erroneously assume you are Roman Catholic and also believes that this conclusion permits him to simply dismiss your analysis of how wild metaphysical ideas have crept through the back door of science. Has this kind of hostile and dismissive reaction been typical of how this (and your later book, Science as Salvation) has been received by the scientific community?

Mary: The former owner of your copy of Evolution as a Religion seems to have been one of those unlucky people who go through life looking for something to hate, and read books hoping that they will provide them with some such topic. I am happy to say that he (it is surely probably a he?) doesn't seem to be typical of readers of these two books. I suppose that scientists who would really hate them perhaps don't often read them? But anyway, I have had good and appreciative responses to them from many scientifically educated people, and certainly no organised hostile response. I don't of course, get as widely read as I should like – but the books are still in print and seem still to be selling.

Chris: You have suggested that there is currently a major cultural disaster concerning the distortion of the topic of motives (for instance, by mistakenly believing genes have ultimate power over behaviour). Do you have any sense that this situation might be improving? Are you hopeful that a more balanced perspective on motivation might be regained?

Mary: I am temperamentally a hopeful person, so I have to believe that the changes I try to bring about are indeed possible, and this is one of them. If you think about the problems of past people – e.g. J.S. Mill and others, campaigning for the Factory Acts in the 1840s – you can see that they might very well have been advised that what they were trying to do was simply impossible. Theoretical economists as well as industrial muscle were against them; shouldn't they just give up? I think the general confusion today about motivation, free-will etc. is equally bad. One can't tell what will improve this situation, but I still intend to go on trying!

With grateful thanks to Mary for her time.

Blockbusters & Diversions: The New Digital Games Market

Over on ihobo today, my longest post about the market for videogames in quite some time. Here's a taster:

What are the games that succeed in making money today? It is not those games that gamers love, or not exclusively or wholly those games. On the one hand it is the blockbuster titles that manage to court communities of millions of mass market players, and on the other it is those games of simple diversion which operate among Facebook's mega community of hundreds of millions of people. This is surprising new shape of the market for digital games.

You can read the whole thing over at ihobo, and please leave your comments on blockbuster and diversion games there too. See you in the comments!

Concluding the Pentenary

That's all 23 parts of the Pentenary special, which is thus complete. I hope you have enjoyed this special event to celebrate five years of Only a Game, which revisits many of the philosophical themes I've been playing with since the blog began.

Earlier this year, I started reading the books of the moral philosopher Mary Midgley - and discovered a tremendous overlap between what I've been rambling about and her own philosophy, written as much as thirty years before my own efforts! As a fitting end to the Pentenary, I'll be running an interview with Mary next Tuesday.

Enjoyed the Pentenary? Please leave a comment!

Evil Unmasked

What, then, is the root of all evil? It is certainly not a gene, for there can be no gene for evil, nor for selfishness, nor indeed for any moral notion. Morality begins with social animals whose instincts support co-operation and reciprocity, and flourishes once imagination can attain ideals, and form concepts and words to express them. There is no evil until there are ideals of the good against which it can be contrasted. We view the Holocaust as evil because we hold as good the innate value of all human beings, and the brutality conducted by the Nazi regime and other totalitarian institutions does not merely fail to live up to our moral standards, it violently transgresses them.

We do not agree on our moral judgements, but there is nonetheless tremendous common ground. Despite this, there is a tendency to focus on the dividing lines – to break humanity into separate and opposing camps – and to squander most of our energies in conflicts. It is all too easy to declare an enemy and commit to ideological warfare, and far harder to work together irrespective of differences in belief. Once battle lines are drawn, it is hard to erase them, and when institutions fixated on a mythology of the future are built around these skirmishes great evil can be brought about by people who believe they are doing what is right.

The instigators of evil need not be evil themselves: Jesus was a good man; his ministry still inspired unforeseen institutional evils. Nietzsche and Marx had their own conceptions of good, and although (like Jesus) they could not have conceived nor endorsed what was done with their philosophy, they nonetheless helped to instigate the worst institutional evils the world has seen. Richard Dawkins is likewise not an evil man; he has helped non-believers to forge a collective identity. It is unfortunate that this process has – quite unlike feminism, civil rights, or the liberation of sexual identity – focussed on fighting an enemy, rather than the attainment of what is good. When one advocates the pursuit of imagined ends over the task of nurturing values there is always a risk of unleashing institutional evil.

In blaming the problems of the world upon other people we obscure our responsibility in what goes on around us. We have acted as if there is either one correct ethical system or none at all, and as a consequence failed to live up to those moral ideals we hold, many of which we share with other people with wildly different beliefs. All too often, we have abandoned the people who need help in favour of the dogmatic pursuit of arguments, many of which may be insoluble. By action or inaction, we have all contributed to the appalling destruction of the global environment we depend upon for life. Evil is not a description of people wholly unlike ourselves – it is a part of human nature within us all. Behind the mask of evil lies our own face.

Part 23 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

The Addiction to Victory

How can we be confident that our ethics are correct? The danger of myside thinking is that we always predicate this assumption, whatever our beliefs, and the arguments of our opponents are seen merely as something to attack. This is why the appeal to historical cases can be so intoxicating: by making an analogy with a moral conflict already considered settled we project to a future world where our side has already won the current conflict. But we do not and cannot know the future in this way, and moral arguments must be rooted in the present if they are to be fair. Appeals to possible futures and analogies with the past are ways of avoiding the difficult process of reconciliation and compromise. They are ways of convincing ourselves we are right. They cannot be convincing to those who believe differently.

Part of the brains of almost all animals is concerned with habit formation, a biological system that rests on the chemical dopamine. There is, of course, a gene for this. But like any such gene, it simply provides a tool for the organism – it does not dictate how that tool will be used. We may form good habits, in which dopamine is released regularly, or we may fall into addiction of many kinds, where the pursuit of a bigger hit of this reward chemical comes to dominate our behaviour. Many of these kinds of addiction are well recognised, but some are not. The biggest dopamine hit of all comes from attaining victory in a struggle, and even imagining a winning outcome provides a small release of the reward chemical, helping to motivate perseverance.

I work in the videogames industry, and the question of the addictiveness of this medium is something of a hot button topic. It is true that certain games can be compulsive, and indeed that certain players become addicted to the pursuit of victory within them. But it is important to keep perspective here: soap operas, gossip and sports are also addictive. The issue is not whether certain pursuits are addictive so much as it is whether individuals are able to incorporate them into their lives in a healthy manner. Watching professional sports is tremendously habit-forming, but we are not likely to ban this vicarious enjoyment of winning any time soon.

We need to recognise that the pursuit of victory can present a damaging addiction in many contexts far outside of our usual assumptions in this regard. In particular, it will be helpful to recognise that partisans of any kind (political, scientific, metaphysical or ethical) are especially at risk to a peculiar kind of addiction. When truth is seen as a battleground, as it is in Western culture, then being right is winning, and as David Brin has noted, the excessive demand for partisan victory in politics is an addiction like any other. This addiction to winning obscures moral judgement, and combined with the various cognitive biases it renders politics impotent.

Part 22 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Fair Play?

No new post on ihobo this week as I am still hoping to foster further discussion on the notion of gamer virtues. Here are some of the questions thus far:

  • Can all the many vices I have singled out be understood solely as "fair play", or is there a sense in which terms like "camping" serve to restrict the options for play in ways that favour one player over another?
  • Is "imba" a term which can be best understood as having come to mean "efficient player", and if so is the sole virtue that players of World of Warcraft recognise mere efficiency?
  • Do any other online communities recognise virtues for their players? Do players ever say anything nice about one another, or do they just bitch about how their fellow players annoy them?

Please share your thoughts on these matters in the comments to last week's Gamer Virtues, Gamer Vices post. Thanks!

Possible People

What motivated the ideologies behind the twentieth century totalitarian movements? Both were focussed on an imagined future. Nietzsche's attempt to move beyond Christian ethics positioned the future in a central role, but he would not have approved of the Nazi's abuse that his ideas. Marx similarly imagined a perfect future, where the workers would be empowered and equal. Not dissimilarly, historical Christianity's beliefs concerning the immortal soul were used as a reason to act against people in the present. In our time, this focus on the future has a more subtle but equally distorting presence.

Consider first the way "Pro-Life" campaigners advocate on behalf of the person that would come to be in the future if an aborted foetus were allowed to come to term (hence the perspective of abortion as murdering a baby). This is a particular metaphysical position, one that their opponents do not share. "Pro-Life" supporters sometimes attempt to support their case by making a parallel between slavery and abortion, noting the similar arguments used in both cases. The tacit assumption here seems to be: since we discarded slavery as unjust, so we must come to discard abortion as unjust. (It is worth noting that animal activists deploy identical arguments).

Now compare an example from a different part of the culture wars. Humanist groups have recently decreased their use of the claim that "religion is brain-washing" and instead assert that raising a child in a religious tradition is tantamount to child abuse. Children, they say, should have the right to make their own religious choices when they grow up. Dawkins argues that just as feminists were involved in "consciousness-raising" on the issue of their rights, so Humanists are engaged in "consciousness-raising" in suggesting parents should not teach their religious traditions to their children. This argument is treated as self evident by its proponents, just as the case against abortion is treated as self evident by its opponents.

In both cases the same kind of manipulative argumentation is taking place: a previous historical change in our ethics is compared to a person's current beliefs and concluded to be parallel, with the inevitable conclusion that in the future everyone will share these beliefs. The "Pro-life" case makes an appeal to future people who are at least plausible – we are not asked to imagine anything more than that they will be born; the Humanist case goes further by making an appeal concerning possible people. Children raised without religion will exist in an ethically superior world, it is claimed, but this argument rests on the belief that it is immoral for parents to pass on their ethical and metaphysical beliefs to their children when they have a traditional source. Without a prior prejudice against religion this assertion is nonsense, and either way it is wildly at odds with the notion of freedom expressed by our Human Rights accords.

Part 21 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Institutional Evil

How can the abominable genocides of the twentieth century have happened? Hannah Arendt wrote extensively on the subject, studying both the development of the totalitarian movements behind them, and the motives and personality of Otto Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi sometimes described as "the architect of the Holocaust". It was Eichmann who managed the logistics of deporting the Jews to extermination camps, following directives that had been handed down to him by his superiors.

Arendt reported on his trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker, observing that he deported himself without guilt or hatred, and showed no sign of psychological damage, excusing himself of the responsibility for his actions on the grounds that he was just "doing his job". Incredibly, Eichmann asserted he was following Kant's system of ethics, a claim Arendt found absurd; he had failed to understand anything more than the idea of following the laws of the state, and had thoroughly missed the concept of reciprocity that was central to Kant.

Far from Eichmann being a disturbed psychopath (as, for instance, most serial killers are revealed as being), he was an ordinary man doing his job to the best of his ability. Arendt suggested that that idea that Nazi criminals were different from "normal" people, psychopathic or otherwise mentally deranged did not bear out. She denied, however, that all it takes for ordinary people to commit terrible crimes is suitable incentives, noting that Eichmann still faced a moral choice. The citizens of Denmark, for instance, who pursued non-violence resistance in the face of Nazi Germany, demonstrated that it was possible to resist totalitarian regimes. Eichmann simply had no interest in doing so.

Both the Nazi regime and that of the Soviet Union achieved an extraordinary domination over their people, far beyond the mere outlawing of opposition attained by tyrants. The foundations of these political movements were racism and bureaucracy (the rule of no-one). Systematic prejudice had providing a key ideological weapon for imperialism, and the totalitarian regimes took this further, taking over political systems and institutionalising racial prejudice as a means to depose the state. But at the heart of both these forms of totalitarianism were the same psychological forces at work in other cognitive biases, driving discrimination and persecution on an unprecedented scale.

Part 20 of 23 in the Pentenary series.