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The Essence of RPGs (2): Rule-play

Over on ihobo today, Part Two of The Essence of RPGs serial, looking at how the complex ontologies of Dungeons & Dragons created 'rule-play':

‘Rule-play’ is in essence a focus upon character advancement. This might go to the extremes of ‘min-maxing’ (making decisions solely for the purpose of maximizing benefit) or it might be a more subtle focus upon the pleasures of gaining new powers and capabilities. Indeed, Dungeons & Dragons created a near-infinite array of things to acquire! It is this breadth of options that underpins rule-play, and that can make a game fit the descriptor ‘role-playing game’ even when the elements of role-play are slender. What distinguished tabletop role-playing games as systems from the games that existed prior to Dungeons & Dragons (if we ignore the player practices, and hence what the game actually consists of in play) was the presence of a complex ontology. This philosophical term ‘ontology’ refers to the study of being, but it has acquired a sense in information technology of cataloguing and classifying what exists. In role-playing games that serve rule-play well, what exists is a great many things!

You can read the entirety of Rule-Play over on The final part is next week.

The Essence of RPGs (1): Children of TSR

Over on ihobo today, the first of a three-part serial looking at what makes a role-playing game. Here's an extract from the first part:

For any given game, its lineage is a network of games (and other artworks) that contribute to the inherent qualities of that game. It is akin to inheritance in biology, except games exchange their constituent elements in a manner more akin to bacteria than to mammals – leading to the impossibility of identifying any strict concepts of genus and species. What’s more, these relationships aren’t best understood in terms of material factors. It may be tempting to relate games by their designs, but this is an abstraction of what is being passed on between games: player practices. Whereas sports are founded upon the principle of conserving such practices over time, most games thrive on experimenting with new combinations of player practices, either by baking them into the artefact by design, or by supporting the creation of new player practices within the accompanying fictional world. Whichever way you look at it, we can’t just treat a game as a sterile material object: an artefactual reading is always an incomplete reading.

You can read the entirety of Part One: Children of TSR over at This serial is dedicated to anyone who has ever played one of my role-playing games, whether on a computer or on a tabletop. Long may these games thrive!

The Broken Game of Peer Review

RejectedFor some time now, I've been complaining to anyone who will listen that double blind peer review of academic papers is a broken game. It’s broken, because reviewers are anonymous and unaccountable for their reviews, and anyone who has used the internet knows how dangerous it is to create anonymous and unaccountable people with the power to hurt others. Supposedly, we shouldn't worry about the potential abuse because academics are classy human beings. Except they're not, they’re all-too-human and everyone knows it – especially the academics! Indeed, if academics were virtuous people and not petty, narrow-minded, power-trip nerds, it wouldn’t be necessary for double blind peer review because we could trust virtuous academics to do their job well. But they don’t. And blind peer review helps them abuse their position.

In principle, a double blind review prevents bias by making the reviewers unaware of the people being reviewed, and protects the reviewers from potential backlash from the people they have reviewed. The result is that nobody is supposed to know whom anyone is, which is not a situation likely to bring out the best of humanity! In fact, as many have pointed out, it is usually easy to identify the authors of an anonymous paper, and certainly simple to separate research done at well-funded campuses from those at poorer (i.e. ‘foreign’ universities). This rather undermines the supposed benefits of blind peer review. Indeed, rather than eliminating bias, what double blind peer review does is allow reviewers full reign to exercise their personal biases by dismissing papers based solely upon their own prejudice or ignorance, without ever having to be held accountable for it. It is well documented that blind peer review blocks the publication of new research that runs against established dogmas, even when the new research is absolutely correct. (I wrote about this in The Mythology of Evolution).

I’d like to use a concrete example. I had a paper in review for two years at a fairly prestigious game studies periodical (if that isn’t an oxymoron...). When I eventually got the rejection, one reviewer had been dutiful in assessing the paper I had submitted. The other dismissed it out of hand based on his misreading of the paper, with a series of falsely construed judgements about its content. For instance, it was objected that Grand Theft Auto should not have its roots traced to Dungeons & Dragons, as I suggested. In such a situation where a peer review disagrees with an assertion, their obligation is to ask the author to back up the unsupported claim in revision. (The argument for this particular point, incidentally, appears in tomorrow’s post at ihobo, and only takes one sentence). You do not simply reject papers that you disagree with if you are a virtuous scholar. The trouble is – and this is the root of all evil here – there are too few virtuous scholars for blind peer review to be anything other than a nest of vipers. Anyone publishing outside of a small handful of close-knit disciplines will be able to share stories as bad as (or even worse than) what I am mentioning here. Just take a look at Rebecca Schuman’s Slate article from last year.

The fix is easy: make blind peer reviewers accountable. It’s very simple to do so. Each paper receives at least two peer reviews, so just make the other peer reviewer provide a rating for the quality of the second review. Then make aggregated reviewer scores publicly available every year via a central repository, like the ones already being used for reviews (e.g. easyChair for conferences). This means peer reviewers have an obligation to provide quality peer review, which at the moment they mostly do not do. I say this as a peer reviewer who has been frequently praised for the quality of my reviews. But then, the papers I am assigned are reviewed to a high standard because I review every paper in the expectation that I might have to face the author. Indeed, I attach to my peer reviews a statement that I consider blind peer review unethical, and will waive my anonymity if permitted. It never actually happens, but knowing that I am reviewing in a situation that even might put me face-to-face with those I am reviewing encourages me to be a virtuous scholar. Anonymous unaccountable reviewers, as anyone with even a passing experience of the internet can attest, will always be problematic.

In the absence of a change to the rules of blind peer review, it will remain fundamentally unethical and a broken game. We all deserve more than this. But who has the courage to turn against the status quo and help bring about the revolutionary changes to established academic practice that are desperately needed?

Tetralogue and the Fate of Truth

Review of Timothy Williamson’s Tetralogue, by Oxford University Books, ISBN 978-0-19-872888-7.

Tetralogue Throughout Western philosophy, the dialogue has served honourably as a means of expressing arguments accessibly whilst still bearing subtleties. One particular use of the dialogue approach has been to lampoon a weak argument by contrasting it to stronger positions. This is the form of Hume’s remarkable Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published after his death in 1779, and also of Galileo’s famous 1632 Dialogue, that sets out a (partially correct) argument for a heliocentric cosmos. Hume has Cleanthes express an orthodox position that is artfully dismantled by the subtler Demea and Philo, the latter of whom probably represents Hume’s own views. Similarly, Galileo has Salviati represent his own position, Sagredo as a layman whose role is to be won over, while Simplicio (whose name is often taken to imply ‘simple-minded’) espouses the views of the medieval scholastics. Galileo uses this conversation to argue in favour of Copernicus, which he unfortunately supports with a model of tidal behaviour that transpired to be entirely incorrect.

We forget, sometimes, that Galileo was a philosopher – a natural philosopher – since the concept of a scientist was not invented until several centuries later. His Dialogue is an intriguing example not because of the kinds of philosophical subtleties found in Hume’s final book but because of the different interpretations that have since been placed on its characters. The conventional view, as espoused by Arthur Koestler in 1959, is that Simplicio is “the clown who is kicked in the pants” – a view that helps explain why Galileo’s former ally, Pope Urban VIII, turned upon him. But others, such as Joseph Agassi, argue that this overstates the matter: for a start, Galileo was a faithful Catholic, and was surprised that his fortunes turned sour as a result of this book. Thus from the one text we have competing accounts of the truth: either Galileo was a quarrelsome egoist (as Kostler has him), or he was a noble advocate for clarity of thought with a mere touch of vanity (as Agassi has him). Who is right and who is wrong?

This question, taken in its most general form, is the basis for Timothy Williamson’s short but intriguing text Tetralogue. The marketing department at Oxford University Press even smother the cover with the words “I’m Right, You’re Wrong”, which unfortunately creates the impression that this is the title of the book – which in turn implies that Williamson thinks he’s right, and everyone else is wrong. Indeed, despite the suggestion of the book’s blurb that it “invites readers to make up their own minds about who is right and who is wrong”, it’s very hard to imagine anyone thinking that Tetralogue’s Simplicio is right, or its Salviati is wrong. This is a book, rather like Galileo’s Dialogue, that is out to make a point, and the only ambiguity concerns our conclusions about its author.

The book is expressly stated to offer an accessible introduction to philosophy, for which it is well-suited – although it also claims to pose “serious questions” for “old hands”, which is a harder assertion to fathom. Not that experienced philosophers won’t find interesting material here – far from it! Williamson interjects a great many insightful observations into the conversation. But the rhetorical force of the book as a whole presents a case for epistemic and moral realism that is not going to create any fresh discussions among those who already adhere to these positions, and is pragmatically incapable of converting the reader from rival positions because it never truly takes those alternatives seriously.

The story commences as an argument between two travellers upon a train – Sarah, a hard-headed rational positivist, full of faith in the superiority of the sciences, and Bob, who believes his neighbour is a witch responsible for his garden wall collapsing on his leg. Into the fray steps Zac, the relativist, who attempts to negotiate between the two but instead ends up with philosophical egg on his face. Later, they are joined by the brusque and implacable Roxana, who applies logic to everyone’s statements in order to reveal their internal fallacies. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Williamson’s work can probably guess how this is going to go: as a first-class logician who is committed to realism, Bob and Zac take the Cleanthes/Simplicio position of clown, while Roxana stands for Williamson’s professional knowledge as a charmless Philo/Salviati, and Sarah as Demea/Sagredo gets to make a few points that the author supports, but is largely there to be rationally persuaded of the truth.

It is often noted that Galileo allowed Simplicio to be charming, presumably so that he would have something positive about him. Bob and Zac are equally afforded likeable temperaments; Zac functions as the buffoon, whose pants have a big red ‘X’ painted upon them, while Bob serves mostly as comic relief. Both characters are significantly problematic because neither shows any sign that the author takes seriously the positions they are supposed to represent. By comparison, Sarah is rather irritating since she is glibly smug about the correctness of her viewpoint (even when her justifications for it fall apart), and Roxana has been given the personality of sandpaper, perhaps because making her pleasant as well as the mouthpiece of an experienced, professional philosopher would have been overkill.

Despite Bob being constructed as a person who believes in witchcraft, there can be little doubt that he stands for theism – or at least the kind of popular theism that the media in the United States (and intellectuals in the UK) delight in parading around as a purported paradigm case for religion. This becomes clear when in the first part of the book the discussion of teaching witchcraft in schools is raised – a sideways reference to Intelligent Design. His belief in witchcraft provides a smokescreen in this respect; since few if any theists believe in witchcraft, Bob allows (Williamson seems to assume) the folly of ‘superstition’ to be revealed in Bob’s naive arguments. The character fails because no theist will recognize themselves in Bob, and coming at these ways of life from a position of epistemic realism it is impossible to adequately understand why anyone could live this way.

But Zac does no better – indeed, he fares far worse, in part because Williamson makes the interesting point that in the disagreement between positivists and theists (Sarah and Bob in the book), at least both sides respect each other enough to say that the other is wrong. Zac, with his pop-philosophy relativism, is presented as a perpetual back-peddler whose position is always qualified with “my point of view” – the post-modern retort that like the realist’s “that’s just your opinion” serves primarily to set up a higher ground that is denied to everyone else. Zac cites Nietzsche and Wittgenstein as quips and interjections in a way that makes it very difficult to believe he has read either, and therein lies the biggest problem with the entire conversation: if Williamson does not understand the purpose of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, or the challenges to rationality posed by Nietzsche, his philosophical credentials come into question. But if he does understand their work and simply misrepresents them through Zac’s voice, then his arguments here are fundamentally dishonest.

Tetralogue is first and foremost an attack on relativism, which is painted here as a vaguely reasoned striving for ‘liberation’ dressed up as diplomacy. Yet it is impossible to find the views of any philosopher who has waved that particular banner in what Zac says. Feyerabend, the arch-relativist, is not adequately represented here, and neither is what Bruno Latour termed ‘relative relativism’ anywhere on display, although Williamson would appear to accord with Latour’s claim that Feyerabend-style relativism presupposes an absolute position solely to reject it. Rather, Zac is a woolly-headed post-modernist who seems far more interested in being liked – and ultimately getting laid! – than anything else. Perhaps this is a caricature of common or garden post-modernists, but even if this is so there is something seriously misleading in positioning this against Williamson’s logic skills. There are many great points about the weaknesses of generalized relativist claims in Roxana’s dismantling of Zac, but the arguments thus undermined are not those advanced by any contemporary voice in philosophy. Williamson comes across as ducking the argument.

The result is that the author doesn’t seem to be taking on any serious opponents, and the thrust of the conversation is for Roxana to purify Sarah’s imperfect realism in order to rise above the relativistic bad habits she has unknowingly fostered. Here, Williamson is on much firmer ground: attacking the fact-value distinction and its consequences shows the lunacy involved in positivistic positions that reject ethics as a mere matter of personal choice or try to subjugate morality under some implausible totalizing rubric. On such matters, he has many allies, including both Latour and Mary Midgley, who some forty years ago gave strong reasons for rejecting the arcane split between facts and values. If Williamson’s use of clear logic to make similar points gets this across to more people, that alone would make this book worthwhile, although it should be acknowledged that rejecting strong forms of relativism does not constitute any de facto case for realism.

All of this may make it seem as if Tetralogue is not worth your time – but actually, I found it an irresistible read. From the moment it arrived in my hands I was compelled to push onwards, even though (perhaps especially because!) I have substantial disagreements with Williamson’s positions. This brings us back to Koestler and Agassi’s competing views of Galileo. According to Williamson, at most one of these people can be correct: on any given proposition, someone is right, and someone is wrong. Thus spake classical logic – the fate of truth is tied to the principle of contradiction . But it is possible, indeed plausible, to reject the extreme forms of both relativism and realism and recognize aspects of truth in competing claims, especially since on most topics differences in propositions reflect differences in the practices used to establish their meaning. This is Wittgenstein’s insight, and it is not permitted to enter into Tetralogue’s conversation at all. In its absence, it feels as if the author’s argument, like Galileo’s, goes awry by seeing all too clearly where his opponents go wrong, but failing to perceive the limitations of his own case.

A Warning About Amazon Marketplace

My new laptop arrives this week, and blogging will be disrupted while I configure it for my purposes. In the meantime, a short cautionary tale.

I had originally bought a new laptop over a year ago from Amazon Marketplace. It arrived, and I used it for a month or two before a fault developed in the screen. I returned it to the vendor… and never saw it again. Amazon wouldn’t give us any details of the vendor, and told us to contact them via the email contact forms. We sent these to the vendor every week. Eventually it became apparent he didn’t even have it anymore.

In the UK, when you purchase with a credit card you have additional consumer rights under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Agreement 1974 that means when you can’t resolve a problem with the vendor, you can claim from the credit card who are ‘jointly and severally liable’. So we claimed via Barclaycard. They paid us some titbits (without ever admitting liability) but ultimately we had to take it to the Financial Services Ombudsman for resolution. The Ombudsman ruled against us last week: buying from Amazon Marketplace did not constitute a creditor-debtor arrangement with the vendor, so our consumer rights were null and void.

Surprised that everything could go so wrong with a purchase from a big name company like Amazon and a big name credit card like Barclaycard, I mentioned it to a contact at the BBC who passed it on to Radio 4’s consumer affairs show You and Yours. They ran my story on Friday. Amazon then ‘generously’ decided to pay us the cost of the laptop. So we did eventually get our money back… but only as PR damage control. I advise everyone to be cautious about big purchases on Amazon Marketplace, as Amazon do not take full responsibility for these transactions, and in the UK they disrupt your consumer rights. As ever, caveat emptor.