New Computer

My old gaming rig has started to fall apart lately. Last year my video card blew up and took one of the PCIe slots with it. It took me a few weeks to sort it out. I purchased a replacement, and then it turned out that my PSU did not supply enough juice to power it. I returned it, and bought a less powerful card but could not get it to work because I did not know the bottom slot was fried, so I returned that one too. Eventually I figured it all out, re ordered a card but at that point Win7 decided it did not like the new hardware so I ended up doing a complete re-install. Fast forward a year and the machine died again, this time in even more disheartening way. After a half assed, failed attempt at replacing the PSU I gave up upon it.

So I bought a replacement: Alienware Aurora-R4.

Alienware Aurora R4

Alienware Aurora R4

I know, I know – Alienware is the hallmark of the gamer n00b and all that. There might have been a time when I cared about that, but I think I’m too old to worry about my street cred. If anyone wants to revoke my gamer card, they are welcome to it. And yes, I probably grossly overpaid for the brand name but after futzing with unreliable hardware on my own for several weeks now, I just wanted something off the shelf and with reliable warranty. Dell support can’t diagnose problems for shit, but if you diagnose for them, they will reliably keep replacing parts until the damn thing starts working. That alone gave me a safe and fuzzy feeling of assurance in the midst of frustration. This probably wasn’t my best purchasing decision, but I did take advantage of one of their big sales events and got pretty decent hardware setup without having to take all the money out of my bank (you know, just most of it):

  • Quad Core 3.70GHz i7-4820K CPU with 3701 Mhz bus
  • 16 GB of RAM (upgradable to 32)
  • Two NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 video cards
  • 256 GB SSD (6Gb/s data rate) as main drive & 1TB 7200RPM HDD as secondary

This ain’t a Titan setup, but it’s close to it so I should be able to play all the new games on high without too much headache. The old machine was starting to get a bit log in the tooth in the recent days. Both the new Thief and Metro were choppy even on the lowest settings. I didn’t particularly care for those games but I was starting to get worried I might get locked out of new releases I do actually care about – like new Elder Scrolls games, or new Bethesda properties “fixed” by Obsidian. This shouldn’t be an issue anymore.

The former gaming rig valiantly survived 5 years of almost continuous usage. I never really shut it down, and I specifically prevented it from going into sleep mode so that I could download torrents or run batch jobs overnight, or VPN and remote desktop into it when I was at work. Hopefully this machine will do equally well, though I might try to ride it a little bit less hard to extend it’s life a bit.

I’m mostly posting this here for my own future reference so that I have a rough idea when I bought this machine when it decides to break at some point in the future.

Next post will be a review of a game that I totally did not need this rig for. In fact I played it on my MacBook while waiting for this machine to be delivered.

Posted in technology | Tagged | 4 Comments

Let’s have a serious talk about Gamer culture

I have been playing video games most of my life. It all started in middle school. I don’t exactly remember how old I was when one of my friends invited me to his house to check out his brand new Commodore 64 rig. What I remember was how it felt like. I was completely blown away. It felt like I was in a science fiction movie, because I have never actually used a “real” computer before that. All of a sudden I was siting in front of a programable machine that could do literally anything if you only knew how to issue the right orders. Naturally the only orders we knew how to issue were the ones that loaded and ran games, which is what we did. Not only were the cassette tapes filled to the brim with pirated games cheaper than a trip to the arcades. They were also trivial to copy and exchange. For the first time we had a potentially infinite number of games we could play at our own leisure.

Commodore 64

Some people started on Nintendo. I started on C64.

For the next two years I basically lived in his house glued to that machine. We have spent countless hours becoming experts at calibrating the cassette tape deck and accumulated a vast library of pirated games, half of which never actually loaded. Still, we had a lot of fun. Later another friend got an Amiga 500 and I was once again completely blown away by the sheer power and speed of that 16 bit gaming marvel and the sheer capacity of the 3.5 inch floppy disks it used as primary storage medium.

C64 Head Fit Program

Successfully loading a game using the C64 tape deck was a function of luck, stable platform and the time you put in cleaning calibrating the tape heads prior to the attempt.

It wasn’t until sixth or seventh grade when I finally got my own gaming rig. Unboxing the Amiga 600 was probably one of the happiest moments of my childhood. Finally I was able to play games I wanted on my own time. You could say that was the moment I became a “gamer” but that probably wouldn’t be accurate because there wasn’t such a thing yet back then. Just about everyone who owned a personal computer was to some degree a gamer, because that’s what the 8-bit and 16-bit rigs, which connected directly to a TV and shipped with a pair of Joysticks more often than with a mouse, were good at. Dedicated gaming consoles were still a few years off (at least in my corner of the woods) so me and my friends drew lines in the sand, and insulted each other over hardware platform choices our dads made based on what they could afford.

Amiga 600

Amiga 600: my first “gaming rig”

I don’t really think we had a “gaming community” when I was a kid, but rather a vague granular collective of various quarreling sub-groups, with distinct tastes, preferences and philosophies. These sub groups traditionally always disagreed about pretty much everything and constantly bickered over just about everything. As far as I’m concerned sense of fellowship and camaraderie among gamers did not arise until internet era. The first time I can remember gamers of all creeds standing together as one was during the brief moral panic over video game brutality about a decade ago. When Jack Thompson and is ilk took on video game industry we all put away our differences and united against the common enemy. I was there along side with my gaming brethren loudly proclaiming that video games do not make one violent, while at the same time screaming for Thompson’s head on a pike. The irony of that behavior escaped me back then, but it was possibly the first time I felt something akin to a “community” sense. It was “we the gamers” against the world.

Jack Thompson

I think this guy did more to solidify a unified, monolithic “gamer bro” identity that transcended platform, genre and age divides than anyone else.

Other than a common enemy we did not really have much in common. We didn’t even like the same games, and we were just beginning to have dialogs across the platform and genre divides. But most of us were young, middle class, nerdy young males. And so we built the community around our the stuff we had in common: our own toxic masculinity, our elitism and our persecution complexes. In absence of positive values, we defined ourselves in opposition against censorship, control and the mainstream which rejected our hobby. After our common enemies faded away, we let that noxious concoction boil and fester unchecked for a decade. The behavior we see today is a direct result of our failure to build and curate an inclusive, progressive community.

This is what it all really boils down to. Gaming culture was never anything but this weird, insular, xenophobic ghetto built around very toxic notions of masculinity and persecution complex. Games marketed at boys promoted and reinforced this hyper-machismo image, and gamers were seeking to embody it and so it went in an endless self-reinforcing circle. It is no accident that teenagers scream homophobic and gender slurs into their head-sets or brag about “raping” the opposing team in Call of Duty. It’s no accident that video game related message boards basically invented the “tits or gtfo” greeting. It is no accident that Anita Sarkesian could post feminist critiques of SF films, TV shows and novels without much harassment but the moment she started talking about video games, she instantly got death and rape threats. Because this community was not build around tolerance, acceptance of criticism or diversity. It was a fortress of solitude built by man-children to protect their toys from evil mainstream activists.

Face of Modern Gaming

Face of Modern Gaming

Lets face it, the gamer culture is toxic and the community is broken. It always has been like this, but we didn’t really see it clearly up until recently because we did not pay attention. We had our heads too far up our asses for that. There were always people who were criticizing the culture and trying to fix things from within and without but they were not being heard. We drowned them out.

But then the internet things happened and our boys club industry got disrupted.

In 2014, the industry has changed. We still think angry young men are the primary demographic for commercial video games — yet average software revenues from the commercial space have contracted massively year on year, with only a few sterling brands enjoying predictable success.

It’s clear that most of the people who drove those revenues in the past have grown up — either out of games, or into more fertile spaces, where small and diverse titles can flourish, where communities can quickly spring up around creativity, self-expression and mutual support, rather than consumerism. There are new audiences and new creators alike there. Traditional “gaming” is sloughing off, culturally and economically, like the carapace of a bug. (…)

Developers and writers alike want games about more things, and games by more people. We want — and we are getting, and will keep getting — tragicomedy, vignette, musicals, dream worlds, family tales, ethnographies, abstract art. We will get this, because we’re creating culture now. We are refusing to let anyone feel prohibited from participating.

Gamer isn’t just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use. Gamers are over. That’s why they’re so mad.

Video games have outgrown young white male nerds. They have went mainstream for real this time and no single group can lay claim to them anymore. It is time to let them go. If you love something, let it go! Let it flourish. Let it become the artistic medium we all want it to be.

For the last few days I’ve been trying to figure out the right words to what to say about the latest shit-storm of internet ugliness perpetuated by “gamers”. I don’t really want to re-cap all the stuff that has happened because it would take me all day, and there are better sources for that. To wit, Andrew Todd posted an excellent writeup of the situation few days ago. I highly recommend giving it a read if you need to catch up with the situation.

I still don’t have the right words but I feel compelled to say something about it. After all it is happening in my back yard and I feel partly responsible for this. I feel I contributed to this toxic culture of hatred and misogyny by complacency. I feel that I helped to cultivate these attitudes and helped to fan the flames by laughing at the wrong jokes, and not calling people out enough.

Consider this: a community which condones and celebrates rape jokes will eventually become a save haven for rapists. A community which turns a blind eye towards humor that involves casual racism, homophobia and transphobia becomes a safe place for bigot to share their opinions. That’s how it starts: with “harmless” jokes and an assumption that everyone is on the same page, and understands that the joke-tellers don’t actually mean the things they say. That they are just being “edgy”, that they are just pushing the envelope and etc. But here is a newsflash: there are people who are bigoted or rapey misogynists on the internet. They see these “funny jokes” not as a tongue in-cheek silliness but as a validation of their world views. They flock to your communities, they become your online buddies, your guildies, your Steam friends. And you won’t know they are terrible people because the your local custom is to for everyone pretend to be an absolute asshole even if they don’t mean it because this is the internet and you’ve got to have a thick skin to make it here. Because you worship this terrible, toxic masculine ideal of detached macho, “equal opportunity offender” who does not give a shit about anything or anyone as long as he gets his. And so your community slowly becomes this cesspit full of bigots and misogynists who think that d0xing someone and sending them rape threats is an appropriate response to a Youtube video criticizing a game they like.

Anita Sarkesian Harrasment

This is gamer community’s cool, measured and reasonable response to a video applying academic critique to the medium. (triger warning)

When your community is conditioned to routinely objectify women and treat them as prizes, objectives and decorations rather than individuals, then is it surprising that they eventually refuse to acknowledge women critics and developers as their peers? That women who want to help shaping and improving the video game industry from the inside are viewed as enemies and outsiders? When your community outright rejects concepts like “political correctness” is it any wonder it becomes abusive and shitty environment?

Like it or not, political correctness is just another way of saying “common human decency and empathy”. It is treating people that might not be exactly the same as you with the same respect and dignity as you would wish to be treated with. Not only does it keep your community inviting and open to everyone regardless of their sex, race or creed. It also keeps the absolute fucking monsters in check. Throwing it away is like rolling out a red carpet for sociopaths and miscreants itching to play out their sick power fantasies in front of a live audience.

Without rules, moderation and codes of conduct all communities tend to descend into anarchy as they grow. The end result of this process are sites like 4chan – the self-proclaimed cesspool of the internet. The myth of “self moderating” communities is false. The direct democracy of Reddit can actually be even worse because they give the community tools to silence any dissent and help to create an echo chamber effect only the most conservative and reductive opinions are heard. It allows the majority to get away with abuse while at the same time giving minorities no recurse other than to leave or hide. They are also cultural and social hubs for self identified gamers.

Popular gamer hangouts such as /r/gaming or /v/ that are honeypots for human shaped monsters who want to play out their sick and twisted fantasies in front of a live audience. And make no mistake – if you don’t say anything, if you turn a blind eye, laugh or wave off the abuse as “just internet things” you are part of that audience. You are enabler and a cheerleader to the abusers.

Trolls

This picture is pretty much literally the gamer culture: trolls being abusive assholes, and white dudes on the sidelines enabling, taking pictures and laughing their asses off at the carnage.

Think about this: what does the gamer community stand for? What are the values it espouses? Liking video games is not a community value or a moral stance in an of itself – it’s merely the circumstantial condition required for membership. Looking from the outside in, it does not look that good.

Is the gaming community welcoming to the outsiders? Fuck no. It is elitist, exclusionary. There is fierce gate keeping is in effect. It is not enough to love video games. It is not enough to be passionate about them. You have to like them in the “correct” way to be accepted. There are names for the people who want to participate in the community but are brutally rejected by it: casual gamers, “fake gamer girls”, etc..

Is the community take care of their own and ensure members are treated with respect? Fuck no. There is this notion that if you want to be a gamer, you have to develop a thick skin. You have to learn to take the abuse, because that’s what happens in gaming spaces. If you are hurt and offended you need to leave. If you don’t feel safe, you need to leave. The community believes that ones right to shout hurtful, hate filled slurs into the ether trumps your right to be treated as a human being.

Is there anything the community believes in? Like freedom of speech and artistic expression? Does it welcome constructive criticism? Fuck no! If you are the wrong kind of person and you criticize video games the wrong way you will face severe backlash and the community will try to silence you. Just look at what is happening to Anita Sarkesian for attempting to apply feminist theory to video game design the same way you would apply it to any other art form.

The gamer culture itself is also off limits and belong critique. If you don’t like the status quo, if you dare to say anything negative about the community you are a “social justice warrior” and therefore the enemy of the state. If you stand up for the abused, you become collateral damage.

These are the values of the gamer community: it’s pro abuse, pro hatred, and against social justice and political correctness. It is a community that will fight to death to protect the freedom of speech of racists, sexists and homophones while at the same time trying to silence legitimate academic feminist critiques. It is a community that prides itself for being apolitical while at the same time being more extremist and conservative on social issues than Fox could ever even dream to be. Let that sink in for a bit. Just think about what kind of people this sort of “culture” is attracting.

To be honest, I don’t want to be a gamer if those are gamer values and gamer culture. When I was a child, I did childish things, but as a grown ass man I don’t want to be a part of a community that condones d0xing and death threats. I don’t want to be a part of a “culture” which goes war against a female developer over what amounts to some insignificant gossip spread about her by a spurned ex. I don’t want to be a part of a group that makes women working in the industry feel unsafe to the point that their regular, day to day existence feels like desperate struggle for survival and make them leave in droves. It fucking kills me that we have already lost some prominent female developers and journalists over the gamer gate bullshit.

Compared to the harassment that happened in the past few weeks the whole “journalistic integrity” discussion seems petty and insignificant. How come we didn’t have a journalistic integrity crusade back when Jeff Gerstmann got canned for giving Kayne and Lynch a bad review score? Where was the self righteous anger and the burning ire back then? Everyone just shrugged and said: “See, I told you big companies do pay for review scores after all.” But somehow no one stepped up to make a full feature length documentary about that incident.

I seriously doubt I will convince anyone who has already thew their lot with the gamer gate hashtag to change their mind about this. But perhaps I can reach out to a few reasonable folks who did not get swept up in all the hatred yet. If, like me you are member of the “core” gamer demographic (meaning white, cis, hetero male), please realize we are have a social responsibility to fix this mess we created. We’re not gonna be able to fix it over night. We can’t go out and forcefully readjust the attitudes of all the “SJW conspiracy” nuts out there. But we can all try to affect change locally and within our means. Best place to start is with yourself. Examine your own behavior and think about your interactions with people in online communities and what kind of behaviors and attitudes your behavior encourages? Do you sometimes make off-color jokes? Do you upvote or otherwise reward hurtful or problematic posts? Can you do better?

Some time ago I went through several years worth reddit comment history and ended up nuking entire account in disgust. Not that this absolved me from past sins, but it did help me to realize I was part of the problem. That I came with my own baggage of hangups, insecurities and prejudices which made me behave like a complete shithead. That learned hyper masculine posturing behaviors are not conducive to building inclusive and welcoming communities. That freedom of speech is not the same as freedom to abuse and dehumanize others.

So start with yourself. Do some soul searching. Read what people who are different from you say about the community and their experience with it. Try to empathize with them. Try to be a better person, and by extension you will make the community a little bit less shitty for those in your immediate sphere of influence.

Beyond that, help other people be better. Help to shape and curate the kind of community you want to be proud of. Call out your friends, guildies or clan members when they are being sexist, racist, or shitty in general. Help to moderate communities where in which have leadership positions or where your voice can make a difference. If a large community like Fark can do it, then your local group should have no problem implementing a similar policy.

Reach out and help marginalized members of the community have their voices heard. There are plenty of things you can do to help. If you want to keep this identity and keep “gamer culture” alive then help to make it less shitty. Make it about something: about teaching, sharing and exploring the hobby. Banning abuse and making the community more open, inclusive and inviting to others is not going to destroy it. If anything it will make it better, healthier and more vibrant. An identity based on celebration of hatred, exclusion and abuse is not worth having.

We can either change what it means to be a gamer or kill this identity completely. We don’t need it anymore. Gaming is no longer a niche hobby. Being a nerd is no longer stigmatized the way it used to be. These days it is almost a fashion statement. Frankly, it may already be to late to salvage gaming as an identity. The events that transpired in August may have cemented the reputation of a gamer as an absolute worst kind of human being. To be honest, I have been hesitant to describe myself as a gamer for a while now, on the off chance that I might be associated with the kind of people who launch harassment campaigns against the women in the industry. Now I’m no longer hesitant. I ashamed. I don’t want anything to do with the people un-ironically posting to the gamer gate hashtag. So Im actually all for ending gamers and gaming communities.

If you need me, I’ll be over here sharpening my +3 double handed sword of social justice, writing critically about gender, race and social issues in gaming without an ounce of journalistic integrity, donating to cool patreons and playing with people who are not deranged sociopaths. Feel free to join me.

Posted in video games | 15 Comments

Clade by Mark Budz

I have built up a SF book review backlog that’s dangerously close to going into double digits, so I need to start knocking them down. First up on the chopping block is Clade by Mark Budz which is a book I feel like I read before under a different title and written by a different author.

About a year ago I wrote a gigantic 3 part review of Jacek Dukaj’s mega-anthology King of Pain. It was a huge, encyclopedic size collection of short stories and novellas, chief among which was The King of Pain and the Grasshopper. I wrote about it in part 2 of my review and while it was not my favorite story in the set, I genuinely enjoyed it. I’m bringing it up because at the core it is had the same basic premise and Budz’s novel: it also depicted a world in which a cutting edge biotechnology allowed our species to self-segregate into distinct, non-compatible biological clades hyper-adopted to artificial environments. Dukaj took this idea and kept winding it up until he produced a story about a sort of bio-warfare waste accidentally jump-starting a brand new, fast evolving, hyper adaptive alien life and eventually a kind of biological singularity. Budz on the other hand is more interested in writing a Bio-punk techno-thriller.

Clade: book cover

Clade: book cover

Both authors however start with the same idea: a chain of man made eco-disasters makes the planet near inhabitable forcing humanity to use aggressive bio-engineering to create brand new versions crops and livestock that can survive on a planet ravished by pollution, corporate chemical warfare, and fast mutating rogue commercial retro-viruses. Come to think of it, Paolo Bacigalupi also started with this premise in his Windup Girl but he allowed the civilization to fall, and then wrote about the survivors. Dukaj and Budz both assume human ingenuity can not as much save the planet, but re-make the nature to the point where it can be reigned in and controlled narrowly avoiding apocalypse. The former, explored a setting in which the exponential progress curve is not tapered by the ecological near-apocalypse and new disruptive technologies keep pushing the environment towards another collapse. In Clade the ecological collapse is a wakeup call which results in heavy regulation and tight corporate control yielding a return to stable ecology at the cost of social upheaval.

Dukaj is a bit old school in that he believes that the only entities with enough resources to survive global biosphere collapse are heavily industrialized first world nations. The major superpowers seal themselves against the outside world and employ a kind of genomic frequency hopping to protect themselves from rampant, inexpensive bio-terrorism. Budz, much like Bacigalupi does not believe that the traditional nation state notion can survive in a post-ecology world. He sees old power structures fold and the factual power rests on the corporate backbone that underpinned and financed them. It is corporations that re-shape and re-make their environment, and it is human greed (rather than fear, nationalism and xenophobia as in King of Pain) that shapes the new social landscape.

Your clade is determined not by citizenship, but by your class. You are claded for the job you do, and the neighborhood you live in. Unlike Dukaj’s post-apocalyptic vision of sequence-hopping biospheres, Budz’s Earth is still a global village. As long as you have the money you can travel and go as you please. If you are a blue collar worker, or an unemployed slum dweller however, the “nice neighborhoods” are off limits to you – your body is simply won’t survive there. Don’t even think about stepping into a high end Gucci or Armani boutique unless you want to be coughing and pissing blood for the next few months (provided security guards can drag you out before you go into anaphylactic shock). In fact, even loitering outside the store will probably give you a bad rash. Need to go to a rich neighborhood for work? Don’t worry, they’ll temporarily re-clad you. Just remember not to kiss your wife because she might have a bad reaction and die. As visions of future go, this one is pretty grim, but not hopeless.

Out of the three post-ecology I mentioned, Burdz’s is possibly the most optimistic one. The environment, though far from healthy is stable. The economy is booming. The protagonist is a low wage latino bio-tech support worker cum gardener whose task is to take care of special vegetation genegineered to be used by orbital mining and research colonies. This job was his big break, and he hopes to use it to escape the slums where he grew up. He is an ordinary guy with big dreams and a lot of ambition, and eagerness to impress his supervisors which makes him a perfect pawn in a game of corporate espionage and sabotage.

Budz borrows heavily from the old-school Cyber-punk tradition but makes it feel fresh by imbuing it with modern sensibilities, and replacing clunky and ostentatious plastic and chrome with subtle bio-tech and nano-machines. Instead of Gibsonian cyberspace he describes ubiquitous social networks, and idiosyncratic, self learning, personal assistant AI’s whose buggy programming has them grow neurotic and ever more capricious as they get closer to approximating human personalities.

Unlike Dukaj who chases after the big ideas big payoffs, Budz takes time to flesh out his characters, explore their world, and touch upon the social and racial tensions in a world where social mobility is biologically impossible and the clade system is used as a tool in class warfare. Highlighting these tensions is not his focus though. He is more interested in creating a high-stakes techno-thriller adventure in which the little guy sticks it to the man and gets rich at the end. And it’s a pity, because his version of post-eco-collapse world could have been used for some much deeper and heart-felt exploration of the contemporary social issues. If you’re looking for that, then Bacigalupi is your man. If you want high-concept unrestrained singularity-edge SF go with Dukaj. What Budz delivers is a fun, entertaining adventure with likable characters and couple of memorable set pieces.

Posted in literature | Tagged , | Leave a comment