January 21, 2017

A Circle of Madness Broken by Empathy


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2016 was a brutal year for many. Amid the deaths of cultural and empathetic icons, the world watched as a new leader of the “free world” was elected, in no small part on the backs of racism, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and nationalism. Martin Luther King Day this year underscored the dichotomy between the Civil Rights movement and this haunting new world we face in 2017. It is so painfully acute. How did this happen? And more importantly - what do we do about it?

I tend to avoid mixing politics and games - after all gaming can be a source of respite for many (myself included). And yet, it is impossible to ignore how increasingly politicized our world, our art, our entertainment, and all the mundane moments our lives have become. And so I’m writing this as I watch the beautiful Women’s March in Washington D.C. unfold - not only in our nation's capital, but in places big and small across the United States and, indeed, across the globe. 

Optimistically - I hope that I’m witnessing the birth of a new civil rights era. It's easy to be complacent when everything seems like it’s going fine - particularly I admit as a white male. It's easy, though it shouldn’t be, to forget that things are not fine for a lot of people. So often, and unfortunately, it takes something truly horrible to deliver the wake up call that “things aren’t right” in world. And optimistically, I hope that Trump’s election will deliver a motivational kick in the ass for all people to reclaim their democratic rights and liberties.

All during the primaries, and the campaign, and even after election night - even right up to the moment before Trump started talking during his inauguration - I hoped that it was all a ruse. I hoped that Trump would smile and say to the American people: “Are you kidding me? You all elected me? I said the worst possible things about almost every type of person on the planet - and you still voted for me. This says something about me, but more importantly it says something about you. As it is, I don’t intend to actually carry through on all the awful stuff I said.” 

Sadly, that didn’t happen - and so here we are.

I don’t really want to debate what went wrong in the election itself, but I’ll mention a few things - because I think it underscores how our Country is poised in a terrifying moment. First and foremost is the issue of Russian hacking - the extent which it impacted the election will undoubtedly take a while to discern. But it is dreadfully worrying to the integrity of our democracy.

Second, and I think worse, is the wholesale gerrymandering of voting districts across the Country. We’re just now seeing ethics and legal action calling out these practices. These practices have resulted in representation for many demographic groups being unequal as it manifests in State and Federal legislatures - fueling a cycling of disempowerment. This gerrymandering, coupled archaic and unjust voting laws and practices, are not about democracy and American values - they are about the people in power staying in power by any means necessary.

Third is the catastrophic miscalculation concerning the blue collar working class - the long-standing base of the Democratic party. In a campaign focused on the personality and antics of Trump versus Clinton - Trump with his incendiary remarks and Clinton’s perpetual spectre of conspiracy surrounding her - it isn’t hard to see why the base, upset at stagnation and gridlock in Washington, just wanted to say “screw it” to the whole system and vote for something, indeed anything, different. 

The unfortunate part is that the working class base was duped into believing that Trump will do anything to further their wellbeing and prosperity. Whether the issue is taxes, health insurance, environmental protection, housing, worker pay, or education - Trump’s rhetoric paints a harrowing picture for the future. And what little substance there is in his words - such as his cabinet and administrative nominee selections - show a clear interest in dismantling and scaling back all the institutions that are vital for every person in this country: clean air and water, safe food, quality education, stable neighborhoods, and health.

The direction of education in particular saddens me to no end - because the more inequity and dysfunction is sowed in the educational system, the more people are kept ignorant and denied the tools for thinking critically. And so many seem to take pleasure in being anti-intellectual - and in large part, this is what got us into this mess to begin with.

Fourth, and most shocking, is the surge of racism, misogyny, and nationalism that has been emboldened and set free by Trump’s election. We might summarize that the shadows have to grow darker before things can become brighter. Perhaps, by this underbelly of our Country being exposed for what it is, we will be afforded the opportunity to challenge it head on once again. And it needs to be challenged head on before it snowballs into something much worse. 

And so it is sad that this nation spends much public discourse over what rights a woman has to her own body, or what bathrooms a transgender person is allowed to use, or what false science we teach our children, or what rights that all citizens have - regardless of their origin or anything else. It is a travesty that these are pressing issues weighing on our conscious - these should be solved issues. But they are not. And so we must continue to fight for them.

Taking action is hard. A march, like the Women’s March, can galvanize many people - but you have to act on that momentum. Take that energy and build on it through your own lives. It starts with everyone, as their own individual self, being willing to be critical and reflective of their own lives and actions. To be willing to question their own assumptions and beliefs.

It takes empathy. 

This is an increasingly divided country - both ideologically and geographically. Political leaning and whether you live in a red or blue state, a liberal island or a conservative plain, divide us increasingly more than any other characteristic. So it is ever more imperative that we be willing to listen to each other - if nothing else than to understand where we each are coming from. To endeavor to find a common ground. To be willing to have our beliefs and assumptions challenged - and to respectfully challenge the beliefs of others. Building empathy is about building understanding - and I believe that when we truly understand each other - we will find that our interests and aspirations have far more in common than we assume.

I hope that the energy of the Womens’ March gives rise to a new movement born of respect and equality for all people. One that is willing to reach across and shatter old political lines to form a new accord. Opposition and competition has defined the political landscape for generations. And in turn, cooperation and inclusion has been lost at sea. I hope that such a movement will rise at the national stage and bring the ships to port. 

But close to home we each have a role to play in building empathy - in reaching out to those different from us, finding common ground, and standing together for the values of freedom and equality that this nation can exemplify like no other nation in the world.

But it starts with each of us.


December 2, 2016

Smorgasbord: Good Things in Small Packages


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Recently, my gaming and design interests are gravitating towards “smaller” games. They might be physically smaller games or have more condensed, less sprawling gameplay - or some combination of the two. Part of this is no doubt driven by time. Getting together with a big group of people for an extended gaming session is a challenged endeavor. And so I’ve turned more towards games that I can play on a more casual or spontaneous basis, particularly among my immediate and extended family circles. These tend to be games that are quick to setup, straightforward enough that a 6- or 7-year old could stumble through, and yet which still have some appealing “hook” that gets people wanting to play.

In looking back, I realize these “what I’ve played” posts that were supposed to be monthly or quarterly thing are more like a yearly thing. Ah well - that just means there is more to walk about! So anyway, over the past year, here’s a little run down of what I’ve been playing - along with some other stuff thrown in for good measure!



August 26, 2016

Reflecting on Depictions of the Great War


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I just finished listening to Dan Carlin’s podcast series on World War I Blueprint for Armageddon. A friend, far more into history than myself, urged me to listen to the show - and on a whim I did. Approximately 24-hours later, spread out over the course of a month, I have absorbed it - in all of its shocking, horrifying, and tragic reality.

I’ve never been a big history buff, preferring instead to appreciate the subject from afar and look forward. But I am utterly enriched by having listened to this tale of humanity gone off the rails. The time period leading up to the Great War and during it, is a time I knew little about - but always seemed so interesting to me, the roots of it so buried in the past and yet so close and tangible to the modern world.
 


July 21, 2016

Delusions of Grandeur (Part 2)


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PART 2: The Fresh Smell of Administrative Air

My delusions continue from Part 1 of this series, which provides teasers, spoilers, and other amazing ideas I have for creating my very own, not-another, space-based 4X game. Last time I outlined the big vision for my 4X game, Transcend, which is built around the notion of guiding your civilization to transcendence while avoiding any number of galactic threats that want to eat you and your citizenry for a midnight snack. I also talked about some specific design goals, around trying to eschew the usual 4X complexity for something built around simple numbers and a relatively small number of total turns. In other words, a more finely tuned game all about hard decisions and big consequences.

In this installment, I’ll be talking about a few core elements of the design related to the structure of your empire and its management.



July 18, 2016

This Thing Called Strategy


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Geopolitical strategy, circa 1675


For the past few years, a question has been haunting my dreams: What is strategy? A narrower follow up question is: What makes a compelling strategy game?

One reason this question has been bothering me, particularly in terms of 4X or Civilization-style games, is that so often the gameplay does not feel like what strategy is or ought to be, at least for me. If the gameplay isn’t strategy, then what exactly is it? And if I’m not getting what I want out of a strategy game, then what in the heck do I really want?!

I have a number of pet theories floating around these troubling questions, which might help me work towards an answer. Fair warning though, much of this article will be spent in the realm of “pontification” or “theorycrafting.” Back in the old days, we called this “BSing.” You’ve been warned!



July 5, 2016

Ubiquitous Violence


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My father passed away recently in a tragic accident - and so I’ve been thinking and reflecting.

My dad was a staunch supporter of non-violence in all aspects of his life. But despite this, while I was growing up he purchased a fair number of violent games upon my request - such as the First-Person Shooter (FPS) game Doom and its many followers and derivatives. At the same time, he always stressed the importance of separating reality from fiction. And while he allowed me to play these games, I knew he found them distasteful and the violence unnecessary - especially when there are so many other wonderful things one might explore instead. He was always looking for a game that emphasized discovery and mystery, or story and problem solving, or journeys and narratives. Anything other than yet more violent action for its own sake.