Tuesday, March 20, 2012


I'm a short ways into Star Wars: The Old Republic now, and gosh, is there ever a lot of evil on the Sith side. And I don't mean the "we have an alternative but valid viewpoint" evil, or the "we're a misunderstood but honorable people" evil, like we get in some video games. SW:TOR has you torturing prisoners and purging the impure as newbie quests.

It struck me that if (in some alternate reality) I had kids, I would absolutely not want them playing a Sith character. You aren't just told to torture someone in SW:TOR - you are told to question someone, and you have the option of torturing them. It's a Star Wars form of torture - zapping someone with lightning bolts from your hands - but torture nonetheless, and it's a valid story choice. You get "dark side" points for the action, which is technically a reward in this game.

Somehow it feels to me as if giving you the option to do something horrible in a game is worse than just presenting it as an objective. Many, many games have you slaughtering your way through an endless series of living beings, but here in this game, based on a largely child-friendly franchise, you are put in front of a prisoner who is strapped to a table and asked whether or not you want to torture him.

The game is labeled "T for Teen"; is this a valid label? Is it worse to show naked breasts or red blood than it is to allow the player to practice torture (even cartoon torture)?

Monday, March 19, 2012

I heart conservatives

For those of you who know me well: I have not titled this post with any sense of irony or sarcasm. I am, however, choosing a very particular meaning for the word "conservatives".

I can sympathize with political conservatives, who believe that the role of the federal government should be restricted, and that more power should be at the state level. Different states have different needs: different industries, different resources, different demographics, different mindsets. It makes sense to assert that a state government is better able to address the needs of its constituents than a large, overriding federal government trying to please everyone at once.

I can sympathize with fiscal conservatives, who believe that federal spending needs to be reduced. I am quite certain that the federal government is wasting appalling amounts of my tax money, due to inefficiency, corruption, lack of oversight, or some combination of the three. I'm also absolutely certain that the government is spending a lot of money on policies that I am strongly opposed to.

What bothers me are the so-called "religious conservatives," which seems to be just another way to say "Christian hardliners." There are reasonable and interesting ideas coming out of the right wing, but they're being drowned out and tainted by the attempts of the religious right to impose their faith on the entire nation. The fact that religious freedom is one of the founding principles of America seems to have been utterly forgotten, and it's been forgotten by the same people who seem to keep stressing a return to Constitutional values.

Your faith is not my faith. You and I may have some congruent moral values, but you cannot expect to impose all of the trappings of your faith on me. Would you expect to pass laws enforcing fasting during Lent? Three hours of silence during Good Friday? Church attendance on the Sabbath? No? Of course not. That's a violation of the division of church and state, isn't it?

So stop trying to legislate your faith-based values concerning contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. If you have to go to the Bible to defend your convictions, that's a sure bet that you're endorsing something of religious origin that has no basis in our legal code. "Because I believe it's a sin" or "because God told me so" is not a valid reason for passing laws that must regulate the behavior of this vast, multi-cultural country.

I think the political landscape of this country would be much different if the GOP could divest itself of its evangelical baggage and concentrate on real political and fiscal issues. I think we would have a much more productive debate between the two parties; I think we could spend more time addressing the hazards of the 21st century, including the side effects of a global, information-based economy on the average person's financial health, and the side effects of an ever-growing industrial population on the health of our planet.

I wish for a lot of foolish things like this.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Sims Social

Due to a serious and common hazard of 21st-century life in America (I was bored and had access to the Internet) I recently clicked on an enthusiastic Facebook link inviting me to join "The Sims Social", which is the Facebook version of The Sims. I had previously heard this game described as an embodiment of the worst characteristics of Facebook games; a faithful implementation of the archetype that Zynga uses to stamp out their never-ending series of soulless timewasters.

After some play time, I do agree that yes, the game consists of little more than clicking your Sim, telling him/her to do stuff in order to gain resources which you can then spend to unlock stuff and get more things to click on so you can do more stuff, and so on. But then again, The Sims was always like this. From the beginning, it's basically been an interactive dollhouse with a few RPG elements built in. The Sims has never been about action or strategy or any real test of skill; it's always been a toy where you can click on stuff and stuff happens. So while there's not a lot of game to this game, in this respect, it's also being faithful to the original.

In order to Facebook-ize the game, they've implemented an "energy" mechanic which should be familiar to any of you who have ever tried to play a Facebook game. You get a certain amount of energy; when you want to do something meaningful in the game, you expend energy; your supply of energy replenishes itself gradually over time. This effectively limits you to a few short play sessions a day - unless you pony up some real-world cash to buy more energy. "I apologize, sir," the game tells you, wringing its work-calloused hands, "but you see how things are for us; you see what we must work with; we are just a poor Facebook game, and Grandmother, well, you know how things are with Grandmother ... so it is difficult for us, very difficult, but you are our friend, a good friend, so for you, perhaps, we can arrange something. Perhaps if you could help us with our expenses, just a trifle, just a small micropayment, then for you, our good friend, we will leave our doors open..."

I'm sure that this sort of thing helps to regulate network traffic and reduces the load on the servers, so that you don't have millions of Sims addicts clicking away 24/7 and bringing the game to a crashing halt. But the primary reason for the energy mechanism, obviously, is to get you to pay to play the game. Many of these games will even arrange things so that you get a fairly substantial amount of energy for free, right out of the gate, so you can get good and hooked on the game (they hope) before they start passing the hat.

The other way that games like this "help you" to get more energy is by persuading you to get your friends to sign up for the game as well. Then you can send each other "gifts" which you can use to improve your play experience. Again, this helps the bottom line of the game developers, since more players equals a greater chance that one or more of you will pony up for that free energy refill or that marvelous virtual hat.

The Sims Social stresses this latter mechanic (which should be no surprised, based on the name) by making many of the in-game tasks and quests either virtually or actually impossible to complete unless you have a large pool of friends who are also playing the game. They can't entirely ostracize the solo player, though - can't pass up an opportunity for revenue - so they help out social players by providing a free imaginary friend. The imaginary friend they provided for my character (and possibly for all players, or all male players, I haven't bothered to check) is Bella Goth.

It's probably not advisable to spend too much time thinking about the life stories of imaginary video game characters, but I can never seem to help myself, and so I find myself pondering the peculiar life of Bella Goth. First of all, although you would expect Bella to be, well, goth, she seems to be anything but. When I joined the game, EA was trying to get players to buy "Roaring Twenties" style furniture and clothes, and so Bella was dressed as a flapper, and her house looked like a speakeasy. Currently EA is pushing "Arabian Nights" gear, and so Bella has the best in "I Dream of Jeannie" attire and lives in something like a cross between a caravanserai and a Middle Eastern restaurant. So how did she get the name "Bella Goth"? One assumes it wasn't by choice, and that she was saddled with the name by parents who themselves had an unfortunate surname, and who had the tremendous bad luck to choose the name "Bella" for their daughter, leaving her to hit early adulthood right about the time the Twilight books started getting big.

Bella has two functions in the game; to help walk you through the tutorial by allowing you to practice various social actions with her, and to allow you to accumulate social points during the game even if you don't have actual friends to interact with. So you can visit her any time you like, and chat, and listen to her radio, and use her restroom (Sims have to use the bathroom a lot) and she's always happy to see you, and she doesn't mind if you leave abruptly.

So who is this Bella person, who likes to flirt, but who always keeps you permanently in the Friend Zone? Does she have a boyfriend she's saving her affections for? What does she do with her time? She never seems to work - how does she afford to completely renovate her home every two weeks? For that matter, even though your own Sim needs to eat and sleep, Bella doesn't ... possibly she's a vampire. Though it seems to always be light outside in the game, you never really see the sun, which makes some sense, since if there was a sun, it would go down once in a while. Is the entire Sim nation artificially lit, perhaps by some vast array of airship-mounted artificial lights? This would make the area the perfect choice of residence for a vampire.

She must really hate that Stephanie Meyer named a character after her.

As I was coming to the end of writing this article, I wandered onto a Sims wiki, and discovered that Bella actually appears in several of the Sims games, and that she actually has something of a backstory which has evolved over the many Sims iterations. Her life seems to have taken a number of disturbing and tragic turns which utterly belie her easygoing and cheerful appearance in The Sims Social. I think it's far more pleasant to continue to believe that she's just some cheerful, fantastically wealthy vampire, who wants nothing more out of her unlife than polite neighbors and the eternal artificial glow of the airships, circling far overhead.