January 30, 2005

Free-floating relativities

There are a lot of things on my mind today, way too many to go into here in any depth, so I'd like to focus on just a couple ideas.

First and foremost, I am sorry to report that Wish by Mutable Realms (See the previous entry) died during its third week of beta testing. All told, it was an interesting game, but not anywhere near as revolutionary as the creators imagined. There has been no official statement on what exactly led to the decision to kill the game, but I suspect their dependence on pre-built middleware was a major factor. You see, there are several ways to build a game and each method has strengths and weaknesses. For example, Lineage II, the game I play, starts with a pre-built game engine that contains basic functions like terrain modeling, character placement, elementary physics (esp. collision detection), day/night light coordination, color palette swapping, etc. Unreal, the engine they use, contains a whole host of basic game functions and absolutely no details! In terms of middleware, the Unreal engine is a minimal execution object that eliminates a lot of core programming but places very few limitations on the final product.

Wish, on the other hand, was built up from about a dozen highly functional and tightly structured middlware products. This meant that it took the developers very little time to create the program (comparatively speaking), but it also gave them very little control over the functional content of the final product. For example, the Unreal engine that Lineage II uses provides very few ways to actualize player combat. This means that the developer who uses it must come up with their own combat system and use the Unreal core to link those systems to the game engine. This requires a lot of time, but it also allows maximum flexibility. The developer is not limited in designing things like attack speed, attack frequency, attack synchronization, defensive maneuvers, and so on. Wish went exactly the opposite route. They used two middleware products to control combat, one for physics and one for combat actions. This made programming very simple. All they had to do was link the two systems together. However, it also meant they had very little flexibility in how combat functioned for the player, so if the players did not like the combat system, there was not much Mutable Realms could do to improve it.

During the beta test there were countless complaints about the combat system and hundreds of suggestions on how to improve it. And combat was not the only thing players suggested changes for. The discussion forums were filled with helpful suggestions for improving everything from the chat system to the character models themselves. The final Wish game engine was wonderful and almost everyone enjoyed it, the problem was that everything else in the game felt like an old Gameboy game jury-rigged to run on the internet! Sadly, in a very real sense, their reliance on middleware for everything from combat systems to texture loading meant that was exactly what the developers had wound up with! Still, I do believe the game could have found a solid player base of loyal fans. However, I don't know if that playerbase would have been enough to keep them in business and apparently the management wasn't too sure either.

Further rumblings from the peanut gallery
Next, on a totally different tack, I've been thinking a lot about gender. Why? I dunno, it just kinda worked out that way. Partly because of the prominence of Iraq in the daily news, partly because of the storyline currently underway at El Goonish Shive, and partly because a couple weeks ago a player in Lineage II was following one of my female characters around trying to convince her to have cybersex with him. When I told him I was man playing a female character because I like the way they look, he rapidly oscillated back and forth between accusing me of being some kind of pedophile and begging me to let my character "cyber" with him anyway. Some major gender confusion going on with that kid, I think, which of course begs the question, "What exactly is gender confusion?"

Good question. I don't have an easy answer.

Gender.org is a group that discusses gender issues. Their specific concern is transgender and transsexual awareness. They want people to understand that precisely defined gender roles are not necessarily the best approach for society to take. There are many real people who do not feel comfortable behaving in expected patterns just because they were born with a certain biology. Women carry the babies, men implant them, but that does not mean that the way we dress, the way we speak, the way we walk, or the way we build interpersonal relationships must be defined by our individual biologial role in reproduction. If a person (either man or woman) undergoes an SRS procedure (Sexual reassignment surgery), does it affirm their internal reality or does it pervert their external reality? Why does it matter anyway? If a person is more comfortable wearing a body with different reproductive equipment does that mean we should now treat them differently?

When I was very young I felt that gender and sex were indistinguishable. If you're born with a penis you're a man, if not, you're not. Nowadays I can look back on that fanatic gender assignment and recognize it for what it really is: insecurity. In many cases, a person who insists on social roles defined by reproductive biology does so not because they are comfortable with their own sexuality, but because they themselves are afraid others will not recognize their sexuality and respect it. Men are afraid of being "weak", and women are afraid of being "aggressive", so both of them wind up insisting that "real" men and women behave differently and that difference is defined by biology. Although they present a very strong case, in the end, it's really only their own fear that someone, somewhere, will not take them seriously. Their insistence on gender is a demand for respect, which they may or may not deserve.

Then there is the other side of the coin. Online environments completely mask the reality of who we are. Reality is no longer a part of the equation. The only thing anyone knows is the presentation, and that presentation can never be an exact duplicate of our reality. People online who insist they are only being themselves are in fact acting out a role according to how they want to be seen. The more they insist that they are being "natural", the more likely it is their online persona has little or no relation to how they are in real life, especially when they themselves believe they are presenting an accurate image!

Cyberspace distorts reality. It cannot accurately reflect the real world because the act of engaging in an online reality automatically creates a distance between who you are in real life, and how others see you online. The cyber world is a fictional world. It can never be wholly "real". At best, it can only create a reasonable facsimile, it cannot recreate reality itself. Any online interaction will always be a kind of virtual interaction. That is the nature of the medium. Gender-swapping online is a natural extension of this virtuality. Experimentation is a solid part of human nature, it defines who we are and it is what seperates us from the rest of the animals. The ability, the willingness, and the desire to change our most fundamental nature is in fact, the one thing that makes us human. Every other aspect of our being we share with the animal kingdom. There is nothing else in this world, however, that actively seeks to redefine itself, not even a chameleon.

The only constant in the universe is change, and the desire for change is what makes us human. Gender, the precise defining of socially acceptable behaviors according to reproductive biology, represents a powerful resistance to change. Demanding that men be men and women be women is, in fact, contrary to the most fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. It is a violation of our most basic natural instinct which is, in fact, the need to seek out and create change. Demanding that women dress a certain way, forcing men to dress differently, giving each a different task based on a presumption of their "natural ability" is one of the most unrealistic aspects of human civilization. Precisely defined gender roles violate our nature, and the very act of defining them is inherently unnatural. The only possible outcome of a precisely defined gender role is confusion, which in turn leads to insecurity, which in turn leads to more people insisting on a difference which was never real to begin with.

We are not "men and women". We are people, and as people, we really ought to be smart enough to show one another decency and respect. It's only natural.