March 29, 2005

The Prophecy Game

Everyone laughs at the prophets, mainly because they are so consistantly wrong. Well, according to the Google archives, in 2003 a fellow named John Titor predicted an American civil war in 2005. John Titor claimed to be a time traveler from the year 2036. One would assume that if he were indeed a time traveller, he would also be an accurate prophet. Well, here we are in the Spring of 2005, and so far, I don't see any problems severe enough to suddenly spring out in civil war, especially in the United States.

True, the American public is pretty much split 50/50 on almost every issue. There are a couple of issues that are painfully important to both groups, particularly Immigration and Social Security. Although a group calling themselves "The Minutemen" is planning to begin patrolling the Arizona stretch of the US border with Mexico, there is nothing to suspect they are also planning open rebellion, and I don't expect American senior citizens advocacy groups will take up arms and fight for better medicare. Granted, the world is sometimes unpredictable, nonetheless, I strongly doubt things have gotten chaotic enough to see the US split by civil war before year-end.

On the other hand, Florida hurricanes have been getting stronger in recent years, the earthquake in Southeast Asia last year proved Christmas is no safer than any other day on the calendar, and an 8.7 "aftershock" the other day may have added another 2,000 dead to last year's toll. There is no doubt that AIDS is a plague of Biblical proportions, and air pollution in China is so severe it shows up on satellite images. Perhaps we have finally entered into the end times, or perhaps it only looks this way. Regardless of which eschatological laundry list they subscribe to, many people believe our world had a precise beginning point and sooner or later, will reach a precise conclusion. Since the beginning and ending are clearly laid out, the path between them must be as well! Or so the fatalists would have us believe.

Well, it strikes me that the prophecy game looks pretty fun, so I've decided I'd like to play along and offer up a few prophecies of my own.

1. The American economy will implode sometime within the next ten years, reducing the United States to third world status in a period of weeks.

2. Osama Bin Laden will never be found.

3. China will continue to bloom as an economic power and by 2010, will be the most powerful nation on Earth.

4. By 2020, and possibly as early as 2010, China will invade Taiwan, however, that invasion will trigger an enormous internal backlash that will break out in open civil war before 2050.

5. Sometime before 2100 (these things are hard to pin down, you know?) the Earth will experience a planetesimal impact that will kill 2/3rds of the world's human population, devastate 40% of the land mass, and kill off around 60% of all life on Earth. However, Central Africa, especially the region where the bonobo apes live, will be spared. Life from this region will eventually spread out and repopulate the globe. The next sentient species will be the descendents of the bonobos and their civilization will reach the technological level currently enjoyed by our own approximately 350,000 years from now.

Doom and gloom is easy! Anybody can do it! How about some good predictions, eh?

1. By 2010, a special food replacement dietary product will be developed. This food replacement will be so popular it's commercialization will be blocked by agricultural lobbies all over the world. In the end, it will only be available through prescription by licensed dieticians or as an emergency food source for drought, famine, and disaster relief.

2. The 2008 US Presidential election will be the most entertaining ever. Arnold Schwarzenegger will lead the Republican Party to a narrow victory over Hilary Clinton, but the Democrats will capture the vast majority of Congressional elections, displacing many long-time Republican-only seats. To everyone's glee, there will be no mudslinging at all. Instead, Hilary will try to use common sense and academic reasoning to win her race while Arnold will swagger, smoke cigars, and spend far too much time repeating old movie lines. American politics will be paralyzed for decades (thus the economic implosion) but everyone will have so much fun playing politics no one will realize the country has become an international irrelevancy.

3. With much fanfare and celebration, the last American soldier from the Middle East will return home in the autumn of 2011. It will be a nurse stationed with UN Peacekeepers in Egypt, because all combat troops will have been removed from the region the year before.

4. Before year-end, there will be a military coup d'etat in North Korea. The new military government will immediately disband the nuclear program and ask for UN assistance in converting the country to true democracy in the shortest time possible.

5. Just after the US economic implosion, representatives from NAFTA, the EU, ASEAN, and the WTO will begin a six-month conference that will ultimately result in a global free trade and free immigration pact allowing commerce and people to flow around the globe with almost no restrictions. Heralded as a "first step toward global political unity", the pact will trigger a brief burst of terrorist and organized crime activity that will dissolve within a few years despite almost no effective law enforcement by the world's nations. The criminals will learn it is easier to make money the legal way and the terrorists will get so rich from shifting money and weapons around the world they will be too busy to build bombs and plan further attacks.

So, in summary, on this 29th day of March in the year 2005 I, Brian K. Miller do hereby prophesy that this century will see the greatest peace, prosperity, and international cooperation the world has ever known, but this emerging utopia will be cut short by a planetismal impact so severe the Earth will gain a new moon and human society as we know it will be removed, allowing bonobo apes to eventually produce a new civilization that will take its first, haltering steps about 300,000 years from now.

See, prophecy is easy! Anybody can do it!

March 21, 2005

The zen of online gaming: Cheating hurts everyone

When the subject of buying and selling game data comes up, sooner or later someone will point out that wherever there is a buyer, a seller will present themselves. However, the willingness to buy and sell an item does not make that item beneficial, nor does it make trading in that item ethical. Slavery, narcotics, fissionable materials, nuclear weapon technology, etc. There are very valid reasons why these items have been deemed unsuitable for daily commerce and thus illegal to trade in. True, all of these items are still available if the buyer knows who to contact and if they have the cash to pay for them, but that still does not make it right, nor does it make it advisable!

Buying and selling game data hurts everyone. It deprives the game makers of income they have worked very hard to earn (income they need to maintain, improve and expand the game world!). It deprives the purchaser of the satisfaction of achieving goals put into the game by the designers. It makes it possible for operations like IGE to fill game worlds with non-players who have no vested interest in creating a fun, entertaining environment for everyone. It forces honest players into competition with players who are unwilling to play by the rules established by the game designers. It dramatically unbalances any PvP game by breaking the character/item balance established by the designers, and it creates hyperinflation in the game economy by putting excess game currency into the hands of players who do not appreciate its value.

Cheating hurts everyone, including the cheaters, but the cheaters are too self-involved to realize the damage they are doing.

An online MMORPG is not a console game. Any action a player takes, any choice they make, even if they spend most of their time soloing, will have a dramatic impact on everyone in the game world. No matter how minor it seems to the individual player, their choices affect everyone they are sharing the virtual world with. In a console game, if a person cheats, all they've done is save some time and skullsweat (and deny themselves any real sense of achievement). With a MMORPG, especially one that includes PvP, the cheater has dehumanized their fellow players by assuming their opponents have no right to win PvP encounters.

Cheating assumes the cheater is the only one who deserves to triumph. They need to triumph because their cheating has deprived them of any real sense of accomplishment, thus they cheat, because only by cheating can they gain the satisfaction that normally comes from playing the game the way it is meant to be played. Cheating creates a vicious and virtually unbreakable negative feedback cycle that the cheater does not realize they have fallen into. They can't enjoy the game without cheating because the act of cheating has deprived them of the sense of accomplishment the game is designed to impart in the first place!

MMORPGs are not console games. They are not designed to be "beaten". A console game is designed to keep a player entertained just long enough for the designer to come up with the next version. A MMORPG on the other hand, is designed to keep each player entertained for years. In a very real sense, a MMORPG is not a "game" at all, it is a hobby. The pace is intentionally kept slow, the world is regularly expanded, and the main emphasis is intended to be interaction with other players (both friend and foe). The game is designed to be slow. It is designed to be a time sink. The passage of time is designed to be part of the fun!

There are a number of people playing MMORPGs who really ought to still be playing console games. They are trying to achieve the pace of a console game in a world hundreds of times more complex, and often thousands of times larger. If a player finds a given MMORPG tedious, then the problem is not the game, the problem is their expectations. Rather than cheating, they need to change their expectations and learn to appreciate the greater complexity of the MMORPG they are playing.

If you don't enjoy a certain game, the problem is not the game.

March 14, 2005

Endings and Beginnings

Like many others, I want to believe that my contribution to the world we live in has some kind of long-term relevance. However, I am also realistic enough to realize that this not only highly unlikely, it might actually be impossible to achieve. I can also look at those who are changing our world and recognize that my failure to do the same is not really related to some lack or deficiency in me. I've done the best I can with the time, tools, and intelligence my birth and growth have given me. Sorry, Mom, but I didn't change the world. Somehow, I don't think she'd mind.

Anyone who has followed this blog since it's creation would know that my internal workings are hardly consistent. I jump around like a frog on hot pavement. I know this, and to be honest, most of the time it doesn't bother me.

But sometimes it does.

I have spent the last two hours browsing through my own archive (the links are all on the right hand side of the page, feel free to skim through it on your own, or not). Many of the pages I've offered up as links over the past two years have vanished into the mists of time. None of the Lineage II characters I've mentioned in the past still exist. I've deleted every last one of them, sometimes for good reason, and sometimes for no reason at all. I bought lots of Java books a year or so ago, but have not had time to read a single chapter. The books are still sitting on my shelf collecting dust, and the software was all removed from my home system a couple months ago. It has been a very changeable couple of years.

I suppose it will become obvious soon, so I might as well also add that Greyhawk Manor will soon vanish as well. I have not changed a single page in almost five years now, and there is no realistic reason to continue paying to maintain the domain name, so when it expires next month I'm going to let it die. All things pass, even websites.

As long as I'm looking back, I suppose it should also be noted that I have begun countless projects over the 43 years of my life and finished almost none of them. I guess persistence is not one of my stronger qualities. The things I did finish, have either wound up failing miserably or simply passed on with little more than a sigh of relief at their final completion. I guess one of the reasons I seldom finish anything is that the end of every project I do finish winds up being so profoundly anticlimatic. It gets to the point sometimes where I don't even know why I bother, but I do. Every morning I get up, I shower, I eat, I go about the day's business (even when it's just playing Lineage II), and eventually, I go back to bed.

For anyone with decent access to a job and a corner supermarket, life in our modern world is pretty boring. This is a good thing, actually. I have to admit, given the choice, I would much rather laze away my days in Tokyo than suffer through the daily uncertainities of Baghdad, Darfur, or even Pyongyang. There are many benefits to boredom, but it is boring!

Don't misunderstand me here. I'm not feeling depressed, or even melancholy, a little nostalgic maybe, but nothing more. Spring blues, maybe?

Anyway, my archives. I am somewhat disappointed at how many of the projects I've started over the past two years have fizzled away to nothing. So this year I am going to make a stronger effort at planning out and bringing to completion at least some of the things I start. Nothing important, of course, but I won't be deleting any more Lineage II characters, although I will lose the one I have on the PTS when the database gets wiped prior to the installation of C3. (If you couldn't follow any of that, it might be profitable for you to visit the Official Lineage II website.) Also, our business is starting a new project next month, so I'll actually be working at work instead of cruising cyberspace or surfing the web. Like it or not (and to be honest, I don't like it at all), I will have to concentrate on finding ways for that project to achieve some level of reasonable success. I don't know if I am businessman enough to accomplish anything, but I'm the only one sitting here so there isn't much choice!

There are a couple of things I would like to find time to get back into, but this year I will not have time to even begin. One of those is writing and the other is programming. I would very much like to rebuild my website with a different theme of some kind and relaunch it in 2006 with a new domain name. Doing so would require both more time spent writing and extra study of new web programming techniques. Since I won't have much free time this year (and what little free time I do have will be spent playing Lineage II), I doubt I will accomplish anything in that department, but it would be nice.

No, in all honesty, it looks like this year and next will be lots of work, and occasional bursts of Lineage II. Not very exciting at all. I don't even know how often I will be able to update this blog, but hopefully it will be more often than once a month! Of course, that also means I will have to find something to write about...

Hmm. Maybe once a month is a realistic expectation after all.

Oh, well. Time will tell.


March 07, 2005

In search of a better world

Every morning on my way to work I pass two homeless men. One of them is usually up and walking around. I always pass him somewhere between the subway station and my office. I usually pass the other one in front of 7-11 where he is sitting and sipping a hot drink from a cup bearing the label of a nearby coffee shop. The drink seldom appears to be coffee, though. Rather, it is normally some kind of tea (sometimes green, sometimes brown).

These men either have or had parents. At one time they were children. Neither one seems psychotic, but both demonstrate a variety of neurotic tendencies including obsession, lack of concern for personal hygiene, and some degree of detachment from the world around them. To these two men, the rest of us are mere apparitions wandering through a world half-dreamed and only fitfully acknowledged as being directly related to their internalized reality.

There are also two people I often see when I am playing Lineage II. One them plays a female dark elf, the other plays a male human, both are fighters. These two are what we call "chaotic". That is to say, they spend most of their game time hunting down and attacking other players, or even just killing players they happen across out in the wilds of the game world. They talk to one another in the main shout channel with no regard to the simple reality that others can read every word they type, they insult players and non-player characters with equal zeal, and will spend hours enthusiastically hacking away at in-town NPCs that do not fight back and cannot be killed.

Notice the parallels? I do, everyday. In a very real sense, the homeless men in the street and the two habitual player-killers ("PKers", as they say) in the game both share the same dissonance with their environment. Both pairs of people find little or no connection between their internalized reality and the one they are interacting with. "Reality", for both pairs, simply does not exist in the same sense that it exists to other people participating in it. For the two homeless men, "Tokyo" is a virtual reality that is of little or no concern to them personally, and the same is true for the two PKers in Lineage II. They simply don't care, because the reality they share with the rest of us has no substantial meaning for them.

However, and here is where I break ranks with the rest of the world, the inability of these four people to internalize their world does not lessen or remove the need for the rest of us to internalize their existence in our reality. Refusing to acknowledge their existence, their needs, their desires, their dreams, and their hopes, starts each one of us down the same internal road each of them is currently traveling. The marginalization of any person simply because we find their version of reality unpleasant is the first step we take to becoming that person.

If there is any difference between East and West, then that difference is reflected in the four people I have described above, which of course, is really no difference at all. The Eastern world has been plagued with overpopulation and a severe shortage of resources for many generations. This is a situation we in the West are only just now finding ourselves faced with. Populations in Europe and North America have risen dramatically since WWII, and now we find ourselves in a world where there are far too many people and not nearly enough productive occupations for them. To make matters worse, "outsourcing" in recent years has begun moving the few jobs that do remain possible into those countries where the devaluation of individuals has had generations to become fully entrenched.

The West is rapidly adopting one of the absolute worst elements of Eastern philosophy: dehumanization. Individuals are no longer important. "Mass media", "mass market", and "the wants of the masses" have become standard elements of our business and political dialogues. Politicians and business people no longer concern themselves with "customers", merely with "the needs of the mass market". Advertising campaigns do not target people with complete freedom of taste and choice, instead, they use sociology and cultural research that has been collected over the past six decades to target any of a number of "mass markets" such as "middle-income housewives with two or more children under the age of 12". The assumption of our world has become that no one person matters at all. Groups, demographics, "masses" of people are all assumed to feel exactly the same way. If someone dares to disagree, they are quickly labeled "merely an anomaly that can safely be ignored".

I am American. I live in Tokyo. Once upon a time this was not a bad thing at all. People were impressed and businesses went out of their way to find ways for me to send them my money in exchange for their products and services. Nowadays though, it seems that every single day I come upon another powerful effort aimed at dividing the world according to geographic regions in forced compliance to the assumptions of a young fool fresh out of marketing school. Since I don't fit the demographics they teach at Harvard, I am "safely ignored" and it does not matter how many times I mail customer service, phone managers, or otherwise attempt to open a communication channel, the response is always the same, "Please feel free to use the Japanese version of our store/website/market outlet conveniently located in Tokyo". But the part they don't mention is that same "local" office is exclusively staffed by young Japanese who don't know English and don't care to learn it. After all, I've been in Japan for twenty years, right? I must be the same as the Japanese!

I'm not. I'm still American. I still prefer a barbecue pit with five pounds of charcoal to a stoneware hibachi just the right size for grilling a single fish. Rush hour trains every morning put me in a murderous rage, and any time I have to deal with the Japanese government I find myself amazed at how murderously difficult everything becomes. In Japan, there are only "ignorant masses" against whatever person happens to be sitting behind the desk or shop counter. With 2000 years of overpopulation behind them, I can almost sympathize with some poor kid fresh out of high school trying to answer questions posed in English by an enraged foreigner twice his size. I can't justify their recalcitrance, but I can understand it.

So why is it every day that goes by sees more and more American businesses treating me the same way? I can't order cards through the Wizards of the Coast online store, I have to triple verify my credit card to order books from even though I have been dealing with them for over a decade, new discussion forums that I sign up for usually send not one, but two e-mail verifications if I dare to apply in English using an e-mail ending in .jp. Worst of all, any time I send in a support ticket to report a bug or apply for a new Beta test the game companies either ignore me completely or "politely" refer me to the Japanese-language only version of their company.

Enough is enough! There needs to be a new revolution in cyberspace. Instead of demanding ever smaller geographic divisions, we need to be demanding less division and more globalization that emphasizes the importance of individuals! Exceptions like me are the rule in the modern world. As travel becomes easier and more free-flowing, we will quickly become the majority. If things go as I expect them to, within another generation "national" borders will be nothing more than lines on a pretty globe that no one pays attention to anymore. We need to start planning now on ways to insure that anyone, anywhere, speaking any language whatsoever, can order anything at all from any company in the world and arrange to have it shipped to them.

The downside, of course, is that crime and customer fraud will increase as well. The solution is not forced regionalization. The only solution possible is increased consumer awareness and an improved education system that teaches every subject from a global perspective. If we do not stop the global trend toward objectification and dehumanization of the individual and stop it now, then the only path remaining to open borders and a global community will be a long, bloody, disastrous war. If we choose that route, then the lack of borders will not come about because we want it to, but because there will be nothing left but ragtag bands of parasitic survivors living off the ruins of our present age.

So which will it be, my friends: a global community built on compassion and openness for individuals, or a global ruin populated by scattered groups struggling to survive one more day? The outcome depends on the choices we each make on a daily basis.

I know we are building a new world, but I cannot help and wonder exactly what kind of a world are we building?