Culture

to play

A nice comment came at the end of the Long Now discussion between Brian Emo (composer) and Will Wright (game designer):

It’s interesting that just one verb is used both for music and for games: “play.”

This seems to be true in a large number of languages too, which implies some kind of universality of the concept. I also note that my dictionary says the English word play is related to the Middle Dutch word pleien: ‘leap for joy; dance’.

(The discussion, by the way, was excellent. You can download audio in OGG or MP3 or read Stewart Brand’s summary.)

Doing the people’s business

DocBug Exclusive — Yesterday the US Senate passed a non-binding resolution declaring that Democrats are all “poopy-heads.” The resolution passed along party lines, with all Republicans voting for the resolution, plus Joe Lieberman (D-CT). When Senate Minority-Leader Harry Reid of Nevada protested the resolution as childish and irresponsible, an amendment was passed adding that Democrats are “all whiners and a bunch of cry-babies too.” Republican strategists predict similar resolutions will fill the bulk of the Senate’s time until after the November elections.

The resolution now has to be resolved with the House version of the bill, which declares that Democrats are idiotic dumb dumbs and girly cowards. In recent days several Republican Representatives in the House have condemned the Senate language as being squishy-soft and going against core conservative values, and a compromise version is not expected before the end of this legislative session.

Superman of Nazarath

superman-crucified.jpg

I’ve really gotta wonder about this NYT review of the latest Superman movie:

‘Superman Returns’ to Save Mankind From Its Sins

Jesus of Nazareth spent 40 days in the desert. By comparison, Superman of Hollywood languished almost 20 years in development hell…

…what is essentially a new and considerably more sober sequel to the first two films, one that shakes the earthiness off Superman and returns him to the status of a savior. There’s always been a hint of Jesus (and Moses) to the character, from the omnipotence of his father to a costume that, with its swaths of red and blue, evokes the colors worn by the Virgin Mary in numerous Renaissance paintings. It’s a hint that proves impossible not to take.

OK, so I can see the omnipotence of Superman’s father angle, if by “omnipotence” you mean unable to even save himself, much less his planet, from complete destruction. As for the red and blue costume, doesn’t that mean Superman is actually the Virgin Mary rather than Jesus?

Of course there are a few similarities between Superman and Jesus. For example, Superman pretends to be a mild-mannered reporter while fighting crime in the big city. So does Jesus. And Jesus fights a never-ending battle for the salvation of our immortal souls, which is kinda like Truth, Justice and the American Way. Oh yeah, and they’re both American.

Not that the Times is entirely to blame here. This latest movie is pushing the whole Christ theme in their trailers, presumably hoping the crowd that made Passion of the Christ a box office success either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that they’re being exploited. But really, this is as dumb as those literary critics who claim Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar character is a Christ figure — you can tell, see, by the fact that both of them have the initials J.C.

Social dynamics in MMOGs

It’s a common belief that Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) are more interesting than their single-player counterparts because of the ability to socialize in the game. A paper presented at this year’s ACM Computer Human Interaction conference, “Alone Together?” Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games, offers a different spin on that. After installing /who-bots on several World of Warcraft servers and watching people’s play habits, researchers from PARC and Stanford University concluded:

“Our observations show that, while MMOGs are clearly social environments, the extent and nature of the players’ social activities differ significantly from previous accounts. In particular, joint activities are not very prevalent, especially in the early stages of the game. WoW’s subscribers, instead of playing with other people, rely on them as an audience for their in-game performances, as an entertaining spectacle, and as a diffuse and easily accessible source of information and chitchat. For most, playing the game is therefore like being “alone together”— surrounded by others, but not necessarily actively interacting with them.”

Some other interesting tidbits from the paper:

  • Players who never grouped tended to level up about twice as fast as those players who grouped more than 1% of the time. (The paper doesn’t mention this possibility, but this makes me wonder whether these anti-social players are actually farmers working in a virtual sweatshop.)

  • Median guild size was only 9 (6 if you include “one-person guilds”), and the 90th percentile of the distribution is only 35 active members.

  • Guilds tend to be sparsely-knit social networks, with a guild member tending to ever see only one in four other guild members and only playing in the same zone as one in ten. (Again the paper doesn’t say, but I imagine this statistic is influenced by people playing multiple characters in the same guild, which already forces some exclusion since people can’t play more than one character at a time.)

  • Guilds tend to have one or two groups of tight-knit “core” players who play together regularly and are all of roughly the same level. This is probably a result of the level treadmill and the fact that people of radically different levels can’t really adventure together — which means people who get out of synch with other guildmates can’t adventure with their friends anymore and are more likely to quit the game or find a different guild.

(Thanks to Amy Bruckman for the pointer!)

On humor and Stephen Colbert

I’ve been thinking lately about Stephen Colbert’s uneven performance and audience reaction at the this year’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner. (If you haven’t seen it yet the video is still floating around the the Net, though C-Span has their own limited-time Real Media feed and is asking other websites to remove their links.)

I tend to agree with Colbert’s message and politics, but in this post I’m more interested in how humor works and doesn’t work than the message itself. Something I love about both Stephen Colbert and John Stewart is how they’re willing to step outside of their characters and actually analyze what they do as comic, but I think that hurt Colbert that night. Rewatching the video, I still liked Colbert’s message but I thought his performance was just as uneven as the audience’s reaction.

The great part of his act, when it works, is that he plays a Bill O’Reilly type and then either makes plain that type’s underlying messages and underhanded motives or just plays at being inept and catching himself in metaphors that don’t work. But that evening he didn’t seem to convincingly inhabit that character. First he told the joke about “somebody shoot me in the face,” which cast him as a comic telling jokes rather than as an inept pundit. That could have been OK, since he hadn’t really started, but I think the killer was when he messed up his “the glass isn’t half empty, it’s 2/3 empty” joke. I thought he was quite respectful by saying “it’s important, Mr. President, to set up your jokes correctly…” but that joke was a pivotal one — it was the joke that would have both cemented his beginning rant about how great Bush was and that set himself up as being incompetent about his attempted praises. As it was, he was suddenly seen as a comic again, just as he was about to launch into the really biting part of his act where he lashed out against the press itself. Suddenly his mask was stripped away and instead of playing The Fool in the guise of an overly harsh pundit he became a Stephen Colbert speaking in a fighting-words tone and lecturing the press on how they should behave. Still ballsy of him, still something that needs to be said… but for me and I think that audience it lost a lot of the humor it could have had.

Iconoclasts in glass houses

The statements from the Vatican I linked to last post include a comment from Cardinal Achille Silvestrini that’s worth highlighting:

The cardinal said secular societies should not assume a right to offend religious sentiments. He noted that many countries consider it illegal to offend their national flag and asked, “Shouldn’t we consider religious symbols on an equal level with the symbols of secular institutions?”

This is a good point; it is far to easy to defend the right to satire or denigrate the other people’s images while holding that our own images and ideals should be off-limits. However, I take away a different lesson than he intended, namely that we all must be wary of the power our own symbols have over us.

If I may stereotype the argument as religion vs. secular culture, both sides of have blind spots when it comes to our symbols. We secularists are so invested in the myth that we are rational beings that we are blind to the very real power our icons and our media have over us, and that blindness makes us vulnerable. The result is Madison Avenue, Hollywood and politicians who can play us like a musical instrument. Religion, on the other hand, is so aware of the power of icons that they have become hostage to the defense of their own. The result is hair-trigger sensitivity, where a simple cartoon or perceived slight in the wording on a greeting card can spark boycotts and even violence.

A gargoyle on the roof…

…sounds crazy, no?

Gargoyle on the roof

File this one under “Only in San Francisco.” One of the attractions at a friend’s birthday party this past weekend was watching them have their chimney swept by a gargoyle.

In hindsight, I guess being a chimney-sweeping grotesque architectural decoration is an odd odd job to have, but somehow Shadow (a costuming major from USCS who always swept out his Dad’s chimney every year) made it seem like a perfectly normal thing to do. Heck, maybe it is…

[more pictures]

Bowing to pressure, retailers agree to take Lord’s name in vain

Docbug Exclusive — Faced with a potential boycott from right-wing Christian groups, retailers Target and Lowes have agreed to reinstate their long-standing policy of using Christ’s name for cheap commercial gain. The companies were targeted by the American Family Association because they refer to the word “holiday” instead of Christmas in their advertisements and storewide decorations.

Conservative pundits were quick to call the move a victory for those who recognize Christ as an inherent part of the end-of-year buying season. Spokesmen for both companies say they intended no disrespect, and that they plan to institute policies to insure that religion will be more prominently exploited in the future.

(Update 12/15/05: fixed typo)

Robot Cafe in Osaka, Japan

This sounds fun: The ROBO CAFE [jp→en] has just opened up in Osaka, Japan, where customers can watch Nuvo dance, view a Segway of course have their crumbs cleaned by a Roomba. Sounds like a perfect place to unwind after a day at the wearable-computing conference I’ll be attending there in a couple of weeks :).

My Japanese is non-existant and Google’s isn’t much better, but here are links to a map and more details here [jp→en] and here [jp→en].

(Thanks to Rebecca for the link!)

The Singularity is near now?

Kevin Drum over at the Washington Monthly has a nice extrapolation based on Ray Kurzweil’s new book (see his chart for added effect):

With that said, however, it turns out that I do have a bone to pick with Kurzweil over one of the trend charts that litter his book. Basically, he argues that the pace of change has been accelerating over time, so that major inventions are being created ever faster as time goes by. 10,000 years ago it took several thousand years between major inventions (agriculture –> wheel), while a century ago it took only a few decades (telephone –> radio).

Fine. But his cleverly constructed chart cheats: it stops about 30 years ago. So I decided to extend it. My version of his chart extends to last month (see pink shaded area), and it indicates that major, paradigm-busting inventions should be spaced about a week apart these days.

So what gives? Seems to me that the Singularity should be right on our doorstep, not 40 years away. And while 40 years may not seem like all that much in the great scheme of things, it means a lot if you’re 46 years old. Which I am.

So what happened?

If I had to guess without having read the book yet, I’d say what the chart really shows is the gloss of history: the longer ago something was, the less important we take it to be and the more we lump it together with everything else from that period. For example, the last four entries on Ray’s chart are the Industrial Revolution, the Telephone, electricity, and radio (as one event), the computer and the personal computer (as two events). Why did he decide to label these as four paradigm-busting inventions rather than seven, or as one? Contrarily, why are writing and the wheel lumped into the same invention, or printing and the experimental method? Depending on what you call a single “event” the spacing between those events could show accelerating change, constant change, or stability punctuated by short periods of rapid change (the last one being my own personal belief).

Could the one true constant be the belief that our generation is experiencing more change than any other?