Tuesday, February 24, 2015

[BoRT Feb. 2015] Band of Gamers: Ingress in Atlanta

This post was written for the February 2015 Blogs of the Round Table

For the Lovers of the world, February 14th was the day to look forward to this month. But for the Players of Ingress, it would have been hard to compete with the 21st.

Ingress is a free-to-play massively-multiplayer augmented reality smartphone game created by Google. As that ridiculous genre list may tell you, it’s also an incredibly complex game. So I’m going to split this into two sections. The first section will briefly review the mechanics of the game, while the second section will report on a real-world Ingress event from the 21st.

Playing Ingress

Allow me to bottom-line the game for you:
  • There are two teams, green and blue.
  • The green team (yay!) are officially called “The Enlightened,” unofficially “Frogs.”
  • The blue team (boo!) are officially called “The Resistance,” unofficially “Smurfs.”
  • These two teams battle for control of portals and perhaps the fate of the world.
Gameplay in Ingress revolves around “portals,” game-world locations which are linked to real-world locations (churches, museums, public art) via GPS coordinates. In order to interact with a portal, a player must physically travel to its real-world location. It is essentially a gameified version of Google Maps.

Level 8 Portal
Each portal has 8 slots that players can fill with resonators. The level of the resonators determines the strength of the portal – level 8 resonators mean a powerful level 8 portal that drops powerful items, level 1 resonators means a weak level 1 portal that drops weak items. So while a single player could conceivably play the game by themselves, they would miss out on the most powerful game items.

Players also have a limit on how many high-level resonators they can put on an individual portal, based on their level. Even the highest level players can only deploy one level 8 resonator on a portal, so making a level 8 portal requires eight high-level players to gather in a single location.

Friendly portals can be “linked” in straight lines on the map. When three portals are linked to make a triangle, a portion of the map is covered in a green or blue field. Each team's score is determined by how much of the Earth's surface is covered in their fields. Since links cannot cross other links, setting up large, strategically valuable fields requires cooperation from all allied players in a given area.

Boldly They Rode: The Battle of the O. Lamar Allen Sustainable Education Building

On the 21st, Google hosted two large events called “Anomalies” in Austin, Texas and Florence, Italy. The Austin event had sub-events in Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Columbia while the Florence event had sub-events in the Czech Republic, Egypt, and Spain.

To cover this historic event, I was embedded with the heroes of Team 3C, a group of Enlightened players in downtown Atlanta. I was originally scheduled for Florence, but it turns out that I am not an actual war correspondent and thus do not have an expense account.

The mood was tense in the pre-game meeting, where over a dozen Enlightened players crammed into a single hotel room. The results of Anomalies affect the ongoing in-game story of Ingress, and the Smurfs were coming off of a winning streak in 2014. Team 3C was tasked with taking and holding portals of extreme importance to the future of the human race - if we lost the day, humanity would be devoured by an evil supercomputer and/or aliens.

We discussed strategies, recommended apps for communicating (GroupMe) and improving phone performance (NoRoot Firewall). These apps would be crucial for coordinating Team 3C’s actions within the team and with other Enlightened teams in the area.

One thing that has changed since the earliest days of Ingress is the development of distinct combat roles during Anomalies. The rising stakes of the game and the greater number of players has made specialization a necessity. I was assigned the role of Destroyer, tasked with using Bursters to clear out enemy portals and resonators. Others were assigned as Modders, Deployers, or Linkers.

Team 3C’s first target was the O. Lamar Allen Sustainable Education Building on the Georgia Tech campus. Well, technically it was a plaque on the front of the building, but whatever. We marched across the campus grounds and took strategic positions around the building.

Team 3C arrived first and was able to upgrade the portal to Level 8 without interference. We installed shields and waited in the icy post-dawn air for the enemy to arrive. We traded war stories of Anomalies past and reminisced about our distant homes: Kentucky, Tennessee, and the suburbs of Atlanta.

The O. Lamar Building in real life and in Ingress

Then, a contingent of Smurfs came charging (well, strolling) over a nearby parking lot. The battle had begun. Within minutes, the O. Lamar Building was a hotly contested battlefield – in the game world.

The portal dropped from Level 8 to Level 3, despite our Deployer’s efforts to replace the destroyed resonators. The Destroyers switched roles and joined the effort to defend the portal. My phone’s battery drained at an unsustainable rate. Even a seasoned imaginary war correspondent such as myself wondered: could Team 3C hold?

Team 3C valiantly defending the O. Lamar

Then the surrounding portals went blue and my blood froze: the Smurfs were trying to throw a field over the Lamar. It was time to do and die. With imaginary bombs exploding around us, Team 3C’s valiant Destroyers readied our smartphones and charged the enemy position across the parking lot.

Bursters to the left! Bursters to the right! Bursters to the front! Through a rain of enemy fire, we destroyed the enemy’s portals. The Smurfs reclaimed them. We blew them up again. The Smurfs reclaimed them. And so forth.

Although we were unable to hold the enemy’s portals, we were able to keep them busy, and above all, away from the Lamar. The Deployers redoubled their efforts to replace our destroyed resonators. Team 3C would hold – but at what cost?

And then, a miracle.

Deep in the backwoods of Georgia, three teams of strategically placed Enlightened players placed three links that blanketed half of Georgia in an emerald field.

A cheer went up from Team 3C. The brave soldiers who placed that field missed out on the excitement of the Anomaly, but their sacrifice of time and gas money would not be forgotten – or wasted. We attacked the Smurfs with renewed vigor and drove them back beyond the parking lot.

The battle was over, but the war was not. Team 3C saw three more engagements that day which time will not permit me to tell. But will an ungrateful nation soon forget The Battle of The Wells Fargo Mural, where we braved light precipitation? Or the horrors of the Long March to the Tuscany Time Piece, which was several blocks from the Wells Fargo Mural?

But then, Team 3C did not give their Saturday afternoon for the glory or the honor. We laid down our time and battery lives for something more important, something which will echo in the annals of history: experience points.

At the end of the day we made our final march back to the hotel for the after party, spirits lifted with the heady thrill of victory and whiskey. On the way, we stopped by Google’s offices in Atlanta for a team picture.

And Frogs in Georgia now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Pepin’s day.

Special thanks to the brave women and men of Team 3C and the Atlanta Enlightened

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Catchet and Value: A Little Competition

                I spend a lot of time reading white power blogs.

                It’s not because I agree with them, mind you. I intentionally avoid discussing my ethnicity/gender/sexuality on this blog, but let’s just say that I am not the flavor of human that white power advocates like.

                But I nonetheless love these racist blogs, how they build a rational apparatus around a definitively non-rational worldview. They take a patently discredited idea (whites are inherently biologically, morally, and intellectually superior to non-whites) and then build intricate intellectual systems around it.

                In a (very specific) way, white power ideology is the same as any other critical apparatus. The biggest issue that I have with Marxist, Freudian, or even Feminist literary criticism is that they force an external apparatus onto the text, sometimes seeing things that are only there if you subscribe to a certain worldview. They are valuable as part of your critical toolkit, but can also put an obstacle between you and the text.

Sometimes a spaceship is just a spaceship
                This also applies to the critics that I personally favor – Hegel, Jung, and Christ. They all provide me with powerful tools, but I intentionally switch between them and others in order to examine texts from multiple, conflicting angles. By engaging in multiple active dissections of the text, I get a better sense of it than when I dogmatically commit to a single system.
              This is a very simple truth that is very easy to forget: more viewpoints means a better picture. You need special cameras to make a proper 3D movie – adding 3D in Post just doesn’t look as good.
                Whatever issues I have with Feminist criticism as a single monolithic viewpoint, it is extremely valuable as an additional angle (unlike white power criticism, which I use solely for novelty purposes). As much of a Jesus fan as I am, researching the viewpoints of other religions provides a much-needed counterweight to blind dogmatism. By opening up myself to others, I am able to see a bigger picture.
                All of this becomes more powerful when it is not located solely within the self. If having multiple viewpoints within oneself is a valuable tool, opening yourself up to the viewpoints of others is even better. The bigger the conversation gets, the more unique takes we have on a given subject, and the greater the likelihood we will arrive at a complete picture.
                But there is a difference between Value and Cachet.
                I should warn you that I am going to venture into an argument that may at first seem like something from a white power blog. We have all encountered a version of this argument and danced the Reverse Discrimination Tango. As much as games criticism is in dire need of fresh, non-King of Sweden perspectives (White Male CIS Hetero Physically Abled yada yada yada), there is something distasteful about forcing the Kings of Sweden out of the conversation on the basis of their skin (and yada yada yada).
                This is where this argument diverges into two forms. In one argument, conversations are a limited resource and the mere existence of programs, blogs, or critical spaces which give a platform exclusively to non-Kings of Sweden is a bad thing. Every journal must be a pure Darwinian meritocracy, where only the strong shall survive. Any attempt to encourage the formation of new voices is tantamount to intellectual socialism. If the proverbial Black Muslim Handicapped Trans Lesbian cannot cut it in the free market of ideas, then they deserve to fail.
                This is an argument that we can more or less reject out of hand. The free market does not work without regulation – monopolies crowd out competition and put shackles around the Invisible Hand. Those with hiring power tend to hire people they relate to, people who are like themselves. If these are the ideas assigned value by the powerful, only people who share these ideas will be given a platform.
                But there is a legitimate point buried beneath the bullshit. There is a substantive difference between Value and Cachet. Cachet views alternate voices as an arbitrary quota which must be numerically fulfilled without any consciousness of how these voices improve the conversation. There are blogs and magazines that want alternate voices only for Cachet, their ability to point to a writer and say “Hey! We can’t be racist/sexist/intolerant/generally terrible human beings because we have X writer on staff!”
                It’s the “Black Friend” argument, the idea that acknowledging the existence of “The Good Ones” is incompatible with being racist. The “Black Friend” (swap out for “Hispanic Friend,” “Gay Friend,” or “Female Friend” as necessary) is not Valued for their unique contributions as an individual but given Cachet for how they prop up another’s image.
                “I can’t be homophobic, I kiss everyone when I’m drunk!”
                “I can’t be transphobic, I Liked a gender-swapped Mario cosplay on Facebook!”
                “I can’t be misogynist, I looooove them titties!"
                My magazine can’t be pushing regressive male-power fantasies, we hired a girl - who we keep on a tight leash lest she let slip some insight into the female condition (lol, menses joke) that angers our subscribers.
                The Kings of Sweden are right about one thing: Cachet is not the same as Value. As much as I support publications that decide to recruit writers outside of the white male circle jerk (lol, mental image), this has very little meaning if these voices are muzzled. Quotas are indeed not a good thing, but not because they go too far. The point of pursuing diversity is to get something that you are incapable of producing yourself, not to hear your own talking points delivered in a different accent.
                So I understand why the Kings of Sweden rage when a magazine or company hires a sub-standard writer simply because they need to round out their minority roster. I understand the meritocratic ideal of color-blind competition. But I absolutely reject the claim that institutions can function as pure meritocracies, given that humans are humans and humans are demonstrably terrible people.
                Meritocracy is a noble theory but it only works in reality if we ignore the existence of the Good Old Boy System, the network of contacts and favors that renders the idea of truly free competition ludicrous. One of the best ways to combat the Good Old Boy System without imposing arbitrary quotas is the development of alternate networks which provide similar boosts to alternate voices (although in practice, these alternate networks have less funding and leverage than the G.O.B.S.).
                More importantly, I refuse to confuse Cachet with Value. It is easy to prove that Cachet is worthless, but Cachet is simply not the same thing as Value. So I completely support the building of alternative spaces which exclude the Kings of Sweden and give alternative voices a shot at breaking into the conversation. Some may worry that this means less of the pie for those who “truly deserve it.” I say it means giving everyone an equal shot to prove that they truly deserve the pie. Even better, it forces the market to expand beyond its safety zone, meaning more pie for everyone.
                Sure, there may be an Inuit Asexual Buddhist Southpaw out there who is an objectively terrible writer. Alternative spaces have to make tough, market-driven decisions too. But alternative spaces also generally understand that Cachet is not Value. How could they not? They have to work on smaller budgets, get less access to the industry, and are even more dependent on their supporters than the G.O.B.S. could ever imagine. You think the market is a brutal place? It’s even more brutal for outsiders.
                Do you oppose hiring people for their Cachet? Fine, I agree. The question is, are you actively seeking out alternate voices for their Value? On a long enough timeline, profits for all industries approach zero – more competitors fighting for the same pie (even if they’re all Kings of Sweden) means less pie for all competitors. Even if game criticism is a profit-driven business, you cannot deny that without innovation, without intentionally reaching out for new ideas and new markets, businesses wither up and die. 
                So fuck Cachet. Show me what you Value. Prove to me that you are willing to risk short term loss in a crowded and dying market for long term gain in new, growing markets. Prove to me that the white male circle jerk is your worst-case scenario. Diversity should never be an artificially imposed policy, but a rational recognition that seeing the whole picture makes you objectively stronger.
                Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go re-read The Turner Diaries.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

[DC004] Azuma vs. Okada: Defining Otaku

Previous: [003] Azuma vs. Hegel: Defining History

            For the next section of this series, I will be examining some other contemporary studies of otaku/postmodern culture in comparison to Azuma’s model.

Mr. Okada Toshio
            The first periodization of otaku history was proposed in Okada Toshio's Otakugaku nyūmon ("Introduction to Otakuology"), a 1996 book based on a seminar taught by Okada while adjunct professor at the University of Tokyo. Okada's periodization is surprisingly close to Azuma's, even though it does not take any cues from Hegel or Kojève.

            Otakuology is perhaps closer to Nietzschean philosophy, in that it presents otaku as a “New Type” of humanity (taking the term from Mobile Suit Gundam) more skilled at processing visual information and resisting social pressures than “normal” humans (14). The message is that otaku are an advanced, improved version of humanity

            Okada was born in 1958 in Osaka. He attended the Osaka University of the Arts, but dropped out of school to co-found the legendary animation studio Gainax. He became one of the first public advocates of the otaku culture at a time when the word “otaku” could not be broadcast on NHK (1). He was frequently invited to speak on television shows and adopted the nickname of “Otaking.” He has written over 30 books, the majority of which are about the otaku subculture, and was a critical figure in helping American
entrepreneurs secure the rights to sell anime in the United States (Leonard 38).

            The writings of Okada have not received an English translation, perhaps because they lack the refined critical structure of Azuma. But as the otaku community’s first apologist, his work deserves attention as a crucial link in otaku evolution.

            In Introduction to Otakuology, Okada presents three generations of otaku, with his periodization based around what media they were most interested in and what technology they used to enjoy it. The three generations are:

            First Generation - Born in Showa 30 (1955), Okada describes them as the “Special Effects Generation.”  The SFX Generation was interested in Godzilla, Ultraman, and classic American Sci-Fi such as Lost in Space. 

            Second Generation - Born in Showa 40 (1965), Okada describes them as the “Anime Generation.”  As with Azuma's Era of Fiction, they were interested in anime such as Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Battleship Yamato.

            Third Generation - Born in Showa 50 (1975), Okada does not give them a special generational label. This generation is described as having a wide variety of interests; garage kits, video games, voice actors, Neon Genesis Evangelion, dōjinshi (fan comics), and dating simulators.

            Given that Okada consistently sets ten years between generations, it is interesting that he does not describe otaku born in Showa 60 (1985), perhaps because they would only have been eleven years old at the time.  Okada did, however, revisit the issue of the emerging generations of otaku in his 2008 book Otaku wa sude ni shindeiru (You Otaku Are Already Dead).

            In this book, Okada lays out his grievances against the younger generations of otaku, claiming that they have destroyed what it means to be an otaku (thus, “you otaku are already dead”).  His complaints are varied, but they can perhaps be summed up in two points: moe subculture and the younger generation’s desire for social acceptance.

            It is interesting that moe subculture is such a point of contention for Okada, seeing as how Azuma places Gainax’s Evangelion as the Genesis of moe culture.  Okada says that his anger is based on experiences with moe fans that claim one cannot be an otaku if one does not “get” moe subculture. 

            Okada, the self-proclaimed “Otaking,” takes issue with this. How dare moe fans accuse him of not being an otaku? He was the leading defender of the otaku community decades before moe existed. According to Okada, the older generations of otaku had a Big Tent policy where fans of anime, SFX shows, Science Fiction, and military equipment all got along as one happy family. To say that a person is not an otaku because they are not interested in one aspect of otaku culture conflicts with his utopian vision of the otaku community.

            Okada also sees the younger generations as desiring mainstream approval. This conflicts with Okada's view of otaku as a “New Type” of humanity (essentially the next stage in evolution) superior to the average human.  He contrasts the calendars of “normal people” going on Christmas dates in December and celebrating New Year's in January with the otaku calendar, which centers on the release schedule of new anime and the summer and winter Comic Markets.  Moe fans who desire the approval of mainstream society are counter-evolutionaries.

            Okada's work is interesting not just because his periodization is so similar to Azuma's, but because it so clearly encapsulates changes in the otaku community.  Born in 1958, Okada is very much an exemplar of the First Generation, with very strong sense of the Grand Narrative.  For him, being an otaku is not simply about being a fan of anime or video games, it is about being a member of a group with a very specific worldview.

            Much like the Red Army or Aum Shinrikyo, he has an “us vs. them” mentality with society-rejecting otaku on one side and everyone else on the other.  The influx of moe fans who do not share these social values has overwhelmed the “true” otaku, making it impossible to have a legitimate otaku subculture.

            While Okada’s philosophy does not line up with Azuma, his periodization of different generations of otaku is almost identical. Azuma focuses on historical turning points and Okada simply gives 10-year spans, but both reach the same conclusions on the tastes and consumption patterns of otaku generations.

            Having declared the death of otaku, Okada went on to write books on dieting and career success.  It was a bizarre end to the reign of the Otaking, who had helped create anime giant Gainax, wrote Otaku no Video, and helped usher in an era of international mainstream success for the otaku industry.  In many ways a victim of his own success, Okada's tireless efforts to redefine otaku as something other than sexual deviants paved the way for critics such as Eiji Ōtsuka and Azuma Hiroki.
Don't Stop Believin'
Next: [005] Azuma vs. Allison: Global Flows