Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Just Drawn That Way

Many roleplaying games have morality--or 'alignment'--systems that describe and proscribe the behaviors of characters.  Like all game mechanics, alignment systems must balance verisimilitude with manageability. Too much system granularity can overwhelm players in both video and tabletop games, while too little makes roleplaying morality less compelling.

"Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost."
The classical Dungeons & Dragons alignment system has two axes: 'ethical', consisting of Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic, and 'moral', consisting of Good, Neutral, and Evil. All characters in the game fall into one of the nine intersections between those axes, e.g. Neutral Good, Lawful Neutral, Chaotic Evil. While very granular and elegant in theory, I have found this alignment system unwieldy in practice, and largely cosmetic in most tabletop games.

My favorite tabletop RPG alignment system is the Path mechanic in Vampire: the Masquerade. By default, PCs (who are all vampires) follow the 'Path of Humanity', essentially a simulation of secular humanist morality on a scale from zero to 10. Each level has a set of behavioral standards, the violation of which triggers a roll that determines whether the character feels remorse for the action, thus retaining his Humanity, or rationalizes the action and drops one level on the Path.

This mechanic seems clunky, but I have found it surprisingly useful and intuitive in the context of the game. It has an admirable balance of crunch and fluff, providing system incentives both for maintaining a high Humanity score and for letting it slide, just a little. Even more, the game contains several other Paths to which characters can 'convert' if they reject Humanity, including ones that glorify that which most humans conventionally regard as 'evil'.

Many video games have linear alignment systems. Star Wars games, such as the Knights of the Old Republic and Jedi Knight series, use the Light Side/Dark Side system as portrayed in the films. The Karma systems in the inFamous and Fallout series both measure morality on a Good/Evil axis, and adjust the way NPCs interact with the PC accordingly. A common problem with these single-axis mechanics is that they often yield rewards only at the extremes, which can discourage roleplaying in favor of powergaming the alignment system.

The most interesting and nuanced alignment system I have encountered in a video game is Reputation in the Mass Effect series, which grants Paragon or Renegade points for dialogue choices as well as other actions. It looks like a single-axis Good/Evil system on the surface, but in fact Paragon and Renegade are closer (though not equivalent) to Lawful and Chaotic. Furthermore, they are measured on completely separate scales. So the player can gain both Paragon and Renegade points in the course of a single encounter without one canceling out the other. High scores on these axes unlocks special actions that can affect the game in fairly dramatic ways.

I find, sometimes to my own disappointment, that I gravitate toward playing 'good' PCs. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from portraying a well-developed villain or anti-hero when I game master, yet have little interest in such characters as a player--this includes video games. I have occasionally made 'bad' characters in games like Jedi Knight or inFamous just so I can go on a rampage, but lose interest in them fairly quickly. Unless I make a conscious effort--and sometimes even when I do--I end up playing goody two-shoes characters. This probably explains, at least in part, why I have so much interest in alignment mechanics that break the Good/Evil mold.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tempest in Russell's Teapot

As detailed in Nothing Unreal Exists and Faith and Farce, I take my skepticism very seriously. So seriously that I cannot quite bring myself to subscribe to atheism, no matter how appealing I find it.

Nevertheless, most of my friends are atheists, agnostics, humanists, or freethinkers of some variety, and I like to consider myself an 'atheist ally'. Religion (or lack thereof) is a private matter, and I oppose its involvement in any public sphere, especially education.

Vitarka mudra - the gesture of discussion
However, I seem to have trouble talking to atheists (especially New Atheists) about atheism, even though I often get 'read' as an atheist myself. Maybe I am doing something wrong, but somehow those conversations have a way of ending with an atheist insisting that all religion is harmful to humanity and we must do away with them if we are to advance.

I practice Chan (Zen) and Discordianism, but see no reason those religions must contradict with science. I accept materialism as an ideal baseline for discussing consensus reality (although I suspect an information-based paradigm will supplant it within my lifetime). I do not proselytize or expect others to understand why I meditate and Partake of No Hotdog Buns. I do expect tolerance to be answered with tolerance.

I suggested this to an acquaintance, who replied that he saw no reason to tolerate a delusional worldview, and that religious people have already given up on logic by discarding reality for faith. Questions of civility aside, this stance is not particularly constructive. It shuts down discourse and alienates believing allies.

As I see it, discourse of any kind requires some degree of faith in a shared reality. We assume that our senses convey independently verifiable information (not always true). We assume that other people interpret our words the same way we do (often not true). We assume all manner of things that the nature of our very cognition render impossible to prove or disprove (for now).

There is nothing wrong with any of that, but I think it worthwhile to be aware of the assumptions we make. Where we draw the line between 'rational' and 'delusional' assumptions is culturally determined, and sometimes rather arbitrary. It serves no one to assume that someone who professes a different set of beliefs must be incapable of coming to an agreement on basic definitions for the sake of discourse.

To me, a person who believes that a teapot might orbit the Sun between the Earth and Mars, acknowledges the empirical shortcomings of this claim, and willingly entertains other points of view is far more rational than someone who will not stray from his own paradigm--whether spiritualistic, transcendental, materialistic, or informational.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pandora's Question Box

When I was four years old, someone gave me a basketball. Not an adult-sized one, but a toddler-friendly one, only about 20 centimeters in diameter.

After I got into trouble with my mother for bouncing the thing around willy-nilly, my father decided to teach me how to pass and receive a ball properly. You know, by four-year-old standards.

Somewhere in the middle of this, I asked my father why the sun rises and sets.

He told me to get a marker and bring it to his room. I picked a black one from the 24-color set my grandmother had given me (Chinese children use markers instead of crayons--they are more efficient for doodling on everything within reach).

Basketball rising over baseball.
"Pretend that this," Dad said, palming the basketball effortlessly, "is the Earth." We must have covered the bit about the world being round at some point, though I do not remember that conversation. I nodded.

He then took the marker from me and drew a little blob on the basketball. "Pretend this is Taiwan," he said, indicating the blob.

I scrunched up my face at him. "Why can't I see us, then?" (Cut me some slack, okay? I was four.)

He chuckled. "Because we're too small. Now, c'mere." He picked me up, sat me on the edge of his desk, turned on the long-necked reading lamp, and doused the overhead light. "Pretend that's the sun."

I squinted at the desk lamp and its incandescent bulb--the only one in my tiny toddler world (most buildings in Taiwan use fluorescent lights to save energy). It certainly looked yellow and round enough for its role.

My father held up the basketball. "Keep your finger on Taiwan," he instructed, and I obeyed. "It's daytime right now. But the Earth spins, so..." He rotated the basketball. My stubby index finger moved with 'Taiwan' toward the terminator, then crossed into the dark half of the 'globe'. "...now it's dark."

"Because the ball's in the way," I said.

"...And the ball is the Earth," Dad reminded me, "the ground under our feet."

I clearly recall thinking very hard about that. "So the sun sets because...the ground gets in the way?"

"That's right." My father smiled. I knew I had done something to made him proud.

Then something occurred to me. "What about the moon? And why does the ground move? How come we can't feel it move?"

"Oh, boy..." Dad heaved a long sigh. "You were a rug-rat, then a knee-gnawer, and now you have officially become a question box. Go get me a baseball."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Some Other Time

I had a vivid and detailed dream last night, the kind that remains plausible even after you wake. With some effort, I recalled a good deal of the dialog word-for-word, and even the names. It went like this:

I stroll through Baltimore City on a balmy afternoon, holding 'Zilla's hand. His gait is strange, but swifter than you would expect a four-year-old to walk. He talks about dinosaurs and robots, and what he wants to eat. I feel more than hear a burst of static as my collective tries to talk to me--but I should have signal downtown.

I look around and realize that we have strayed into the edges of a massive protest. Someone has set up an impromptu stage a few blocks away. 'Zilla squeals with delight and takes off, slapping the control modules at his waist. Suddenly he is no longer toddling, but running faster than a grown man.

"'Zilla! Get back here!" I give chase, but he is small and weaves effortlessly through the mass of humanity gathering on the street. Traffic grinds to a half, blocked off by tractor-trailers and charter buses whose stone-faced drivers hold pro-union signs beneath their cigarettes. I lose sight of the boy, and climb up onto the loading dock of a nearby building to find him. I spot his purple jacket near the stage.

A bus pulls up alongside the dock much too fast as I jump down from it, and I narrowly avoid being squashed, activating my reflex enhancer as I probably should have done when 'Zilla first got loose. I dart through the crowd, dodging bodies and barricades, ignoring hateful glances. The boy is trying to climb onto the stage, but I snatch him up and put him on my shoulders.

Sirens approach as the protesters finally get their antique amplification system working. A petite redhead takes the microphone and exhorts her fellows to remain calm, that they are sending a message, not starting a war. The crowd seems ambivalent. I run as fast as I can, but the police are closing in.

I head for a sleek(?!) SUV near the edge of the police perimeter. One foot goes on the front bumper, the next on the hood, a hop over the windshield and onto the roof without losing stride. I leap from the back of the SUV and over the perimeter, pulling 'Zilla off of my shoulders in mid-air and holding him to my chest like an awkwardly shaped football. The hang-time seems eternal, and when the ground hits me it hits harder than I expect. Warnings chime in my head, but the pain is fleeting. I roll clear of the startled police, stagger to my feet, and keep running.

There is a greenspace half a block from us, and law enforcement seems more concerned with containing the crowd than chasing us. I put 'Zilla down once we reach the gates of the park, abstractly aware that my left leg is damaged. We sit down on a park bench beside a middle-aged woman with ribbons and feathers braided into graying hair. She offers us some food in a soft, unfocused voice. 'Zilla happily accepts an apple from her and climbs onto my lap.

"Such a cute little boy!" the woman coos. "I hope you didn't have any trouble downtown, with the action today."

"We just missed the police," I reply, rubbing my leg absently.

"I'm terribly sorry, dear." She pats my hand. It feels a bit intrusive. "At least you made it to a peace zone. You know why we have these actions, right?"

I almost sigh. "You oppose automization and cyberization."

"It's dehumanizing," she says, shaking her head. "It taints everything. Imagine if you took your son to the hospital and they tried to put machines in him!"

Before I can protest that I am not his father or think to shush him, 'Zilla pulls up his shirt, exposing the baselayer that keeps his implants from chafing. Two ports on the suit expose the control modules. "I already got machines!" he cries. "I can't walk without them. Now I'm like Godzilla!" By way of demonstration, he hops off my lap and lumbers around on the bike trail, exaggerating his gait and saying "boom" with every step.

The woman turns from him to me with an expression of dawning horror. I thank her for the food and, taking 'Zilla's hand, leave as quickly as I dare make my leg move. He waves at her over his shoulder with the half-eaten apple.

Once we exit the jamming zone, I contact the collective, recalling the ones who had gone looking for us when I went off the grid. We arrive back at the shop shortly before sunset. Only two members of the collective are there, one cooking upstairs and the other tidying up the storefront. 'Zilla pulls free from my hand and sprints the last block. I let him.

Amelia steps outside, holding the boy to her with one arm and operating an archaic tablet with her free hand. She is half a head taller than me and dressed in a dark red unitard. "I need to look at that leg," she says. We send 'Zilla upstairs to help with dinner and, locking up the store, go into the back room.

It serves as both a workshop and an operatory, though not legally in the latter case. She makes me sit down and strips the street clothes from me. "These are pointless, you know," she says, tossing my t-shirt aside, "the unitard regulates temperature far better."

"Not everybody feels as comfortable you do in skin-tight metafabrics," I grumble. My jeans go flying, too.

I can feel her accessing my logs from my time off the grid--like the 'static' and the damage notification, it is not mapped onto any existing sense, but has an emulated neural pathway all its own.

She rolls her eyes and pushes me back into the reclined exam chair, finding and unzipping the invisible front seam of my unitard as she went. She runs deft fingers over my exposed skin; my scars look all the paler against the rich brown of her hands.

"I thought you were running a diagnostic on my leg," I say, propping myself up.

She laughs, a single 'hah'. "I already ran that diagnostic. It was just the same old wound again. You really ought to have the whole thing replaced."

"I'm fine," I insist. She picks up my left leg and rotates the injured ankle. Pain shoots through it momentarily, before the regulator blocks it off again. She is tapped into my feed, but does not flinch with me.

"Pain is either signal or noise, baby," she says, "nothing special about it unless you make it special. You can have all the pain you need, and a leg that doesn't give out every time you do something stupid."

"Maybe some other time," I concede. She massages my leg as we wait for the rest of the collective to return home. We say nothing more to each other, either vocally or electronically, comfortable in the quietude of our intimacy.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Consequence of Humanity

I recommend reading Inherit the Earth first, but those familiar with the concept of transhumanism can probably afford to skip it. In case you are wondering: no, I did not do all of my research on Wikipedia, but it does makes a convenient quick reference for readers unfamiliar with the terms.

Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game
At last year's Dragon*Con Transhumanism Open Discussion, someone brought up the idea that transsexual rights are similar in some ways to transhuman rights. While most people are not familiar with transhumanism, they do generally have a passing familiarity with transsexualism. Public opinion and legislation surrounding gender variance may well inform us about the way society will react to emerging transhuman issues.

Transgender (gender variant) people in general face a great deal of prejudice and, in some parts of the world, denial of basic rights. Transsexual people in particular, whose bodies do not match their gender identity, often seek medical procedures to transition to their target gender. This is accomplished through sex reassignment therapy, which may include hormone therapy, genital reconstruction, hair removal, and various cosmetic surgeries.

Many social conservatives regard gender variance of any sort as a deviation to be suppressed. Even social liberals often find transsexual people intimidating, and profess discomfort at associating with them. The fear and misunderstanding of these issues has lead to the development of a 'gatekeeper' mentality in legislation and standards of care relating to sex reassignment therapy. Transsexual individuals must undergo lengthy psychological assessment, and may be barred from medically transitioning if they do not meet the criteria.

Such barriers exist ostensibly to keep people from undergoing procedures they do not require. However, the gatekeeper mentality is, like censorship, founded on society's lack of confidence in itself. Transsexual people with no access to legitimate sex reassignment therapy often seek illegal alternatives, so the 'gatekeeper' system is not really effective at 'protecting people from themselves' in any case.

It is hard to imagine anyone going through the pain, expense, and social fallout of sex reassignment without good reason. However, if a man decided that he wanted breasts, or did not want a penis, he should have as much of a right to seek treatment as a trans woman (a male-to-female transsexual). In the same way, a man should have the right to seek a prosthetic replacement for his hand whether or not the original one functioned (I did not say this is a good idea, or that the technology is 'there' yet--only that it should be allowed). Mandating therapy (for all of the above) is still a good idea, especially in the case of minors, but ultimately the choice should belong to the individual.

I do not mean that the transhumanist desire for modification is equivalent to the agony of gender dysphoria and social rejection that drives so many gender variant people to suicide. At minimum, though, the rest of society will likely see transhumans the same way they see transsexuals--incomprehensible and frightening. Legal and medical gatekeeping of human augmentation will likely come to pass as such procedures become more common. I hope that society will grow more enlightened on the topic. Until then, transhumanists should advocate for the rights of transsexual people. Not only is it the right thing to do, it sets important precedents for other changes to come.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Where All the Lights Are Bright

Things overheard or said to me in downtown Baltimore.

A sharply dressed man: I don't do butterflies, 'cause I don't wanna look like those gay guys. They use that as a global code, you know? Even though in some cultures, the butterfly is a symbol of transformation.

A woman carrying a large number of bags:
Her: What time is it?
Me: Ten o'clock.
Her: But is it going on twelve?
Me: ...It's ten o'clock.

A very energetic woman: Son of a sea serpent!

A man buying a rabbit's foot:
Him: A lot of places don't sell rabbit's foot anymore.
Me: I guess there must not be much demand for them.
Him: In Virginia, where I'm from, people kill rabbits and keep the rabbit's foot. They wash the blood off.

A man wearing many necklaces: Blue swan, blue swan, blue swan....