Just before Tekkoshocon, Pez lent me his copy of Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: How Games Can Make Us Better. I regret to say, actually, that I didn’t get a chance to crack it open until well after the show was over. On the flip side, though, it only took me about twenty pages before I realized I needed a copy of the book myself.
McGonigal doesn’t waste any time in providing her argument. She starts off with a mythological story about how the ancient Lydians survived an eighteen-year famine through the effective use of games. (Which put the other purchase I made at the bookstore that day– Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games– is a markedly less pleasant light.) She then breaks her argument into three parts, detailing along the ride eleven ways that reality could be improved through the strategic implementation of behaviors that are seen in gaming of all stripes.
While McGonigal focuses predominantly on electronic gaming, only breaking out of it for a handful of her examples, she presents an incredibly strong case that the mechanical aspects of gameplay in general are worth far more than the condescension that most people have for players of games. And, while fundamentally I agree with a lot of her points, I also have to take issue with her assertion that making everything a game will make life better. This is mostly out of the incredibly poor way that a lot of “gamification” efforts have been implemented in the past.
When dealing with incredibly boring or tedious tasks in my childhood, I was often told that I should make a game out of it. The problem is that fun cannot be “enforced” in that way. It didn’t matter how I compelled myself to accomplish whatever I was told to do, only that I did it. And if I wasn’t invested in the task to begin with, there was no way I was going to put in the mental effort to compel myself to do it. Now, if the game had developed organically among the other people I was working with at the time– or hell, even if there were other people to engage in the game– it would be a different story. But solo, it was just frustrating to be told that I should somehow force myself to enjoy something objectively boring.
That’s why I take a jaundiced eye to games like Chore Wars or Fitocracy: it’s great to compete with other people in these games, but for someone on their own, if they’re not already committed to the tasks, they sure as hell aren’t going to be motivated by a little number or avatar. It’s a bit like having a competition to see who can finish their homework first. There might be a reward at the end, and it might not be any more substantial than bragging rights; in the end, though, you’re still doing your homework, and if you just plain don’t want to do homework, no reward is going to be good enough. More to the point, games of any sort get boring after an extended period: when people ultimately get bored of Chore Wars, the dishes will start to pile up again.
Do I think that making reality more fun is going to make people happier? Absolutely. I love games, and I play them constantly; earlier this month I was introduced to Tiny Tower, and I’ve been using it alternately as a time-waster and as a productivity monitor (work for x minutes, check on the tower for one or two, then back to work for x more). But I have some issues with the assertion that gaming can become a force that will make kids do their homework or eat their broccoli, or make adults save for retirement or mow the lawn. Games are only so powerful, after all.
This past weekend I took some time to work on a rough outline for how Nerdery is going to be structured. A lot of it had to do with how much I wanted to pull from Jane McGonigal’s fantastic Reality Is Broken– which I realize I need to write a review of, too– but a bit more of it also had to do with the fact that, for as all-encompassing a topic as general nerdery is, I really only focus on a few major aspects of it.
The other part of it, though, is getting over the feeling that I’ve gone over this stuff before. After all, Nerdery is the culmination of well over ten years’ worth of essays, private and public, and so going over it all again is pretty much a necessity. For as much of it as I end up doing, I really dislike repeating myself. Ultimately, this means I have to just suck it up for the sake of making a greater point. The outline also helps me focus my thoughts so that I can approach each essay with at least the illusion of it being something new and unique to me.
In the end, I decided on structuring the book into four parts, not counting the inevitable introduction and conclusion chapters:
In Part One, I’m going to explore what it means to be a nerd. I’ll look at the origin of the word and concept, the history of how nerds are portrayed in media and culture, and see how it evolved into what it is today.
In Part Two, I’ll focus on the negative aspects of being a nerd. I’ll discuss the bias against intellect in society today, how being a nerd can be personally and collectively detrimental, and go over a couple of high-profile incidents where someone was targeted for being too smart.
In Part Three, I’ll flip the argument around and declare why being a nerd isn’t entirely a bad thing. I’ll focus primarily on why people choose to self-identify as nerds, what high intellect can do to help a community, and discuss how celebrities are embracing nerdery.
And in Part Four, I’m going to discuss what can be done to eliminate the stereotype of being a nerd. I’ll focus on why it was never actually relevant, why it’s constantly evolving, and how the world will be much better once there are no more “nerds”.
If it sounds like there’s a lot to go over, and if it sounds like people really aren’t going to like a lot of what I have to say (I imagine parts three and four are going to raise the most hackles), good. Ambition goes hand in hand with intellect and nerdery. And, despite what the essay at the beginning of this week would have you think, I have absolutely no qualms about failing quite publicly.
My next major goal is to have a draft of the book done by the end of summer; I’d like to shoot for October 1st as a draft deadline. This gives me time to crank out one long-form essay each weekend until then, while accounting for time for revisions and some mild editing. The essays are going to be written privately– that is, not shared with anyone just yet. However, I’m likely to share snippets of thoughts as blog posts now and again. If I get done with painting up my miniatures early, I may repurpose the Saturday morning disconnection time into a writing-only period, using my laptop while turning its Wifi off.
It’s on, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s get down and nerdy.
Were we wrong about Mass Effect? That’s not really the point. Personally, I think it was a better game than the reviewer said it was, but then again we almost always disagreed internally about the games we reviewed. Netjak always inhabited that quasi-professional level, where we weren’t getting paid to write about video games, but we all approached it with solemnity approaching the sepulchral. So, how exactly should we have been approached?
In his book “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”, Cory Doctorow introduced the concept of whuffie: a quantitization of personal reputation that had replaced money as the way to gain non-essential luxuries (basics were freely available). People who did good things, like composed symphonies or let people ahead of them in line, gained whuffie, while people who did bad things, like cutting people off in traffic, lost it. It is instantaneous and mostly subconscious due to constant neural connections to an/the internet. In short, it puts a number on positive attention, while penalizing negative attention. While it sounds like the ultimate in egalitarianism, it sits poorly with me as something that should ever be implemented, even in the internet, simply because it’s instantaneous. Someone who just made a bad mistake will have a low whuffie score due to the snap-judgments of those around them drowning out or undoing the good they’ve done in the past.
If you try, but fail, you may have gained experience, but you have still failed. In private, the only one who ever sees it is you, and thus it’s easier to take. The problem is when your failures are public: if someone sees you fail, no matter how close you came, the memory of that failure is still there. On some level the witness will always have that knowledge about you, and there’s a good chance that it will in some way color their perceptions about you. When the failures are ephemeral– like bumping into a glass storefront because you thought it was an open door– the effect is minimal. When the failures are permanent and/or replayable– like a Youtube video of that very same collision– the effect is compounded.
With blogs and the internet, the temptation is to take everything as being instantaneous. Something posted years or decades ago is just as accessible as something posted right now, and whether or not it’s just as relevant today is, ironically, irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how long ago you posted that topless picture, or if it’s just one ill-conceived moment among thirty thousand exquisite photographs; it’s there forever and it’s all that matters. There is no statute of limitations on the internet.
It should, of course, go without saying that I think that’s a load of absolute bullshit. For my part, I try very hard not to let one mistake in the past color my perceptions of any site, professional or personal. The big names are capable of cranking out stinkers once in a while. But the little guys who don’t get any attention sometimes have the biggest ideas. The internet was supposed to let everyone’s voice be heard.
So remind me why we’re ignoring some of them, just because everyone else is?
The question then becomes one of effort and consistency. If 99% of the posts on a blog are filler (cough), does that automatically condemn the 1% of the posts that have genuinely good and interesting content? More important to the point at hand, does that 1% of posts command the blog’s readership attention for the uninteresting 99%? If it’s not a 1%/99% ratio, where exactly do you draw the line? How do you judge a site’s real worth?
The “fun” thing about all of this comes when you realize that some of the internet intelligentsia happen to have some rather cruel streaks in them as well (and I most certainly include myself in that categorization from time to time). The egalitarian nature of the internet just doesn’t sit well with some folk, and that gives rise to sites such as “Web Pages That Suck” and “Your Webcomic Is Bad And You Should Feel Bad”. This is to say nothing of the legions of commenters and forum-goers who pooh-pooh anything that isn’t a work of magnificent perfection.
Now, far be it from me to say that criticism isn’t warranted or desperately deserved in some cases– and I’l be the first to own up to the many, many mistakes I’ve made in the past. But as I’ve always said, honest and constructive criticism will always beat just plain ol’ criticism. For everything that’s wrong, there should at least be something that was done right. This isn’t always the case, obviously, but the cases where it doesn’t hold true are so astonishingly rare as to be worthy of the ire and bile that are heaped upon– well, more or less everything.
It gets worse when you start trying to quantitatively and objectively assess the quality of something based on a relatively incidental number. Back when Netjak was still around– which was itself a remarkable example of a professional blog– we raised our fair share of hackles with certain of our reviews. The biggest offender here was with Mass Effect, which didn’t get the glowing praise from the reviewer that the rest of the gaming press was lauding onto the game. This prompted an individual to sign up for our forums (which we used in place of a comments system) and berate us for not falling in line. The individual went so far as to suggest that our small userbase on the forums (because we’d just gone through a dormancy period due to technical failures) as well as the low number of threads and posts (because it was set to auto-purge posts older than a certain threshold) “did not give [us] the right” to our opinion of the game. Nevermind that Joystiq had linked to us repeatedly; we were small, therefore we didn’t count.
Last week, Pez mentioned (via Twitter) that he was in the bad habit of disregarding blog posts that don’t have comments. His argument– and it’s not an unfounded one, but I’ll get into that later– was that if nobody had bothered to respond to it, it wasn’t worth his time to read. He himself admitted that it’s a flawed reason to not read something, and when I made the snarky self-deprecating remark that “nobody must read my blog, then, if there’s no comments”, it was mostly as a joke. But then, I got to thinking about why he’d have that policy about feedback uber alles, and why its scarcity somehow indicates a lack of quality.
My introduction to the social internet was, as I’ve said often, Usenet. That was nothing but feedback. It’s post upon post upon post, each one building off the rest, and a community emerging from nothing– not even a structure more concrete than “post about this here, and that there”, and even that was fluid to some degree. Occasionally one post or another would become a foundation for more discussion, either by virtue of its own content or by containing a reference or link to something else, like a World Wide Web page. It would be the “big topic” for a while, and then fade away as the next one came to the table.
A good friend of mine, who I met during our shared time in Usenet, dislikes the idea of blogging in general. He feels it to be narcissistic and unnecessary, as the vast majority of them are people just endlessly talking about themselves into the void to make themselves feel important. I, of course, can’t argue with that, considering the fantastic amounts of pure crap that I put out here, but as the past month or so seems to have shown I’m working on fixing that. But what I think that friend is missing is the rather important distinction between a personal blog and a professional blog, and a rather frightening blurring of the lines between hobbyists and professionals.
The coming of the World Wide Web made everybody rock stars, and elevated all content to the same plateau. Suddenly, personal blogs, not necessarily intended for widespread consumption, are being presented and styled as if they are. Structurally, there’s nothing different between my site and say, Joystiq, aside from the content and the tools used to produce them. Where it all breaks down is in content: Joystiq has it and I, to be quite frank about it, don’t. At least, I don’t regularly have any content nearly as compelling as Joystiq’s constant feed of gaming news. And that’s where things start to get hairy.
I spoke very briefly yesterday about how the 30 Days of Content project worked before I got sidetracked. As it turns out, the project was an overwhelming success. I had a month of genuinely thoughtful and interesting posts up, and no filler or Bailout. Part of this was due to the decentralized nature of the time investment involved; by working on it “when I could”, I freed myself up from a lot of the time pressures involved in taking time out of every day to write a new blog post. This culminated in the rash of “multi-part” entries over March, and it’s that change which had me thinking that maybe I need to try that a bit more often.
I’m going to take each month as it comes, then, and write up posts in advance in more or less the same way I did for the last month. Sometimes I’ll go into longer detail on a topic, and if that means I go over a couple of days, then so be it– the shorter per-post format makes it a lot easier to digest a concept than the massive walls of text that I traditionally employed. Yesterday’s post (just shy of 1000 words) was about the maximum length that I really want to get into for a one-day topic, and I don’t want serial entries to hit that mark each time unless there’s a damn good reason for it.
I also think that as time goes on I’ll be able to return to more light-hearted entries. Certainly I’m in a bit of a dark place right now, mentally, and I recognize the need to get myself out of it. Writing a blog has always been a sort of group-sourced therapy for me, where I can try to work out some of my inner struggles while moving on with daily life and preventing myself from becoming too melancholy. I’ll try to be a bit funnier as time goes on, though I also realize that each and every single time I’ve said that, more and more humor escapes me.
Anyway. I can’t promise that you won’t see Bailout in the future, nor am I even interested in making that promise to you when I know that I will eventually either go back on it or break it shamelessly. What I can say, though, is that I want to try to go back to an idea I set up way, WAY back during 2007; you’ll find out tomorrow what it is. The current format evolution of the blog makes it much easier for me to actually work on it now, and because of this it’s going to be a stronger feature than it was then.
Just so you’re all aware, the notes on my personal Shutdown Days experience will be up on Thursday.
So, the 30 Days of Content. I have to admit that it went in a radically different direction than I had initially anticipated for it, and that while I got almost comedically overwrought at times, I still stand by everything that I posted. A lot changed by the time some of it went up. My attitudes towards volunteering my time and effort regardless of how it was received, for example, have taken a rather dramatic turn in the last couple of days– mostly due to some introspection that the process of writing it all out caused me to undertake.
That, if anything, is probably one of the most interesting things I can note about why I write stuff like the last month’s work. I spent a lot of non-writing time going over older blog posts; some of them from the older versions of this site, some from even older online journals, and some still from text files that never saw the light of day anywhere but my own monitors. Because of all of that, I looked back and saw a definite progression and maturation in my style over the last fifteen years– yes, I really did go over fifteen years of writing content and a handful of files from even before then. But it wasn’t just a development of style. It was a development of myself.
It is tremendously easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment when you are younger. Things get said that are rash or impulsive. The problem for me, of course, is that I found myself writing them out because I was too shy to even say them aloud. Of course, this meant that a lot of the things I regret are etched permanently into the fabric of time, by my own hand. I have only myself to blame for all of the phenomenally stupid things I’ve written in the past.
But the thing is, as I progressed further and further through the archives, moving closer to the present, I realized that I was letting go of a lot of the ire and venom that characterized some of my worst ranting. And I’m using that word– ranting– here in its traditional, “sound and fury signifying nothing” sense, and not as the internet colloquialism for “op-ed piece” that it’s become. Sure, I still burned hot every now and then, and at the time I probably had a damn good reason to go off as I did. I still do tend to get somewhat vituperative at times. But they’re less frequent now, and less emphatic. Or, at least, they should be.
Part of the process of maturation is knowing when you’re in the wrong, and being able to accept it gracefully. A good friend of mine recently sent me an e-mail which helped take a lot of the sting out of a recent failure of one of my projects. In it, he wrote: “It takes a big person to recognize their shortcomings in any area. I respect that.” That’s something that I’ve been trying to learn for a good long while, and it was only with this mini-disaster that I feel I was able to handle the situation with any amount of maturity and grace that would have been expected of anyone else.
But the other part of maturity is being able to let go of a situation when you know it’s wrong, but simply can’t fix it. As much as I like to believe in the power of every individual being capable of changing the world– and I still think that’s absolutely true– not everyone can fix any problem. There is a reason why people talk about “the right person for the job”. Sometimes, we’re just not in a position to fix the problems that we see or are suffering under. In that case, certainly raise awareness of the problem, but focus your efforts on what you can fix. Maturity means choosing your battles.
During Essay Week 2010, I wrote about what it means to be a “responsible consumer”, citing energy drinks as an example of one way I was “sticking it to the man”. In the end, I had this to say: “It’s okay to lapse once in a while out of necessity. Sometimes, even, you shouldn’t think too hard about what you’re buying. It can be easy to focus on one particular negative aspect of a purchase.” Having convictions and a strict code of honor is an admirable thing, but when it becomes restrictive and stifling, it’s time to re-evaluate the code and possibly make revisions. We cannot make rules that fail to change as we change.
The funniest part about looking back at it now, though, is that since then I have taken exactly the opposite tactic that I advocated in a great many things.
I had occasion to re-watch an early episode of The West Wing a few days ago; in it, Josh Lyman (played brilliantly by Bradley Whitford) said to a freshman Congressman, “President Bartlet [...] doesn’t hold grudges. That’s what he pays me for.” When I first saw the episode, I was ecstatic– it was a powerful line and really established Josh’s character as a stalwart and a man of unbreakable conviction. As time went on, however, and I (and the viewers) realized just how damaged this policy actually made Josh, it took on a new light. When he said it the other night, I couldn’t help but think that it still established Josh well, but not nearly as admirably as it once did.
Who are we paying to hold our grudges for us? Is it really worth the cost anymore?
It’s probably obvious by now that I advocate working within a system to fix it, rather than a full-on overthrow-and-rebuild ideology. I personally still believe in the fundamental grace of human nature; that, given all else as equal, a human being will more often than not do the right thing. A belief like that implies a hell of a lot of faith in the law of averages.
But I am not so naive as to think that there aren’t bad actors in the world, and I’m also not stupid enough to think that just one really phenomenal screw-up can’t royally cornhole everybody. There is a time for evolutionary progress, and there is a time for revolutionary action. It’s not my place to make that call– at least, not in the grand scheme of society at large. But, as a writer, it is my responsibility to express if I see a need for change in the world around me.
In 2009 I released A Civics Lesson on this blog’s sister site, Linguankery. At the time I thought I was working in an environment woefully underserved in science fiction: the near-future, with just a few tweaks here and there to highlight and call out the areas where social change was needed. Of course, I wasn’t originally writing A Civics Lesson as a didactic tool; I was writing it because I thought it was a good story. I still think it is. But the problem is that, somewhere deep in my subconscious, I felt, “This has been done before,” and wasn’t able to give my all to the project.
I think that A Civics Lesson is a good proto-post-cyberpunk work. The manuscript needs a LOT of work, and that may wind up being a project I undertake in 2012– properly readying it for a true YA sell. But even with it being as it stands, the work has a strong message of social conscience behind it: “You can’t be a bystander. You have an obligation to right wrongs that you see, even if it sucks for you to do so, because nobody else will.” Crystallizing that message like that makes the work stronger, and knowing that it fits in the post-cyberpunk genre makes it easier to write. It’s not going to be formulaic– it shouldn’t be– but it relieves some of the stress of having to define a framework at the same time as you’re building on it.
Ultimately, knowing all that rekindles the reason why I’d go over the story a fourth time, and re-try submitting it to a publisher once the draft is done. It’s funny, but in order to understand the evolutionary process of my writing, I needed a revolution in my thinking about it.
If punk is defined as a threat of revolution, post-punk could be seen as a relaxation of the demand. Post-punk is just as socially conscious, just as strident in calling out the injustices of the world as it stands, but doesn’t look to tear down the establishment before correcting the flaws. If social change is brain surgery, then punk uses a chainsaw where post-punk uses a scalpel. In literature, of course, this means creating a roman a clef where you have certain hypotheticals standing in for elements of reality; we call this trope “Like Reality Unless Noted”.
Take Star Trek. I didn’t need to be a literature major to realize that the Klingons were the Black Panthers with funny accents, or that the Romulans were Soviets with goatees and pointy ears; once I knew the atmosphere of the 1960s, the allegories in Star Trek became almost painfully obvious, even at 12. In the era in which it was made, Trek brought a ton of social issues to the forefront. Segregation, racial equality, even gender equality– how many of you knew that, in the original plans, the Enterprise’s first officer was to be a woman? So we could say that Star Trek has the setup to be a punk show…
Except when it comes to aliens, that is. It didn’t challenge the notion that these “others” are people until almost thirty years later, with The Next Generation introducing to us Klingons who’ve made their peace with the Federation, and Romulans who are just as strangled by their insular, isolationist policies as they are protected by them. By re-framing the world in which the show was set, TNG had the freedom to explore a lot of the same social ills further down the line– just as its original had, and just as the real world had evolved along with it. The Klingons weren’t worried about integrating with the Federation anymore, now they needed to get along with them while retaining their cultural identity. The Romulans were becoming aware of the harm their borderline-fascism was doing to them, but couldn’t let go of it as they had indoctrinated themselves and their children a little too well. The Enterprise crew wasn’t seen as the heroes because they blasted away the “bad guys”– but because they worked within the system to help everyone.
This is the power of fiction. This is what makes a writer the single most powerful force in history. It comes from the role of the fool; the role of the storyteller to reframe a situation to achieve an outcome of great good– or great evil. One pen is mightier than a thousand million swords, if only because the pen can spin reality so that the swords are never needed.
Journalism, as I said, is going away, and will be replaced with something else. I don’t know what. I can’t know what, because it hasn’t happened yet. It probably won’t happen in my lifetime. There is, of course, the chance that it will. It would be a major upheaval, a massive, concerted effort to topple Ted Turner’s tower of television truth-telling, and it certainly could happen given enough people and enough outrage. But I highly doubt it.
Punk, as it’s applied to… pretty much anything these days, is rooted in revolution. Punk is the ultimate rebellion against a system– an entrenched organization. Punk breaks the rules. Most of the time, it’s with an eye towards making social progress. If you really listen to some of the best that punk has to offer– Bad Religion, Dead Kennedys, The Clash– you’ll hear incredibly plaintive cries for change and social justice. You’ll also hear the sentiment that if the establishment (whatever form it may take) doesn’t change, it will be changed. Punk is equal parts promise and threat.
The thing is, though, you can get more with a carrot and a stick than you can with just the stick. Punk has its place, and I’m all for an intolerable situation being turned on its side when there is no alternative. In other parts of the world, that’s the case, and more power to them– I pray every day that somewhere in Iran there’s a kid with a guitar practicing just three chords, and how to play them as loud and fast as he can. But with the advances of technology that are available in the “stable” parts of the world– in Europe, Oceania, the Americas, and eastern/southeastern Asia– comes the realization that the great wheels of the machine aren’t controlled by just one guy at the helm, and that you can do more from within it than from without. That’s post-punk.
Journalism might be replaced, as technology gets stronger, with a mechanism where we can all see an objective view of what happened at previously “newsworthy” points in time/space and draw our own conclusions. It might be replaced with less emphasis on current events and more emphasis on trusted experts giving us insight into situations without condescension. Or it might be replaced with just nonstop advertising barraging us across all senses. We don’t know. But journalism, in its current form, is dying.