Saturday, April 30, 2016

On Employment

A lot of games coming out around now are Open World style, a result of Grand Theft Auto V making a billion dollars or so. Open world designs mean that objectives can’t be narrowly focused into “get from one end of this level to the other” or “beat this opponent” but instead you’re given an objective and frequently you have a small set-piece inside the larger world in which to accomplish that objective. Frequently this turns into a to-do list called a “quest list” that shows you your objectives in the open world, your progress toward completing them, where to go to complete them, and sometimes the rewards for doing so.

It’s a pretty straightforward design that appeals to a lot of people and functions well in a logical system of checks, triggers and variables. Despite this setup’s obvious popularity, there’s always been a certain amount of criticism for the relatively robotic nature of enjoyment of these games, whether it’s criticizing the rote repetition of tasks or the arbitrary way these tasks tend to decide their completion. One of the larger issues with open world design is that the bigger the world, the more limited the verbs players can perform begin to feel. Grand Theft Auto addressed this by stuffing its open world with all kinds of minigames: ownable properties, clothing options, a virtual stock market and so on. Other games are a bit more limited in scope, usually providing little more than a virtual treasure hunt or two on top of the typically combat oriented gameplay.
The reason this design is so popular – clear tasks, clear rewards, clear direction toward the next task – has a lot to do with how we set up our real world society. In an ideal presentation of life on planet earth:

  • you’re born
  • you age a bit until you reach schooling
  • you’re taught certain things and then evaluated and typically rewarded based on your ability to remember or apply those things
  • you graduate and move on into a position of employment where ideally you’re given a series of tasks
  • you complete them in exchange for money
  • Eventually after progressing in your career to a senior position and becoming old you retire with your accumulated rewards and enjoy a period of time before your death
This is the fundamental backbone of our society, from which all our ideology springs. And it’s not bad as a simulation goes! It works in games, no reason it wouldn’t work IRL. Except, of course, that life offers you endless potential actions you can take outside of your questlist; a questlist that itself is fallible because frequently your tasks are unclear, your rewards are uncertain, and the path to your next objective is unknowable.
What Video Games do that Work fails to do is provide a clarity of purpose, a set progression through a series of conditions that ends with you the victor, triumphant in your prowess. The closest life has to offer you to that kind of clarity is schooling, and even that is subject to myriad systemic issues that prevent it from being as proficient and objective as a machine-executed series of rules that interpret your input without bias or precondition.
So, Games are Work, yes, but Games are an idealized form of Work that cleaves more to the mental construct of what a good and functional society should look like. There’s a lot of thinkpieces and video reviews out there framing games as escapist fantasy but rarely do they bother to examine what folks are escaping into and what folks are escaping from. There’s a lot of writing out there too about power fantasies and it’s inarguable that this is a genre, but to what degree are these a power fantasy and why? Take Skyrim, for instance. You’re given a massive map full of samey-looking barrows and little medieval towns and you’re frequently employed to slay dragons or zombies and promptly rewarded for doing so. Meanwhile, as a digital avatar, you don’t need to eat, you don’t need to sleep, you don’t really need shelter, and diseases are cured as easily as tapping a shrine. You have a clear purpose: defeat king dragon and stop the dragons from destroying the world. The power granted to you is immortality, invulnerability and clairvoyance, a suspension of the normal insecurities of reality. The ability to slay a dragon pales in comparison to run up and down mountains and across plains and though vast fields without pause, shot like an arrow toward your well defined goals.
I’m gonna segue here a bit and talk about the gig economy. Presently a number of older industries are being upended ("disrupted") by relatively miniscule tech companies who can offer a similar level of service at miniscule cost by almost totally eliminating their workforce and handing the responsibility and to technically unemployed individuals who are doing little more than using an app. The app provides accountability and payment processing, the user provides the accommodations. It sounds great on paper because it frankly is great. With airbnb the prices are cheaper and the vacation experience is more authentic than anything a big chain hotel can deliver, all with little ratings-chasing perks that would be an upcharge in a cab or hotel. With Uber the cars arrive faster, cleaner, and friendlier than cab drivers have ever had incentive to be.

In many ways this is because the apps come closer to that idealized experience of Work that we expect from life. The app buzzes and sends you a quest or a list of quests to choose from, with a clear destination or guest to care for. You're rewarded almost immediately on a quest by quest basis. The ratings system provides you with instant feedback so you always have a sense of how well or how poorly you're doing the job. Currently the system lacks a real sense of progression, but there's already opportunities present to be "featured" drivers or airbnb locals and access a better pool of clientele. In a lot of ways these apps "gamify" work. It'd be great if it weren't so thoroughly tied to our ability to live. Folks who are bad at playing these new games don't just progress more slowly, they "lose" the game and get kicked of the app, putting themselves at risk of homelessness, starvation and death.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

On being an interloper

As part of my coursework in college as an undergrad I created a couple of ethnographies after doing participant observation in a couple of different communities in my life. I chose to focus on communities that I was already at least tangentially a part of rather than trying to integrate into a new community or two into my already somewhat busy social/personal life. This felt Ideal to me, as I could kill two birds with one stone, though in retrospect maybe this was ultimately a bad idea as I already felt somewhat alienated from these groups, trying to focus on collecting information and observing with a detached eye only exacerbated the alienation. At least, I think so? This is a rough line of questioning.

I already didn't really feel like I belonged to the individual groups in question for a bunch of other reason. I was too young, I was not well established as a New Orleanian with just a few years of presence under my belt, in a larger sense I didn't really have anything to offer folks. When later I ended up cutting ties after an abortive attempt at demanding accountability I realized too that the folks I'd been hanging out with just had largely different priorities in the world socially and politically. In short, I just really, really, didn't belong.
Which is fine as heck for participant-observation work. There's a lot of opinion written and I think a general consensus that a well-done ethnography requires the author to have at some point achieved "acceptance" within the group; the breakthrough comes when the elders put you through some rite of passage or finally share with you some sacred knowledge. To me this just sounds like a narrative convenience. The stories of your encounters with the tribe build and build to a climax of acceptance and you just coast along from there into a doctoral degree. It's easy, it's intuitive, it fits an individualist narrative. I don't think it's accurate at all. In fact I don't think there really needs to be any amount of acceptance to produce good and useful work and I think that what acceptance you do receive should be thoroughly examined as its own individual social event. Folks in the tribe may never "truly" accept you, but the whole concept itself needs to be examined in its own context. What would have acceptance meant for me within my communities? Folks start calling me to show up versus me just showing up? Folks put some amount of responsibility on me to organize gatherings? Better interviews that were more probing? I think most of my interviews went great personally.

I think part of the issue is that no matter what I did in american culture writ large I'm already an interloper. My politics are incredibly radical, even if the bubble I've built insulates me from that. I'm very gay, but not even in the right kind of acceptable gay way, more in the total disregard for social conventions kinda way. My personal background is highly unusual. Many of my personal habits are basically anti-social. I put a lot of work into passing as a reasonable human being when there's money on the line but if I'm not getting paid I honestly can't bother and I can't really jive with people who do bother. While the groups I did study were on some level or other unusual within America, they were only unusual on one or two vectors and over the course of my research I found again and again that folks involved were actually fairly conservative. Many aspired to be weirder and sought the sort of authenticity that's ascribed to folks outside the norm, but their attempts were basically superficial.

I think ultimately the largest issue is that I just couldn't relate to the folks in the groups, nor could those folks really relate to me. They didn't have the temperament or shared experience or really even the time to do so. A lot of it was probably ageism. Some of it was probably politics. Some of it is just trapped in that modern individualist alienation from others around you. From my perspective I guess this was ultimately helpful, if only in teaching me what sort of things I want to avoid in life. I keep finding out later too that folks were somewhat more invested in my presences than they appeared at first glance. Maybe I could go back, but what would that mean? I came on my own volition (well if we're being honest I showed up because that's where my love was at the time), turned my participation into an advantage for me, and quit when I found that my principles were clashing with my participation. Would I be returning because I'm desperate for human connection? Would I be returning to search for some glimmer of something that looks like emotional fulfillment? Am I returning out of academic curiosity for the growth and shaping of the group? I guess the worst thing might be confrontations with folks I feel like I individually affronted and maybe it's worth going back if only to try and achieve some personal emotional closure. Maybe the time away will have graduated myself from interloper to invested party.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

What Did We Learn

My Grandma has this belief that we’re put here on this earth to live our lives the way they unfold and for our immortal spirits to learn something from the lives we lead. It could be something very big, it could be something very small, but regardless we’re here to learn and learn we will. My friend has the belief that we’re essentially the same spirits repeated again and again, and the two of us met thousands of years ago and been friends before and we’ll meet again in the future (assuming it exists, he’s a bit of an end timesy guy when he’s down). Reincarnation is a super common belief, even in Abrahamism where the incarnations of the immortal soul are off in some new fantastic world (hell or paradise or limbo) arguably because the alternative, that our lives are incredibly fleeting and go from dust to dust in the blink of an eye not only is kinda scary to contemplate, it sets wrong with our estimation of ourselves and those around us.
Are we avoiding this on purpose? One of the many facets of modern life that seems to go badly is the obsession with preserving our selves, our money, our possessions, our will beyond the end of our lives. Whether it’s complex tax schemes to keep the money within our genetic offshoots or putting our name on as many big buildings as we can afford to fund, the screaming terror of mortality tends to manifest in these putrid displays of wealth and enforced posthumous filial worship. It’s not good! Inheritance schemes are pretty similar to bad cholesterol, in that they form plaques within the greater systems of human existence and make it harder for those systems to flow smoothly. Or in other words, it makes it harder for new people to earn that wealth while preserving a handful of folks who, by dint of their father or grandfather or great-grandfather’s efforts can just sit around at home and literally earn more than half this country will ever see in their lifetime of holding two and three simultaneous jobs.
It’s not like this is new or anything, the wealthy of Egypt would arrange to inter themselves along with their money, an arguably better system than inheritance at least. The scary truth is whether or not our consciousness persists after death everything we’ve made in this world is done for. It doesn’t matter anymore. And we all know it, right? It’s another one of those things where people are aware of this factually but it doesn’t really translate into the kind of behavioral shifts you’d expect if people really believed it was true. C’est la vie, ├ža ira, etc.
While we’re still on this earth though, we still gotta deal with earthy stuff. Our messy relationships, our tough decisions, our mistakes. Ideally every time you make a mistake you just, boom, you’ve learned a thing and now you know it and you’re slightly more perfect. Obviously life doesn’t work this way, and in fact a lot of things aren’t even framed as mistakes when they are. Even the concept of a mistake is tied to a personal ethical system. Maybe you think it’s a mistake to cause harm directly but indirect harms are pretty much a-ok. It makes me wonder sometimes what we could possibly be learning when the basic premises of our lives are so different. Maybe that’s the point and you have to learn something that’s buried under a facet of a facet of existence, like, maybe we need to learn exactly how to hurt people specifically. Who the heck knows?
All this gets even more complicated as trauma enters our lives and molds our ability to understand and appreciate our world. Every scar makes approaching life just a little stranger and affects the way we approach situations in both conscious and unconscious ways. Is it still a mistake if it’s a result of the emotional mindset caused by a past trauma? To what degree does your ability to make decisions really come into play with mistakes?
When I’m feeling more or less ok I’m happy to share my own take that reality lacks any real dimension of personal decision, that what we do is set in stone from the start and we’re just here to ride the emotional rollercoaster. It’s a little nihilistic, at least inasmuch as we live in a society that is absolutely obsessed with not just agency, but a sort of personal individualistic agency that makes things like “by your own bootstraps” and “welfare queens” make sense and destroys even very smart folks’ ability to understand systems as systems and not as the result of individual interaction within those systems (e.g. victim-blaming). I think it’s worth it though. All of that stuff is nonsense. Individuals don’t have any agency in the systems they’re trapped in. Stuff changes, of course. It just changes as a result of collective work that’s largely outside the hands of any particular person. You create the new culture you want to live in with your like-minded humans and it butts up against the existing culture and hopefully your culture wins that conflict.
So hey, what do you learn then if your life is basically on rails? Well heck you can learn dang anything. Your “mistakes” are just happenstance. Learn from them and try to avoid them or don’t! Whatever you’re going to do is pretty much already going to happen. There’s not a lot of sense in fussing about it. Really there’s not a lot of sense in fussing about anything. We still do it, I still do it, it’s just a human thing, but it’s not really useful in any real sense.