November 7, 2014

[Tutorial] HTML5 Web App - AngularJS

Note: This tutorial was written a couple years ago now, and is likely obsolete in a lot of ways. In fact, I don't think I ever completed this one. Still, it may be helpful, so give it a look-see if it's relevant to you.

November 5, 2014

[Tutorial] HTML5 Mobile App Setup Tutorial

Note: This tutorial was written a couple years ago now, and is likely obsolete in a lot of ways. Still, it may be helpful, so give it a look-see if it's relevant to you.

September 1, 2014

Of GamerGate, Draft Posts, and Moving Forward...

When I started this blog, I had two things in mind. 1) I wanted to cover topics relating to skepticism and video games, and intertwine them as often as possible. 2) I had no idea how the hell I would accomplish such a thing. Looking back, however, I think I did it, whatever "it" was meant to be. I was able to exercise my skeptic muscles, and present a personal yet overly objective analysis of various topics. I'm proud of my work, but recent events have led me to take things down a different path.

Continue on if you must, but it's mostly ranting, with less objectivity than previous posts, and completely self-serving. There's a tl;dr at the bottom if you're into that sort of thing. I'll give you a brief rundown of what I've learned about all that's involved with GamerGate, but if you want more, you'll have to go Google it yourself. To say the waters are muddied is to say the Ganges might have a bit of fecal matter in it.

January 1, 2014

Why it Pays (or Doesn't) to Think Critically

Okay, this is a different sort of blog post I think, as it doesn't have any real research. It's more of a personal anecdote, but I feel it'll serve as a prime example as to why critical thinking is important. Consider the following: some unsolicited mail comes to you through the post, and you decide to see what it is. It's spam, of course, the good old fashioned kind promising riches if you happen to be the lucky winner. Only this time, it's got a more modern twist; enclosed with the letter is an electronic doodad that can display a number, which may or may not be the very same number you need to match with the letter to win said riches.

Ooh, it glows!

Look at that! I won! I'm a winner! I guess I'm not guaranteed to get the cash, but those other prizes are nice, too. Hell, I'd even take a lamp shaped like some woman's leg. Who cares, right? I won!

Well hang on a second. That was almost too easy. I mean, statistically there has to be a winner, right? The odds of it being me, assuming this letter was sent out all over the country, are pretty slim. And Kia Motors Corporation really felt so compelled to offer as much as $25,000 to just anyone in a mass mail campaign, just to advertise for their vehicles? Something about this seems fishy.

Let's take a closer look at this electronic thingummy.

Yep, that's a thingummy.

Oh, wow, it wasn't even glued together. Just popped right open.

Not much to it.

Now, if we remove the batteries...


Gasp! By Bellerophon's flowing mane! What sorcery is this?! I've been fooled! Bamboozled! Swindled, if you will!

Well, no, actually I haven't. Rather than taking at face value that I was a lucky winner, or even just assuming that this was a scam and tossing the letter, I put my noggin to work. Was this a legitimate contest? Was it really possible that I had won? I chose not to throw out the letter, and instead did some investigative work to verify its authenticity. And what I found was a bit of transparent tape with some numbers printed on it over a thin bit of plastic and a blue LED. (Disappointing, as I could actually use a number-printing screen in some electronics projects.)

I'm obviously dragging out a two minute story, but I want to make something clear: this is a scalable exercise. A small amount of critical thinking in a situation such as this is a tiny version of a highly applicable process. Evaluate the situation, consider the claims, verify their veracity, arrive at a reasonable conclusion. Bump it up to the next phone call you get where someone tells you that you've won a cruise, or that forwarded email from a Nigerian prince. Seemingly silly examples, but people are still constantly suckered in by them. And those are nothing compared to the widespread and much more slippery frauds such as immune boosting vitamins, self-help seminars, and so on.

Critical thinking is a powerful tool, that should be wielded with the finesse of a fencer's foil, the strength of a logger's axe, and the finality of an executioner's blade. If for no other reason than to save you a few bucks.

August 12, 2013

Slipping Down the Slope: A Guide to Common Logical Fallacies

Recently I had an exchange with Sam Killermann, founder and head of Gamers Against Bigotry, where we debated our positions on a hot-button social issue that was on the activist website. I won't get into specifics, but our cordial and respectful back-and-forth led to a common-ground understanding of not only where we stood (which was together on the same soapbox), but also a request from Sam for me to write an article for GAB. Reasoned and respectful debate leading to a positive outcome? Who woulda thought! I'm very grateful to Sam for this opportunity, as I fully stand with the message GAB is trying to send to the gaming community at large.

I like debating. I find the tête-à-tête chess game of valid arguments and objective reasoning to be very intellectually stimulating. But the real thrill comes when your opponent says something that activates your trap card, and you throw down a killer rebuttal with the war cry of "That's a fallacy!"

Enjoying things that are intellectually stimulating is also why I avoid comment sections like I avoid marathons of The Big Bang Theory. Fallacies, logical or otherwise, are in abundance here, along with generally stupid and hyperbolic emesis. It's a virtual wasteland of soapboxes populated by the seagulls from Finding Nemo, but what they say can best be written as "&@%#?!!"

What's the shortcut key to insert a censor bar?

Sometimes you can't avoid such things, especially as an advocate for social justice pursuits like equal rights. However, as you shudder in disgust and roll your cursor over the ban button, pause for a moment and reflect not just on what the commentator is saying, but what their comment represents. There is much we can learn from mental diarrhea, and I have waded through the thick of it to share some general examples I see far too often when debating social issues. Presented with each example is a breakdown of the fallacies and shaky positions these arguments are based around. Recognizing fallacies and knowing how to deal with them can make you a much more effective debater, and that skill can be an important weapon in the utility belt of any activist.

"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem!"

Good lord, how many other motivational posters do you have coating the walls of your cubicle? The issues with this oft-heard Facebook reshare from Tumblr are many, but more subjective than logical. Still, it's worth picking apart more than one of those emails your aunt likes to forward to you. You know the ones.

To start: it's exclusionary. Right from the get-go it sets up a divisive us-versus-them situation relating to whatever the context of the comment is. And we all know the best way to motivate people is to tell them up front what horrible people they are, am I right? NO, STUPID.

I'm sorry, I shouldn't have called you stupid. And you shouldn't have assumed I'm a terrible person for being largely ignorant to the nuances surrounding an issue of social reform. Yes, that's right, I'm admitting to being ignorant on something. PAY ATTENTION: this is your opportunity to educate. Not belittle. Not berate. Not bullshit. Not bully. Not any other negative words that start with the letter "b". When someone is encountered with new information, or information relating to a subject they have only a scant idea of all that relates to it, they generally listen to someone speaking from a position of authority. Here's your chance to inform them with the wealth of knowledge you've acquired on the topic. To merely dismiss them as part of the problem is wasting an extremely valuable opportunity to sway an opinion. If you've ever tried to change someone's mind before, you know how difficult that can be. The uninformed haven't made up their mind yet, and that "yet" is your chance to turn a sheep into a wolf.

Now that's a solid joke.

But be cautious: how you present this information, even in a positive way, can be damaging. You don't want to fall into the fallacy of appeal to authority, like those people in medical commercials that hawk products while wearing lab coats, as if that lends them some legitimacy. Well, to the uninformed, it does lend them legitimacy, enough to make millions. It's how snake oil salesmen have profited from the beginning of time on up to Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Jenny McCarthy, and all of the other daytime TV "experts." You must be able to back up your claims with facts, evidence, statistics and other verifiable sources. Asking others to follow you because you know the facts is still an appeal to authority, while encouraging them to follow the facts themselves is an appeal to reality.

"You're looking for something that isn't there."

The human mind has evolved to look for patterns. Our ability to recognize cause and effect, and retain that information, passing it on to our offspring, has made our species incredibly successful. Partly in thanks to this ability, we can comprehend some incredibly complex and abstract concepts. Unfortunately, our gift can backfire just as often, leading us to draw conclusions that simply don't add up. In a given situation, we see X, and infer Y. Then, in every subsequently similar situation, we assume Y, despite evidence to the contrary, and look for Y until we find it. This fallacy is known as post hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for "after this, therefore because of this". It's human nature, and it takes a lot of practice to recognize and compensate for it.


There are two other fallacies this relates to. The first is the subtly different cum hoc ergo propter hoc, where an inference is made to the cause of two or more factors whose correlations are not clear. This is commonly written as the "correlation proves causation" fallacy (or "correlation does not imply causation" in science writing). The third related fallacy is confirmation bias, which is the tendency for people to value information that confirms their own beliefs. Evidence holds little sway over confirmation bias, especially if it runs contradictory to one's beliefs; this is why it's so difficult to change someone's mind. In my opinion, nothing is more deeply ingrained in the human condition than this phenomenon.

So these things are a part of each and every one of us. But that doesn't mean we're indulging these quirks every time we criticize something controversial. Thanks to the wonders of the human mind, we can actually support our own confirmation bias while exposing a problem for what it is at the same time! Of course, once you show that the problem in fact does exist, you'll likely get back...

"We have bigger problems."

We certainly do! But can you elaborate further? I'd like to know in what way this issue is less important than some other issue, and what other issues more urgently require my attention.

This is arguably one of the most common dismissals of any sort of popularized movement. To be fair, it can be difficult to distinguish between a valid movement focused on equal rights and an army of PC-happy thugs with a massive case of unwarranted self-importance. And don't get me wrong, you can debate if nuclear disarmament should have more focus than peace in the Middle East, but that doesn't mean either one is of no concern or importance.

It's best known as the informal fallacy of goal post changing, or "raising the bar" (though not as often, due to that phrase's context-based positive version). Essentially, someone dismisses an argument or the evidence of an argument and demanding greater evidence or focus on a different position instead. It's like wading through the shallow end of the special pleading pool, but you're just as likely to drown trying to refute it.

Instead of asking you to focus on another possibly valid topic, you may instead find that your argument is dismissed for a different one that may not even be related to the one you made. For instance, you may be discussing compensation inequalities women face in large corporations, and the other person says something like "men have problems, too, ya know!" Whether or not they do is irrelevant, and even conceding that means you've lost. Stay on topic, or else you'll wind up swimming in a sea of distracting red herrings and lose your way.

Much like communism.

"You can't possibly know what X is like, because you're a Y."

This one gets right up my ass. It's a form of special pleading, and may manifest as a personal anecdote, excessive use of an exclusionary word or phrase, or even exactly like the example I've provided (solve for X and Y). In this fallacy, the person making the claim rebukes you into taking their statement on faith, hoping to end the discussion there (which, obviously, means it's not really a discussion at that point). It's a strange twist on false equivalence, and tends to involve people who are otherwise seeking acceptance instead opting for self-exclusion.

This situation places the claimant in  an untouchable in-group, and, perhaps even more than just making someone come across as a bigoted douchebag, is one of the most effective ways of making sure equal anything never happens that I've ever seen. It removes the claimant from criticism, puts the burden of guilt on the other party, ends the discussion, and destroys any opportunity for anyone involved to educate or learn.

Similar to false equivalence, a false dichotomy exists as a comparison between limited alternatives. This is often seen as a forced choice, making the defendant choose between aligning with a negative position or whatever position the person making the fallacy holds. It dismisses or ignores all other possible choices or considerations.

"If I'm not A, I can't possibly comprehend X."


"I've never had to deal with A, so no one else has either."

An appeal to complexity arises when the arguer claims that if they can't understand a topic, no one else can either; an argument by laziness follows the appeal to complexity, but tacks on "so my view is as good as anyone else's" to the end of it. They have many opinions on this subject they know nothing about and refuse to learn anything about, but you can sure as hell expect them to argue those opinions regardless. Just as they'll expect you to respect their opinions for no other reason than the widespread (and very wrong) belief that opinions are sacred.

A recent real-world example would be when Mike "Gabe" Krahulik of Penny Arcade, in response to a Kotaku article on a game about female masturbation, stated his belief on Twitter that only those who have a vagina are women. He added, in way of clarifying to the flood of criticism that was suddenly engulfing him, that "[he thinks] gender is the same as genitals." He followed this with, "if you use the word "cis" save yourself some time and don't bother tweeting at me".

"Due to my limited world view, general ignorance, and inability to entertain
an outside perspective, I persist in maintaining my belief that boys have a
penis and girls have a vagina."

I'm sure you can pick out the flaws here, but just in case: Krahulik is essentially exercising the "It's outside my realm of experience, therefore your argument is unlikely at best" form of the argument by laziness. Further exchanges show his willful ignorance regarding the subject of transgender women, gender identity, and the spectrum of human sexual characteristics. A form of the appeal to complexity exists here as well, though not directly from Krahulik. The last quote I selected was in response to someone who said "yes you are literally a monster. That is what you should gather from criticism holy fuck i hate cis men."

"Cis," shorthand for "cisgender," refers to someone whose sexual characteristics align with both their personal gender identity and their assigned (for all intents and purposes, by the society to which the person belongs) gender identity. For example, someone who is born with a penis and testicles, displays secondary male sexual characteristics such as being able to grow a beard, has been told growing up that they're male, and believes themselves to be male, counts as a cisgender person. It's a complementary definition (not complimentary; this is a neutral term) meant to describe someone who is not transgender. However, it's often used as an exclusionary word meant to belittle someone who was born a certain way, and views their identity in a certain way; it seeks to create a negative stereotype out of an otherwise innocuous description. Put in that context, it's not only exclusionary, it's also hypocritical. Distorting or abusing the intended use of a word in such a way turns them into weasel words.

It's also the only thing that ever comes out of Deepak Chopra's mouth.

Instead of creating an us-versus-them situation, it behooves us as progressive people to break down these walls, rather than create new ones. Maybe forum user BreakingBud420 with the transphobic comment is unaware that gender identity and sexuality are separate things, and that's why he doesn't understand why there are transgender people. Now is your chance to link him to some resources, and maybe expand his world view. I grew up in a very open and accepting family, and was encouraged to be curious and question the ways of the world; still, I can remember my surprise when I learned about intersex, and the understanding that came from knowing the difference between transgender and cross-dressing.

Of course, if BreakingBud420 continues to be a douchebag, it's likely he's a lost cause and it's best to move on. But keep in mind that someone else may wander into the conversation, see your measured and informative response, and learn something new.

"You don't care about your kids if you don't support this park."

Sorry, I couldn't resist stealing that one from Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation. Imagine, if you will, being at a Renaissance Festival, and watching the knights practice for jousting. Instead of attacking other people, they take jabs at fake people made out of wood, or perhaps straw. That's essentially how the straw man fallacy works; someone takes an opponent's argument, distorts their position, and re-presents it as a counter-argument. This leads the opponent to having to defend their argument rather than continue to refute the claims of the other person. It can also apply, as in Leslie Knope's case, when the distorted position is ridiculous enough to be a non sequitur, Latin for "it does not follow."

Fair enough.

If you're well prepared and feeling sassy, you can have some fun with straw men. Let them make their ridiculous claim, then follow that white rabbit right down the slippery slope. Leading someone along their own argument to a ridiculous conclusion can be an excellent way to show how poor the argument is. In rare cases, they may even reconsider their position. However, too often this fallacy is self-fulfilling with an absurd conclusion to which the response is usually "well, duh." This method is recommended for advanced users.

"You would say that because you're _________!"

Rather than distort your position, however, you may find that your personal qualities are attacked instead. Just above outright name-calling, this informal fallacy is known as an ad hominem. This fallacy serves to attack the arguer instead of the argument, seeking to discredit their arguments by negatively portraying their character. This is not the same as any other kind of insult, nor is it applicable when the subject of the debate actually is someone's character. If you're debating whether or not someone is a bigot, making a case for their bigotry is not using an ad hominem against them. Consider this example:

Person A: There's nothing wrong with gay people marrying. Everyone should be able to marry the person they love.
Person B: You're gay, of course you would say that.

Person B is using an ad hominem to avoid addressing Person A's argument and instead attacking their character. Now consider this example:

Person A: I don't think women should be allowed in the military outside of a desk job. They're just not as strong as men and too timid for battle.
Person B: You're an incredibly sexist person.

Person B is not using an ad hominem, as Person A is presenting a sexist argument as their own belief.

Learn it, recognize it, know how to counter it. Chances are good that you'll encounter an ad hominem at some point, if you haven't already.

"lol fuk u faget"

Oh please. This is just an insult (not an ad hominem!). Ignore it.

"Something something freedom of speech something something!"

I don't think there's an established term for this specific argument, so I've taken to calling it the "appeal to liberty." I believe the heart of this informal fallacy arises from two main sources. First, a largely Western (especially American) sense of self-entitlement. We here in the United States of Freedom have so-called inalienable rights, written in our highest legal document, the Bill of Rights. Many other countries and sovereign governments have similar documents, but at least as many do not, or have foundational legal mandates that are different enough to be viewed as something else entirely. Anyway, we have it, so everyone else has to abide by it. 'Murika!

This is wrong, of course, but especially when applied to the second source: the Internet is a virtual Wild West, so anything goes, especially when personal liberties are involved. Yes, especially in the early days, the Internet can be a chaotic and anarchistic place. But order arises from chaos, and such is the case with the Interbutts. Websites have terms and conditions now, and users are often bound by these agreements, with moderators on the prowl, ban-hammers ever at the ready. This means what you say and do can and will be used against you. In fact, I would hold that up as a de facto law of the land when browsing the web. If "anything goes," then you are doubly accountable for everything you put out there.

"Now do you believe in chaos theory?"

Another thing to consider before pressing the submit button is "just because you can, doesn't mean you should." Sure, you can say something foul and derogatory, completely belittling the person you're responding to. Freedom of speech is a precious thing, and exercising that freedom is ensuring its power. But there are countless reasons for limitations on the freedom of speech, such as terms and conditions, and mods with ban-hammers, and judicial systems, and top secret clauses, and non-disclosure agreements, and the fact that sometimes it's best if you just shut your mouth. The immediate conflict of supporting personal liberties in any society is that your liberties will be in opposition to the liberties of others.

So how does this apply to a comment thread? Vitriol begets vitriol, and nothing derails a discussion faster than a slew of personal attacks. Trolling aside, however, realize that what you say may actually cause some amount of emotional or mental harm to someone else. Don't take that as "be nice to everyone, because you might hurt some feelings," but that certain talk is largely viewed as intolerable. You can talk about your opposition to something like gay marriage, for example, but don't be surprised if a mod swoops in and kicks your virtual ass to the virtual curb if you start saying something like "them butt-humping queers shouldn't be allowed to marry."

Stupid and poorly informed opinions are the right of all sentient beings.

On the flip side of that coin, you can respond to "I don't personally think gays should marry" with something equally nonconstructive like "Well then you must be a bigot." Perhaps they are, perhaps they are not (note the use of an ad hominem here). As I've said before, it's very likely that someone may be ignorant of the larger issues at play surrounding something like gay marriage, which may be entirely outside of their realm of experience. I'm not saying that everyone should be given the benefit of the doubt, but if you give someone enough rope, rest assured they'll hang themselves with it, without any need to string yourself up next to them.

To clarify, the former example would be one of hate speech, which you may have the freedom to express, but is still considered detestable and is discouraged. The latter example would be one of silencing dissent; that is, the opinion is different, therefore wrong, therefore an obvious reflection of the most extreme and negative view associated with such an opinion. Silencing a dissenting opinion runs counter to the tenets of free speech, and speaking your mind by spewing hateful rhetoric perverts and devalues the power that freedom of speech permits.

And, finally...

"Can't we all just get along?"

If only!

I could leave it here, but I think there is something to be said about this, as a continuation of my earlier points. This phrase, while incredibly optimistic, and not exactly a fallacy, is pretty meaningless when tossed into an embittered exchange. It's hopeful fluff, and emptier than the calories of the marshmallow spread. That doesn't mean that the sentiment is entirely worthless, though; I do believe we can all get along, or at least most of us. But it's something we have to work for, and everyone has to be involved in the process.

Here is a short list of guidelines, not rules, that I think can help.
  1. Do your research. Facts, statistics, and other forms of evidence are the only sure foundation of any argument.
  2. Learn how to recognize a poorly reasoned argument and how to react to them. Knowing logical fallacies is a must.
  3. Foster discussion. Listen, think, speak. Educate where and when you can.
  4. Choose your battles. Not everything has to be a debate. And most debates aren't even worth engaging in, especially if the other person isn't acting on similar guidelines.
  5. Remember that even if you're not getting through to someone, that you have an audience beyond that person, and you might get through to them. Recognize trolls, or when someone is a lost cause, and move on with dignity.
  6. Accept valid criticism. Admit when you are wrong. A tall order, in most cases, but at least try. It can be a rewarding experience.

And while you're at head, head on over to Gamers Against Bigotry and sign the pledge!

July 31, 2013

Free to Rage

When gaming first entered the home, the goal of console manufacturers was to deliver the experience you get at an arcade without having to dump hundreds of quarters into the game. Arcade games were built as a monetization platform, designed to be difficult so as to maximize the number of quarters fed into them. Home consoles changed that by being able to provide fun and challenging games you can play with your friends for a one-time payment.

Sadly, folks, we've come full circle on a steep, downward spiral. The latest money-making trend goes by different names: free-to-play or F2P, freemium, pay-to-win. There are different forms of it that I'll cover, and many share common traits. But the primary goal is to leech as much money out of the player as possible.

The Freemium Model

The free-to-play system is the bastard offspring of achievements and downloadable content, taking the worst aspects of both. Achievements can be a great challenge for the completionist gamer, and can lead players to areas of a game they might otherwise have missed, but too often they're merely a pointless grind-fest, torturous chores shoved into the game because the publisher wants to meet the quota mandated by the console manufacturer. Downloadable content can greatly expand a beloved game, adding new worlds and challenges to explore and conquer. But they, too, have their problems, such as essentially ripping off the consumer by charging for content they already paid for, as it's included on the disc. I've written about DLC's problems before.

The Freemium Model is the basis of every form of free-to-play, and even more derogatory than referring to it as "freemium" is to call it "pay to win". This started out in software as a common and sometimes successful business model, where you can download the program and use it for free, but it would often be lacking in advanced features unless you paid for the full version. When applied to games, it changes connotation and impact quite drastically. There have been games that let you play forever on a couple of levels unless you buy the full version, or more popularly on mobile platforms, play the entire game while being confronted with ads at every turn unless you buy the ad-free version. These are all gradually phasing out in favor of other models where you never really get the entire experience.

The Grinder

This form of F2P seems legitimate when you're starting out. Yes, they dangle rewards and stat boosters in front of you for prices, but if you're willing to just play without any bonuses, you'll still get the same rewards. It'll just take you a lot, lot longer.

Often, however, this is merely a ruse. Rarely have I seen a grinder that really did cut you off entirely from "winning" without paying a dime, but usually there's a threshold that cannot be crossed freely without putting in more time or effort than it's worth. I'm talking about that moment when you realize how much time you've put into the game already, how much more you'll have to put into it, and how many other, better games you could be spending your time on instead.

There are lots of better games to play that feature grinding.

Lately I've been playing Transformers Legends on my Android devices. It's a very simple card game; in fact, the cards do all of the fighting for you, so it's more of a collectathon. I'm a big enough fan of Transformers that I keep it installed, and play it when I have some time to kill. Every week or so they run some new event where they throw new cards and challenges at you, with greater rewards the higher up the global ladder you can climb. I've yet to run into any real obstacles beyond grinding, though I've heard rumblings from some of the more dedicated grinders that you can't even approach the top thousand ranks without paying into it. Whether that's directly due to the game's setup or because other players have already paid enough into it to become untouchable isn't clear to me. I suppose I'm currently low enough not to care as much, so for now, it stays.

Grinders were a lot more common in the early days of F2P. My first experience of this was a game called Combat Arms, which I happened to start playing while it was in a closed beta. It was grind, grind, grind, but as a game that borrowed heavily from Counter-Strike, it was still fun to play. Once you unlocked and paid hard earned in-game currency for a weapon, you got to keep it. Unfortunately, once the game came out of beta, it mutated into a more sinister form of free-to-play I call...

The Rent-a-Player

Rent-a-Player games will let you grind to your heart's content, but what you unlock or buy using in-game currency (as opposed to real world money) is only rented for a short period of time. The more in-game currency you put towards the item, the longer you get to rent it. Your only chance at keeping the item permanently is to pay real money for it. So you spend a certain number of days or weeks to become a competent player, only to have it ripped away should other things become a higher priority. The sole benefit this model presents is the ability to try before you buy, but considering how long it takes one to earn enough for them to try, the risks still outweigh the rewards.

In the military of the future, a lack of taxpayer funding means 
you have to buy your own weaponry. Thanks, Obama!

The true purpose of both Grinder and Rent-a-Player types is, of course, to encourage you to spend real money on things instead.

The Phoenix

This version is notable more for what it once was than what it has become. Phoenix games (or, alternatively, undead games) are older games, long forgotten, that have been resurrected and reworked to fit a free-to-play model. Examples include TribesRunescapeQuake 3, and the short-lived Hellgate: London. So far, the majority of these games have F2P models that aren't horrendously insulting to your intelligence or your wallet. Tribes, in fact, is very fun to play, despite the parasitic grinding experience. I believe this is due to the fact that many of these games were fun to play before they were reanimated. I think if Unreal Tournament 2004 made such a comeback I would be very unlikely to avoid it.

The problem here, however, is when a game that wasn't designed with free-to-play in mind (read: a good game) has such a model improperly applied to it. It takes more than a passing thought to monetize something, especially when it has a long, pre-established history of following a different business model, or none at all. It will not work for every game, and even if it could be forced to work, should it be done?

"Would you like to buy a fire extinguisher? Only $3.99! This is a
one-time use item. Sorry, no refunds."

Take this article on "Five Reasons Why FTL is a Perfect Free-to-Play Game", and its companion, "FTL FTP on iOS". They offer very compelling arguments as to why and how FTL should be F2P, and in that regard, I agree on the ideas. But I don't agree that making it F2P would be a good idea. In case you're unfamiliar with FTL, it's a space exploring game in the vein of "roguelikes", a category of games distinguished by heavy use of randomized elements and a high level of difficulty. It's frustrating, compelling, addictive, rewarding, and fun. It has one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard in any video game ever. And unlike Tribes or Quake 3, it was built in the age of free-to-play games. But FTL was designed to have a relationship with the player; it's you and the game, matching strategic moves and hoping your choices are good enough to see you through to the end. It's meant to be challenging, but adding consumables and the like neuter that challenge in favor of one where you see how much money you can spend and still afford rent. There is no multiplayer, there is no social networking. If the creators of FTL wanted it to be F2P they would have designed it that way.

Nicholas Lovell, founder of Games Brief, has written a few articles on what games should be F2P and why, including the aforementioned ones on FTL. These articles are often filled with as much misguided intentions as entitled whining. He wrote "Why I Haven't Bought Frozen Synapse on iPad For £4.99 Yet", where he complains that the game hadn't offered him any freebies to "gain [his] respect", and offers the false dichotomy that if he buys the game and doesn't like it, he's either an idiot for buying it or it's a terrible game. It seems he would rather pay continuously through microtransactions than pay a flat fee (one that perfectly fits that "cup of coffee" purchasing decision target, to boot), when what he's really asking for is a demo version of the game (which exists, and you can get it for Mac or PC). Paul Taylor, lead designer and audio guy for Mode 7 Games, who made Frozen Synapse, wrote an excellent rebuttal entitled "Why Frozen Synapse Costs Money". Interestingly, one of the main arguments he makes is "if there was a way of making Frozen Synapse F2P in a way which wouldn't compromise its design, we would think seriously about doing it.".

The Peep Show

There's really only one word to describe the appeal behind these games: tits. Or breasts. Boobs. You get the idea. Sex appeal is what makes these games stand out. Sexy ladies in skimpy armor parade across Flash banners, advertising a really crappy MMO, usually Korean in origin. The game itself is typically either grinder or rent-a-player in terms of what way they sucker players out of money. They're all painfully obvious in their intention, though it's hard to decide if the marketing is more pathetic, or the people that buy into it.

The most notorious example of the peep show would be Evony. Originally Civony, it was a game in the style of Civilization, where players built up cities and attacked each other for resources. It was decent as far as those games go, and I played it for a while, until I was distracted by some other game. It caught my attention again, however, when it came back under the name Evony, and I began seeing their ads everywhere. Their ads were hard to miss because they all looked like this:

More hand lotion and tissues, my lord?

Meanwhile, the game looks like this:

This game's world is so small, you'll never feel the need to compensate!

According to Wikipedia, they also tend to use stock photos from porn DVD covers. I don't think there are even women in the game, at least not that I can remember (which is an entirely different problem for an entirely different blog post). Picking out sexual characteristics of any of the tiny pixelated avatars is a challenge all on its own, never mind find them to be sexy. The ads are a potent lure for anyone whose sexual maturity never advanced beyond the age of thirteen (which, if any given online encounter is any indication, falls in line with overall maturity). Less mature than its players, perhaps, would be the company itself. Bruce Everiss, who wrote extensively on how terrible Evony is, was then sued for libel by Evony's lawyers. They later dropped the case when he then blogged about a documentary that uncovered many of Evony's fraudulent activities within the game. You can watch the documentary here.

The Consumer

This is the most twisted, most vile, most perverted form of free-to-play yet. There are no permanent purchases, there are only consumables. Everything you pay for is of the fire-and-forget variety. But is the player consuming the game, or the other way around?

Take Candy Crush Saga, for (the ultimate) example. It's a simple match-3 game with combos and such, the type of game that is typically a nice blend between skill and luck. Now throw money into the mix. You get a certain number of lives when you start, and if you lose them all, you have to wait a set amount of time before you can play again. The worse you do, the longer you have to wait. Unless, of course, you buy more lives.

I hereby nominate the shoggoth as the official mascot of free-to-play games.

As you progress through the game, you start to unlock powerups. Cool, they just hand them out! Oh, but wait; in order to use the powerup, you have to pay real money for the privilege. If you don't, this otherwise helpful item is left dangling over the "continue" button every time you lose. The exception to paying real money is to invite and harass your Facebook friends to send you items, increasing Candy Crush Saga's pool of consumers and weakening your personal relationships in one swoop.

Don't worry, though, you won't be progressing far. That's because this game is designed to massively ramp up the difficulty after you're comfortable with the basics of play, and the game has sufficiently pulled the wool over your eyes in making you believe the game is based on skill.

The Magic Christian

This type of F2P game isn't very common, but it runs on an age-old principle: people will do literally anything for any amount of money. It's named after a movie, where a rich Peter Sellers adopts a homeless Ringo Starr, and teaches him this principle through many outrageous stunts. It culminates with them setting up a huge vat of sewage, throwing a few thousand bucks in it, and standing back as everyone loses their shit and gains a whole lot more as they dive in after the bills.

Enter Team Fortress 2. Originally, it had nine classes of various militaristic roles, each with their own unique loadout of weapons and equipment. Then they began adding new weapons to the game. I was hesitant about this at first, but it started off well. It wasn't like they were going to make the game-

Oh. Oh, no. No no no no no.

Oh yes.

TF2 was made free-to-play with no barrier to entry. Granted this was done almost four years after the game's release, but for those who paid for the game, it was quite a shock. At the risk of sounding entitled, it didn't seem quite fair. But not to worry; for our dedication, Valve graciously gave us...

A hat.

Hats had been around for a while, and were essentially useless outside of changing the look of your character. But this was surely a sign of things to come. This update immediately created two kinds of players: those that had built a strong community together, were invested in their purchase, and actually cared about the experience they had. And those that didn't give a winged mating because it didn't cost them anything and likely never would. Servers were flooded with new players, which at first was great, because they were easy pickings. But after a while, long past when the ratio of new people outweighed seasoned players, it became apparent that many of these players would only pop on as it suited them, playing so sparingly that they were forever n00bs.

I'm not saying being a new player is bad. I've been one, and it will happen continuously for as long as I'm playing video games. I've given my share of tips to new players. The issue isn't that they don't know, it's that they don't care. Without having to pay anything to play, there's no incentive to get the most value out of their purchase. They didn't feel the responsibility to work with their team (despite "team" being in the title of the game), and as such you had Medics running into battle with their hacksaws out and at least half of every team comprised of Snipers that were too terrible to hit anything and wound up as Pyro fodder. Now many, more serious servers run plugins that block F2P players from joining.

This is but one terrible consequence of turning an existing game with an established playerbase into a Phoenix-type F2P game, but an influx of inept players is only half the reason behind the "Magic Christian" moniker. Not long before the free-to-play update, Valve changed the previous system of unlocking weapons by completing achievements to one where they would "drop", following a complex algorithm based on length of time played. Inventories began to overflow. A couple months later, they rolled out an in-game economy. This came with a store, allowing you to purchase rare items and exclusive items with real money. Some of these items can be quite expensive, especially hats, which can reach the $20 range.

Valve essentially turned TF2 into a pay-to-win game. There are other things that Valve has done here that are different and even commendable, such as item trading and selling community-made items in their store, giving the artist most of the proceeds. But the effect in-game is that everyone promptly forgot about what the point behind TF2 was, everything became a gold rush for items, and free-to-play players began buying the best weapons and items despite lacking the skills to effectively utilize them. And with Steam's most recent update to their inventory system, you can now sell these items yourself for pennies. So if you want a new hat or a new gun, you'll have to dive into a tank full of sewage and swim around with a bunch of other morons, desperately grabbing around until one happens to fall into your hands.

How do you like that, maggot?

Other Factors

I've listed the most common forms of free-to-play games. It's often quite a bit more complex than that, with many forms blending into each other in various ways. But those core concepts are there. That's just the business model, though, and barely touches on the sinister thought-processes that go into their hideous design.

In "The Top F2P Monetization Tricks", Ramin Shokrizade details the various weapons of psychological warfare that F2P developers use on their hapless victims, known as "coercive monetization". Without naming it, I've already covered the concept of a "soft" progress gate; essentially, you can pay to proceed, or you can grind in whatever fashion necessary to continue on. "Hard" gates also exist, where you simply can not go further without paying money, and there is rarely mention of the inevitable series of hard gates beyond the first. Another form of progress gate would be the sudden increase in difficulty at certain points in a game to facilitate the need to buy boosters and other help. He also covers the scam of premium currencies, where instead of having to earn tons of silver coins, you can pay for a few gold coins that are "equal" to a certain amount of silver coins; and something called "reward removal", where it's possible to lose all of your progress unless you pay real money to merely try a challenge again.

These ploys, to grossly understate it, are unethical. The game industry is old enough to have many tried and true methods for making substantial amounts of money, for indie developers and AAA publishers alike. They also don't require subterfuge, lying, or belittling their customer base to be successful. Instead, F2P developers target casual gamers who are attracted to the simplicity of the kinds of games that are monetized, and even children who are not experienced enough to recognize when they are getting cheated.

If you've never taken an economics class, the first thing you learn in one is that "there's no such thing as a free lunch", the idea being that there is always a trade-off. If you're not paying in money for immediate access, you're instead paying in time to slog through it the hard way. F2P games are the new free lunch, stale and unenjoyable, and predictably always on the next day's menu. Unless you'd like to pay $9.99 for the premium meal?


I'm making this edit to plug my friend's blog, Modern Quarter Munchers. She's taking one for the team and voluntarily reviewing F2P games! Check it out!

May 15, 2013

Rotten Apples

There's a saying that goes something like "everyone is a saint when they're dead". That was never more true than when Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer and blatant stupidity. The wailing from the Cult of Mac was heard around the world, and the Applepologists crushed each other in their stampede to begrudgingly admit that it was a tragic loss of a genius innovator, and how they had so much to thank for of Steve Jobs for making their lives so much better and simpler.

I also have a lot to thank Steve Jobs for. If not for his innovations on (read, "bastardizations of") existing technologies, I wouldn't have a personal desktop or laptop computer, an MP3 player, or a smart phone. Yes, if not for Steve Jobs tasking Apple with ripping off and dumbing down the creations of much smarter, more talented (and better looking) people, I wouldn't have my Creative Zen MP3 player, my Sony-Ericcson phone running Google's open-source Android software, or my computers running Windows and Linux, full of AMD, nVidia and Intel hardware (some of which I installed myself). Products made by companies that took one look at what Apple was doing and said "People buy that shit? Let's make our own, better versions and sell it for a third of the cost!"

These devices were nothing new, even when Apple released their own versions. Tablet-style computers existed long before the iPad, such as the Microsoft Tablet PC series from the late 1990's, and there were others even before that. Cell phones already existed before the iPhone, of course, but true to form, Apple took the design and dumbed it down. What few things Apple made that were truly innovative, such as the highly successful Apple II, were actually the product of Steve Wozniak's genius.

This is perhaps the most illuminating video on this subject.

Apple hasn't always been the king, and it was only recently that they were reported to have more money than even the US government.Those of us who still wake up in a cold sweat with the sound of a screeching dial-up modem ringing in our ears can remember a time when you would only likely encounter an Apple product in the form of aging workstations with monochrome screens in the basement of the local library. The Cult of Mac was but a fledgling sect then, simple lotus eaters hiding behind their walled garden. Complacent in their ignorance, fearful of the outside world with its alien concepts of consumer choice and user replaceable parts. Their only claim to superiority was that they were free from computer viruses, purposefully ignoring the fact that they had a fraction of the market share, so no virus programmers (or anyone else for that matter) gave an airborne coitus.

People love drawing comparisons to George Orwell's 1984. So I find it ironic that the same company that dared to sow the seeds of consumerist anarchy with a pseudo-parody commercial of that novel has now become the embodiment of the Orwellian fascist corporate-state, with Steve Jobs as the droning, hypnotic propagandist. (And if you've read the novel, you know that Jobs' death is in no way a barrier to future appearances, and word is they're already working on the next iteration of their beloved CEO.) But you'd never hear of it from the Ronbot hipster multitude that worships at the temple with the glowing white apple carved into the tip of the pyramid.

Speaking of fascism, let's talk about the walled garden. Apple has always taken a firm stance against letting the end user modify the hardware, and in most cases, the software, of their devices. Strange, when the Apple I was a hobbyist computer. Things are somewhat improved with their laptops, where you can replace memory chips and hard drives from third party vendors. But overall, you're not allowed to exchange parts, jailbreak iOS devices, or other similar actions that are encouraged in the Android, Linux and Windows communities. Having only one version of a device out at a time can have many benefits, especially in terms of manufacturer support, but has some negative repercussions, such as the total squashing of available phone case options for non-iPhone devices by third party vendors.

Apple, largely due to Jobs' often hostile authoritarian work ethic, also has strict control over what software makes it into their App Store. In an article by Ryan Tate on Gawker, entitled What Everyone is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs, he writes:
In the name of protecting children from the evils of erotica — "freedom from porn" — and adults from one another, Jobs has banned from being installed on his devices gay artgay travel guidespolitical cartoonssexy picturesCongressional candidate pamphletspolitical caricatureVogue fashion spreads, systems invented by the opposition, and other things considered morally suspect.

Apple's devices have connected us to a world of information. But they don't permit a full expression of ideas. Indeed, the people Apple supposedly serves — "the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers" — have been particularly put out by Jobs' lockdown. That America's most admired company has followed such an un-American path, and imposed centralized restrictions typical of the companies it once mocked, is deeply disturbing.
The rest of his article is filled with similar examples, and I highly encourage you to read it. I feel it's also worth noting that other blocked apps include one that notifies subscribers every time a drone strike is carried out by United States armed forces. Their reasons for doing so were because the app wasn't "useful enough" and didn't have a "broad enough audience". That certainly explains the hundreds of apps for playing fart noises that made it past Apple's fast and loose approval standards.

Not to mention allowing outright rip-offs of other people's work, such as Zynga's Dream Heights, a clone of Nimblebit's Tiny Tower. Perhaps Apple merely sees a kindred spirit.

Nimblebit's Tiny Tower (left), Zynga's Dream Heights (right).

Perhaps the most sickeningly ironic example of an app getting blocked merely for being controversial is the case of Sweatshop HD. This satirical game let players run a clothing sweatshop in an underdeveloped country, but Apple blocked it, stating the reason was because they felt "uncomfortable selling a game based around the theme of running a sweatshop". They didn't seem too uncomfortable to manufacture their products in sweatshop conditions at companies like Foxconn, where some 200,000 employees are forced to live in the factories, working more than 60 hours a week, and forced to pay for food and rent. This was exposed back in 2006, and while Apple has raised standards and published yearly reports on conditions in their manufacturer factories, problems still exist. Child labor is a growing occurrence. During the launch of the iPad in 2010, reports began hitting news outlets about a multitude of suicides at the Foxconn factories, an endemic that resulted in the company forcing workers to sign an agreement that they wouldn't kill themselves. Employees have been poisoned by the chemicals used without being forewarned that they would be working with hazardous materials. There have even been several explosions at different factories that manufacture Apple products, the most recent of which occurred in May and December of 2011. The New York Times published an excellent and lengthy article on these events, titled Apple's iPad and the Human Costs for Workers in China, which ends with this gem:
"You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards," said a current Apple executive.

"And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China."

But oppression of the lower classes is par for the course of any totalitarian regime, right? I'm only being somewhat facetious, as Apple can (and should) divorce itself from such factories whenever it wants. Perhaps another six years will do the trick. They certainly have more freedom to do so now, as their benevolent dictator has since passed.

Steve Jobs was an infamous tyrant to those in the computer industry. His days running a company called NeXT were particularly punctuated by rants, tirades, and tantrums, typically ending with the termination of the employee he happened to be screaming at. Unusual behavior for a practicing Buddhist that spent seven months on a spirit journey, wandering India and dropping heavy amounts of LSD. Then again, taking a drug that burns holes in your brain is liable to mess with anyone's social skills. More examples can be found in several books on Jobs and Apple, such as The Little Kingdom by Michael Moritz, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs by Alan Deutschman, and iCon: Steve Jobs by Jeffrey Young and William Simon. His stint at NeXT also landed him on Fortune's list of America's Toughest Bosses in 1993.

The rules and whims of a god-king have a trickle-down effect, and Apple was not immune. Everyone makes mistakes, even high ranking corporations, but it's how you respond that really matters, and Apple never did take criticism very well. When Apple was caught tracking and storing their users' location data, they claimed it was merely a bug. When the newly-released iPhone 4 was discovered to be plagued by poor antenna reception, Apple's official response amounted to "it's your fault, you're holding it wrong", with Jobs adding it was a "non-issue". 

Can you hear me now? No? Good!

The worst (or best, depending on where you stand) debacle was when Jobs declared "thermonuclear war" on Google for releasing the competing Android mobile operating system, leading to the subsequent release of iOS 6 on the iPhone 5. Many of the new features of iOS 6 were positively received, but one stood out: Google Maps was gone, replaced by Apple Maps. And it sucked, hard. It was missing many business, transport hubs, and other important locations, and in some instances even told people to drive where roads simply didn't exist. It was so bad, in fact, that the police in Mildura, Australia urged people not to use it, as they would wind up stranded in the wilderness. Apple did eventually apologize, however, and allowed Google Maps back onto its phone. Google's Jeff Huber reported that the app was then downloaded over 10 million times in less than 48 hours.

But seemingly worse than that was Apple's policy of litigation before innovation. Or rather, litigation following "innovation". Here is a brief list of some notable lawsuits Apple is part of:
  • Sued by Cisco for trademark infringement over the "iPhone" brand. (Settled out of court.)
  • Sues Samsung over devices with a "rectangular design and rounded corners" (and won).
  • Sues Samsung over, among other things, searching multiple sources of information at once, clicking on phone numbers in other apps to initiate a call, built-in spell check, and the "slide to unlock" security feature. Absurdly, Apple won.
  • A multitude of lawsuits over apple-shaped logos, including a small cafe in Germany, whose logo looks as different from Apple's as can be and still look like a fruit.
  • They hold a patent for "wedge-shaped laptops". (Lawsuits pending.)  

Yet somehow, it's the other side of Steve Jobs that people have latched onto, completely in denial of all aspects of himself and his child company. Jobs is said to have had a "reality distortion field", a term coined from Star Trek, to describe Jobs' ability to convince everyone around him to believe anything with a perfect blend of charisma, marketing, and sheer bullshit. Apple embraced the personality cult he built up, suckering in millions of people with lies and empty promises like "it just works!" and "it's fine if you don't need to do anything crazy with it" followed by "it's not that much more expensive!"

What debating with an Apple fan is actually like.

This is encouraged through further marketing such as the Apple retail stores. Inside, the employees are all referred to as "geniuses", happy to lower themselves so they can help you, in your child-like ignorance, figure out how to set up your email account. Apple rebranded phrases and established industry terms, putting a positive spin on their rapidly shrinking kosher end-user environment. Their eventual goal: the ultra-loyal Total Apple Consumer. Regrettably, I'd concede that they succeeded, as Apple devotion now triggers the same brain responses as fanatical religious worship.

Fight the man, man!

Entire industries are even falling prey to this sort of lack-of-thinking; before his death, Steve Jobs announced the "death of Flash", and it's actually happening! A multi-million dollar industry is vaporizing simply because Steve Jobs didn't like it, replacing it with HTML5, a half-assed suite of software no one understands and is still several years from full development.

This is the part that pisses me off the most: doe-eyed adoration, flying in the face of reality. If it suits your purposes, fine, but don't try justifying the sort of stupid, unfounded bullshit like I've outlined here. There are millions of people who would gladly throw themselves in front of a bus before admitting that there could possibly be something wrong with Jobs and the company he lorded over. When the cold hard truth is that they worship a man and his empire built on a foundation such as this:

Now everyone hold your tongue and say "apple".