Sunday, 26 March 2017

In Defense of Not Watching Bad Movies

I was perusing my timeline on Facebook not long ago, when I found a discussion between a friend of mine and some of his social network on the merits of the new Iron Fist TV show on Netflix. It had been panned by some critics recently, but my friend's reaction was that he was going to be watching it anyway, because he didn't really trust critics.

This is a fair comment, but the the reason it struck me was because I heard him defending his desire to see Batman vs Superman last year, in the face of critics talking about how bad it was (this was before my own review of it, but around the time I was talking about how unappealing it looked).

Quick digression: isn't it scary how I devoted two blog posts to a movie I loathe?

When BvS came out I talked about what it portended in the realm of politics and how America sees itself. Because we're through the looking glass on that score, I thought for this post I'd narrow the focus back down to the question of why nerds still support the shit that studios shovel at us.

In my review of BvS, I note that Suicide Squad was "a work of art" in comparison. That might be a little overblown, and Suicide Squad was pretty unmemorable on many fronts, but not the complete disaster some reviewers painted it to be. Yet Suicide Squad was also the cause of a bunch of nerds going all "alternative facts" on Rotten Tomatoes in response to the reviews it had aggregated (I'm serious).

Reading through that USA Today story, it's unclear what the creator of the petition was up to - either he's a troll, or un-balanced, or some combination of the two (beyond the redundant nature of that statement). But it's also clear that people who are into SF and fantasy and all that jazz are still operating on a scarcity mentality, even though there's a glut of movies and TV based on our favorite properties.

The conventional wisdom is that such stuff wasn't so common until recently, in part because it was usually so bad, and us poor geeks and nerds had to ferociously defend our stuff against people who scoffed at the likes of X-Men or Blade adaptations. And it's true that, Superman and Batman aside, there really weren't that many good comics adaptations around.

That said, I recently compiled my own list of my favorite movies from each year I've been alive, and found that it wasn't until Die Hard (1988) that I listed a film that wasn't even loosely in the SFF canon. I had the likes of Alien, The Terminator and Back to the Future - all classics - which means in terms of nerd-stuff there was plenty going on.

And anyway, we really are in a glut now, and have been since 2008, with Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Of the two, it's clear that Iron Man's the movie that really kicked off the current run on big-name Marvel movies, and that led to DC also trying to build an inter-connected cinematic universe. Not only is Marvel's Cinematic Universe intricately connected, to the point that the films become gibberish, but they're linked to Netflix's shows and Agents of SHIELD as well.

The point I'm making, in my usual roundabout way, is that we're no longer in a position where we have to go ballistic on critics for shitting on our movies. There's so much out there that Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies, and instead of complaining when a review aggregator scores Suicide Squad poorly, we should be boycotting Warners and demanding that they make better movies.

OK, that's a little simplistic too, because no one sets out to make a bad movie (except, of course, for the guys who made Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). But I don't really agree that I have to experience every shitty comic book adaptation before I can complain about it - as cool as a Batman and Superman movie sounded, nothing appealed about the damn thing as I found out more, and I'm glad I saved the ten bucks or so I'd have spent in theaters.

By the way, this isn't a slight on my friend, mentioned up at the top. It's also not a slight on Iron Fist, which I expect I'll have a look at once I wrap up Deep Space Nine and Luke Cage. I do, however, see this as a time to remind my fellow nerds that we don't have to love everything that's served to us. Whether America (and the world) likes it or not, everyone else is watching what we want to watch, so we can afford to be picky about which movies we support.

Like Logan. Holy crap, what a well-done movie. Go see that.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Environmentalism is more than climate change

Of the many things I'm concerned about with this administration, its opposition to a clean environment has to rank at the top, right up there with its lack of understanding of how democratic norms function. The nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency has to be acknowledged as a massive troll job, done to piss off opponents and presumably to distract some of them from taking the president to task on other deeply worrying topics (e.g. blanket bans on specific religious groups or on its murky links with the Russian deep state).

And while I think it's slightly more important that we keep our democracy functioning, and not beholden to corporate interests, I find it interesting (read: distressing) how environmentalism is an issue that's become so partisan. Some people will take it as read that it should be, but clean air and water is truly something that everyone benefits from, whether or not they ever get within a hundred miles of Yosemite or Yellowstone.

After all, it was a Republican president who formed the EPA (Nixon, whom no one could ever accuse of being at all left-wing), and another who established the National Parks System before him (Teddy Roosevelt).

My sense is that a lot of opposition to the EPA and environmentalism among conservatives stems from discussions about climate change. Some don't believe in the science (as if science were a thing that one "believes in"), others think limits on carbon emissions will destroy the economy (or slow economic growth, which to some in this group is the same thing). Still others think companies shouldn't have to pay for the externalities created by use of their products (predominantly in the fossil fuel industry).

While I disagree with all of these points, it's hard not to sympathize with Arnold Schwarzenegger's contention that climate change and CO2 emissions are a difficult subject to get people excited about. I first heard him talk about this issue on his second appearance on Tim Ferriss's podcast, where he said that the focus for talking about the environment should be on reducing pollution, and I can't help but agree.

To a certain extent it feels as if the environmental discussion has turned primarily into one about emissions, and talk of actual pollution is relatively rare (except in cases like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). I admit this charge is a little simplistic, and any number of organizations, from the Sierra Club to Greenpeace to the National Resources Defense Council, would justifiably point to all the anti-pollution work that they do.

But my impression is that corporations have hijacked the emissions argument, because saying they're reducing emissions is a good way to get folks like me to buy their products (even if that talk completely turns off people of other political persuasions; but the likes of Coke and GE have different marketing campaigns in different regions to address that problem). At the same time media outlets end up prioritizing climate change rather than other forms of environmentalism - reading the Guardian a couple of years ago it felt like all the environmental stories (and thinkpieces) were about how we needed to curb emissions, and not about how we needed to clean up the air in London. I don't know about you, but I don't miss the black snot I used to get from walking around that diesel-infested city.

Schwarzenegger's suggestion was that environmental groups and media should be focusing on the health effects of pollution and I tend to agree. It's hard to get people to care about rising sea levels in places that they've never heard of, like Kiribati or Palau, or to persuade people living in the northern Midwest that temperatures are rising when they've had ridiculously cold winters the last few years. But I suspect it's easy to get people interested if you can directly link polluted water or air to deaths, and I believe all but the most committed Libertarians would miss the National Parks if they were to disappear.

I believe that the current administration's environmental policy is misguided and is poised to set our country back decades; moreover, I believe that it will take decades to undo the actions it takes to roll back even environmental regulations, both in terms of replenishing our natural resources and in dealing with the health effects of this anti-environmental strategy.

If you believe in clean air and clean water, regardless of how you vote, get in touch with your representative and senators and tell them so.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Does a game have to be fun?

Here's a thing I've discovered about mobile games: they aren't any fun at all.

Here's another thing I've discovered, though: I can't seem to stop playing the damn things.

I recently exerted an impressive amount of willpower and, in a short sequence of time, deleted no less than three games from my iPad. Total War: Kingdoms was the first to go, because it was a complete time- and mind-suck. I'd build a house here, fight off a Viking army there, and pretty soon I'd realize it was 10pm on Sunday night and I hadn't accomplished anything.

Next to go was Kingdom Rush, a tower-defense game that I've had dalliances with in the past. I downloaded last Saturday, played through the entire campaign, and then deleted it that same night, for the same reason as before - my brain had been there, and not on the actual issues occupying my life (for instance writing the proverbial great vampire/fantasy novel, earning enough money to survive in Trump's America, and attempting to find a woman willing to find my dead body 60 years from now and thereby ensure my corpse isn't eaten by a pet or something).

Yesterday, I took the final step, and deleted Star Trek: Timelines. As I was explaining to my dad a couple minutes ago, Timelines isn't what you'd call conventionally fun - you can have space battles, for instance, but you don't actually control the ships, and if your ship is strong enough, you don't actually have to do anything.

And yet I'm now kind of regretting deleting it. I'd built up a pretty strong and eclectic crew (I had Evil Goatee Spock from the classic Mirror Mirror episode of TOS, for example!), and had sunk enough time and effort into leveling them up. And I'd done all this without spending a dime, as Timelines is one of those annoying freemium games where you can pay for a certain type of currency, but can't win that currency in other ways.

As I said, it isn't conventionally fun. But somehow, it triggers some kind of endorphin rush that keeps me clicking on the next mission to win that piece of basic loot that I can use to build the piece of gear that will let my character unlock the next tier of rewards and perhaps, someday, actually win the episode. It's probably the most insidious version of the addictiveness of mobile games I've ever seen, precisely because it's so not fun (reading that last paragraph seems to indicate a number of reasons for my inability to attract a mate, for instance).

I've got a fair amount of experience with this stuff - I've messed about with Angry Birds, Infinity Blade and all three Kingdom Rush games, for instance. I've lost who knows how many productive hours and days on stupid flash games that I found on And back in college, I blew a lot of time on a naval battles game that let you set some conditions but didn't actually give you control in battle - someone once asked me if it was fun, and I remember trying to explain that no, it wasn't conventionally fun, but that wasn't the point.

That conversation was at the back of my mind over the past five or six weeks every time I played Timelines, which is what led me to delete the damn thing (that and a Tim Ferriss blog post suggesting I get rid of domino triggers that cause me to ruin all my productive work - for some people it's cookies, but for me it's Star Trek-licensed iPad games). It also got me thinking about why mobile games are like that - engaging but not fun.

The simple answer is that they provide a steady drip of pleasure drugs into your brain from accomplishing stuff. Total War: Kingdoms had this obnoxious thing where everything was on a timer - building a house took ten seconds, building a castle took ten hours, and so forth. But it was all staggered, so as soon as I collected money from one building, my farms were ready to harvest, and then I had to collect stone from my quarries, someone was attacking, and suddenly I'm two hours closer to my cat chomping on my face (this is a notional cat, by the way, as I haven't yet yielded to becoming whatever the male equivalent of lonely cat lady is).

But why's that steady drip of tricking your brain into thinking it's accomplished stuff so important? I'd argue that it's because they can't compete with console or PC games on graphics or gameplay. I'm told Super Mario Run has been super popular since launching on iOS, but I think it's because, by being a lot simpler than the original Super Mario Bros, they've unlocked a thing where you're constantly trying to improve on your performance. Just think Flappy Bird: it's some shitty web game where you're traveling through the same course endlessly, giving the occasional tap to keep from crashing into a pipe or something, but it unaccountably became the biggest gaming phenomenon outside of Pokemon Go, for that precise reason.

All of this is key to understanding why the mobile gaming business has eaten up so much of the traditional gaming business. Nintendo got a lot of praise when it launched the Wii for making gaming accessible to casual gamers, but then promptly lost that entire demographic to smartphones and tablets. Stuff like Angry Birds or Candy Crush provides a lot more endorphin per minute for the fifteen minutes you spend on the bus than cranking FIFA 17 or Dragon Age Inquisition does - in the time it takes to load up your first actual game in a season in FIFA, you could win three stars on the first ten levels of Angry Birds.

Paradoxically, I think it's the increasing sophistication and cinema-aping of console games that's turned casual gamers off the medium (that and shit like GamerGate, of course). You have to purposely sit down and play Skyrim, but Angry Birds can be played for five minutes and then abandoned. And that's why people get sucked into it for hours at a time.

What it all comes down to is understanding how your brain works, and planning accordingly. I'm not an alcoholic, but now that I've deleted Star Trek: Timelines I understand Chris Hardwick's analogy of a million baby birds chirping at you to take a drink. Despite the cellular noise saying that I really should have seen what happened when I leveled my one-star Desert Ezri Dax to level 100, intellectually I understand I'm better off.

And I restarted my campaign on Dragon Age Inquisition yesterday, so at least I don't have to decide on whether to eventually be eaten by my dog or my cat until I finish that, at the bare minimum.