A Philosopher's Blog

Lessons from Gaming #2: Random Universe

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 22, 2014
Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game)

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My experiences as a tabletop and video gamer have taught me numerous lessons that are applicable to the real world (assuming there is such a thing). One key skill in getting about in reality is the ability to model reality. Roughly put, this is the ability to get how things work and thus make reasonably accurate predictions. This ability is rather useful: getting how things work is a big step on the road to success.

Many games, such as Call of Cthulhu, D&D, Pathfinder and Star Fleet Battles make extensive use of dice to model the vagaries of reality. For example, if your Call of Cthulhu character were trying to avoid being spotted by the cultists of Hastur as she spies on them, you would need to roll under your Sneak skill on percentile dice. As another example, if your D-7 battle cruiser were firing phasers and disruptors at a Kzinti strike cruiser, you would roll dice and consult various charts to see what happened. Video games also include the digital equivalent of dice. For example, if you are playing World of Warcraft, the damage done by a spell or a weapon will be random.

Being a gamer, it is natural for me to look at reality as also being random—after all, if a random model (gaming system) nicely fits aspects of reality, then that suggests the model has things right. As such, I tend to think of this as being a random universe in which God (or whatever) plays dice with us.

Naturally, I do not know if the universe is random (contains elements of chance). After all, we tend to attribute chance to the unpredictable, but this unpredictability might be a matter of ignorance rather than chance. After all, the fact that we do not know what will happen does not entail that it is a matter of chance.

People also seem to believe in chance because they think things could have been differently: the die roll might have been a 1 rather than a 20 or I might have won the lottery rather than not. However, even if things could have been different it does not follow that chance is real. After all, chance is not the only thing that could make a difference. Also, there is the rather obvious question of proving that things could have been different. This would seem to be impossible: while it might be believed that conditions could be recreated perfectly, one factor that can never be duplicated – time. Recreating an event will be a recreation. If the die comes up 20 on the first roll and 1 on the second, this does not show that it could have been a 1 the first time. All its shows is that it was 20 the first time and 1 the second.

If someone had a TARDIS and could pop back in time to witness the roll again and if the time traveler saw a different outcome this time, then this might be evidence of chance. Or evidence that the time traveler changed the event.

Even traveling to a possible or parallel world would not be of help. If the TARDIS malfunctions and pops us into a world like our own right before the parallel me rolled the die and we see it come up 1 rather than 20, this just shows that he rolled a 1. It tells us nothing about whether my roll of 20 could have been a 1.

Of course, the flip side of the coin is that I can never know that the world is non-random: aside from some sort of special knowledge about the working of the universe, a random universe and a non-random universe would seem exactly the same. Whether my die roll is random or not, all I get is the result—I do not perceive either chance or determinism. However, I go with a random universe because, to be honest, I am a gamer.

If the universe is deterministic, then I am determined to do what I do. If the universe is random, then chance is a factor. However, a purely random universe would not permit actual decision-making: it would be determined by chance. In games, there is apparently the added element of choice—I chose for my character to try to attack the dragon, and then roll dice to determine the result. As such, I also add choice to my random universe.

Obviously, there is no way to prove that choice occurs—as with chance versus determinism, without simply knowing the brute fact about choice there is no way to know whether the universe allows for choice or not. I go with a choice universe for the following reason: If there is no choice, then I go with choice because I have no choice. So, I am determined (or chanced) to be wrong. I could not choose otherwise. If there is choice, then I am right. So, choosing choice seems the best choice. So, I believe in a random universe with choice—mainly because of gaming. So, what about the lessons from this?

One important lesson is that decisions are made in uncertainty: because of chance, the results of any choice cannot be known with certainty. In a game, I do not know if the sword strike will finish off the dragon. In life, I do not know if the investment will pay off. In general, this uncertainty can be reduced and this shows the importance of knowing the odds and the consequences: such knowledge is critical to making good decisions in a game and in life. So, know as much as you can for a better tomorrow.

Another important lesson is that things can always go wrong. Or well. In a game, there might be a 1 in 100 chance that a character will be spotted by the cultists, overpowered and sacrificed to Hastur. But it could happen. In life, there might be a 1 in a 100 chance of a doctor taking precautions catching Ebola from a patient. But it could happen. Because of this, the possibility of failure must always be considered and it is wise to take steps to minimize the chances of failure and to also minimize the consequences.

Keeping in mind the role of chance also helps a person be more understanding, sympathetic and forgiving. After all, if things can fail or go wrong because of chance, then it makes sense to be more forgiving and understanding of failure—at least when the failure can be attributed in part to chance. It also helps in regards to praising success: knowing that chance plays a role in success is also important. For example, there is often the assumption that success is entirely deserved because it must be the result of hard work, virtue and so on. However, if success involves chance to a significant degree, then that should be taken into account when passing out praise and making decisions. Naturally, the role of chance in success and failure should be considered when planning and creating policies. Unfortunately, people often take the view that both success and failure are mainly a matter of choice—so the rich must deserve their riches and the poor must deserve their poverty. However, an understanding of chance would help our understanding of success and failure and would, hopefully, influence the decisions we make. There is an old saying “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” One could also say “there, but for the luck of the die, go I.”

 

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Brain Games

Posted in Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 7, 2014
Brain Games box art

Brain Games box art (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a general rule, most people want to gain for as little as possible effort. For example, people seem to often buy exercise equipment thinking that it will make exercise easier. They usually find out that is not the case—thus the brisk trade in lightly used exercise equipment and its regularly being buried under clothes. The latest brain training games seem to be offering the same temptation: if a person plays these brain games, she will become smarter. The appeal is, of course, that the games are supposed to fun rather than burdensome—like education tends to be. The obvious questions is whether such games work or not.

On the face of it, the idea that playing these brain games can have positive effects does make some sense. After all, exercising the body improves it—so, by analogy, the same should hold for the brain. The obvious concern is that not everything that people think is exercise actually improves the body. Likewise, the brain games might be like useless exercises for the body: you are doing something, but it is having no effect. To address this matter, the thing to do is to turn to some actual science.

As it stands, the unbiased research seems to show that the current crop of commercial brain training games have no meaningful impact. While people do get better at the games, this is most likely due to familiarity. To use an analogy to another type of video game, doing the same scripted event over and over in a game like World of Warcraft or Deadspace III will cause a person to improve at that specific task. To use a specific example, in Deadspace III the player has to “fly” through a field of debris and avoid being smashed. My friend and I smashed into the debris repeatedly until we finally made it—through familiarity with the process rather than by getting “better.” The same seems to be true of the current brain games and getting better at such a game does not entail that one is smarter or more mentally capable. In light of the existing evidence, spending money on the commercial brain games would be a waste of money—unless one is just playing them for fun.

Interestingly enough, video games of the more “traditional” sort can improve memory and mental skills. This is not surprising—such video games typically place players in challenging environments that often mimic general challenges in the real world. As such, rather than simply focusing on a relatively simple game that is narrowly focused, the gamer is forced to fully engage the general challenge and develop a broader set of capabilities. As such, video games of this sort probably help improve mental abilities in a way analogous to how reality does so. In the case of video games, the challenges will tend to be more challenging and more frequent than what a person would generally encounter in the real world. For example, participating in a World of Warcraft raid involves tracking abilities, maintaining situational awareness, following (or giving) orders, following a strategy and so on. That is, it provides an actual mental workout. So, a person looking for games to make her smarter would be better off getting a gaming console or PC and selecting challenging games. They will probably be much more fun than the brain games and apparently more effective.

I would also like to put in a plug for traditional table top games as well—be they games like Risk or D&D. These games provide enjoyable challenges that seem to have a positive impact on cognitive abilities. Plus, they are social activities—and that is no doubt better for a person than playing brain games online solo.

 

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MOOCs

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2013
MOOC Crib

MOOC Crib (Photo credit: snowpup5)

Thanks to games like World of Warcraft, many people are familiar with MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games). However, people are probably somewhat less familiar with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

While MOOCs vary considerably, the name provides their basic features. First, they are massive (or potentially so). This means that such a course can support an indefinite number of students. This is in obvious contrast to the traditional classroom which is limited by the size of the room and even with the now traditional online classes which are typically limited in size because they are taught by one (or a few) teachers.

Second, they are open. This is in contrast with the traditional closed course which is available only to students registered at a specific school. Currently, the MOOCs are operating on a free model as well—that is, students do not pay to take such classes. However, the monetization of MOOCs is certainly inevitable.

Third, they are online. This also typically involves a high degree of automation for the course. In most cases, a MOOC is pre-packaged course without interaction with an actual teacher.

Finally, they are courses—that is, they are aimed at teaching people something. The best known MOOCs, those offered by Coursera, are college classes. However, they could be classes at any level. Currently MOOCs do not provide college credit, but there are plans to change this—most likely as part of the monetization process.

Obviously, MOOCs do have some clear positive features. Since they are massive, they can support a large number of students, thus making the courses more widely available. Since they are open, the classes are available to anyone who can access a computer, thus making them available to people who might not otherwise be able to afford college classes.

As might be imagined, I find these aspects of MOOCs very appealing and consistent with my own view of broad education. After all, I have made my work on fallacies freely available for almost two decades and I have various (admittedly lame) educational videos on YouTube. However, as a professor I have some concerns about the future of MOOCs.

As noted above, it is a matter of time before MOOCs are monetized. In general, I have no problem with this—after all, I work for money and sell books via Amazon. Heck, I’d probably get involved with a reputable MOOC service. My main concern, then, is not that MOOCs will go from open to being monetized. Rather, my concern is what impact they could have on the quality of education.

Having been in education for a while, I am well aware of the business-model push to minimize costs in education. Before the web, there was (and still is) a push to have classes as large as possible—in my case, I am paid the same whether my class is a mere 35 students or a ridiculous 75 students. The web merely allows this to be taken to an even greater extreme, since it is not limited by the size of a physical classroom. With truly massive online courses, a single professor could supply an education product to thousands of students. There are, of course, some obvious concerns here. One is the workload of a professor responsible for a massive class. Another is the quality of education in such a diluted learning environment, even if the main professor is supported by graduate students or staff.

Of course, greater savings can be had by eliminating the professor entirely. That is, the class can (as MOOCs typically are now) be a pre-packaged learning product that the students click through, without any actual teacher. While a professor or other professional would be needed to design and create the course content and assessment material, this could be done once (like a book) and updated from time to time. Thus, rather than paying a professor for each semester, a professor could be paid to put himself (and others) out of a teaching job.  No doubt, some star professors (like star authors) would make good money off the courses they created. However, it would probably not be very good for most faculty.

Naturally, if the MOOC is for credit, there would be a need to grade the work of the students. Much of this can be done, obviously enough, by the use of software. True/false tests and their ilk can easily be graded automatically. Papers, lab reports and so on would still require a human grader. However, just as graduate students are currently used as grading machines, they could be employed (at vastly lower pay than professors) to grade such work. Others could also be hired solely as graders, perhaps paid like migrant farmers in terms of the volume of their work—so much per page graded, perhaps. Outsourcing would also be an obvious approach here—just as students talk to a person in India for support for their software, their papers would be graded there as well, perhaps by the same person.

This would be a dream come true for some: the arrival of the industrial revolution in education in which the labor of a person (the professor) is replaced by a vastly more efficient mechanized (or rather computerized) education machine. Students simply pay their money, log in and click their way to a degree at minimal cost to the university or college. At long last the knowledge factory would be a true factory.

For those who would profit from such a system, it obviously has incredible appeal. A college could now operate like a true business, largely unburdened by costly and often troublesome professors. It could also be advantageous for students: they might pay significantly less for their education and be able to complete it faster than they could via the traditional means of education (or even via normal online classes).

There is, however, a point of great concern: would a MOOC be an adequate substitute for the traditional class or even the traditional online class? That is, would students have the same quality of education?

Honesty compels me to admit that when it comes to classes that are traditionally taught as massive lectures there would probably be little difference. In fact, a well done MOOC might actually be superior to the education acquired by sitting in a lecture hall with 800 other students, watching a professor up on stage. As such, such massive service classes could be reasonably replaced by MOOCs.

Obviously, some classes would not work as pure MOOCs, such as classes that require actual lab work, dissections or other such things that require a physical presence. Of course, a college could simply have labs run by low paid staff members with everything else being done via the MOOC.

However, there seem to be many classes that would lose a great deal of educational quality without the sort of interaction that having an actual teacher would provide. To use an obvious analogy, while clicking about on a web site to diagnose an illness can be a good start, at some point a person should probably see an actual doctor.  Likewise, clicking through an automated class can be a good start, but at some point one should probably interact with an actual educator.

Of course, there is still the question of whether or not having the real thing (a doctor or professor) is worth the price. This is a matter that should be seriously considered. Of course, if we take the approach of replacing people whenever they can be replaced by automation, at some point we would replace everyone—even the administrators, shareholders and students.  But perhaps the ultimate dream is to have a completely automated system: machines teaching machines and money automatically multiplied in automated banks with no humans left in the process at all. More seriously, the challenge, then, is deciding when the automation is not worth the price.

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Diablo III & Selling Fake for Real

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2011
Demon Hunter [661]

"Cash or credit?"

While Diablo III will not be released for a while, it is already generating controversy. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with the demons in the game but with certain features of the game. In a previous post I discussed the matter of Blizzard requiring Diablo III “owners” to be online in order to play the game. In this post I will discuss the auction house.

One new feature in Diablo III is the game’s auction house. While auction houses are nothing new in games (World of Warcraft and other MMOs feature them), what is somewhat new is that players can auction game items to each other for real money. As with a real auction house, Blizzard gets a fee with each transaction. There is also apparently a fee for cashing out the money for real money (but no fee for using the money to buy Blizzard stuff, such as games and in game items).

The selling of fake stuff for real money in games is also not new. Second Life has its own economy as do other games/online worlds. However, most of these involve participants selling virtual things they have made.  In such cases, the selling does seem to make sense. For example, if Bill designs an elaborate virtual house and sells it to Sally, this seems comparable to Bill selling Sally a drawing or photograph. However, in Diablo III, players will be selling loot that randomly drops from monsters which does raise a question about justifying paying cash for such items.

The obvious way to justify this is to argue that while the players did not create what they are selling (it is not like selling a drawing), they did put in the time playing the game to get the item. Of course, luck is also a factor-the loot drops are random, so getting good stuff that people will buy is both a matter of time and luck. As such, these transactions could be seen as comparable to the way prospectors found and sold random bits of gold or other valuables and then sold them. While the prospectors sold physical objects, the value of a flake of gold or a magic sword seem to be primarily in the mind. As such, there seems to be no problem with the selling of “fake” stuff.

One point of concern is that Blizzard would seem to be using players as laborers who mine Blizzard’s game for random items to sell to other players. Blizzard profits from selling the game and also profits from the game’s real money economy. This, some might contend, seems a bit shady. The obvious reply is, of course, that participation is voluntary: players do not need to buy or sell. Also, the players have a chance to make money while doing something fun-which makes this way better than most jobs.

Another point of concern is that this real money auction house will encourage hacking and item farming. Of course, the hacking is mainly Blizzard’s problem-unless people “hack” by stealing from players (as happens in Warcraft). Item farming is, fortunately, not a big concern. Unlike World of Warcraft, you can play Diablo III alone or just with friends. Hence, you do not need to worry about farmers showing up to ruin your game by grabbing up all the monsters. Also, by having a legitimate and controlled means of selling items, the auction house bypasses the black and gray markets that have grown up around MMOs. So, for example, rather than players giving their credit card numbers (or game account information) to people selling gold or leveling, players can just buy stuff through Blizzard’s auction house.

A final point of concern is the ethics of buying items in terms of fairness and in terms of what some might call the spirit of gaming. Being able to just buy items with real money is not cheating in the sense of breaking the game rules (since it is part of the game), but could be seen as cheating in the sense of violating the spirit of gaming. Among those who might be derided as gaming purists, there is a view that items and advancement in a game should be earned in the game. To simply pay cash is cheating since it yields by cash what should be earned by effort. To use an analogy, if someone could just buy a bike and be able to use it in a 5K footrace because she paid for it, then even if this were in the race’s rules, it would still strike runners as a form of “sanctioned” cheating. This is because an increase in speed should be earned and not merely purchased. Likewise, in a game like Diablo III, players should “earn” that magic sword or armor in the game, rather than being able to gear up their character because they have access to mom’s credit card.

It is, however, worth considering that Diablo III is not really a competitive game and, as noted above, players can chose who they play with. Going back to the bike analogy, if someone wants to hold a private race(and the times do not count for records, etc.), in which participants can buy advantages with real money ,  then it should not really be a matter of concern (other than to note that it seems a bit silly to pay money for such an “advantage” in such circumstances) to people who are not participating in the event. As such, my considered view is that it is silly for people to spend real money on fake stuff and it does seem a bit shady. However, if people want to do this, then so be it.

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Diablo III & Ownership

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 11, 2011
Diablo III

Image by Kimli via Flickr

Like most gamers, I am looking forward to the release of Blizzard’s  Diablo III. However, also like most gamers, I have some concerns about certain aspects of the game. These concerns have nothing to do with the demons in the game-I’m fine with killing them. While discussing a video game would generally not be a very philosophical sort of thing, the game does raise some important general issues about ownership and fairness.

While Diablo II offered online play as a feature, it did not require players to be connected in order to play. This was, in part, due to the fact that Diablo II arrived on the scene before the days when people could be connected at all times and nearly all places. Diablo III, at least currently, requires that players be connected to Blizzard’s servers in order to play. The folks at Blizzard claim that this is to keep people from cheating in the game.

On one hand, the folks at Blizzard do have a point. People routinely hacked Diablo II to provide their characters with all sorts of goodies and this was made incredibly easy by the fact that character files were stored locally. On the other hand, if Diablo III is like Diablo III, then cheating is really not a point of major concern. In the Diablo genre the player and a few friends (or strangers) travel about in dangerous places (dungeons) and click on monsters until they die. While it is possible to fight other player characters, this was not a significant part of Diablo II and presumably will not be a big part of Diablo III.  Of course, this is from my perspective-I did know of some folks who were obsessed with battling other players (and cheating to win). In any case, Diablo III is not a MMO like World of Warcraft (so you do not have to share the game world with people you do not like) and it does not have (as far as I know) competing factions or battlegrounds intended for player versus player combat. As such, cheating does not seem like it would be a big deal-it is easy to avoid and would have no impact on your game, unless you allowed it by inviting cheaters into your game and decided to fight them.

What is most likely the real reason for the online requirement is, obviously enough, to deter piracy. While this is not a perfect defense against the theft of the game, it does make it somewhat harder. Blizzard does seem to have a right to protect its games from theft and the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who would claim that people have a right to avail themselves of other people’s work without paying for it. As such, I will not argue that Blizzard should not protect their product. However, the means does raise some concerns.

In the past, one important concern would have been the reliability and accessibility of the internet. However, this is not  supposed to be a major concern these days since the typical gamer will only be disconnected (yet able to play) during rare outages and when flying (and only during certain parts of the flight). Also, as the Blizzard folks have helpfully pointed out, there are many other games than Diablo III that people can play when they are not connected.

One legitimate concern is the matter of what the consumer is paying for. When I buy a MMO game like World of Warcraft I accept that it is part of the very nature of the product that I have to be online in order to use my purchase. To use an analogy, when I buy a phone I accept that I need to be connected to a network for it to function as a phone. that is how phones work. While Diablo III does support online play, it is not an MMO and hence does not actually require being connected to the internet for the game to function (aside from Blizzard making it that way). To use an analogy, it would be like a company selling an  MP3 player that only works when it is connected into the phone network owned by the company. While being connected can add extra features, there is clearly no reason why a MP3 player needs to be connected in order for the owner to play her music on it.

As far as why this should be a point of concern, consider the following. Suppose I buy an MP3 player. I can put my music on it and play it for as long as I own it. If the company tanks or if I am out in the woods, I can still use my purchase until it finally wears out. But, suppose I buy an MP3 player that refuses to work unless it can check in with the selling company. This means that if the company tanks, changes it policies, discontinues the product or if I cannot connect, then my MP3 player is just a paperweight. This certainly changes the nature of the product in important ways in terms of what I am buying and what I actually own. In the case of the first player, I am buying a device that I own and control. In the case of the second player, I am handing over money in the hopes that the company will permit me to keep using the product. While this can be an acceptable situation (after all, this is how MMOs and phone contracts work),these conditions should be reflected in the price of the product. After all, if a product can simply stop working because of some external factor, then this changes the value of the product.

In a second post I will address the other concern I have with the game, namely the real money auction house.

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Are NASCAR Drivers Athletes?

Posted in Philosophy, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on August 8, 2011
Shot by The Daredevil at Daytona during Speedw...

Image via Wikipedia

A while ago I got into an argument over whether or not NASCAR drivers are athletes. This argument was caused by NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson being nominated for male athlete of the year.  I am with Golden Tate on this matter: NASCAR is hard, but the drivers are not athletes.  However, fairness requires that I actually make a case for my claim.

Before getting to the main event, there is the question of why this matter is even worth considering. After all, why should anyone care whether NASCAR drivers (or anyone else) are considered athletes or not? One reason (which might not be a good one) is a matter of pride. Athletes often tend to regard being athletes as a point of pride and see it as being an accomplishment that sets them apart from others in this area. As such, they tend to be concerned about what counts as being an athlete since this is supposed to be an earned title.

To use an obvious analogy, consider the matter of being an artists. Like athletes, artists often take pride in being set apart from others on the basis of being artists. It matters to them who is considered an artist. Sticking with the analogy, to many athletes the idea that a NASCAR driver is an athlete would be comparable to saying to an artist that someone who does paint-by-number “art” is an artist.

Naturally it could be argued that this is all just a matter of vanity and that such distinctions have no real significance. If NASCAR drivers want to think of themselves in the same category as Jessie Owens or if paint-by-number folks want to see themselves keeping company with Michelangelo, then so be it.

While that sort of egalitarianism has a certain appeal, there is also the matter of the usefulness of categories. On the face of it, the category of athlete does seem to be a useful and meaningful category, just as the category of artist also seems useful and meaningful. As such, it seems worth maintaining some distinctions in regards to these sort of classifications.

Turning back to the matter of whether or not NASCAR drivers are athletes, the obvious point of concern is determining the conditions under which a person is (and is not) an athlete. This will, I believe, prove to be far trickier to sort out than it would first appear.

One obvious starting point is the matter of competition. Athletes typically compete and NASCAR clearly involves competition. However, being involved in competition does not appear to be a necessary or sufficient condition for being an athlete. After all, there are many competitions (such as spelling bees) that are non athletic in nature. Also, there are people who clearly seem to be athletes who do not compete. For example, I have known and know many runners who never actually compete. They run mile after mile and are in excellent shape, yet never enter a race. I also know people who practice martial arts, bike, swim and so on and never compete. However, they seem to be athletes. As such, this factor does not settle the matter. However, the discussion does seem to indicate that being an athlete is a physical sort of thing, which does raise another factor.

When distinguishing an athlete from, for example, a mathlete, the key difference seems to lie in the nature of the activity. Athletics is primarily physical in nature (although the mental is very significant) while being something like a mathlete or chess player is primarily mental. This seems obvious enough to not require any debate. However, the nature of the physical is a matter of legitimate debate.

NASCAR clearly requires physical skills and abilities. The drivers need good reflexes, the ability to judge distances and so on. These are skills that are also possessed by paradigm cases of athletes, such as tennis players and baseball players. However, they are also skills and abilities that are possessed by non-athletes. For example, these skills are used by normal drivers and people playing video games. Intuitively, I am not an athlete because I am able to drive my truck competently nor am I an athlete because I can play Halo: Reach or World of Warcraft with competence. Specifying the exact difference is rather difficult, but a reasonable suggestion is that in the case of athletics the application of skill involves a more substantial aspect of the physical body than does driving a car or playing a video game. A nice illustration of this is comparing a tennis video game with the real thing. The tennis video game requires many of the reflex skills of real tennis, but a key difference is that in the real tennis the player is fully engaged in body rather than merely pushing buttons. That is, the real tennis player has to run, swing, backpedal and so on for real. The video game player has all this done for her at the push of a button. This seems to be an important difference.

To use an analogy, consider the difference between a person who creates a drawing from a photo and someone who merely uses a Photoshop filter to transform a photo into what looks like a drawing. One person is acting as an artist, the other is just pushing a button.

Getting back to the specific matter of the NASCAR drivers, I am inclined to say that what they do is closer to what video game players do: they use a machine to do the actual physical work for them. As such, I would say that they are no more athletes because they race cars than someone is a soldier because he plays Call of Duty.

At this point a natural objection is to point to sports that involve the use of machines. One rather obvious example is cycling. On the face of it, cyclists like Lance Armstrong are clearly athletes. However, they make use of machines to multiply their efficiency.

Fortunately, this objection is easy to handle. While cyclists and others do use machines, these machines are not powered. The athlete still has to provide the physical effort to make it work and, as such, a cyclist is not just pushing buttons and letting the machine do all the work. In the case of NASCAR, the driver is guiding the car around the track, but the car is doing all the actual physical work. With the right technology, the driver could be a brain in a box, “driving” the car with mental impulses. This would involve the same basic skills and nicely shows the extent to which the physical body  is a key component of NASCAR. In contrast, a brain in a box could not be a runner or a football player. True, it could be given a robot body-but it would still not be an athlete.

It might be objected that it is the skill that makes NASCAR drivers athletes. However, the skill set seems to focus on operating a powered machine. Operating complex industrial equipment, programming a computer or other such things also require skills, but I would not call a programmer an athlete. Nor would I call a surgeon an athlete, despite the skill required and the challenges she faces trying to save lives.

I would, however, compare NASCAR drivers to sports fishermen and would classify them as sportsmen (or sportspeople to avoid being sexist since there are women drivers including one who was named the sexiest athlete by Victoria’s Secret). This is a worthy title and one that the NASCAR drivers should proudly accept.  Lest anyone think I am being sarcastic, I am not. What they do is hard and does require a degree of skill that I certainly do not possess. However, they are not athletes.

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World of GrindCraft

Posted in Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2011
Logo of Blizzard Entertainment

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While I do enjoy World of Warcraft, the grind does, well, grind on me. I do understand that Blizzard uses the grind as a way of keeping people playing a longer time (and thus paying those monthly fees). However, it would be nice if they made the grind more pleasant. I suspect that would keep more people playing longer. After all, I assume that I am not the only one who has considered calling it quits in the face of the grind.

One grind is the reputation grind. In order to get certain items in the game, you need to get reputation with the faction that sells the items.  These include useful gear, enchants, as well as vanity items like pets and mounts. What bothers me about the reputation grind is that the content for gaining reputation runs out long before you actually achieve the highest reputation. So, for example, you might save the entire kingdom of the Ramakitties (as I call them) and still only be liked a bit. After that, you typically have to run dungeon after dungeon while wearing that faction’s tabard  to get the reputation. In some cases, the factions have daily quests that allow you to build up reputation by repeatedly doing the questions.

One obvious solution would be to add more content so that people can build reputation by doing new and hopefully interesting things rather than grinding away in dungeons or doing dailies. These grinds could also be improved.

A second grind is the dungeon grind. The instances have the better item drops and also are the source of the Justice and Valor points needed to buy even better items. To keep people playing and paying, it takes a long time to get the points needed to buy items and, of course, the item drops are random and very limited in quantity (usually one good item per boss).

While the dungeons are a challenge at first and then fun, they soon become something of a chore of seemingly endless grinding. In addition to it seeming a bit odd to kill the same boss hundreds of time, it also becomes boring to do the same thing over and over and over. One obvious solution is to add more content. Another fix is to have truly random dungeons that generate a random map, populate it with random monsters and drops loot from a huge list of items (rather than just a few). True, the bosses could not be as scripted as the fixed bosses, but at least it would provide some different experiences and break up the monotony of the grind. Heck, I’d be happy to send Blizzard all my own dungeon designs from years of gaming to help them out.

A third grind is the daily quest. While the idea of a quest that you can repeat daily makes things easy on Blizzard, it becomes boring very fast. In fact, it becomes very much like work: do the same basic damn thing day after day in order to get some minor payment. This would not be as bad if the quests were not rather dull (usually just gathering items or killing X number of things) or if at least made some sense as to why the quest was being done everyday. For example, it seems a bit odd to kill the same monster (like Chillmaw) everyday. It is like being trapped in Groundhog Day. It would also help a bit if it did not take so long to get decent rewards. I do get that they need to drag out play and that it should not be too easy to get the good stuff. However, unless you are willing to grind the damn dailies every damn day it will take you a very, very long time to get the good stuff.

One solution is to make the dailies more interesting or at least have a larger variety of dailies that cycle through. Making them make more sense would also help a bit. Adding more levels of stuff could also be a good option so that there is more of a feeling that your efforts are actually yielding some results. The items should also be added to with the various patches so that the rewards do not become obsolete or pointless when better items are added as drops.

A fourth grind is crafting and gathering. To make items in the game, players need to gather (or buy) the materials and this tends to be a rather slow process. Items often require a lot of materials and the really good ones typically require things that you can only get by chance (like the Chaos Orbs). This is all well and good for folks who are willing to spend hours grinding for material or the gold to get it, but it becomes a tedious chore for folks who mainly want to do interesting things involving new content. Of course, Blizzard keeps things slow to keep people playing longer and to also make things a bit harder for gold farmers. Ironically, though, it is often this grind that drives people to buy gold and characters.

The solution seems to be to either increase the rate at which materials are gathered or cut down a bit on what is required to make things. This could be offset by offering even more things to make at various item levels so that people still have the option to grind for countless hours to make the really good stuff. This would also offset the problem that crafted items tend to be rendered obsolete when new patches come out.

Of course, the best way to avoid the grind is to just not play. 🙂

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Monads Look Inwards

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2011
Gottfried Leibniz, who speculated that human r...

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Philosophers during the modern era wrestled with various philosophical problems. Some of these were cast as new problems, although many had been vexing philosophers since the start of the profession. One of these is the problem of the external world: how do I know that my perceptions match what is real? Another is the mind-body problem: how does the mind interact causally with the body? Leibniz attempted to address these problems (and more) with his monads.

For Leibniz, monads are the fundamental entities that make up the world. They are immaterial and, although they have qualities, they have no parts. There are supposed to be an infinite number of these entities and, apparently, they all perceive. On most interpretations, each monad is a mind. However, the monads do vary in their degree of mental capabilities and they range from the most minimally perceiving monad to the supreme monad (not to be confused with the supreme Dalek or a nacho supreme) which is, of course, God. The higher sorts of monads are conscious and aware while the lower sorts presumably are not. As such, while your soap perceives (think about that the next time you lather up) it is not conscious (which is probably best for both of you).

While all these myriad monads perceive, this perception is not (as Leibniz sees it) a perception caused by external objects. As Leibniz famously claimed, the monads do not have windows and (in addition to making it hard to enjoy warm spring days) nothing enters or departs from them. However, each monad is supposed to mirror all of reality. While I usually use the  analogy of a bowl full of polished ball bearings as an analogy to illustrate that bit, the analogy rather obviously fails badly. But, I do think it is a nice image.

While this windowlessness might seem rather odd, it does enable Leibniz to solve two problems with one nad, monad, that is. First, the mind body problem is elegantly solved: reality is fundamentally mental (which I am sure you have long suspected) and hence there are not two distinct metaphysical types to have relationship problems. There is but one type and, perhaps even better, there are no causal relations between these monads (well, aside from God’s act of creation, but God is always mucking up things). Thus, these problems are solved. Well, sort of anyway. Second, the problem of the external world is also solved. Monads do not perceive what is outside of them, for there are no windows via which they interact with an external world. The split between experience and reality that allows the problem of the external world to gain traction simply is not there, hence its wheels spin futilely. Or would, if problems had wheels.

Assuming that you buy this, there are still some obvious problems remaining. One is the matter of addressing the intuitively plausible view that we are perceiving the same reality and that we seem to interact. For example, as I type the blog my husky (a husky monad) is watching. I believe that she is perceiving me doing this and I believe that I am perceiving her perceiving me and that she is no doubt wishing that I was handing her some treats rather than typing. So, how does this work with monads?

For Leibniz the answer is very straightforward. In the beginning, God created all the monads and placed “in” each one all its experiences (sort of like downloading a whole movie before starting to play it). Being really amazing, God makes sure that all the monads are in sync (no, not in the boy band). So, back to the husky example, when I have the experience of seeing my husky and she has the experience of seeing me, we are not “really” seeing each other. Rather Isis (my husky) is having an experience in her mind as if she were seeing me and likewise for me. While I do suspect that husky hair could actually get into a monad, there is no actual causal interaction between us. However, the experiences are in a state of pre-established harmony and hence it all works out. Really.

Not surprisingly, this has caused some people to wonder why this does not just collapse into solipsism. After all, if all my experiences are pre-loaded, then I should have them whether there are any other monads or not. By Occam’s Razor, one might argue, it would seem simplest to hold that I and I alone exist. Or, at best it is just me and the creator-which sticks us (or rather just me) into the problem raised by Descartes. Perhaps even worse, if the God monad perceives everything perfectly, then it would seem to entail that everything is just a quality of God’s mind. This is, of course, pantheism and something the sane generally endeavor to avoid whenever possible.  As such, let us quietly close that door and sneak away.

Now that all those problems have been successfully ignored, there is the obvious problem of space. If we are just immaterial monads, then the space we perceive would thus clearly not be space in the usual sense of a box in which God keeps his stuff. Also, what we take to be extended (three dimensional) objects cannot actually be three dimensional in the usual sense.

Leibniz solves the first problem by taking space to be a system of relationships between what a monad experiences. To use a contemporary example, think about “moving” around in 3D video game like Halo or World of Warcraft. It seems like you are moving through space because of the relationship between the elements of your experience, yet there really are not three dimensions in the usual sense. Space is merely a matter of perception and relative to the experiences.

In regards to objects appearing to be extended, this  is also a matter of perception. While Leibniz uses the analogy of a rainbow, the video game analogy works even better. In video games we experience what seem to be extended objects, even though they are not actually extended. Rather, the extension is something of an illusion. Likewise for the monad’s experience of extension-it is all in their minds. The monads look inwards and see all that can be seen.

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Seriously?

Posted in Business, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on February 18, 2011
The World Of Warcraft Launcher or Patcher

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While online scammers tend to focus on tricking people into providing financial information (such as credit card and banking information) there is also a lucrative business in tricking people into handing over their World of Warcraft information.

Now, you might be wondering what scammers could get out of a Warcraft account. After all, it hardly seems worth the effort to get access to a game when the same effort could provide access to bank accounts. However, while a WoW account won’t yield the sort of payout that access to a bank account would yield, they can be a source of revenue.

As with any money-making enterprise, there is a shadow economy that has grown up around WoW and other such games. Part of this shadow economy involves selling in game gold for real money (which is often also a scam for getting credit card numbers). Another part of this economy involves selling characters and gear for real money. While some operations do actually employ people to “farm” for gold (the infamous “Chinese gold farmers”) and level characters, stealing an established account to plunder for items and gold is far more time efficient. One common tactic is to steal an account and then sell everything the characters have and, if the characters are in a guild, to raid the guild bank and sell everything there. This actually happened to my guild, which is why I use hardware authenticator with my account.

While I have been playing WoW since 2004, I received my first email WoW scam today. I assume it was either a random mailing or some bot culled my email from a post about WoW. As you can see from the text below, the scam was either written by using Google translate or maybe by a college student:

Congratulations! Your world of Warcraft account to receive compensation.This is Blizzard Entertainment’s apology, We acknowledge a mistake, for you to lose the World of Warcraft account in order to recover our losses, We will give you 50000 gold coins free of charge and rare mounts (Dark Phoenix), I hope you can restart the game

Login here to authentication, 48 hours you will receive compensation

Description: test account and permanently disabled can not compensation

It was rather easy to spot that this was a scam. After all, Blizzard doesn’t send these sort of emails nor does it ever send people gold or rare mounts to compensate for anything. As noted above, the writing style is also a dead give away. Naturally, the link was also clearly not a Blizzard site.

Presumably some people do fall for these scams-after all, 50000 gold coins and rare mounts are rather tempting to the ignorant. Of course, when I read it I had to laugh and my first thought was “seriously, is the best that you scammer assweasels can do?” They really need to step up their game-this current scam is just insulting and I demand a better quality scam.

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WoW & Character: Instance Wipes

Posted in Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on February 13, 2011
Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a ...

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Being an athlete, I have often heard people claim that sports both reveals character and builds character. My own experience supports these claims and hence I agree with them. While video games like WoW are not exactly like sports (sports requires a degree of fitness, WoW does not) they do seem to have the potential to both reveal and build character (both the game character and the real character of the player).

Instances and raids (which are basically tougher instances) often are the best opportunities to see a person’s character. In the latest expansion to WoW, raids and instances are rather challenging and wipes (everyone dying) are not uncommon and people react to these set backs in various ways.

Assuming that the wipe was not caused by stupidity or intentionally (people actually do this and then leave the party), most people are willing to make  another go of it. However, some folks immediately leave or spend the next several minutes tossing around blame or bitching rather than working out a better strategy. I suspect that the approach a person takes in instances also matches their real-life approach to set backs. For example, I will stick with a challenge in real life until I succeed or until it becomes evident that success is either not possible or simply too costly. I take the same approach to instance wipes-I will keep at it until I succeed or it becomes evident that we are all just wasting our time.

Interestingly enough, wipes can also be a character building experience. To steal a bit from Aristotle, what we do is what we are (or become). Someone who gives up in the face of a wipe learns to be a quitter. Those who complain and cast blame, learn to do those things. Those who consider why the group died and work on a better strategy learn an effective way to deal with setbacks and problems.

That said, it is also important to learn to recognize when the game is not worth the candle (or the electricity, to update that saying a bit). While persevering in the face of a failure can be laudable, there is a point at which pressing on is a bad idea. In the case of WoW, there are times when the group dynamic is simply “off” or people are too tired and frustrated as well. There is a wisdom in knowing when to call the fight and return to face it again another day.

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