Where have I been?

So it’s been almost two years since I’ve last done anything with this blog. There were times when I was meaning to, but I just never got around to it. Then I got really busy. So what have the last two years held for me.

Firstly, I got married at the tail end of 2013. Most of you already know about this, but it happened and it was a major event, so I’m including it.

Between the last time I posted here and the end of 2013, I went through two traditional jobs, once as an electrical apprentice and one in retail, neither lasting more than three months. I was still writing for Pixel Judge during this time, and since I was exercising my creativity there, didn’t feel up to trying to maintain this blog. All of the stuff I’ve written for them is still up there – go check it out (my favourites are in my Portfolio).

2014 was the year of change. I went to TAFE and studied IT, started looking for work in that industry (and failed to find any). Joined a government program that helps job seekers start their own businesses and ended up completing a 1-2 year Small Business Management course in 13 weeks, and started a business!! During this time, writing took a back-seat, since my time as severely limited. The Editor-In-Chief of Pixel Judge ended up letting me go because I couldn’t commit to the workload they needed me for, and looking back I almost burnt out because of the extreme stress of cramming 2 years worth of study into a comparatively tiny space.

The upside is, I’m now running my own IT Maintenance Company. We handle a variety of computer problems for home and small business users. Work is slow at the moment, but it’s picking up little by little. There’s more information on the business’ Website and Facebook Page, so check them out.

In my spare time I’ve started making Let’s Play Videos. They go up three days a week, and will continue to do so for as long as I can spare the time to make them. I might even start posting the videos here, and continuing the commentary in accompanying blog posts, but there are no promises at this point.

So that’s the last two years for me…hopefully this urge to write doesn’t burn itself out too soon this time…


Standing in the Hall of Fame

So I’ve been listening to ‘Hall of Fame’ by The Script a lot over the past few days, and it’s really fired my imagination and drive to write (hence an actual post here). Here’s the official video:

There comes a time in everyone’s life where they have to ask the questions ‘What have I done/will I do with my life?’ ‘What have/will I achieved?’ ‘How did/will I live my life?’ ‘Am I satisfied with this??’. These are the questions by which we guide our lives, and by which we judge the time that we have on this earth. For some, these questions are asked earlier in life – they led me away from a life of study and into a field where I can more tangibly see the fruits of my labor – and nearly everyone asks themselves these questions in their twilight years. I’m of the mindset that these are questions that present themselves in times of crisis in people’s lives – times when one part of their life is over, and another is beginning (i.e. myself, earlier this year when my studies had come to a close; or the near cliche ‘mid-life crisis’) – and, when looking back, are the points that people remember most clearly.

So what does that have to do with the song I’ve posted above? The song is simply a call to remember that there will come a time where you look at your life, and ask those questions. It’s a call to dream – ‘be students, be teachers, be politicians, be preachers. Be believers, be leaders, be astronauts, be champions, be truth seekers’ – and see those dreams through to the end. Because there will come a day when you are standing in the Hall of Fame, and when that day comes, will you simply be watching as others are given accolades for the way they lived their lives, or will you be one of those who will be known as someone who lived a worthy life?

Frank Sinatra sang a song by the name of ‘My Way’, which looks at these same questions from the other end of life – The Script looking from the point of view of those who are dreaming, Sinatra from the point of view looking of those looking back at the dreams they had and achieved – declaring that in spite of all that came his way – the struggles, the pain and the regrets – that, as he looked back, he could declare that he was happy with the way his life turned out. And that is, for many, the goal. Many people, myself included, simply have a desire that, when they are at the end of their allotted time on Earth, they can say:

And now, the end is here
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and ev’ry highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that
And may I say, not in a shy way,
“Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it my way”

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!

– ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra


Dystopian Future?

Note: this post was started several weeks ago, was stopped because I didn’t have access to the books I’m going to be talking about (being away from home at the time), and took a while to start back up again. So the events that inspired this post are a few weeks old, just bear that in mind.

I don’t make a secret of the fact that one of my favourite genres of novel/movie is Science Fiction – and I have a keen interest in those stories that present a Dystopian picture of the future (i.e. 1984; Brave New World; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/Blade Runner; V for Vendetta). So when John Carmack (One of the Founders of ID Software – one of the oldest game developers) tweeted recently that he’s been reading both of them (and comparing them – for reasons unknown), it got me seriously thinking (as my brain just decides to do around 1am while I’m trying to sleep) about both books (and the genre as a whole).

Warning: The following post may contain traces of Literary Deconstructionism, which will make my English Teachers very proud of me, and may cause me to cry myself to sleep tonight – since I have previously declared I would never use the skills taught in High School English, and am now proven wrong.

The first thing I did was respond to Mr Carmack, saying that both books are amazing (which they are, not recommended for younger readers, but good books), but I wonder whether society (Western, First-World, society in particular) has learnt the lessons that both books sought to teach – important lessons that they are.

Brave New World paints a picture of the end result of the never-ending search for happiness that many seem to be on today. It paints a world where everyone is kept supplied with a narcotic that functions as a sleeping pill, stress reliever, ‘personal “holiday” pill’, etc – all with no side effects – and no-one ages past 20, a society where people are bred to perform specific tasks in sterile laboratories, and conditioned in a way that not doing those jobs (or the set of predetermined tasks/activities they are bred for) is unthinkable. Those that are bred to be part of the upper classes (the thinkers, managers, scientists, etc) are given more freedom of choice, but are still heavily regulated by the government to prevent ‘tampering’ with the way society is set up. When a character from the outside is brought in, the criticism that he makes of the world created to supply endless happiness to everyone in the book’s climax is particularly scathing:

Mustapha Mond (Member of ruling government): We prefer to do things comfortably.”

John the Savage (not born in ‘civilised society’): “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

Brave New World is a book that is supposed to make you think ‘what are we as a society, as a people, giving up when we seek only our own comfort and happiness?’ I think the answer to that question is that, in giving up the ability to be unhappy, we give up the opportunity to find joy – a much deeper and more fulfilling emotion than happiness.

In contrast, 1984 paints a view of the world where the government has gone crazy with control. A society where at some point all the checks and balances that keep governments accountable to the people they represent are torn down. The government spies on its citizens (through mandatory listening/video devices in every place of residence), and tampers with any and all records – either to retroactively prove that they were right about an event (such as the forecasts for how well the economy will do), or to fabricate evidence against those who have become too troublesome to keep around (government members who have outlived their usefulness, or pre-revolutionaries). The only rebellion against this regime that we see the main characters (Winston and Julia) engaged in is minor – as minor rebellion is really all that they are capable of achieving – while there are only dreams of a major revolt on the part of the main character, nothing concrete ever happens, and the main antagonist of the story dismisses Winston’s fantasies outright. It paints a bleak picture (as does Brave New World, although I don’t want to spoil too much of either book), which was inspired by events in the past, and it is echoed still in one country today. While I don’t think that we will see a radical change in our society at some point in the future that brings us closer to the world of 1984, it does bring into focus a possible endpoint for our society’s obsession with security – personal, societal and national. If we already possess the ability to spy on people through their phones, etc – what is to stop people from using that same technology to prevent possible threats to their own power or way of life? Where is the line drawn now, and what prevents people from stepping over it?

In any case, this is feeling like it’s turning into paranoid raving, so I’ll just leave you all with the following quote, and some questions to think about:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture….In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”  – Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

Have we as a society learnt the lessons that Aldus Huxley and George Orwell left in their writings? Are there lessons that the rest of the Utopian/ dystopian genre can teach us that we are forgetting? Are they lessons that everyone should learn? What do we stand to lose if people forget them?

A Regret, an Action, and a Request

Reading the stuff I talked about in Monday’s post has got me thinking about the place that Video Games have in my life right now, especially in relation to everything else. Being brutally honest with myself, I’m realising just how much of my daily life is being consumed by games at the moment – and I’m not happy with it, in fact I’m slightly disappointed in myself. I don’t think I’m addicted (yet), but the fact that I spend more of my waking hours (on days when I’m home, which is all pretty much all but Fridays and Sundays these days) playing games is worrying to me, especially given everything I’ve been giving up to play.

I used to spend time writing, either here or for college. I even wrote poetry when the mood struck me, and had been contemplating sitting down and writing a book at the beginning of this year. I used to spend time reading books, and now I’ve got a mounting backlog of books that I have been given that I still haven’t taken the time and effort to read. I used to spend time sitting and thinking of deep questions, contemplating the meaning and purpose of the things around me, and the things that I had been reading and experiencing. I was meant to be using the past 6 months to find myself meaningful employment, and while I have done some looking online for work, and have applied for a course at the local TAFE for next semester, I haven’t done nearly as much as I could have, mostly because it’s easier to sit and play games than to actively look for the work that I desperately want and need. Most importantly, I used to spend time building my relationship with God, praying and seeking Him through His word. All of these things have taken a back seat in my life over the past 6 months or so, and I’ve come to regret that over this week.

Regrets without actions are fruitless however, so the real question is what I’m going to do about this. The obvious answer is to step back from games. Whether this turns into completely giving up games until my life, and more importantly my relationship with God, is back in some kind of order (at least, as much as has ever been possible for me), or a less serious scaling back, I’m not sure at the moment. At the very least, I need to stop immediately turning the computer on after I wake up (seriously, even before I’ve eaten), and staying on it until I head to bed (which has been getting later and later the past month or so), and instead use the time in the mornings and evenings to get back into the habit of spending time with God, and I need to spend more time during the day trying to find myself some work.

I want to ask all of the people who read this that either live with me, or are friends with me on Steam (through which I play most of my games) to keep me to this. At the moment, I don’t want to spend another day from the moment I wake up till the moment I fall asleep either playing, or thinking about playing, games. So if you see me playing something, check up on me, ask me how I’m going with my resolutions here. If I’ve been there for a while, keep pestering me until I stop playing. I don’t think I’ll be able to do this without a community supporting me, so I would ask all of you to be the community I need right now. Anyone who does help me with this over the next few weeks/months, I want to thank you in advance.

Video Game Ethics Part 2

While writing Part one of this series I realised that I have more to say on this than I thought. Sorry that Part Two has been so long in coming, between wanting to make sure of everything I wanted to say about this, and having other things to write last week, it’s taken a while. In any case, the continued thesis on the way Ethics play out in Video Games

Talking about Ethics in Video Games is always hard, since some games give you an incredible amount of freedom to make your own choices, while others restrict you to pretty much just shooting/stabbing enemies in linear corridors. The things that I said about Fallout: New Vegas (and I’m given to understand, the Fallout Series in general) aren’t true about the Assassins Creed Series – and that has the potential to undermine everything I have to say on this topic. Most of the examples I would prefer to draw upon (being familiar with them from personal experience) when I discuss the way in which games can provide space for a broad range of ethical or moral are from a single genre (RPGs). Many of the other games I’ve played either have events with the potential to be significant moral choices already made as part of the story they are telling (which is worse if the player doesn’t even have control of the character at this point, but non-interactive storytelling in an interactive medium is a topic I don’t want to get into right now), or characters who have interesting moral and ethical perspectives, and some amazing character arcs, while the player character is a cardboard cutout with little to no personality of their own. Not to say that either of those cannot be good games – two examples that come to mind would be the Assassins Creed games for the former, and Starcraft and Warcraft 3* for the latter – but they don’t offer much in the way of player choice concerning the ethical decisions of their character(s).

Even among the examples of ethical or moral choice that I could give there are differences. Mass Effect had both a ‘good’ and an ‘evil’ slider, both of which increased based on the actions of the player – since both only went up, the results of both sliders showed how you acted (which another blogger so wonderfully explained in this post – it’s closer to the end). The KotOR games both featured an alignment slider (from light-side to dark-side – being a Star Wars game) that went up or down based on the player’s actions, with bonuses given when a character had a high score at either end of the scale – making any real choice other than ‘am I going to use heal or lightning more this play-through’ impossible. Compare both of these to my post about New Vegas, which is a good indicator of both the more recent Fallout games, as well as The Elder Scrolls games (which were made by the same developer). I don’t have a major problem with any of these games as games, all of them offered me good choices which I did sit and think about, but I think that we are still waiting for a game that does this perfectly (or, at least, well enough that it doesn’t feel that I have too much freedom, or that my choices boil down to being either either a complete doormat or a complete jerk – since swapping cripples me from a gameplay perspective)

What I’m saying is that games as a medium could do more to explore the ethics and morality of the player, as well as generally . There are some good examples where players are free to express themselves – I spent a thousand words talking about one of them two weeks ago – but I honestly would like to see more games that allow the player to make these sorts of decisions. I’d like to play more games that offer me a choice which causes me to sit and consider exactly what I really think and believe about a subject, and make a decision based on how I would react to being in that position (on any of the sides involved). I’d like to be so drawn into the world that I can make choices that I already have firm opinions on easily and quickly, without being concerned for how this will affect my ‘morality slider’, and whether it will cripple me in the future.

I’m not sure exactly how to wrap this up, but if you feel the same way, or if you have an opinion on any of this stuff, feel free to jump in and comment, see if we can get a discussion going……

*Which have no player character, since both of which are story driven, character based Strategy Games (The player is simply the giant hand which order the armies around, and nothing more).

Video Game Ethics Part 1

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while, and it’s been one that has been intermittently on my mind depending on what game I’m currently working my way through. I’m currently playing something that’s brought this topic to mind quite strongly – Fallout: New Vegas – so now is as good a time as any to talk about the way that someone’s sense of ethics applies to games. I’m primarily going to talk about my own experiences with this, but I will go into some of the observations I’ve made watching others play games, and into some of the more cliche aspects of the way that players generally act within the worlds provided to them by games. But first, I want to set the scene for New Vegas, as – since it’s the game that’s re-sparked the desire to talk about this – I’ll be framing a fair bit of the discussion around it.

Fallout: New Vegas takes place in an alternate reality where culturally the world never left the ‘vibe’ of the 1950’s, but advanced scientifically at a rapid rate. Set in the year 2281 – over 200 years after the ‘Great War’, which left America (and by implication the rest of the world) scarred by the aftermath of the nuclear warheads that dominated the final hours of the war, leaving a wasteland in it’s wake – the player character wanders the open world that the game provides, learning to deal with the residual radiation, the scarcity of food, and the brutality of the societies that have sprung up in the aftermath (humans having survived in fallout shelters called ‘vaults’) in the wasteland surrounding Las Vegas (which, through the machinations of one of it’s leaders, survived the bombs). I could speak about the setting and various aspects of the game for the entire blog post, but I’ll just post this link to a wiki page for anyone interested in finding out more.

Since it’s a Role-playing Game (RPG), New Vegas allows you to create a character of your own, and shape them into whatever you want them to be over the course of the game. You start with no affiliations to any of the factions in the world (either major or minor), and very few skills and abilities. Over the course of the game, your decisions shape the world around you for good or ill, and by the end of the game you have brought one of the three main factions into complete control over Vegas and the Mojave – or destroyed them all, leaving total anarchy with you as the most dangerous person of them all. You meet a lot of people, some of whom will try to kill you, some of whom will help you if you stay friendly with them (or do something for them), and some who are happier to leave you be (as long as you give them the same courtesy). You are free to do whatever you wish to – most of the NPCs in this world are killable, anything that can be carried is there to take. There is a justice system (if it can be called that), but it requires someone seeing you commit a crime (theft or murder primarily), and it results in everybody in the area (or in the wider faction, if your relationship with them is poor enough) turning hostile and trying to kill you – which if you’ve spent any time leveling any combat skill isn’t too much of a hassle for the player if they know what they’re doing (as somewhat demonstrated here and here), and especially once they’ve passed the half-way point of the game.

A lot of people I know would criticize a game that gives anyone this kind of freedom – to essentially be a sociopath with little consequences (the lack of places to sell items and buy ammo would be the only…..oh wait, there’s an unkillable merchant who will sell you stuff no matter what….never mind) – and there are certainly people who would play using that mentality. I can’t talk about them, however, since I have never felt comfortable playing that way, and there aren’t many people who actually own up to that sort of play-style anyway. There is one person I know of who played through a previous Fallout game without killing a single creature (with the exception of the one you need to for the combat tutorial), which he documented here – it wasn’t a completely non-violent play-through (which I don’t think it would be possible to do), but his character’s hands ended up being completely unsullied by blood, human or otherwise.

My personal play-style involves putting myself into the characters shoes, and making decisions the way that I would if I was in that situation. I only kill human characters if they attack me first, or if combat is otherwise unavoidable – companion characters are problematic (one of them attacks members of the faction they hate on sight, others run off to attack anything hostile that they detect, even if the hostiles haven’t seen us yet), and it’s always a possibility that I could fail a skill check that avoids fighting. I’ve sided with the main faction that is the least questionable about their methods (when they get around to actually doing things, they’re bureaucratic to a fault). My character does steal occasionally, but only rarely is it truly theft (i.e. the owners are still alive), and there are some fairly decent reasons to do what the game considers theft (i.e. After stumbling upon a base owned by a faction that hated me – the one in direct opposition to the main faction I have joined – they all attacked me, and I felt that taking their equipment – which in all fairness, they weren’t using anymore – was fair in exchange for all the grief they had given me). I help others with their problems rather than just demand that they give me what I want – or take it by force or theft (both of which can be possible solutions to problems). In short, I carry my own ideas and concepts of what is wrong or right – which in themselves are informed by my relationship with Christ – into the game with me – slightly modified to match the setting, but there all the same.

So this post went a little long (over 1000 words), and I’m not quite finished taking about what I wanted to say…..looks like this will be part one of two then. Next week I’ll talk a bit more broadly about this, move away from just the one game….until then, God bless.

The End of an Era

Appologies for missing last weeks post – between a lack of time on my writing days, and a desire to ask a few of the people involved in the post I was writing whether it was ok with them, I simply couldn’t get one written out….to make it up to you guys, here’s the first of at least 2 posts this week…..

I graduated last Monday (the 12th), which brought with it a lot of reflection and introspection on my part. Not only was Monday Night the recognition of 3 years of hard work, wherein I received a certificate saying ‘Benjamin Larkin has done everything he needed to do to receive an Advanced Diploma of Ministry’, but it was, for me, very much the end of an era in my life. I have been a student for 16 years – since I started Kindergarten at 4 years old – and in that time, the period from November 2011 (my last exam) to now is the longest consecutive time period where I haven’t had to attend classes, take notes, sit exams, or write assignments. At this point in time, I can no longer call myself a student.

This is a big deal for me, up until now the fact that I am a student has been a big part of my life – and probably a part of my identity (which would explain some apprehension and confusion that I have been feeling this year) – and now I have finished studying (for now, I can’t speak to the future). I can’t say what this year holds for me, but if Monday Night marked the end of an Era, Tuesday morning must have marked the beginning of something…..