Saturday, October 13, 2012

Defining "Achievement" in Schools

In my Learning and Cognition course, I've been assigned to read Engaging Schools by the Committee on Increasing High School Students' Engagement and Motivation to Learn and the National Research Council.

The following consists of my preliminary reaction to the first two or three chapters and executive summary of the book.

As I've been going through the readings, I'm struck by a number of social problems with the book that most people probably haven't noticed.  They have nothing to do with class or race.  Instead, they have to do with what we consider standards and how we define achievement.

The fact is that there aren't enough jobs for the number of people graduating college.  Entire fields are overburdened with hopefuls in the unemployment line, bearing their degrees that their teachers promised would make them wealthy and give them a better life.  Indeed, I have to ask, is the implementation of these reforms contained in Engaging Schools producing false hopes in students that academic achievement and college are tickets to a meaningful life?

Indeed, it goes beyond standards and strikes to the core of why we teach.  What is our mission?  To see the students succeed, one would assume, especially while reading Engaging Schools.  However, there is a subtle subtext running throughout the book that seems to interpret academic achievement as providing a way to be successful in life.  The constant need to motivate students is countered by the bevy of assessments with which teachers inundate their students.

I'm reminded of Shamus Young's online "Autoblography" where he writes

“Just make sure to do all the work, and you will pass my class.”

"My heart sinks. I hate when teachers say this. It means the bulk of our grade will come from doing things, not from knowing things. It’s the first day of tenth grade, I’m sixteen years old, and I’m hearing this a lot today. Some teachers even go so far as to grade the notes we take in class. This is infuriating to me. In the past I saw school as this perfectly arbitrary trial of mysterious activities. Now I see it as a house of incompetents. Our goal is ostensibly to learn things, but the system of rewards and incentives is often completely divorced from this idea, and sometimes even runs counter to it. 

"If we think of grades as “pay”, then we aren’t being paid to learn. We’re being paid to turn out volumes of worthless forgettable busy work."
Indeed, I fear that the attempts to engage students actually fail because our consistent reliance upon assessment and its equation to achievement and success.

We've already set up a generation of people who have been lied to by their teachers about good grades and success.  The more I speak with many of my fellow Gen X'ers in fields outside of academia, the more I am inundated with statements like, "I didn't learn anything in school," "School was worthless and a waste of time," "School was bullshit," or "Yeah, I learned how to be a student, that's all."  Those who went to college felt as though that was the first time they were able to actually learn something and the point was driven home by the fact that during a single semester, they had two or three assessments and nothing more.  They either passed or failed.  It was actually liberating for some of them.

So what do we have?  A book written by a committee.  The product of bureaucracy and reads as such.  I have little faith in it thus far--Marc Bloch was wrong when he said the bureaucratic mind was the highest form of intelligence.  This committee begins its book with a report on findings and a list of recommendations.  To what end?  What is achievement to produce?  The committee's language in the "Executive Summary" is vague and full of Orwellian doublespeak.

In my interpretation, we are to compete with the Asian schools that are producing competitive workers, scientists, engineers, businesspeople.  It is no secret that schools are pushing math and science to the detriment of the humanities.  History and English teachers aren't nearly as sought-after as math or science teachers.  Meanwhile, we forget that those students are also taught to read and write effectively in their schools.  We are not.

And so we pump out graduates who go to college as if it is the entire goal of education.  This is the teachers' greatest failure.  Education is not, never was, and should never be, simply a vehicle for success.  The fruits of our labor have resulted in apathy among those who know they aren't college material and the unemployment line coupled with staggering debt for those who are.  Why should our students thank us?

A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly describes how a single principal overhauled one of the worst schools in Staten Island and made it a success story by teaching analytical writing to students.  Math and science scores improved substantially--a rising tide floats all boats and our disinterest in the humanities have led to student engagement and achievement at a low ebb.

The ability to write effectively means these kids can think effectively.  Engagement in New Dorp High School increased because the students realized that they were capable of achievement, comprehended material better, and therefore had a greater stake in what they were learning.  It started to matter.

The ability to write effectively also means that adults can think effectively.  And this should be the goal of education--a populace that is aware, knowledgeable, and able to think analytically, critically, and creatively.  Sadly, rubrics don't leave room for kids who can think outside the box--rubrics are, themselves, a box.  Furthermore, the goal of education should not be to enrich students' wallets but their lives.  A student who gets straight Cs can still grow up to be a happy, healthy, productive member of society be he a manager at a store, a car mechanic, or owns his own plumbing business.  Somewhere along the line, we gave our kids this idea that hard work and an honest living were inferior to a college degree and

I don't want to engage my students because I think it will help them score high on tests and get them into college.  Indeed, I honestly couldn't care less about any tests, assessments, or colleges.  I care that they learn because I believe what I have to teach them will enrich their minds, help make them better decision-makers, informed voters, and give them a stake in their society and community.  I believe that a car mechanic can be just as important a pillar of his community as a CEO.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Work, work, work...

I am getting slammed by work right now and don't have time to update, really.  Which is a shame because I really, really want to talk about the Epic 6.  It is a modified version of D&D in which the maximum level is 6.  Period.

This makes the game a lot more gritty.  Your characters are mortal.  Very mortal.  This means that almost no one in the game world can cast spells above 3rd level.  Well, no mortal, anyway.  And not without powerful rituals, sacrifices, ley line nexuses and other house-ruled stuff.

The benefits are that it is rules light and makes for a much more realistic game.  Many times I've complained that a 25-year-old knight who has years of combat experience, when faced with a T-Rex, will probably die, horribly, in real life.  Yet somehow, paladins are constantly slaying dragons, which are much worse than a T-Rex.  Wits, preparation, a solid plan... these things can overcome a dragon (if you are lucky) in Epic 6.  Straight up combat won't.

There's a lot I want to talk about with regards to Epic 6.  Frankly, I think it is awesome.  If you're interested, there are some forum discussions on Epic 6 here and here.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Religion in D&D: Faith in the Forgotten Realm's Shadowdale

It's late and I'm musing on some of the things I did to deepen religion and illustrate faith-in-practice in the Dales.  I was heavily influenced by Walter Burkert's Religion in Ancient Greece and Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane.

Let me zero in on one specific area of the Dalelands--Shadowdale.  It has three temples, one to Tymora (goddess of luck), one to Lathander (the god of mornings and light), and one to Chauntea (the earth goddess).  Each one is a cultic center and each has its own rites, rituals, and means of currying favor with the gods.  In addition, there's a shrine to Mystra (goddess of magic) and Tyr (god of justice) in the village environs.

Let's start with Chauntea, the earth goddess.  This temple is vitally important to the village, as it's surrounded by farms and therefore very rural and agriculturally oriented.  The priests of Chauntea are keepers of agricultural lore and as such, they are called upon by the people to perform ritual cleansing ceremonies and blessings of the soil before it is tilled.  The details are simple in my head, but if the characters investigate, I can make them more complex.  Perhaps a procession around the boundaries of the field is conducted and holy water is sprinkled along the border to ward off evil or blight.  Songs and chants are sung during this procession and incense is burned.  Then, maybe, an offering of last year's harvest is given to Chauntea and burned at the center of the field.  The officiating priest plows the first furrow and sows the ashes into the ground.

Simple.  And yet it creates a deep and powerful meaning for the players.  The gods are real, their favor is curried.  They are called upon to aid the works of their devotees.  Although each NPC and player may have a patron deity, the inhabitants of the world will seek the benevolence of the gods.  Rituals in which sacred time is experienced and sacred events are reenacted may be crucial to the cults of each temple, bringing the celebrants and the god in closer communion.  For example, at the dawning of the sun during the winter solstice, the first rays shine upon a golden disc in the Temple of Lathander.  Before that, the priests may intone drearily that all is primordial darkness and chaos rules.  Once the sun breaches the horizon, the priests will praise Lathander with song, crying out that light is born and order is generated--the sacred reenactment of the first dawn in which the sun is reborn and begins its journey from the southern to the northern skies brings the priests and the people of Shadowdale into closer communion with Lathander.

Each town may have their own traditions and rituals.  In Shadowdale, during the midsummer festival, the children will make small paper or wooden boats, each with a wafer, berry, copper coin, or other minor offering, and set it into the River Ashaba as an offering to the water wizard who died there and gave the river its name centuries ago.  In Mistledale, they throw flowers into the river in the wizard's memory during the festival and ask the wizard to protect the village.  These offerings may, indeed, bear fruit for if Zhentil Keep sends forces to conquer the settlements, the river may remember these deeds and rise up against the Zhentarim and protect those who made the offerings.

Thus, the wizard Ashaba is a saint to the people of both Shadowdale and Mistledale.  Sylune, the Witch of Shadowdale, who fell defending the settlement from a dragon, may also be worshiped and honored as a saint, with offerings of flowers, coins, incense, food, or candles at her grave and shrine beneath the village citadel.  The remains of her hut where she died may be the site of an annual gathering of all the women in the village, who perform a ceremony that reenacts her brave death and commemorates her sacrifice.

When my players enter my worlds, I do endeavor to make those worlds real and breathing, even if I didn't create those worlds myself.  I still want the players to feel that these worlds are alive.  I want them to know that clerics and paladins aren't just character classes with duties demanded by role-playing mechanics.   They are a part of a religious continuum and have social and religious roles to play in the party and the world at large.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Random "I'm Alive" Update

The past month-and-a-half have been completely consumed by lecture notes for HIST 315 and HIST 316 (writing, organizing, preparing slides, etc.) and my papers/presentations for Education in a Global Context.  Between all these things, a lot of what I have to say about literature, current goings-on, gaming, reading, etc. just seems trivial.  But I like doing so anyway.  So, I'm going to make a point of finding time to getting back to blogging about that stuff.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Religion in D&D

So I'm taking a break from working on lecture notes and my syllabus for HIST316 to talk about a feature of role-playing that I feel is woefully misunderstood by gamers, specifically D&D gamers--the role of religion in an RP setting.

These days, skepticism and postmodern deconstruction have played a powerful role in misinforming people about religion in society.  For example, read any book on Augustus' political maneuverings that involved religion and you'll run across a deeply postmodern viewpoint that the first emperor purposely manipulated religion to bolster his reign.  This gives the reader the sense that Augustus didn't really believe in the religion, but saw it as a method to dupe people into surrendering political authority to him.  Granted, there is no doubt that Augustus was cynical and well-versed in realpolitik.  However, to suggest that he simply saw Roman religion as a means to power-acquisition imposes a skepticism onto his character that is thoroughly modern and somewhat anachronistic.  It is possible he was agnostic enough to see religion as something that could be manipulated, but to think that he actively disbelieved in the gods, did not fear their power over reality, or seek to gain their support is absolutely erroneous and unhistorical.

After reading Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, as well as numerous works on ancient religion by Walter Burkert, I can't help but shake my head at the woeful understanding of religion's role in pre-Enlightenment societies that gamers have.  Gods exist as plot coupons, granting spells and standing for good or evil but not really playing a viable role in the societies of their settings.  The traditions, the demarcation of the sacred, the rituals and rites, the concept of purity and hallowedness, don't exist.  Holiness or unholiness are simply the side-effects of alignment or alignment-based spells (such as hallow).  There is no real understanding of the relationship between magic and the divine (or metadivine).  Clerics' roles in the gaming world are limited to being healers or buffing stats for player characters.  They don't play a real meaningful role in determining what a society values, how it organizes itself, or how it determines what is virtuous, moral, bad, or evil.

I'm reminded again of the role of Ronald Lacey's character in Flesh + Blood.  There's a phenomenal scene where he sanctifies Martin (Rutger Hauer) as leader through interpreting an omen.  He is instrumental in determining what is good for the group and what must be opposed, all filtered through a powerful religious lens.  In this pre-modern, medieval world that the characters inhabit, heaven and hell are very, very real places, God is omnipresent and always judging, and the priest is His mouthpiece.  Nevermind our modern notions of power and politics; these people really believed because belief was all that they had with which to determine the nature of reality, good and evil, and meaning itself.

Ronald Lacey's militant priest should be one of the models for a D&D cleric.  He commands respect and perhaps even fear.  He has the ear of God and the power to interpret signs and wonders, omens and visions.  He is a link between the invisible realm of Good and Evil and the mundane, drab world of physical reality.  He has power.  Not just spellcasting power.  Power and understanding.  He knows.  And he has the power to purify and sanctify, the power to declare who is good or evil and whom shall be damned.  In effect, he has a finger on the pulse of the afterlife and that scares the shit out of people and demands their respect.  Only another priest can really counter him.

These powers are largely ignored in the D&D worlds.  Clerics form largely a support role.  They are evidence that the gods are real because they cast spells.  Hell, half the time in D&D, the gods manifest themselves in visible and undeniable ways.  Yet D&D religion is largely myth-as-fact and little else.  For example, the D&D 2nd edition The Complete Priest's Handbook advises a DM create a mythic history for the setting.

One of the first things the DM can do to add color and detail to his campaign world is to work up that world's mythic history. Such a history will help establish, in his mind and those of his players, the relationships between the gods, and between gods and men. It will help set the tone of the campaign and the attitude of the player-characters' culture. It will give the players some idea of what their characters expect from their gods and their future. And once it's done, the DM can then elaborate on it and decide how each individual god relates to other gods and to the sentient races of the world.

After that, it gives instructions on how to create gods, their ethical dimensions, alliances and oppositions... and that's it.  It doesn't discuss rites or rituals, traditions, holidays, or deeper philosophical and ethical ideas beyond a cursory sentence or two.  This is profoundly manifest in the Dragonlance setting, in which the gods exist, are divided by alignment, but don't really have any set of traditions.  Their priests don't exist to demarcate the sacred in opposition to the profane or mundane in any sense that Eliade or Burkert describe.  There is no sense that ritual and ceremony re-enact mythical events or bring the celebrants into a sort of communion with their gods.  In a sense, each god's dogma is that of henotheism or monolatry.  There's not a lot of depth there.  There are next-to-no sacred texts (the Disks of Mishakal being the only text mentioned in the Dragonlance Chronicles), no factional splits based on dogma or interpretation, no local rituals or traditions.  The gods are simply there to fight out the whole Good vs. Evil battle.

This deficit makes gaming in the setting easier, but not necessarily more rewarding.  The setting suffers from lack of depth.  Similarly, role-playing also suffers.  A good DM should at least give Eliade's Sacred and Profane a cursory reading, and perhaps to some research into real-world religions, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Shinto if their religions are polytheistic, henotheistic, or monolatric.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Twin Post: D-Day and Ray Bradbury

Two things have really converged today that make being a blogger a bit interesting.  The first is that on June 5, Ray Bradbury passed away.  The other thing is that today, June 6, is the anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy during the Second World War.  Both topics are likely being blogged about all over the internet, but I thought it would be remiss of me to not say at least something.  I've avoided doing this before because everybody is doing it, but this time I figured I'd hop on the bandwagon.

Ray Bradbury
The passing of this giant of science-fiction is honestly quite sad, especially since he was prescient enough to foresee the cultural decline of American society into kitsch and the waning of literary awareness.  I read Fahrenheit 451 back in high school and it struck me how much Bradbury predicted how cultural and moral relativism would generate a malaise of meaninglessness and censorship of literary works (much of which comes out in the "Coda" of the book).  I was reminded of this when I discovered that new editions of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn were being published with heavy editing in order to make the work less "offensive."

I've read only a few of his short stories, but I especially remember "All Summer in a Day," dealing with school bullying on a colonized Venus (before we knew about the pressure-cooker atmosphere) because she's the only student to have ever seen the sunlight (since Venus is shrouded in clouds and constant rain).  This makes her "different" and the other children reveal the base, cruel, evil selfishness of human nature--only to discover deep shame and guilt for their actions at the end.  Sadly, what's done is done and they can never undo their behavior.  It's a great story about human nature and was quite moving for me to read as a child who suffered from bullying and ostracism.  Although I was far more angry and missed the real point of the story--that you cannot undo evil--and focused more on the poor girl who ends up being tortured by her peers.

Bradbury is one of those writers who has proven that science-fiction can, indeed, be literature.  He was most prolific during the height of science-fiction writing, during the middle of the 20th century.  That was when the likes of Bradbury, Clarke, and Asimov rubbed shoulders with Heinlein, Sturgeon, Hubbard, and Ellison and others.  They wrote in a world before Star Wars radically altered our perceptions of science-fiction (for good or for ill).

On June 5, 1944, as we all should know from school, the Allied invasion of Europe began with paratroop drops and an amphibious landing in Normandy, France.  This was the turning-point in the war against Nazi Germany.  Although Hitler had been steadily losing ground in North Africa and Italy, it wasn't until the French front was opened that the Nazi war machine really began to fall apart.

We've all seen the opening shots of Saving Private Ryan.  Hopefully, we also watched the chronicle of Easy Company in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.  Some of us fancy ourselves to have survived the horrors of the war through playing Call of Duty 2 or Medal of Honor: Frontline.  The experience of war can be horrific and harrowing.  Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents (has it been so long?) are still haunted by the memories of those days, when they stormed the beaches, killed and died.

The Normandy landings would see at least 12,000 Allied soldiers dead.  By the conclusion of Operation Overlord, the Allies would have suffered over 225,000 dead and wounded, while the German casualties approach 450,000 by some estimates.  The immense human suffering and destruction of lives brought about by World War II should not be easily forgotten--nor should the lives and deaths of the men who fought against Nazi Germany.

Since I had the pleasure of reading Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad, I have wanted to read some of his other books.  Considering how excellent Stalingrad was, I figured I'd plug his D-Day book, especially since I intend to get around to it within the next year or so.

Interesting note:  I find it interesting that nearly 160,000 men stormed the beaches at Normandy in June of 1944, while (considering my last post) almost the same number of men marched ashore at Busan in May of 1592 to begin the samurai invasion of Korea.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

History Book: THE IMJIN WAR by Samuel Hawley

In 1592, the Year of the Water Dragon (임진), a force of nearly 160,000 men landed in Busan harbor, swiftly overran the citadel, and proceeded to march north through the Korean peninsula intending to carve a bloody path of carnage to Beijing.  They had been dispatched by the 太閤 (Taiko), 豊臣 秀吉 (Toyotomi Hideyoshi), who had united Japan under his personal charisma and generalship, to conquer 明朝 (Ming China) and if 조선 (Choson Korea) stood in their way, then they would be destroyed.  The next seven years would see Ming China nearly bankrupted, Choson Korea ravaged with war and its attendant plagues and droughts, and Japan bleeding manpower and capital into the Taiko's impossible vanity project.  The result would be a legacy of ruined relations between China and Korea on the one hand and Japan on the other.  Japan would benefit from importing advanced pottery and other industrial techniques from Korea, but the human cost was incredibly high.  Choson Korea would come to understand the incredible power of firearms in warfare, but the cost for them was even higher--for decades their economy, which was mostly based on agriculture, would be a shambles and the Choson dynasty would never again reach the cultural heights that their ancestors had enjoyed.

The Koreans had no idea what they were in for.  The Japanese had just ended a century-and-a-half of internal struggle between rival 大名 (daimyo) as the 足利幕府 (Ashikaga Shogunate) proved to be impotent after the 応仁の乱 (Onin War, 1467-77).  When firearms were introduced halfway through this Period of Warring States, 戦国時代 (Sengoku Jidai), they revolutionized how the Japanese fought wars.  Massed units of peasant-conscripts armed with muskets could devastate a samurai cavalry charge.  The Japanese became very experienced in military affairs, logistics, siege engineering, and the use of hand-held firearms.  When they landed in Korea, the disorganized, poorly-trained (and often poorly led) Korean forces were completely massacred.

The Japanese, however, proved to have over-extended themselves.  When military mastermind--and possibly the greatest admiral in human history, greater even than Britain's famed Nelson--이순신 (Yi Sun-shin) led a series of campaigns against the Japanese navy, he successfully cut the supply-lines from Japan.  Food became scarce in a war-torn Korea, and starvation became a real problem.  When the Ming forces intervened against the Japanese, it became apparent that conquest of Korea, let alone Ming China, was well beyond Toyotomi Hideyoshi's reach.  In retaliation, the aging tyrant ordered his forces in Japan conduct a devastating sequence of punitive expeditions throughout southern Korea before retreating home.

Samuel Hawley's narrative of the conflict, entitled The Imjin War: Japan's Sixteenth Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China, is a tale of tragedy and human suffering brought about by one aloof and tyrannical man of great hubris.  He endeavors to examine the seven years of warfare in Korea between the Choson dynasty, Ming Chinese, and Japanese samurai from a variety of standpoints.  In doing so, he delves into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean accounts of the war, as well as personal correspondence and political documents in an attempt to engage the events on the personal level.  What unravels is a multifaceted chronicle of human experience.  The conduct of the war and the accounts of battles are coupled with excerpts from edicts, letters, and descriptions of the backroom politics, intrigue, and byzantine treachery that plagued both international negotiations and the bureaucratic maze of the Choson royal administration.

It's important to compare Hawley's work with Stephen Turnbull's publications on the war, the 2002 Samurai Invasion: Japan's Korean War 1592-1598, by Cassell Military histories and 2008's The Samurai Invasions of Korea, 1592-1598, by Osprey.  Turnbull is far more focused on the military maneuvers and less with the politics or the human dimensions of the conflict.  These elements are not given the same attention to detail as Hawley's massive narrative.  Turnbull's research is mostly drawn from Japanese sources, occasionally from Korean sources, and rarely (if ever) from Chinese.  In comparison, Hawley's work is far more scholarly, with extensive endnotes and a large bibliography.  Where Turnbull shines is in the detailed maps and illustrations throughout his books.  Hawley's work sports a number of black-and-white plates that are extremely well-chosen, but lack the luster of the full-color illustrations in Turnbull's publications.  I found myself constantly thumbing through Turnbull's many Osprey publications to help visualize the Choson, Ming, and Japanese forces.  Imagining the Korean landscape was easy--I spent three years teaching English in Korea--however, since many of the fortifications have been destroyed by time, war, and urban development Turnbull's maps of sieges and his Japanese Castles in Korea: 1592-1598 for Osprey Publishing were invaluable companions to Hawley's scholarship.

Hawley supplies his own interpretation of the various political and military developments that emerge through the course of the Imjin War.  He discusses the importance of Yi Sun-Shin's excellent admiralship against the Japanese navy, it's impact on the war and how it strained the Japanese supply-lines through into and throughout the peninsula.  He also notes the influence of guerrilla and warrior-monk units against the Japanese and the complex politics and personal agendas of Chinese generals and bureaucrats.  Surveys of Japan, China, and Korea before and after the war are provided to give context and background to the events.  Most impressively, Hawley frankly discusses the difficulties involved in discussing East Asian history, where historical fact can (and often is) manipulated and subverted by politics and yellow journalism.

Unfortunately, his book is very light on deep historical analysis and insight and is, according to Kenneth Swope, riddled with errors both major and minor.  I don't know enough about these events in detail to be able to judge the depth and breadth of the errors in his narrative.  Hawley's bibliography, while more comprehensive than Turnbull's, relies a bit too much on translations and doesn't delve deeply enough into original and untranslated sources.  Translations are often problematic and Hawley's book is susceptible to error creep from over-reliance on these.  Hawley appears to have a thorough grasp of Korean language sources and research, but lacks in the Japanese and Chinese languages.  He doesn't approach the immense depth of, say, Anthony Beevor's explorations of major Second World War battles.  However, Hawley's book is much more approachable for the lay-person and a very thorough introduction to this fascinating conflict than some of the more scholarly and obscure analyses that might surface in an academic library.

Overall, Samuel Hawley's account of the Imjin War will probably remain the definitive volume for a long time.  It's a deep shame that more Western historians do not research and publish more narratives and examinations of East Asian history with such attention to detail and thoroughness of scholarship.  It is also a deep shame that Hawley's Imjin War received such a limited publication run.  I was fortunate enough to purchase it for ₩45,000 (approximately $38) at Youngkwang Books in Busan.  Amazon has it used for around $150 in the States.  My copy, a second edition, was printed and bound by Samwha Publishing in South Korea.  It's not readily available overseas, unfortunately.  Nevertheless, it is absolutely indispensable for the student of Korean history, feudal Japanese studies, or those researching the decline of the Ming Dynasty.

NOTE:  I'm very keenly interested in reading a copy of Kenneth Swope's A Dragon's Head and a Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598, just to be able to compare it's scholarship with Hawley and Turnbull.  Swope reviewed Hawley's book a bit unfavorably on Amazon's website.  I don't know if his review is justified, seeing as there is precious little in the way of actual scholarship in the West regarding the Imjin War.  Since Swope's book could be considered competition, his review must be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Mass Effect Debacle: My 2¢, PART THREE

Finally, The Rock has come back to Mass Effect 3's ending!

So, after finishing this semester's work, I've decided to finish what I've started regarding the ending of the Mass Effect saga.  I review the debate in Part One and I analyze the endings in Part Two.

Well, I'll begin with the statement that I've rethought a lot of what I had originally said in Part Two.  Indeed, I've come to the conclusion that I was wrong on several points, especially the point that the sameness of the ending invalidates the idea of choice being one of the major thematic elements of the game.  It doesn't.  No, the sameness of the cut-scene endings is not ideal.  Yes, it is lazy.  However, it does not ruin the experience nor does it invalidate the idea that choice matters.  I also withdraw my statement that Mass Effect and its ending fail as art.  It was a hasty conclusion.

After reviewing the climax of Mass Effect 3, discussing it with a few people, and refining my own ideas, I believe that the biggest problem with the Mass Effect 3 finale is how the dialogue with the Star Child fails to really explore the various complex themes with which the series wrestles.  However, these ideas are still touched upon in the dialogue, albeit ever-so-briefly.

However, even before I had rethought my statements and positions regarding Mass Effect 3, I still felt that the ReTake Mass Effect movement was extremely flawed and wrongheaded.  Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I end up agreeing with David Faraci of BadAssDigest.  Although I don't feel the ending is superb, I think that it does a good job of closing the story of Shepard.

See, Shepard's story is BioWare's story, not the players' story.  The player has some narrative input, making the tale more interactive.  However, at its core, the story does not belong solely to the player.  The players that want a new ending (or endings) absolutely do have an attitude of entitlement.  The more I consider it, the more I realize that the climax of Mass Effect 3 simply soared over their heads.  What they're asking for is totally and completely unnecessary.  As it stands, the Mass Effect saga is over, Shepard's story is complete, the thematic ideas regarding free will, determinism, existentialism, and dialectic are all resolved the moment the player chooses which path they will take, Green, Blue, or Red.  What matters here is not the consequences of the decision, but the decision itself.  At the resolution of each ending, the galaxy will be irrevocably different.

The problems of continuity (why doesn't the destruction of the Mass Relays destroy the systems they're in, why is the Normandy fleeing from an explosion, what happens to all those stranded in the Sol system, etc.) are all nit-picky nerd-rage that fails to see the big picture.  The forest is lost for all of the trees.  I'm reminded of MovieBob's review of Cabin in the Woods and the viewers' reactions demonstrating their inability to really think at all.  Who cares what happened to the characters?  They're only part of what's going on!  The ending broadens the focus onto the big, complex, philosophical ideas that underpin the entire series of games.  If you want to see everybody dancing and the ghosts of warriors past gazing on approvingly, go watch Star WarsMass Effect, on the other hand, is striving to be good, meaty, complex science-fiction by dragging your attention from the nuts-and-bolts details to the immense, cosmic problems.  It puts the arbitration of those gigantic issues into the hands of one, single, human being and bids us judge.  That, by itself, should make us sit back and say, "Whoa!"

The people who want to ReTake the series have no appreciation for what's been done.  Even if I agreed that the entire thing was a train wreck, I'd want it to still stand as an example of how not to screw up an ending.  But now that I've realized just how elegant, though not perfect, the entire ending is and how it faces up to the big, complex existential issues it raises, I can't help but have very little respect for the ReTake movement.  They missed the point entirely.

NOTE:  Although he's not stupid and he's got some interesting information about the original script outlines, this guy is a great example of someone who just doesn't get it.  He's totally hung-up on having this long, detailed ending that takes attention away from the big questions.  He's absolutely focused on the characters and their interactions and completely missed the deep, existential and dialectic issues that the ending has raised.  He wants a typical "good video game ending."  As I listened to him describe his ending, I just put my head in my hand and sat in disbelief.  His ending is mundane, pedestrian, prosaic, and ultimately what everybody wants.  But it would absolutely ruin Mass Effect worse than what everyone thinks the current ending does.  If this is what the Mass Effect players want, then I honestly think they 1) truly do not understand narrative and storytelling, 2) do not understand how to think about a narrative, and 3) have tastes that are totally ruined by Hollywood.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Mass Effect Debacle: My 2¢, PART TWO

In the first part of this essay, I discussed the origins and some of the current themes in the ongoing debate/debacle/scandal regarding the ending(s) to Mass Effect 3.  Here, I discuss my reaction to the ending(s).  In the third part, I will give my opinion on the fan reactions and the Retake Mass Effect movement.

First, I want to state the obvious.  I watched the various ending cut scenes both separately and all together at the same time.  They are all essentially the same ending with only minor divergences.  Someone may be tempted to say that the devil is in the details.  Not this time.  This is one ending with slight variations in order to mimic variety.

Secondly, I want to point out that I've watched numerous commentaries on the endings and even read Shamus Young's column on The Escapist.  I recommend it.  I also think that Bioware didn't necessarily lie about the ending, they just employed effective marketing (not necessarily ethical marketing--welcome to dealing with business majors).  It can be argued that there were six endings--would that hold up in a court of law?  I don't know, but they can try to rationalize it.  Advertising lies all the time.  Go watch 1990s Crazy People.  There's the implicit warning: caveat emptor--buyer beware.

Now, I want to tackle something a bit more important--the artistic merit of the Mass Effect 3 ending.  Frankly, the ending is an artistic failure.  It is the product of hubris.  The writers of the ending reportedly did not subject it to peer review like they had everything else in the games' development.  They've revealed themselves to be incredibly arrogant regarding the artistic merit of the ending, refuse to change it despite the outcry, and are only releasing DLC that will explain and contextualize the ending for fans and provide closure in a half-hearted attempt at appeasement.  However, when analyzing the actual ending, the actual artistic merit of the ending can be identified but the ending is marred by the sloppiness of its scripting and the laziness of the writers.  The cut-scene ending is incapable of actually situating the designers' themes and arguments in any meaningful manner.  It has this rushed, impatient feeling, as if it is in a hurry to get to the credits.  Couple with the fact that all of the endings are essentially one single ending with minor differences and you have a recipe for artistic failure.  There is absolutely no love, emotion, or real rumination upon the human condition--and this last point is something that I have to really emphasize.  There is no substantial challenge or question posed to the player regarding the human condition.  They make a half-hearted attempt at doing so and they fail.  Narrative art (i.e. literature) functions by giving us the ability to consider at least one aspect of the human condition critically.  The Mass Effect 3 ending fails to achieve this.

This is not to say that it is not art.  What I am saying here is very distinct: I'm not saying the Mass Effect 3 ending isn't art, what I'm saying is that the Mass Effect 3 ending is an artistic failure.  There's a slight difference and in this case the devil is in the details because upon this statement depends the actual framing and meaning of the conversation.

Not only does the ending fail as art, but it fails as science-fiction.  Science fiction is a legitimate branch of literature that deals with the future and ruminates upon the moral, ethical, and humanistic dilemmas that technological advancement present.  It should come as no surprise that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells helped to birth the genre during the Industrial Revolution, when technological advancement was outpacing the intellectuals' abilities to consider the human responses to such advancements.  Instead of dealing with current issues, science fiction attempts to predict advancement, stay ahead of the curve, and wrestle with difficult questions regarding the human condition in hypothetical situations that have not yet occurred.

The Mass Effect series displays these traits right up until the very ending.  Once the star child emerges into the narrative, however, all of this is completely thrown out of the window and the creators thrust us into The Epic of Gilgamesh.  Moral agency, free will, and humanism are all eschewed in favor of a heavy-handed preachy and ultimately unsatisfying ending.  It's similar to my complaints regarding Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos.

First, let me explain what is not wrong with the endings.  The lack of denouement is not a weakness or a problem.  We do not need it.  They're not really a part of the overarching issues that the ending is trying to tackle.  This is an artistic decision that is designed to put focus on the broader, more complex issues.  If we get to see each character's resolution, our attention is drawn away from the difficult discourse regarding evolution, survival, and dialectic.  Indeed, the brevity of the resolution is actually one of the things that the design team did right.  This, however, needed to be tempered by a sense of payoff for the player.  A longer, more complex and challenging climax would offset a lot of player frustration with the ending.

The other thing that they did right was to emphasize the dialectic struggle of the game.  Essentially, the question is "What form of life should inherit the galaxy?"  If the biological species in Mass Effect represent an existential thesis and the synthetic life-forms represent an existential antithesis, then the "Green Ending" represents a synthesis.  If you chose the "Green Ending," congratulations, you've just selected the Hegelian dialectic writ large.  The war against the Reapers and Geth was essentially a deliberative period and you, the player, designated a sort of union.  Go read Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx/Engles, and Derrida.  If your brain doesn't melt, I will applaud you.

The climax makes apparent that there's an existential, dialectical struggle going on.  The star child is engaging in thought experiments on a galactic scale.  This is incredibly poignant.  The fact that we're given the decision as to how to resolve this thought experiment is also magnificently powerful.  The fact that the star child exists introduces an epistemological problem for the player--what's the factual reality about this war against the Reapers?  Is it for our survival or something else?  What does the star child mean when he says we'll be preserved?  Is chaos a moral wrong, as the star child seems to believe it is?

The cut-scene ending, however, fails to deliver on the results of the choice the player makes.  This is absolutely damning of the entire affair because it nullifies not only the impact of player agency in the game but also the narrative, epistemological, and existential power that is introduced by revealing that this is all one gigantic experiment in dialectics.  Again, there is no payoff.  The design team had said they originally had the star child explain everything to the player but then decided that there was a lot of things that the player didn't need to know.  I accept that there are mysteries unsolved and questions unanswered--that's fine.  Indeed, depending on how it's handled, those enigmas can even enhance the experience of an ending.  However, there are enigmas upon which the ending depends in order for it to maintain narrative coherency.

I guess I'm damning the ending with faint praise.

Elements of the ending were certainly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The Star Child in 2001 and the godlike boy at the finale of Mass Effect 3 are definitely artistically tied.  However, the god child is not the object or result of the game as it is in Kubric's and Clarke's masterpiece.  In 2001, the Star Child is the object of David Bowman's surrealistic and abstract journey--the unknown, unseen, and incredibly highly evolved entities evolve Bowman into something more similar to themselves.  The protagonist is humanity as a whole and the objective for Clarke and Kubric is to demonstrate our future and our evolution into something greater.

If evolution is the objective of Mass Effect 3, then it is actually stated incredibly poorly.  A deep, thoughtful analysis of 2001 is confronted with the Monolith from the very beginning--our australopithecus ancestors are gently pushed by the Monolith on their first steps toward critical thought and creative problem-solving, the very elements that make us human.  It is poignant that homicide is one of the side-effects of this.  The desolation of Africa, bereft of cities or development, is displaced by a ballet of orbital stations and spacecraft as humanity has achieved the ultimate zenith of homo sapiens' potential.  Into this milieu the Monolith re-emerges, this time on the Moon, and beckons our curious selves to evolve into the next step.

If the choices and struggles in Mass Effect 3 are designed to present the flip-side to this coin--the fear of the unknown, the xenophobia and distrust of the "other," and the struggle to maintain homeostasis in the comfort of remaining simply homo sapiens--all couched in a situation where the player actually believes he's fighting for the survival of physical and biological life in the galaxy, then there's some serious artistic merit here!  The potential is staggering.  The creators, writers, and designers of the Mass Effect saga have engaged our primal, less-evolved cave-man faculties and convinced us that we're the good guys.  Instead of 2001, we thought we were playing Babylon 5!  All of a sudden, these existential and dialectic questions are being thrown at us at the ending and we're faced with the sort of choice we never expected we'd have to make!

The problem is if this is what the designers were after, it's not spelled out enough.  The Mass Effect saga hasn't employed the same narrative conventions as 2001.  Kubric used film to tell a story in which humanity is the protagonist and the taciturn David Bowman is a stand-in for all mankind.  You need to pay attention to 2001 because dialogue was not the primary vehicle for storytelling, image was.  In Mass Effect, dialogue was equally (if not more) important than image in telling the story.  There was little or no image or dialogue pertaining to human evolution at the end.

However, the star child simply doesn't have enough dialogue with Shepard, doesn't describe the purpose behind what he's doing well enough, to make anything actually matter.  When confronted by the star child, Shepard basically has as much knowledge about what's going on as he would have had the star child never materialized in the first place.  The only difference is, now the door's been cracked a few millimeters into the 2001 evolution question and the dialectic experimentation theme.  But a few millimeters is not enough.  At least leave the door a foot ajar.

I'm reminded of the ending to The Matrix Reloaded, where Neo encounters the Architect.  Granted, the Architect represents heavy-handed philosophical wankery of the most poserish and pedantic caliber.  The star child doesn't.  However, the brevity of the scene is simply too short.  The star child insists that organics have choice, "more than they deserve," and then puts the decision regarding how to deal with the Reapers in Shepard's hands.  Therein is the thread that the designers needed to expand--the moral authority that the star child represents and the implications as to where the star child, the Catalyst, gets his morality.

One of the purposes of society and the ultimate dilemma of free will is the very struggle between order and chaos.  We surrender our freedoms willingly in order to live together in a society and avoid the Hobbesian nightmare world.  The star child seems to imply that the "chaos" that organic life represents is this sort of conundrum writ large--where does the good of the individual end and the good of all begin and vice-versa.  This spectrum is dealt with in the series, but the resolution of this very human puzzle is relegated to one or two lines.  So, too, is the inevitability of synthetic and organic life in perpetual conflict--this is relegated to a single line.  I'd be tempted to argue that this entirely ignores Asimov's Three Laws, but the star child seems to be the embodiment of the Zeroth Law.  While this is interesting, it's another idea that's discarded without adequate expansion or discussion by the final dialogue.

This is all nit-picking, so far.  The dialogue with the star child is only the tip of the iceberg and it, alone, doesn't condemn the entire existential dialectic upon which the ending has come to rest.  The decision that Shepard is faced with is excellent and reflective of the very meaningful premise of the series.

The agency of choice is nullified by the sameness of the cut-scene endings.  What was needed was a far more conclusive exposition of the very existential results of Shepard's choices producing greater variety in the endings.  One of the basic tenets of narrative structures is to provide a reward or payoff for being the audience.  There needs to be some sense of satisfaction.  The player's thirst needs to be sated in some manner.  The brevity of the ending is essentially a cop-out--the uniformity of the endings cheapens the experience even further.

The build-up to the ending should have included cut-scenes that demonstrate the impact of the player's choices as the great battle for Earth is joined.  This was Bioware's opportunity to stun and amaze us with incredible space-battles, futuristic ground combat on a titanic scale, and a sense of grandeur like a Cecil B. DeMille epic set in space.  What we should have seen was the greatest space battle ever put on a screen.

Similarly, our decisions should impact what we see once Shepard makes his ultimate choice--Green, Blue, or Red.  I understand that decisions made in the game determine which endings are made available.  That's great.  However, the sameness of all three completely undermines our choice.  The payoff is gone.  Of the three red, two blue, and one green ending we're given, the differences that our decisions in-game have made are so minor, so forgettable, so inconsequential as to minimize the very value of free will in the narrative.  Basically, if Bioware is making a case for determinism and fatalism, they're doing it in an extremely heavy-handed and brutal fashion without any real substance or introspection, Zeus-like in the arbitrariness of where they fling their thunderbolts.

As for the Indoctrination Theory, given the coherence of the ending, I'd say that this theory is a product of over-rationalization on the part of fans.  This is not 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン (Neon Genesis Evangelion).  The ending isn't so full of abstraction and intertwining plot threads and semiotic notions.  Indeed, the entire game is presented incredibly straight-forward in comparison to Eva.  Indeed, Eva's ambiguous ending was largely the bi-product of Hideaki Anno's self-reflection after emerging from a deep depression, although rumors that Gainax was running out of money (resulting in increasingly rudimentary animation culminating in rough still-frame shots).  This ambiguity made the ending incredibly open-ended (both of the TV and of the film endings), especially since it was entirely psychological, leading to a plethora of interpretations.

It's also worthwhile to mention the lack of artistic integrity among the developers in designing elements of Mass Effect 3.  This image demonstrates the sloppiness and lack of creativity regarding their ending.

In sum: the sloppiness of the final cut-scene's composition and execution which is why the end is an artistic failure.  I understand some arguments that say it is because Shepard's story is at an end and we're not supposed to see the consequences of his choice.  I understand but disagree because the ending violates basic narrative demands for a richer exploration of the ramifications of his choice.

Next, I'll discuss my opinion on the Retake Mass Effect movement.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Monte Cook Leaves D&D Design Team

I just had to post on this.  I'm delaying my personal opinion on the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle in favor of this particular story and its implications.  Monte Cook has left the WotC design team for 5th edition D&D.  I have to admit, this gives me a very "I-told-you-so" sort of feeling, mixed with a bit of Schadenfreude.  I can't help it, I think 4th edition was very much not a roleplaying game and am perplexed by those who say it is and enjoy it (read this if you haven't already).  The announcement of 5th edition pretty much made a Part II of my diatribe against 4th edition kind of pointless, admittedly.

The implications of Monte Cook leaving 5th edition's design team because he and WotC had creative "differences of opinion" should be apparent to almost everyone--WotC has learned nothing.  D&D 5th edition is probably going to be a disaster.  I don't blame people for holding out hope for 5th edition, but I'm not holding my breath.

See, by trying to create a versatile product that can be customized to satisfy the OSR player, the 3.5/Pathfinder gamer, and the 4th edition adherent, WotC is going to make a product that satisfies no one.  I don't care about all of the fans playtesting it and saying it's great.  Research states that focus groups don't work.  Psychology and in-group acceptance help to shape our perceptions and make us biased.  Therefore, people playtesting a game are predisposed to rave about it even though, six months later in their friend's basement, they're going to realize that the game is the opposite of fun and get this very sour taste in their mouth.

When you try to make a product that pleases everybody, you end up pleasing no one.

Now that one of the most creative minds in tabletop RPG gaming and game design has left the WotC design team, I have pretty much shed all doubts I had about the poor design and unplayability of 5th Edition.  What's worse is that the D&D community might fracture even more as a result!  If 4th edition fanatics dislike 5th edition, that's an entire faction that WotC just lost.

I keep saying that WotC should just sell the entire franchise to Eric Mona and the guys at Pathfinder.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Mass Effect Debacle: My 2¢, PART ONE

Unless you've been living under a rock when it comes to videogames, you are probably aware of the massive backlash against Bioware regarding the storyline and ending of Mass Effect 3.  If you aren't, I'll give you a quick synopsis: Many fans/customers who purchased the game felt disappointed by the lack of impact previous decisions had on the storyline and downright robbed by the lackluster endings to the game.  They went so far as to create a Retake Mass Effect 3 organization that has actually resulted in Bioware announcing an extended cut for the game.  Even the Better Business Bureau has weighed in on the subject.  The protestors/disgruntled fans/cheated customers claimed victory but numerous voices have warned that this may not have achieved the results for which they were hoping.

In the midst of all of this, a few prominent voices on The Escapist have entered the fray, essentially on opposing sides.  They've not really engaged one-another in direct debate, instead choosing to respectfully attack the issue itself as opposed to one-another's arguments.  I'm talking about Jim Sterling and Bob "MovieBob" Chipman.

Jim Sterling at first wasn't a supporter of the Retake Mass Effect movement.  He did note that the very existence of such a powerful backlash, comparable to the backlash against Lucas' hack-scripted Star Wars prequels, was a sign that games were actually becoming significant as a storytelling medium.  After reviewing the endings to Mass Effect 3, he actually came around to sympathizing with the protestors and arguing in support of their grievances.  He asserts that "art has no rules," therefore it is constantly fluid and changing.  He also seems to agree that the ending to Mass Effect 3 is, in no way, artistic or deep.

MovieBob's position is that the Retake Mass Effect movement is threatening the artistic integrity of video games as a storytelling medium.  Bob sums up his position in this post pretty well:
I don't accept the premise that gaming is fundamentally different from film or literature because of the manner of user-engagement, nor that choose-your-own-adventure structuring and letting you adjust the visual look of a main character makes Mass Effect some kind of sea-change, NOR that any of this represents some kind of important shift in the relationship of audience to artist - and if it does, it's a bad shift. Good art and good stories are not made via democracy. The artist is the superior of his/her audience, with the sole caveat that they may choose to render said artist powerless by withholding support. You take that away and all we've got is made-to-order bullshit, which is where cultural stagnation comes from. People who only ever get what they WANT will never discover what the didn't know they NEEDED.

Also, I still say that the precedent this will set is one of the worst things that could possibly happen to this increasingly-ridiculous industry - YES, it's possible that Bioware's back-to-the-drawing-board approach will yield a "better" ending for this ONE game... but that won't be the end of it. This being so high-profile will have an automatically-disasterous effect on fans, telling them that if they throw a tantrum they'll get their way, and on publishers especially: they're already disgustingly risk-averse, and "Remember What Happened To Bioware!" will be a convenient cudgel to bludgeon the ambitions of any creative team that wants to do something risky or unconventional in the medium...
His two videos on ScrewAttack back up his argument rather well.  It's well thought-out, articulated, and defended, just like Jim Sterling's.  In his Game Overthinker Episode 68: "Crass Effect," he argues that in order for storytelling to be good the story needs to be controlled by the storyteller and that the players/protesters have an attitude of entitlement over their control of the game's story.  The players/protesters have stepped out-of-line by claiming Bioware owes them a new ending.  In his Game Overthinker Episode 69: "AfterMass," Bob explains that by caving to fan demands, Bioware is setting a dangerous precedent that threatens the artistic possibilities of the medium of video gaming.  In addition, he identifies a few films where focus-groups and test-audiences actually ruined films because they didn't like endings that had far more artistic merit in favor of bubble-gum endings that didn't challenge them (I Am Legend is discussed in detail).

But all this dialogue rests on one single premise: Mass Effect 3's ending is bad.  This begs the question--is it?  Objectively, artistically, is the ending actually bad or did people fail to understand it?  Is it challenging in a way that I Am Legend's original and alternate ending was, thereby resulting in confused and illiterate plebians demanding a more pedestrian ending where the good guys win and dance with Ewoks?  Or is the ending simply underwhelming, poorly presented, anti-climactic, and overall empty?

Devin Faraci of BadAssDigest found the ending to Mass Effect 3 to be "spectacular."  He writes:
The endings of Mass Effect 3 are, essentially, infinite. You see the decision your Shepard made - domination, destruction or co-existence - and a quick glimpse of how that immediately plays out. But what happens next is for you to chew on, to mull over. What does it mean that you chose to control the Reapers, and how will that impact the galaxy? What does your decision to destroy all synthetics tell future generations about your Shepard? And what does your decision to co-exist say about you, as a player? These are exciting, fun questions. Just as the ending of 2001 doesn’t bring the Starchild all the way to Earth, the ending of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t follow the impact of the final choice all the way through history. The game designers at BioWare assumed that you’re smart enough to understand that they’re leaving the next steps unfollowed on purpose.
He goes on to say this at the end:
In the end Mass Effect 3, like any other narrative video game, is a story being told to us. We have some control over the peripheral business but the meat of the story belongs to BioWare. This is the tale they’ve been telling. This is the culmination of what they’ve been doing since the beginning of Mass Effect. And I love it. This is true scifi, a story that examines the nature of conflict and humanity through the prism of imaginative, speculative fiction. I’ve never played a game where the decisions I made felt so powerful in the abstract; I wasn’t worrying about whether or not one choice would give me a better power up, I was worrying about the moral and ethical implications of the choices. And after all of that the final choice was so obvious, so true to what had come before, that I was kind of irritated at how slowly old Shep moved.
Perhaps MovieBob has a point.  Ken Levine, creator of BioShock, expressed disappointment over the whole debacle.  And he's not alone.  According to Casey Hudson, the executive producer and director of Mass Effect 3, the endings were intended to "polarize" the audience.  If the endings were meant to be deliberately ambiguous and generate so many theories (such as Shepard is actually indoctrinated by the Reapers or is actually dead) and spur discussion and multiple interpretations, there's a lot of artistic substance there.

If the indoctrination theory is correct, well, I'll let Phil Hornshaw and Ross Lincoln at GameFront explain:
Indoctrination is a long-standing and very big feature of the Mass Effect universe and the Reaper war itself. The idea of loss of control, manipulation and subservience to the enemy comes up a lot, in the games and in the expanded universe of the novels. This is a huge theme; it would make lots of sense to find it in the ending.
Furthermore, if the endings as they stand are fake, then the resulting vitriol regarding them may well have been planned. Think about that one for a minute — BioWare might have manipulated us into hating the ending of the game. In essence, BioWare would have indoctrinated just about every Mass Effect player into thinking, like Shepard, that the events as they stand are what happened, when that assumption is actually untrue. It wasn’t just Shepard, a cartoon you control, who was indoctrinated — you were indoctrinated, forced to make the Reapers’ choices just as he was, whether you wanted to or not.

Your video game would have basically brainwashed you. Welcome to the only possible situation in which that would be simply awesome.

If that’s BioWare’s design, it’s a staggering feat of gaming. Mass Effect has always harped on player choices, interactive storytelling and immersion, and this would take those ideas to a level never even attempted before. But it only works if there’s more to the story. And that means a hidden ending somewhere, or further DLC releases. Because without additional material for the ending, an indoctrinated Shepard makes things even worse, not better.
That's got some pretty damn heavy artistic merit, there.  After discussing some of the plans, scripts, and storyboards the design team had and the decision to omit a lot of stuff about the Mass Effect universe that the player "didn't need to know," Hornshaw and Lincoln had this to say:
It looks a lot like whatever plans they had were scrapped along with a lot of important dialogue for reasons that may never be known. It’s probably wise to bet that the Indoctrination Theory isn’t true because there is no true version of events at all.
That's pretty heavy.  And it kind of contradicts what Devin Faraci said above.  Hell, the entire premise that you'd have choice and those choices would have visible, definite, tangible consequences on the games' universe kind of disprove Faraci's belief that this is "Bioware's story" and not the players'.  If there is no true version of events at the end of Mass Effect 3, then there is no official ending therefore it's up to interpretation.

This is awesome... if it's done right.  The question is, do we have a Stanley Kubric or a David Lynch at the helm of Mass Effect?  Or do we have a Hideaki Anno?

In the end, I had to just cave in and watch the endings myself.

I'll talk about that next time.

Monday, April 23, 2012


The documentary film Two Million Minutes, Chapter 1: A Global Examination is a film whose premise I cannot, with any honesty, support or agree with in any way, shape, or form.  Its bias is blatantly self-evident and the logic it employs is a classic case of flawed deductive logic and can only be accepted by those employing a confirmation bias fallacy.  It purports to present a realistic picture of Indian, Chinese, and American schooling, but cherry-picks the students it utilizes to represent the three nations in question, leading viewers to erroneously conclude that American schools and American students are disastrously behind in global educational standards. 

The reality is that, although rapidly and catastrophically shrinking over the past fifty or sixty years, emphasis on the humanities and associated skills of critical thinking, problem solving, analysis, synthesis, dialectic, and liberal, creative thought and experimentation is a standard foundational pillar of American (and indeed Western) education that is largely absent from non-Western schooling.  The tragedy of American schools and, indeed, the greatest failure of American schools, is the shrinking support for and inept instruction of the humanities coupled with our insistence on being more like Asian educational institutions.  Indeed, I would strongly argue that it is because of the perception that Asian schooling is superior to that of the West that we are abandoning the humanities that have generated the liberal political models, freedoms, philosophies, and reasoned, rational critique that have been hallmarks of Western thought since the Athenian agora.  Indeed, Albert Einstein, who had difficulty with mathematics but could visualize the immense complexities of space-time, would never have succeeded in these Asian school systems.

My own experience with Asian schooling and my numerous colleagues in the ESL field abroad who have worked in China can attest to the dismal lifestyles and stunted intellectual, emotional, and analytical development of Asian students.  In those countries, equality of education is not guaranteed nor is it even remotely encouraged.  In the United States, educational equality may not be a reality for some geographic and demographic sectors of society, but it is still the ideal for which we strive.  In countries like Korea, China, and Japan, students brutally compete for percentile ranks in their schools, since higher test scores can secure seats in better middle schools and high schools, which in turn can help students get into more prestigious universities.  Once in university, a student no longer needs to study as hard and most of their activity at that level is geared toward creating connections and building a network that will help them in a workplace environment that is most assuredly not a meritocracy.  The West still has the lion’s share of the best and most rigorous universities in the world.

The actual lives of the students are completely consumed with school work.  In Korea I have seen some students study themselves into illness and others become dependent on drugs to the point of severe abuse in order to stay awake and study.  About half of students at my Korean middle school had resigned themselves to menial-labor jobs because they had fallen too far behind the most advanced students in their grades.  They felt they could never catch up fast enough to make a difference and so studied only enough to scrape by without getting into trouble.  After school, the students would attend cram schools into the night.  Few got any decent amount of sleep.  None of them ever had the opportunity to have a real childhood and develop the imaginative, creative lifestyles that American students could enjoy during their off-hours.  Students rarely had time to play in organized sports, develop hobbies, or engage in activities that fostered self-esteem or gave the students a sense that life was worth living.  I would strongly suggest the viewer watch this documentary ( which is in the works.  Although South Korea is not part of the documentary, many of the characteristics of Korean education are identical to Chinese education (as well as Japanese education) from the evidence I have gathered from the other expat English teachers I had met during my sojourn in Korea.

The problem with the American students is not that we are falling behind in math and science.  That we are falling behind in those fields is a product of a sickness that has developed in American culture since the end of the Second World War.  The prosperity of the 1950s decade created a generation that was used to getting what it wanted—the Baby Boomers who referred to themselves as the “Me Generation.”  The birth of the adolescent in society and culture heralded a shift in what constituted as adulthood in the United States.  Ever since, the ability of Americans to become adjusted adults has become more and more tenuous.  For one who is curious as to the socio-historical roots of this phenomenon, I would advice the reader to watch the BBC documentary Century of the Self by Adam Curtis (it can be found on youtube for free).

The illness in our educational system is cultural and not entirely academic.  Yes, poor teachers, low funding, oversized classes, and other elements come into play in American schools (just watch Waiting for “Superman” and ask yourself why all those kids want lottery tickets to go to charter schools).  However, the real culprit is culture.  American culture is decadent.  Our television, movies, and video games celebrate stupidity and mindlessness.  People who are intellectual are shunned in American schools and the butt of jokes in American television (just watch Big Bang Theory on TBS and you’ll see what I mean).

 If this documentary had approached me when I was in high school (1994-1997), they would have traced a student who graduated 9th in his class, scored a 1300 on the SAT without studying, took honors and AP classes, did concert band and concert choir, read John Locke and Plato in his own free time, memorized and recited Shakespeare for fun, studied chess competitively, participated in the school musical, played drums in a rock band, did community service with the National Honors Society, took karate classes twice a week, had a part-time job delivering pizzas, and still managed to paint models and play miniature wargames on odd weekends.  However, this documentary chose to focus on two mediocre American high school students that I (when I was 16) would have thought were complete idiots (yes, even the boy who got a full ride to Purdue).  My parents pushed me relentlessly.  If I got an A, my father would ask me, “Why isn’t it an A+?”

 My parents also taught me how to change brakes, oil, fluids, lights, filters, spark plugs, shocks, and various engine components on a car, do laundry, repair home appliances, cook, fix household plumbing, balance a checkbook, use MS DOS, and maintain and care for a home and lawn—lessons absolutely unheard of in East Asia.  Students over there are far, far too busy studying to actually acquire any practical, real-world experience in maintenance, repair, or even an appreciation for the value of money.  None of them have time for part-time work because of their devotion to study—study which, for far too many of them, given the competitive nature of their schooling, results in many students going to mediocre universities despite how much effort they put into their studies.

What these students have in East Asia that American students do not is an appreciation for education.  And that, again, is cultural.  Americans view education as simply a means to an end.  High school is boring and a drag.  University classes are, too, but at least they are job training and you get a pretty piece of paper that says you can get a job making $90,000 a year.  Americans disdain intelligence and intellectualism, celebrate self-interest and ostentatious consumerism, and are loath to take responsibility for their own actions.  Many professors in the liberal arts to whom I have spoken feel that these cultural traits of Americans today are products of our dwindling emphasis on the humanities in school, university, and society as a whole—disciplines that encourage introspection, self-criticism and analysis, free and creative thought, and inculcate a desire to be free tempered with a sense of civic duty and appreciation for order.  A philosophy professor here at Eastern once commented to me on an article he read in Rolling Stone about the Dartmouth fraternity scene, saying, “These guys were beasts.  They were going to end up at Goldman Sachs.  They were completely self-interested, barely liberal, beasts.  And the university didn’t much care.  They were going to be good donors.”

A better comparison would be with German and perhaps Dutch education systems.  The Germans also track students and based on performance assign them to different high schools which, in turn, determine if the students go on to university or vocational/technical training academies.  However, they also emphasize the humanities and many of their modern cultural heroes are philosophers and intellectuals such as Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault.  American cultural heroes are brash, arrogant athletes that couldn’t reason their way out of a wet paper bag.

However, the film completely ignores the European educational scene entirely, playing off of our fear of the “Yellow Peril,” as if Sax Rohmer’s worst nightmares for the Western world could be summed up by Chinese high school education.  The makers of Two Million Minutes started off with an assumption—that Asian schools are beating us—an assumption that they fail to prove yet attempt to work backwards, cherry-picking the students they wish to examine and track as if that sort of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning will suffice.

 It does not suffice.  Indeed, the premise is entirely wrong.  The Indians and Chinese are not beating us because of our education system.  They are beating us because of culture.  Their citizens value education and learning.  Ours once valued frugality, industriousness, creativity, risk-taking, and hard work.  Americans have come to value stupidity and self-interest.  That is why we have fallen behind.  It is not because we do not push science and math in our schools but because in our decadence we have abandoned those principles which made us unique and strong in the first place.

Friday, April 6, 2012

HIST 315: Ancient Greece -- Required Texts

When designing a course that is set to cover everything from the Bronze Age all the way to the conquest by Rome, you have to decide what you can fit into a fifteen-week semester with about three hours of class-time each week.  This is not easy.

The most difficult decisions are not what to include, but what to omit.  This also crosses over into readings that the course requires.  Since it is a 300-level class, I've had a lot to consider.  I want to expose the students to some of the more prominent historians of the ancient world.  This would include guys like Donald Kagan, N.G.L. Hammond, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, Peter Green, Victor Davis Hanson, and Moses I. Finley, to name just a small few.  I also want to give them readings from the time period, which would include guys like Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Hesiod, Homer, Aristophanes... and the list goes on.  The students should be exposed not only to texts by those that lived during the time but also to theory, discussion, interpretation, and analysis by modern historians.

Though choices have to be made.

As a primary text for my course, I've settled on Chester G. Starr's A History of the Ancient World.  It's a pretty thorough survey of human history up to the fall of Rome in the West.  I was going to assign N.G.L. Hammond's superb A History of Greece to 322 B.C. but that book didn't cover the Hellenistic Era.  I will, instead, try to integrate some of the things Hammond has to say into my lectures and perhaps a few print-outs for my course packet.

I want to have at least two or three other modern, supplementary texts that will help illustrate scholarship, research, analysis, and interpretations of Greek history and society.  To that end, I wanted to include A. Andrewes' The Greek Tyrants but it seems to have gone out-of-print (and the "new" prices at amazon can't be justified by the brevity of the book).  Therefore, I'm only going to assign the students W.G.G. Forrest's A History of Sparta, 950-192 B.C. and N.G.L. Hammond's The Genius of Alexander the Great.

So much for modern texts.  When it comes to Ancient Greeks, I'm definitely going to require the students purchase Lattimore's translation of The Iliad.  Playwrights are also an important inclusion, so I'm assigning some Aristophanes (preferably The Wasps and Lysistrata) but I don't want to give them bowdlerized Penguin editions, so I'm searching for more accurate translations that have all the plays I want the students to read contained in one volume.  As for Plato, I'm certain I can find a decent volume that contains The Apology, Crito, Euthyphro, and maybe a couple other dialogues.  As for tragedy, I've pretty much settled on Oedipus at Colonnus since it illustrates a lot about the polis.  Although Plutarch was writing much later and was a conservative/reactionary whose moralizing severely slants his biographies, I'm considering the inexpensive Penguin collections of his Lives, such as The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives and On Sparta. 

The course packet will contain selections of readings, excerpts of poetry, plays, Plato's dialogues, some Aristotle, some Herodotus and Thucydides (especially the Melian Dialogue) and a couple of chapters from some modern scholarly works.  Perhaps I'll discuss more of that later.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Adjunct Professor

Well, this blog has been sleepy for several months. It was rejuvenated a bit by the Forgotten Realms game I was running, but I've been largely busy for quite some time.

However, I feel obliged to note that I'm not, officially, a college professor. Adjunct professor, to be exact, at Eastern University. I'm teaching a 300-level survey course in Ancient Greece next fall, and a 300-level survey course in Ancient Rome.

Hopefully, the work and research that I'll be doing this summer to assemble the syllabus and plan my lecture notes will rejuvenate this blog a little.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Twenty Questions

I got these from Dennis over at What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse.
  1. Ability scores generation method? Grid method. Roll 3d6 six times for each ability score in six columns. You can choose one score per ability but once you do, you can no longer select any scores from that column. This usually creates heroic characters without too many super-high or super-low scores that satisfy the players and enable them to qualify for whatever class they want to play.
  2. How are death and dying handled? As per the rules. -1 to -9 is dying (unconscious and losing 1 hp per round). -10 is dead. Some campaigns I choose negative Constitution.
  3. What about raising the dead? As per the rules.
  4. How are replacement PCs handled? You meet them in town, on the road, or rescue them in the dungeon. Whatever is faster and more expedient.
  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else? Depends on what is more expedient. Small skirmishes are usually individual. However, if the PCs are being attacked by 20 goblins, group initiative makes more sense.
  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? As per the rules for critical hits. Critical fumbles either result in the character losing a turn or the enemy getting a free attack/attack of opportunity depending on the situation. Ranged critical fumbles into melee combat result in friendly fire.
  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? As per the variant rules (if any) for helmets. Otherwise, I assume they're part of the entire AC adjustment for any armor worn.
  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly? As per the rules. If they say so, yes. If they don't, then only on a critical fumble.
  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? Use your best judgment. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. If you read my previous posts, yes, players have run from encounters.
  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no? As per the rules--the monster can drain a level? Yes. If the rules say it's temporary, fine. If they say permanent, it's permanent.
  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? Yep.
  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked? I try to make the PCs keep these things tracked. I keep up on them to make sure they're being honest.
  13. What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time? You gain the level next time you sleep a full 8 hours. No, you do not automatically gain new spells unless you are a cleric/favored soul/etc. that would.
  14. What do I get experience for? Killing stuff. Good roleplaying. Clever ideas. Self-sacrifice. Teamwork and comraderie. Spending gold frivolously (1 XP per gp spent carousing/wenching/drinking/etc.).
  15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination? As per the rules. Perception/Spot checks. However, if you ask questions I'll give you clues. Keep asking and no rolls are needed. Same with secret/concealed doors, hidden compartments, etc.
  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? As per the rules of the system. Morale is based on "what would they do in real life?" Morale checks in 2nd edition were a pain to keep track of. If half your team drops in one round, you're going to probably try to escape.
  17. How do I identify magic items? Spells to identify them. Detect magic spells while using Spellcraft skill to try to get hints or clues. Testing them. Trying to figure out command words. Research and comparing them to items in old tomes. Knowledge (arcana) rolls to recognize what sort of item it is by its appearance, design, sigils/runes, markings, etc.
  18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions? As per the setting. Does the town have an alchemist? An apothecary? A powerful wizard? Do they have shops? Depends on when, where, and who.
  19. Can I create magic items? When and how? As per the rules. If we're playing 3.5 or Pathfinder, you need the feats. If we're playing 2nd edition or earlier, you follow those rules. Either way, I'm going to come up with ingredients and other stuff you need to make it and you have to find it. (Example: for a wand of lightning bolt you need the heartwood of a tree that had been struck by lighting and survived).
  20. What about splitting the party? If you don't mind sitting and waiting while I deal with the other half of the party, knock yourselves out. I wouldn't recommend it--it's more fun to not split up and stick together.