Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Elliot Rodger: It's not Just About the Sex, Christians

Elliot Rodger is kinda a jerk. Putting aside the horrendous actions he committed, he is also a product of a very pervasive cultural lie. He bought into a very radical logical conclusion of something we tell all boys and men. The premise: if you don't have sex, you're not a man. And as a good man, you deserve sex.

Several good friends have posted some great articles about the topic. Here's one about the backlash to the backlash to the backlash: #YesAllWomen. Here's a great one about how nerd culture reinforces this: Your Princess is in Another Castle. (thanks Sabreen). Or another piece targeting the fundamental issue of hyper-masculinity in our culture: Elliot Rodger and the Price of Toxic Masculinity.

However, there's another response that cropped up recently. "If masculinity is defined by sexual immorality then it is a warped definition of masculinity." The allusion is that the way of sexual purity is the answer and correct definition of masculinity. Specifically the Christian one (disclaimer: cis-hetero middle-class Christian virgin male checking in).

I would argue that no, Christian Purity Culture is not the One True Answer for all the woes laid here.

Why? Because here are some of the lines of reasoning that have been taught in churches. I won't cover them in depth, just mention them. And let me be the first to say I still fall into some of these traps.

  • If you aren't married, then you aren't a real mature man yet, and therefore shouldn't be given real ministry responsibilities.
  • If you have pre-maritial sex, you are broken and polluted and used goods.
  • Sex is AMAZING so you should want it. Masturbation is bad. Thus, the only gateway to sex is marriage, so if you want to have sex, better get married ASAP (Ring by Spring is a thing).
  • Since God is taking care of His People, and marriage is good, if you aren't married by your mid-20s -- or, gasp, 30s -- something must be wrong with you.

And, of course, if I followed The Plan, I am a good Christian, and therefore deserve a hot smokin' wife and we will bang our way to Paradise. For serious.

See, it's not the problem that we aren't all sexually pure beings that is ruining things. The real root of what is going on, in this case, is Entitlement.

Elliot Rodgers explicitly mentions that he deserves sex. Since women are the gatekeepers of sex, and have denied him sex, they are the enemy and must be punished. They have emasculated him. And thus his only manly recourse is through violence. See the logic? That as a stand-up gentleman he has suffered the lowly status of not-banging-all-the-hot-chicks and his outburst of violence was punishment and righteous retribution for them denying his mandated birthright as a MAN.


There are many things I feel the individual is mandated as a basic right. Chance to work, good education, basic safety net via either social or governmental means. Sex ain't one of them.

Nerds, just because you've been outcast doesn't mean you are deserved your comeuppance and bang the hot girl who suddenly realizes she's been wrong all along to spurn your advances.

Even in the Bible, God never promises you're going to marry and get steamy times between the covers. Heck, Paul in his letters even mentions his ideal is we all remain celibate (that topic deserves its own post to unpack, but let me leave this here).

And above all, by being denied it, you are NOT required to reassert your masculinity through other means. Especially through violence.

Because sex is not a checkbox. It is not a status symbol to have or lose your virginity. It is a mutual act of submission and intimacy between two fully realized, self-actualizing, empowered individuals. Each with their own agency. Each with their own intricate desires and needs and dreams. It is not something you do on someone. It is not tied to your masculine identity.

Secular or religious, you are NOT entitled to sex. And we should stop tying masculinity to men's sexual prowess. Or, if you're Christian, lack of sexual exploits. Same difference.

Monday, January 27, 2014

"Authenticity" versus "Holiness"

The Gospel coalition has an article today about the rise of 'Authenticity' in the church.

In general I agree with the overall sentiment. Right now there is a groundswell of people exalting "authentic" and sharing about our "brokenness." Which, overall, is a good thing. Casting Crowns even had a lovely song of critique that Church is just a Stained Glass Masquerade where too often we act like we have it all. So the fact people are finally opening up about their hurts and getting healing from an open community is good.

But at the same time, as this article notes, there's a sweet spot. Share something too small ("I struggle with lying about my age!") and people ignore you. Share too far and too heavy and people buckle ("I have a crack addiction and murder people every night!"). So once again we are playing a social game. Finding the just-right point. People with the biggest hurts or those who "have their life together" get marginalized. It's counter to the whole movement of inclusive community.

On top of that is the downward cyclical cycle it can create. Everyone starts sharing and saying how low they are, and how we are stuck as the scum of the earth, and soon that's your identity. Being scum becomes your identity. We fall into the trap of just co-ruminating about our faults and take on being broken as our identity, just making us depressed and continuing the cycle. [bonus reference, footnote #10 from here] Plus, TGC deftly provides this snippet to illustrate:
"While we think self-deprecation causes us to be more relatable and empathetic to non-Christians, it's ultimately communicating a sense of disappointment, disillusionment, and discontentment," Stephen Mattson wrote for Red Letter Christians. "It thrives on negativity and kills our sense of hope."

TGC claims the answer is to instead pursue "Holiness." Elevate the pursuit of the perfect. Yes, provide room for the broken aspects, but don't stop there. Keep moving towards Holiness.

TGC further claims that true Authenticity is the process of sanctification. The growth towards Holiness. The question is rhetorically posed, "could it be that the most authentic thing any of us can do is faithfully pursue holiness and obediently follow after Christ?"

As I said at the start, overall I agree and it is a good message. It also helps point out some of the traps and flaws I see rising up around me as people single-mindedly pursue "Authenticity" in the church. Airing all your problems. People co-opting the movement to grandstand about their problems and use them for attention. Being stuck just complaining and never doing anything. All great points that people should keep in mind!

But I also perceive that we aren't far enough to have concern. The "Authentic" movement is still relatively young. And it still hasn't addressed some of the more serious underlying problems plaguing people. I previously mentioned that even in "Authentic" circles you aren't allowed to go too far with your sharing. There is the unspoken rule that you don't derail the group with your giant baggage load. That is still something for "behind closed doors." And that is just born from common sense and social contract. But at the same time too many people leave because they feel like there's no way for them to share. We don't have the "behind closed doors" spaces fully open and available. So people who are hurt and marginalized by their sins and past instead turn elsewhere.

What is especially painful is TGC's claim that "We've become too comfortable with our sin, to the point that it's how we identify ourselves and relate to others. But shouldn't we find connection over Christ, rather than over our depravity?" Perhaps. That's quite a laudable goal. But at the same time the human condition is defined by being broken. We all struggle with sin and I find the strongest characteristic about the Church is accepting people who have struggles and walking alongside them. That means that sometimes the best people are those who are broken in the same way! When you are struggling with a secret sin and then find out that someone else struggles or has struggled with it, you have an instant connection. A massive load is released. You realize this person gets you in a way others do not. Ignoring this aspect of the human condition, our ability to have empathy especially with those who have the same wounds as us, would be foolish.

Lastly, what is wrong with an image of a community of broken but struggling individuals? The veneer of happy smiling families with 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence isn't what wins people into the Church. Holier-than-thou and look-what-I-have doesn't bridge the gaps. To me, being vulnerable and being there for people in their hurt does. Saying "I am just like you, but I am empowered to be better" is a much better testimony than "God has blessed me with a perfect life." Because, let's be honest, you don't have a perfect life.

Oh, and the reason there is a sentiment of discontent and disillusionment? It's because we pretended we were perfect and had all the answers too long. It's because we live in a multi-religious Post-christian plurality. It's because the Church mortgaged away people's trust. It's because they decided it was time to die on a hill for things outside their jurisdiction too many times. It's the economy. It's wars. It's the whole broken bloody world. But that's another whole rant.

So my point is yes I have seen these problems. And I agree that just staying in the comforting and accepting rut isn't healthy. And definitely there are some places where this is a seductive niche hole and people should fix it. But I personally don't feel like the church at large is fully servicing the range of brokenness in the community and providing safe places for people to share and receive care yet. So we should focus on doing more of that instead of clucking our tongues. "Authenticity" hasn't supplanted "Holiness." And that's actually a bit of a problem.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Finding a Niche(?)

I was listening to the You are Not So Smart Podcast on culture and at 18:30 the guest shares an interesting story about the difference between the Middle-class culture and Working-class culture. You should go listen to the original source, but I'll reproduce the highlights here.

The guest Hazel Markus gives the broad definition of Middle-class being college-educated and Working-class lacking a college education. In general the Middle-class will tend to have more autonomous work, probably moved away for college, and develop a culture about what influence and choices they make. Their culture develops around autonomy and individualism. They are more likely to be independent and choose their relationships. In contrast the Working-class individual will tend to have more directed work, probably stayed local, have less control, and less autonomy. They have to be responsive to other people and pay attention to what others are doing and telling them to do. So their culture starts to develop more around conforming to others' view of themselves and collectivism.

So Hazel performed a study where the subject was given the scenario that they were buying a car. They had just spent several weeks or months doing the research and picking out the exact car they want. They purchase it and are proud and drive over to show it off to their friend. The next day they learn that the same friend went out and bought the exact same car. The subject was then asked how they feel.

They got two completely different sets of responses. (Surprise!)

The Middle-class group became indignant. "I can't believe you did that! You spoiled my point of differentiation! You spoiled my uniqueness! I wanted to have this car be something special that identified me!"

The Working-class group reacted completely different. "That is so cool! I would love it if my buddy got a car like me! We could start one of those car clubs!"

See the difference? Their senses of self are completely different. Middle-class independent college-educated pick-what-you-want people develop a sense of self that is based around uniqueness. To them their identity is borne out of them being special and finding their own niche. They like to exercise meaningful choices. Their friend getting the same car as them was crowding them out! Working-class individuals develop a sense of self that is based around community. They fit into a group and see themselves as identified by their peers and friends. Getting the same car wasn't violating their boundaries, it was validating their decision! They have an interdependent sense of self.

Since this was a podcast about the culture you are born into changing you (they also talk about how growing up Southern makes you more belligerent and willing to resort to violence in response to an affront to your honor), they traced it back to the kind of culture the two groups live within. A Middle-class person has more choices available and a society that rewards unique extroverted signalling. You think about your behavior in the context of being choices [1]. This lines up with other research and postulations about how we started selecting for extroverts as we migrated to cities. You didn't have time to figure out a person, so you latched on to the strongest signals you could find. The Working-class person one lives in a work environment where they have to be mindful of others, understand interpersonal dynamics a bit more, and has longer-term connections that they have to adhere to and maintain. They live in a culture where they have less "choice" in the matter and don't see common behaviors in a context of choosing.

The concept of a niche, which is what it appears the Middle-class group is creating, isn't noteworthy. Darwin postulated that a reason for speciation was populations finding new niches with unique resources for them to exploit. Instead of competing with other similar birds, if you are better equipped to find sustenance on a different food source or can do your nesting using different materials, eventually your population diverges to maximize the utilization of those unique aspects. In a similar manner humans specialize. You may be well equipped to be an athlete but not an artist, so naturally you specialize in maximizing your athletic ability in order to show fitness and earn income. And since you are an amazing athlete, instead of competing with you as a subpar athlete, someone else with a disposition towards being an artist will fill that gap and become an artist.

An interesting expansion of this has come about due to the higher density of interactions we have today. Not only do we tend to live in bustling cities but we also have the Internet to see the actions and niches others have carved out. So to "survive" increasingly many of use try to find a niche to call our own. Seems logical based on social evolution right?

But notice how this assumes you are competing for resources. The second Working-class group may compete, but they also allow their characteristics to form bonds and communities. You're an athlete? Awesome, I love being an athlete! Let's be athletes together! See you on the court in two hours. There is a stronger trend towards companionship and looking for things to share. You no longer compete for friendships, you live out friendships.

Obviously both parties will take on the others' traits. The first Middle-class group still gets together over beers in the pub or go out dancing together and geek out about random topics. The Working-class still utilize differentiation signaling often buying extraordinarily expensive articles of clothing [2]. But this is about how you conceptualize your sense of self. Your default majority perspective. Do you value being different and unique more? Or do you value having common interests you can share more?

Personally this thinking was a bit eye-opening since I belong to the former group. I'm college-educated, I've moved quite far from my hometown, I get to pick-and-choose. But I always wondered how some of these other individuals around me were able to invest so heavily in their relationships and have this strong sense of camaraderie even with seemingly disparate individuals. I once mused a long time ago on this blog that the strongest unifier is a common enemy. But other powerful forces help bind these communities together. Their very sense of self being entwined with community and peers shapes their relationships into ones of an interwoven braid.

I have built much of my sense of self in terms of my unique talents. I can list a million different things that I have sampled in search for unique identifiers and niches. Over the past few months on several occasions others have intruded on some of those aspects and I internally recoiled. That field was supposed to be mine! I am the resource and the harbinger and the authority! How dare this upstart crowd me out! Sounds silly in retrospect, but these are real guttural feelings. And looking back I can see how this mindset has influenced much of my actions. I shied away from things where there were already champions since I saw myself in conflict and only offering a subpar commodity. I didn't see it as joining them, unless as a disciple. I only saw the end-game as being the best in my own niche.

So I wouldn't commit. I would let interests wane. Only after feeling out the field would I try it out with gusto, either because I could accept being in the subservient position or because no other authority would challenge my position. And in fields that I enjoyed but still not the best, I would always defer and be demure about it, pointing people towards the true masters in the field and noting how unworthy I was to take their glory. And only in secret would I train.

I obviously have couched these in extraordinarily self-depreciating terms, so let us think about the upsides for a moment. I have an amazing repertoire of features and interests. I synthesize passions for music and the arts with science and technology within a paradigm of religion and philosophy. I have been referred to as a "know-it-all" in a reverent manner. I can share interesting conversations with almost anyone on almost any subject (except sports. OMG you guys are a whole extra level of geekery). That's pretty insane! This has taught me humility as I always understand many, many others are always better than me. I have molded myself into a crazy weird amalgamation of interests, hobbies, trivia, personality, and so much more. And being unique is good! I love being an individual who feels like they contribute a unique perspective and set of talents to my circle of friends. I also have the capability to step outside my buzz and analyze myself, tweaking components and planning my route to being a better person.

So as part of this charted course, I'd like to remove my sense of self that requires me to be a unique autonomous individual. I'd like to take on the mindset a bit more that shared interests and aptitudes are not a battlefield of competition and thus conflict for supremacy and hierarchy. I'd like to stop struggling to find a niche to call my own and a kingdom to defend. My image of the self should move towards one that is reinforced by my peers and shared experiences.

Wish me luck. =D

[1] Another weird study. They asked two groups to write down all the choices they had made that morning. The Middle-class group wrote down twice as many items as the Working-class group. They probably did similar things, but the former group sees behavior as choice!

[2] This doubles as signaling within their society that they have more means and resources while also flaunting individual style, and thus a niche, and as noted in the article signaling to those more well-to-do that they aren't like the other poorer individuals and should be allowed to participate in their exclusive world.

[EDIT][3] Another plausible source of the collectivism vs autonomy is cultural. I happen to know the cultures of Asia, Latin America, and Russia tend to be more collectivism-minded whereas Western Europe and the US are more geared towards individualism. So that's likely also a major factor, and not just job type. Something extra to chew on.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sanctioned Manipulation

We live in an extrovert-positive world. That shouldn't be too hard of a claim to believe. After all, is it Steve Jobs or some guy called Woz who really made Apple famous? Why do we have a compulsion to share everything we do, especially if we're having alone private time? Why do we remember the advertised items, sales, and coupons over the baseline prices? We are attracted to extroverted actions. We respond to the positive stimuli of someone taking an interest in us. We like the flashing lights and movements vying for our attention. We are heavily biased towards positive signals.

It's a simple result of how our society is structured. We interact with a lot of people and a lot of things every day. We need ways to differentiate who we should care about and trust. So we filter out the background noise. We filter out the mundane and absent. What is left is the colorful and active and bursting sparkles and rainbows. And this bias is only getting stronger. As we are connected to more and more people via the Internet and social media the stronger we select for the "best" and strongest signals. We also have a limited amount of resources to keep track of others, so we try to squeeze in particular people while shoving out others who don't measure up.

We know that is how we respond. And so it is natural to assume that others respond the same way.[1]

Thus, we are masters of manipulation.

It's almost too easy. We know that if we act a certain way we will tend to get certain responses. If we signal that we are smart, our reputation will increase and others may seek our advice. If we signal we are fun-loving partiers, we will attract partiers. If we reveal something special and secret, people will think we are being frank and vulnerable and act accordingly. We intentionally craft an image of happiness and success on Facebook. Or, even better, we craft an image of bitter pain; hoping someone reaches down to help and sympathize with us.

Mentalism is this taken to an art form. You pick up on subtle cues about a person, then weave a narrative around them that you know something special about them or have unique powers. Most importantly they play up their successful guesses and minimize the flops. They create the image that they have supernatural powers. They are master manipulators.

But you don't have to take special training to do it yourself. It's something we are trained to do from an early age. Around the age of two the concept of Crocodile Tears appears. The child will fake crying, check if there's a response, then commence crying again. We quickly make connections between what we do (crying) and what the response will be (comfort, attention). As we get older, we just figure out how to be more subtle about it and the different avenues we have available.

As we get older, we also develop very good bullshit detectors. If someone is too overt, we pick up on it and it undermines their credibility. We don't like being "manipulated." It's an interesting model to think of these interactions as a constant struggle of bullshit versus bullshit detectors, but I digress. Still, many times even if we detect it we graciously allow it. There are certain bounds within which we have approved manipulations. And these are what are interesting.

Easiest example to pull out is on Facebook. Thinking way, way back originally Facebook was only about individual pages. You manually navigated to someone's page to see what they were up to. Now Facebook provides a nice curated stream of posts, pictures, and Life Events to your Newsfeed. Note I said curated. An important part of the algorithm is figuring out if something should be shown to you. My post about pooping that no one comments on? Probably not important for my olde buddy from college to know about. If I get married? Maybe a bit more important!!! One of the sneaky systems in place is Facebook figures out what is important by how many Likes and Comments something has. The more that show up, the more it shows up in your social network. This used to be a little opaque, but now Facebook creates an entry for when your friends Comment or Like someone's status. Even if you already saw it and buried it several days ago!

So, how does this all matter? If people want attention[2] -- and Likes and Comments are attention, and thus push the rewards systems in your brain (thus why FB has the notifications when someone does it. They are tapping into your rewards system!) -- then you begin to tailor your posts to maximize Likes. And how do you do that? You already make connections about what you post in the past and what has garnered more, or less, Likes and Comments. Grabby things about OMG MY LIFE IS AWESOME or woe-is-me or Behold How Clever I Am are commonplace. And we happily add our thumbs-up. Because we feel like we are engaging with the poster. We feel like we are promoting, celebrating, and showing we are there with them.[3]

But this isn't confined to Facebook. Facebook just provides it in black-and-white. Think about your daily conversations. What is the tone? For me, I often joke with people, teasing boundaries and showing how agile my mind is. I can figure out the reference and the underlying absurdity, hurray! Or I interject with a piece of trivia or a story about what's going on in the world. Look how well-versed and knowledgeable I am! I analyze things and think big thoughts!

We aren't completely to blame though. Much of what we are is dependent on who we are around and our environment. In my college experience it was highly valued to be smart, a little sarcastic, and supremely overworked. So people played to that value structure, showing off their smart wits, and peppering their walls with the battle scars of loaded schedules and massive works of endurance. Pecking order was developed based on achievements. So you strove to play those up. In my church circles you are often scored by your faith, insight, vulnerability, and empathy. So it's not surprising when a lot of people show off their humility and what they've done for others (as perhaps contradictory that seems in writing). One of my common interest groups is purely social, so much of the discussion centers around catching up with what's going on and planning for the next event. Considering the amount of time we've spent together, no one talks about feelings or troubles. We just stay at arms length.

It all comes down to signalling really. I signal interest, you choose to respond somehow which provides me with more information. Arriving promptly or being late sends a signal of your values. We then work within the bounds of social norms to optimize our signals. We don't have time to throw around half-signals. Remember, we are in a packed world and if I don't send out good, strong signals that others will pick up, I'll be lost in the noise!

And thus a new arms race is born. Everyone is rushing to signal as fast and as strong as possible to make themselves stand out from the noise. Do it too much and you're "manipulative," or "needy," or "whiny." Too little, and you fall into the noise; you're forgotten and ignored. But toe the line just right and you're an empathetic, novel, unique, interesting human being (and I want to be your friend and/or date you).

I am not saying these things are bad. Gathering information about those around us helps us make informed decisions. So finding the proper boundary is appropriate. As is the act of acknowledging and responding to a signal. Subtly exploiting these mechanisms allow us to promote the good attributes in people. Much of it comes down to positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement applied to social interactions. I think people should ask questions of others instead of waiting for proffered vignettes, so I pay more attention to people who ask me questions.

Going back to the FB like/comment-farming behavior I described above, someone mentioned that if we assume this is a cry for help and attention, then we should be concerned and try to help them. Figure out a stronger, deeper method to fix the underlying attention debt that they feel they can only fill via FB. This is a perfect example of how a "bad" signal should cause us to pause and refrain from condemnation and instead turn to figuring out how we can help.

Interestingly other cultures have a similar balance of signal-to-noise, but at differing points. Us Westerners like to toe the line being both passionate, emphatic, but also composed. We adore motivational speakers who get riled up and elect leaders who are passionate but also controlled. The Middle East's balance point tends to be tilted further towards passion. The silent person in the conversation is losing. Asian culture it is about controlling yourself and withstanding blows with hidden inner strength[4]. A friend of mine is a missionary in Japan and has been having trouble getting people to open up since they keep their thoughts very private instead of blasting them out into the world. The Joy Luck Club's quote "strongest wind cannot be seen" comes to mind.

So what does this all mean? On one hand, I would like to advocate that we should stop trying so hard with our image crafting. Ideally your first impulse when something exciting happens isn't to post about it on Facebook and Twitter. It's to call those you care about, or to try to remember it for later. You shouldn't take time crafting perfect moments and perfect presentations of those moments for mass consumption. They are to be valued and treasured. Firing into the void depersonalizes it, and we will pick up on bullshit. On the other hand, image control is super important! We all play the game. To not play the game is to lose in this instance. No one is going to walk up to a blank wall and start tapping it in the hopes they find the sequence to Diagon Alley. Be interesting and proactive! Do crazy stuff, share it, and celebrate with everyone! Wait, I just advocated you to do polar opposites.

So really my point is pay attention. We are all being manipulated and manipulating those around us. Try not to use that power for Evil.

[1] This is actually a horrible assumption. See The Usual Error.
[2] Beautiful comic about this.
[3] Weird item, how come changing your profile picture is such a big deal? I can understand if it shows off something awesome, like one of my friends crossing the Finish Line. Or if it's extra witty, like several of my other friends. I only swapped out my picture with a more up-to-date one and I garnered more Likes than any of my other posts in recent history. *mind blown*
[4] This article on cultural differences between US and Japan makes a stark contrast of imposing control versus stoicism. I also see it played out in Chinese culture. Remember, you have to ask at least three times to get the full answer. Thanks Camilo.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Plip. Plip. Plip.

That is the sound of a viscous fluid hitting a metallic surface, I think.

Hm. And now why would there be viscous fluids landing on a metallic surface?

Slowly my other senses filter into my brain. First comes the sense of smell. Oily, musky, sweat, filtered, stale. Seems to fit the sounds I am hearing. Footsteps on grates. Sporadic muffled shouts. Slowly taste returns. Or, at least vague sensations of my mouth. Bitter. That's not a normal taste.

Spatial awareness slowly creeps in. My head is oriented vertically. Slightly cocked to the side, but supported from the back somehow. Torso also upright. Arms relaxed to the side, bent at the elbows. Legs lie horizontally along the ground. Right leg bent at the knee slightly. OK, inventory of my limbs, Check. I think I send the signal to my mouth to curl into a grin.

Sounds start becoming clearer. I can hear the hiss of some kind of gas exiting an opening. Maybe a leak or a rupture. Some minor scrapping noises. Doors whizzing open and shut. A low rumble in the background. I smell a whiff of ozone.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Eyes don't seem to want to open. But that's alright. I feel tired anyways. Just going to hang out here for a moment.

Sharper senses of feeling bleed in. There's padding pressing into my neck and the back of my head. My shoulders are rubbing something hard. As I shift my weight I hear a squeak of fiberglass on metal. There's also a dull sensation somewhere in my upper right arm. I flex it and a sudden jolt of pain pierces across my body and a bursts inside my brain's neurons.

ZIGNAUTS POLARIS OWOWowowow. OK, now I'm awake.

The rest of the world snaps into focus. Slowly I force my eyes open. I'm in my K-suit. The corridor is well-lit in a plain off-white hue, but a few of the lights are flickering. Normally clean blue walls have a few smears of something on them. Thin metal non-slip grates line the hallway on top of the simple non-rust sheet metal flooring. My visor's HUD indicates air pressure is a little below 0.8 atmospheres, but breathable. The hiss appears to be a small leak to my left somewhere of some colorless gas. A small line of holes dot the wall in front of me.

I rotate my head to the right and look at my arm. Sure enough, the yellow suit is covered in red blood. Puncture in the fabric, edges look singed. Clean hit right above the elbow. Damn.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Body doesn't want to get up. Everything feels heavy. Ache in the back of my head. And a nice steady leak in my right arm.

It's like a stupid vid. Just sitting here slowly bleeding out. Typical.

Most of my life has been marked by "typical." Simple milestones on an orchestrated trajectory to whatever my destiny was supposed to be. And while above-average, there was nothing particularly unique. No true niche to call attractive or passion that fired me up. Just a typical person living their typical life. A few hobbies here and there, surrounded by a group of friends. Went to social outings, had a job at a nice station, life overall was alright.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

I wonder where my friends are. If you could call them that. Mostly a long string of friends of coincidence and ease of access. One group while in school. Another at the academy. People who I worked with or orbited with. And as life moved on I would find new friends to replace the ones outside of convenience. I pondered if my family counted. Perhaps. Although really I couldn't talk to them about particular things. Couldn't break the image of their typical daughter. And my siblings weren't exactly the closest buddies.

After all, I thought, you can't rely on anyone but yourself sometimes. If you're not strong enough to tackle it, then get stronger.

And it served well. It helped insulate the pain of rejections. Just do better next time! It meant there was no one else to blame. Everything can be solved! It made me independent. I didn't have to rely on someone else; I didn't have to burden someone else. Everyone else around me was free to be their own person as I accommodated and nimbly side-stepped problem after problem. Things would mysteriously be more efficient as the little details would get scooped up. Drama was avoided; ruffled feathers smoothed over. And slowly up the ladder of skills and maturity I climbed with my own arms and legs.

Great analogy that's worth with a P-bolt hole in my arm. Can't lift the stupid thing.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

The pressure behind my ear from the edge of the helmet is slowly becoming uncomfortable. My ears start to tingle in the open air. That's a good sign. Finally able to feel my whole body. I wiggle my toes inside the boots. My left hand responds just fine and I tentatively push against the grates on the floor. The arm and shoulder feel solid, but the rest of my body isn't ready to get up.

A small wave of panic jumps along the neurons in my skull. Perhaps my body won't ever feel ready. The right forearm shielding is already streaked a nice shade of red, and it feels like all of the inner lining of the glove is wet. That's a decent amount of blood; how much can the body lose again? I think I skipped that lecture.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

If I do die here, I wonder who will show up at my funeral. A small part of my consciousness reels against the morbid nature of the thought, but the rest is intrigued. Family I suppose is safe. Family friends from when I was growing up should be there. "Life tragically cut short with all that potential" they'd say. "So proud to see them all grow up." Perhaps most of my current circle of friends. Will Jeff show up? I haven't talked to that guy in, what, three cycles? He did get busy, and he's stationed in a different facility, but I could have scheduled a link. Slight inconvenience to him, minor to me. Chat for an hour. Not too hard.

Could have. Should have. Didn't. Typical.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Still, in some ways, he also left me, I wonder. It is equally difficult, or easy, for him to reach out to me. And yet not a peep. Can't blame him. I wasn't the closest person in his life. He must be busy. And I can only really blame myself for the way things turned out. No use blaming someone else, you only have control over yourself. And now he's somewhere else and I'm here alone in this hallway sitting against a wall with a stupid bleeding arm. And wishing I had sent a link to catch up.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Now I get why people have a fascination with blood as a life source. Kind of poetic hearing it slowly drain out.

The visor indicates air pressure is getting low. My rebreather mask pops out of the chest and is fitted to my mouth and nose. The extra boost in oxygen pushes against the black periphery, but it's fighting a losing battle. My right fingers are now a muddled prickly sensation. I pull my feet towards my body and the hallway echoes the scrapes. Oddly quiet, I think to myself.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

The low rumble has stopped. Some part of my brain registers that was the engines. OK, time to get up and get this arm fixed up. I shift my weight onto my left arm and push against the ground, but my hips refuse to thrust upwards and over my feet. The exertion causes my breathing to spike and I drop back to the ground with a loud thunk. Not getting up? How silly. It's so simple. You get out of bed every day. How is this any different? My chest heaves slowly. I slide to my left and turn until I'm lying on my chest on the ground. I struggle to lift my body into a crawling position, my knee guards loudly scratching against the rough tiles. My right arm protests every move as I try to avoid banging it on the floor.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

A flash of panic sets in again. This isn't how I wanted to die. I wanted to die surrounded by friends. After making a difference. After doing... something else! Not just in a stupid metal hallway. I ball my fingers into a fist and pound the grate I'm lying on. It rattles a little.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

I can do this. I can still get up. I can find medical. I'll be OK. I can still move. I can do more.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Pay attention to the pain. Let it motivate you.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Don't close your eyes.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Someone will come.

Plip. Plip. Plip.


Plip. Plip. Plip.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Picking Games for Game Day

Disclaimer: I primarily host board/card game days with friends. Typically it is a very open-door policy with varying skilled players playing a variety of games, often multiple ones simultaneously. These guidelines may only apply to my particular set of friends and the types of games.

Something I think I do well is organize events.

I particularly enjoy hosting board and card game days.

Thanks to the stigma of playing games as being inherently nerdy/geeky be lifted and now that Americans are slowly getting a taste of delicious Euro Gaming instead of just playing Monopoly and Risk, maybe you want to host one as well.

I could talk about setting up your house, or how to invite people, or the careful management of food supplies, or making sure you can competently and patiently teach the games you want to play, or the secrets of how to manage the mix of players so that the good ones don't railroad the weaker ones. Nope, instead I'm just gonna blab on about the games I have and how to figure out which ones to play with your group.

The overall goal is to maximize the amount of fun for all parties involved. Sometimes this is easy. I know if I rounded up a few of my hardcore fellows we'd tear through Agricola or Twilight Imperium. Sometimes the crowd all wants to play together so you need something that facilitates large groups like The Resistance (and other Mafia variants) or Two Rooms and a Boom. But don't be afraid to suggest games they don't know. Because the real fun is when stories are told. For my hardcore players we dissect what could have been done better and the twists and turns of the mechanics. For my casual friends they like inside jokes about that one time in What-If we all picked on person X or when we played Fishbowl and this one action was for Ghengis Khan. So, finding the right mix in your game can make or break the evening. Nothing worse than getting halfway through a game and someone storming out because they're bored.

First, partition your group. If you have a lot of players, they will naturally need to divide up into groups to play different games. Luckily this often solves the problem for you. Hardcore gamers will be attracted to Agricola while the casual ones will want to play Dixit and Anomia. Giving a solid ten-second pitch of what the feel of the game is like is crucial here. Don't just talk mechanics, maybe touch on the theme, but get to what makes the game fun. Agricola isn't interesting as a farming simulator. It's fun because you're jockeying for resources and growing your farm and doing tradeoffs. Pandemic is fun because you are racing against the game as a team. Dixit is fun because you get to tell stories and look at cool cards. Red-and-Black is all about brinkmanship and bluffing.

If you need to suggest games for a group, assess their abilities and what they want to play. Some people will play anything and get a kick out of it. But some people only enjoy particular types of games. Here's a few classic example:

Casual Fun: One of my friends only wants to play games that "make you laugh." I originally thought this meant I had to find games where humor played a major role, like how Quelf makes you do stupidly random things or What-If's absurd juxtapositions about other people are good for a chuckle. But then I realized she also likes Dixit and Anomia. Why? It's not that she wants to just laugh, she wants a smooth game that doesn't require too much thinking. She wants stories to be created. Look for light mechanics or "everyone wins" sorts of games. Also, if there's a large component of randomness, it helps even the playing field when they go up against more veteran players.

Theme is King: One of my friends was on a zombie binge. World War Z, Zombie Survival Guide, everything zombies he wanted in. He didn't care about the mechanics that much, just if the theme included zombies. So Last Night on Earth would work perfectly! But, Betrayal at the House on the Hill could also work. Broaden the genre a little and see how beholden they are to theme. Be very careful with these players though. I once described Agricola as a "farming game" and another friend's eyes lit up. But I happen to know she isn't as interested in interlocking Euro-mechanics, she was only interested in the theme. A good theme can also help create fun situations. Mascarade [sic] involves switching roles, so it's quite fun to declare "I am the King!" or declare "I think you're the Fool!"

Skullduggery: It has been said that games can provide a great means of building trust with a person. You trust they played by the rules, you learn that they have honor, a quick mind, and perhaps a sense of humor. Then there's these guys. You suddenly realize they can lie to your face without blinking and you are none the wiser. They revel in Mafia style games like The Resistance. They gleefully sabotage the team in Shadows over Camelot. Any time they can inject a bit of in-game treachery they are there. Granted, much of this is derived from a sense of secrets and holding exclusive information. So hidden roles games (2 Rooms and a Bomb) or systems with traps (CCGs) can also sate their hunger. Much of the fun is due to asymmetrical information. So Shadow Hearts plays into this perfectly. Not only are there hidden roles and powers, but part of the game mechanics is to use cards to tease out information about the other players.

Roleplayer: It is super fun to take on a character and act out what they'd do. These players don't care that Flash moves far as a stat in Betrayal at the House on the Hill. They care that Flash RUNS REALLY FAST. Any sort of RPG elements can help. BANG! is a perfect hit, as is Cosmic Encounters or anything where you uniquely can screw with the ruleset. Note this also plays into persistence in other means, such as building how your faction plays in Risk Legacy. But this is also tightly tied to theme. 7 Wonders you're "building" a civilization, but not really embodying or roleplaying said civilization. Dominion sorta works since you are "building" your kingdom and then use those cards later. However, Thunderstone does feel like you're building an adventuring party that goes out and slays monsters, and it's uniquely yours.

Puzzles: These are the ones who approach the game like a puzzle to be solved. Thus, they tend to enjoy more co-op oriented games with deep systems. But they also have to be transparent and solvable. Pandemic as an optimization puzzle or figuring out the nuanced timings in Agricola fit these players. These trend towards the Euro-style games. They tend to dislike dice.

Brinkmanship: A very close cousin to only caring about winning, these people like the stakes to matter. So you have the Poker players, the gamblers, or people who like to play at the edge of what is safe. Red-and-Black is a great bluffing and reading game where you have to just overreach what is safe to win. Persistent tangible rewards, like in Risk Legacy, also help.

Competitive: Really all they care about is winning. Games that involve direct conflict like Risk are good. But also there has to be enough skill involved that it feels like they can control their fate (i.e. a Risk variant like Risk 2210AD). You can tell who these players are when they lose and complain about some random element screwing them over (dice in Catan are permanently cursed I tell ya). So they will trend towards skill-based games with clean mechanics they can exploit. Euro-games are a plus. But they will shy away from complex games they don't have mastery in since it's less likely they will win.

I probably missed a few archetypes, but you get the idea.  And obviously lots of these overlap. Theme players usually enjoy Roleplaying. Competitive players usually like Brinkmanship and Puzzles.

So go out and game!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


I don't want people to get the wrong impression about this blog or my personal philosophy on life. While much of this blog (perhaps too much, back to game design?) is dedicated to thinking through proactive actions I want to take towards being a better person, there is a nasty downside that must be addressed.

By reaching towards action -- by being predisposed towards feeling like if we do nothing we have failed -- we develop a very strong feeling of Meritocracy and Just World Fallacy. We, in essence, start to believe that through our own actions, on the other side of struggles and depressions that there is an inevitable payout. IF I am careful with my money, THEN I will have financial security. IF I am always honest, THEN people will believe me and I will have a good reputation. IF I love someone, THEN they will love me back. IF I am a good person, THEN good things will happen.

But, quite honestly, the world doesn't work that way.

I'm sure we all know this to some degree. You just have to check the news and see all the pain and suffering in this world. Random natural disasters change lives indiscriminately and without warning. Charlatans roam the streets taking things away from the good and honest. We like to say that "crime doesn't pay" and yet plenty of criminals safely hoard away cash. Otherwise healthy people mysteriously get cancer. Loved ones get in an accident and are suddenly gone without warning. Reputations are sullied by slander and never restored. It is no wonder many are bleak and cynical; seeing the universe as uncaring and random.

But just like the Gambler's Fallacy, we expect things to eventually even out. A kind of Westernized Karma that eventually people will get their just rewards. We like to think if I just prepare hard enough I will be ready. If only I had done X, then Y wouldn't have happened. We prefer to feel like we have agency in our lives and control, especially when things seem to spiral out of control. On the flip side, successful people must have done something special to make it. CEOs spew out books of how to succeed, and people gobble them up (even as they contradict each other). Biographies of stars give prime real estate to particular mantras they lived by and millions quote them trying to graft them onto their lives.

I approve of this mindset. Most of this blog is about me working through active motions towards a better me. But this world-view has a costly downside. As discussed in this TED talk, meritocracies tend to have a strong correlation with rates of depression. The more you feel you have agency over your success, the more dissatisfied you become with your current state. Some argue that this may be OK, and people merely need to toughen up and keep striving. But eventually the world will come crashing down, and you will have no agency whatsoever over the circumstances. What then?

I propose that we practice the concept of surrendering.

First, let me break down what the word means. It is an active word. I do not propose you "give up" since that is resignation and has passive connotations. I argue surrendering is the active motion of intentionally surveying the situation and choosing it is better to surrender than keep fighting. Also, surrendering typically has a second-party component. You always surrender to someone -- or something -- else. Armies and nations surrender to one another. You can surrender to your circumstances or emotions. Someone or something else will accept your surrender and occupy the dominant position.

So, what do we surrender to? I could probably write a series of posts on this alone, but let me run through a few examples briefly.

First, be able to surrender to your emotions. The Usual Error uses the phrase, "We're made of meat" to describe how we as humans are giant barrels of needs and sloshing chemicals. We are not perfectly rational creatures, try as we might to pretend otherwise. We irrationally desire affirmation, even when we cognitively know we are secure. We will feel depressed and lonely, perhaps even after a rousing party with family and friends has just ended. And I think that is OK. I try to allow myself to have feelings and not rail against myself for feeling them. Instead of fighting them, and more importantly instead of wallowing in them, you can try to process them. The act of surrendering also means not going down the rabbit hole of understanding the why of the emotions. You Are Not So Smart's article Misattribution of Arousal details how terrible we are at deciphering why we feel the emotions we do. So surrender to them. Be able to feel them and don't fret over the reason.[1]

Surrendering to circumstances is also important. This is perhaps very obvious in most situations. As a given I don't own a house nor have a million dollars, so I act appropriately. But this is also important when thinking about other things. As much as I may love milk products, if I develop lactose intolerance due to my genetics I can no longer enjoy them (at least without buying medication or suffering lots of gas). I can fight it all I want, but my body and genetics will say otherwise. If circumstantially someone has to move away for perhaps a job, it is important to come to terms with that. Missing them is natural (see previous paragraph) but you can't pine over them forever. To a small extent we can control our environment, but at the end of the day you have to accept what is around you.

I would also argue we need to work on surrendering to others. Too often we think of ourselves as the most important thing in the world. I am right, I am important, it's My time you are wasting, the list goes on and on. But service and humility are huge in my mind. From a practical side it helps realign your perspective to focus on others instead of yourself. Turning in on yourself is perhaps the most surefire way to become depressed. This also encompasses a broad spectrum, including submitting to others' advice and accepting help. At the very least be able to concede some measure of pride, ego, and control. This comes up in debates all the time. Fred Clark write that debates end up being about winning and showing yourself in control and right. Being able to concede to superior arguments and seek truth is extremely hard to do in our bubble-echo-chamber world. We would rather temporarily concede and come back with more arguments in our salvo. Instead, submit with respect when beat.

As a Christian, I would say the greatest surrendering is towards God. In his post trying to detail what Sin is, Zack Hunt writes, "The sin of Adam and Eve was their attempt to become God. The sin of Adam and Eve was idolatry... We grasp at divinity." In this context, Sin is not from legalism or "missing the mark" as much as rejecting God and putting ourselves in his place. We think we know better and can do better and go trotting on our merry way towards death. The cure? Surrendering to the will of God. Taking on His goals, burdens, and values and trying to live life with His mindset. This is also a form of extremely active submission. This is not about just giving up on certain actions. More often it is being prodded towards particular other actions. Submission here is more about doing the actions God calls us to do. And, if you believe the Bible, it also means God will use His power to work through you and empower you to things you couldn't do on your own.

Practicing surrendering is not the same as giving up and crawling into a shell. One piece of poetry I find impactful is "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" (Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas). I don't think we should just float through life. We can swim and aim for goals. But don't be afraid to let the currents take you somewhere else. Find a balance, or else you'll just tire your arms and legs and drown. And just remember, life will always go on. Some would even say "It's just a ride" (Bill Hicks). So stop micromanaging everything. It's not your fault. You have permission to feel, to stumble, and to give something else power over you.

[1] While most of this post is very bleak and on coping with negative things, surrendering to emotions is a great example of the flip side as well. When you feel joy and happiness and contentment, surrender to it!