Werewolf Ethnographic Expedition 2015

geoff_chacoThe time finally came for the next step in my ethnographic studies, which meant an anthropological expedition into the American Southwest to track down rumors of werewolf activity in the remote regions of this desolate area.

Planned as a breakneck (hopefully not literally) four day excursion over about 3500 miles of desert and mountainous terrain, we knew from the beginning that the results of this might range from the ignoble (starving to death after the last of our number was cannibalized after the party had been trapped by an unseasonable storm) to the cliched (eaten by the subjects of our ethnographic investigation).

Thus, although a purely ethnographic survey, we equipped ourselves prudently with crossbow, quarrel, duster, and hat, as the subject matter of our quarry has been known to resent prying into its private affairs – even in the service of science.

As an extra precaution, we elected to plan our cultural appraisal outside the time of the full moon so as to avoid well-known and previously documented pack religious activity aligning with that point in the lunar cycle.

Chaco_CanyonDAY ONE
We set out, eight strong plus one hound in three vehicles, heading eastwards from Southern California into the state of Arizona. While our original plan was to skirt the Grand Canyon, a minor incident delayed us. What we at first naively thought was merely a taxidermy shop turned out to be a necrodermy shop, and assailed by a herd of undead antlered ruminates, we elected a fighting retreat to our vehicles as the prudent course for an expedition with larger quarry in mind.

SantasLandAs we were already along the route, our lexicographer and principle researcher Ms. Walsh requested a brief stop at what was reputed to be the summer home of that most notorious fiend, Santa Claus. While we continue to be astonished at the effectiveness of that creature’s public relations efforts to the general public, we were well aware of the danger we were in. While the location was said to be abandoned, such rumors have, in the past, proven to be exaggerated.

Fortunately, in this case the rumors were true, and after taking sounding charges of the bottomless “Wishing Well” and extracting soil samples for later study, we packed our vehicles and resumed the expedition.

With time running short to hit our first checkpoint at the end of the day, we went east instead of north towards Flagstaff. An unseasonable blizzard threatened to strand us, but the weather eventually let up north of the town, and we continued towards Monument Valley, although we were, in fact, forced to stop somewhat shy of our original destination due to the presence of uneasy locals.

Although sightings of werewolves in the region had been recorded along the roads, we were ultimately fruitless in our own survey of the area in this regard.

Chaco_Front

DAY TWO
Refreshed and reinvigorated, the next morning we cut east from the town of Kayenta inside the territory of the Navajo Nation.

Stopping at the junction of Four Corners (a frivolous distraction from our expedition plans that I opposed, but ultimately relented upon in the face of popular revolt), we then turned southeast into New Mexico, where we had uncovered pre-Columbian reports of werewolf cultic activity. While we did not expect to directly find the subject of our quarry in this region, the hope was analysis of the petroglyphs in Chaco Canyon would suggest additional routes and locales of inquiry.FourCorners

In this, we were successful. While Chaco Canyon, a nine hundred year old ruined Amerindian city, is the location of dozens of expansive archaeological sites, it was between the Chetro Ketl and Chacoan City sites that we located the petroglyphs. Despite the pounding hail, we were able to record the petroglyphs and readily translate them indicating the story of a lupine progenitor exiled westwards.

We left Chaco Canyon with haste, intent on avoiding the results of inclement weather. Indeed, as we made our way down the dirt road existing the canyon, the road was blocked by several Navajo ranchers whose own vehicle had become mired in the wet clay. After an hour or so of lending our aid, accompanied by the astute advice from our own resident engineer to construct a steam-powered sling for the vehicle, we exited the canyon and took again to the road back into Arizona to hit our second waypoint.

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DAY THREE
In the heights above the famous Canyon de Chelly we were able to acquire the usage of a pair of timber and mud hogans, and thus encamped, we passed a bitterly cold night fighting off the aggressive attentions of a mountain lion who was intent on making us his supper.

HoganBy morning, one of the members of our expedition managed to tame the beast, though I adamantly refused to allow the beast to come back with us, as there was serious question as to whether we could – in a manner acceptable to us – meet its avaritic dietary needs.

After hearing that the bottom of the canyon had been inhabited for many centuries, we then set down the Canyon de Chelly intent on investigating reports of a “White House” perched within the cliff face of the canyon itself. The path down showed sign of recent usage in the form of pack animal droppings, so we stayed on our guard, prepared to fight off grave robbers or worse.

WarningSignAt the canyon floor we were able to find vague petroglyphic references on the canyon walls that suggested some kind of massacre, followed by a cryptic reference to “following the sun”. Taking this to mean more travel to the west, we again set off, this time across the arid plains of the interior of Arizona. The road was in surprisingly good condition for some time, but it, too, eventually turned to dirt, and we were forced to pick our way across miles of crumbling road, dodging voracious carnivorous cattle and horses with mad eyes waiting upon the roadside, but fortunately for us, skittish at our approach.

CanyonDiablo_Buildings

In the abandoned ghost town of Canyon Diablo, we came across monumental new evidence in the form of a row of 1800s-era cages designed for beasts. Additional analysis confirmed the unthinkable – the settlers had apparently been able to imprison a small pack of werewolves, caging them, presumably for their own amusement.

CanyonDiablo_WerewolfCages

The cages were ruptured, and analysis of the rust and metal fractures allowed us to conclusively pinpoint the time of the cage ruptures to the town of Canyon Diablo’s own demise. While we have no written proof, it seems obvious to even the most uneducated eyes that the werewolves escaped their confinement and proceeded to wreck their vengeance upon the town, resulting in it becoming the ghost town as it is known to be today.

SaharaDAY FOUR
Crossing at last back into Southern California, we encamped for the night close to midnight.

In the morning, we made our way around the eastern edge of the toxic Salton Sea, where thirst or madness required three of us to restrain one of our party from leaping into the miasma of that poisonous lake.

SalvationMountain_Front

At last, we came to the ultimate waypoint on our long trek, the place known as Salvation Mountain, built by a madman consumed by insane visions of another world this last century.

SalvationMountain_TreesThe riotous colors assaulting our senses and offending those basic sensibilities Nature had bequeathed upon us, we searched the location for any last clue. Symbology of rivers, trees, and deific importunings seemed to suggest a madness that might or might not be indicative of our quarry, but at last, we located a small alcove situated beneath the behemothic construction, within which was the idol of a lunar goddess.

While this last discovery cannot, in all scientific good faith, be construed as rigid evidence, still it suggests a line of inquiry and a tantalizing hint of what happened to these noble and majestic creatures who have been so unfairly and rudely driven from place to place from the very beginnings of antiquity and all the way up to the present day.

The Game Design of a Constructed Language

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I waved as I approached the Damocles‘ quartermaster. “Skusatsu mo. Sele ma pasu. Hildo spreku?”

She cocked her head quizzically. “Tak.” Thank god, I thought. At last someone who speaks Hilde. “Kep kereru te?” she asked.

Last Chance boto kapitana yestu me. Iltre siotusa haba ma pasu. Yarog, te butu uno?”

She shrugged. “Probleme yeta.” She disappeared into the open airlock, pushing out a moment later with a small box she tossed with the experience of someone who had lived a very long time in low g.

“Danku.”

World building, whether for a book, a movie, or a game, is all about the feeling of immersion.

You actually don’t want to bury your audience in detail – a little goes a long way. That being said, if the snippets you do show your audience aren’t internally consistent and don’t make sense at an intuitive level, while your audience usually won’t explicitly call you out on that, they will definitely pick up on any lack of said internal consistency.

Thus, at the end of the day, the paradox of building an immersive environment is that the most straightforward way to build an immersive world is to construct all the details, and then proceed to only show maybe 10% of said details. The rest isn’t actually wasted, though, it lives in the implicit connective tissue of the world you are trying to build.

Constructed languages, sometimes called “conlags” have been put together for a number of different reasons ranging from attempts to bring humanity together linguistically like Volapük or Esperanto, to supporting the construction of fictional worlds such as Star Trek‘s Klingon language or J.R.R. Tolkien‘s myriad languages of Middle-Earth.

Video games have gotten into the action as well, and true to form, often in such a way as to slip beneath the radar of the player while at the same time deeply enriching the world. Skyrim’s Dovahzul.

c53e27226eb7353788723a89af6f19d0a98a79One of my several side projects is the development of a multiplayer logistics game called ORG. Set in a late 25th century where humanity has finally recovered from an appalling population crash to colonize even the farthest reaches of our solar system, I wanted to do more than make a generic science-fiction environment but to make something recognizably unique with depth that would allow for endless permutations, philosophical exploration, and narrative opportunities.

First, I started with mapping out in detail the over thirty distinct national polities that were to serve as the bedrock of a narrative milieu. In so doing, I also had the opportunity to explore the almost endless political and economic variations humanity has or might someday choose to try out.

These included everything from what might happen if you had an entire enclosed culture and state based on the often exploitive Human Potential Movement of the 60s counterculture to a society built on clone slave labor to societies where labor unions have triumphed to religious fundamentalists building a society living in terror of the possibility of technological singularity to fascinating exercises in pure democracy to…well, you get the picture.

(I admit it, I had a lot of fun seeing how many dystopic variations I could come up with. No economic or social theory was safe from my attempt to exaggerate it until its own victories would become the seeds of its own failure.)

Second, I began to explore some of the philosophical implications of a civilization like this. For example, what are the implications of culture when the frontier is dominated by a very small percentage of the human population, but the power is overwhelming maintained at home on Earth? What are the psychological and cultural implications in a society that exists in an artificially maintained environment? (Andy Weir’s novel The Martian and The Expanse series are both great fictional explorations of this.)

Org_Polities_HildasTriangleFinally, I got to the question of linguistics. Language is a peculiarly underappreciated part of social functioning. We’ve all heard of the languages that have multiple words for love (Greek) to the differences between gendered languages like French or Italian or languages without articles like “the” or “a” (Russian) or languages with minimal or no concept of tense or time (Amondawa).

While the idea of language defining how we think is in fact sometimes exaggerated to strawman-like proportions, the fact is the way a language developed does reflect the needs and foci of the speakers.

One of the unfortunate side effects of technological communication, transportation, and modern commercialization has been a rapid reduction in the diversity of languages spoken in the world today, a concept called “language death“. As the world metaphorically gets smaller by means of improved communication, transportation, and monoculture, the isolation that causes languages to evolve vanishes taking with it the losers in the memeplectic struggle for linguistic dominance.

But what happens once we (hopefully) escape the tyranny of our gravity well in colonizing force? The distances of space are vast, even when we are just talking about the distances between the Earth and the Moon – let alone the distances from Earth to Mars, or even more staggeringly, Mars to Jupiter, or the truly mind-numbing distances between the outer solar system’s gas giants and the dwarf planets of the Kuiper Belt. What happens when you are, really, all alone with just the people around you? How does the fragility of environmental security affect the way a language develops?

It’s not just the fact of isolation: language evolves to match the needs of its environment. Urban environments versus rural environments, arid versus wet, nomadic versus settled are all examples of the various axis that can influence and guide a linguistic evolution.

C5AtTc9

All these factors, plus the expected improvement in capabilities of translation software (which, I should note from personal experience, is definitely not quite there yet) do suggest a reversal or at least slowing of the aforementioned trend of language death today.

Add onto this the existence of long space voyages by trained specialists who live in even more isolation and environmental insecurity than even someone who lives on a relatively safe colony on Mars or Callisto (other than, of course, the contemporaneously raging Martian civil war and Gallilean conflict) and one can readily see how such a language could evolve.

So that’s what I started to do.

ORG‘s Hilde, or “Spacer’s Cant”, is a classic example of what in linguistic circles is termed a pidgin, or in the authoritative words of Wikipedia, “a simplified version of a language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. It is most commonly employed in situations such as trade.” (As the years go on, of course, it is starting to become a creole, or “a stable natural language that has developed from a pidgin.”)

I started with the historical background. I had decided that the natal location of my pidgin was going to be the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, specifically a polity centered around the asteroid Hilda in the fascinating Hildas Triangle.

In the milieu of ORG, the Collaborated Union of the Hildas Triangle was settled by a sort of successor state to the modern day real world European Union called Union. Unlike the European Union, however, Union grew out of Poland and Romania, with satellite states in the form of Germany and a sans-Siberia Russia.

Space Asteroid Mining sample rock

This meant the linguistic building blocks would be dominated by the phonemes (the sounds) and vocabulary of these nation’s languages. But this was going to be a pidgin, remember, so that meant I decided to make the grammar more like Esperanto – that is, incredibly flexible, very stripped down, and readily learned. There wasn’t going to be any gendering of nouns or even suffixed tenses. Word order was (almost) freeform. Years of learning French, Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese in school came back to tell me what parts of languages made learning the language insufferably harder than it had to be.

On top of all of this, because this was intended as a trade language as much as anything, I tried to remove sounds that were hard to distinguish for speakers of the major language groups surviving in the 25th century of ORG. (This last I wasn’t quite able to pull off as much as I wanted to, but that’s why several phonemes don’t exist in Hilde, including f, v, and w. Vowels, as well, stick to a basic five with a notable absence of true diphthongs (where you mash together two vowels to create a new sound.)

Then came the vocabulary.

One of the reasons English has purportedly been as successful as it has been as a common language for aeronautical operations is that it relatively direct, short, and staccato, things that are very desirable indeed when piloting a massive 747. Spaceflight, one can logically reason, would have similar needs. Hilde, therefore, prefers short words generally framed on both ends by consonants.

The vocabulary, as well, reflects the needs of a spacer. There are a lot of words describing things like venting atmosphere (“atmosu”), docking clamps (“kleme”), velocity (“predkoso”), attitude thrusters (“aridiste”), and radiation exposure levels (“radso”).

In the end, constructed languages are not only immersive in the bold, obvious ways as they appear on a page or in a game, but also in the secondary effects where misunderstandings have narrative implications or the language’s constituent pieces indirectly implies history.

As a support to the narrative dictum “show, don’t tell” constructed language works by implication as much as it does by definition, and can be a useful pillar to pulling the reader, viewer, or gamer out of their own context and into a new one.

Designing Nations

Lately I have been talking a fair bit about a side project I am involved in called Org, an asynchronous tablet/web logistical game where each player controls an organization in a 25th century solar system, accumulating and exercising power in a wide array of manners including both cultural domination, political lobbying, privateering against established national polities, and commercial enterprise.

One of the latest exercises I have been working on seems simple on the outset – the devision of flags for the national polities of the 25th century solar system.

As you peel back the layers of the process, however, some very interesting design considerations begin to show through, in the process making for a worthwhile discussion.

We could simply just build off of what looks good, but let’s be honest – a lot of flags in the real world aren’t exactly works of art. But then, they aren’t supposed to; flags are intended to be symbolic representatives of the national polities they represent. The stripes of the United States flag represent something very specific – the original thirteen colonies. The colors of many of Africa’s flags were chosen deliberately because they refer back to colors symbolizing dreams of African unity. The symbol on India’s flag, the Ashoka Chakra, a 24-spoke wheel, is rife with spiritual import.

So, instead, we decided to build flags kind of the way they are built in real life – from the ground up, with an eye to the symbolism. We also do a couple of cheaty design things intended to make your lives easier.

What we mean by “making your lives easier” is recognizing that with over thirty distinct polities, it’s hard to keep track of which is which, even if most players will only be dealing with the polities immediately around them. One thing we have done is to put in recognizable – or at least familiar – symbols to remind the player what the polity is.

For example, the Democratic Republic of Triton (shown to left) has Neptune’s giant fish hook – a triton – on it, as a sneaky reminder that the polity is in Neptune’s orbit.

Similarly, the two Mars polities both favor red (albeit different shades of red) and both use the very familiar symbol for Mars. The Oceanic League’s flag features stylized waves. The Iapetus Coalition has a shielded “I” at the center of its banner. The Collaborated Union of the Hildas Triangle has a stylized triple-triangle at its heart. All of these things are, of course, done in the real world, though we decided to be a little more aggressive about using that as a mechanic.

The second thing we did was to try not to replicate color choices within an orbit more than necessary (obviously, black and white get a free pass on this), so there is less chance of confusion when you are trying to remember if it’s the Republic of Titan’s blue-and-gold that you were running raids on or the Amalgamated Calpultin of Dione’s red-and-black.

Another consideration was to leverage both the future histories of the (mostly) off-Earth polities along with their namesakes’ mythologies, where such were notable. The constellation of the Little Dipper and the bear of the Commonwealth of Callisto refer to the mythology of the original Callisto, a Greek nymph who was transformed into a bear and set among the stars.

The Amalgamated Calupultin of Dione feature the Aztec glyph for a burning town and the number “8” in Nahuatl to represent the original eight settlements on Dione, as well as the moon’s original Mesoamerican colonizers.

The flags of Earth are slyer, making references to the original states that the 25th century polities emerged out of; the Eastern Federation has elements of the old imperial flag of Russia along with the Yin-Yang symbol, tying the constituent elements of 21st century Russia and China into the modern 25th century state of the Eastern Federation.

Union has elements of the old European Union flag (though it is not the European Union itself – that disintegrated in the latter half of the 21st century). State bears elements of the old United States, though the modern State encompasses a much broader domain governed from the capitol of Havana on the island of Cuba. The Southern Bloc is a mixture of colors and symbology of the African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian states that came together in the 22nd century as a response to persistent abuse at the hands of metanational corporations from Union and State.

Ultimately, the point is that the flags are not merely background lore elements, but actual UI (user interface) elements serving a specific function of making the player’s navigation of the game easier and more intuitive. They do, as well, all feature in the tasks by the org of the player, and represent a consistent faux-future historical and cultural basis for those tasks to play out upon.

They’re also, of course, cool. I mean, come on, when else in your career do you get to design the flag of a group of xenophobic religious isolationists as of the forlorn asteroid colony of the Exalted Sanctuary of the Triforce Supremacy in the Belt?

Interested in checking out the flags made so far in this exercise? Check them out here on the Jubal site for Org.

Interested in the game Org itself? You can find that here.

Genetic Self-Analysis and the Plot to Live Forever

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My father’s father had an intense interest in genealogy, tracing back his ancestry to as far back as 15th century Switzerland. My own interest matched my basic interest in history, which is to say history back about a hundred years I find interesting, then I prefer to skip the following several centuries until halberds and crossbows were back in style.

This being the case, it’s not surprising that I became interested in 23andme‘s incredibly cheap ($99 USD) genetic analysis. It’s true, the FDA blocked them from providing medical analysis, but they still let you download the raw data, and it wasn’t hard to find third-party providers of medical info.

Now, I never had any particular doubts as to my parentage, and there was enough evidence of being a fairly generic European mutt that I wasn’t expecting anything terribly interesting on the genetic front.

What I got, however, was this:

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First, the minor surprise – basically no Scandinavian-specific DNA (apparently my ancestors were very good at running away from Vikings), and virtually no Southern European DNA either (a little surprising given my family’s connection with the Swiss Romansh, but it turns out most of the Romansh group actually wasn’t Roman, but Celtic and other groups).

So, okay, instead of a European Mutt I can now confidently call myself a “British Isles-Franco-German Mutt” instead. Workable.

But then I noticed something positively weird. Hidden there on my sixth chromosome was a patch of DNA from…Yakut?

You know, Eastern Siberia. Nomadic reindeer riders.

Raindeer-sleigh-ride-Yakutia-802x500

At first, I couldn’t figure it out, and then a friend made what should have been the incredibly obvious connection: the Mongolian Empire’s invasion of Europe.

And, sure enough, when I read the 23andme ethnic analysis more closely, it pinned the date of the geographical estimates to about 500 years ago, which while about a hundred years after Ghengis Khan decided that riding across (and burning) Europe would make for an entertaining summer vacation, is still (in historical terms) spitting distance.

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Now, the Yakuts are not Mongols, although they are right next door, geographically speaking. While the details can obviously never be known, it seems pretty clear that somehow, some Yakut (or maybe half-Yakut) went along for the ride on one of the Mongol Empire’s several excursions.

Add in the trace amount of Eastern European DNA as well, and it all suddenly fits pretty well together. (Yeah, it’s not exactly hard to figure out how a Yakut warrior in a Mongol horde got together with an Eastern European, but let’s try not to think too hard about that and just try to imagine the best scenario for that…Um, unlikely historical romance…right, that’s it…)

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The medical results were trickier. With the FDA blocking 23andme’s reporting, I had to find third-party software that could do the same thing, which I proceeded to do.

These results were interesting – though definitely something no hypochondriac should ever, ever try themselves.

Dozens of indicators appear, and if you don’t read the fine print – meaning, x1.5 risk of getting some horrible disease sounds awful, but when you see that the base chance is 1/1000, it takes some pretty egregious stacking of bad genes to substantially change your odds.

After lots (lots) of analysis and a little ill-considered math, some of the more interesting pieces of the Heretical Genome:

The Bad Stuff

  • Higher risk of nicotine dependence (good thing I don’t smoke)
  • Higher risk of hypertension (true; I have just barely avoided falling into the hypertension category)
  • Higher risk for heart attack
  • Significantly higher intake of sugar (guilty as charged, though I am surprised there’s a genetic reason for this)
  • Obstructed airwaves (I did, in fact, have surgery a number of years ago for this)
  • The “Warrior Gene” associated with “aggressive and antisocial behavior” (this is definitely not me at all, unless one counts a tendency towards introversion as antisocial behavior; I also have a gene associated with empathy, so perhaps it just balances things out)

alcohl-defrent-bottle

The Neutral Stuff

  • Ultra fast metabolizer of drugs, including alcohol (this is funny, as it is something I am actually well known among my peers for – I get drunk fast, but I get sober just as fast)
  • Lots of bitterness receptors (explains my lack of enthusiasm for most beer)
  • Cilantro doesn’t taste like soap (true)
  • Blue-ish eyes, curly hair and white skin (I know, shocking…)
  • Less likely to be able to smell asparagus metabolites in urine (um…okay)

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The Good Stuff

  • Lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease (my grandfather died of this, so…comforting)
  • Lower risk of Parkinson’s disease
  • Lower risk of Dementia
  • Lower risk of age-related physical impairment
  • Lower risk of cocaine dependence (um…yay?)
  • Higher HDL (true)
  • Blood type O- (that is, universal donor – I’m a giver, not a taker)
  • Longer telomeres (these are the things that help you live longer)
  • Better memory (lies)
  • Higher levels of empathy
  • Low incidence of cystic fibrosis
  • Low incidence of hemophilia (damn it, there goes my dream of vampirism)
  • Low incidence of epilepsy
  • …As well as a bunch of resistances to diseases I generally have never heard of

So, in summary: I am going to live forever. Unless I die of a heart attack first.

All in all, I definitely recommend the exercise (assuming, of course, you can keep any hypochondriac tendencies at bay) both from a hereditary and a medical perspective.

For the latter, in particular, it helps to read what the information means very carefully, as even for a relative non-hypochondriac like myself, it’s easy to become alarmed at the inevitable sea of red negative associations. Then (unless, of course, you are that aforementioned hypochondriac) you do the math and realize that a change of 0.1% to 0.3% chance of getting something horrible is no particular reason to panic.

Unless, of course, you have the bad math gene and just carried the decimal point two steps in the wrong direction…

Xipe Totec

Xipe_Totec
Paper of a kind
Like leather pulled taut
This past we consign
This path you forgot

The stumps of those trees
Stained almost black by
That water that frees
The strings we untie

Oh my heart, lay down
In such sad repose
Dreams mislaid to drown
Embraced by your foes

Taste deeply of lethe
Entwined amity
And foreshortened breath
To this end accede

Flesh now of a kind
Skin folds like paper
This life to unbind
Left in our ardor

Your paper gathered
Like cloth it is laid
His duty conferred
By truths now left flayed

Can You Own Culture?

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Recently, I was faced with an interesting dilemma: A strongly-worded request to not share photos of an ancient site on grounds that members of a group laying cultural claim to it also wished to reserve usage claim to the knowledge about it.

Now, I do understand where this is coming from. It is undeniably true that small populations and cultures under threat of being subsumed by other populations and cultures can feel under siege, and in so doing there is a temptation to entrench and monopolize claim to identifiable elements of one’s culture.

Ultimately, however, I believe this represents a profound misunderstanding of what culture is, how it is formed, how it changes and the individual’s relation to it.

cul·ture [kuhl-cher]
noun
1. A particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture.
2. The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.

(There are, of course, other definitions of culture, but I want to be clear that this is the aspect of the term I am focusing on in this post.)

In fact, I would go further and propose the following, more memetically-specific definition of culture: “A culture is a set of prevalent memes found amongst a set of individuals who identify themselves as a group.”

Culture is, thus, nothing more and nothing less than a set of ideas, techniques, aesthetics, and styles held in common by a self-defined grouping of individuals. Cultures do not form Athena-like from Zeus’ head – they are born by blending with or fissioning from other cultures, as well as evolving to better match their environment.

In much the same way as parallel evolution happens biologically, so too do disparate cultures come up with very similar, even identical solutions, particularly when their respective challenges are similar. In other words, just because two different cultures have a similarity doesn’t mean one copied that aspect from the other. It might be, but it just as easily might not be. Original evolutions, moreover, are far less common than copied adaptations – witness the speed at which various art styles or technologies have been repeatedly spread between various populations.

How does this relate to the original question?

A cultural group may legitimately lay claim to a location and the access and direct usage of that location. In appropriate circumstances, control of commercial exploitation of associated specific images and iconography may also be justified.

A cultural group may not, however, lay claim to the knowledge, form, aesthetic or shape of cultural elements, whether this be a location, a practice, or an aesthetic style.

Yes, this means that people will sometimes copy or adapt cultural elements in a way that some will find offensive or disrespectful. At the end of the day, however, cultural elements are fundamentally memes and ideas. They will mutate, they will evolve, they will see usage of both a profound and profane nature.

Someone may say, “We claim/built this temple/church/sacred site and reserve the right to control access to it.”

Someone may not say, “We claim this symbol/idea/concept and reserve the right to control access to it.”

Ideas cannot be subject to monopolization, but are the birthright of everyone; to maintain otherwise is to deny our individual and collective right to learn, grow, adapt, create art, develop philosophy and construct out of the building blocks of today the aspirations of our tomorrows.

Sensitivity, respect, and courtesy are all things that should be striven for and held up as an example of ethical behavior. Unfortunately, such has frequently not been particularly in evidence throughout the history of anthropological research, not to mention the myriad less academic cultural contacts over the course of history.

Regardless, the best thing one can do for the expression of culture is to recognize it as a living, breathing, evolving creature, and not some strange kind of immutable memetic fossil. Embracing growth, adaptation and change are as necessary for cultural health as they are for biological growth.

The Scourge of Hyperabstraction and Politicization of the Video Game Industry

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There have been rumblings for years, but this last year has seen a blitzkrieg of media coverage focusing primarily on a few particular accusations:

  • Video games have a causative, not just a correlative effect on real world violence.
  • Studios are brutal places requiring their employees to forgo any semblance of a normal life.
    • Corollary: Working in the industry will turn you into a basement dwelling misogynistic troll. Assuming you weren’t one to begin with.
  • Video games are inextricably misogynistic.
  • Video game studios are inextricably misogynistic.

Before I go further, let me be absolutely clear about my position:

  • Yes, there are studios that are indeed ruthless and unprincipled in their predatory abuse of their employees.
  • Yes, there are studios with ingrained subcultures of misogyny.
  • Yes, marketing departments do indeed tend to focus on the historically proven markets for video games, which are, in fact, young and male.

This being said, the media frenzy has lately gone off the deep end, and is now doing more harm than good in its witch hunt against the industry. Moreover, as with all witch hunts, this one has so unnerved those targeted by this witch hunt that it has become easier to stay quiet and not say anything than point out the sloppiness of the media assault.

Personal History
I have been at studios that did conduct themselves in each of the the ways accused.

During my tenure in QA, for a time I worked twenty hour days, six days a week to the point that I wound up with viral pneumonia in the Emergency Room. Did I “have” to work the “optional” overtime? No, but it was well known that those who did not “volunteer” would not have their contract renewed, so if you had any sense at all, you grit your teeth and did what you had to to make sure you could afford rent at the end of the month.

Similarly, was there a “Boy’s Club” atmosphere? Certainly, at least to some extent. As a guy, I am quite sure far more happened than I ever personally witnessed, but even there it was certainly not a case of absolutely every guy being a misogynistic asshole or tolerating misogynistic behavior, which is, in fact, the too-frequent inference.

I have also been at more studios that do not conduct themselves in the ways accused.

Both Cryptic Studios, my last place of employment, and Gazillion Studios, my current place of employment, have staffs that probably average somewhere in the mid-30s, meaning there are some 20-somethings, but there are also a notable number of 40-somethings. Both of these studios do sometimes have crunch periods, but they are, by comparison, mild – maybe a day on the weekend and a couple of extra hours in the evening for the month or two before a critical deadline. Rough, yes, but nothing all that different from any number of other industries. This represents a vast improvement from other former practices in the industry, and should be acknowledged as such. Both make a focused, if sometimes imperfect, effort to offer a reasonable work-life balance.

Misogyny and the Dearth of Women Developers
Are there misogynistic individuals in even the best studios? By both personal experience and by conversation with female friends in the industry, there absolutely are. Where said individuals happen to also be in positions of power, this will of course cause considerably worse situations. However, it is a gross hyperabstraction to extend this to a claim that an entire studio is, as a whole, necessarily fundamentally misogynistic, which is the common inference.

One of the claims that particularly irritates me is that game studios are somehow the sole cause of fault for there not being more female developers. This claim generally appears to rest on three related claims:

  1. First, that developers don’t want to hire women.
  2. Second, that development studios are so misogynistic that no woman would ever want to work there.
  3. Third, that the games studios make aren’t the kinds of games women would want to play, ergo not the kinds of games women would want to develop.

Let’s get the third claim out of the way first. Yes, of course marketing departments are going to focus on demographics that are proven rather than hypothetical. The graveyard of studios who chased after imaginary markets is vast, and marketing departments know that. Are the rewards great for those who succeed in embracing new markets? Absolutely. The problem is, the chance of actually pulling that kind of coup off is very tiny. In other words, bad business. Moreover, the basis of this claim is really even only valid for certain types of games – first person shooters, for example, are indeed vastly represented by men. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, simulators such as SimCity, and the myriad badly-termed “casual” social games do not share that vast over-representation.

(I should also note that there are, in fact, women who do play these games, but they are still a significant minority. This is not meant to indicate in any way that women don’t enjoy such games – simply that as it is now, they are in fact not the dominant demographic.)

The second claim – that all studios are fundamentally, pervasively and structurally misogynistic is simply crap. There are studios that fit this claim. There also are individuals, even individuals with power, in otherwise benign studios who are misogynistic. Neither of these realities is reasonable cause to tar and feather an entire industry.

The first claim I can speak to from personal experience, at least on the MMORPG side of things. Over the ten or so years I have been in the industry, I have been a hiring manager for probably close to half of that. I have gone through – literally – hundreds of resumes, sometimes for a single position. The cold hard fact is that the number of women who apply even for design jobs – let alone programming jobs – is depressingly small. As in, I can literally count the number of women who have even applied to a job I was filling on the fingers of one hand.

(Notably, of the positions over the years in question, as I recall three offers went out to women; two of these were accepted. This, out of probably a dozen separate positions over all the years I have been a manager.)

Possible Solutions
Now, this does beg a legitimate question: Why do so few women want to get into game development?

Some of it, to be sure, is a legacy of the early years of video games. Moreover, since the industry thrives on the relative certainty of sequels, new, untested ideas are rare, and so relics tend to persist far beyond the historical time when they made sense.

Some, as well, is a perception of hostility or outright misogynistic behavior. Some women undoubtedly do not want to go into an environment they suspect would be hostile to them, whether or not such is actually the case.

Personally, I suspect this is more than anything else an unfortunate function of basic sociodynamics. That is, to you or I, standing where we are in time, we see our own experience over, say, five years or even ten years and easily become frustrated at what we see as a lack of change or evolution, whether we are talking about a society or, as in this case, an industry. Moreover, we confuse this perception as a failure, as if things “should” change faster.

The reality, of course, is that societies evolve and change excruciatingly slowly from the perspective of individuals, mostly due to the generational timescale and the “people like to hire people who are like themselves” effect, which while applicable to gender and race is just as applicable to personality, education background, geographical region, and myriad other factors.

Is this frustrating? You bet. Is this one of the root causes of injustice and nepotistic practices? Without a doubt. Fixing it, however, is not something that can be done by waving a magic wand, either in the form of regulation or wishful thinking. It can be done, but by fair and persistent cultural pressure over the course of decades.

There are things wrong in the industry. As it is, even in just the ten years I have been in it there have been significant strides. Are we, as an industry, at the place where we should be in these areas? No, but that’s okay, so long as we don’t get discouraged and continue to do what we can to improve the status quo as individuals and as studios.

What is not helpful, however, is the currently popular machinegun approach to condemning every studio and every developer as an equal participant of unfairness, misogyny or other injustice.

If we, as a society, want to see this – or any other – industry improve, we are best served by, yes, condemning those studios and those individuals who act badly, but also by holding up those studios and individuals who make an effort to behave fairly.

Moreover, the current presumption of guilt in the absence of proof to the contrary is not only itself unjust, but it is strategically foolish; it makes enemies of those who might otherwise be allies in this effort. Lack of action is not necessarily complicity; lack of action is, to be sure, not to be lauded, but neither should it be condemned the way we condemn the actual individuals who behave badly.