Let’s Play! Narrative Discovery vs. Expert Guides

by Ryan Tanaka on January 21, 2015

Ryan Tanaka is a resident blogger, visiting us from his home turf at http://ryan-writer.com. The latest musical work that inspired this article can be found here. (Animated music video!)

If you’ve been watching South Park’s recent episodes, you might have noticed YouTube commentator PewDiePie making a few cameos here and there near the top corners of your screen.  South Park is typically known for its brutal treatment of celebrity and public figures, but surprisingly, PewDiePie was portrayed in a very favorable light this time around: as the protagonist that saves Christmas and the future of entertainment as a whole.  (No spoilers here, just watch the episode for yourself.)

For those unfamiliar with PewDiePie’s work, most of his videos consist of “Let’s Play” videos, where he literally sits at his computer in his bedroom, playing video games in real-time as he makes commentary and jokes to go along with it.  Most of the dialogue is unscripted and improvised, with him simply reacting to the things that happen on screen.


“What the fuck is that?  What the fuck?” ~[PewDiePie, pretty much every episode]

Regardless of your opinion of PewDiePie himself, Let’s Play videos are more than just a passing fad: it’s arguably the new paradigm of how game commentary will work from here on out.  It has been wholeheartedly embraced by the indie gaming community and the younger generations of our time, even as critics continue to label the medium as being dumbed down and superfluous.  Commentators may occasionally overreact or throw some acting in there for good measure, but the fact that these videos are filmed in real-time helps to keep the experience of it authentic and genuine — something that tends to be missing in today’s sarcasm and irony-ridden cultural environments.  (Personally I prefer watching Markiplier’s channel, just as a matter of personal taste.)  A good portion of game commentaries are admittedly geared towards juvenile and slapstick humor, but there’s something cathartic and reaffirming about watching these videos as they progress through the game at their own pace.

[click to continue…]


On the Design of Escaped Realities

by Venkat on January 16, 2015

Human beings have this amazing ability to retreat from reality without knowing precisely what reality is, in which direction it lies, and how to solve the converse problem of deliberately approaching it. We have gotten so good at this game of retreat that we’ve even managed to define an entire frontier of virtual reality to explore without quite figuring out what the non-virtual beast is. A question of particular philosophical urgency today is this: are virtual realities currently being designed in 3d game studios going to be more or less of a retreat from reality than the consensual fictions of the past, such as 2d games, novels, sporting events and religious mythologies?

I’ll offer a clear candidate answer later in this post, but it seems likely that all fictions — and fictions may be all we have — are retreats from reality rather than approaches to it.  This is very strange if you think about it. How can we be so good at retreating from something while simultaneously being really bad at approaching it? It’s like we have a compass that reliably points away from reality, but is incapable of pointing towards it.

Reality — which allegedly exists, despite the lack of credible witnesses — is mysterious. I’ve met people claiming to have experienced it, but it turned out they were all lying (especially to themselves — people in this business of “seeking reality” often manage to project their own desire and capacity for moral certainty onto their experienced universe, but that’s a polemic for another day).

The only marginally useful non-nihilistic idea about the mystery of reality that I’ve encountered is that it comprises three irreducibly distinct aspect mysteries: physical, mental and platonic-mathematical.  Roger Penrose made up this useful (and whimsically paradoxical) visualization of the triad in The Road to Reality.


Whether or not this triadic view is metaphysically the soundest one, it is a useful starting point for studying escapism.

Escapism. That’s the word we’ve made up to talk about the game of retreating from reality. We routinely accuse each other of indulging in it, and in polite company, avoid calling out each other’s preferred escaped realities. An escape is the opposite of a crash. It is a deliberate entrance into a simpler reality, as opposed to an unplanned entrance into a messier one. An escaped reality (in the computer science sense of the world you escape to, not the world you escape from) is the opposite of a crashed reality. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are both varieties of technologically mediated escaped realities. So, for that matter, are gated communities, religious festivals, sporting events and other experiencable environments based on more technologically primitive mechanisms.

This deprecation of  escape as a disreputable behavior is unfortunate. Not only is escapism our best proxy for studying how we engage reality (short answer: backwards, in the rear-view mirror created by our fictions), there is an argument to be made that perhaps all existence is escapism. That the only realities (plural) we are capable of inhabiting are escaped ones. If this strong view turns out to be true, then the only way to directly experience reality would be to die. The ultimate crash.

But let’s start with a more familiar notion of escaped realities, of the sort associated with movies, novels, video games, religions, meditative practices and collecting stamps.

[click to continue…]


Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture

by Sarah Perry 01.08.2015

Sarah Perry is a guest blogger who blogs at Carcinisation and is the author of Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide. A selective sweep occurs when a new, beneficial gene mutation appears and quickly sweeps across a population, erasing the genetic diversity that existed prior to the sweep. Similarly, […]

32 comments Read the full article →

Black Mirror as Hell-Is-Other-People Futurism

by Venkat 01.01.2015

Over the break, I watched Black Mirror, the highly acclaimed British futurist show.  I am tempted to call it a tech-dystopian show, but it isn’t quite that. To count as dystopian, you need a corresponding utopian vision that has failed or is stillborn, and the show doesn’t offer or suggest any. People have also been comparing it to […]

14 comments Read the full article →

Complete 2014 Roundup

by Venkat 12.22.2014

Here’s the complete roundup of the year’s posts, in chronological order. New readers this year might want to check out the 2013 roundup. If you want to do some binge reading further back into the archives, there is a page for the Rust Age (2007-12) with both curated selections and complete roundups. We had 45 posts this […]

7 comments Read the full article →

Learning from Crashes

by Venkat 12.18.2014

I came up with a neat and compact little definition of a crash as a result of the recent ongoing obsession with the idea we’ve had around here. A crash is an unexpected subjective reaction to an unexpected real-world outcome. Both parts are important. If you have an unexpected outcome to an activity, but are able to […]

9 comments Read the full article →

Striving, Surviving, Suffering and Slacking

by Venkat 12.11.2014

The more I learn about the life stories of others, the more I tend to view mere survival as an accomplishment in the median case. This is an odd view of humanity, but an accurate one for the vast majority. We are misled about the actual difficulty of basic survival because societies are built around […]

24 comments Read the full article →

The Future of Tipping

by Venkat 12.02.2014

A couple of weeks ago, I was introduced to the bitcoin-based tipping service for Twitter, ChangeTip, by Leslie John Dilley. It is a fascinating thing to experiment with, and you should try it out if you’re interested in bitcoin. What makes it particularly interesting is that you can define your own pseudo-currency units called “monikers”. […]

8 comments Read the full article →

Learning to Fly by Missing the Ground

by Venkat 11.20.2014

Earlier this year, I turned forty. I’ll give you a moment to choose between “crap I’ve been listening to an out-of-touch old dude who looks younger than he is” and “crap, I’ve been listening to a ponderously self-important kid whose picture I never bothered to look at.” Forty is an milestone in the middle of the uncanny valley […]

31 comments Read the full article →

The Design of Crash-Only Societies

by Ryan Tanaka 11.14.2014

Ryan Tanaka is a resident blogger, visiting us from his home turf at http://ryan-writer.com.  The improv session that inspired this article can be found here. Crash-only software: it only stops by crashing, and only starts by recovering.  It formalizes Murphy’s Law and creative-destruction into an applicable practice, where the end-of-things and the worst of outcomes […]

11 comments Read the full article →