The All Mighty Green One

Non sense, whining and stupid unfounded comments from the green.

I Finally Got It

I have recently had a very unbalanced life. All work, no play. The “All work” part has been formed in a very large part by a great deal of technical research. Although this is beneficial, since it will increase my skill set, this still reeks of an unbalanced life.

More than once, I have the same advice handed over to technical readers. Especially we the oh so lucky nerds in the computer science and related fields of knowledge. Alternate reading technical books with fantasy, science fiction or any other type of creative works. Technical books tend to put in a specific frame of mind. They box you into a specific way of thinking. While their knowledge is necessary, exposure to that influence alone will create a very square person. Fiction works help develop your creativity. Making your mind soar, it helps develop the skills of creation and “out of the box” thinking. While this is not as documented as the former, in my field it is just as important.

It might not have been the best decision, but instead of going with a fiction book, I decided to take up an MMO. While not as stimulating as the former, it definitely will help stimulate my long abandoned creative juices, and offer enough interactivity to keep me active and motivated. While I will not specify the game, let me just say it is NOT Warcrack. Although this can be said about most MMO’s, Warcark is simply too time consuming, too addictive, and too absorbing.

I went with a game which I had a little previous experience with, making my transition into it a bit easier. I invited a couple of my friends which have played it in the past, but have now abandoned it. Only one has showed up till now. The game, like many others, forces you to look for allies in order to complete cooperative quests and missions. While you can attempt to do them yourself, or utilize AI driven helpers “henchmen” (as they are called in the game), most of the time this just isn’t good enough.

For those of you that have not had the pleasure of playing an MMO, I really, really recommend you try it out. If only to experience a very important cultural phenomenon of this decade, if not century. The game boasts a huge number of players. These players are not only interacting with the environment presented to them in the game, but also amongst themselves. These players are all simultaneously attempting to complete quests and missions, scouting good players to have them join their guilds, buying and selling goods, negotiating prices, trying to upgrade their armor and weapons, playing against each other. Any sociologist would have a field day analyzing all of this interaction. I am pretty sure a couple already have.

I quickly found myself in a very inhospitable environment. A bunch of people trying to sell me stuff I didn’t want or need. I was asking for help with a couple of missions, and the little help I was offered came with a price tag (in game currency) attached to it. I had little resources at my disposal, therefore there was little I could do. Sound familiar? All of a sudden this seemed like the “real” world, all over again. Thoughts of The Matrix popped in my head. I quietly grinned and tried to make the best of it with the resources I had at my disposal. I had already set out to make this the best experience possible, and I wasn’t about to quit now.

I had managed to gather a little bit of money from the small entry level ventures I was able to successfully accomplish. I was offering a small amount of money in exchange for help in the completion of a quest. As you can imagine, most of the people in that area simply ignored me. One particular fellow walked up to me astonished that I was offering money for help. I simply responded saying that was the only way I saw that I could get help. He laughed and offered me his free services. When we set off on the quest that I had to complete I realized this was an experienced player who had already maxed out the potential of his character. When we set off in the quest, he quickly and easily dispatched any enemies that popped up in front of us. There was little for me to do, but to pick up the money and loot left behind by the enemies.

After completing a couple of pending missions he promptly invited me to become a member of his guild. I was honored and quickly accepted. This guy was my hero. He was a master at the game, he selflessly helped me get through some hard parts of it, and now he was inviting me to form part of his group! I mean, how bigger than that does it get in the context. I was happy. I was playing. Probably a bit more than the conservative couple of hours a week I proposed myself to do so. As I mentioned before, these games are highly involving and addictive. If you let yourself get immersed in the fantasy world it projects, you can dedicate a couple of hours to it without even realizing it. In any case, I have corrected this, and I am back to regular more healthy dosages of the game.

One day I was hanging out with a couple of guys in the guild, doing some missions. We talk about a lot of stuff, related to the context of the game, but also mundane matters as well. My personal super hero and another one of the members were talking about how happy they were that they had gotten through their final exams and the school year was finally over. I froze in my tracks. After a couple of seconds I snapped out of it, and asked them “what grade are you in?”. They happily responded “10th grade”. They whipped back the same question at me. A bit ashamed I let them know I was an “old man”. This did not change my relationship with any of the guys in the guild. I still highly respect then, and love to play with them.

What this did do for me was make me think about the social implications of this type of game. You are represented and perceived by others by you in game character. When you start a campaign, you create a character. This character has a profession, a sex, a color of clothes, and particular physical characteristics that you specify. This gives you your own custom image in the game. Yet it is simply made to distinguish you from players which are nearby. The truth is that these are all false. Since from the get go everyone knows this is just a digital representation of the person behind the keyboard and mouse, no assumptions are made based on their appearance. Do you have any idea how big this is? Say goodbye to any discrimination based on color, sex or race. People are judged by how good they are at the game, what items you have available, what strategic support you can offer. Not by their characteristics. We’ve been trying to do that in our own society for at least the last 300 hundred years and have yet to be successful. Yet thanks to this online interaction, it has happened as a side effect no less.

I didn’t know that my partner in crime was simply a 15 year old child. I still have no idea what’s his race, color of his skin, or if he has any the ability to speak any tongues other than English.This has not changed in any way how I perceive him. He is still the leader of the group, and I still gladly follow him in the game. Yet in our world, the couple of laps around the sun that I have as an advantage would have probably given me seniority over the group. Irrelevant of the fact of weather I actually deserved or not. I am not even going to go into other discriminatory implications.

This, in part, explains the massive popularity of these games. It provides you a world where a man is quite literally “Not judged by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character”. How many times have we been discriminated in our lifetimes? How many times have we been considered to be less adequate for some task just because we didn’t fit into “the profile”?. Even if you, my dear reader, fit into the 18 to 34 young, thin, white, healthy, English-speaking male (arguably the demographic which less suffers the injustices of prejudice), I am pretty sure this is still an alluring world. Even for you.

Sadly, I came to this realization a bit late. There are already 4+ million people playing Warcrack, which is by far the most popular MMO today. There are countless others in other games and franchises. This will sound like old news to most of you. Yet it was a marvelous moment of realization for me.

June 19, 2007 Posted by | internet, media, software, technology | 1 Comment

Ahoy Matey!

In my travels through the blogosphere I found an article which grabbed my attention. The author was ranting on how we have become evil pirates leaching on the poor artists who invests in music and have to starve to death because. We are so insensible and indifferent that we steal to no end.

I am going to take the politically incorrect stance here. People, really, the whole stealing thing. It’s a marketing campaign. It’s being overblown, taken out of proportion to serve the interests of the big corporations which distribute media. They publicize astronomical numbers in losses, sue innocent people, raid servers in foreign countries. All to get your attention. All to make you fear your dastardly activities and lead you into a path of redemption.

It is very hard to take any large group of people and place them all under a single category or specification. Yet it has been done. The millions of people that trade digital media around the world in P2P networks (this is the most notorious example, but there are other technologies at work here as well) are all labeled universally as thieves. Is this an accurate description? Let’s try to take an unbiased look at the evolution of the “illegal” distribution of media to try to find out. I’ll concentrate on movies and music, since they are the two types of content that tend to get most attention.

Ten years ago you could also get movies and music illegally. The internet was still in it’s infancy. A 33.6 or 56 KiBPS dial up modem was the hottest thing since individually wrapped sliced cheese. The widespread use of audio and video encoding that we see today was science fiction at best. There was still a very tight coupling of content and medium. To acquire and consume the content you had to accept the medium it was being distributed on. This was no exception for the pirated distribution as well. Let’s sum up the characteristics of the content and medium that was being distributed.

  • The pirated medium sucked. The packaging was sported a very bad copy of the originals logo or front label. Usually never had a back label. The tape, or CD itself usually also had a bad copy of the imprint or nothing at all.
  • The content quality was bad. The audio and video was usually very bad. The VHS tapes presented static on the TV, the image looked less sharp. The sound sounded muffled.
  • The location of transaction was informal. You had to go to a flee market, or meet up with someone selling pirated content on the street. You never walked into a respectable business with a nice presentation. There was no support, no number to call, no promise of customer satisfaction.
  • It was more cost effective than buying the original content. Despite all the negative elements previously mentioned, the strong motivator is that it was significantly cheaper than the legal alternative. Legal and illegal product offer more or less the same thing, with a big price difference. Obviously the market is going to respond to that. Keep in mind that there were no HDTV’s or 7.1 surround systems, so a focus on quality was not the big factor it is today.

Jump to the present. The internet has taken the world by storm. We have tiny devices that we carry around all day that can connect our calls, play music, and announce next week’s forecast. Appliance costs continue to decline and an overall growth of technological related product consumption grows. The media market is at the center of this growth. With the supply of all those media devices, content demand rises as consequence.

People want content. It’s that simple. As always, the market will give them a different choices on what and how to acquire it. How have the illegal offerings evolved during this time?

  • There is no medium. I can no acquire my content without the need of it being tied to a to a physical medium. I no longer have to worry about a CD or DVD scratching and ruining my favorite song or movie. I no longer have to worry about that big disc pile in the corner of my room. I no longer have to worry about having a CD and a cassette only radio. With digital content, I can have it with me wherever I go. It’s versatile enough to be played on a wide range of devices, not just my radio or TV. I can quickly and easily share it with anyone irrelevant of geographical position. This freedom is a very powerful concept. Especially when compared to the previous status quo.
  • The content quality is excellent. Most of the time on par or above legal offerings. I can download movies and TV shows in HD resolution in a wide variety of formats. I can get MP3’s in 320 KiBPS or lossless formats.
  • The location is the best place on earth. You can acquire everything you want from the comfort of your own home. No need to deal with traffic. No need to wait for the half hour it takes you to get to the store and the other half hour it takes you to get back. Instant gratification!
  • It still is more cost effective. It’s not free as some people think or promote. You pay for the bandwidth necessary to download the content. Those resources are dedicating the acquisition, so they are part of the cost. Even though, it is still considerably cheaper, probably even more than before.

Before I had to choose between “good price and bad quality” or “not so good price and good quality”. Now it’s simply a no brainer. The illegal offering is superior, and it’s cheaper. There is simply not enough to motive you to “step out of the dark side” so to speak. That is why the MPAA and RIAA are crazy suing people and companies and spending millions of dollars in lobbying. The only motivator they can count to favor them is fear of prosecution. So the judgment now becomes: “good price but I’m in danger” or “not so good price but I can sleep at night”. This introduces a little more balance to the equation. It’s not the best method. They are not stupid. They are aware of this, but it’s the only thing they can resort to.

We all know they have made attempts to follow the new distribution mediums. They have been hindered by poor quality, awful DRM schemes, non competing release dates, etc. If you look at piracy as a competing company, not a menace, and you compare each offering… again, no brainer.

Markets react to the products and services that are presented to them and under the circumstances they are offered in. It’s not that we wont pay for content! We will. Make it worth our while. Not by driving us into fear. Do it the old fashion way: actually offer a superior product. When you do, you’ll see me in line with everyone else.

May 18, 2007 Posted by | internet, media, politics, technology | 14 Comments