Monday, 19 October 2015

Hopefully space-faring humans will be nicer

It's truly an exciting time to be alive nowadays. That's true in lots of ways but specifically, the attitude toward space exploration seems to have shifted quite a bit recently. It reminds me of stories told of the period when America and the Soviets were racing to put the first man on the moon. The circumstances might've been war-like but the mood at the time (in American media atleast) was soaring on dreams of how the space-age was going to usher in unthinkably idyllic lifestyles. Nowadays we might giggle at the naivety of flying cars and hoverboards by 2015 but at the same time it points to a touching optimism about where our species was heading.

It's a bit weird to think about, but right now we're already in the future we dreamed about! We're like a child being asked about what we want to be when we're "all grown up" except we suddenly realize we've been adulting for a while now and we're still not sure if we're ready for what's coming next. There's not a doubt in my mind that as we start to become multi-planetary as a species, it's going to open up a whole new bunch of situations that will demand that we evolve to a new paradigm. If you need proof of that just think about how much the world changed after the moon landing. Think about how much our very conception of ourselves was shaken by the first few images of our planet taken from space...


It's hard to really think about today but everything we think of as the "Environmental Movement" kinda started out of this picture. It showed us, really for the first time, how isolated and fragile the Earth really is.  Having said that, we're living in an age when it's no longer science fiction to talk about colonizing other planets; another wave of change is coming and if the Moon was such a big deal, can you even imagine what an actual colony on Mars (or a floating city in the clouds of Venus) might spark? These innovations are knocking on our door right now, and new possibilities are closer than we think.

In any case, we don't need to worry that these realities are "too far" into the future to waste time on today. By anticipating some of the changes that could happen, we can try and answer them ahead of time and hopefully get some insight into the state of our current lives as well while we wait.

Most definitely one of the big issues will be around our collective identity. The further away you get from Earth, the less it might matter where exactly on the blue pixel you came from but what would that mean for life back on Earth? Most media shows future societies are being largely homogeneous or if there's an encounter with a group of Extraterrestrials the aliens all look kinda the same. There's probably some racist/xenophobic dynamic at play there but the point is that we think that nationalities and ethnicities will end up dissolving when a civilization becomes capable of travel between star-systems.

Yes it's definitely easier to govern a population if there's a homogeneity of religion, culture and ethnicity but just because it's easier doesn't mean we should want to homogenize our entire species. At a very high level we're all basically equal but that doesn't mean we're the same... different cultures evolve in different parts of the world in response to the state of their local environment. Architectures are different to incorporate different climate, building materials and labour and food incorporates local ingredients and needs. Different philosophies then grow out of those collection of people over time; to smooth out all that richness is to lose almost everything that got us to this point as a species. So hopefully what space travel does for us is help stop things like racism or religious conflict, but while also helping us recognize the wealth of diversity we have available to us.

This is the sort of paradox that makes dealing with these questions difficult. At one level when regular people say "Hey, we're all one people; we should treat each other the same" that usually means that you allow other people space to be themselves within their own cultural and social identity. And then you go over to their societies and learn about what makes them special. This is (mostly) what travelling is all about; going to different spaces and seeing what the people who grow there are like. So what you have is a belief in inherent commonality producing a reality of inherent diversity.

But then at another level a corporation (or institution of some kind) might say something like "We cherish all our customers and believe in the value of every single unique individual" which might lead you to think that their mission is to cater their products to the people they serve. What ends up happening though is that the products get produced en-masse up front and then demand is shaped via marketing and education. (*cough* iPhone *cough*) So what you get is a stated "belief" in uniqueness that ends up producing these societal-scale waves of group-think. It gets difficult to push back because the stated belief is a seemingly good idea; who doesn't value individual-agency! But then the reality that these companies create are light-years removed from that promise and we're all left unsure of how to respond.

Essentially there's already a version of this homogenization going on right now. In an ideal Capitalist (with a capital 'C') society, the best thing is for Globalization to go across the world and basically smoothen out all the rough edges so that any company can do business anywhere! Ideally everyone speaks the same language, everyone dresses the same way, everyone walks talks and eats the same way and eventually worships the same gods and has identical architecture and art and psychology as well. At this point you'd then be able to sell the same shitty fast-food burger to anyone, anywhere because everyone's values have already been adjusted to roughly the same (highly controlled) range of preferences.

What we need is a cultural identity that allows us to maintain our uniqueness while also allowing us to play well with other people. To that degree what we have as international business practices and international courts are a fabulous innovation but we shouldn’t lose sight of the value in our local communities. For example think of five of the most beautiful cities in the world, and then also consider how vastly different they are from each other:

Ultimately it's not societies who shape us, it's us who shapes society. And in a lot of ways it's not the law that protects us, but also we who protect the law and choose to co-operate with each other. This is something we need to keep in mind as we walk into the future together: everything you see around you today started off as an idea.

And if you want a glimpse of what the future might (hopefully) feel like there's a photograph, 'The Pale Blue Dot', which is the most distant self-portrait we have of the Earth. It was taken from approximately 6.4 billion kilometres away by the Voyager space probe.

Keep that picture in mind (or have it open in front of you) and take a listen to the letter Carl Sagan wrote about what that picture brought to mind for him. I challenge you to not just be reduced to tears while you listen...

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on the mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Games that make you think about life (and games)

This is a bit of a collection of collections... happened to see these lists  a few years ago and played through quite a number of the games and they've all had quite an impact on my life.

Almost all of them are indie titles, all lovingly crafted to speak about messages that resonate with me even now years after playing them.

thanks grandma...

Hope you enjoy some of these games... I've mentioned my favorites from each list next to each. Each game might only take an hour or so and some of them are maybe 15 minute experiences tops.

  1. 20 Games that make you think about life
    • Elude: A game about depression, this let's you experience what it might be like to be bipolar and to really feel the hopelessness that can come about when you're on a downswing. Don't worry, the game won't depress you... it'll just show you the sort of shape of the feeling.
    • Covetous: A game about coveting, as told by a lone cancer cell... Deeply intriguing game, one that gives me chills even now thinking about it and it's been several years since I've played it.
    • Air Pressure: A game that has you interact with your kinda clingy girlfriend... one possible interpretation is that she's a personification of a substance abuse problem, but there's lots of ways to read all the various stories and outcomes.
    • Aether: Lovely, relaxing little game, made by the creator of Super Meat Boy, it has you explore planets and try and help the creatures on each one deal with something that's bothering them.
    • UTE: Definitely NSFW, this is a game where you play as a nympho woman trying to have sex as much as possible before she's caught and made to marry the guy she was last caught with. Make of that what you will. (RockPaperShotgun did an entire column on this game and it's themes : S.EXE : Ute by Lea Schönfelder)
  2. 10 Games that make you think about life
    • Loved: Absolutely beautiful, beautiful game exploring the nature of authority and obedience. It plays like a standard platformer but as you play there's a voice directing you to take certain paths, play a certain way and sometimes even jump to your death on some spikes. And as you play you also need to figure out how much your own self-worth really means to you.
    • The Company Of Myself: Another platformer, but you play as a solitary man who's reminiscing about his lost love as he tries to move through the world. Very trippy, deep game and very interesting twist ending of sorts. Psychology enthusiasts will really like this one.
    • I Can Hold Me Breath Forever: A touching story about friendship and loss. I still have to finish this one but the little I played was really interesting.
  3. 10 More Games that make you think about life:
    • American Dream: Another kinda NSFW game, this has you work as an investment banker during the week so you can pimp out your house and have crazy drug fueled orgies over the weekend. The parties stop if your house doesn't have the latest stuff though so your investments had better keep giving you the monies. 
    • Spent: Think you can survive for a month living at the poverty line? Get a job, keep healthy and try and keep your kids happy for only 30 days and see how things go... 
    • One Chance: Oh my god, this game!! No resets, no takebacksies, you literally get only one chance to play to try and save the world when your cure for cancer ends up going awry and killing all living cells. Haven't agonized over any decision in a game as much as in this one...
  4. 5 Games that make you think about life
    • Haven't played very many from this list, but Gray was a really interesting take on the way in which ideas spread, and the nature of being an outsider. You start as the only person who's not rioting when everyone else is going nuts and you're trying to talk to people and convert them all the your way of thinking.
    • I want to play Passage and The Game sometime but I've been a little scared thus far. :p
  5. 15 games that make you think differently about Games:
    • This is a collection of games commissioned by various government or NGO agencies to try and raise awareness or understanding of various issues.
    • Elude and Spent are on this list so I'm guessing the rest will probably be pretty stellar... I plan to play and check 'em out soon.
So yea, this list is comparatively quite old and there've been a lot of really good games that've come out since then that explore various interesting themes and perspectives. Maybe I'll make a future post to collect those. 

Also, it's not that I've played all the games on these lists... these are just my favourites out of the ones I've played. Lemme know if there are any other gems buried in there. :)