Monday, June 04 2012

Pedantic Rant Post

John Scalzi is generally a great SF author.  A few weeks back he wrote a provocative article that got cross-posted to Kotaku.  The article can be found here, go read it.  I'll wait.

Finished?  One of the reasons I've always admired Scalzi's SF writing in that he generally doesn't hit you over the head with his politics; while it's there, it's generally not getting in the way of the story.  While I disagree with many of his political opinions, I respect his opinions as sound and well thought out.

...with the exception of that article I just asked you to read.  It's an attempt to simplify a complicated and divisive issue, and then represent it with an analogy.  Simplifying a complex issue is hard; almost all writers will tend to lose the nuances of their opponent's arguments.  Analogizing even a simple argument is also hard, as analogies by their nature are imperfect.  Analogizing a complex argument is almost impossible.

The place where arguments by analogy tend to fail fastest is in places where the analogy isn't specific enough.  Scalzi's analogy is 'In the role playing game known as The Real World, "Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.'  Scalzi avoids the easy traps by enumerating that this is a generalization; specific results may vary.  He also limits his area of interest to the US and/or the Western World, which is probably a fair limit.

Where he sinks his argument is that he never explains how the difficulty settings work beyond

But because you’re playing on the "Straight White Male” setting, gaining points and leveling up will still by default be easier, all other things being equal, than for another player using a higher difficulty setting.
What does gaining points in the real world consist of?  Well, what does gaining points in a video game consist of?  (At this point, I'm going to be descending into the murky realms of analogy myself.  My analogies, like all analogies, are imperfect.  If you have a better example for my analogy, whether it supports or detracts from my thesis, please let me know in the comments.) 

First, in most games you gain points for accomplishing things.  Saving the princess, for example, or clearing to the next level.  A good real-world example of accomplishing things might be 'graduating high school' or 'graduating college' - fixed, unique milestones that come with specific power increases.

Second, many games give you points for accumulating treasures along the way to the larger milestones.  In the real world (as in many video games) this treasure is called 'money'.

Third, some games give you points for just surviving.  The longer you survive, the more points you get.  Normally, these games get more difficult the longer they progress, but you generally want to continue playing the game as long as possible.  In the real world, we call this aging.

Scalzi has a point, in that in all three categories 'Straight White Male' beats 'Gay Minority Female' for average final score.  But there's a massive 'but' lurking there.

To cut away from the video game analogy for a bit, and on to the RPG character creation analogy.  Since I don't have a choice in what class I play in the game, I roll up my character randomly and end up with a cleric (we're playing old school D&D).  My friend the power gamer tells me I'm lucky, as the versatile spell casting of a cleric means that the cleric is on average more powerful than non-clerics.  What's not to like?  I then look over at the power gamer's character.  I know from prior experience that the power gamer has sacrificed much to the dice god for incredible fortune (i.e. he fudges the rolls) and always has the best character class.  Does he have a cleric?  No.  Did he lie when he said my cleric was good?  No.  The cleric is more powerful than the average non-cleric, so he was right.  But non-cleric is a catch-all term.  In the non-cleric bucket with the fighters, thieves, rangers, and bards (all puny before my divine power) there are the almighty wizards. 

'Gay Minority Female' is a large bucket, especially the 'Minority' bucket.  If you break 'Minority' into it's component class offerings, the 'Asian' group looks downright comparable to the 'White' group (neither of them are homogenous groups anyways, to further complicate matters).  The Asian bucket, taken as a whole has higher college graduation rates, annual incomes, and life expectancy... all large components in the final score.  But that's not all, the 'woman' choice has a lower annual income, but comes with a higher life expectancy and college attendance rate.  Furthermore, some of that higher score in the male bucket comes with a higher risk, male players being more likely to take choices that have a higher reward coupled with a higher chance of a 'game over'.  A risk-averse player (and most players are) might consider the risk of a premature game over on your only game not worth the time.

All in all, depending on how you keep score, Scalzi's simple analogy isn't so simple, and without addressing those massive caveats the whole thing falls apart under the weight of the real world.  (I won't even get into the bizarre connotations of multiclassing in our analogy, how taking one level in fighter makes for a much more powerful wizard...)  It's a shame, as Scalzi has a genuine point to be made, and the underpowered nature of the fighter and thief classes needs to be addressed for a balanced game.  But a poorly thought out solution is likely to make the situation even worse for everyone.  (Did I just accidentally turn a political missive into a rant on D&D 4th edition?)

Posted by: Civilis at 07: 15 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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