How to Talk About Israel and Palestine

Foreword: The views and opinions in the following text are my own. I am entitled to a view, just as you are, and I realise that perspective shifts us one way or another regardless of whatever we try to do about it. You may disagree with me, and I respect your right to do so. Please respect my views in return. Due to the nature of this discussion, comments will approved through moderation – but do feel free to comment. I am not an expert in the history of this conflict, I am merely a social observer and a student of philosophy.

Before you start: I am not pro-Israel nor am I pro-Palestine; I am pro-logic. 

I was recently privileged to attend an informal debate in which we discussed a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem. With an informed introductory talk by political intellectual Sandy Walkington, who visited areas affected by the conflict and talked to members of Fatah and Israeli intellectuals, we began to discuss the issue from the perspective of there being a feasible solution.

It wasn’t until members of the group started voicing their opinions that I learnt some eye-opening things about not the solution itself, but how we approach it.

For instance, it became radically clear that a good few of the members had no desire to theorycraft any such solution to the conflict, and instead focused more on condemnation and unhelpful analogies with little moral relevance; tired of the rhetoric of the Israeli government, they wished to submit some of their own.

A man whose name I cannot remember gave a lengthy albeit eloquent analogy about the blockade and occupation of Gaza by the Israeli’s, and the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany. He seemed to find a sort of perverse irony (although I found the gesture in and of itself perverse) in the military history of the Israeli’s. Note: although the West Bank is sometimes referred to as “the largest concentration camp in history”, the Nazi’s are not the only regime who’ve created and sustained large concentration camps. 

Why compare an Israeli occupation to Nazi Germany? Are we to believe that the Israeli’s are as bad as the Nazi’s? Are all occupations to be compared to those conducted by Nazi Germany? Of course not. The issue, it seems for many people, was with the self-victimization of the Israeli spirit.

“Zionists playing the Holocaust card.”

The meeting took place with about 20-30 self proclaimed Liberals, many Liberal Democrat party members. And although liberal ideas seeped through their views and opinions, there wasn’t much liberal objectivity: a real need to get to the meat of the issue on the grounds that it is our moral duty, which is what liberalism is all about.

To cut a long story short, there were a few unhelpful misconceptions about the diplomatic duty of the international bystanders, and even more misconceptions about the nature of the ruling Israeli government.

There were many questions with very simple answers, all of which took us no further than a dance around semantics and utopian ideals. Some examples:

When I was asked “why can’t we talk to Hamas?” I replied “Because they’re not seen as a legitimate government by the majority of developed nations in the UN.” he replied with “And why aren’t they?” to which I replied “Because they’re catergorised as a terrorist organisation by most of the developed nations”. This answer wasn’t satisfactory, and he asked why the Israeli’s are recognized when they, ostensibly, commit crimes of their own.

This is an issue with moral relativity. Yes, Hamas were the democratically elected party in the region, but, as within my retort, so was the troublesome and occasionally morally abhorrent Iranian government. My co-debater replied “it’s none of our business what a democratically elected government does!” which is where we find the problem in the whole discussion. Actually, Walkington came to my defense at this point and said quite sharply, quite rightly: “There is something wrong with the Iranian government, actually” or words to that effect.

So you see the irony here: the idea that we have no right to ‘meddle’ in the international affairs of a democratically elected nation. Why was my so eloquently speaking co-debater at the table, then? Is that not what we were there to do?

The clue is in the name: international affairs. International. They are affairs that economically affect the region, and thus the world. They are human affairs; affairs which affect people just like you and I.

We have a moral obligation to try and relieve suffering, and to promote the well-being of people regardless of whatever political system they adopt – or try to adopt.

With Hamas radicalised, and al-Fatah facing large scale corruption, what legitimate voice do the Palestinians have? And what are the Israeli’s doing to provide them with one? Or even, to allow them to have one?

You do not have to sympathize emotionally with the plight of the Palestinian people, nor do you have to strongly oppose Zionism or condemn Israel. You don’t have to don your favorite flowery shirt and get on the next plane to the West Bank in order to prove you care, or to shout the loudest about specific individuals who you feel are harmed the most. These are pseudo-liberal methods that offer little reward, since I see no cause that has been popularized to a satisfactory end through a little stomping and shouting, or crying and wailing.

Indeed, as you can possibly tell, I was left perplexed as to the reluctance to work within the system to achieve a feasible understanding. 

I am not so arrogant as to suggest I have the solution

Is it not foolish to imply that any of us feel as though we have the answers? It is through dialogue and discussion that we aim to grow our understanding of the situation, from both sides. For when we better understand the plethora of variables that contribute to the complexity of two cultures identities, we can better empathize – and through empathy, work with clarity.

It is no good to pick a side – pick a fight, and then see it through to the end. It is useless to call for international rhetoric, such as brandishing the Israeli government ‘terrorists’. If we label the Israeli government as terrorists, do we also label the US government as terrorists for strategic drone attacks? Do we label the UK government terrorists for meddling in Iranian elections in the 60’s? At which country do we stop? At which fight do we cease to condemn? You see how mere condemnation cannot move us forward – and for people who claim to care so dearly for the people trapped within a world of rhetoric, it seems perverse to insist we create our own.

So, then, what is the difference between Hamas and the Israeli government? Political infrastructure. We work within a carefully constructed political framework that ensures diplomacy. In fact, it safeguards diplomacy.

To argue that Hamas are legitimate because of political aid for the region is absurd, since do the Japanese Yakuza not provide aid in times of tragedy? Did they not feed the homeless after the tsunami and nuclear fallout? Did the Italian Mafia in New York not give out turkeys at Christmas in the 60’s and 70’s? Do these single acts of good legitimize an otherwise internationally condemned group? Of course they don’t. It isn’t liberal to ignore the facts and focus only on what they have done for good, locally. 

Talking about a one state solution

I don’t have the solution, but as a social observer and critical thinker, there was one thing I found incredibly interesting: a partition within the group.

Those who felt a one-state solution was best were radically anti-Zionist (which they used synonamously with Israeli government). Their anti-Israeli views were so strong, and their pro-Palestinian sympathies so passionate, that they neither voiced what they thought either side wanted, nor considered the identity of each group. In other words, they were as ignorant about ‘the other side’ as ‘the other side’ is Ignorant about their own – much like the sustained cause of the problem as it stands now.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out that the most obvious solution is the one-state solution. In Living in the End Times, Zizek points out that the area is already a single state. A man I greatly admire, Zizek even points out, in a defense, the idea might be seen as utopian. Indeed I think it is. How do you secularize Israel? Israel is no India.

What I think

The proof is in the pudding. Palestinian and Israeli identity is encapsulated in a perpetual envy. Israel is, as discussed, a lifeboat for the Jewish people; a boat that requires water to float. The Palestinians are exactly such a substance. They enable the Jewish community to need what they require for unity. Israel doesn’t seem to want to be safe, it wants to dip its feet in the water to remind itself of the dangers outside their ship. I think it is evident that threat has brought them together as a people, and served as the unification of their identity since long before anti-Semitism existed.

For this reason, it is with lack of fore-thought that people promote the togetherness of the Palestinian and Israeli populations. Whilst small pockets of experiment prove that on a small scale, such communities can grow – it is directly against the very being of the Israeli ethos to nationalise what is essentially a microcosm. A one state solution would be a disaster, since it directly threatens the identity of the Israeli population – regardless of a small number of modern secularists who, quite rightly, have transcended such tribal notions (which I do not mean to trivialise).

The argument must be, then, that in order to provide the identity and preservation of said identity, the life-boat must be preserved. The only way to do that is not to try and diffuse differences between the two people, but to accept them. The Palestinians need a leader. A leader who can work within the international infrastructure, and talk for the modern Palestinians from the perspective of an international game-player. We’re not talking about some throw-back Conservative preservationist who wishes to “correct morality” as we’ve seen in Iran, so much as an individual who can give the Palestinian identity a global, articulate voice.

Political infrastructure requires money. It requires aid. It does not require charity. There has been no successful nation on earth that has ever been founded on charity. Each nation is founded on: identity, unity, struggle, and will.

A nation requires intellectuals to contextualise the transition from people to nation state. This must be a secularist movement, since no forum of religious leaders is ever equal in either number nor voice. There are Christians in the West Bank, as there are Muslims and other denominations of each, etc. The transition must be seen as a humanist movement, but not a trivial media-popularization of a tired old conflict. In order to successfully transition from people to nation state, money is of course required. Investors must be attracted, and investment regulated and sustained. Modern technology is of course required, of which there is no lack of in the Middle East. With money there can be regulation of political parties. It is clear through history that no struggle produces a political party fit for modern politics. A party born of struggle is a very bitter party indeed, and it is not with hate for the Israeli’s that such a party should come about – so much as love for their Palestinian kin. It is for this reason that Hamas, and Fatah to some degree, cannot be a serious political contender in a democracy to be taken seriously, without serious reformation. It is not illiberal to look at the instigation of far-right political ideology when  such parties do get international backing. It is fair to say, however, that no party should condone the firing of rockets from schools into a neighboring state if they’re to be taken seriously.

As a very interesting, very aged fellow pointed out during a rather fiery exchange of ideas: Palestine needs a Mandela.

There are logical contradictions in the view that a one-state solution is the best possible solution, given the fallibility of a Palestinian state:

Objection: Israel cannot guarantee its own security under the conditions of a complicated land-swap.

Retort: Every nation in the world faces this issue. It is the price we pay for liberty. No democratic entity can exist by suffocating others with an iron fist. In fact, to say that an established people cannot be internationally recognized when you yourself have faced the same UN vote is directly hypocritical. The argument isn’t valid.

Objection: Palestine isn’t even close to a sustainable political environment from which to grow.

Retort: That does not mean that they should not be allowed to.

These are both legal and moral quarrels; I have heard hundreds of legal loopholes with which debaters argue either for or against different state solutions, but the legality in my opinion is irrelevant: the right to exist proper is not dictated by law. The right to exist establishes itself as fact as soon as a people already do. A UN vote merely allows the new political entity into the global system.

Why should Palestinians have to live in a Jewish state, and why should Israeli’s have to live with Palestinians? 

One huge and alarming misuse of the liberal view, is assuming that both cultures should live together under the same state. Why? Why should a Palestinian be policed by an Israeli? Is it not incredibly naive to think that each people would be represented equally in parliament? In which case, how is it democratically balanced? If the Israeli voice out-numbers the Palestinian, which it certainly does now, can we truly call the unified state a success? Of course not.

It is then illiberal to force the two people to come together. They are two autonomous global identities who have a right for independence, including from one and other.

I’m now going to provide a short but fascinating passage from Slavoj Zizek’s Living in the End Times to illustrate the point that inter-nationalisation cannot work:

On August 2, 2009 after cordoning off part of the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, Israeli police evicted two Palestinian families (more than 50 people) from their homes, allowing Jewish settlers to immediately move into the emptied houses. Although the Israeli police cited a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court, the evicted Arab families had been living there for more than fifty years. This event which, rather exceptionally, did attract the attention of the world media, is part of a much larger and mostly ignored ongoing process. Five months earlier, on March 1, 2009, it was reported that the Israeli government had draftred plans to build more than 70,000 new housing units in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank; if implemented, the plans could increase the number of settlers in the Palestinian territories by about 300,000 – a move that would not only severely undermine the chances of a viable Palestinian state, but also hamper even more the everyday life of Palestinians. A government spokesman dismissed the report, arguing that the plans were of limited relevance: the actual construction of news homes in the settlements required the approval of the defense minister and prime minister. However, 15,000 planned units have already been fully approved. Moreover, almost 20,000 of the planned units lie in the settlements that are far from the “green line” separating Israel from the West Bank, in other words in areas which Israel cannot expect to retain in any future peace deal with the Palestinians. The conclusion is obvious: while paying lip-service to the two-state solution, Israel is busy creating a situation on the ground which will render such a solution de facto impossible.

It is historically true that Israeli-Arabs live as second class citizens, and whilst some would argue that living as an Arab in Israel is better than living as an Israeli in Palestine, I do not see how that offers much to a one-state solution argument. They have limited to no political identity in Israel, and what little there is turns to bitterness and anger born from desperation. These are not good conditions for the establishment of an autonomous people into either a national or international system of diplomacy.

Whilst I see that land-swaps are increasingly problematic, I do not think they impossible. Houses are not people, people can move. But why would they cooperate? Why would they willingly up and move for the sake of the rising water?

It is on this question that I end this piece, again with Zizek:

The solution of the tension is thus not to be found in multicultural tolerance and understanding but in a shared struggle on behalf of a universality which cuts diagonally across both communities, dividing each of them against itself, but uniting the marginalized in both camps.

Something along these lines occurred during 2009 in the West Bank village of Bilin, where a Jewish lesbian group, complete with pierced lips, tattoos, etc., came each week to demonstrate against the village’s partition and demolition, joining ranks with conservative Palestinian women, each group developing a respect for the other. It is through such events, rare as they are, that the conflict between fundamentalism and gays [or any modern issue] is exposed for what it is: a pseudo-struggle, a false conflict obfuscating the true issue.

Through mutual respect born of the struggle for autonomy, perhaps the Israeli and Palestinian people can learn to respect each-other – find their unification. It is the plight of both people that could potentially bring them together – not as dysfunctional cell-mates, but as neighboring autonomous states that know what it’s like to establish identity without a voice. The Israeli’s must fight among themselves for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the Palestinians must fight for their own state, and to promote the view that the Israeli’s have the right to exist, which of course they do. Through the creation of their own state, and thus their own international identity, Palestinians will by proxy learn to respect the right of the Israeli’s, through understanding their position.

This internal feud, which already exists, is the strongest unification between the two people. It should be harnessed and promoted, through which respect for each group on both sides will grow, as we have seen on a much smaller scale.

Afterword: You may be confused by my willingness to ‘meddle’ in the affairs of a democratic entity, and whilst the discussion is another article in and of itself, I’ll clarify my position somewhat. 

Democracy exists only when choice exists. For choice to exist, a certain amount of freedom must exist. Freedoms such as: the right to think, the right to free speech, a free and open media, equal voice and funding between parties, social freedoms and attitudes, etc. It isn’t merely good enough to facilitate a vote: there must be choices born of freedoms and liberties enjoyed by those closest to the truest democracies. Censorship, etc., diminishes choice, and thus invalidates democratic process. In my view, then, we have an ethical obligation to keep a careful eye on nations who do their best to harness democracy, rather than to simply provide it.


Engaged to Cynicism

Engaged with my friend cynicism. That’s what I’ve been accused of by one of my peers; a female, which is of variable importance for reasons I’m about to discuss.

Happiness isn’t something I want to tackle in its entirety here, since it’s a philosophical quandary that many take their entire careers to talk about, let alone tackle. What I do want to discuss, however, is: marriage, happiness; nihilism and cynicism in your 20’s. Is it really cynical to not care too much about your marital status now, and in the near future, at age 24? And, are only philosophers immune to the cultural pressures of coupling up in that all too idyllic fashion?

“You’re just too cynical, and don’t believe in love at all.”

I’m going to start with happiness, since happiness is that illusive, illustrious pass-time the rich and famous seem to retain for their own enjoyment. Yeah, I know, I’m even sounding cynical about the mere concept of happiness: although I’m not, because that’s not what it is, really, is it?

Ideally, when people state their want, need, desire for – or efforts towards – happiness, they’re really talking about contentment – comfortability. No one wants to be elated all the time. Perpetual elation is playfully known as insanity. ‘Happiness’ is something we experience. We do not live happiness. We experience happiness. Happiness is a holiday for the soul; a state of elation through which our real lives are set aside and hope reaffirmed – felt. We are happy when we think of achieving happiness. Ironically, it is the thought of having what we think we do not have, that proves we had it all along.

If you want happiness, you needn’t look any further than a casual chat with friends and family.

Far be it from me to put words in your mouth, but for many people, and certainly my accuser, it is probably contentment you’re looking for. If I were to illustrate contentment, I’d draw a line between the highs and lows of human experience. Contentment is stable. Contentment doesn’t avoid the darker aspects of the human experience, it merely comes to terms with them. It comes to terms with them, with the right mix of life enriching experiences. These experiences are earned, and through that journey one earns character; self respect.

I’m trying to stay concise to illustrate my point as quickly as possible, and hopefully I’ve adequately differentiated between contentment and happiness – but I know I haven’t solved any problems, so much as drawn a line between two cultural experiences, so here’s my two cents:

Let’s talk about contentment only insofar as personal choice is concerned (that is, things that aren’t external to you – or things you cannot change, such as political situations, etc.) In what way can one achieve contentment, if happiness is no longer our goal?

The most obvious, and probably the most important sign-post on the road to contentment is self respect. Do you like yourself? You need to like yourself. Do any of us like ourselves?

Well, let’s take a step back and establish exactly to what degree the world is dissatisfied.

According to this source, only 53% of the world is happy. I want to look into this a little bit deeper before I continue, but throughout the entire world, the poll shows:

  • 53 percent of the world says they feel “happy”
  • 31 percent of the world says they are “neither happy nor unhappy”
  • 13 percent of the world says they are “unhappy”
  • 3 percent did not respond

But that isn’t fair, there are some pretty horrible places in the world, so lets see if technology, better access to health, better jobs or more money helps to alleviate the gloominess:

Let’s look at statistics for the US only:

  • 53 percent of the U.S. said they feel “happy”
  • 26 percent of the U.S. said they feel “neither happy nor unhappy”
  • 20 percent of the U.S. said they feel “unhappy”
  • 1 percent did not respond

Apparently not. ‘Happiness’ is not merely a culturally segregated, economic study, then. It is, as I have pinned it, a philosophical question which requires a little digging into the social sciences.

Before I digress too much, back to the topic at hand.

Is it therefore ‘cynical’ to deem a daily obsession with the acquisition of happiness naive or even absurd? Statistically, no. With a 50/50 chance of happiness, regardless of whatever number are suffering from self deprecation or painful disillusionment, and a small chance of what is either total apathy or maybe quiet contentment, it seems that ‘happiness’ is not something we should logically strive for.

Back to my personal favourite, then: contentment; self respect, etc.

To achieve self respect, one must be happy overall with who they are. That isn’t to say they should wake up, look in the mirror, and experience elation every day. That is a good sign that you are not as grounded as contentment allows for. In reality, one should have a firm grasp on who they are, accepting all their faults and noting their merits. One cannot be ‘happy’ if one is constantly striving to improve upon the superficial. The ‘superficial’ in this case I consider to be culturally important, albeit morally irrelevant parts of who we are, or our lives. Thinning hair, a little fat around the waist – caring about such things are all ingredients for character diminishing attitudes. If one cares too much about his hair, it is likely he cares less for something more important.

Coming to terms with our physical appearance, however difficulty or even futile that may be, is one ingredient for self respect.

You might not think it’s important to shed a little insecurity, but people see insecurities in each-other as though it were an object through crystal. It is something we sense. It changes our behavior. It is something we generally don’t respect in other people, no matter if we are overly concerned with our own. Hypocritical, perhaps – but it is true to some degree.

I feel so fat, I’m not going to eat anything for a week.

The not-so complicated, all too cliche road to happiness that is all too often taken.

Aside from getting to grips with what we look like, how we age, and the fact we are as mortal as we are often silly, there is the notion of pride of ownership. 

Pride of ownership is often synonymous with aspiration. I want money. I want a nice house. I want a nice car. What we want in our search for happiness often takes us down long and arduous paths, demeaning us and, as you will have suspected, diminishing our self-worth and by proxy our character.

Coming to terms with what you own is another little trick. It is our parents who drill in our want for more from the day we are born. We are told to save so we can afford things we think we want. No one really takes the time to explain that what we wan’t probably isn’t really what we want. If a child wants an extremely expensive toy, he ostensibly wants it so that he can experience the elation from playing with it. If you are equipped to do so, surely the better thing to do would be supplement that need for elation through other means? Provide a not-so expensive toy, or explain to the child that the cost of a toy doesn’t necessarily correlate to the amount of happiness gained from it. In reality, we are being taught that the most expensive item is the item that will bring about our greater happiness. Later in life this transpires into houses, cars, iPads and upgrades that drive our wallets to pieces, and the enrichment of our lives into shambles.

Waste not want not, so the saying goes.

Aspiration drives us into desperation, and our constant want for more intensifies depending on the model of economy you live in; bringing me neatly into my next topic.

But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things -H.D. Thoreau

Breast implants, hair transplants, expensive mortgages (the bringing about of a global down-turn), expensive items on finance; prostitution, drug addiction: these are all desperate measures taken in order to somehow improve our lives, and bring us happiness. They are, more often than not, gravely mislead attempts.

Wisdom, thus, is another ingredient necessary to some degree for self respect, and therefore character.

It is not a matter of intellect, since experiences often feed wisdom and improve our aptitude for decision making. It isn’t snobbery to promote self improvement, and the development of epidemiological feats. An idle mind can surely do no good.

I suspect – or worry, rather – that a reader may accuse me of snobbery, or sigh at the way I have chosen to go. But I am not saying that a higher intelligence directly equals a happy life, only that ignorance is indeed not bliss.

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied -Mill

When J.S. Mill wrote those words, I’m sure he knew that he would be accused of snobbery – but such an accusation is only relevant when we are in an enterprise content with comparing minds. I am talking about personal, non-external factors for which to ascertain contentment.

And do not make the mistake of claiming that being intellectually dissatisfied, such as in the case of Mill, equates to non-contentment with our lives. To assert too much authority on intellectual pursuit is as much of a blunder as caring too much about the thinning of our hair, as is argued by many a philosopher.

For surely any level of intellectual self improvement, or the expanding of ones mind to any degree is a positive thing? It doesn’t matter if those around you are smarter, or more attuned to the world in some way – since common courtesy negates any such worries. Assuming we live in a polite world; we do, relatively.

We have, therefore, a few (personal) factors in determining the likelihood of our contentment:

  • Self respect: taking no desperate measures to improve things that never really mattered anyway. Overcoming our insecurities enriches our self respect, alienates those around us who diminish it.
  • Being happy with what we have: Social pressures are strong, but overcoming them, such as in the above way, helps us to get to grips with what we have, and live within our means. Living within your means is like a fortification for the soul – you have complete control over the draw-bridge, but no one can has control over the fortress.
  • Wisdom: Learn through experience. Question everything. Be it a craft, trade or aptitude for any task, coming to terms with the world around you, and what it presents you, broadens the mind and enriches your character. It is no wonder that artists, painters, musicians and poets are some of the happiest jobs.

I hope you’ll notice now that the path to contentment becomes a much more introverted pursuit. We are no longer looking outwards for acceptance, but inwards; learning how to accept ourselves. It is through self acceptance that contentment increases. And although there are a multitude of factors that actively work against us, such as work or economics, we submit ourselves to many more than we need to – often alienating ourselves from happiness entirely; setting a new, more detrimental, desperate path that’ll lead nowhere.

Take a moment to think: do you really need to be super intelligent to like yourself? Do you really need to be super strong to care less about what you shouldn’t care about? 

Once self-respect is earnestly learned (because it is learned, or earned, it isn’t dished out), we will have a journey to reflect upon. Probably years of stories, too. Years filled with memories of people, experiences, information and mind-expanding moments of sheer beauty. After these years, however many years it takes, one finally has something altruistic; something wonderful, worth sharing.

Something to love: real character.

This brings me on to the epitome of love: the convergence of two introverts, enjoying the experience of intertwining paths to contentment.

It’s a self-help cliche… “no one will love you unless you love yourself.” And whilst the notion is perverse in how it promotes the love of one’s self, it isn’t wrong in that it is true that no one can respect you if you do not respect yourself. Further: why should they?

Slapping fake-tan on your face, getting a £87 hair cut, bulking up on steroids and learning your favourite chat up lines isn’t respecting yourself. It is likely, in these cases, that you are more avoiding who you really are, trying to become something of an archetype for cultural trend, than really relishing the entirety of your actual being. It doesn’t matter how intelligent your demographic is, however wide they smile, they won’t respect you.

Likewise to a lesser extent, you will not be respected for your tastes: what you listen to, what movies you like. These are all tokens in a cultural exchange currency.

Let’s take an example from a popular film: 500 Days of Summer. Two young people bump into each-other; one is listening to The Smiths. The girl notes this, and exclaims “I love The Smiths!” From this, the two decide it’d be a great basis for a relationship.

Who doesn’t love The Smiths? By this criteria, so long as two people found each-other attractive, pretty much anyone in the world who liked The Smiths could start a relationship. Is that a good way to start a long and healthy relationship? Probably not, but it isn’t far from real life.

The two most important factors in determining the eligibility for a relationship in most Western, cultural metropolis’, aside from attractiveness, are:

  • What he/she watches/listens to
  • Does he/she have a job

That’ll do, right?

Well, nearly half of marriages end in divorce. I wonder if it has anything to do with people entering into the arrangement because of the wrong reasons?

But what are the right reasons? Here are some common reasons (but I’m sure you could note more):

  • I want a baby by the time I’m 27
  • Everyone else is getting married
  • My life is a mess, and so is theirs, but we ‘relate’, and he/she wont judge me for it
  • I got her pregnant
  • She is a reliable source of sex

I know, you’re screaming “cynic!!” right now, but come on. If nearly half of UK marriages end in divorce, should many of those happen in the late 20’s, I hardly think that huge character changes are the reason. More likely, both people are the same (characteristically) as they were at the time at which they got married, but whatever insecurities or worries – or mislead reasons – had worn off after a number of years, diminishing the need for an external source of confirmation. 

As for the successful marriages, I would argue that many people slot into comfortability and dwell there, absent mindedly, for the sake of the family, or for economic reasons.

There are many marriages that last due to real love, and this is the point I hope justifies this entire article.

What is real love?

Real love is admiration; respect. It is when two self-respecting people, who know who they are and accept who they are, intertwine; living two separate lives, together. It is a constant give-and-take of character and wit, whereby similarities and differences are of equal import. It isn’t simply settling down with a family, gluing yourselves together and inhabiting the same space. It isn’t some mad infatuation born of desperation. Love isn’t something that should happen. It isn’t something you can make happen. It isn’t even something you should look for, since, searching for it is a degrading activity and naturally inhibits one’s ability to truly find it. That’s the wonderful thing about love: it finds you. And it can’t find you if you’re too busy painting yourself orange, looking for the latest iPad, or spending all your time at the bank.

Love won’t make you happy. Love won’t even make you content. Happiness won’t find you love, and neither will contentment. That isn’t the point. The point is that when you’re content – when you’ve learned how to be – or when you’ve earned it, there will be something to love. Then, if you’re lucky, someone might cross your path who’s put as much effort into being human as you have, and with a little luck they’ll notice you. You’ll surely respect that they have confronted with the same strength the long and arduous path to self enrichment as you have, and they should return that respect. Suddenly, you’ve something that requires no reason, or explanation, to exist; it exists because you both built it inadvertently… it just so happens to fill that space.

So I am not cynical, you see – I merely think there’s more work to do before I claim any sort of spiritual entitlement to love. Why should I be so arrogant as to assume that role? What do I truly have to give? Should I want a mere arrangement – what so many people misinformed tend to call ‘love’ – I would sell my soul for a better job, cease my educational activities, and promise to drive them anywhere they wanted to go; but we’re talking about the attainability of happiness [contentment], aren’t we?

Well, the simple truth is you haven’t yet earned it, and neither have I. You see, a cynic would sit in idleness, devoid of hope. I am not without hope – it’s why I do everything that I do. I am therefore a romantic! Not a cynic! Since I dedicate my time with view to offer something substantial to anyone who cares to take it, and I hope that they have a story for me, too.

In the shortest way possible: in order to be happy… or content, we need to go through something, and make it out the other side. Too many sweets are bad for you. We need to know when to say ‘when’. If you want someone to love you, you’d better take some time to establish just who you are.

Not to be crass, but I don’t need what they’re selling. Does that make me cynical?

Edit: just a day after I wrote this, I saw this clip of my favourite philosopher Slavoj Zizek – amazing. 

Facebook Isn’t For Sharing, It’s For Staring

During my photography diploma, the tutor posed a question to the class that evoked some surprising responses. He asked the class what the primary objective for a newspaper is. They replied “presenting the news.” Now, of course this isn’t true – the primary objective for a newspaper is to make money.

This reminds of Zuckerberg’s press meetings, where he claims again and again with the same unrelenting certainty that all he wants to do is “get the world sharing.”

In a recent post on Zuckerberg’s personal Facebook timeline, he linked this study. The study claims that people who use social networks diversify their perspective, in general, compared to those who do not. This was a refutation of the idea that social networks actually narrow your perspective and reinforce your own priori beliefs.

The extract below is by Zuckerberg himself:

Here’s some interesting weekend reading.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about whether social networks give you a more diverse perspective on the world through helping you see more people’s opinions or whether they’re more of an echo chamber that just reinforces your opinions since the people you share with probably have similar opinions to your own.

The latest research shows that social networks tend to give you a more diverse perspective, because even though your close ties may have similar opinions to yours, the vast majority of information you see comes from weaker ties who tend to have a more diverse opinions.

This seems right to me. Our mission is to make the world more open and connected. Making the world more open means more information and perspective is available. Making the world more connected means people are exposed to more of those perspectives through the connections they’re able to maintain. That’s why I love what we’re doing.

Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to be concerned with the intrinsic worth of what exactly is being shared. People share things they feel others would enjoy. People don’t tend to share things that, say, only one or two of their friends would enjoy. In other words, items that are shared need to relate to the maximum number of people as possible: gossip.

A solid argument, but so what?

Articles trend because they appeal to the maximum number of people, on as large a scale as possible – to the most diluted and broad demographics on the internet. In other words: trending articles and articles that make your feed because they have been ‘liked’ are most probably articles of very narrow foresight. You’re not going to be presented with heavy, in depth and otherwise unpopular – albeit perhaps incredibly interesting – subjects. Neuroscience is interesting, but Kim Kardashian’s arse is also pretty interesting. Which is more popular?

Following Zuckerberg’s logic – which isn’t necessarily wrong – he must not differentiate between the actual worth of content, even though when most people think about diversification of perspectives, they think more on an epistemological plain more-so than ones knowledge on E-gossip. But surely he knows this?

So what does this say about Zuckerbergs argument?

Well, if you want to broaden your perspective on which celebrity got what cosmetic treatment, or grow the list of teenage serial killers or school shooting victims over the years then Facebook is the place to go. In other words: does gossip really count in the argument for diversification of perspective?

“It seems right to me. […] that’s why I love what we’re doing.”

There’s a great Henry David Thoreau quote that goes ‘While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them.’ I wonder if, being a Plato fan, Zuckerberg knows this particular quote.

I understand his passion to create a wonderful network for sharing, but it just isn’t true that all that is shared is worth sharing. We are trapped in a sort of endless void of trivial information shared within a timeless, temporal black-hole. Racists find their friends, bigots find theirs. True, there are those who’ve found true love – and others who, faced with seemingly incalculable chances for happiness, have found people who live under similar conditions, who would never have been found any other way. But these, both good or bad, although extreme, are minority cases. I don’t mean to harp on about people meeting their match, so much as people blending into the same pot.

In reality, Facebook is cocaine; it gives us a buzz – we take hits and zone out and stare into the abyss of ‘Kesha pisses in the street’ counting likes and stalking our friends or partners. It allows us to enact with pedantic paranoia and provides us with the tools to secretly dwell in self deprecation.

We check into places only when our friends are in the loo. We update our status’ to avoid eye-contact. We talk on chat to prospective lovers who do the same with 30 other people, at a party or in public where we could be living our real lives. We twiddle our thumbs and advertise ourselves to world and complain when our out-reach is slapped back. We even claim to be offended by the cesspit of opinion that people publish without a moments thought.

Some take it too seriously – some claim it isn’t taken seriously enough.

‘like’ this and subscribe to me if you think this photo of a dead baby is sad. Subscribe to me. Subscribe.

Facebook, it seems to me at least, turns the majority of its users (including myself) into time-wasting, brainless social retards with about as much altruism as vitamin-D on our skin.

Hey, I know – I give a pretty damning impression of Facebook. But come on… is it really logical to actually try and convince us it exists as some gift to the world of experience? In fact, the more time you spend on Facebook (not living) the more money Facebook look to make.

In reality, Facebook don’t want you living your life – they want you staring at Facebook. 

So what is Facebook – a social media tool for sharing our experiences? Well, if we judge it by its utility it certainly isn’t. Of course, use varies from person to person, group to group, but invariable uses I’ve seen are:

  • Background check on prospective date – is she hot enough? Add her. Screw it, add them all.
  • Employer checking applicants.
  • Wife checking on husband
  • Husband checking on wife.
  • College girl sharing a photo of herself pissing.
  • College guy sharing a photo of himself in the mirror.
  • Lie about current employment.
  • Claim you are depressed/ugly in hope that people reassure you
  • State that waking up in the morning is not popular.
  • State that you are bored
  • Link articles of gossip/entertainment news
  • Exploit a photo of something that’s dead in order to promote subscriptions

These are basically the main uses of Facebook that I’ve seen from people within my circles and others. Note that most of them are based on the foulest and most ashamedly common traits of human nature. Exploitation and mistrust.

The most beautiful thing about Facebook’s strategy right now is the fact that we’re all addicted. Just as the soil is ruined in the English country side, causing problems for home growing vegetables – our natural plain of reality has become unripe for the promotion of new and growing friendships.

This takes me to my biggest worry with Facebook.

There are people I have known for years who, I know, that if I no longer used my account, I would never speak to. It’s not because they’re particularly bad people, so much as with anything from 250-5000 (average is around 600) friends, they won’t notice if one goes missing. The scariest implication of this is that the worth of friendship or its value has been completely stripped.

You see now the biggest problem (and detriment) regarding the idea of sharing our lives? Our lives have completely changed. We aren’t sharing our actual lives on Facebook… Facebook is our actual lives. We actually share things that have happened on Facebook. This meta-hive mind of lackluster demographics circling around the same, narrow minded and uninteresting information has become the modern definition of friendship and experiences.

What to do about it.

I’m not going to tell you that you should close your Facebook account. I’m not going to close mine (I need it for work, something else I should complain about…) but have a little think about what you share and what you see being shared. Is it really as altruistic a platform as Zuckerberg makes out?

It’s really the ultimate ‘drug dealers defense’. Drug dealers know what meth does to people – but they claim that in moderation, so long as you can afford it, it’s fine. They don’t kill people, meth does. They don’t ruin lives or relationships, meth does. There’s a demand, they supply it.

In moderation, sure! Everything is fine… in moderation.

Next time you see Carlie, aged 19, pissing herself on the high-street with the caption “avin a slosh in a drain yolo”, come here and tell me again about how great Facebook is for society – and about how sharing our experiences to anyone and everyone is such a great thing.

Facebook has devalued friendship – and, well, that’s not cool… is it? Now, I’m not saying Facebook has created bad people, I’m just saying Facebook is like a guy at alcoholics anonymous handing out jello shots by the doughnuts.

On a final note, I should say, I don’t blame Zuckerberg. I honestly feel like Zuckerberg is a victim of the same bizarre moral and cultural zeitgeist perpetuated by this whole… pro-‘sharing’ spin. Don’t accuse me of being sanctimonious for a second – I’m a part of all of this, just like you.

Now excuse me whilst I broadcast this article to all of my social networks.

On Political Obligation, Part Two: There can be no freedom without education

Following part one, where I discussed the variety of ways in which the rich and poor give back to society, I mean to discuss options.  Namely, the terms of the contract between the state and citizenship and the durability of such a contract. Do we, as apparently free and well supported individuals, meet the criteria by which we can sensibly and coherently pick between another home, and the place where we were born? That is to say: do I have the available health, finances or access to linguistic skills needed to actually make emigration an ascertainable goal?

Having spoken about tacit consent in part one, we now know that our cooperation with the state basically resides on one argument: “if you do not like how we do things, you may up and leave. If you stay, however, we shall take that as a contractual obligation to do things our way.” Whilst this is a sound and rational agreement to some extent, it is the limits and exceptions to such an agreement that interests me, and, so it seems, David Hume.

The following extract is from David Hume’s: Of the Original Contract. (Hume, 1748, Essays Moral and Political).

  1. Should it be said that, by living under the dominion of a prince which one might leave, every individual has given a tacit consent to his authority, and promised him obedience, it may be answered, that such an implied consent can only have a place where a man imagines that the matter depends on his choice. But where he thinks (as all mankind do who are born under established governments) that, by his birth, he owed allegiance to a certain prince or certain form of government, it would be absurd to infer a consent or choice, which he expressly, in this case, renounces and disclaims.
  2. Can we seriously say that a poor peasant or artisan has a fee choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives, from day to day, by the small wages which he acquires? We may as well assert that a man, by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean and perish, the moment he leaves her…

Hume mirrors my concerns here (or rather, I mirror Hume’s) about one’s ability to make coherent choices. It is not conceivable to merely ‘up and leave’ the society within which you are born. Such action requires planning: money, language, access to transport etc. We are locked down by passports, requiring a system of numerical ID’s and a stationary home or sponsor. One cannot, by right, at birth, simply ‘up and leave’.

Those without the means to do so have just as much choice in the matter as a new-born. Self reliance in a modern society is not self-contained. The description is a misleading one. Everyone relies upon systematic processes, which rely on subsequent systems and processes. Should any of these systems falter, or, should you be exempt from a system or process, your ability (or your means) to ‘up and leave’ are greatly diminished.

One can simply reply that the choice is still there. Perhaps one might argue that living as a vagrant by means of charity and courtesy is still an option, albeit unattractive – but when talking about civil liberties, we talk within a frame of context which presupposes civility. It is not enough to say “you may live like a king, or live like a dog – make your choice” since choosing to live like a dog is no real choice at all. A choice, as Hume suggests, between a comfortable life (relative) and potential death or degradation is not a choice: it is a trap. 

The argument for “you may up and leave” finds itself in a very illiberal spot, then. Given that many people in Britain do not have access to the attributes required for safe migration, their choices are diminished greatly. Because they have little, or no choice, their freedoms are therefore diminished greatly. Once freedom has diminished, where there was once cautious optimism is replaced with emotional notions of hope. If we are to take hope as observable variations in common life, acting as a sort of beacon for positive change, a focus on this relies solely on the relationship between the government and her people. It is historically evident that such relationships are often volatile. My point is this: without actual, moral inclination to abide by the law, which relies on an individual ability to ‘up and leave’ when they see fit, civil life relies on a direct relationship between occurent means to a comfortable life. All sorts of issues spring from this: entitlism, etc. There is a downward slope from this to community apathy (which means no re-payment to society through acts), which can gradually slip into a culture of nihilism and anarchy.

Social mobility

It is a cliche in politics to speak of social mobility as a token of crowd pleasing. In reality, mobility directly translates into attributive variables in a meaningful, usable way. These are: language, health, disability (or lack thereof, coping, etc.), finance and, although not to be discussed here, knowledge. The three most contributing factors to choice however are: finance, linguistics and consequently access.

Each of these are attained through proper education, and applied via a series of systems and processes (jobs, etc.) to translate and recycle into a sort of self sustaining mechanism. Indeed, this is the very essence of self sustainability, or, social mobility.

Social mobility applies to each and every one of us. The poor who require aid nourish themselves through the same systems and processes that we, who are well off, do. When these systems fail those who need them (economic collapse, a venerable charity closes, etc) sustainability for those who require them (everyone) collapses with it. Choices are therefore diminished, and freedom declines (through lack of choice) and the contractual agreement between civilian and state breaks down.

This is why riots happen.

Of course, those of us with access to a proper education have a much greater chance of improving the variables of choice. Language skills and knowledge lead to better jobs; which lead to better pay; which increases health and access. Those with a larger variety of means are obligated to abide by the laws set by the state, both lawfully and morally. Of course, we are all bound by law – but this is a moral discussion.

The model above annotates the variable range of choices available to all citizens upon birth; though through whatever circumstances many of us break away from this self sustaining model. Those who do severely diminish the choices they have, and the argument from the state as to why they are morally obliged to be complicit breaks down. This, as seen in the chart, is known as hope.

Whilst those who judge such acts as senseless and incoherent – in other words: blind condemnation – are missing a very important point.

We are only morally obliged to follow laws if we are the beneficiaries of certain systems and processes. If these systems and processes fail us, and diminish choice – then through this, freedom is diminished. If freedom is diminished, our relationship with the government becomes like that of a peasant and a prince. In other words, those of lesser means are (or feel as though) they are owned by the state.

Such a notion is abhorrent to each and every sect of society – but, ostensibly, civil disobedience occurs when the justification for a tacit contractual obligation is nullified through systemic failures of processes that feed benefits.

In part three I shall expand upon this, and elaborate on objections and arguments, and possible solutions.

On Political Obligation, Part One: Philanthropy for the Posh, Poverty for the Poor

There’s much confusion in Britain regarding the distribution of public moral abhorrence when it comes to the duty of citizenship. If we look at conversation about our obligations to the state, such as Plato’s conversation with Crito, there is much to be said about what we owe to the state, and much to ask regarding the cost and extent. It seems that whilst the poor are demonized–quite normally and publicly–for their inability to give back to the society they reap benefits from, the rich, although guilty of far worse crimes, are not only absolved, or ignored, but they supply the platform upon which the poor are critiqued.

For if one is unable, for whatever reason, to compensate the state for all the benefits he enjoys, he is not directly perpetrating immoral behavior. But if someone with the means to do so takes his duty into his own hands–through philanthropy or any other means–and excuses himself from the burden of taxation, then he is perpetrating immoral behavior.

If philanthropy is embraced as a means to avoid payment of debt to the state for the benefits both rich and poor enjoy, then any goodness is undone by that fact, and there is no other choice but to frown upon individuals who follow this trend.

It is more conventionally popular to look down upon those with lesser means, than it is to judge those with adequate means, who chose to avoid their debt – but why is this?

Trends in social out-cry:

  • Argument one: The poor have ample opportunity to get better jobs and gain the means to share equal and proportionate responsibility by means of taxation, yet they chose not to.
  • Argument two: Western democracies through utility of capitalism offer equal and fair chances for everyone within said process, therefore there is admiration towards the rich, whereas the poor serve to annotate the worst case scenario for the states citizens.
  • Argument three: The poor–often lesser educated–cannot articulate their position and therefore have no control in the media. Their voices are quieter.
  • Argument four: If the rich, as they often do, carry out philanthropic acts, then the benefit of said acts negates the attention drawn in by tax fixing or dodging.

Addressing the issues

A rebuke of any of the above requires clarification on the issue of political obligation. As a citizen, we are granted certain benefits (NHS, policing, fire services, monetary compensation, etc.) which are paid for through taxation. Though these services are thrust upon us, we are granted permission to leave – thereby nullifying our contract to the state. If one should stay, then it is perceived that a given individual accepts responsibility to contribute to the system through which he benefits greatly.

Now, one who is poor and cannot contribute is unfairly judged. He who cannot afford to compensate the state financially is no mere ‘mooch’. He is simply the beneficiary, as are the rich, of certain state benefits. He is not guilty of benefiting from financial compensation – just as someone with cancer is not guilty of seeking out–or benefiting from–medical care. Such schemes are provided to citizens based on a system of prioritisation.

In other words, a rich man who is provided with police support if he is attacked, is just as guilty of accessing a service as one who is granted financial support because he requires it. They are equally ‘guilty’ of the same crime, which I argue is no crime at all.

If our rich man had unpaid tax to the sum of an incalculably small amount, he would be guiltier of greater crime than he who hadn’t a penny to his name – yet, somehow, one is more demonised to than the other.

Redistributing our moral abhorrance

If you are not yet convinced that there is at least a question here, then let us talk about argument one.

A refusal to gain the means to compensate the state, surely, is no different to the refusal to pay the state if one already has the means. Refusal to acquire the means is still a refusal to cooperate in paying ones taxes, is it not? Refusal to pay taxes, to any degree, is still a stern refusal to cooperate. The actual differences are vaster than the moral difference, so do not apply in this discussion. Both parties, as you see, are guilty of the same crime.

Of course, although this is true to an extent – it would be merely inductive and incredibly illogical to claim that all who require state aid do so under the pretext that they refuse to seek their own means; just as it would be illogical to claim that all rich people avoid paying their taxes. It is not, however, illogical to state that lowering ones legal tax burden is an integral part of business practice – which is to say that business, with regards to the citizenship agreement, is inherently immoral to some extent; we merely assess the positives relative to the negatives and turn a blind eye.

There are, however, contributions that are equally as important to financial cooperation – such as one’s responsibility to follow the law, aid others where they need it, and submit one’s self to certain processes and cultural trends. On this account, then, it is illogical and even abhorrent to claim that those without means to financially support themselves, do not give back to society; they merely cannot (or indeed, in the case of some people, will not) contribute financially. This alone does not negate their other contributions; voluntary work, good-will etc. The poor, although just as philanthropic as the rich, are ignored in all their achievements.

The problems on the other side

Philanthropy of the rich, although less hands on, is a system of financial injections into institutions which meet their ideological criteria. Whilst this is rightly respected, it is also questionable. Since taxation is spread across a vast and varied system of institutions and social and state causes, relative to need and priority, a perfect system would have the means to provide to all areas of social care, without being subject to the song and dance of personal grandeur. In other words, the less attractive causes would be just as well funded, so long as they require it, as the more attractive causes.

The problem with philanthropy in high-classes, is that whilst it is generally a good thing, it is also an excuse for an individual to justify immoral behavior – such as a want to pay less tax, followed by an absolute refusal to cooperate fully. Rev’d George Hargreaves is a prime candidate for an example. Hargreaves showed overt disdain to those tasked with distributing the nations wealth, citing philanthropic deeds through his church as justification for having such strong views. In other words, since Hargreaves claimed he aided the social fabric of society, he claimed he was entitled to lower taxation. In fact, although I cannot speculate as to whether or not his companies are completely above board, I can cite that many of his employees are housed over-seas – a method saving money, reducing tax payments.

Hargreaves solidified my point by even feeling the need to point out his philanthropy. “I do this, so I shouldn’t have to do that.” This highlights the darker side of political philanthropy.

One cannot simply claim moral superiority for funding institutions he sees fit to fund, whilst attempting to, through voicing opposition, escape the burden of taxation. It is important to note here that just because one pays some tax – or indeed all that is required of him -it does not exempt him from scrutiny if he campaigns to do otherwise. This would to be place one’s self above his kin, which is the very essence of civil disobedience.

The dark side of philanthropy

No – philanthropy, in society, can be completely negated through unjust means. It is not enough to saturate a cause, whilst sit blissfully by when others are neglected. Indeed, if you pride yourself on feeding the homeless, you should be ashamed of yourself for not housing them – a feat, I argue, that could be achieved if those who could, would contribute collaboratively through the channels our state have provided.

I admit that I have painted a negative picture of the wealthy – but I do not do so in favor of the poor. I merely wish to settle the plain of political obligation. We all have commitments to society, and we all benefit from services she provides. Our obligation to her is not merely a legal one – it is a moral one, and it is not one which we can take into our own hands, or escape through romantic gestures of good will to institutions we see fit.

The poor, just as the rich, are entitled to everything the state has to give – and once the name-calling and misplaced pride are put to one side, we see with clarity a misplaced abhorrence in our society, which opens up the dialogue for change.

Demographics are a bit like an oak-tree, I guess

Views are my own, and are probably a bit shit.

Nobody ever really talks about this. Put simply, the theory goes that the more expensive the game, the more sales are required. If you imagine demographics like the rings of an oak tree sliced in half, with your core demographic in the centre, and less interested demographics growing outwards, you’ll note that more people don’t care about your game, than who do.

That necessarily means that in order to recoup on that investment and make a profit, you cannot focus solely on that hardcore inner circle. Nor those close to it, even if larger. In fact, in AAA design – and this is no secret – decisions are made that are aimed towards targeting those who don’t care about your game to the often verbal lamentations of those who do.

Depending on the budget you’re working with (including marketing, which is often equal to the development budget, or more, or less) you’ll have to target the furthest and largest demographics of the oak tree. It is therefore the game designers job not only to design a mechanically and thematically awesome game, but a marketably functional one. That’s sort of why these guys are rock-stars in the industry. ‘Anyone’ can make a super awesome totally hardcore game developed explicitly for fans of that genre, but not everyone can finance, greenlight, develop, and sell that game and turn a profit, especially if it cost over say, five million USD to make, which is considered a ‘small’ budget. Many AAA games cost between 20-100 million USD. If it’s difficult to sell a ‘core’ game that cost five million USD, think about how many rings you have to step outside of to reach the required number of sales for a 40 or 60 or 100 million project. Think about how many compromises you have to make in the games design.

Perhaps ‘compromise’ is an unnecessarily negative term, but I don’t see how else to put it. Design decisions are made not for the benefit of the game itself but for ease of sale, and that kind of sucks. It’s a necessary evil, but it’s not really evil. It’s just games. I guess.

The task of AAA game design then, in my opinion, is to somehow make a game that pleases the core demographic, but also draws in the much larger percentage who might not care about the theme, or the genre. This is what people refer to as ‘casualisation’ and there are good ways and bad ways of doing this.

Games can be dissected (in fact, they literally are dissected post release by the people who make them – but I won’t go into that) and arranged into ‘parts’ or ‘mechanisms’ a bit like how a soldier would disassemble a rifle. There are mechanisms within games that allow them to function on the market. You can call these tools, or mechanisms. One such mechanism is the RPG loop. The RPG loop is useful because it can be monetized, but more often in AAA games because it scratches that itch that everyone has: to progress, and to collect. Everyone wants to progress, and collect, so they can feel as though their time investment is rewarding them. To some degree, games have therefore been reduced to reward on time investment, rather than time -> skill-> reward. To ensure it doesn’t get boring, you’re rewarded with in game skills, that do cool stuff at the push of a button, rather than actually doing cool stuff yourself. You get the picture. You’re not getting better, your character is. 

If you look at a game that is decidedly not an RPG, GTAV – a game that literally appeals to everyone on the planet with a gamepad – you’ll see a startling amount of similarities to RPGs, and every other AAA game on the market. You’ll receive skill increases (for driving, stamina, flying, shooting, etc). You’ll buy new weapons, armour, clothing. You’ll buy hideouts, businesses, and generate an income. You’ll explore an open world through a narrative with characters that live inside that world. In many ways, GTAV is the best RPG of 2014 – certainly the most successful one. But it is decidedly not an RPG. Why? Because it doesn’t have swords, dragons, or a sort of trope-fest of medieval mediocrity? Nope, simply because it didn’t market itself as such.

So this RPG loop is at the very core of most AAA games coming to market. Dissect the concept, and re-skin it, the golden mantra on repeat chanting: don’t alienate the consumer, don’t alienate the consumer! The consumer being the guy on the farthest ring on that oak tree, with the gamer being in the middle. There was some truth to an article entitled ‘Gamers don’t have to be your audience‘, because although the verbal minority are the hardcore crowd I know and love – and who certainly are my audience – the majority of people buying games are not the discerning gamer, which is how many publishers still function fine despite being ‘hated’ by the core gamer. Vote with your wallet, people often say. But those who do, it seems, are too small to have an impact.

So what’s the solution? How can you make truly core games to a high standard without falling into the same necessary traps? Lower the budget – something people often scoff at. “It’s just a low budget game, it’s not even a real game”.

At lunch, I often quip that it’s impossible to make a truly great AAA game because of ideas above (GTAV did it, but it’s not easy to replicate – and everyone is trying to). If I’ve written well enough, you’ll understand at least where I’m coming from. There are games that are great because they function so well within the market along the entire gamut of that oak tree, but that’s something completely different to being a great game the core of itself. It’s sort of why Star Citizen may have fucked itself with its relatively high, but not stupidly high, now AAA budget, but we’ll see about that later. It’s certainly why Elite Dangerous is a viable contender. How? Because it promises everything Star Citizen did before it had an amount of money that made intimacy impossible.

GTAV is a truly great game. An exception to the rule. It’s incredibly intelligent, witty, satirical, and satisfies that often insatiable thirst for high-brow-meets-low-brow chaos. I want to do stupid things without feeling stupid. Rockstar are, frankly, geniuses. But that sort of genius is rare. It takes a genius to develop and sustain an IP adopting the RPG loop without simply becoming the RPG loop.

High-brow, in depth stories alienate consumers. Uniqueness in mechanics and design alienates consumers. If you’re talking another language, nobody understands what you’re trying to say. There’s no frame of reference for the masses. ‘It’s like Balduar’s Gate’ doesn’t mean anything to the outer-oak rings. ‘It’s like Skyrim’ absolutely does. It’s sort of cyclical. Look at World of Warcraft’s effect on the MMO market. Another Vanilla WoW experience will never exist on a subscription service, because the changes in World of Warcraft have cultivated a culture of MMO laziness. I want instant reward, or at least a reward for placid time investments. I don’t want to talk to these fuckers in LFG, just let the system do it for me. I don’t want to work with people to summon eachother to dungeons, screw community.

World of Warcraft is a sort of observable microcosm of what we’re talking about. As your costs increase, so must your scope. To the very verbal lamentations of the core user-base, new blood needs to be drafted in.

Risks are good. Risks are absolutely good. There are two types of risk in this example: how much money, and design concepts. More money = more risk. ‘Controversial’ design decisions = more risk. Finding that ratio is one of the most difficult things I find myself having to discuss, or think about. The more unique a game, the less money it can logically be allocated. The more unique a game, the less it will sell. That’s unfortunate, but that’s on you guys – the consumers, the gamers. I say that with a tongue in my cheek, but you know what I mean.

In order to make truly unique games for core gamers, then, core gamers have to be okay with games that are developed on a lower budget. Often they are, but often they’re not. However, there is absolutely a strong place on the market for people who think this way. In many ways, the games that receive Metacritic ratings of, say, 60-70, are not failures of game design, but failures of marketability. They don’t function well in the market, because they’re not offering what the market wants, which is of course either something totally grass-roots and obscure that matches the narrative of modern-games media’s new ideological tint, or something bombastic and well functioning for everyone across the entire gamut of the oak-tree. Two extremes.

There’s a dude on Twitter with the line in his bio that reads: “A game for everyone is a game for no one.”

Games for ‘no one’ often receive Metacritic ratings of 80 or above, despite being designed for everyone – or, no one [in particular]. Isn’t that interesting? Aside from the obvious issues to do with Metacritic, games are reviewed not by fans of the genre, necessarily, but by people trained to dissect a game into form and function, arranging it and examining it quite academically before expressing his opinion on it, that opinion often about two things: does it work? is it fun? Does it work is an objective question, and is it fun is a subjective value.

(As a side note, I attribute this to one of the reasons the RTS genre has all but died out, although it’s coming back. The RTS genre is one of the only genres that remains inaccessible to ‘fair-weather critics’, for lack of a better term. You can love every single genre, or at least get on with it enough to review it, but still hate the RTS genre, despite its best efforts to ‘casualise’. Can you think of a genre that suffers the same fate? I can’t. The RTS dynamic of gameplay is completely incompatible with any other genre outside of strategy games.)

Fun is a bit of a dirty word. Anything can be fun.

That’s sort of why many AAA games feel a little neutered, because they’re developed as a beautiful corpse. They are built piece by piece to be dissected piece by piece, and ‘uniformity’ (market function) is placed above all else. This, cleverly, is why people often complain games are all the same, and don’t mature or try anything new or exciting, but still manage to rake in 80-90 scores. If it’s functional and fun you can’t really turn around and say: ‘sure, it works and it’s fun, but it didn’t try anything new, so I give it a 50’. For some reason, doing that just doesn’t seem to make sense.

Mediocrity is market viable*. Functionality is key. Fun is a subjective, dirty word. Ask the average Joe on the street if Crusader Kings II is fun, and he’ll look at you like you just asked him to come over and play with Excel spreadsheets. Ask a Crusader Kings II fan if it’s fun, and he’ll give you a 3000 word ramble about the rise and fall of kingdoms with big round eyes and a chuckle from the belly. Crusader Kings II is thousands of hours worth of fun, to many, but not AAA numbers. This is not AAA fun. AAA fun is designed for instant gratification, instant reward. They need to have fun while they’re reviewing it – for about five hours. They need to understand it while they’re reviewing it, for about five hours. It needs to be fun while it’s topically relevant, for about a month.

But that’s what the market demands, and that’s what it gets. However, by reducing budgets and working with more intimate development pipelines, it’s entirely possible to bridge the gap between the proverbial Crusader Kings II and the proverbial Shadow of Mordor.

That, in my opinion, is the sweet-spot of the market. The best place to be. In that space, you can hold your hand on your heart and say to the inner-oak “guys, this is for you. What do you think?” whilst at the same time approaching the outer-rings one by one and saying, “hey, you tried this? If it’s not your thing, feel free to try something else. There are plenty of games to go around, maybe you’d like another one of ours? If not, no worries, because we’re turning a profit with fewer rings.”

To be in that space is freedom. You don’t have to chase those who aren’t into the concept, or the genre. Not everyone has to talk about your game, or to buy your game. You have total freedom to develop for a core audience, while appealing to a curious other who, with the right message, just might be won over.

I say with no sense of snark or irony that it’s not ‘the few’ who cannot afford to make AAA games, but AAA publishers who cannot afford to make games like ‘the few’. And that’s fine, because that’s not their business model, but certainly offers another perspective, doesn’t it?

*That isn’t to say that all AAA games are mediocre, although some certainly are, rather that avoiding polarizing opinions is attractive. Marmite would not make for a very successful game pitch. 

Watch Dogs is a bit weird, really

I’ve stepped down as Editor in Chief of PCGMedia for a new job in a new alien land once attributed to the birth of Syphilis by the Tudors, so that’s exciting, but I’ll write more of that later.

Because I’m in no position to get a review out on Watch Dogs, I wanted to write about my experience and thoughts on it a bit like a ‘Wot I Think’ found on RockPaperShotgun; a title re-appropriated because I’m edgy. Almost as edgy as UbiSoft, who with no small malice I’m going to refer to as EdgiSoft. Edgy because they caused an Aussie bomb scare due to an over-zealous PR department, and edgy because most of their games now’days feel as though they’ve been designed by your dad. It doesn’t matter who you are, dads are hooked up to a central-thinking hub, dictating – or at least portraying – what’s cool to their younger spawn.

Ghost Recon Future Soldier was in my opinion EdgiSoft’s first foray into dad-core games, but Watch Dog takes that dad-core vibe into the darkest corner of the dad-conscience. Watch Dogs is what your dad thinks hacking is like; a world where pressing ‘Q’ on your smart phone can connect your toaster to Auntie Maude’s satellite navigation system she still can’t work out how to use. 

So the entire premise surrounding Watch Dogs is a little bit silly, sure. I mean, a parody of LulzSec called ‘DedSec’ is what 9GAG is to Imgur, a risible comparison that absolutely makes me a hypocrite. The point is everything’s all gone a bit Big Bang Theory, where internet culture has bled graphically into the design world; internet culture being a world in lieu of culture. Perhaps that’s a bit mean, take it with a pinch of salt, and then sprinkle it on your wounds, ya’ baby.

For those who don’t know, Watch Dogs is a game set in Chicago where, as a white male with a face about as generic as Tesco Value pasta, you patrol the streets as a sort of antagonist/vigilante/mac-wearing archetype of nothing, charismatic as a silhouette of bottled water, with a story more contrived than the excuses Silvio Berlusconi used to justify his sexy parties.

It is a troubling game – and before you say anything, I’m a bit of an ‘anti-social-movements-in-games’. I’ve basically made a career out of counter-arguing against the idea that games must provide social commentary, and if a game doesn’t provide social commentary, it “still is because saying nothing is the same as saying something” which actually sounds a lot smarter than it is. I think that response is macro’d to a lot of people’s keyboards in 2014.

However, Watch Dogs seems to have pretended to provide a social commentary on the world we live in by creating a character who can pull up lines of Facebook details about every civilian in the game by holding his phone to his tit as he strolls around Chicago. You’ll see poorly constructed fake-selfies and pertinent information on the individuals, ranging from “Recovering from cancer” to “Acquitted of [naughty porn]” charges.

(I don’t know what criteria ‘a sentence of information’ meets to become the most pertinent thing about a person, but I’m 99% sure it isn’t theirs.)

That’s fucked up. It’s fucked up because it’s executed so terribly, for one. The prostitute under the bridge precariously chatting to the homeless is certainly not a pathologist earning 88k, as the game announces through it’s ‘u dun goofed’ knowledge on how the world is. Watch Dogs is very careful not to racially stereotype, and because of that, all the nuance of culture is lost, and the entire city blends into a random pool of meta-data per-head that, as penned, seems entirely random. Therefore, this ‘Facebook future’ depicted in Watch Dogs looks more like a drunken rant from a paranoid Conservative on the London Underground than anything of any substance at all.

What’s even more fucked up is that despite their apparent avoidance of any racial stereotyping, they absolutely racially stereotype. With a character re-appropriated from Stieg Larsson’s The Millenium Trilogy, DedSec features a Lisbeth “Wasp” Salander nod in the form of Lillie Clara, or Clara Lillie, depending on whatever military style formatting they’ve opted for. The high-tech, tattooed underground ‘whities’ into their metal and piercings battle it out against the certainly not racially stereotyped at all less affable and more meat-hardy ‘gangbangers’, whose compound is, I just found out, filled to the brim of randomly spurted out jive-talk and – literally – people bonking eachother in the hall-way like  animals. Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t “wrong”, or “racist’, it’s absolutely what you’d expect from a work of fiction.

Problems arise when you’re sort of pretending to depict a realized vision of the world without everything that comes with it. It’s a bit like if Philip K Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle where each character was stripped of his cultural heritage aside from in pivotal moments where a German Nazi must actually act and look like one for the sake of the narrative. You can’t have it both ways. So you have this big altruistic mixing pot where “anyone can be anything at random, why couldn’t they?” is all very well, until you see its true colors: absolutely cookie cutter crap we’ve seen 100 times or more.

That’s my issue with the whole profiling system in the game. We’ll leave that there.

The most troubling thing in Watch Dogs is that it’s trying to be a realized vision of the future. If it is at all satirical, it has failed through its want to be taken seriously. Good satire is usually hyperbolic, or completely ridiculous. The Life of Brian is completely ridiculous, and its ridiculousness is a tool deliberately utilized to divorce itself from reality. It is saying something rather than appropriating it, or consuming it. Watch Dogs however consumes ideas, without offering a commentary in return.

It is a murder simulator.

Games like GTA get away with being ultra-violent because they are completely over the top. The characters are insane. They’re parodies of gangsters, and gangster life, much in the style of any decent hip hop. Jedi Mind Tricks talk a big talk, but the point of their lyrics is not that violence is okay and it’s the best thing ever so much as we’ve lived in a culture where we’ve felt trapped and that violence was the only choice we had. Much like GTA, and much like any good hip hop, these games and songs are poetry – they’re making a statement, depicting a vision of something as from an exaggerated perspective comprised of cherry picked information, prioritized in such a way as to make as clear a point as possible. They’re not supposed to be taken literally – a bit like the bible. <- EdgiSoft.

There is no subtlety to Watch Dogs. It is a story about a man who lost family, chasing down the people who caused him to lose family. The game even goes out of its way to say that Aiden Pearce is not insane through radio shows fictionalised in the show. In fact, he’s a completely emotionless amoral asshole who, thanks to the games mechanics, will likely – courtesy of the player – end up killing a whole lot of people, hailed as a vigilante. It’s all very confused.

You can trace locations to find crimes ‘about to happen’ in Chicago, and keeping your distance from the perp, you wait until you’re alerted (don’t ask me how) to the fact that it’s about to happen. You then smash him in the face with a baton, or shoot him dead. If you shoot him, you’ll lose points, just like in real life. Yes, there are undertones in Watch Dogs that suggest that this vigilante status is morally questionable, but you’ll only hear that on the radio as you’re happily mowing down civilians.

Actually, come to think of it, if the perp is alerted to your presence and runs away, you don’t get any points, despite the fact you prevented a crime without actually harming anyone. So beating the crap out of someone gets you more points than simply being there for the victim enough to put off the criminal. Just like in real life… in some states of the US.

This malevolence is mimicked in UbiSoft’s marketing materials, wherein a real-life facade they played pranks on the public, pretending phones were dealing out free cash from a cash machine. That not being enough, they then blamed the trick on the unsuspecting public who were then arrested by fake cops, until it was revealed that it was all a prank. Essentially, this penchant for public fuckery makes a joke out of toying with people and their lives. It’s really very odd, and I’ve never really seen anything like it. Fun and games with seriously dark undertones.

So all this pretense and any sense of satire is completely undone by the fact that Watch Dogs wants to be taken very seriously. It won’t make you laugh, and it won’t make you question society, all it’ll make you question is the clear and distinct troubles Ubisoft had during its development in terms of tone and story.

Saving the most troubling thought until last, Watch Dogs’ providing of what it considers to be pertinent information on civilians makes every player action premeditated, which is not a responsibility most gamers really want in a game where you’re given a shit load of real-life weapons and thrown into a genre generally considered to be a chaos-pit. It fucks with your head, quite frankly. It gives you fast cars, heavy guns, and tools to manipulate the world and everyone within it, but then it tells you poor Sammy Smith is undergoing chemotherapy, and then it throws it in your face if you accidentally run over her.

You might think that offering ethical decisions to the player is a good thing. In theory, it is, but if you come into Watch Dogs with the same attitude you have in GTA, where you beat the crap out of someone because they were just there at the time and you decided they looked at you funny, and there are no consequences because none of it is real, you might actually be affected by what it’s asking you to do – especially when you’re offered data on an individual that might seem unsavory.

You have a silenced pistol in your hand, there’s a sexual predator in front of you – what do you do? Why are you doing it? Who the fuck even are you? You want to go on a mad shooting spree in the game because it’s fun, liberating, and harmless entertainment, but in this game, depending on your level of immersion you’re affecting people with names, lives, and whose bank accounts you’ve access to. It’s incredibly limiting, and frustrating.

To be a good guy in Watch Dogs you need to craft hacking consumables to, for instance, shut down a persons phone before they’re done calling the cops. If, like me, you can’t be fucking bothered buying gameified collection items, the quickest way is to point your gun at them and shoot them. It’s like they want you to be a dick.

Watch Dogs irks me because I want to have care-free fun, but they’ve pretended to instill a sense of morality into a genre broadly considered to be one of the silliest. It’s like naming and characterizing all the enemies in Killing Floor or Painkiller. They’re there as our play-things. We want to manipulate the world, and we want do things we can’t do in real life, where they won’t affect anyone.

We want to laugh, and to be a part of an intelligent discussion. This just isn’t that. It thinks its smarter than it is, and it thinks it’s saying more than it is. And because of that, it’s difficult to play – for me at least. It’s dad-core. It thinks its cool, but actually, it just comes across as a tasteless murder simulator with a moral spectrum that forces players to make choices based on nothing but whether or not they can be bothered to do the legwork to be good, and whether or not they’re willing to substitute sand-box fun for a dry, convoluted, characterless story.

It makes you – as a person – feel like a dick for having a good time. That’s nuts, considering it’s a game.

You might want to come back at me and be like “well, this looks like a discussion, looks like they succeeded in provoking a discussion on the nature of […]”, yeah, by fucking accident.  If you accidentally spark a discussion about yourself, you don’t get the same credit. I could shit myself at dinner and claim my theories on quantum relativity kept my guests engaged, as their eyes followed the seams of my trouser leg. It’s not the same thing.