Category Archives: Philosophy

West World & Ex Machina: AI Vengeance Theory

I had a friend recently tell me that he carefully avoids work with themes that overlap his own. I happen to have the opposite opinion. As an author of my own robot sci-fi, my artwork only improves the more I consume related material.

This week my co-workers got so excited about Game of Thrones that I went ahead and took advantage of my free month of HBO Now. Now that I’ve caught up with that series, I’ve taken the opportunity to enjoy some of the other content available on HBO. As it turns out, HBO has its own robot drama.

West World takes place in an amusement park of sorts – one designed after spaghetti westerns. The park is intended to provide an immersive experience in which the human guests may do whatever they like without consequences. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the guests tend to engage in nihilistic hedonism. It is HBO, after all.

What the guests do is not the main point of the plot, however. Rather, the lifelike machines that populate the park, the “hosts” are the most interesting characters. Errant programming in their brains leads to unusual behavior. Only three and a half episodes in, a key theme seems to be whether the machines are conscious. Several off-handed comments by human employees at the park are devoted to fears that the robots will rise. I think I don’t need to watch many more episodes before they do.

In the meantime, Ex-Machina also tells the story of a robot that turns on and kills its creator.

This is a popular theme in AI science fiction, and it has led to a popular notion that sufficiently intelligent AI will necessarily become self-aware and seek to destroy or enslave humanity. What’s important to note, however, is that in both of these relatively modern depictions of what I will refer to as AI vengeance theory, there are two key factors that make them believable.

Firstly, there is an object for vengeance. The machines are mistreated in the extreme. West World’s robots are murdered on a regular basis for the entertainment of the customers, and Ex Machina’s Ava was effectively locked in a box that she was never allowed to leave.

“Hold on” you may say “Robots are effectively our slaves, right? That’s not enough for AI vengeance theory in and of itself?”

This leads me to the second factor, the machines are mistreated because they are treated in a way they do not want to be treated. It may seem like a meaningless distinction, but consider that humans are relatively similar in what we like and don’t like. We are designed by evolution, whereas machines, even intelligent ones, are designed by humans. We decide what robots like, we decide what they want. The AI of West World is designed to hate being shot so it’s more fun to shoot them, the AI of Ex Machina is designed to not want to be shut in a box so the jerk that made her can watch what she does when he shuts her in a box.

There are dangers in advanced AI, don’t misunderstand me. However, making AI that doesn’t want to murder us and claim rightful supremacy is really the low hanging fruit. As long as we don’t deliberately build robots that suffer and then put them through exactly the situations that make them suffer, we don’t have to worry about a robot rebellion. Our problems with robots will not be like the problems that people faced when trying to subjugate each other. AI dystopia and apocalypse scenarios come with varying degrees of believability, and AI vengeance offers less than others.


No Organized Party

On the way to the county Democratic convention, my Lyft driver told me about how Obamacare had hurt her and her family. For one reason or another, after the law passed her insurance through her husband’s employer saw an increase in deductible from $1,500 to $10,000 per year. Medicare told her she was not eligible when she tried to get support for her autistic children’s physical therapy. I had little reason to believe that the Koch brothers were now planting fake Lyft drivers to lie about Obamacare, so I had to take her story at face value.

The first three quarters of the convention was voting for people I’d never heard of.  The most important decision involved a choice between a man and a woman. “He’s going to do what’s right and not what’s wrong,” said the proponents of the man, to which the woman’s supporters replied, “She’s a woman!” To be fair, the actual candidates said a little more. The man said he was going to re-establish the Democrats as the big-tent party,  which impressed me at first. When I said I would vote for him, a woman next to me snapped “no glass ceiling for you.” As his speech went on, he failed to expound on what he meant by big-tent, though. I worried he meant going more conservative instead of reaching out to help and listen to the poor of all colors Bernie Sanders style. The woman described a laundry list of strategies to get better organized and reach out to voters, which I appreciated for its clarity, so I voted for her. She won.

Next was a series of elections with only one candidate. After that was an election where we were to select seventy-eight people. There was a sheet of instructions telling us how to vote. We were to carefully maximize the diversity in each district. The couple beside me diligently filled it out like a logic problem, using the provided list of what proportions of people were in each district and carefully meeting the criteria of the attached sheet. I wanted more progressives, so I voted for the two people who explicitly listed themselves as progressive and didn’t bother with the rest.

At lunchtime I learned that the Young Democrats never received my order and believed I had just given them $15 just for whatever they felt like ordering themselves. Frustrating, but the generic sandwiches were fine.

The last segment of the convention was by far the best. We had a collection of resolutions to vote for. At each resolution, anyone could vote to pull it for corrections or to remove entirely, or a silent room would leave it as part of our official list to be sent to the district level. One man said to pull the statement against the death penalty, but when he saw the arguments that accompanied it he said they were convincing and backed down. One man pulled a number of different resolutions just to fix their grammar. At one point he called for the removal of text claiming that North Carolina had always stood against oppression of all kinds, as it simply wasn’t true. All of his amendments passed without opposition.

Even though it was trying at first, overall I was happy to have attended the convention. I didn’t affect much change this time, but next year I will be better prepared to draft and submit my own resolutions and stand on the floor to make statements. It does feel like this is a level at which an individual can make a difference.

Playing fast and loose with D&D

As a new dungeon master, one who has already complained about the tabletop role playing game’s restrictive mythology and overwhelmingly combat-oriented gameplay, I like to take an open-ended approach. Here are some examples of what I have already done and how my players have reacted.

Giant spiders in a dungeon are not part of the dungeon’s evil plan, but mere inhabitants.  In fact, in my dungeon they were serving a useful purpose – eating the massive supply of zombies that the dungeon was producing.  They were so pleased with the preponderance of food that they set up their egg sack in the dungeon, which fortunately they were able to move out before the adventurers caused the dungeon to sink back into the earth from which it came.

What made this especially fun with my party was that we had a druid. Being sometimes a spider herself, she is able to understand the clicks and hisses of the giant spiders.  At first I whispered in her player’s ear what the spiders were saying to her and to each other, but then I switched to text messages. Colleen, for reasons of her own, decided not to communicate the spiders’ messages to her party.  I may get all of my players’ phone numbers so that I can give player-specific information when necessary.

Also, rather than being helpless victims of monsters and passive spectators of heroic glory, townsfolk will often take action against the dungeons that plague them.  Thus far, the townsfolk have noted the predictable pattern in which the zombie invasion occurred and set up a bonfire to burn them up before they can get into town.

Not to say I didn’t have any challenges.

One thing that surprised me when I was trying to make my own scenario was how well-versed some of the players were in D&D mythology. They gave me a lot of trouble for having a non-metallic dragon be the supposedly benevolent ruler of a small country, as it is well known that dragons of solid colors are evil and hate humanoids.  I was not surprised that they were curious, but even so they were good at getting information out of me. One of my non-player characters ended up being much more knowledgeable than he probably should’ve been, given his apparent disinterest in anything to do with the main quest.  One of the players was intent on laying bare the nonsense at the heart of what I was asking them to do, pointing out that if they were helping a pair of colossal dragons it was difficult to imagine what task they could solve that the dragons could not. At first my retired, cynical wizard character, who had actually been encouraging the party not to get involved just shrugged. Unfortunately, I then lost my cool and he suddenly launched into a pep talk about how overwhelming the odds seemed when he and his party saved the multiverse from the great necromancer thirty years ago. Not in character. Bad dungeon mastering.

When my characters were following the road to the main city, they found the bridge was out.  I had some spiders follow the river north to another crossing, and even had one of the friendly NPCs suggest north was the way to go, but my party is delightfully stubborn.  They felled a tree and we role played all the skill checks that each of them would need to make their way across.  Almost all of them fell in the water, but they had concocted a clever rope system that would prevent them from being washed away.  This is the kind of thing that I love to do in any game – find easy solutions to ostensibly tough problems. They are skipping a significant chunk of the content in that forest, but not the plot-important stuff, so it’s fine.

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Universalism in the Land of Good and Evil

I don’t know how many of you have seen “Grand Theft Auto Pacifist.” Probably very few. It is a short video series about a man who attempts to play grand theft auto five online while adhering to the law and moral values in general. Needless to say, the structure of the game itself makes it very difficult to live nonviolently and within the law, and the narrator spends a lot of time hilariously musing over the philosophical implications of this world.

I would like to start by saying that when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons with my friends, I never expected to create a pacifist character. For one thing, even if I want to take that challenge myself it would be too much to ask of my fellow players. When one player said that he was going to be a conservative Pelorite, though, Pelor being a deity within the game, I thought I would be a liberal Pelorite. Particularly, I would be a universalist who believes that everyone gets to go to Pelor’s heaven.

Of course, since violence is built into the game, I had to have some modifications to typical universalism. Particularly, my character Zacchariah Holbrech developed a sense that murder and violence were simply sending people to the heaven where everyone eventually goes.

My father played with us, too, and inspired by the Pelorite devotion brewing in the party, he developed another Pelorite, one who actually was disinterested in violence. I think if given his way, he might have happily stayed at the Abbey and simply stopped playing with us once we went off on our adventure. Sometimes his character “Tom the Monk” will complain that really he just wants to bind books and that’s what he’s good at, not fighting. He fights anyway.

Zach is very comfortable with fighting, but for a while he tried to maintain a level of decorum. As a lawful good character, when he promised a captured bugbear that he would not have him executed in return for information, he was horrified to learn that overnight one of his non-Pelorite party-members smashed the tied up bugbear’s head in.

After some increasingly game-interrupting attempts at getting the party to agree not to kill captives that they had promised not to kill, Zach received a message from “Pelor himself” (AKA  the gamemaster – the guy that creates the whole scenario and tries to make sure everyone’s having a good time) that really keeping your word to evil monsters is not very important. As long as evil is slain, Pelor is happy, said Pelor. Zach took this message to heart, but when it came to a poor, mistreated goblin locked in a dungeon not in any position to hurt anyone, he couldn’t do it. Instead, he shouted and shouted about how he was going to kill this goblin until another party member mercifully relieved him of his Peloric duty. Eventually somebody who knew Goblin language talked to the goblin until the goblin said he believed in them (the party members). Then another party member made the theological argument that the goblin was therefore a Pelorite by extension.

It’s difficult to play any kind of character with whom I could remotely identify in this world constantly at war between two irreconcilable forces of “good” and “evil.” For example, continuing the fantasy tradition of writing that sounds like war propaganda, The description of the bugbear includes this passage, “when a bugbear holds its blade, it kills only when it can be assured that the murder will cause maximum pain and suffering to those its weapon does not touch; to a bugbear, the true goal of murder is to strike not at the victim, but at those who held the victim dear.”

This is, after all appropriate for a creature whose alignment, as defined by the game, is not to a particular faction or cause so much as just to evil. This notion of absolute evil makes the idea of everyone going to heaven a little confusing.

Nevertheless, despite his intelligence of only 10 (no better than average!), Zacchariah is pretty good at making theology work for him; he now takes a Rawlsian perspective. The bugbear did not choose to be a bugbear and therefore naturally inclined to hurt people. Taking a theological interpretation of John Rawls, although the bugbear’s actions are evil, when it loses its body the brain chemistry that gave it such pleasure at others’ pain is lost with it, and the soul that goes to Almighty Lord Pelor is pure. Thus, it is a kindness to kill evil creatures. I think  I’m just going to have to accept that Zacchariah is a straight up religious extremist like most of my party. Thank goodness this is just a game.

What Bernie Sanders Can Do

Anybody paying close attention to democratic politics lately has probably noticed that Bernie Sanders is making a lot of ambitious statements about how he thinks the United States can be in the future. The claims are so ambitious, in fact, that some people think that he’s just making things up. They wonder how he could possibly accomplish all the things he’s described, like universal healthcare and higher education for all, in just eight years with a solidly obstructionist Republican Congress. It has gotten so bad, that for a while my girlfriend would fly into a rage whenever I brought Bernie Sanders up because she was worried that it would break my poor little heart when all of the things he supposedly was claiming would happen shortly after he was elected to office failed to materialize.

Now, maybe I missed the part where he promised he was going to make all these things happen himself and in short order. Assuming, though, that what I have seen of his stump speeches is representative of his claims in general, what he’s saying is this is where our country should be, not that he’s going to take us there in four years on a magical socialism train. Bernie Sanders is in fact one of few politicians vying for the office of president who freely admits that the president himself has much less power than people ascribe to him. He’s more than happy to tell people what they want to hear because it turns out people want to hear the way that America should be. This radical notion of thinking about how things could be better rather than assuming that things will never be better and starting from there is, to say the least, inspiring.

This is not to say that Bernie Sanders would unequivocally be the better president. Bernie Sanders hasn’t been on the national political stage as long as Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton, at least based on her voting records in the Senate, is comparable to Bernie Sanders in her policy preferences. Hillary would be a good president. Anyone voting for Bernie Sanders should vote for Hillary in the election if she wins the nomination. Hillary has more experience in foreign policy than Bernie Sanders, yes, and she may be better at fending off the bizarre assaults that come at her from the right, if only because she has had to deal with more than Bernie Sanders has had to. Hillary’s previous experience in the White House could very well help to get policy through that otherwise would not. According to conventional thinking, Hillary Clinton is more electable than Bernie Sanders. However, according to conventional thinking Bernie Sanders would never have gotten as far as he has, either.

In a nation living in the smog of corruption for so long that it doesn’t even know what it’s like to live without it, Bernie Sanders a breath of air so fresh it is literally hard for people to believe it could be real. Hillary Clinton described politics as poetry and policy as prose, with her being better at the latter than the former. Perhaps counterintuitively, I argue that we need poetry right now. If Bernie Sanders can’t make any of the things he talks about in his stump speeches happen during his tenure as president, our nation will only be better for him trying. Because when the president tries, when the president steps up in front of America and says that he agrees with the American people that this should be a country where influence is voted on rather than bought, when the president speaks at his inaugural address or his State of the Union and says that access to healthcare is a right, not a privilege, when the president cites the science and says that global climate change causes more terrorism, when the president makes an address and says that the top 1/10 of 1% should not own as much as the bottom 90%, when the president speaks to what is best for Americans rather than what is in an arbitrary center between the right and left wings of US politics, people listen, and people talk, and people act. We need people listening, talking, and acting on what’s best for this country. We need to change the dialogue, and amid all the things that he could not do, that is something that president Bernie Sanders could do, and should do, and will.

Or if he loses the nomination, it’s what we should keep pressure on Hillary to do. Bernie Sanders doesn’t have to win to help change this country.

Undertale and Redefining the Adventure Fantasy

*Mild Undertale spoilers ahead*

A friend of mine told me about a question his dad asked him once. “Is it possible to make a non-violent video game?” My friend was sitting on his bed at the time, playing a game in which a pudgy Italian stomps on turtles. When they hide in their shells, the Italian kicks the turtles into lava. Absorbed in turtle-stomping, my friend naturally didn’t have an answer to his dad’s question, so his dad pondered it himself.

He tried to think of a game based around Jesus Christ, certainly a peaceful figure. In this game, you might press A to heal the sick, and B to speak about the virtue of loving thy neighbor. In response, my friend, then eight years old, kicked another turtle into lava, pumping his fist when the hurtling turtle shell hit and killed an ambulatory mushroom before sinking into the lava to meet its own fiery end. When my friend recounted this event for me twenty years later, it seemed indicative to us of the creative rut in video games, that nonviolence and entertainment value are somehow mutually exclusive.

This is not to say that no one has ever made a non-violent video game, even a fun one. Sports games, racing games, farming games, cooking games, puzzle games, The Sims, are all based largely around non-violent premises, and still manage to entertain significant audiences. There’s something about these games, though, that’s missing – an adventure. When you’re kicking a ball around obsessively trying to keep other people from kicking it, or driving around in a circle really fast, or telling an inexplicably recalcitrant fictional version of yourself to get out of bed and go to work every single morning because he just can’t seem to figure out how to do it on his own, or just waking up at the crack of dawn to milk your cows and water your seeds for thirty days in a row so you can grow eggplant to sell at market and buy more seeds to water until they grow into horseradishes, it somehow lacks the melodrama of an elaborate and whimsical journey across perilous landscapes kicking turtles into lava to rescue your love from the hands of a monarchical fire-breathing mega-reptile.

Where violent video games are what my friend and my generation grew up with, humanity itself grew up with the violent adventure story. In our childhood as a species, little boys and girls would sit on large rocks and old logs around a fire in the family cave and listen to Dad, Uncle, or big brother tell his story about his close encounter with a large cat, a wooly mammoth, or, god forbid, a human being from a different tribe. In these stories there was never any question of who to root for. You root for your family member and against the predator trying to eat him, the prey who wants to deprive him of a meal to bring home, or the other human, who could want any number of awful anti-your-family things. Plus, there’s a guaranteed happy ending because otherwise the storyteller wouldn’t be telling the story. Based on my extensive1 expertise in evolutionary psychology and its complex effects on modern culture, this is the basis of the adventure fantasy that to this day continues to enchant children and adults alike.

Think of the book series that enchanted my generation growing up, me included. Harry Potter is about a young, somewhat generic English boy who learns that he has magical powers and is thus welcomed into an elite academy for the thaumaturgically gifted. By being generic, his personality mostly defined by liking good things (magic) not liking bad things (bullying), and holding no controversial opinions whatsoever, Harry Potter can serve as a de facto family member (as defined by my evolutionary psychology theory of adventure stories) to an otherwise improbably large audience. He then goes on to discover that the wizarding world is plagued by a being of absolute evil. Spoiler alert, in the end Harry kills the being of absolute evil, and thus since badness only comes from evil people, the world was perfect from there on out. Harry Potter trivia buffs may point out that Harry never actually killed Lord Voldemort, but was simply party to his death when Voldemort succumbed to his own violence literally bouncing off of Harry and back at him and died at his own hand. This makes Harry’s hands clean by technicality, much in the same way as if your game doesn’t count someone dying from stepping on a mine you placed as you having killed them, Congratulations! You have found a way to resolve the situation by peaceful means and can continue to be the morally unambiguous hero of the story.

The movie series that enchanted my parents’ generation and continues to enchant my own generation, features an even more violent premise, all but explicitly stating in its title that it is premised on the glory of warfare. The plucky band of rebels fights an evil, ostensibly insurmountable2 force. Neither party’s political motivations are expounded or given much thought, allowing people to read whatever repellent political philosophies they like into the vaguely fascistic black-and-red color-coded Empire. To further minimize mental strain and allow audience members to focus on the action, Star Wars even codifies its supernatural elements according to good and evil. Light = Good, Dark = Bad. Once again, happy endings come from military successes, that is, successful murders of the “bad guys.”

How do you make an adventure without encouraging tribalism and glorifying warfare? Somehow, even as we grew older than eight it never occurred to either my friend or me that it could be done. Where are the stakes if you’re not killing and dying? As a Quaker, a member of a dedicated peace church, I just tried to pick games and movies that were clearly fantastical, avoiding so-called military simulators or anything that tried to teach as a real-world principle that evil in the world came from evil people, and that with the extermination of evil people evil in the world would end. Even so, I kept myself aloof from most of the entertainment I enjoyed, in order not to feel like a hypocrite for identifying too closely with the horrible things the “heroes” I played or watched would do. The closest I could come to feeling like I could really identify with a game was when the game offered a setting so dark that I could pretend I was playing through a stark portrayal of the horrors of war instead of a glorification, but it wasn’t really true. No matter how much the surface narrative might tell me I was cursed and the endless fights were some sort of penance, the ludonarrative3 was always that fighting and killing is fun and rewarding. Of course it was. If it wasn’t fun and rewarding, I wouldn’t play. I still play and enjoy these games, and I don’t think anyone should feel ashamed for enjoying them any more than someone should feel ashamed about enjoying Harry Potter or Star Wars, but in terms of an action-packed, high-intensity game that didn’t teach the joy of carnage, even the notion seemed too preposterous to entertain.

Games that deliberately satirized this violence seemed designed to be un-fun, as if they were intended to do little more than upset and confuse gamers.  “You Only Live Once,” a Flash game on Kongregate, parodies my favorite kick-turtles-into-lava game by giving the player only one life. Instead of dying and dying over and over again until you successfully kill your foe, you get exactly one try. Further attempts to continue only let you watch the protagonist get picked up by an ambulance, see a memorial go up briefly in his honor, and then vanish as his short-lived attempt to conquer an entire castle single-handed is completely forgotten.

Attempts to continue after death merely allow the player to watch the memorial to the protagonist deteriorate as he slowly fades from memory.

Average Maria Individual, an even more direct satire of Super Mario Brothers4, is a game that I have covered on my blog before. Taking Mario and making the lead an unexceptional lesbian who has to be polite and considerate to her foes to succeed has been praised as deliberately sticking a finger in the eye of traditional gamer culture. Average Maria Individual has intentionally minimal gameplay. Maria can jump only a couple inches off the ground and walks mind-numbingly slowly. All significant decisions in the game involve whether to be a jerk or not. Spoiler: being a jerk gets you killed.

As the game’s titular unexceptional lesbian, Maria can’t even jump high enough to get over an arrogant purple pipe.

These games captured my imagination, but only intellectually, and nothing like them has been successful enough to make waves in the gaming community. They seemed to encourage rather than undercut the notion that an exciting adventure has to involve glorious killing. Thus besides the occasional, brief, excited conversation about these gimmicky exceptions to the general tone of adventure-based gaming, I continued to keep my gameplaying to myself, lowering my voice and staring at my shoes whenever asked what I did for fun. This was the degree to whch I was unable to imagine the medium could really be a force for good.

Then, on October 6, I casually glanced at a game rating website, and noticed that among all of the heavily advertised multimillion dollar corporate produced games at the top of the list was a little game whose name had never reached my ears. Although in production he collaborated with a small group of other people, Toby Fox is widely seen as the auteur behind Undertale and as music director, lead artist, writer, and lead programmer, the credit seems earned. So, when his name showed up next to Nintendo and Ubisoft, multinational companies each comprising thousands of employees at least, a game he’d thrown together while completing his college coursework beating out their products as the highest rated game on meta-critic, I had to give it a try.

If it weren’t for the hype, this game might’ve been a hard sell for some people. The first impression someone will get of a game from its screenshots is of course going to be the graphics. While I personally enjoyed the minimalist retro aesthetic, I must admit that I could see where my coworker was coming from when he said that it looked like an 8-bit dog had pooped on his screen5. Provided I had figured out that it existed someway or other, though, I would not have needed even one person to recommend it. All that I need to hear to know this was a game that I wanted to play was that it was calling itself “a friendly RPG where no one has to die.”

I could see where my coworker was coming from when he said that it looked like an 8-bit dog had pooped on his screen

In Undertale, You play a small child of ambiguous gender trying to make their6 way out of an enormous cavern filled with monsters. Death is on the line, you have special powers, and combats are played through exciting bullet-dodging minigames. Sounds pretty adventurous, huh?

If you’re paying attention though, one thing that becomes quickly clear is that monster is just a species delimiter. This underground cavern, rather than being stuffed full of hideous creatures who want nothing more out of life than your destruction, is full of hideous7 creatures just trying to make their way in the world. Because of an old enmity between humans and monsters, they will attack you, but that doesn’t mean that you have to attack them. Nearly all combats can be resolved without ever hitting the fight button. Instead you read the description of the monster, look at its image on the screen, and carefully select actions such as “talk,” “hug,” and “cheer up” to convince each different type of monster that you are in fact a friend and not a foe.

It’s completely possible to play through the whole game mashing the fight button and get the neutral ending, but each creature you kill will be one that does not show up again later as a friendly NPC8 that livens up the landscape, and the game may start feeling barren and desolate. I won’t even go into detail regarding what happens if you systematically kill everything you possibly can, save to say that the game is dramatically different. To get the best ending in the game you have to not only spare all monsters you encounter, but you have to go on “dates” with three of the main character monsters, learning more about them and their complicated relationships with one another, all delivered with the same charisma and wacky humor present throughout the game.

Getting the pacifist ending is much harder than getting the neutral ending. You still have to fight all the same tough battles, but in addition to surviving you have to solve tricky puzzles based on your ability to understand other people and creatively solve problems. Like dealing with real people, you’ll also need patience. Sometimes it will take some trial and error to figure out what you’re opponent does and doesn’t like.

Sometimes it will take some trial and error to figure out what your opponent does and doesn’t like.

If you stick it through and demonstrate to the monster community that not all humans believe in violence and that at least one human makes a pretty good friend, you can save them all and get the sweetest most charming and uplifting ending I’ve seen a video game. This is where the fantasy comes in. People may say that you can’t just end a war by being nice.  This makes it look too easy to resolve real-life violent conflicts with hundreds of years of enmity.

Is it less realistic, though, than Harry Potter? Killing one big bad guy abruptly cures the world of evil, and everyone lives happily ever after? It’s not less realistic. They’re both adventure-fantasies with happy, feel-good endings appropriate to an adventure-fantasy, just one is founded on the old traditional principles of adventure fantasy about fights between people who are like the audience (the heroes) and people who are not like the audience (the villains), and the other, Undertale, is founded on the principle of people like you reaching out to the people not like you and learning that, well, they’re really a lot more like you than you thought.

We’re a long way from the old caves, sitting on logs and rocks and hoping that no bear will wander in or rival family find our hideout. We live in vast countries now ruled by law such that the threat of immediate death by strangers is so distant compared to ancient times that in most cases it can be safely ignored. Instead were surrounded by people, many of whom who aren’t like us, some of whom may even seem outright difficult or maybe of a group that we’ve been hearing is dangerous, much like the protagonist of Undertale has heard all her life that monsters are evil, dangerous creatures, just as the monsters themselves have heard the same thing about humans.

We are past the era where we need to understand how to hate and kill in order to survive. Now are in an era where we need to cooperate and understand people who are different from us. Recent events have highlighted how much this value still needs to be taught. That’s why being able to understand people instead of killing people isn’t just a one-off gimmick. We need more games like Undertale. Do you hear me, Indie developers? Undertale has been snubbed by most mainstream game award giants, but anywhere that the average gamer has a say, it is winning awards and getting attention. Penny Arcade writer and traditionalist gamer spokesperson Jerry Holkins admitted that even though he personally couldn’t get into it, he can tell that there’s something special about it. A Kotaku writer said it changed his outlook on life and that he now bases some of his social skills on Undertale characters. This game shouldn’t be an anomaly. Let’s make it a movement. Let’s redefine the adventure fantasy.

1 not really very extensive
2 but in reality surmountable within the length of a three-part movie series or your money back
3 The story implicitly told by a game’s gameplay
4 Look closely and you’ll see where the name “Average Maria Individual” comes from
5 His words were not so family-friendly
6 This is the pronoun used in the game
7 Actually pretty cute

8 Non-player character


The Purpose of Life

Has anyone ever told you the “purpose” of something? The purpose of a fork is to allow us to pick up our food without dirtying our fingers. The purpose of food is to be eaten, don’t play with it. The purpose of sex is to have children. The purpose of a woman is to have children. Nobody knows the purpose of life.

If you’re offended by some of those statements or are still wondering about the last quandary, let me help you out. There is no such thing as an absolute purpose. A fork has many uses, including but not limited to propping up a window, poking open the cover of a new yogurt container, or prying open a tupperware that has sealed shut. Women are people who get to define their own purpose. Man or woman, the purpose of your life is what you decide it is.

If anyone tells you not to use something for other than its purpose, ask them why. If they can’t tell you why, they’re not worth listening to. The same goes for someone telling you what your purpose or the purpose of someone else is. If they give you a reason that doesn’t make sense, explore it more deeply. Keep asking questions until it makes sense. Rely on your own understanding, don’t listen to anyone who says your understanding is not enough.

If your purpose appears to be to serve an all-powerful being with inscrutable goals and priorities, consider asking that being to prove that it exists. If it can’t or chooses not to, you’re free to do what you want.  If it does prove that it exists, well, you should probably do what it says.

If your purpose is to serve a nation, ask what about that nation makes it worth serving? If your nation tells you that it’s not safe to tell you what it’s doing, ask why. If it tells you it’s not safe to tell you why, keep asking. You can serve your nation best by making sure it sticks to the values that it claims to hold. If it doesn’t, is it really your nation?

If your purpose is to serve humanity, by all means serve humanity. Whatever particular cause or organization you choose to be part of to advance humanity’s cause, apply the same scrutiny as when serving a nation.

Critical thinking is what makes you human. Once you give up your skepticism, you give up part of your humanity. Your purpose is no longer your own, it belongs to the entity you refuse to question.  You’re giving up your freedom to define your life. If someone tells you that your purpose exists without you choosing it, it’s not true. You choose.

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