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A little while ago I was participating in a conversation about the nature of causality and whether the information we have supports the idea of a deterministic universe, and I found myself getting perhaps uncharacteristically defensive. If you aren’t familiar with the idea of determinism, it suggests that every situation can have only one outcome, and this outcome has been causally determined, since the beginning of time, by the initial starting position of the universe. This concept simply extends the idea of cause and effect outwards to the beginnings and end of time: Every cause has effects and every effect has causes and, though we personally experience the effects after the cause, that may just be the experience of a mind that lives moving forwards in time.

This is accurate to the reality simulated by classical mechanics, since everything has to sum up properly at the end, but it’s a bit of an open question whether this idea can still hold true with quantum mechanics. I believe that we will eventually find that it does, but that’s an article of faith on my behalf more than anything else – and I find that interesting, because there’s not a lot I take on faith, so… why should this be an exception?

After I had a chance to cool down and think a while, I started to wonder about why I was feeling defensive and irritable. I could now, perhaps, talk about how what I feel to be the internal consistency and obviousness of my logic has made me arrogant and unwilling to entertain new ideas – or how, as we get older, we build up conceptual structures of ideas, and begin to become increasingly uncomfortable with any rearrangement of the ideas near the bottom of the structure lest they upset the entire mental order of our universe – or about how, as a broke-as-fuck artist, I get so little external reassurance that I often feel compelled to display extreme and unearned confidence to hold what shaky financial and emotional ground I can still stand on.

Well: Those are all topics that occurred to me, and perhaps they’ll come up later, in future essays. However, what I also realized is that I became defensive at that time because the idea of determinism has actually quietly, over the course of my life, become incredibly important to me, in a way that is fundamental to my understanding of the world and, perhaps, even spiritual.

When determinism is presented in the context of religion and spirituality it’s almost always, in my experience, as something which undermines the core tenets upon which those are built: That is to say, it raises questions of how we can have free will if our choices are already determined, and what possible role can the divine have in a universe that is essentially mechanical? I don’t find these questions compelling, personally, but these are usually the ones that come up within the context of how people feel, spiritually, about the idea of determinism. However, I’ve always seen the idea differently – not as cold and pragmatic and disparate from the spiritual reality of human existence, but as a profoundly hopeful and meaningful idea about what forms of immortality we can realistically hope for.

There’s a split I’ve noticed, perhaps a generational divide, a difference of perspective between the ‘millennial’ generation and older generations. It’s commonly accepted and understood, now, that information persists on the internet; anything that you say or do only persists indefinitely, and can always be assumed to be archived somewhere, somehow, perhaps not forever but for close enough to forever. I don’t think, though, that for those of us who grew up with the internet that this understanding ends there: I think there’s just a generalized feeling that everything that happens is recorded in one way or another, leaves some permanent trace behind that could be unearthed at any moment. And, sure, maybe to some degree everyone knew that every every action left traces behind before, but now we have a split between those who assume that records of every event stay behind, and those who assume that they don’t unless they are specifically and intentionally created. I don’t want to overgeneralize, of course, but it often feels that boomers are as uncomfortable with the idea of a world where everything is recorded as millennials are with a world where most things are forgotten and lost forever.

I perceive this assumption in myself, that everything sticks around in some way, and I see the way I take comfort in it; that the things we did and the people we are won’t be lost to time, but just archived in some way. To me determinism cradles that concept intimately: Our lives aren’t just something that happens and then goes away, our lives are part of the great chain of causality. Our butterfly effects will continue on long after we disappear, no matter how inconsequential we may have seemed in the moment, and even if we don’t cause a hurricane, or even if we do but our hurricane is just a dust storm on a dead planet, we’re still part of it. The timeline will always exist and we will always be in it. However, if the universe is not deterministic, there’s no timeline – there’s a time spray, and nothing that happens leaves a reliable echo. There’s no way an omniscient observer can play back the film and see the lives that were lived – and, even if I have no belief in or even an interest in believing in an omniscient observer, the idea that if there was one there would be something there for them to observe gives me comfort.

I can’t just believe things because I like the way they feel, though. Maybe some effects happen without cause: I don’t think so, but I can’t know otherwise. Maybe the past is lost irrevocably, and the recordings and memories we take are really all that’s left of what once was. I don’t know. But, in the absence of knowledge, I will keep on believing, as I have, that every effect comes from causes and every cause from effects.

Even if it’s just a leap of faith, it’s carried me this far.

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Kaiji is a manga about a young man named Itou Kaiji driven into a series of increasingly desperate and outlandish gambles to escape debt and save his own life. The first two parts of have received animated adaptations, but currently the manga itself is partway through its fifth series. I would highly recommend at least the first season of the anime, which is a fairly well self-contained arc that captures most of the themes of the series. The tension falls off somewhat in the second season, and though it remains interesting, the tone is less desperate and the implications are less dire.

Kaiji is a one-two punch, where the gambles themselves are intriguing and compelling games of deduction, logic, and chance, but the significance extends beyond the momentary intrigues and into the larger implications of being willing to gamble your life, and what could drive someone into that situation. Come for the head games, stay for the heartache – because, while at first gambling may seem to be a relatively frivolous and lightweight topic compared to the grand and bloody conflicts that are often grist for our fiction, for those stuck in poverty, money is often equivalent to life, and the battles over it are seldom bloodless.

While Kaiji’s possesses extraordinary luck, cleverness, and will to survive, perhaps his strongest trait is his ability to see the best in people, which is often interestingly played off against his opponent’s uncanny ability to see the worst in people. He sees strengths and plays to counter or use them, while his opponents see weaknesses and seek to attack or shore them up. Because he wants to see the best in people, though, he is often exploited and betrayed – the debt that originally ensnares him wasn’t even his own, just a contract he naively cosigned on for a friend, and he only gradually learns not to blindly trust those who seem friendly. His opponent’s, perhaps correctly, see this as a huge weakness – but are ignorant when they consider it solely a weakness. His ability to believe in people is also the strength that allows him to succeed, both to trust allies and, perhaps more crucially, to respect his opponents’ abilities to be clever and insightful and to play against the best version of them, rather than choosing his moves based on some simpleminded strawman of his imagination.

Some might consider the way that Kaiji wins games to be cheating: In many cases he twists the rules of the game, changes the situation in ways that shape the odds in his favor. However, since the games he plays in are inevitably rigged in the first place, set up to be almost impossible to win, his opponents seldom feel that he has broken any rules. Can you accuse someone of cheating when the primary thing that their gambit achieves is exposing and undermining the unfair advantage you’ve already given yourself? Certainly, if the game were otherwise fair, taking the advantages he takes would be cheating, but they aren’t and never were. Fairness and honor are fine ideals, but their most common usage in practice is to prevent people who are weak and isolated from usurping power from those who are strong and backed by institutional power. Who created the idea of honor, and who benefits from it?

Money is important to everyone, but the significance it takes on in Kaiji is monstrous, outsized and harrowing. Those who participate in the games do so because they have little choice, because their debts have become so extreme that passing up any opportunity, however dangerous, to make a large amount of money at once would be unthinkable. And, by being forced to participate in these gambles, more of them lose out than gain: After all, the house always wins. The house, in this case, is The Teiai Group, holder of all these debts and runner of all these gambling events. Even those who win these brutal gambles are usually left still deep in debt, still needing gamble again for any hope of escape – and, in the meanwhile, those running the show can enjoy the bloody spectacle while they profit off of it. Because, once you accept that a human life can be measured by money, the rest – death, mutilation, slavery – is just haggling over numbers. Perhaps few people would agree that human life is worth money, stated in those words – however, as societies, we assume it to be so, assume it to be good and just that food and medicine and other necessities for survival should cost, blithely and easily believe, deep down, that what gives money its value is that it can feed us and shield us, but that its power as a magic talisman is lost if no one is out there goes starving and unsheltered for its lack.

It’s sometimes difficult, when making a story about struggling and surviving in the face of societal evil not to, in so doing, accidentally justify that evil – that is to say, most stories we tell are told of heroic characters succeeding despite tremendous odds, and unfortunately this tends to dovetail into the many myths of meritocracy that are used to prop up systems that exploit and abuse. Many of the ongoing themes of Kaiji are about never giving up hope and always figuring out a plan of action instead of praying for luck to carry you through. From one perspective, this could easily be seen as a story about rugged individualism, about being exceptional and rising above your circumstances and winning freedom by any means possible, about survival of the fittest – certainly, this is how The Teiai Group views their games, as opportunities for the strong to prey on the weak. However, the fact that injustice can be struggled against should never blind us to it being unjust: We can plan all we want, be as clever and strong and smart and lucky as possible, but when the deck is stacked against us the best we can ever manage is to somehow even the odds. When your opponent controls the every mechanism of the game, it’s impossible for most people to win – though it can still happen, sometimes, very rarely, and these rare examples of victory serve to justify the game, demonstrate its fairness and equitability, even as it chews up and spits out human lives by the hundreds and thousands.

At the same time, though, as it highlights the vicious abuses enabled by money, this series laments the inaction and poor decision-making that brought the debtors captured by Teiai’s machinations, and places much of the responsibility for their predicaments upon themselves. They were reckless and driftless, treating everything that came their way as though it were a game, never grasping at an opportunity or truly dedicating themselves, and their lives would never go anywhere without taking a risk – a deadly risk – a desperate gamble. But, in the end, everyone ends up worse off for having taken the gamble, for taking the risk, the proffered opportunity, and Teiai profits. It is an irresistible bait: Advancement, safety, recovery, redemption. Placing this bait is an ingenious method of creating competition, division, and violence among those who would otherwise recognize Teiai, and the profiteering in human suffering they represent, for what they are, and strive against them with all their might.

This method of dividing people with petty rewards is extremely common in the real world as well, in ways only barely more subtle than Teiai’s blood sports.

Kaiji recognizes this evil and rails against it, but in many ways he is powerless to resist. As the series progresses, he comes to crave the sense of meaning and purpose he finds in these do-or-die games of wits. Whenever he’s not on the verge of disaster, on the verge of losing everything and dying ignominiously, he feels purposeless, aimless. Though the series has not yet concluded, at this rate it seems that whatever he wins he will never be able to keep, and ultimately it will end up sieving between his fingers and back into Teiai’s coffers, because he doesn’t know when to stop. Is it addiction? Is it post-traumatic stress? In this situation, is there a difference between not knowing what to do with your life when it isn’t in danger and being let go of the grudge and sorrow of past gambles?

Maybe the house really does always win. If so, we need to change the game.

For a long time I didn’t like to use a microphone while playing games. I’m still not thrilled about the idea of talking into my computer while playing with strangers, but I’ve gotten used to the concept enough to be comfortable playing with friends. It adds a lot: It’s fun hanging out with people that way and, obviously, you can exchange information much more quickly and effectively when you’re using a microphone, when you can speak directly to teammates and they to you. However, less obviously, there are subtle things you start to miss out on.

The most immediate thing you stop noticing as much is the in-game sound. Normally, when playing a game with strong sound design, audio is one of the most important channels of information you have. You can hear where nearby opponents are, who’s attacking and in what direction. You can hear someone switching weapons, someone sneaking up on you, someone suddenly stopping, turning, jumping – or, when you notice something making a loud noise, you can use that sound to conceal your own footsteps or attacks. This aspect of the game is not, of course, entirely removed from play by the introduction of voice chat, but an active voice chat, especially one you’re listening to for information, by necessity forces these valuable audio cues to recede – not only makes it harder for the ears to hear these sounds, but also for the mind to track them, interpret them, evaluate them.

It’s not surprising that you stop being able to perceive audio information as readily. What is, perhaps, more surprising is that certain kinds of visual information stop being easily interpreted as well. For instance, when you’re playing Left 4 Dead, particularly as the infected(zombie) team, you interpret your teammates intentions by the positions they take. A hunter climbing up to a roof is probably intending to pounce from above at the next choke point, while a smoker setting up underneath a walkway is probably looking to grab someone and pull them down. Where your teammates move, how your teammates move, and where they’re facing all tells you what they intend. However, this information becomes much less important if they can just tell you what they intend. Neither form of information is perfect: Intentions shift, things fail to be communicated or are miscommunicated – and, in the end, in the vast majority of circumstances, the microphone becomes redundant. In a few cases voice communications can even be misleading – true, in practice there will probably be fewer circumstances where voice communications are confusing than where the absence of mics will confuse or mislead, but still something is lost, even as something is gained.

The extent of non-verbal communication available to us in games is subtly remarkable. Many games don’t have any explicit non-verbal communication – no waving, beckoning, bowing, dancing… Nothing. Still the underlying concepts of these motions are conveyed through the context of the game’s normal movement, through looking at something, shaking your view up or down, crouching and jumping and leaning. It’s startling, sometimes, noticing how much we come to inhabit these virtual bodies, the same way a car becomes an extension of ourselves, its grace and speed becomes our own, and without thinking we signal our vehicular intentions by little boosts of speed and turns, turn signals and horn beeps, in a delicate and potentially lethally dangerous cooperative dance with other motorists.

But we lose some of that, when we talk. In cars that loss can be dangerous – which is why we frown on cell phone usage while driving – but in games it’s, at worst, mildly saddening. Even the most wonderful gifts carry subtle and unforeseen costs and consequences.

I’ve been self-employed for a while now, which is a way of saying that I don’t have a job but I still scrape by and I hold out hope that one day my hobbies will make me money. It’s taken a lot of practice – not only practicing the skills and hobbies that will, as I mentioned, hopefully one day bear fruit of one sort or another, but also practicing the art of scheduling those skills and hobbies.

When I first tried to make it as an independent developer, I figured I would work 8 hours a day. That’s what you do for a job, right? I managed approximately one day on that schedule before I imploded, and got extremely depressed at my inability to manage the schedule I had created for myself. It was a bad scene, and for about a year I got basically nothing done. I knew that, at my best, 8 hours is nothing – and sure, that’s fine for one day, but two? Three? A week? A month? How many good days can I have in a row? What do I do when I have a bad one, and start falling behind where I want to be?

A key difference between self-employment and your average job is for a job you mostly just have to show up and do what’s expected of you. When you have your own goals, your own standards, there’s no end to what you can expect of yourself, and it becomes hard to tell what counts as work and what doesn’t. 8 hours at a desk doing a job isn’t the same thing as 8 hours of work: There’s a lot of job-time that isn’t exactly work, that’s time spent organizing the mind and figuring out what task to do next and, frankly, just fucking off, waiting for the moment where one feels up to the next task. Perhaps not everyone works that way, but I mostly did and in so doing had no problem keeping up with the tasks assigned to me or keeping pace with my peers, so I assume it’s basically the same for most people – or, at least, most people working on creative or technical tasks which require focus and concentration.

Trying to schedule this kind of work is kind of like panning for gold – you can control how much time you spend doing the job, but not how much of that effort generates results. Putting in more effort can have counterproductive effects, as your vision gets bleary and you start to miss things, or as you get frustrated with a run of bad luck and get impatient.

Most of all I’ve had to learn to take things slow and to be patient with myself. I’ve had to accept that most days I can only make an hour or two of real work, most days progress will be slow and painful, and that I have to accept that things will take a while. An hour or two a day is good, as long as it’s consistent, as long as it’s real work. However, I also need to leave that a bit open-ended, to enable myself to work more when I’m enthusiastic and able – or to forgive myself for working less, when I just can’t do it.

It’s difficult. It requires listening to yourself and being honest about what you can do and how much and when. It requires being willing to demand things of yourself and also being willing to forgive yourself when you fail to live up to those expectations.

At least, that’s the way I’ve learned to do it. I’m sure there are better ways, and I’m sure there are people who do it better. I constantly fear I’m not doing enough, I constantly worry I’m doing too much, I constantly feel I should be expanding my horizons, I constantly feel I’m spreading myself too thin. I don’t know a better way, though, not yet. Bit by bit, I explore the boundaries of what I’m capable of, and I try to push them out just a little more – and if, perhaps, my work won’t be done for another five years, ten years… then that’s upsetting, but far better than the alternative, just out of sight behind me, that my work might never be done at all.

Listen.

It is embarrassing how much time we spend making noise, talking about ourselves, what we care about, how we see the world. We surround ourselves in our own territorial stench so we don’t have to smell anything around us. To a certain extent, this is fine and good and necessary – it is important to hear your own voice, to know your own thoughts – and, this being a public post about the creation of art, I’d be some kind of double-hypocrite if I were to tell you to just shut up, to not ever speak, never to make noise or song.

…so I’m not saying that: What I am saying is that the things you say will be stupid and the songs you make will be bad if you don’t stop and listen sometimes.

When I say listen, I don’t mean merely perceiving what is going on around you, what other people are saying, where the world is going: Perception is only half the equation. The other half is acknowledgment and accommodation. Hear the information, process it, integrate it into your understanding of the world.

There is a wrong way to listen, a wrong way to understand. The wrong way is to take new information and immediately slot it into your existing understanding of the world. The right way is to make room for the information in your understanding of the world, evaluate it within the space of the world as you understand it, and update that understanding as necessary to accommodate the new information.

The wrong way is much easier and commensurately more popular.

Accommodating doesn’t mean you should believe everything you hear, but it does mean you should create room for belief to exist if you deem it necessary. The deeming is a vital step: Accepting information without evaluation is naivete. Rejecting information without evaluation is cynicism. Both of these are strategies to avoid confronting reality, not to attempt to understand it.

Unfortunately, however, in order to truly listen you also need to be able to filter information out. This sounds contrary to the intent – is contrary to the intent – but is also necessary. You can’t spend your time listening to the same arguments and perspectives, parsing and re-parsing them, discarding them over and over again. After a certain point, you have to say no, we’ve been over this, multiculturalism isn’t white genocide you goddamn idiot. Thus we curate a flow of information that we can handle, shape its inflow into something that we can parse, that will steadily interest and edify and will only rarely waste our time.

And it’s clear, when we look at this, at how we shape this flow of information, that there can be no hard and fast rules. It is a balancing act: Leaving ourselves open to new ideas, while endeavoring not to waste our time with bad ideas – leaving ourselves open to having our minds changed, without leaving our minds open to being sabotaged. This balance is so delicate… and once in a while you see someone who seemed so well-balanced suddenly fall off, either shut themselves away or leave themselves open and let something vile take root and grow there. But, also, sometimes you see someone long-cloistered come out blinking into the sun, or someone who let a malignant poison grow in them suddenly engage in some long overdue weeding, and that is reassuring. The best and worst part about people is that they do, in fact, change.

For our part, all we can do is listen, and understand, and try to do better, as best as we can, forever.

Parables are a powerful tool. They are maps, life lessons encoded into little stories, encapsulated ways of understanding the world. However, what a parable is is as much our understanding of the tale as it is the tale itself – it’s in the mapping from that story to our story, the understanding that its causality and morality bears some relationship to our own. Any story can become a parable as long as you can create an analogical framework – in fact, every story can and does become many parables, given different frameworks and understandings. Each parable reflects a personal understanding, a relationship between the tale’s teller, its audience, and the world, and these shift subtly, even from people whose understanding of the story and its import are largely the same – and drastically between those whose approach and worldviews are significantly different.

This causes problems. Oppressors frequently like to cast themselves as the victims, and misusing parables gives them another tool with which to do so. Any tool for guiding or leading can just as easily become a tool for misguiding or misleading – one of the worrying and saddening things regarding the many ways that art can be used for good is realizing that every one of them has a separate but equal application towards propaganda, every message of love can be turned into a message of loving hate, every message of tolerance turned into a message of tolerating intolerance. As creators, we can only do so much to control for the understanding people take of our work and how they apply that to the world we live in: In other words, we write the stories, but we don’t make the parables.

Another problem, though, is that our relationship with parables has become… strange. people have started using parables in reverse. That is, rather than creating a map from the story to real life situations and deriving actionable beliefs from that understanding, they have begun creating a map from real life to the story and deriving… nothing, usually. It doesn’t matter if this situation reminds you of Harry Potter if the only understanding you glean from that is that ‘well the good guys will probably win in the end’.

This is not to say that retrofitting a real life situation to a parable is necessarily an unproductive exercise, just that it’s not interesting or useful to stop there. The interesting part of creating an analogy is in following the line created by the analogy towards a conclusion that is itself interesting. Analogies without conclusion become an obstacle, rather than an aid, to understanding. Rhetorically we tend to pay a lot more attention to whether an analogy is apt than to whether it leads to an interesting or useful conclusion, but it has to be both for it to have any place in a persuasive argument – otherwise it’s just reference for the sake of reference, done in a context that’s even less productive than an episode of Family Guy.

What’s the point of even making a reference like that?

Anyone who’s been playing games for a while has probably, by now, encountered the concept of experience points and leveling up in a number of different contexts. I find nowadays that I’m enjoying this design trope less, that I’m less comfortable with gaining experience and leveling up, than I used to be – and I think that’s partially a slow shift in who I am, and what I value in games, and how I see the world, but also represents a shift in how games use exp systems and what the priorities are that lay behind that usage.

Of course, the satisfaction is still there. Every moment, every action, making you better, stronger, more effective – intoxicating, really. Becoming learned without learning, becoming strong without exercising, discovering one day that, to your surprise, you know kung fu. How delightful, to feel we have earned our power fantasies, not through the specifics of actual work done to develop a particular skill or capability, but through the application of genericized soylent work product. Plenty has been said about and against this aspect of unearned reward – and, indeed, part of what divests my interest in experience systems is that I’ve come to find it much more rewarding when a game demands I actually practice and learn rather than merely grind. In this context, however, what interests me more, what has increasingly begun to unnerve me, is the form of that reward.

It’s strange, and almost a kind of body horror, to find yourself slowly and inexorably becoming a more effective killing machine. RPGs have had many kinds of leveling systems, and in the past most of them allowed you some degree of control. Sure, the end result was usually to make you more effective at fighting, but you at least chose how and why – and, though I never thought about it much at the time, you also chose whether to level at all. You could, if you’d rather, remain exactly who you always were – you could, if you chose, remain weak. This option is not available to us in most games with leveling systems: Now we level up the way we breathe, rather than the way we eat.

And, man, it kills me that everything I write goes back to Dark Souls, but that’s a game where you get to make that choice. And, man, it also kills me that everything I write goes back to Undertale, but that’s a game that actually explores the subtle horrors that are implied by experience systems. Having played these two games, it’s hard to ease myself back into the classic experience of classic experience points without feeling a bit of discomfort.

Maybe, though, this is the realer system. We change, uncontrollably. We go through puberty, become physically stronger whether we want to or not, learn things we were happier not knowing. Experience accumulates, and the numbers that describe us go up and down, mostly up at first and then mostly down as they describe our arc. The lie of the exp system is that it pretends we always become better and more capable, which is never true. Every moment something is gained, yes – every moment, as well, something is lost, and we change. We do charge forward, uncontrollably, but we never level up.