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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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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.

I finally got new glasses, after a couple of years of financially-induced nakedfacing. It’s kind of amazing being able to see again. It feels like a superpower. It feels like, within the constraints of a couple of inches of glass in front of me, I can see everything. It’s actually a little bit disturbing to think that all of this was going on all along, there in front of me, like invisible bacteria covering a freshly washed dish.

It’s strange the way we don’t notice how our capabilities shape our perception until those capabilities change. As I became able to clearly perceive things more than 10 feet away from me, my sense of peripheral space became less acute, I began to be surprised when I noticed people and objects to my right and left, things that I previously would have noticed much earlier. Because I am so used to myopia, my relationship to space has become one of vague motions, a worldview of information constructed by inferring the relationships between things I cannot perceive clearly. There’s the classic concept of the blind person who has their other senses enhanced as they are forced to depend solely upon them, and I think the same thing happens to all of us, based on our capabilities and capacities, to lesser or greater degrees.

Our limitations define our aptitudes, and become foundational points of our identities. When I play games, I tend to be the one who notices things – and, lest it sound like I’m bragging, I should note that this is distinct from the one who makes good decisions based on that information, the one who successfully infers what things signify or, even, the one who cares about the things that he notices. What I want to convey, though, is the idea that in this case my lack of long-range focus means that I have a sort of diffuse form of attention which makes it somewhat more likely that I will perceive things that aren’t directly in front of me.

Within this context, I start to wonder about my resentment of time, whether it stems from a conceptual antipathy to things which are distant. I wonder about whether my inability to focus my mind on a single task for very long is conceptually related to my inability to focus on an object very far away. I wonder how much the symbolic logic of focus, distance, attention, periphery, have shaped the way in which I conceive of and understand the world, if this correlation of traits means something, if and how much of my identity has been subtly and subconsciously shaped around this relatively minor, fun and quirky disability.

I wonder, then, if so, what does it mean to put on a pair of glasses, and why accompanying exhilaration and joy at my newfound abilities there is an undercurrent of discomfort. Will it help me look past today and into tomorrow? Do I want to perceive that kind of distance?

We shall see.

I don’t like making recommendations.

Other people seem to be very comfortable with it. For many, the calculation seems quite straightforward: “I enjoyed it, so I recommend it. I didn’t enjoy it, so I don’t recommend it”. I envy the simplicity of this approach; merely contemplating it fills me with anxiety.

Here is a partial sampling of the things I worry about when I am considering recommending something:

  1. Did I enjoy it?

  2. Does the fact that I enjoyed it imply a likelihood that this person I’d recommend it to would enjoy it?

  3. Do I think my enjoyment reflects well on me?

  4. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will I resent them for it?

  5. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will they lose respect for me for recommending something bad?

  6. If they do enjoy it as much as I did, will they never shut up to me about it?

  7. Will they enjoy it for the wrong reasons and I’ll have to pretend to agree with them?

  8. If I recommend it to them, will they resent the implicit pressure to engage with that recommendation and never actually check it out when otherwise they might have done so independently?

  9. If I recommend it to them, will I make them feel so pressured that, when they eventually do check it out, it becomes a joyless exercise?

And so on.

Maybe the issue is that I don’t really believe in mass communication. All communication ultimately boils down to a connection between two people: One, encoding a thought process into words and gesture, the other interpreting that through their understanding of verbal and body language. It is so personal: How can a general statement like “You should check out this awesome game” make any sense if it isn’t tailored for one specific person? How can we declare that something is good or worthwhile without taking into account specific tastes?

Most often we just don’t. Critics talk about their personal experience, what worked for them or didn’t work for them, trusting the reader to measure that described experience against their own preferences to decide whether this seems like a worthwhile experience. However, the audience for video games criticism is notoriously hostile towards these sorts of personal experiential statements, which puts game critics in quite a pickle since it’s really the only way to actually evaluate anything in a way that makes sense.

All of this might seem like splitting hairs. It might seem like I’m willing to take every step that one would associate with a recommendation or endorsement – the enthusiastic and specific praise, the testimonial, the frequent mention of interesting and unique features – but detest taking the final step of saying “you should go play/read/see/eat that game/book/movie/pasta.”

God help me if I ever get popular enough to acquire some kind of sponsored monetary backing – my anxious honesty will be my undoing. Actually, my anxious honesty may already be largely responsible for my lack of being done in the first place.

Anyway Hollow Knight is a good game, Colossal is a good movie, 1Q84 is a good book and basically all pasta is good.

New posts are being rescheduled to 10am Mondays. I’ve been slowly hemorrhaging readers over the last couple of years, and I never had that many to start with. I think there are a few possible explanations for this:

  1. Maybe my work is getting worse. I don’t think is the case but there’s not really any way to rule it out.
  2. Maybe my newer posts don’t have the same readership appeal. Earlier posts were mostly about specific game design issues and new ways to approach problems: Newer posts are much more about how we generally interact with art and its impact on us as human beings. I think these are both interesting, but one is a harder sell to new readers, stymieing the word-of-mouth that has bolstered previous posts
  3. Maybe Saturday at noon is a bad time to post. It made sense to me at first, since those are peak leisure hours so people would have lots of free time for reading. On further reflection, I don’t think many people are interested in thought-provoking mini-essays during peak leisure hours – they want to spend that time pursuing their own interests. I think many more people are interested in this sort of article-reading when they’re on break or procrastinating at work. The numbers on when new posts are successful seem to bear this out.

So yes. Mondays at 10am PST. I’m also going to be blocking more writing time into my schedule, which may result in longer pieces, though we’ll see how that shakes out in practice.

In any case, I don’t say this enough but this seems like a prime opportunity: If you read my work, thank you. Even while I put only a few hours per week of dedicated work time into this blog, it’s one of the rocks I anchor myself to in my life. I only hope that, in return for the attention, I can provide some sort of insight to those of you who choose to visit Problem Machine.

a_small_cup_of_coffee

Right around the time I was writing last week’s post I felt a suspicious itch in my nose that meant I was maybe getting sick. Then I got sick. I was pleased at how accurate my nasal observations had been, but overall I would have been fine with being wrong.

We can skip over the next few days. They were mostly very tedious and tiring. Afterwards, though, there were a couple of days where my sense of smell was recovered and I could think properly, but my sinuses were still packed with residual mucus, so 80% of what I smelled at each moment was the rancid remnants of the cold. Things which were once delicious stopped tasting good: Coffee became flavorless and bitter, and when I ate grilled vegetables I could only taste the grill. This was interesting, because other than that I felt fine. If I hadn’t recently been sick and didn’t understand this to be an effect of that cause, I would just think this was what these things tasted like. If my head just always smelled of disease, everything except for the simplest sweetest foods would seem unappealing.

It’s always so strange when the physical world affects the things we think of as being entirely psychological and intrinsic to our identity. We argue about matters of taste, justify why the things we like are good and the things we dislike are bad, without even considering whether we’re discussing the same thing, without accounting for how the tastes we cherish are shaped by our personal topography.

Games, and particularly computer games, externalize this issue. Every player’s experience of the game is mediated through their own gaming setup, so a transcendental experience for one player can be a framey mess for one who has different video card drivers. Then, another layer down, a fun-filled romp for one player may be a humiliating frustration for a player coping with disability. And now, as I reflect on it, another layer down, a game that tells a story of great import and meaning to one player may just be retelling the same boring demeaning claptrap another player has had to wade through for their entire life. If you go down enough layers, these external factors stop being external, start being part of who we fundamentally are, the shape of our skull, the networks of our neurons, the smell of our snot. It becomes impossible to separate the things which color our experience from the experience itself.

When I see so many people who seem to care nothing for art, who seem to care nothing for anything at all, who seem to exist only to take and accumulate and crave, I have to wonder how they are calibrated. Can they see at all what I see, feel at all what I feel? Maybe what makes them so hungry is they never learned to taste the things that they really needed to survive, so they just consume, like I kept drinking coffee that tasted like ashes, in the hopes that later it might help me to wake up.