Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 22:49 on 03-02-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
The dichotomy between light and dark is a simplistic thing and it is a shame that it came out that way. Approaching it from a gnostic view point is actually much better, especially with the added sort of pop or fantasy culture mysticism and orientalism put on top of it. And of course it is combined with a sort of faustian idea too, that the descend into the dark side is a sort of deal with the devil and boundaries are crossed for the sake of achieving an end that is misguided in the first place. Also, the idea that the descend happens through uncontrolled emotions is a good one. Interestingly, with all this talk of petulant raging, the sith lords of the original three had their shit together quite admirably. Darth Vader was controlled and very unfazed by pretty much everything. And the emperor was very controlled too. And Vader's salvation came through succumbing to his parental emotions. So, good space monk -> emotional turmoil -> bad space monk -> emotional turmoil -> good space monk. And really, I think the thing works through states of mind rather than accumulation of karma or sin, which makes Vader's crimes irrelevant to the mental state he was in when he died. The rather heavy handed way they are doing it with this Ren fellow is very annoying.

But I guess I chose to focus on the robot, because the new movie itself was amusing enough, but was just so much doing the same thing again and so blatantly, that it his hard to really grasp at anything more concrete. I'm happy the movie is doing well and its great that the protagonists are more diverse, but all in all it was just so flat. The new robot doesn't do anything. The stormtrooper guy does stuff, but for unknown reasons. The chosen one is the worst kind of chosen one, the kind that just knows stuff, because they're chosen. One of the strong points of the original trilogy was that it made its world building deeper by referencing the passing of time quite well also. So the wizardry is more credible, when it actually takes a significant amount of time to learn the magic. At first, he was clearly unskilled, doing the only trick with the help of the space monk ghost (destroying the death star). Next, he is training, but is clearly far from mastering anything. And finally he becomes a master after at least some years have passed.

So if someone just knows how to do stuff, it lessens the impact of the skill and is kin of nonsensical anyways. Same thing ruined Kung-Fu Panda for me. Yeah, so I guess some things did bug me about the new movie... but in the end, not really that much. It was alright, but nothing more. Which I don't really know why I expected it to be or why it even should be more.
at 18:15 on 03-02-2016, Robinson L
@James: ... And some of the most prominent insurgents come from the desert ...

@Daniel: Yeah, I'm not sure how that happened. I agree the Expanded Universe is too niche to be responsible, and that our Western obsession with Manichaean binaries is a more likely culprit, but maybe doesn't tell the whole story. It'd be an interesting topic for a bit of pop culture archeology. I do feel like the language use may be partly to blame as well, because to me, referring to "sides" implies two equal portions which are opposed in some fashion.

@Janne: Sorry I didn't get to you before, but I meant to say that even though it didn't bother me, I see where you're coming from with BB-8. Artoo was a very proactive character, but BB-8 is almost entirely reactive.

Anyway, the more I think about, the more I think I know who would have been a much better actor to play Kylo Ren and to bring out those qualities mentioned in the "Dorks Awaken" essay: Hayden Christensen. The biggest complaints about his portrayal of Anakin after all (whiny, petulant, emotionally unstable) are precisely the traits which define the Kylo Ren character. The key difference being that unlike Driver, Christensen could still pull off being legitimately threatening when he needed to (slaughtering Tusken Raiders in Attack of the Clones, slaughtering kids and battling Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith).

I've even joked in the past that casting Driver might have been a stealthy attempt on Abrahms' part to rehabilitate Christensen, but the more I think about it, the more it fits. And hey, as long as they were ripping off Darth Vader's character arc for him anyway ... (I think that's the one element of the movie which really, genuinely, and truly pissed me off.)
at 10:35 on 03-02-2016, James D
thank goodness they went with that stereotype, rather than "Middle Eastern terrorist" - what a trainwreck that would have been

Yeah, what would that have been like? A small group of young male insurgents who believe in a weird religion and who hate a vastly more powerful oppressive nation plot to blow up one of its giant symbolic installations. Though most of them die in the process they succeed against all odds, but immediately afterwards their leaders are forced to go deep into hiding as a galaxy-wide manhunt begins.

That would've been terrible! ;)
at 23:48 on 01-02-2016, Daniel F
I can't help but find the bit about "the concept of the Force and its Light and Dark Sides, a concept that has probably been the most important contribution to pop-culture ethics in living memory" doubly interesting in terms of pop culture mythologies, if only because if you actually go back and watch the Star Wars films (not including TFA, which I have not seen myself), you will notice that no 'Light Side' is ever mentioned.

It's really quite bizarre. If you just go from the OT and PT, there is no such as the Light Side. There is only the Force, in a vaguely monistic way that waffles its way in between the Brahman and Abraham's God. Per the films only, Star Wars' morality is not actually dualistic. There is only the Force/life/goodness/whatever, and evil is to defect from it. The closest you get to any idea of a 'light side' is in the occasional somewhat confused quote from Luke, e.g. "How am I to tell the good side from the bad?"

Yet it has somehow become a pop culture truism that Star Wars is about a dualistic conflict between Light Side and Dark Side, which are epitomised by Jedi and Sith.

On the one hand, it's tempting to blame the EU for that, since everything from comics to video games embrace that framework, but that might be overstating the influence of materials that most of the public never looked at. My speculation would be that it's something to do with the way contemporary Western cultures think about morality, and that we've somehow applied a cheap Manichaean heuristic so deeply even to the point that we hold up Star Wars as an exemplar of something it doesn't really show. But that doesn't explain why Star Wars.
at 22:30 on 01-02-2016, Robinson L
Thanks for sharing, Arthur. Good read, and well reasoned for the most part. I especially liked this line:

All pain is sympathetic, but many actions taken as the result of pain, and maybe even most of them, are not.

As for the main substance of the article: I remember there was a podcast discussion somewhere of how Darth Vader was the embodiment of "The Man," the biggest social fear of late 70s/early 80s in the US; and how Kylo Ren is the embodiment of the modern social fear: the frustrated, unstable, entitled young man with a gun on a killing spree (in which case, thank goodness they went with that stereotype, rather than "Middle Eastern terrorist" - what a trainwreck that would have been). This is a pretty good breakdown of how Kylo Ren works in that role.

Mind you, I do think Kylo Ren is one of the movie's weak points, but not precisely because he's uncool. Not even because he's utterly laughable when you see his face and hear his voice without the mask. In the right hands, you could make a character who is at times pathetic and even laughable scary and a serious threat: that's basically the spree killer profile as the author notes. The problem is that while Kylo Ren is obviously supposed to be menacing, whenever I see Adam Driver's face and hear his voice, I cannot take him at all seriously. Even when he's doing kind of dangerous things, he exudes this aura of wimpiness where I can't find him the least bit scary.

the concept of the Force and its Light and Dark Sides, a concept that has probably been the most important contribution to pop-culture ethics in living memory.

I took "pop-culture ethics" to refer to "how we use pop culture in discussions of ethics"; and in the sense of how we refer to people and organizations as "going to the Dark Side" as a shorthand for engaging in behavior which we view as reprehensible, I think it's probably an accurate observation.

Arthur: The way the guy goes on about how life just keeps sucking after high school feels to me as though he is taking his own personal experiences and trying to present them as a universal truth, which is a bad move in general but is particularly difficult to go along with in the context of what he's criticising in the article.

Throughout the piece, I felt like he was talking about a certain subgroup of white, straight, male nerds rather than the collective nerd experience, or even the collective white, straight, male nerd experience. I didn't see him as making a universal claim about the the kind of expectations straight white male nerds had coming out of high school, or feeling left out because there are no white guys among the new crop of protagonists, or a bunch of other items. I figured he was talking about the kind of white male nerd who's a high risk of becoming an internet troll, or, in extreme cases, a mass murderer. And I can believe those guys have had a difficult and disappointing time coming out of high school.

(My life experiences have hardly been typical, but yeah, suffice it to say it's gone through many improvements and transformations after what would've been high school if I'd ever gone. As with most people, I suspect, it's been a series of ups and downs, not things just generally sucking.)
at 18:35 on 01-02-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
"the concept of the Force and its Light and Dark Sides, a concept that has probably been the most important contribution to pop-culture ethics in living memory."

I would think that the sort of dualism that Star Wars so incoherently puts out is actually not very significant in any sort of ethics. Talking philosophy wise, isn't Star Trek a much better take on ethics, pop-culture or otherwise. Of course it does raise a question of what the hell pop-culture ethics are supposed to be. I guess Matrix is the most important contribution to pop-culture ontology then. What of logic and epistemology?

My main peeve about the movie, BTW, which is not really that important,I guess, but is symptomatic of some shallowness in the new characters, is BB-8. One of the cool things about R2-D2 was that it was not a beeping puppy with a memory stick, just reacting to stuff like emojis, but it actually did all sorts of stuff. It started to crack Death Star immediately and both found the princess and saved them from the garbage crusher, but further on it also fixed the Millenium Falcon and did all sorts of important stuff. At times it seemed that it was the only thing who actually had a real idea about what was happening. But BB-8 is just a pet. I do not know why that disappoints me so.
at 16:52 on 01-02-2016, Ichneumon
Honestly, the "life sucks after high school" meme is one of those weird, vaguely creepy, vaguely sad things that you hear from all sorts of people, particularly the parents of high schoolers, but it's interesting (read: jarring) to hear it coming from someone who seems to buy into the "nerdy kids get bullied by the cool kids" cliché as well. There is some curious cognitive dissonance at work in that.
at 11:54 on 01-02-2016, Arthur B
Partly that, but mostly the way he very overtly displays the assumption that nerds are teased in school and get sand kicked in their faces by the cool kids, whilst at the very same time trying to chide geek culture for its persecution complex.

Then again, the way he talks about how the positive attention parents promise you will get after you graduate high school never manifests suggests a slightly unfortunate personal history, so maybe I'm being a bit hard on the guy.

In my experience, the trick to having a much more positive time of it after leaving school is to recognise your new freedom to actively associate with people you like and get on with and avoid the company of people you don't really have anything in common with, and to grab that opportunity tightly and run with it. That's where the positive attention starts coming in.

The way the guy goes on about how life just keeps sucking after high school feels to me as though he is taking his own personal experiences and trying to present them as a universal truth, which is a bad move in general but is particularly difficult to go along with in the context of what he's criticising in the article.
at 01:28 on 01-02-2016, Bill
"the concept of the Force and its Light and Dark Sides, a concept that has probably been the most important contribution to pop-culture ethics in living memory."

Is this what you mean by indulging massively in nerd self-mythologizing? Because I had a hard time taking him seriously after that (although he does make some interesting arguments.)
at 20:57 on 31-01-2016, Arthur B
(Though I don't dig the way the essay slams nerd self-mythologising whilst at the same time indulging in it massively.)
at 20:31 on 31-01-2016, Arthur B
The best essay about Kylo Ren I've read so far.

Spoilers for The Force Awakens, though frankly if you were invested enough in the movie that spoilers would ruin your day you should really have seen it by now.
at 17:06 on 16-01-2016, Ichneumon
"You try telling the young people today that, and they'll be highly sceptical..."
at 15:40 on 16-01-2016, Arthur B
In honour of Alan Rickman, The Toast has dug up the version of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch he did with Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves and Eddie Izzard for Amnesty International's 2001 charity show.
at 18:26 on 15-01-2016, Ichneumon
I remember watching Dan Olson/Folding Ideas' video about the creepy reactionary core of the Gators' ideas and movement, and thinking about how eerily the whole attitude towards gender, race, and sexual orientation exhibited by such folk mirrors Wagner's proposed "annihilation" of Jewishness—which is to say, mass self-abnegation and total cultural assimilation rather than literal extermination. (Translating blustery German Romantics "literally" is an extremely bad idea; the basic principle is alarming enough.)
at 15:48 on 15-01-2016, Arthur B
This article makes a good case that, despite all the bluster about free speech from that quarter, Gamergate is a moral crusade mounted for the sake of defending an orthodox model of what games should be like and about.
at 22:21 on 14-01-2016, Arthur B
If I admit that he will always be Hans Gruber to me I'll be showing my age, won't I?
at 20:36 on 14-01-2016, Robinson L
Word on the internet is that Alan Rickman - best known in my family as Dr. Lazarus/Alexander Dane from Galaxy Quest, and to the rest of the world as Severus Snape from the Harry Potter films - has died. Sad news, even when he was in works unworthy of his talent (Harry Potter, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie) he managed to elevate the material and turn in an engagingly entertaining performance.
at 16:42 on 13-01-2016, Ichneumon
Slightly orthogonal to this, but attempting to finish Undertale in two days (and ultimately failing to do so) utterly devastated my already awful sleep cycle and has... ultimately flipped it around so that I am awake during the day again. How very odd.

I think that there are studies to the effect that gaming, television, and other backlit screen activities tend to be antithetical to the kind of mindset most people need for healthy sleep, but that really doesn't change the fact that having some knowledge and involvement in such interests makes it far easier to say when things need to be put down in the first place. To whit, giving some leeway now and then can reinforce a mutual understanding regarding things like healthy sleep schedules.

Or such is my entirely secondhand experience in the matter. I am well-aware that I am nowhere near stable or mature enough at this juncture to handle having a child, let alone one anything like me, even if observation has given me some ideas about how I might be able to survive the ordeal.
at 21:58 on 12-01-2016, Shim
Some bias comes from proximity, sure, but I don't think it's necessarily wrong that that is the case

@Arthur: I didn't really intend to suggest it was a problem, sorry for any ambiguity. I was just thinking about possible causes and explanations. "My neighbours will be ticked off, social harmony will decrease and I may experience uncomfortable interactions" isn't a bad reason for caring more about potentially disrupting an adult friend's game versus some stranger in another country.
at 15:29 on 12-01-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
Perhaps it is a sign that I would be a bad parent but my instinctive response to "I just need to finish this one thing" at bedtime would be "Well, you should have started it earlier then".

No, that sounds about right. But of course some parents, maybe even a substantial part, might well be clueless for a number of reasons. But parents who are gamers will of course realize what's what. And hopefully impart manners to their children for gaming and other online related activities as well. I don't play that much anymore myself, but I'm lookoing forward to playing with my children, when they get older. The older is quite good at Mario Kart and it adds a new mode to the game, guarding and helping another driver to finish as high as possible, which is pretty interesting. Having to snipe the other karts and push them off the road.
at 11:39 on 12-01-2016, Arthur B
I think it's possible to overestimate the cluelessness of parents in this case, coming as many of us do from a generation whose parents generally didn't know much about videogames. A lot of people I know who are parents of young children are in their 30s or 40s, and are of a generation who are entirely comfortable with games.

Perhaps it is a sign that I would be a bad parent but my instinctive response to "I just need to finish this one thing" at bedtime would be "Well, you should have started it earlier then".

@Shim: Some bias comes from proximity, sure, but I don't think it's necessarily wrong that that is the case. It is true enough that obnoxious behaviour online is still hurtful and you should still treat people like human beings even if you only know them as words on a screen. At the same time, it's eminently easier to block a specific individual acting like a dick online, whereas if someone lives in the same house from you then their bad habits are going to have a correspondingly greater effect on you simply because you can't get away from them.

(Obviously, it is possible for randoms on the internet to do great harm - see what happened with Gamergate. But Gamergate did the damage it did primarily through the sheer quantity of people undertaking the harassment campaign. One person yelling insults at you online is eminently blockable; a hundred is a true pain. And the more alarming bits happened when some people shifted from distant online name calling to direct, credible threats of violence - which, of course, involves taking things to a radically closer proximity.)

That being the case, I don't think it's wrong, irrational, or even a problem to put doing right by the people you actually live with ahead of doing right by comparative strangers you only know through an online game, and part of doing right by the people you're living with involves abiding by the house rules.
at 08:50 on 12-01-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
Perhaps what is needed in general is parents to get involved and clear rules set out for the kids. Games are no doubt a foreign thing for many parents and thus less serious than a game of football or other such social games, which are more of a known quantity. But things which are more familiar to people still have set rules. Games and sports are played in the evenings or during the day, not in the middle of the night, so even if people from around the world might play, local time must be a factor. But I'm sure that things will start to work out when gaming continues its steady progress towards being a perfectly common thing. Perhaps game companies and groups could even encourage this by tying to involve the parents and setting up games with rules taking into account the needs of growing children. Might be a good marketing opportunity and an opportunity to hook up some more people to these games.

In Arthur's thought examples, I would think that parents would be well advised to keep themselves in someway appraised of the games played. Even a four year old will try the old plot that they will "just finish this one thing", even if the thing will go on for hours and they will lie happily to achieve that goal. Which is a perfectly normal thing to do, but one has to stay sharp as a counter-measure.
at 23:19 on 11-01-2016, Shim
I tend to agree with Janne, having much the same experience, and pretty good anecdotal-experimental evidence that maintaining good sleep patterns keeps me brain under control. Which makes me tremendous fun at parties.

The annoying thing is that, like most of these things, it's super easy to ignore what you know to be sensible and stay up all night reading the internet.

Coming back to the article, I feel like online games are in a funny place. Most parents will interrupt what kids are doing to enforce [important thing X] Time, including stopping them playing with their friends, or reading, or making them come home. Friends is probably the closest analogy because it's the only one where you're affecting third parties. But if a child has agreed to play a game of football just before tea, my observation is that football generally loses out.

I'd suggest that there's several things going on. One is that parents prioritise, and Fun Stuff is generally low priority. I'm also confident that many people do see computer games as less real and therefore less important.

Also, proximity is a well-attested point of bias. When you stop a child's online game, you're affecting people you've never met and never will, probably far away; psychologically you care much less about them. If it were a game with other local kids, it would most likely seem more important. If it were a game with adults the parent knew, it would seem more important again - adults are higher status, we tend to subconsciously care more about them, and we're more likely to feel bad about ruining their scarce leisure time. Plus we're more likely to be bothered if they're ticked off at us.

The other thing is that LoL is a quite weird thing, in that it's a leisure activity requiring a group of people for a set (but variable) amount of time. Most leisure activities can be stopped at any point, and either are solo or it doesn't make a huge difference if someone drops out. I suspect maybe it's rare enough that nobody's really comfortable dealing with that situation?
at 22:48 on 11-01-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
On gaming and bedtimes. A child needs it sleep, even if the child is a teenager. Sleep deprivation is linked to learning difficulties and even disabilities, which may limit the child's opportunities in their adulthood. There is robust empirical evidence for this (and I have personal experience of sleep deprivation triggering depression and anxiety in an adult, so good habits in taking care of sleeping will stay valuable). So, a parent that does not take care of their child's need for sleep is neglecting their duties as a parent in providing for their future and this I think, is a bigger concern in this issue than anything else.

Of course how this rest period is enforced can be done in a good or poor way and all sorts of other issues should be taken into account between parent and child, including clear rules for gaming.

And I don't want to sound too strict, since enforcing bedtime rules is pretty simple(a war of attrition mostly) in the case of a four year-old and I just might drop the ball entirely in ten years time, if the kid stays as stubborn as she is now, but the goal and responsibilities of the parent are still pretty straightforward, enough to override most other considerations.