Friday, 4 November 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature

We are constantly bombarded from all directions with news stories and images of various atrocities throughout the world, so it's no surprise that when someone claims that we're actually living in the most peaceful time in human history, a few heads are turned. This is the claim that cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, has made in his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

I haven't read the book yet and am looking forward to doing so (it is a whopping 800-or-so pages, but such a subject is deserving of a full analysis). I did, however, have the pleasure of seeing him do a lecture about his new book at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on the 3rd of November. Unfortunately it wasn't possible for Steven to use a screen to emphasise some of his points with various charts and images, but it just made for more emphasis on what he actually had to say. While violence has not decreased to 0 and there are no guarantees that violence will not increase again in the future, there are reasons to be cheerful.

It seems Pinker has the empirical evidence to back up his claims (the list of source data is hefty), even the catastrophic wars and regimes of the 20th century are part of this decline in violence, it almost seems natural to think that it was the most violent time in human history, but as a % of the world population, World War II barely scrapes into the top ten of the most horrible events of all time. People never seem to cite pre-20th century atrocities in the first place (the Triple Alliance War is thought to have decimated 60% of the population of Paraguay, for example). To justify his claims, Pinker has to account for violent deaths as a % of the world population which may seem a copout for some who could say that a rise in the absolute number of violent deaths would be cause for concern (WWII is the deadliest in terms of absolute numbers), but it's the only fair way to gauge violence over the ages. If you consider that % of world population is not a fair measurement you run into some problems (both morally and rationally). Here is a passage of the book that goes a little way to explaining why a violent deaths as a % of world population is the best way to measure violence over history:

As I note in the book,  “Part of the bargain of being alive is that one takes a chance at dying a premature or painful death, be it from violence, accident, or disease. So the number of people in a given time and place who enjoy full lives has to be counted as a moral good, against which we calibrate the moral bad of the number who are victims of violence. Another way of expressing this frame of mind is to ask, `If I were one of the people who were alive in a particular era, what would be the chances that I would be a victim of violence?’ [Either way, we are led to] the conclusion that in comparing the harmfulness of violence across societies, we should focus on the rate, rather than the number, of violent acts.”

There are many reasons speculated for the decline of violence, abolition of slavery (as of 1980 slavery is now illegal everywhere on the planet) and witchunts, humanitarian and equal rights movements, etc. Printing and literacy get high praise and other enlightenment values, when knowledge and reason have surpassed superstition and ignorance then there is no reason to be violent towards certain groups. Also the increase of literacy can increase the amount of empathy in the world, imagining what it is like to be someone else, is cited as a potential reason. Pinker shows that human nature is complex and while we still have inclinations to be violent, we also have historical circumstances that favour peaceful intentions.

This is not the lecture I witnessed but it is the lecture with which he is currently touring:

I got my books signed afterward (I also have a copy of Words and Rules) and he was kind enough to pose for a photo. It's also interesting to know that Pinker carries a gene that causes baldness in 80% in carriers, clearly he is in the 20%!

So, if Pinker is right (and I think he is), we should be optimistic and even more grateful for enlightenment principles than perhaps we take for granted, but it's important to remember that there is no guarantee that violence will continue to decrease and it would seem foolish to ever speculate it would become 0 (a point he stresses himself). It seems while we need to concentrate on what we as a species has done "right" over history to drive violence down, we shouldn't get complacent. It strikes me that while idiotic ideologies are still rife in the world, coupled with an increase in technology, it may become possible for fewer people to inflict more destruction on more people with less effort. While we still have irrational superstition in the world, and people who are willing to kill in the name of iron age mythology, we have reason to be wary. It seems obvious that reason and rationality will be the driving force towards a more peaceful future if we are to reach one on a much larger global scale.

Since this post, I have read the book, my review is here.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

My favourite video games

I found an article from a couple of years ago that I wrote about my favourite video games, and while I'm in the process of writing a few new articles for this blog (and I'd love to hear any suggestions about other subjects that might be interesting), I thought this would be a handy stop-gap.

When compiling this list, I found myself being drawn into nostalgia, perhaps because I have many more childhood memories with games than I did with other things, anyway, nostalgia or not I have picked games that I have enjoyed immensely since my earliest memories. My main criteria was “how much time did I / do I spend playing this game?” and while the order is fairly loose, I think it’s accurate.

Sensible World of Soccer (PC): This had to be number one, the first Sensible Soccer game was also brilliant, but Sensible World of Soccer added a new element, with tweaked gameplay but the best thing was you could select a team to manage, you could get promoted / relegated, make transfers, it had all the cups, etc. It was just brilliant, a strikeforce of Bebeto and surprise package Gordon Watson (anyone remember him?) who cost a bargain £325k... I was so into this game that I documented my entire 20-season (that's how long it would let you go in one game) history, including all player appearances and goals, transfers in and out, etc, etc. I had 2 A4 binders of the stuff, I think they're still in the attic. I doubt I have racked up more hours on any other game, and I would have thrashed the pants off anybody, I should have entered tournaments.

Counter Strike (PC): Of course, this had to be in here, given that I'm in a clan that is(was) dedicated to the game. I started playing in 1999, I think, when it was CS version 1.3. Many updates have since come and gone but the popularity of the game is still staggering. An online first-person shoot 'em 'up, simple goodies (Counter-Terrorists) versus Baddies (Terrorists), in a variety of maps, simply fantastic times although the family-community that is VMK possibly puts this game higher than it would if it were strictly on a gameplaying basis alone.

Football Manager / Championship Manager (PC): Any longterm fans of this series will know about the split between Football Manager and Championship manager (Football Manager is now very much the title to chose from) but they used to be one and the same. And I couldn't pick between an individual release so it's the whole lot I'm talking about here. I would lose days playing these games, always attempting to drag Oxford (much like in Sensible World of Soccer come to think of it) from the depths of the football league to domestic and European glory. Many people simply don't understand the idea of playing games like these where you don't really "play" the games themselves, but those of us with he bug know what it's about. In one game I even edited myself into the team as a youngster, although I made myself so good that I refused to sign a new contract and buggered off to a bigger club. Lesson learned. It was probably Championship Manager 3 that I have spent most my time on.

Pro Evolution Soccer (PS1 to present day, PS3): When this series started, it began as International Superstar Soccer but in more recent years morphed into Pro Evolution Soccer. The series as a whole has largely been excellent and continues to be lapped up in large numbers with each release. Although recent years has seen Fifa become arguably a better game in the last couple of years, I'm hopeful that Pro Evo can claw back the title of best football game. Playing this against friends had led to many laughs, and many insults!

Mechwarrior 2 (PC): What could be more fun than rumbling around in a giant robot blowing things up? Not many things. Mechwarrior 2 brought with it a sense of graphical awe at the time and this was a very skilful game to play with so many ways you could twist and turn your Mech, the thought of being able to move in one direction but swivel your body in another was great fun. My Dad and I and would play this together usually, I would be in control of the movement while he was the weapons man, and we still joke about him using an AC-20 like it was a machine gun, fun times.

Savage Empire (PC – 386 processor days): Savage Empire was a huge and complex RPG (especially for the time), set in an unknown Jungle land filled with dinosaurs and various tribes, the ultimate goal of the game is to get all the tribes to unite and destroy some kind of evil race. Of course each tribe has its own tasks you have to fulfil before they will join in with your unity, ranging from finding stuff, to killing a T-rex, etc, this game was huge, and fun, and very difficult. You had to communicate with computer characters by typing stuff in, which was also fun but made things difficult if you couldn’t find the right words to say to get more information (imagine how long it took before you even thought of typing the word “unite” for any reason!).

UFO - Enemy Unknown (PC – 486 processor?): This game was immense! Basically you had to save earth from alien invasions, the crux of the game was a turn-based strategy game while in contact with the enemy, but you also had to build up a base, research technology, keep various countries happy (you had a budget each month, the more you kept a country happy the more money they gave you) and just about handle everything you could imagine that would be thrown at you. I’m not sure another game has created such suspense as this.

Quake 2 (PC): Another FPS game but Quake II successfully attempted to bridge a gap between FPS shooters and task-based RPG games while also kicking things up a gear with impressive graphics.

Streetfighter 2: Championship Edition (Mega drive): The best fighting game, who hasn’t heard of Street Fighter? Anyway, this version in particular was the one that caught my fancy. Funnily enough I bought my younger brother one of those things that are essentially a control-pad that you stick into the TV and it has a game on it (imagine back in the day, 1993, that a whole console was needed to play this game), anyway a few months later he was playing it when I visited and he completely kicked my arse. It was a bit like the young pretender finally taking the crown of game-playing, a sad feeling, still, I taught him well.

Gauntlet (Amstrad CPC464): Spent many a day with this, usually playing with my brother, who tended to be the wizard, I would tend to (and have tended to ever since when it comes to games of this ilk) play as the barbarian. Gauntlet was a fantasy hack ‘n’ slash game, you had a birdseye-view, the graphics were simple and the game was hugely playable. The purpose of the game was simply to escape each level, finding the exit after a myriad of dead-ends and huge variety of monsters, if you ever saw “Death” chasing after you (I always thought it looked like a gorilla) then you had to just run! The game never actually ended, to my knowledge, after a certain point the levels would just randomly generate. And if you ever got stuck, you could just sit in the same place for an age (seriously, it felt like hours) and every block would turn into an exit!

Monkey Island 2 (PC): The best adventure game ever, enough said. If you ever played this game then you’ll know just how fun, and difficult it was.

Dune 2 (PC - 486): I’m not sure how many people played this game but it is one of the most influential games ever and essentially established the real-time-strategy games that most people later took for granted like Command & Conquer and Starcraft.

Duke Nukem 3D (PC): “It’s time to kick arse and chew bubblegum, and I’m all out of gum”, those opening lines will always be remembered. Duke Nukem blew away the previous competition (Doom II) with the added ability of being able to jump and explore much more of the world you played in. We used to design levels for this at college and have big multi-player games (sometimes in lesson!) in the same room, very fond memories. It’s also where I decided on my first game name, Albatross, though that changed when Counterstrike came along.

V-Rally 2 (PS1): Many laughs were had with friends playing this game, you could play 4-player split-screen, obviously this is before the age of mega-TVs being more obtainable so 4 people sharing a 20” screen didn’t leave you with a lot of room to look at! However, it was great fun and the single-player game was also mesmerising, not to mention one of the most unforgiving games you’ll ever play, it wouldn’t take much to knock you flying although when you became more skilled at the game it made you appreciate it much more.

Baldur's Gate (PS2): This series of games is significant in the sense that my wife will happily play them, so I get to game without getting moaned at! Balders gate is your typical walk-around hack and slash RPG, but it’s done very well.

Micro Machines up to and including V3 (Megadrive – PS1): The first game I can remember that allowed you to play with more than 2 people at one time (the cartridge housed 2 extra controller slots), brilliant! So you’re racing along against your friends and basically if anyone falls so far behind that they disappear from the screen then they lose a life, which made for great entertainment. The 3V sequel took things to another level with the 3D element of the game, although the original was equally playable.

Double Dragon (Amstrad CPC464): Scrolling beat ‘em up game, basic, but brilliant, and at the end of the game after playing co-op through the whole bloody thing you had to fight each other to get the girl, needless to say when my older brother and I would play this game the fight at the end would sometimes turn into a real fight.

Tomb Raider (PS1): This is brought platform games into the modern world, gone were linear 2-cd landscapes, enter fantastic (at the time) 3D graphics and all sorts of difficult situations in your way.

Bioshock (PS3): One of the current-generation releases in my list, this game reignited my love of single-player FPS games, that had been on the wane since Quake II.

Silkworm (Amstrad CPC464): Another game I would play with my Dad, one of you could be a helicopter, the other could be a jeep, a basic scrolling shoot ‘em up game but great fun.

Descent 1 & 2 (PC - 486): Another FPS-type game but this time you had control of a small ship in often claustrophobic surroundings, the controls were fantastic, given you complete control with its 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) gameplay. This spawned the ultimately superior “Forsaken”, but Descent was where it began.

International Track and Field (PS1): Another communal game, the rivalry my friends and I had on this game was stupendous and also led to many different playing “styles”, I invented the fleece technique, by wrapping my finger up in my fleece I could glide over the buttons with great speed rather than trying to tap each one separately.

Honourable mentions:
Resident Evil (PS1):
Sonic the Hedgehog (Master System)
Diablo (PC)
Speedball 2 (Mega Drive)