All posts by Malgayne

About Malgayne

Community Manager at Google. Formerly at Sourcebits, Spark Plug Games, Zynga, and I like chiptunes and hefeweizen.

To Those Concerned About “Real Men”

ImageThere have been a lot of articles written lately, I have noticed, on the subject of manhood—specifically, the dearth of what the writers fondly call “real men.” A few days ago someone I know shared an article citing Ray Romano as the embodiment of what’s wrong with modern men. Just this morning I was linked to another article about “Why Men Aren’t Really Men Anymore.”

These are just instances in a long line of recent articles about how the paradigm of manhood is changing. I find the topic to be absolutely fascinating, and I’d like to take this opportunity to see if I can contribute in some small way to the conversation. So with that in mind:

Dear people who write articles calling for a return to the “real manhood” of the old days: Fuck you.

Articles like this infuriate me, because they’re so close to hitting on a fundamental truth…and at the same time, they’re so far away.

The fact is, there are two critical, necessary ingredients to being a “real man.” The first is power, confidence, potence, badassery, Alpha. The manhood that makes you somebody that nobody fucks with. This is the aspect of manhood to which so many people seem to be calling for a return.

The Coldbomb article above identifies Don Draper and Tony Soprano as alternatives to Ray Romano. But the same article goes on to say, “Still, if you get past Tony’s tendency to murder loved ones and friends as a matter of convenience, and Don’s massive identity theft that has rendered his whole life a lie…” as though these are not critical parts of these characters’ identity. This doesn’t work. It’s definitely unfortunate when modern men seem to emulate Ray Romano, but murderers and thieves aren’t exactly ideal archetypes of masculinity either.

There is a second characteristic that is required to be a “real man,” and that characteristic is kindness, sensitivity, compassion, Beta. These qualities are typically mentioned in the articles, but only ever in passing—and some articles specifically cite them as signs of weakness, things to be looked down upon.

The fact is, no matter how much of a pathetic sad-sack of a man Ray Romano’s character may be…he’s a compassionate, sensitive, loving husband who genuinely cares for his family. He’s not a masculine ideal—I get it. But neither is Tony Soprano. BOTH of them are incomplete examples of manhood. The Coldbomb article acknowledges this—lamenting the lack of any kind of complete masculine ideal in media.

To be a real man, you have to be BOTH of these things—compassionate and powerful, confident and sensitive, Alpha and Beta. That is the ONLY way to be a real man, and anything else falls short of the masculine ideal. Having power and confidence without compassion and sensitivity makes you a douchebag. Having sensitivity and compassion without power and confidence makes you a sad-sack.

The reason why we keep seeing all of these articles coming out lately is because we’re undergoing a slow shift in the paradigm of modern manhood, away from Alpha and towards Beta.

Whenever a shift like this happens, you always see people who lament the direction things are going and wish we could go back to the way things were. That’s exactly what these articles are doing. But reality check time—the way things were was seriously fucked up, and we’re STILL massively wrapped up in it. We’re still deeply enmeshed in misogyny and patriarchy. This tiny, slight move towards a more “Beta” archetype of modern manhood has people so freaked out that they’re desperately writing articles about how to bring back the way things used to be.

But that’s not the way it works. We’re moving away from one flawed model of manhood, and towards another. The All-Beta sad-sack is a broken archetype of manhood, and not one we should be holding up as an ideal…but so is the All-Alpha douchebag.

What makes me angry is that as a society, we’re moving away from being douchebags and towards being sad-sacks…and all anyone can write about is how we need to go back to the good old days of douchebaggery.

Fuck that. That’s not what being a Real Man is.

A “real man” has the balls to go up and talk to a woman he thinks is attractive…but a Real Man has the balls to politely leave her own when she indicates she isn’t interested. A “real man” won’t back down from a fight…but a Real Man knows how to end a fight safely, and knows how to leave his opponent a way to exit gracefully. A “real man” has power…a Real Man knows how to exercise it responsibly.

Let’s see some articles about that, hm?

A Word About Depression

Between the recent tragic passing of Aaron Swartz, and the increase in interest in mental health care following the Sandy Hook massacre, I’ve seen a lot of confusion and misunderstanding lately about the role of anti-depressant medication, and the increased risk of suicide and homicidal behavior. I want to set the record straight on this.

Anti-depressant medication, in particular SSRI’s like Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Effexor, etc., have been linked to an increased risk for suicidal behavior. But not for the reasons most people seem to think.

When someone is suffering from clinical depression, it causes a number of symptoms. One is the actual sadness from which the condition draws its name—depressed people frequently feel lonely, miserable, abandoned, and that life is not worth living. Another symptom of depression, though, is a lack of energy, and a lack of motivation. Many people with clinical depression are so depressed that it actually prevents suicide—because how can you go through all the motions of finding a way to kill yourself when you can’t even convince yourself to get out of bed in the morning?

For clinically depressed patients, SSRI’s frequently work on both of these different symptoms. But in a number of cases, the patient will see an improvement in one set of symptoms before the other. What this means is that every so often, you wind up with a patient who begins to recover from his lack of energy and lack of motivation, without immediately recovering from his feelings of sadness, loneliness, and the conviction that life is not worth living.

The result: Someone who is still miserable, and still convinced that suicide is their only option—but who for a brief window, has the energy and conviction to do something about it. Suicide.

This is not a signal that anti-depressant medication does not work.

In fact, it’s a signal that anti-depressant medication DOES work—it’s a sign that the patient is getting better. But taking anti-depressants is something that should not be done lightly, and should not be done without close, careful supervision from medical professionals and from loved ones who are AWARE OF THE POSSIBLE CHANGES IN BEHAVIOR that can result from taking anti-depressants.

I beg of you, do not jump on this as an opportunity to dismiss psychiatric medication as quackery, or “crazy pills,” or anything like that. By doing so, you contribute to the stigma of depression, and make it harder and harder for people who have psychiatric problems to seek the help they need.

Starflight Stick-to-it-ive-ness

Things are slowing down a bit here, as you may have noticed. Unfortunately, I appear to have over-volunteered myself for leisure activities, like this one.

A number of different side projects have been on my plate lately—Starflight and this blog, a desire to contribute to OCReMix (and a brand new copy of Ableton Live, thanks to Vyxor), and of course a desire to get into both physical and financial shape. There are also a ton of wonderful games to play—Diablo 3 and Mass Effect 3 with friends, Galaxy on Fire 2 on iOS, and now—thanks to my wife’s urging—a recently re-activated copy of World of Warcraft.

Between this and increasing work commitments, we’ll see how long Starflight can hold up. I certainly intend to try to keep posting here, but don’t be surprised if the rate of posting slows down a bit.

Starflight Part 5: A Few Actual Things Happen

So after a brief respite I dive back into Starflight, in the hopes of actually exploring a bit of the galaxy. After a bit of work I’m getting a little more comfortable with the UI, and I’ve started being able to enter codes from the manual in record time.

I’ve explored a number of the planets in the local system and accumulated enough wealth in the form of mineral resources to begin the process of training  up my crew, and outfitting my ship:

Not exactly the hottest vehicle in known space, but I should be able to handle myself in an emergency. In the process of outfitting the ship, I’ve discovered some interesting things:

  • The scale of the universe. The idea of doing a complete exploration of the game universe is inconceivable. The sheer amount of room on even a single planet is huge, and exploring even a single one might take all day—especially because the range of my terrain vehicle is limited. In order to explore the entirety of a planet I’d have to land, rove out to maximum range, return to the ship, move it, and land again each time. The range of the terrain vehicle is minuscule compared to the size of most of the planets in the starting galaxy, and I assume they get bigger—and the scale of the planet is such that taking off and landing adjacent to your take-off location is extremely difficult. If I take off, move one pixel over and land again, I’m not sure I’d have enough fuel in my terrain vehicle to reach my initial take-off location from the new landing site.
  • Planets continue in their orbit when you leave the system. That one made it difficult to get back to the starbase at least once.
  • The reason for the mission. A new message has been sent to my operations console indicating the real reason for the mission—it seems that the star that the current human homeworld orbits around has become unstable, and we’re off looking for candidates for new colony worlds.
  • And perhaps most importantly, Starflight is not turn-based. I had originally been under the impression that while I was futzing around in the menus, the action would wait for me in order to continue. This is not so—the game continues counting time in the background while I do my work. This has led to a number of occasions in which several days have passed while our intrepid captain tries to count the number of planets in the system to figure out if they’re in orbit around planet IV or planet V. I’m not sure what our science officer is doing all this time. Sleeping?

Join us next time as we have our first encounter with alien life, and promptly shoot it in the face!

Starflight Part 4: Through A Glass, Darkly

One of the things I find the most interesting about this era of gaming is the clunky UIs.

The UI in Starflight is a nightmare by modern standards—almost by any standards, really. But the reason why it’s a nightmare is because to the developers of Starflight, the consistency of the game’s internal logic trumped any considerations of  usability.

This isn’t something that happens in modern games. For example, in the gap between Mass Effect 1 and 2, weapons shifted from a heat-based system (where weapons had unlimited ammunition, but needed brief breaks to keep from overheating) to a clip-based system where weapons needed to be reloaded after a certain number of shots. We’re expected to believe that in the 2 years before Mass Effect 2 took place, every single weapon in the galaxy was retrofitted to work on this new, modular, interchangeable system—never mind the fact that the 63-year old AK-47 is still one of the most commonly used weapons in the world today.

Now of course, no one thinks about this difficulty for too long. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we don’t care—because a reload-based clip system is more fun to play than the overheating-based system they originally designed, and because gameplay trumps world-building.

This is a standard of modern gaming—the quality of your gameplay is more important than the internal consistency of your game’s fictional universe. That’s fine, and in general I think it’s a good way for games to be. But every so often you have a hankering to play a game that’s like peeking through a window into an alternate universe, even if the window itself is smudgy and hard to see through.

There are a number of modern independent titles whose success can be attributed to this phenomenon—Dwarf Fortress, which gives us an impossibly detailed 3D world only visible through ASCII, or Ancient Domains of Mystery, a roguelike RPG which actually forces you to de-equip your gloves before it allows you to equip a ring. Even Minecraft has an inkling of it. But to really see it, you need to go back to the old days—and Starflight is a perfect example.

This is the planetary exploration screen in Starflight. In the center is my planetary rover, to the left (in blue) is my ship, and above it is a node of mineral resources that I can gather for later sale.

A number of things stand out to me here, but the most dramatic is that the planetary surface is represented purely symbolically. No attempt is made to actually show you visually what the planet genuinely looks like—systems at the time didn’t have the graphical capability. The terrain is only indicated using grey and white squares, each individual square representing a kilometer. Those colors don’t represent ice or snow, they represent altitude—lighter colors are higher. Minerals are denoted by a symbol, not by any attempt to actually display a vein of chromium. If you want some idea of what the planet’s surface actually LOOKS like, you need to look at the bottom of the screen for a text description.

And yet, with this simple text description. the planet itself comes to life. I can look through the smudgy window of my planetary terrain vehicle and see the barren, grey rock and dirt surface, and the clear sky.

This isn’t the only occasion where the UI is difficult to navigate, but consistent with itself. This is the screen the game shows you when you try to land on a planet:

The landing screen above will give you a rough idea of the topology of the planet, but the image to the right is actually a Mercator projection of a spherical planet surface. Later games, like Star Control 2, used a simple square map that wrapped around to the opposite side if you went too far, like a Pac-Man level. Not so Starflight—they’re willing to accept all of the bizarre interface issues caused by trying to represent a spherical surface on a 2-dimensional plane, because it’s more important to them that their universe be consistent than accessible.

Likewise, if you look here:

…you can see the interface that I use to maneuver from planet to planet within the system. Note that each of the menu items is broken down by the actual crew officer who is responsible for that particular task. This makes a lot of sense, to be sure—if you actually have a crew of five to help you play the game. In terms of actual gameplay, though, it often means that the different functions which you normally use together—or at the same time—actually are buried in several entirely different nested menus.

For example, if I wanted to leave the starport, travel to another nearby planet and land, I would select the “Captain” menu and choose “Launch,” so as to give the order to leave the starport. But the captain doesn’t actually pilot the ship—that responsibility lies with the navigator. So you have to exit the “Captain” menu and select the “Navigator” menu, and then choose “Maneuver” to travel to the other planet. Once you arrive, you have to exit the “Navigator” menu and select “Captain” again to give the order to land, and disembark the ship.

All this is frustrating to be sure, but at the same time it’s weirdly charming. The idea of having to select my different crew members in each step reminds me that I DO have crew members, and subtly suggests the interplay between captain and crew as we traverse the solar system. By forcing me to use my imagination to picture the planet’s surface (especially in light of the recent landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity), I wind up conjuring images more fantastic than any the game could have shown me. And the fact that I have to enter a security code every time I leave the goddamn starport becomes…well, let’s say “bearable.”

Join us next time as we explore exotic new worlds and exploit their mineral resources for personal gain!