Monday, August 31, 2009

What Does a Disney Buyout of Marvel Mean Creatively?

Lots of buzz around the Intertubes today about the Disney buyout of Marvel. Interestingly, this has really made me think that it's time for The Walt Disney Company to change its name to something vastly more neutral. It might even make sense to do one of those corporate renamings where the new name is some variant of an English word, but just skewed enough to be trademarkable.

As an example, one person suggested that this was, "bad news for anyone who like mature-themed comics and movies," in a Slashdot feedback post. The problem with this is that Disney is a giant holding corporation that owns everything from Hannah Montana to Kill Bill to Queen. Since the mid-1990s, Disney really hasn't resembled the original Walt Disney Corporation (even though they continue on as one of the many Disney brands).

I'm not a big fan of Marvel comics. I've enjoyed Joss Whedon and Warren Ellis's work for them, but then I'd enjoy their work for the sanitation planning department (actually, no, don't let Ellis near my city's planners, thank you very much, but you get the idea...) There's nothing that I think will be lost once Marvel, an already behemoth corporation, is absorbed by an even larger behemoth. But that doesn't really have anything to do with Disney and what they'll do to the brand. It has to do with the risks that you don't take when you're in charge of billions of dollars worth of intellectual property.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online

Turbine, Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online logos - all copyrights held by their respective owners.
Turbine has two MMOs out that I've tried recently. One is Dungeons & Dragons Online. What I've been playing is the DDO Unlimited beta, which will launch a new free-to-play service on top of their existing MMO starting in early September. Frankly, I'm disappointed in this. Its flaws are legion, and it really doesn't add anything new to the MMO gaming experience that I feel I need. However, as a break from WoW, I was going to give it a shot... until something fun happened.

While testing DDO Unlimted, the downloader started queuing a beta for the next Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) update. I tried it out and liked it enough to start playing the live version, and I haven't looked back at WoW or DDO since (slight lie, I logged into DDO last night to wave goodbye as they prepared to take the beta servers down for the last time before launch).

What follows are my experiences with both games.

First off: DDO. What I like about this game doesn't outweigh what I dislike, but there are plenty of items in both categories. Its faith to the core D&D 3.5 (or is it 3.0?) rules is fairly good. Of course, a video game has different pacing and needs, and that shows. There are more way-points in the leveling experience and feats have been broken up to give you more progression and less waiting for some future level when you'll get to be useful.

What I really liked was the instancing. Nearly every quest involves an instance, even if it's just a single room house where you'll defend boxes from kobolds. This makes questing much less contentious, but for me it also reduced the amount of social play I felt I needed to engage in. I don't mind leveling solo, but if you do, this might be a small minus. Then again, joining groups to run instances is really easy.

Repair and general selling of loot was easy, but I'll touch more on this in the negatives. PvP areas are clearly marked, which was nice. And one of the most important things: the starting area quests were very nice and smooth introductions to the game mechanics and encounter models. I really appreciated that. Interestingly, this is also something that LOTRO gets right, and which WoW really just doesn't.

Obviously, the game is now free, which is a big benefit. You do not need to buy anything with real-world money, but I plunked down $6 to see what it would get me. The dungeons you can buy are very detailed and large, but the thing that bothered me is that their store has almost no indication of how many players you should have for each add-on adventure pack. The correct answer turns out to be "a full group" in every example I saw, so be aware that adventure packs aren't solo content (unless you're out-leveling them).

The down sides, however, are the reasons I won't be playing DDO when it launches, so let's talk about those. First off, one major issue I have with all non-WoW MMOs I've tried is that WoW spoiled me with add-ons. Users can re-write the UI from the ground up, adding new functionality that's as complex as they want to code. In DDO, that's simply not the case, and I found myself wanting things like a mod that would select what to sell to a vendor, manage bars for me in a better way, etc. This hurts most of all when you deal with the auction house. Auctioneer is the single most game-changing mod in WoW (with questhelper coming a close second), and you just don't realize how much it's come to mean until you don't have it. But, these are things I expect to run into in other games, and I don't hold it against DDO too much that it's not WoW. (Note: Turbine claims that a mod-authoring system for LOTRO is in the works, just not launched yet, but it's not clear what this means for other games of theirs.)

Serious DDO issues exist on their own terms, however. There are three classes of vendor loot. One class you can simply sell to any vendor. One class are items that would be useful to players (gear, scrolls, etc.) and will sell just find to normal vendors, but you get more money selling them to vendors that would sell that kind of item... but, you can't sell it to them if they already have too many of that item. This gets annoying, and eventually I just started selling all such items to regular vendors, taking a huge cash inflow hit. The third type of item are useless to vendors, but have special NPCs you can turn them in to for different kinds of loot depending on the NPC. Nice idea, poor execution. There are a dozen of these NPCs, and you have to go around to each of them every time your bags fill up to sell off the piles and piles of crap you have accumulated. Not fun, Turbine; not fun at all. This could be fixed in one quick move: simply add an NPC that will take all of this sort of item that you have, all at once, and return to you the appropriate loot rewards. This would speed the after-instancing bookkeeping tremendously and improve the game for me by a lot.

Second up is the difficulty of dungeons. I ran into some that I could not conquer until I out-leveled them, even on solo mode. Some, which had no solo mode, were trivially soloed before I was of appropriate level. In one or two cases there are warnings (most of these are actually trivial) but in most cases, it's not clear to me how we're supposed to know which dungeons are reasonable. My sense is that the game is just not tuned for solo play at all, which is fine, but they should either fix that or slap more warnings on dungeons to indicate that solo play isn't really an option (Lightfoot dungeon in the Marketplace, I'm looking at you!) This also gives the impression that they've not done a lot of thinking about balancing the leveling content out to ensure a smooth leveling experience. My caveat, here, his that I only got to level 5, so it may get better or not.

OK, so to sum up: DDO Unlimited is uneven, but certainly for a free game, I think it's worth the price (essentially the download time). Try it out, but don't be shocked if 10-15 dollars per month starts to sound good after you do.

LOTRO is another thing entirely. When I first moved from EverQuest (EQ) to WoW, I found that the game felt very much like an "answer" to EQ. In other words, it did most of the same things, but where EQ did something annoying, WoW addressed it. Corpse runs were much more pleasant, the UI was much more configurable, questing was worth doing, instances made quest mob-camping mostly a thing of the past, etc. The game was clearly designed by people who played EQ and understood it enough for their game to be a rebuttal.

So, enter LOTRO. This game feels like a rebuttal to WoW, but in some ways it fails and in some ways it succeeds brilliantly. One of the first things you'll notice, but won't get a good sense of for a bit is that the overall feel of the graphics and the aesthetic sense that the game has, is very, very different from either EQ or WoW. It's a much less explicitly fantastic feel, and really doesn't seem like a fantasy game at all until you see a ghost or some other fantastic creature at later levels. Sure, it's low-tech looking, but even the orcs aren't really all that strange looking. They just look like ragged humans unless you zoom in. Elves have pointed ears and dwarves and hobbits are short... but that's not much in the way of fantasy flavor. In a strange way, this makes the fantasy "pop" all the more. When you see someone throw a lightning bolt or wield a flaming sword it really makes you sit up and take notice.

The next thing you'll notice is that inventory management is fairly klunky. Yeah, that doesn't really get any better, and the UI needs serious attention. There's issues of what right-clicking means. If you're interacting with your bags, it means "use or equip," but if you're looking at your items through a vendor, it means "sell" and if you're looking at the contents of a container, it means "take." This leads, all too often, to wearing or eating something that you meant to store in your vault (bank) or sell. There's also the bags... no search, very inspecific looking icons... color borders for item quality are too small and hard to distinguish... The game really needs an inventory management overhaul that resembles WoW with ARKInventory or one of the similar bag mods.

On playability, I just want to make some high level negative notes before I get into what I like:
  • There's too much travel at low levels when you don't have a mount. They need to cut this down or increase run speed (playing a hunter helps, but not a lot).
  • On a related point, decreasing the milestone (hearthstone in WoW terms) cooldown would help a great deal.
  • The Auction house needs to provide some pricing stats in the post window.
  • The Auction house should also not default the price of a stack of items based on the previous stack price, but on the previous per-item price. I really hurt myself selling a stack of 20+ silver bars for the same price I'd just listed 3.
  • Quest tracking is black magic to me. Improvements that would help are: pinning a goal should extend to followups; removing a quest from the tracker should pull in another quest to replace it; there should be a "reset tracker" option; "cancel" is a bad label for "abandon quest."
So, it sounds like I hate it. Not so. This is a really good game, and the real win is in the details. Creatures that "threaten" to attack make gathering skills much more reasonable, and I actually don't mind going around gathering up ore or wood in this game. Also, the trade skill animations are amazing. WoW's animations always seemed a bit cheesy, but now I'd have a really hard time not simply laughing at them. When you make leather from hides, you actually whip out a stretching frame and scrape down the hide. It's stunningly detailed! They do need better descriptions of how the professions map to individual skills (e.g. if you're an "explorer" that just gives you a pre-set group of three skills).

The built-in quest tracker with location info is nice, though I always have a hard time figuring out when and under what circumstances it doesn't have location info (which seems to sometimes be associated with quest targets being indoors).

However, the real item that will retain my interest is the class mechanics. I've played four classes now up to at least the teens, and I'm thrilled with all of their mechanics. Each class has some way to "build up" to more complex skills, much like rogues in WoW, and each of them does so in a different way. There are also equivalents of "talents" from WoW, but instead of getting them based on your level alone, you actually have to use the appropriate skills in order to "earn" or "unlock" access to each trait before you can go to a bard to allocate your traits. This gives you a chance to start doing something new, but to slowly become better at it as both you and your character get used to the new role.

On that point, most classes can do more than one thing. My rune-keeper is either a healer or a nuker, and can switch with minimal difficultly between the two on an encounter-by-encounter basis. The same is true for most other classes, though the healer/nuker roles of the rune-keeper are probably the most extreme difference in play style.

I find the solo game to be fun in LOTRO, but escort quests are fundamentally a harder thing than in many other games, since the NPCs are much weaker and seem to attract agro easier than in WoW, for example. However, the death mechanic is quite forgiving of small mistakes and the quests are nicely varied. It can be hard to tell what quests are intended for groups (I know there's an indication somewhere, but I can never find it), which is one down-side.

There are also quest chains that follow you from character creation through to the end-game, which I find very appealing. This allows a character to pursue their epic quest line, but at the same time pick up other quests along the way to level appropriately.

The stunning part of the game, though, are the roleplaying (RP) touches. If you're someone who likes to RP in other MMOs, you're going to love LOTRO. There are a dizzying array of non-combat clothing options and dyes. There are personal housing options that you can customize to death and lots and lots of emotes, even making WoW look rather sad. During the current summer, there are even dance-emote-related quests where you have to dance with an NPC in order to gain access to new emotes. LOTRO doesn't require using its RP features, but if that's your thing I can't recommend the game highly enough!

So overall, I'd suggest LOTRO over DDO Unlimited, but both are decent games at a minimum. If you're a WoW player who is burned out and looking for something else to do until the next expansion comes out, like myself, then I recommend checking out LOTRO. It's a really reasonable stop-gap.

However, the lack of a mod-authoring system (for now) makes the games feel slightly more clunky than I think they need to, so I'll likely go back to WoW when the expansion comes out... or so I think now. We'll see how I feel when I'm higher level.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Michael Moore's Latest Film: Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore, director of Capitalism: A Love Story

The trailer for Capitalism: A Love Story is out, and frankly, I have no idea what to make of it. I respect Moore's dogged pursuit of a vision of the truth that you just won't see on television news. The interviews he conducts can be insightful and provocative, but at the same time, he can be a real ass. The problem with looking at a trailer like this one is that it's the bits where he's an ass that make for great trailer material, so I can't tell if this is a Bowling For Columbine-like film where he's annoying (or downright reprehensibly rude) for 10% of the film, and shockingly insightful for the other 90% or if it's just more of the Fahrenheit 9/11-style yelling at people and trying to construct situations where someone will get annoyed enough at him to take a swing. Honestly, the trailer paints the latter picture, but I'd like to hope... I'd like to hope that the old Roger & Me director has returned to remind us all that going out and interviewing the people affected by world-shaping events can never be replaced by filming a panel of "experts" in a studio.

Unrealistic? Probably, but it's a kind of unrealism I'm comfortable with. I'll probably watch it, but if he just yells at people for the entire film, I may well give up on future Moore works.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Mayo Burger

Sometimes I have hamburger around that's less than fresh (queue comforting music and soft focus). Typically, it's been frozen and thawed (perhaps even in the microwave) and it just doesn't hold together well enough to make a good burger from. When this happens, I usually just use a generic meatloaf recipe, and then make my hamburger patties from that instead of just plain meat. Here's my go-to recipe:
1 lb meat (85% works well, but you can mix in veal or pork as well)
1 large egg
1/4 cup bread crumbs, unseasoned
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
hot sauce to taste
Mix this by hand, folding and squeezing until it becomes uniform, and form patties onto a plate to prepare for the grill or pan.

Last night I find that I'm caught with no egg. Remembering a wonderful recipe for Mayonnaise Chocolate Cake in The Cake Bible that substituted mayonnaise for its composite ingredients: egg and oil, I reached for my big tub of mayo. This made the whole mixture more oily, so I added a bit of extra bread crumb:
1 lb meat (85% works well, but you can mix in veal or pork as well)
1 tbsp mayonnaise
1/3 cup bread crumbs, unseasoned
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
hot sauce to taste
The resulting burgers held together perfectly, were delicious, moist and just perfect all the way around. I can't recommend these strongly enough!

Death Panels AKA Advanced Care Plan: I Finally Get It

For a long time, I really didn't understand the debate over so-called "death panels." I'd read the news. I'd read the text of the law. I'd gone back and forth, but never really got it. Now I see where the mistake was made, and why so many people are (incorrectly) upset. It's a subtle thing, but one that really can't be ignored. I finally got it when I read the recent rebuttal to former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey's comments on The Daily Show.

Here's what the crux of it is: the law (as it stands today) says that doctors can (mind you, *can*) report on some quality metrics and receive some extra payment from Medicare, above and beyond the normal payment. This amounts to a small (2%) bump in what they get paid, and they get to determine what quality metrics to report. There's just a requirement that the report on a minimum number of them. One of the (again, existing) metrics is having discussed how you want issues such as life support dealt with. Right now, that's it. You just have to report on the percentage of patients that you've had the conversation with and who have then either created appropriate documents or signed a statement saying that they don't wish to.

The new law, built into the health care reform legislation, would add a new criteria: you would also report on the percentage of times that those wishes are carried out. Therein lies the rub...

You see, this has been mis-interpreted as saying that doctors will be penalized (e.g. won't get that extra 2%) if they allow you to change your mind. This is not what the legislation says. What it says is that the doctor has to report on their enacting of the conditions of your advance care planning wishes. If you are conscious and able to communicate your wishes, then advance care planning doesn't enter into play, and thus no reporting would ever be necessary, but the way it's being portrayed is exactly the opposite.

Now, there are some gotchas. For example, you might become lucid; say "don't unplug me;" and then go back under. What now? The doctor has to decide if they should honor your stated wishes in writing or your stated wishes in person. Today, doctors and next of kin make that choice together (or should... law or no, there are always abuses). Under this law, nothing would change except for the after-the-fact review which doctors could choose to participate in or not.

This is the "death panel." An optional reporting system which considers any choice by the patient to be equally valid (e.g. your advance care planning documents might well request that every effort be made to maintain your vital statistics, and there's nothing wrong with that). Not much of a "death panel" is it? Personally, I'm disappointed. I expected there to be real, substantive debate over this legislation, but instead we're reduced to blowing minor details out of proportion and then inventing imaginary scenarios under which they become literally life-or-death issues.

This isn't the fault of conservatives. This is the fault of a minority of conservatives who push an agenda of deception and "big lie" propaganda. Don't get me wrong; they're not alone. There are a minority of liberals who enjoy exactly the same tactics. The problem is that neither one of these groups represent the majority of Americans, and we really need to demand that they shut up and let us be heard over the din of their trial-by-shouting form of debate. There are some very smart people capable of propelling this debate forward in useful ways, but they don't get a chance to be heard because they say boring things like, "of course the U.S. should have a baseline of healthcare like every other developed nation in the world, but we need to decide if we want to model it on one of the dozen or so systems that are working out there today, or if we need something unique, and if so what. Then we need to get to work on the hard part: transitioning all of our spread-out healthcare programs into the new plan so that we don't just make the problem worse." See? That has no media "zing." It just doesn't sell. So instead, we have an ill-considered rush to push forward a single, probably flawed plan before anyone can build up enough shouting to get it stopped.


Monday, August 24, 2009

iPhone Jailbreak and GV Mobile

I was unhappy enough about the lack of Google Voice on the iPhone to go out and buy an Android phone on the spot, but I figured it was the financially prudent thing to do to see what I could do with the iPhone first. I'd heard that the jailbreak community had put out one of the now-banned AppStore apps for Grand Central (now Google Voice) called GV Mobile, so I set out to check it out. What follows are my experiences and what I think of the whole thing.

First off, I hit Google, searching for jailbreak walkthroughs and found a page that gave some very nice, step-by-step instructions. I followed these and quickly had my phone running the Cydia installer. From there, I just had to search for "GV" and installed the app. Once installed, it shows up just like any other iPhone app. Nothing surprising there.

It did crash on me the first time I used it. If you do follow my lead, I suggest exiting and re-running the app as soon as you enter your Google Voice username and password and selecting the "remember" toggle. That way, you don't have to do that part over again if there's a problem.

So, it isn't at first obvious what this app does. It's not actually dialing out. Instead, it uses the same technology that Google Voice's "Web badges" use. That is, it's going to call your cell phone and simultaneously call your requested number and connect you. That way, the caller gets your Google Voice number as the callback instead of your iPhone number. you can also initiate a call from your iPhone, but have it ring any other phone to connect (e.g. your desk or home). That's what the "phone to ring" option is in the first menu you'll see.

The interface to the contact list and dialer are as expected. The only thing that irked me was that when loading the SMS, history or voicemail screens, it has to wait while it loads the data from the Web. I understand why this is the case, but it seems to me as if this could be optimized (e.g. by showing you cached data while it loads more in the background).

Voice mails play fine, though they have a noticeable pause before they start. Nothing I can't live with. It doesn't show me the transcripts along-side the voicemail, but I already have that sent to my phone via SMS, so no worries there.

Overall, I like the integration, and it was well worth having to jailbreak my phone. Who knows, perhaps I'll even test out some of the other features like the "modem" and running various shells and servers. There's a lot Apple doesn't let you do with your iPhone that I really think is worth doing. Sad. Maybe I'll check out those Android phones anyway....

Friday, August 21, 2009

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm: No Neutral Goblins; Lots of Flying

Goblins and Worgen from World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Goblins and Worgen as depicted on's Cataclysm site

The word is out, and some of what I've predicted here is right, and some is wrong. Goblins won't be a neutral race, sadly (I really think this would have helped WoW by implying that at least one race is capable of dividing politics from the color of their skin....)

However, Goblins will be one of the two new races. Worgen will be the other. There will be flying mounts in the old world, which we've been asking for forever. Also many of the long-in-the-works items will be in Cataclysm:
  • Uldum
  • Gilneas (home of the Worgen)
  • Rated battlegrounds
The really exciting part about this expansion is that it will re-shape most of the old world, and place high and low level players in the same continents again. For PvP servers, this may not be a win, but for the rest of the servers, it's going to be nice to get a sense again that there are other players around, and not just glimpse the occasional other leveling player.

There'a lot of art samples up on MMO-Champion (who have been predicting a lot of what's coming up over the past month or two) and they've also put up a FAQ that's quite helpful, though they don't explain where it came from (something at Blizzcon, one imagines). has a really cool map up and a liveblog of the whole announcement panel.

C|Net tried to cover the announcement, but they can't even keep the links on their brief WoW article working. I'll get more info and add it here, as I can.

Other details:
  • Level cap 85
  • Worgen will be able to transform to/form wolf form
  • Goblins will save Thrall after being decimated by Deathwing, which is why the remaining goblins join the Horde
  • Large scale use of phasing (where your actions can place you in a different version of a zone than others see) will be part of the expansion
  • Every raid encounter will have a hard-mode

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Felicia Day Bringing the Funny: Do You Wanna Date My Avatar

In a music video send-up of online sex-chat ("cybor") done in collaboration with Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon (the writers/authors of Dollhouse's DVD-only Epitaph One, co-collaborators on Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog and much other goodness) Felicia Day's video and single based on characters from The Guild has been released. Of course, its title had to have more parenthetical than actual title: (Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar (feat. Felicia Day).

What can one say about a video like this... it's at once silly, iconic, funny, sad, accurate, even a bit sexy which is something Day's signature confused shyness has always held back. Overall, it's a knockout performance both in video and audio for Day. There's far too little of the other characters, though Vork and Zaboo have a nice, but all to brief duo. I got the impression that Robin Thorsen and Amy Okuda were not entirely sold on the idea of a video. Hopefully if this does well, we'll see more of them in upcoming efforts. Who knows, maybe there'll even be a The Guild album!

A Plan for Copyright Reform

I've been following the recent loss of rights to Superman, and what it will mean for DC Comics AKA Time/Warner AKA one of the handful of legal owners of modern American culture. Copyright expiration's benefits should now be obvious to Time Warner whose vice-like grip on Superman lasted so long that even the most obscure flaw in their copyright was uncovered. If they had been forced to continuously update their portfolio, this would never have been an issue, as they would have long since transitioned their brand identification over to newer intellectual property, rather than being forced to suddenly surrender a large portion of their interest in it.

A while back, I wrote up this plan for copyright reform that addresses such issues and explains how copyright reform benefits consumers and producers of copyrighted content.

Executive summary for those in a hurry:
  • Copyrights should expire after 10 years, but be renewable up to twice.
  • Those works which return dramatically well on their investment, and become significant to the culture should be denied renewal in order to free up our cultural touchstones for derivative works, ease of access and so forth (examples are given that demonstrate how this would benefit producers and consumers).
  • A phased approach should gradually ease the system into place to avoid administrative bottlenecks.

Copyright in the U.S. is a Constitutionally-mandated system that seeks to achieve a singular benefit: the enrichment of the public domain. It seeks to do this through providing creators of copyrightable works with a period of time when they can reap the benefits of their works exclusively, but in exchange they will eventually lose all protection and the work will enter the public domain.

So, in order to understand this fully, we need to understand what the public domain is. At its simplest, the public domain is our culture. It is the combination of symbols that we all understand, phrases that carry common meaning, works that we can all derive from or modify, etc. As an example, the works of Shakespeare are all in the public domain. There is no restriction on movie directors making a new version of Hamlet, nor are there any prohibitions against the creation of derivative works such as West Side Story (based on Romeo and Juliet) or Forbidden Planet (based on The Tempest). Because these works can be re-told in any form from a faithful reproduction to a radically different story told within the context of the original (such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), our culture can continue to adapt their meaning in order to be relevant.

Copyright therefore, seeks to enrich the public domain by making the creation and publication of works profitable for a time in exchange for their eventual release. Discussion of the public domain, of course, can't exist without a discussion of fair use, and for that I direct you to an excellent fair use piece on the Google Public Policy Blog.

How long should copyright last?

There are many ways to measure the period of time over which copyrighted works should be profitable. Certainly if a work were protected for less time than it takes, on average, to recoup its publication costs, then the system has failed. On the other end of the spectrum, a work which is no longer relevant which enters the public domain might well provide little or no benefit to the culture. Moreover, works which last a very long time and are still relevant typically retain their relevance by achieving the status of cultural icon. It can certainly be argued that this process is not wholly the author's or publisher's doing. The culture itself takes part in the establishment of its own icons, and when mere popularity gives way to the entrance of a work into the cultural language, it is difficult to justify continuing to assign the benefits to an individual rather than to the culture as a whole.

The real problem here, however, is that there is no set period of time that meets these criteria. A work might return its publication investment over the course of 10 years or it might return that investment over the course of the opening weekend of a popular film. Relevance is even harder to measure. A song that was relevant to a particular generation might maintain that relevance for 20 to 40 years while a painting that was relevant to a particular change in aesthetic style might conceivably maintain that relevance indefinitely. So it becomes very difficult to set a fixed duration for copyright protection.

It is clear that for many works a period between 10 and 30 years is ideal. Even as the pace of cultural change has increased, this time period has remained fixed because it represents the period of time over which major changes in a generations tastes and interests shift.

There is also the problem of "orphaned" works. These are works that remain under copyright protection, but are not being published or performed actively, effectively removing them from the cultural landscape. In this case, copyright protection benefits no one, and therefore a means should be found to remove such protections. Typically suggestions for solving this problem have focused on the renewal of copyright after a certain period of time, which serves to neatly resolve the issue, but might create a new sort of problem where publishers simple mass-renew all works for which they hold rights without any intention of further publication.

Multiple durations

Instead of assigning a single number to copyright term, this proposal seeks to benefit authors and publishers in multiple classes. These classes are:
  • Orphaned works
  • Actively published works
  • Culturally significant works
In the case of the first and second categories, works are protected for a term of 10 years. This term can be renewed up to two times for a total of 30 years. However, each renewal comes with two caveats. The first addresses orphaned works: the party renewing a copyright must publish, perform or display the work to a significant audience within one year of renewal or be in default of their copyright. This default can result in loss of copyright and fines (though fines should only be collected in cases where no attempt to publish or perform the work was made). A list of revoked renewals must be published every year so that the public can be sure of which works have been revoked.

As with the current system, copyright for the first 10 years would be automatic. That is, there is no need to file to protect copyright of a work until it is 10 years old.

Culturally significant works would be protected by the same system. However, each year a panel of experts, appointees and other interested parties would meet to determine which (if any) expiring works have both become culturally significant and have benefited their authors and publishers far beyond the norm. For example, a movie which has earned many times its original costs and which is still widely popular and involved in the culture might qualify. These culturally significant works are not renewed (either at the 10 or 20 year renewal), as it is assumed that they have both benefited their creators substantially and have rapidly ingrained themselves upon the cultural landscape. What's more, most such works will have already spurred the creation of follow-on works which are still protected.

As an example of this final category, let us use the 1977 film, Star Wars. In this extraordinary case, the studio responsible for publishing the film, within three weeks of the film's release saw their stock price doubled to a record high. It would be difficult to argue, 10 years later in 1987 with two sequels one of which made $538 million worldwide, that 20th Century Fox had not reaped the rewards of this film. It is also unarguably the case that Star Wars had entered into the cultural language. The film spawned a generation of explosive growth in the science fiction film industry, a revival in science fiction writing and no end of fan films, parody and homage, not just in film but in song, art and other media which continues to this day. Removing copyright protection from this film would have left George Lucas an multi-millionaire in charge of one of the most successful special effects studios in the world among other roles, and 20th Century Fox would have had a decade to re-invest the rich proceeds that the film netted them.

The goal is not to remove protections from works which are hitting the zenith of their potential returns, but rather to slide the scale back to account for those rare works which so rapidly integrate themselves into our culture that they have already achieved that zenith long before comparable works would have.

It is also important to note that different media have different metrics for success. Comparisons between media should never be made in absolute terms (where obviously, film dominates the equation).

The short version

This plan therefore calls for:
  • 10 year copyright terms
  • Ability to renew copyright term twice (total of 30 years)
  • No requirement for registration for the first 10 years
  • Registration required for subsequent renewals
  • Renewal blocked for the most successful and culturally significant works


The year is currently 2008. Let's review what this might mean to our existing world of film this year (assuming no transition period, which would almost certainly exist, for sake of example). Films are used as an example, here, because they are a media format that most people are exposed to and which have relatively widely published revenue statistics from which to make a first-pass judgement of success.

The first impact would be to films released in 1998. Here is a list of some films that would likely be renewed and continue to be covered by copyright, sorted by worldwide box-office returns:
  • Armageddon
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Godzilla
  • There's Something About Mary
  • A Bug's Life
  • Deep Impact
  • Mulan
With 10 years' perspective it's fair to say that while they were successful, none of these films dramatically redefined their cultural niche, though Saving Private Ryan might come close. There is some chance that that film might be identified as culturally significant enough to release to the public domain. It's more likely that within the film media, all renewals would be granted for 1998.

1988 on the other hand, saw the release of Rain Man, a film whose cultural impact was quite significant and whose financial success far outstripped its mere $25 million budget. It might well not be renewed, but again, this is a difficult call and all renewals might well be approved.

Films from 1978 would expire into the public domain this year. These would include:
  • Grease
  • Superman
  • Jaws 2
  • Halloween
  • Animal House
  • The Deer Hunter
All of these films are either considered "classics" (Grease) or have largely been left out of the cultural collective memory (Jaws 2). Of them, Superman is probably the only film that might have been released to the public domain early (due to its redefinition of the superhero genre in film and the subsequent, though delayed, impact that that has had). Keep in mind that it would have been based on the Superman comics which would have long-since begun expiring, so while copyright would protect the script, the characters would already be available for other works. In fact, the realities of such a system might not foster such long-lived, iconic franchises but rather new and original characters who are derived from themes but not specific characters from previously expired works. As previously mentioned this would include works such as West Side Story and Forbidden Planet which create newly copyrightable works out of existing, public domain themes and storylines.

Transition plan

The easiest way to transition from the existing period of copyright to the new would be to consider all currently copyrighted works to have been newly released in the year the legislation changes are passed. This provides them with an additional 10 years of absolute protection and as much as 30 years in most cases. This quickly eliminates concerns that any existing business will be impacted immediately and even for the most iconic items of the last century which would be expired upon the first application for renewal, 10 years is more than sufficient time to make appropriate plans.

There are problems with this simple plan, however. First of all, it would lead to a massive inflow of renewal applications 10 years after the laws were changed. That would place a large burden on the U.S. Patent and Trademark offices. Further, it would be very difficult to identify the most culturally significant and successful works from most of a century all at once.

To ease the transition, works could be staggered by decade. Those works produced in the late 1920s would be up for renewal in 10 years after the laws were changed. The next year, works from the 1930s would be up for renewal. The next year, works from the 1940s and so on. In this way, works produced in the 1990s would actually have as much as 37 years of protection, and the surge of old works requiring renewal would increase each year for 8 years (or 9 depending on when such laws were enacted) and then the cycle would begin anew with the 20th anniversary of the law and the second renewal. This would also give the public domain interests (libraries, archives and universities for the most part) time to absorb these newly released works.

Side effects

This plan has many side effects, some of which are foreseeable and some of which most likely are not. Of those that can be foreseen, the widest impact comes from the industry practices in print, film and other media which surround current copyright law. Royalties, for example, are a common compensation tool used to supplement payments to authors, artists and performers. These royalties have been calibrated over time based on expected returns and any change to the copyright system could impact those returns (though it should not be assumed that revenue related to a work whose copyright has expired would drop to zero). These side effects certainly argue for the careful transition from one implementation of copyright law to another, however, new royalties arrangements can easily be devised which accommodate the new system.

Another interesting side-effect would be the change in the relationship between print and film. Today, most works of fiction printed by major publishers are immediately "optioned" for film rights regardless of the likelihood that a film will actually be made. If copyright expired after 10 years on works which the publisher saw no value in renewing then this optioning process might become secondary to finding untapped wells of quality fiction in books which had not caught the public attention. In one sense this is an excellent benefit to the culture, as orphaned works would be revived and renewed. In another sense, authors and publishers might see fewer optioning agreements for works which were ultimately not likely to become films. Since it was never the purpose of copyright law to provide this sort of arbitrage over the potential value of works transitioning from one media to another, it does not seem as if contracting that market would alter the value of copyright law, but it is one more item to consider.

More generally, these changes would result in an explosion in the depth and breadth of the works available to the public domain. What impact that will have is difficult to predict, but certainly that is more in line with the original intent of the Constitution than the current system that the U.S. has.

International ramifications

Internationally, the U.S. has signed treaties agreeing to extremely long-lived copyright terms. These treaties would have to be re-negotiated in order to move forward with a new copyright system. However, the effort required to accomplish this would be returned. Today copyright is routinely violated in some countries. However, if there were a rich well of relatively modern public domain works to draw on there would be radically less incentive to infringe on the remaining, shorter-term copyrights. This is a simple result of the change in cost-benefit. If you can duplicate decade-old DVDs of the most popular movies of the age without any risk, most of the businesses that infringe today would do so. Only a handful would continue to infringe on existing copyrights and those would be easier to police and contain as examples.


Something must be done about copyright law. Today, the U.S. is working hard to extend copyright law as far as the U.S. Supreme Court will allow, and this will ultimately negate the benefit that the Constitution foresaw in granting copyright protection in the first place. Ultimately, these laws become a subsidy to the entertainment industry rather than a mutually beneficial relationship between producer and consumer of artistic work of all media.

While this plan would be likely to produce useful results, any number of alternatives have been proposed. The key elements of sustainable and enforceable copyright law are:
  • Expiration of copyright within a short number of decades
  • Consideration of "orphaned" works
  • Public access to expired works
Any plan that addresses these concerns will substantially improve the situation.

Side issues and special cases

There are a number of additional issues which plague the current copyright system. I have not addressed many of them above, since the goal was to provide a concise plan to address the largest issues. However, it is worth noting some of these issues before moving on from the topic.


Computer software has been gathered up under copyright law, and yet it doesn't actually fit within the scope of the original concept of copyright. It may be that proper addressing of software might not be possible without also dealing with software patents and trade secrets. These three areas of protection should work in concert to provide sufficient protections to software authors and publishers without stifling innovation. What makes this even more complex, however, is the fact that open source software development's success has demonstrated that such protections may not be as strongly needed in the software field in order to spur innovation. Certainly the success of companies such as Google, Red Hat Software and even older players such as IBM in the open source model can be used as examples in crafting a form of protections that benefit all software developers and users.

Audience participation in creation of new works

As technology fosters more and more of the creativity involved in the creation of copyrighted work to be collaborative, the line between publisher and consumer becomes less defined. In modern interactive art forms such as massively multiplayer video games (MMOs), increasingly the user is partaking in the development of the storyline associated with their avatar or character. This is a very complex and difficult relationship to understand under modern copyright law, which is why such interactive art forms tend to come with long and complex legal agreements which consumers must agree to before they are granted access. It is unclear if there is a way to modify copyright law to address these issues, but as games like Second Life have demonstrated, the lines between interactive fiction and financial markets may not be as thick as they once were, and if the law can ease this transition without imposing short-sighted expectations, then it should.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Object Oriented Programming or "The Kids, These Days!"

It began in the mid-90s... the definition of OO programming started to wander. Before then, it was simple: OO was the trinity: inheritance, polymorphism and encapsulation. Most OO implementations supported some additional concepts such as data hiding or metaprogramming, but these were essentially their own fields of implementation and interest, only tangentially related to OO.

Over time, implementations began to become more entrenched as camps of OO theology. Java developers began to believe that data-hiding, interfaces and single-inheritance were core OO. Python and Ruby developers believed that metaprogramming and introspection were core OO. Smalltalk developers believed that the world was populated by idiots who could barely tie their shoes, much less be trusted with compilers. They're all wrong, of course (well, the Smalltalk folks might be on to something, but the Haskell people want to discuss the lack of rigor in their definition of "shoe").

Object oriented programming is still what it always was: a way of abstracting data using three basic tools. It's not the be-all, end-all of software design, and new ideas aren't to be judged as right or wrong, purely on whether or not they can be shoe-horned, retroactively into the definition. Equally, no language I've ever seen gets it completely right, and no language is unsuited to OO programming concepts, regardless of how much sugar they may lack. C (not to mean C++) is a fine language for OO development. Perl 5, interestingly, doesn't provide an OO system, only the basic tools required to build one. Python has a fairly robust object model, but one that many complain was "boiler plated on" to the core language (that's changing). Languages like Java integrate the object system so deeply into their core that you can't escape them, no matter how simple the task.

But none of this matters. Let's go back to first concepts and review what an object is and why it's a programming concept. Later, I'll get into why it's not a development concept, and review why that's a different thing entirely.

Inheritance is the first OO concept. It is fairly simple. A dog is a mammal. If we know what a mammal is, then we only have to describe what a dog has that's different from mammals in general. For example, a dog is a highly social/pack-oriented mammal that has a highly developed sense of smell, tends to be of medium size for the animal kingdom, and produces a largish litter of young. That's basic inheritance. There's no mystery, just a way of describing data in terms of its structure as unique from lesser-defined data types. The concepts of abstract types and of styles of single vs. multiple inheritance and traits/interfaces all fall out of this core idea, but they are not fundamental to the idea.

Polymorphism is up next. This is where you have a dog, but you want to bring it with you on an airplane. The airline has rules for how you bring a mammal onto the plane, so you tell the person at the checkin that you have a mammal. Now they know exactly how to deal with it. It's the same in OO programming, and exactly that simple. From this, we have derived many complex concepts, and every language implements polymorphism differently because of how deeply it ties into your parameter-passing mechanism, your data-hiding model and your type system. However, those are implementation details. OO is, again, a simple concept and straining it to include language-specific implementation details is only useful when engaging in language holy-wars. Notice that polymorphism relies directly on inheritance. There is no separating polymorphism off as its own concept in a world without inheritance. Polymorphism implies the existence of behaviors such as a dog's ability to run, nap or fetch. It is these behaviors which are polymorphic (all animals can sleep while only mammals can nurse their young).

Encapsulation is a bit what it sounds like. When you say that a dog has hair, you're not describing a unique concept. You're simply referencing a previously defined data type ("hair") and encapsulating it within the definition of a dog. Now, when you say, "here's a dog," I can ask, "what color is the dog's hair," and it makes perfect sense. You don't have to consult some external resource to answer the question, you just look at the dog and see that it has hair, and then look at the hair's color.

Now we can construct an object. Objects are data structures which embody polymorphic behaviors via inheritance while, simultaneously, providing encapsulation. A complete example using our dog would be the whole dog. A dog is an animal; it can be treated as one, and should behave abstractly like any other animal, though it might possess its own unique behaviors as well. It also contains all of the traits that one associates with dogs, many of which are full-fledged objects of their own (a heart that beats, a vocal apparatus with which it barks, etc.) All of these things describe a dog.

Now, that's the abstract. In practice, programming languages need to be able to describe all of this and use it, so there are two additional items: instantiation (the ability to bring an instance of an object into being); and members (encapsulated objects or primitive types—for those languages that distinguish). These aren't truly OO concepts, but implementation details common to nearly all OO languages.

Further complicating the issue are language features that have grown out of OO. Entire realms of these features exist, some rivaling the power of OO itself (metaprogramming comes to mind). Inheritance, for example, has been implemented as single, multiple and Java-like interface-augmented single. None of these are inherently wrong, nor are they part of the nature of OO programming.

Then there are software design concepts. Static classes, static members, privilege models, accessors, design patterns and so forth are all examples of software design and development tools and concepts which are valuable when interacting with OO languages and architecture. However, it's important to understand that OO exists on its own without these concepts. They help us to produce code that functions using OO, but a language which had none of these features and software that was designed without their benefit would still be "OO."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Note About Coranth Gryphon

I noticed an article online recently by Coranth Gryphon which, although it's entirely from a second person perspective, is obviously about himself to those who knew him. Coranth isn't the name I knew him by, and many of his friends and I refused to call him that for reasons that are probably best left to obscurity, but it was frustrating to read this. It's not clear to me if it's a suicide note or just his way of saying that he's had enough and he's planning to completely drop out of society (I suspect the latter), but either way it's always sad to hear that a friend didn't make it.

There are times that I wonder how I did. I'm not "normal." My ability to relate to others is clouded by the fog of poor social skills and an enthusiasm for things that most people will never care about. But I never had the break from reality that Coranth suffered, and I always remembered that, no matter how few friends I had, they were my friends and they were precious. Over the years, I've thanked them but never enough.

Someday, I hope I'll see him again. I wonder if he'll remember me. I wonder if I'll still be able to relate, or if I'll have buried myself so deeply in my interests that I'll forget what it was like to sit up at 2AM in the lab at school, talking about crazy things that I thought we both understood were fantasy. I wonder if he'll remember that I found it all too easy to laugh at his inability to relate to the world at times. I wonder if we'll still be friends.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Diablo Swing Orchestra

I've been listening to a lot of free music recently. Most of it comes from Amazon's free deals (mostly indie label samplers) or from reviews that I read on Free Albums Galore. Today, Free Albums Galore covered Diablo Swing Orchestra, and I was intrigued by phrases like "insane combination of heavy metal, swing jazz, [and] traditional European music." Typically, I enjoy good music of any sort, and I'm always hopeful (and usually disappointed) when I see that someone's tackling a unique fusion of genres. So I hopped over to Jamendo to download The Butcher's Ballroom, and am listening to it now... all I can say is wow. This is arguably the best classically-inspired heavy metal that I've ever heard, and I cannot recommend it enough. Even given that it's in a different language, it's quickly hiking its way to the summit of my iTunes play-lists.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Icecrown: More Bosses Than Ever Before?

Today, Ghostcrawler (the enigmatic and trivially trolled lead designer for World of Warcraft) announced that the final (announced) raid instance of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, Icecrown, will have at least 31 boss encounters. That number may not mean much at first glance, but here's what came before. This is the complete list of all previous WoW raids and how many bosses they had:

  • Zul'Gurub 13
  • Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj 6
  • Onyxia's Lair 1
  • Molten Core 10
  • Blackwing Lair 8
  • Temple of Ahn'Qiraj 9
  • Naxxramas (pre-TBC and WotLK) 19
  • Karazhan 14-18 (depending on how you count Chess and Wizard of Oz)
  • Zul'Aman 6
  • Gruul's Lair 2
  • Magtheridon's Lair 1
  • Serpentshrine Cavern 6
  • Tempest Keep 4-5 (depending on how you count Kael'thas Sunstrider's advisors)
  • Battle for Mount Hyjal 5
  • Black Temple 9
  • Sunwell Plateau 6
  • Eye of Eternity 1
  • Vault of Archavon 3
  • Obsidian Sanctum 4
  • Ulduar 14
  • Trial of the Crusader 5

You'll notice that these barely crest above half of what Icecrown is going to have. Truly, Icecrown is going to be the largest time sink ever to hit World of Warcraft. But there's something else to it... It's also likely to be the stop-gap to the next expansion. Many have speculated that there would be another raid after Icecrown, the way there was in Burning Crusade with the Sunwell, but if they're going to push out their largest dungeon ever and then have an expansion sometime early next year, I don't think they're going to have time for yet another raid instance after Icecrown.

More to the point, I don't think the vast majority of the player base will be able to get to anything after Icecrown. They'll be too busy taking advantage of the new raid lockout extension feature in order to complete Icecrown.

Update: as points out, BRD has more bosses than this, depending on how you count. However, BRD was also meant for a radically smaller number of players. How this will play out for a full raid is yet to be seen. Personally, I think it will be a lot of fun.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Is "Dungeons & Dragons" Evil?

This essay about Dungeons & Dragons first appeared on my wiki in May of 2006, and in the wake of roleplayer-turned killer, Robert Hull Marko, I revised it in 2008. Today, I'm revising this again to bring it up to date with current Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) editions and events.

Is D&D evil? It's a provocative question, and in some people's minds it doesn't matter what your answer is. Any product that you can even ask the question about is suspect. This article is a rebuttal to what I feel is a terrible campaign of misinformation against one of the best tools in a parent's toolbox in their attempt to raise a healthy, well adjusted teen: Dungeons & Dragons (among many other role-playing games).

What is role-playing

Let's begin with general concepts. Dungeons & Dragons or D&D is a role-playing game. It was introduced in the early 1970s and has consistently been the most popular role-playing game since. It is not a game like Monopoly where there is a winner and a loser, or a so-called zero-sum game. Instead, D&D is a game where the players act out parts in a story. The story may be very well defined with limited choices for the players to make or it may be open to whatever the players want to do. These choices about how the story will unfold are made by a referee called the "Dungeon Master" or DM. The DM tells the players what is happening and then allows them to respond, telling him what they wish to do.

When the players want to do something that they might succeed or fail at, the DM tells them to roll dice to determine the outcome. The rules tell the players how to use the dice to determine the results of their actions in this way.

Here's a sample session:

DM: "You've all just gotten into town, and found the nearest inn to relax in. A well-dressed man enters the Inn and says loudly that he's looking for adventurers that want to help defend the town."

Alice: "I walk over to him and ask him who he works for."

Bob: "I throw a dart at the dart-board and..."

DM: "Roll to see if you hit the board." ... Bob rolls well ... "You hit the bullseye!"

Bob: "... and I say that I'm for hire, but my services aren't cheap."

As you can see, the DM is setting the ground-work for an adventure where the players protect the town from some unknown threat, but the players themselves get to decide how their characters want to respond to the situation. Bob even managed to punctuate his statement with an act of skill that probably impressed the stranger. This is role-playing.


You will often hear confusion between the psychological tool called "role-playing" and games like D&D. This is also incorrect. Role-playing games actually pre-date all modern psychology. There are three elements to role-playing games:

  • Fantasy
  • Improvisation
  • Rules

All three of these elements, and even their combination can be seen in the play of any child during any age. Watch a game of cops-and-robbers. You pretend to be a cop or a robber (fantasy); you say things like, "you'll never get away with this," or "hah! I shot you!" (improvisation); and you impose certain rules, "you can't get up, you've been shot."

This is a role-playing game, as is any non-zero-sum game which involves all three of the above items. The only differences between such games and modern role-playing games like D&D are:

  • They tend to have more complex rules (derived from war gaming originally, which comes from military games throughout history)
  • They almost always involve dice
  • They are often, but not always, played without physical acting (e.g. at a table)

The kind of role-playing that is popular with psychologists is a different animal, and almost always involves only two people, almost no fantasy, and generally very few if any rules. It is essentially pure improvisation, and is nothing like Dungeons & Dragons or any other role-playing game.


In D&D, players pick an "alignment" for their characters. This is a description of their character's approach to moral and ethical decisions. There are two scales: good/evil and lawful/chaotic (update: the most recent version of the game has simplified this system). Much has been made over the fact that one end of the alignment spectrum is evil. Keep in mind, however that role-playing games typically depict epic themes of good vs. evil. This requires that there be evildoers in the world of D&D. Typically this is not the role of the players. After all, it's hard to work together when you're all out for your own benefit and willing to step on the next guy to get it. Players are in the game together and must be able to work together, so for pragmatic reasons alone, almost all D&D player characters are non-evil.

Aside from that, keep in mind that alignment is probably the single most disliked element of D&D. Some players enjoy the alignment system, but far more find it to be too restrictive and arbitrary, so you're standing on thin ice when you hold up the alignment system as part of the evils of D&D.

As far as the confusion between law and good, chaos and evil, let me sum it up in a very Christian way:

Jesus was lawful good. He was good in that he helped others, regardless of the cost to himself. He was lawful in that he strictly adhered to a code of conduct. He wasn't always "lawful" in the sense that he didn't obey every law (in fact, he often opposed the law), but that's not what a lawful character is about in D&D, it's about having a well defined code of conduct by which you live your life, and a general belief in the idea that the world would be a better place if others obeyed that code.

Pilate would be an example of lawful evil (just "evil" in the new edition of the rules). He did not care about the lives of others, only that order be maintained. He also had a code of conduct that he followed... but that code didn't value human life, and that's the difference between lawful good and lawful evil.

Judas would probably be chaotic neutral. He was interested mostly in his own well-being, and where that meant doing good, so be it, but he was strictly dedicated to neither good nor evil. In the latest edition, chaotic neutral doesn't exist as an alignment, or really as a concept, so Judas wouldn't really fit in.

That's how alignment works. It's not mutually exclusive with any particular morality, it is just an in-game mechanical way of describing one aspect (well, two) of morality in order to attach game rules to a character's outlook.

Much is often made about D&D's focus on evil. There's an evil alignment, evil beings of great power, and so on. Doesn't this make D&D evil? Well, look at the Bible. There are evil people and evil beings of great power, but I don't think most Christians would say that the Bible is evil. The Bible sets out to teach the reader about good and evil. D&D sets out to allow people to tell stories about good and evil for the purpose of having fun. Neither goal can be satisfied without portraying evil. If you don't want your child to play an evil character, say so. Keep in mind that evil characters are very rarely the sort that the rest of the players want to have around in the first place, and all of the commercial gaming materials involve struggles against evil. Hence the scary sounding title of books like The Temple of Elemental Evil, which is a D&D game where the players try to stop an evil force from destroying the world.


There is no underlying ethos of D&D. D&D is a vehicle for "cops and robbers" as a more mature game. It's possible to do anything at all with it. The violence involved in D&D, however, has remained constant over the years. Dungeons & Dragons is an extension of miniature wargaming, and as such it would be nearly impossible to remove the element of violence (just as it would be nearly impossible to remove war from Risk or finance from Monopoly). If violence is your concern, then there are other fantasy role-playing games that might be more appropriate, but keep in mind that the violence in D&D is not the detailed, graphic sort of violence that one finds in most fiction. Instead, it is a fairly abstract affair which is, in many ways, more like the violence of chess or many board games. Numbers replace concrete descriptions of damage in a fight, making it more of a mathematical exercise than one might expect.

In the end D&D is true to its roots. You don't discuss the epic diplomacy between good and evil. You discuss the epic fight between good and evil. This is the nature of the genre of storytelling.

Paganism and magic

One of the other things you will hear about Dungeons & Dragons is that it's some sort of manual or recruiting tool for Wicca and other forms of neo-paganism that cropped up throughout the 20th century. This idea is deeply flawed, but we'll take it one step at a time.

European mythology and the Inquisition

The Inquisition my not have obliterated the native religions of Europe, but it removed them from the popular culture very effectively. Since it came to an end around the mid-1800s the popular culture has re-absorbed the mythology of early Europe. In the early-to-mid 1900s, the likes of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (both of whom were Christians) brought Christian morality and the lore of the old cultures of Europe together in fantasy stories that presented distinctly Christian ideas of good and evil in a fictional context with magic, fey, and other elements of European mythology. It is important to understand that the fantasy religions portrayed in D&D are strongly influenced by this fantasy fiction genre, and not any real religion (Christian, pagan or otherwise). In part, D&D is directly based on the work of Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and others who brought this synthesis to the public.

Today, there are neo-pagan religions which blend this modernized and Christianized view of European and eastern mythologies with actual religious practices. The line between these religions and modern fantasy is much thinner, in part because they are still developing. As such, it is not uncommon for these religions to borrow from fantasy sources such as those listed above. D&D also draws on these works of fiction and elements of the tales of many ancient cultures, and developed around the same time as neo-paganism. There is, therefore undeniable similarity between some elements of D&D and some elements of neo-paganism, but this similarity is merely a coincidence of their cultural roots. In many ways D&D is far more Christian-influenced than neo-paganism, presenting holy knights and analogs of heaven and hell in its backdrop world.

Can D&D teach magic?

One of the other common assertions is that D&D teaches the fundamentals required to use magic or that it recruits people into the practice of magic. This is either an ignorable point (if you don't believe in magic) or a deeply flawed one. First of all, magic in D&D is based on a highly abstracted and simplified set of mechanics. There are no "incantations" or "rituals" described in the books except in very general terms that one would find in any fantasy novel from the 1950s onward. Only mechanical effects are presented such as "your character can heal another character." The descriptions focus on the effect, and there is no description given as to how to go about "casting" a spell.

D&D does present the alchemical "classical elements" of western tradition, but again there is no real explanation of the alchemical concepts, only the four elements' names (fire, earth, water and air) which exist as places or "planes". It should be noted that this is pure fantasy and bears no resemblance to how the four elements were viewed in western alchemy. Only the names remain.

This idea that only the names are used in D&D is pervasive. Names of creatures of both pagan and Christian stories are used, but rarely have any resemblance to their counterparts. The game is actually less useful as an introduction to magic in many ways, than knowing nothing at all. What's more, as others who have tackled this problem have pointed out, any encyclopedia has a much deeper, more accurate and clearer description of occult practices than D&D's fictionalized concepts.

A great tool for parents

One of the tools that any parent needs to provide their children with is the ability to interact socially with others. For some this comes easily. For others... well, it's not always so trivial. For children who don't make friends easily, and are often awkward with others, the best solution is to engage in structured social situations where clear rules of interaction "break the ice." The problem is that children rarely want to be part of any kind of structured event. Role-playing games can provide a rare combination of structure and appeal. D&D in this context acts only as venue for learning to interact with others.

If your child would benefit from a social environment, I strongly recommend that you consider introducing them to or encouraging their playing of role-playing games. This can be especially helpful in difficult neighborhoods, since gaming can literally remove a child from dangerous situations. However, you should not be complacent. Being aware of your children's friends and hobbies is important. Host a few games. Don't pry, but certainly do ask questions, stop in from time to time to offer drinks / snacks / whatever.

For those parents who might run into problems, here's my list of things you should be concerned about:

  • Bullying. Social interaction that isn't based on equal participation isn't going to do anyone any good. Disruptive or abusive players at a gaming table can be just as damaging to your child's social development as they can be in the school yard.
  • Coercion. If someone doesn't want to do something in the game, they should not have to. The rules provide a framework for players to lay out what they would and would not do. If someone (especially the game master) tries to force a situation that the player is not comfortable with, the player should probably just leave the game. Being told that you have to do something in-character that you don't feel comfortable with isn't fun, and the point to the game is fun. As a parent, you should be very sensitive to this. The game is not a forum for players to air their politics or religion, and if that's what it becomes, suggest to your child that they find another group.
  • Money. If a gaming group starts asking for money, you as a parent should pay close attention. It's common for games to involve food and drinks during play, and asking for players to chip in is normal. Requiring some kind of "dues" is not, and you should feel free to step in and personally ask what the money is for before providing it to your child.

If you see any of these problems, you should talk to the parents of the other gamers and try to help resolve the issues. Gaming is about having fun, and if that's not what's going on, you have a right to be a parent.

These rules apply equally to any social hobby that your child might have, and D&D isn't the only outlet for social interaction. However, for many children, it can be the easiest. Consider this when people try to tell you that D&D is somehow "evil" or a tool of those who wish to corrupt your child. Feel free tell your child what you do and don't think are valid topics of play. If you don't want them pretending to be an evil character, then say that. It doesn't prevent them from playing D&D (in 20 years of playing D&D, I've never played an evil character -- update: I should be clear that I'm speaking as a player. When I've been a DM, it has often been my job to voice the opponents that my players face off against). D&D is just a framework for interactive fantasy story-telling. In it, your child gets to tell part of the story. That's all it is.

To those non-parents who might read this, let me just say that everything you've heard about D&D being evil is both false in the sense that the game has no agenda of evil; and true in the sense that evil exists as a concept in the game. If this bothers you, then don't play, but understand that those that do play aren't going off into the woods and summoning evil beings. They're just playing a game in which the players (typically the "good guys") are the subjects of epic storytelling (typically opposing the "bad guys"). That's it. No magic initiation; no wiccan plot; no anti-Christian agenda; nothing but the ages-old tradition of storytelling.

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Schnoebelen's Should a Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons

Side note: much of what Schnoebelen says is rooted in the work of Patricia Pulling's B.A.D.D. organization, much of which has been analyzed and shown to be in error, elsewhere.

William Schnoebelen's article, Should a Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons? is a long laundry list of what he feels are the sins of D&D. Here is his primary thesis as I see it. I've pulled this from the section on the character type called "rogue":

Isn't that a wonderful character for your adolescent to emulate? What parent would not love to have their child come home from school and tell them that they are playing D&D and have taken on the character of a thief or rogue?

First off, keep in mind that the character classes in the "Player's Handbook" are designed as much for the game master who has to come up with the villains for the players to do battle with as it is for the players themselves. When we talk about a character "sneaking up on their victim," we're generally speaking about the villains, not the players, though a spy or scout for the "good guys" might well have such stealth and sneak attack capabilities. Think "James Bond".

Second, if your child cannot play a make-believe game and then go on with their own lives without blurring the distinction between that game and real life, then you need (and I mean to disrespect, here) to seek out some professional help for your child. This is not something which you can address simply by depriving them of role-playing books! Keep in mind that play is a part of what being a child is, and the inability to distinguish play from reality is not typical. For the rest of the majority of parents out there who have healthy children who can tell pretend from reality, D&D is no more going to result in them going out to steal, kill or cast magic spells than eating Coco-Puffs will make them want to be a vampire.

He re-enforces this broken view of make-believe with this statement:

... these two worldviews cannot exist in the same moral universe. They cannot both be true. Thus, one cannot be a Christian and believe in the Magical World View without being some sort of hypocrite or deceived person.

He seems to have forgotten that he's talking about a game. There aren't two worldviews, there's a fantasy game and whatever your worldview is. One is not a hypocrite for telling campfire stories that one knows to be false... that's the point to fiction. He really needs to work through that.

He makes this particular point clear when he says:

Defenders of D&D often complain that it is only a game. Playing chicken with cars is "only a game" until someone gets killed.

Ok, now think carefully here. He's comparing driving a large, heavy object at another large, heavy object, presumably at great speed with sitting at a table and saying "I slay the dragon with my magic sword." Just let that sink in.... No. Chicken is not "only a game," it is attempted suicide/murder at worst and reckless driving at best. If you were to play in a role-playing game and your character were to play chicken, that would be "only a game." Driving your car directly at someone else is an inexcusable act of violence. Fantasy vs. reality.

He then goes on:

It needs to be emphasized that a spiritual deception which draws people away from Jesus Christ is much more dangerous than automotive chicken...

I've known my share of Christians who play role-playing games. They tend be fairly up-front about it. To paraphrase one such person, "I know this stuff isn't real, so why would it have any bearing on my faith?" Indeed, I say.


Anyone can dredge up a letter from someone who has enough mental problems that they would profess to satanism (as he does later in his article), but in truth, D&D isn't what made that person ill. We can speculate about what they would have done if they never found D&D (it might have been even worse), but the point is moot. Sick people behave in sick ways. We can be compassionate and caring, but what we must not do is over-react and assume that the thing that a mentally unbalanced person fixates on is the cause of their sickness.

My personal opinion of the whole idea of Mr. Schnoebelen's essay is a bit different. I think he tells fantastic stories of his own. When you read, "your mind begins to become "re-wired" by its immersion into a world where demons, magic and spells are almost real," that's some scary stuff, and that makes people pay attention because we like scary stories. For someone who wants to tell scary stories... well, this is one outlet. That doesn't make the mythical power of D&D to re-wire your brain any less fantasy than the spells in D&D, though. Reading his essay was sort of fun for me, but in the end it's just a story, and since I am able to handle the difference between story and reality, this doesn't bother me.

Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons™ Addict

M. Joseph Young wrote an article about his "addiction" to D&D. I highly recommend this balanced view. While I disagree with some of his stands (for example, the need to "Christianize" the cosmology in order to make it acceptable storytelling material for Christians), even those points demonstrate that there is a strong case to be made for D&D's use in ways which are novel, fun and not at all objectionable.

Dungeons & Dragons: only a game?

In 1981, an author known only as "Ben" wrote Dungeons & Dragons: only a game? He claims that a Dr. Gary North has determined that D&D is "the most effective [...] most thoroughly researched introduction to the occult in man's recorded history." OK, stop there. He's wrong. As noted in M. Joseph Young's essay, Brittanica has much more (accurate) detail than D&D by far on the occult, so that idea's right out. In fact, I can't think of any aspect of the occult that I've ever come across that D&D gets right. It changes the names or nature of just about every being it borrows for the story. It invents torrents of fiction (fine for a game, but horrible for a "thoroughly researched introduction to the occult"). If your goal were to learn about the occult, I would warn you away from D&D. Other role-playing games such as GURPS actually do a far better job of interpreting occultism for gaming purposes. If that were your concern, then D&D would not be the prime target by far.

He then takes another wrong turn. Let me quote a bit:

After extensive research, the Christian Life Ministries concludes: "DUNGEONS & DRAGONS™ instead of a game is a teaching on demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, Satan worship, gambling, Jungian psychology, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning. necromantics, divination and many more teachings, brought to you in living color direct from the pit of hell!!!"

Interestingly, this text comes almost exactly from Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, so I'm not exactly sure why "Ben" feels that this was the result of "extensive research" on the part of the Christian Life Ministries. He's also mis-representing the facts grossly. While some of those elements are present in D&D they are also present in any fantasy story-telling genre. Forces of evil that exist to oppose the forces of good are the meat of fantasy story-telling, even when it's Christian themed. If the players were all champions of the Christian God, battling the Beast at the end times, then there would need to be a reference manual that explained what the mechanical statistics of the Beast were in order to allow the game to function. Such a game could hardly be construed as "evil", however.

The rest of the article is much the same. It is not terribly different from Mr. Schnoebelen's essay in most respects.

One useful side-point, however is that the word "suicide" comes up an awful lot in these critiques of roleplaying. There are long and rather silly reasons that this is the case, but it's still useful to point out that in study after study, the effects of roleplaying on potentially depressed people have been shown not only to be harmless, but actually beneficial in some cases.

soc.religion.christian FAQ

The USENET newsgroup soc.religion.christian's frequently asked questions list (FAQ) had some things to say about D&D (be aware that this was in the early-to-mid 1990s). Much of it carries on in the same way, but it starts in an interesting way:

"We are commanded to meditate on scripture (Joshua 1:8), think on good, healthy things (Philippians 4) and to be transformed in our thinking (Romans 12:2). It is therefore quite important what we let in or don't let into our minds." -David Fisher

I take strong exception this interpretation of the Bible. To cut oneself off from any non-Christian subject matter is not in keeping with the Bible, and no string of three out-of-context quotes will convince me otherwise. Gaming is just that: gaming. It's not a research tool; a sermon; a way of life; or any of the other things that anti-D&D advocates seem to think it is. However, even standing on its own, this idea that the good Christian will avoid any activity which might expose them to non-Christian ideas is deeply suspect, and certainly not in keeping with the way Jesus is said to have lived his life.

Marko and the Denver murder

This update (now the previous update...) to "Is D&D evil" was prompted by reports that an Army Major who killed a woman in Denver had an interest in roleplaying games that were similar to D&D (I suspect they were White Wolf's World of Darkness games, but I'm not sure). This is an easy case to refute roleplaying's involvement in, of course, since the man had just returned from a war-zone (Iraq). Clearly, if something was likely to make him violent, war is the better candidate than a game. However, I think it's important to recognize that Robert Hull Marko clearly did not know how to separate fantasy and reality, and that is the root of his problems. That one fantasy world of his choosing was a roleplaying game is beside the point, and I still assert that any parent who thinks that their child is having problems with the fantasy vs. reality separation (e.g. believing that their fantasies are real) should consider seeking out a trained professional to help them. People like Marko need to be diagnosed early so that they can learn to cope with their fantasies and not be ruled by them. Simply removing D&D won't accomplish that goal.

The Straws: D&D leads to child abuse

In a truly odd twist, a news story popped up about how parents had left their children to die due to their addiction to D&D. This story is a bit out of context, though. First off, the "Dungeons & Dragons" involved was a video game, not the tabletop game I was talking about. "MMOs" (video games where you play online with thousands of others in a single electronic "world") are not tabletop roleplaying, but even still this story is almost certainly missing some details. Child neglect, as awful as it is, is also a very common story. Parents who are able to "forget" about their children have some very serious problems. It doesn't matter if what they were paying attention to when the police discovered them was D&D Online, some other video game, or Jeopardy. The real issue is that they neglected their kids.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

"Going Google" (Apps) Not All Rainbows and Sunshine

Today Google is pushing their Google Apps service on their blog in an article entitled "Going Google." While I love Google's services and I'm a relatively happy Google Apps customer, this seems like the right time to point out that Google Apps isn't smooth sailing all the way.

First, let me be clear on the benefits. I ran my own mail server for 10 years. I loved the control it gave me, but when Google started offering their Gmail service along with Talk, Calendar, Docs, Site, and a few other services re-branded to your domain as Google Apps, I took note. Spam filtering was an ever-larger time sink and every time my home network had a hicup, I'd have to play sysadmin. Having someone else take that over required that I not have to switch mail clients, but Google was offering IMAP access, so that much was fine... so I switched over and mail was never the same. These days I mostly use the Web interface because it's just so darned nice. Gmail truly is a well designed mail system. However, this isn't exactly Gmail. Sure, it has much the same features, but it's your domain, and Google keeps it strictly separate. For businesses, this is fine. For personal domains it feels kind of wrong.

For example, any Google service not offered through Google Apps is not connected to your Apps account. This means that if you want your friends to follow you through Google Reader or Latitude, you need to use a separate GTalk/Gmail account to add them as friends. This then exposes that email address to them, and at least some of them will start using it as your primary address. That's not strictly horrible, but it's not ideal either.

Other things are less serious, but still grating. Apps has a really lame mailing list management system. Google could fix this tomorrow by adding a subscription feature and archiving lists to a private Google Groups group, but they've not done so for a fairly long time now. Then there's the calendar which looks like Google Calendar, but lacks SMS notification, certainly a key feature of the public version.

Overall, Google Apps is a good service, and I would not give it up. The fact that it's free is a major bonus, but I'd consider maintaining my account even if it wasn't. Check it out but don't expect perfection.