Hero’s Journey and Computer Games

We learned from Campbell that hero story encodes a natural mechanism for change and rebirth, that is part of us as human beings. Do people really use this mechanism nowadays? When I look back on my life, I think I should’ve used it more. Let me give an example that hopefully anyone who spends too much time with a computer can relate to:

We expect to solve our problems incrementally. If you want more friends, you add them one by one on facebook. If you want to lose weight you go to the gym. If you want to level up in a computer game, you slay monsters one by one until you get stronger. It is amusing how Nietzsche’s quote “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” began to mean something so trivial for computer age kids. It was intended to mean “you should go on a hero’s journey and almost die to return stronger”. But all we see is a straight line with little coins of positive reinforcements scattered around – that is so not a hero’s journey!

We expect to solve our problems by going in a straight line from where we are now to the solution. And it comes as a surprise when somebody around us manages to solve the same problems better by going in a circle: making a mess out of his own life and then emerging successful. We certainly don’t expect that to happen to us. So when we get stuck on our straight line, when there’s no coins of positive reinforcement, and instead we feel bad and life seems unfair – we give up. We don’t accept calls for adventure because it seems to us they are distracting us from the straight line of our lives.

I conclude with a set of examples, as promised. Do you recall a story of your friend who:

1) Met his love by getting awfully drunk?

2) Improved his grades after coming back from the army?

3) Was too shy to dance so someone has to drag him in?

4) Passed an exam week without sleep on energetic drinks?

5) Got around bureaucratic rules by being nice and pitiful?

6) Stood up to bullies, got beaten, but was never bullied again?

Note that the above is hard for a certain group of people: those “who spend too much time with the computer” for some reason. My claim is that socially awkward people (including myself) are less prepared to set out on a hero’s journey than average. One of the reasons being that e.g. computer games give us the wrong idea of how to achieve success. There are some indie computer games with a genuine hero’s journey though, and less transactional interaction with the world. In fact, even popular titles like Final Fantasy tended to have enough character development for 10 hero’s stories! Maybe it’s just that I never completed a sufficient portion of the game to see the hero’s story unfold, like in Morrowind for example.

Anyways, the fact is that it takes too long (and sometimes forever) to see the end of hero’s journey (“master of both worlds”) in most of western computer games, as well as >70% of TV shows and anime that have >20 episodes . So the hero’s journeys that we perceive lose their completeness, and we indeed forget what they should be.

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Diversity wars

(Image is from one of the Archer themed t-shirts)

Way back in the 90’s there was a computer game Gender wars, which featured a satire on the society, an alternative history where the relationship between genders went all wrong, men and women assembled into respective armies and the conflict escalated to a full-blown war (while still being funny as gender stereotypes perpetrate  the line of command):

246913-gender-wars-dos-screenshot-male-game-over-screen

Surprisingly, something this was a metaphor of becomes a reality, very specific to the modern-day US. I’m talking not even about the famous scandals causing the whirlwind of internet rage, trolling and death treats. I’m talking about things that sometimes happen outside the web, and I have been a witness to.

First happened on my flight to US, as a warm welcome reminding me what kind of country I’m going to. A middle-age white male with a respectable belly, but otherwise well dressed and well groomed was having problems with his seatbelt. A black female flight attendant helped him by taking his seatbelt and connecting it. The man was very upset by it because she didn’t ask for his permission before touching him. There was a brief verbal exchange in which both wanted to call the captain somehow, but otherwise I didn’t quite hear. After some time, the flight attendant returned with the message from the captain: the man was to leave the flight. He calmly packed his bags and left. And then the fight among the rest of the passengers unfolded. A young and naive white and nerdy teenager tried to protect the man’s side, a middle-aged woman who’d put her legs on the wall took up the role of a prosecutor. The following arguments has been used: “I am a movie director – I have a very good eyes – I saw what happened!”, “For a man, groin is a very sensitive area”

The second story happened during one of the comedy shows on Anime Expo. The performances were judged by 3 judges, 2 male and 1 female. Each expressed criticism and suggestions to improve for a comic. A female judge’s speech was interrupted by a shout from the audience. She being a comic herself, went to stage, asked the man who interrupted her to stand up, and “destroyed” him. In particular she made fun of the “Danger Zone” Archer t-shirt he was wearing. Also she pointed out that instead of such courageous feats in public, he should just join the rest of his kind on the internet. He tried to interject later in the show, but was only referred to as “You shut up, you were destroyed just now, we don’t care about you.”

Finally, Google is an American company, so they take issues of harassment very seriously. If something happens, no public fights occur. Instead, a special commission handles the report/complaint, and one day on the meeting it is announced that “N does not work with us anymore”. He is then escorted with security from the building, and cannot enter for 3 days. Then he can collect his belongings. Such reports/complaints can be filed not only by the victim, but also by a third person. It is typically easy to guess who filed the complaint, and my Russian friend would avoid talking to that person in the future, just out of survival instinct. In fact, my Russian friend would avoid making close friends among the coworkers altogether.

Jazz anecdotes

Note that the picture shows a failed fashion attempt  – everything below my waist is wrong. Shorts have to be tight around the knees, or else the silhouette does not look trendy… On a good side, the upper body was a success, I noticed at least one intense stare. Win. Anyways, this is a jazz festival which attracts mainly seniors and parents with kids who picnic on the nearby lawn. Not the strictest fashion censors.

Speaking of parents, I am interested in a stereotype of an “inappropriate parent”. Someone who would say “It is so nice to watch their relationship develop” in front of the kid and his/her friends. Someone who would say “We are having so much fun together!” when everybody else in the room are clearly bored. You probably remember a more colorful examples from your favorite teenage TV show. There are always two sides to the conflict: from a teenager’s point of view, it is so easy to be understanding and appropriate! Yet the parent doesn’t seem to put any effort into doing so. From an older person’s point of view, parents are wiser and know not to worry about such trifles in the first place.

As a teenager, I took a radical stance on this controversy. I’ve terrorized my parents, especially my mother, to not do anything at all in my presence in public. It resulted in a special form of paranoya on her side, when she is afraid to like my status on facebook because it may make me look bad. In fact, my parents are afraid of doing something wrong on any kind of social media.

From a more grown up point of view, I am still very surprized every time I meet people who are completely unaware of other’s comfort zones. I’ve met one on that Jazz festival. They remind me of people who took the following motivational advice too seriously: “When you need to go to the restroom, you are very focused on your goal. You don’t hear people failing to go to the restroom because they thought they’re not good enough etc. So next time you need to focus on your goal, think of it as the restroom”

From each Jazz festival I bring at least one jazz joke. The previous one was about a composer who bought a long stick with a cigarette holder on its end. His friend asked “Why?” “My doctor told me to stay away from smoking.”

This time, it is a story of a cat. In the house of one of the orchestra directors, there lives a cat named Jazzman. This cat is 23 years old, missing both eyes and lives in a garage. It prefers garage to the house. So the house owner and his friends composed a piece “Garaje gato” (Garage cat in spanish) dedicated to this cat. I think I have found my role model here. They say Jazzman even had fights with coyotes and survived!

Stock market and me

I’ve always had an affinity to math. So eventually in my life, I had to face a question: if you’re so smart, why are you so poor? Why don’t you fly on your private plane on the first date with your girlfriend? There are two reasons: first, I’m not that brainwashed by consumer’s society to wish for private planes. Second, I don’t have a girlfriend anyway.

Yet we keep getting the cues from culture, from our friends, from gossip, even from our parents! One of my high school classmates became a millionaire five years after graduation. He only used the math skills from probability and statistics 101, his own talent and books that taught him how to play poker. Everybody knows the stories of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Marc Zuckerberg. It seems that all they needed was to be tech savvy and smart, and start their companies early. So why am I not starting my company? Why do I keep taking classes and reading books when all I need to earn money I already learned 10 years ago?

Sometimes I get gossip about people who went by that path. Back in Moscow, another classmate was trying to recruit me and my friend for their stock trading startup. They had millisecond trading algorithms, and they talk their way into the room next to Russian Fund Exchange, so that the wires are short and they buy and sell faster than anyone. It was a sure deal, and first millions of investment have already been secured. I dragged my friend out of the room seconds before he was converted. We are theoretical physicists, and our bright minds are meant to process the mathematical beauty of nature in a cozy small university of one of the first world countries. I went to US, and my friend is in France. They pay us pretty well, even after rent and car expenses we managed to save enough money together to buy a little bungalow in a rural France, a small vineyard where we can make our own wine someday.

That’s what we do with our soviet mentality: saving money for a rainy day, preferably in a trustworthy big bank that will survive all the crises and give us virtually no interest rate. But I started meeting people in US who have a different mentality. One was an old creep, another had only one jacket he wore everyday. Both encouraged me to invest early. Even if investment companies didn’t offer significant yearly returns for my 15 grand, it is still worth my time to learn about the market, find the companies that are likely to grow, and give them my money. Reason being, I don’t do it for tiny returns, I do it for experience. I am bound to make mistakes with my first investment. But if it’s just 15 grand, I won’t regret it. What’s more important, I will learn from my mistakes, find more trustworthy investment companies and won’t lose bigger amounts in the future, when my salary is bigger.

I did not believe them, as a theoretical physicist. We in theory assume that all the world is stupid and we can do their job better once we do the calculations. Moreover, a computer can do their investments better. Much as for rebellious teenager, their efforts and knowledge were of no importance to me, I was going to download the price data and see for myself. Conveniently, I had an algorithm from electrical power networks that predicted the daily consumption in Japan. Why don’t I just use it to predict the stock prices?

Obviously, it didn’t work. It took me a week to figure out how to trade stocks, and another week to catch up with tiny interest rates of trustworthy big banks. Now I despised them. I couldn’t guarantee my investors a stable return even after two years! I left it there for a year, until my friend told me of a company Quantiacs that collects encrypted trading systems from people like me, and shows them to investors. One of the students in my year (her name is Teagan) just wrote a code that is currently at the top of the list on their website. I pulled out my old code, checked it in a user-friendly interface of Quantiacs. They traded futures, which were supposed to bring bigger profits. My idea was clear to me, but it wasn’t working so well. I talked to some of the people around, who, unlike me, actually read books on trading. And I found out what was the deal: it’s not my algorithm that was bad – it’s the futures that are bad. Futures were invented to attract more people to the stock market, so they look very attractive for beginners. And the typical beginner on the stock market will not use a kind of sophisticated algorithm that I came up with. So the futures by design are not suited for my algorithm.

With my theory confirmed, I felt satisfied. Even if I can’t win against Teagan’s algorithm on futures, my idea wasn’t crap. I got back to research and stopped thinking about stock market and private planes. Guess I’m a scientist after all.

Futurology

I was reading this manga about a Japanese girl exploring magical Britain. And I realized that I’ve always wanted to write something like it. So that there is magic, without any explanation but with a lot of new world to explore. And a curious character that goes on adventures using the magical items available to him/her. (btw, the manga passes the test 1. are there more than two women characters? 2. Do they talk to each other? 3. Do they talk about anything but men?)

But with my analytical mind, I just cannot think about a magical world without first defining a global reason to have magic, a global principle, if you wish. And some of my friends from humanity side of life seem to have the same problem. So below there are some unwanted speculations on the nature of magic (what I really want is to stop the lengthy explanations and just run away and explore!)

Continue reading “Futurology”

Shakespeare jokes

So I watched Twelfth night lately, and this time I caught the meaning of the most of ‘witty replies’. I was thinking of comparing it to the modern sitcoms. There’s even an analogue of the ‘offscreen laughter’ – a jester that laughs a lot during the course of the performance. We also have a range of completely delusional characters, and a certain love line which is a matter of jokes like ‘she’s completely in love and he doesn’t notice’, but is mostly delivered seriously. Some of the lines are an improbable and elaborate setup for the following joke “I’m not the horse of that color” “and that horse will make him an ass!”

There’s also the whole culture gap, with counts and countesses, duels, pirates – but most of it is easily translatable to modern day situations. The only thing that is a Shakespeare trademark and haven’t caught on elsewhere is the whole ‘mistaken identity’ comedy. In the modern days of computer graphics and fashion industry, it is hard to impress anyone by changing a costume in between scenes. Fashion has always been around, is it really computer graphics fault? Twenty years ago there were movies where characters dressed as somebody else.. Conan the Barbarian 🙂

Anyway, this made me thinking that Americans don’t know too many jokes. Me myself, I used to have a book “Collection of jokes” as a kid. Here, on a rock concert when somebody took their time to tune the guitar, the guy on the bass said: anybody knows a joke? There was one guy after all, he told a pun about a puppy (I don’t remember, to me it sounded like “why is puppy sad? it’s bloated”). So yeah, apparently (and it’s confirmed by going to the local improv night), the jokes in US are divided into puns “X and Y walks into the bar..”, sitcom jokes where somebody is overacting or <define sitcom here>, and also rare cases of sarcasm which is even harder to define. Yeah, there is also internet humor. There seems to be something missing, what we called ‘ordinary jokes’ back in Russia. I wonder if that’s just my impression..

Idea for a short story

In the army, on a mission in a devastated country with refugees and uncooperative locals, an officer questions his own power. He holds interrogations, threatens and manipulates the civilians as well as his own troops. His every day is gloomy because it’s actually a hard work. His unit doesn’t have enough resources, so he has to confiscate civilian property. His unit is also severely undermanned, so any serious threat would wipe it out. Thus he has to do a very good job in preventive actions and reconnaissance. Violating the rights of prisoners is the only way. Also, only if he acts like this, the local rebels and criminals will fear him. It helps that he doesn’t see much human in the indigenous population. All of them are ugly, aggressive and do not know compassion. But since he only interacts with them, and his sergeant and his troops, he soon becomes like that too. Only speaking in swear words, combining the local dialect and the language from his country, performing corporal punishment. He just wants all this to end, and to return to his home and his family. And then he meets this beautiful local woman. He sets out to get her for himself, which puts a serious threat on the whole unit in the end. This is the only time when he ignored the strategical planning and tactics in favor of his personal feelings. He hadn’t done so for the feelings of mercy or for humanistic ideals, or for human rights and equality, for friendship or inspiration. All these feelings he discarded long ago, and even though he had a chance to show them mercy etc., now he is in the near death situation because he choose to show them lust as the only trait of his personality that survived. Maybe if he risked for a better ideas before, things wouldn’t be so bad as now. In a fierce fight, he survives till the reinforcements arrive. The woman is prosecuted as a war criminal. It is not clear what is her role in this, but the officer suddenly does not have the courage to visit her in the cell. He goes home psychologically incapable of talking to women.