Monthly Archives: August 2011

Sphere of Interest – what we choose to care about

From time to time something interesting will, for the briefest, most fleeting of moments, enter what I call my ‘sphere of attention.’ Even the most fascinating phenomenon cannot hope to endure in this sphere long before being ejected by other stimuli whether invited or not. Life moves at breakneck pace here in the metropolis of Tokyo, even to those of us not actively involved in its insanity.
The things that enter said sphere are many. Too many in fact to remember, most being of the sort that are perfectly mundane occurrences, easily ignored under the guise of normality. Rarely something amazing sneaks in, and I experience genuine emotion – not the watered-down variety we express on behalf of social conformity or self-motivated self motivation; the idea that pretending you are happy induces blissful euphoria. Of course all of us care about different things, so you may not begin to care about what I am writing about here. If that is the case however it begs the question why you are reading this at all. If it’s an easy, lowest-common-denominator, barely-awake-while-you-mindlessly-turn-pages kind of read you want, might I suggest the Harry Potter series. Here we deal with things slightly less accessible to 12-year-olds with angst issues and intended for a more contemplative audience. (Incidentally this also factors into why I am not a filthy-rich, old English lady.)
I spoke of interesting things crossing our paths, and more importantly I alluded to how we perceive these things ever so briefly. Little things that make each of us in turn just a little bit more content with out day. In my case this can be as simple as a Lamborghini driving by (model irrelevant – they’re all excellent) or the immediate interest most real dogs take in me when our paths collide (dogs you see are much better judges of friendliness and approachability than human resource managers).
Some interesting things don’t simply happen as we walk along however and must be actively sought out. To that end we have our social networks delivering news from around the globe via the wondrous power of the Internet. We follow the lives and myriad exploits of other people through their blogs and YouTube videos, living – as we do – vicariously through their, frankly much more interesting, and in the case of the latter example, often painful experiences. In being connected not just with out friends and family, but their friends and family, and realistically every stranger with a computer and mildly similar interests, we are exposed to so many more things – for better or for worse – than in the days of yesteryear when mail carriers toted far heavier bags and carrier pigeons honed in on roosts across the world as harbingers of news both good and bad. In a blink of an eye it seems E-mails have deposed letter writing as text messaging has deposed the illegitimate passing of notes in classrooms. We meet our friends online for virtual sporting events without breaking a sweat, and have forsaken newsstands for (or whatever, hopefully better, equivalent you peruse). In short, information flies in and out of our limited scope of attention at speeds which make it hard to recount in full even a single day’s worth. Thus we selectively focus on what we find most intriguing, leaving the rest to pass as by in a blur, as background noise, the static of stimuli.
I worry however that the things that are passing us by are not just digital, buried under a mountain of other information and insidious pop-up advertisements, but also very real. I have friends who loathe to venture out their doors for fear of missing out on the rich digital world that awaits them when they are ‘logged in.’ Glued to the fluorescent screens of ever more advanced personal computers (ironically, much like this one used to write of it here) infinitely more likely to ‘google’ some place than actually visit it. Thus we have become a society of ePeople, living our real lives in the most surrealistic way. When severed from our digital world we yearn for and crave it as though the life-giving warmth of the sun essential to all – even the suburban cave-dwellers denouncing its blazing heat and carcinogenic affect on our pale, pasty, photo-phobic skin. The truth is, change is marked by every generation as something the next brings about in an effort to destroy the comfortable, established norm we have come to believe is the correct one. Though it is true babies are being born with larger, more prehensile thumbs (so as to better operate the finicky controls of the Wii presumably) and child obesity statistics are rising in direct and opposite correlation to time spent playing outside, I am not alarmed. This news entered my sphere of attention, I accepted it as read and moved on. Sometimes though, one thing leads to another, lassoing a previously ejected thought and rustlin’ it back in to be bound with another. Such was the case when game developers BioWare opened up through the regal majesty of online participation a majority-rule public vote to determine the ‘look’ of the protagonist of their latest Mass Effect franchise installment. It seems that when middle-aged game developers take the digital plunge into mainstream online media they forget that they are entrusting the same customer base whom they actively patronize by catering to their lowest common denominator to please the shareholders with decisions regarding a product the marketing department will then have to sell based on the outcome of a faceless, utterly anonymous online poll. I feel like I should not need to emphasize the incredulousness of this folly, but since spoon-feeding is all the rage in dealing with one’s audience, forgive me as I point out in no uncertain terms that they are indeed embarking on a journey into the churning black waters of colossally bad ideas. Allow me to explain:

As a game enthusiast, and former ‘hard core’ gamer myself, I understand the bond player (customer) wants to experience with the avatar that represents his actions in the virtual world to which it is bound (product). Being ‘blessed’ as the Americans would say with a functioning brain, I can also understand the impulse on behalf of the game developer (company) to cater to, and indeed pander to, its customer base. The simplistic formula for this reasoning being:

Customer satisfaction (A) = Sales (B) = share holder satisfaction (C)

Thus without A there will be no B, and therefore no C, and without C bad things happen. So bad in fact that there may not be a next time. Thus, it is important to sort out how to get your A, so that when you promise C with tremendous B it actually goes to plan.
It may seem logical then to involve the customer base in this way – very openly asking them to choose from, in this case six, different hair styles on a female protagonist whose body shape, face, and clothes are otherwise pre-determined. A small nod to the customers then, hardly life changing, as they decide whether or not they’d rather play a blonde, brunette, or tomboy lesbian. Shockingly, the votes for model number five – the Barbie-blonde battle bimbo straight off the set of Baywatch led the public poll from day one, comfortably held a commanding lead throughout the polling window, and closed, utterly predictably well ahead of her counterparts. Up to this point, nothing had happened which I could not have told the fine gentlemen at BioWare during the meeting they had proposing this polling of their customer base. The reason I could have done this and a room full of people at BioWare Inc. could not is because unlike them I have been amongst their target audience in their natural environment, the Internet. I have been exposed to the unimaginable levels of their depravity and delinquency, their childish tantrums and irrational ways. Why have they not you rightly ask – simple, they have jobs – namely game development, and a place to live, bills to pay, and probably even a wife to please; they, like good drug dealers, do not partake in their own product. So the situation arose that, armed with good intent, they stumbled blindly into the proverbial minefield of anonymous voting through a social networking website, and struck a detonator on their very first step.
I should be clear that I do not intend to play their game, nor would I care if the protagonist were male or female, blonde or brunette, so long as the gameplay was enjoyable. Paying money to waste one’s time is only rational after all if that time is spent enjoying the experience. The question no one seems to have asked is “do you think it is important if the protagonist sports a flowing coupe soleil or military-issue buzz cut?” More importantly still is the question “can we trust you to make even the most minor decisions in an open democracy?” the answer to which it should be readily obvious is a resounding ‘no.’
Still, I was un-phased, apathetic, and ready to move on with the myriad other impulses vying for my limited attention but for one thing. The poll sparked the inevitable debate – much like real, or shall we say, meaningful elections having more to do with the fate of this world rather than a virtual one. The accusations flew across the web, clogging even the most expansive broadband with the inane chatter of slighted egos and stubbed noses. Fans of the franchise penned book-length rebuttals to the voting results quoting in their desperation the cliché wisdoms of long-dead philosophers who could not have conceived of the pettiness of their contrite lamentations; “to be or not to be” not quite on par with “to dye or not to dye.” From out of the rotten woodworks of the fence around the gaming paddock came poets and preachers, visionaries and heroes, all denouncing with unabated indignation the makeover of their beloved heroine, Captain Shepard. Normally, I would not have cared, but in this case they tunneled their way back into my otherwise impregnable sphere by invoking the ‘F-word’ – feminism.

In the world of computer gaming, girls are relative newcomers, and still a clear minority. Nevertheless they are on the rise as part of the above-mentioned group, and likely here to stay. The grand irony crashes like Thor’s own lightning from the sky when they take exception to the hairstyle of a virtual female protagonist in a male-dominated, virtual world. It gets worse when you consider that the issue of believing in equal rights for men and women is diluted to the point where forum wars erupt over whether or not a fictional blonde woman should be entrusted with the fate of a virtual world. Indeed, how could she possible save humanity from the alien threat so encumbered by her golden locks? I must stress again that her face, her gender, her wardrobe and indeed her available dialogue was all predetermined without the bother of an online poll, as it has been in games of old, without any need for eViolence and name calling. Am I crazy or is the very fact that a beautiful, luscious, longhaired protagonist can save the world in a fictional game the very cornerstone of the entire medium? Even Mrs.Thatcher during her boldest years dared not grow hers out so far as to touch the base of her neck, so I ask where else but a video game can a heroine be at once physically appealing to the lowest common denominator, predominantly 12-year-old male audience and massacre aliens with a laser gun on fully-automatic?

This one, I fear, is going to fester.