25 May 2015

On Semantics

Semantics as the study of meaning is a branch of philosophy related to linguistics. It has a close connection to the field of pragmatics. In a very simplified way one can say that semantics is concerned with codified meaning whereas pragmatics identifies the meaning of utterances in concrete communicative situations. The phrase “it’s all just semantics” which is frequently used to invalidate a different opinion or to shrug off differing opinions seems to suggest that semantics is not important. I disagree strongly with such a sentiment because I consider semantics to be central to the understanding of the human condition. Our reality is defined by our language and in order to successfully communicate with other human beings nothing is more important than to adequately express what one means.

All too often, however, there is a stark contrast between what is said and what is meant. One reason for that might be that many speakers assume that their use of an expression is shared by all speakers of their speech community and that said expression has a fixed meaning, probably assigned by a dictionary. And, to be honest, in most cases they are justified in that assumption. In other cases, however, it does make a lot of sense to define essential terms at the beginning (or during the course) of a discussion in order to establish a solid basis. Alas, it seems that many people are reluctant to discuss fundamentals – for whatever reasons – and rather want to focus on minor details, oftentimes taking the second step before the first. This can be frequently observed when politicians or “experts” discuss an issue in political talk shows. These discussions usually lead nowhere because everyone is only interested in promoting their own agenda. A personal pet peeve of mine is the misinterpretation or misrepresentation of statistical data or terminology by politicians, especially the difference between correlation and causality.

So how does this excursion into semantics pertain to MMOs? In the scientific community it is standard practice to define terms and concepts relevant to one’s study and maybe MMO bloggers could adopt this approach as well. Take, for example, this post by SynCaine where he talks about “backer-envy” in relation to crowd-funded video games. Irrespective of the content of his post he fails to define what exactly he means by this expression and somehow takes for granted that his audience already knows the meaning or that it will become apparent by reading the article. Unsurprisingly, the very first comment – by Rohan – asks specifically what SynCaine actually means with his concept of backer-envy and the following discussion – beautifully continued by Bhagpuss – is needed to clear the waters. As I understand it now SynCaine considers backer-envy to be the reverse of buyer’s remorse which is how I originally understood it. So the new concept (“backer-envy”) is formed in analogy to an already established concept (“buyer’s remorse”), but with a major difference: it’s not the backers who are envious but rather the other players who did not back the game. This confusion could have been avoided by defining the relevant terminology at the beginning of the article.

Similarly, there’s an ongoing debate about pay-to-win scenarios in video games without a general definition of what that actually means. It seems that almost everyone has a broad understanding of the concept as such but working definitions are far and in-between. To be more precise the term “pay-to-win” should actually be abandoned because etymologically it suggests that a financial transfer results in the completion of a victory condition within the framework of the game providing a win for the buyer. If one agrees that the primary purpose of any video game is to play, then it doesn’t make any sense to buy a win and rob oneself of the playing experience. In addition, MMOs do not offer any win conditions at all. They are open-ended, never finished and won’t reward players with a “Victory or Game Over” screen. Boss fights and PvP matches hardly count in this regard because the victory is only momentarily achieved and does not constitute the final goal of winning the entire game. The expression “pay-to-win” is a misnomer and should therefore be replaced with the more accurate phrase “pay-for-power” (or maybe “pay-for-advantage”). Both Gevlon and Dàchéng have discussed this as well and I think that their contributions are very noteworthy since they offer a sensible definition of the “pay-for-power” scheme as any item being sold in a cash shop that “affects the gameplay of other players”, i.e. the gaming experience of other players is directly influenced. The focus on other players also explains why most objections against pay-for-power items are brought forth by PvPers. Note that the situation in professional, competitive environments (e.g. e-sports) is purposefully excluded here.

The final example to highlight the importance of semantics has to do with language change. I’ve talked about this before. All natural languages are constantly changing and evolving which sometimes leads to words acquiring a new meaning, i.e. they are used in a way that differs from established usage. In the discussion of MMOs this can be seen by the inflationary use of the term “burnout” to denote that someone has lost interest in a specific MMO or in a specific activity in a specific MMO or in MMOs in general. Essentially, some people who have lost interest in or are bored with anything related to MMOs claim to be “burned out”. I find it quite hard to imagine that every single one of these people is actually suffering from a “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress” because, as a psychologist, that is my understanding of what the word means on a basic level. The psychological concept and medical diagnosis are, of course, a lot more refined. It may very well be the case that “burnout” was overused in media coverage in recent years and people subconsciously feel that saying they’re burned out is sexier (or more socially accepted) than admitting that they are simply bored. Regardless of the reasons behind it, this new use causes a devaluation of the medical component which in turn could lead to problems for people who are in need of help. One should at least be aware of this.

In conclusion, I’d suggest using the expression “pay-for-power” instead of “pay-to-win” and to avoid equating “burnout” with a loss of interest or boredom.

16 May 2015

Back in Business

Shintar, the Priest With A Cause is back! This time on a private vanilla WoW server. Not that she was ever really gone. Nonetheless, it was her post together with this very personal piece by Kadomi that sparked my return as well. Kadomi talks about her personal life and how it affected her gaming and blogging in some detail and while reading, I kept thinking: “Hey, this is very similar to my situation”. Here are two quotes (with my emphasis) that describe how I feel as well:

It’s not that I don’t want to blog. When daydreaming at work, or driving home, I have fantastic ideas for blog posts. Very briefly, work was slow enough that I actually wrote draft ideas into Evernote, at least working titles.
By the time I am home from work, I don’t want to sit down and write blog posts. A full post takes me an hour minimum, if not longer. After work, I want to lounge on the couch, play Candy Crush Soda Saga for a while (sue me), and do something relaxing. Now that I am in my 40s my interest in PC gaming is waning, because I would much rather sit on the couch in comfort than spend hours at my desk. Then there’s dinner to cook, my SO would like to spend time with me, the kitties have demands and bam, it’s bed-time.

Now, I don’t use Evernote, but I too have written down a few points or working titles that I would like to expand upon some day. I also don’t play mobile games for that matter and I’m not in my 40s yet. We don’t have any pets and I walk to work. But these are just minor circumstantial details. The simple fact of the matter is that blogging takes time and we’re both very busy and otherwise occupied.

I commented on Shintar’s post that I had actually stopped gaming altogether for over a year. There were several reasons for that and it was my choice. First, I simply no longer feel that I am among the target audience for video games in general any more. Virtually all recent developments are going in directions that I do not appreciate (e.g. mobile gaming, casual and “accessible” gaming, free-to-play, cash shops, DLC, Early Access, etc.). The World of Warcraft that I loved is destroyed. The World of Loading Screens” (SW:TOR) that I could get on board with became a glorified slot machine selling hotbars. Console manufacturers have no interest in offering backwards compatibility because now they can sell the same game several times to the same customer. I have no intention of paying for any of this on general principle!

Additionally, my real life got a lot more complex. My wife’s second pregnancy was strenuous – not dangerous or complicated – just a lot more demanding than her first one. This meant that I had to manage our daily life (cooking, cleaning, etc.) by myself, all the while working (almost) full-time at the university. In general, I keep a tight schedule, meaning that my day is very structured. I get up at 6 o’clock every morning and exercise for about an hour. Afterwards I shower and get dressed and prepare the breakfast for the family. Then we enjoy a nice family breakfast and I head off to work. The trip takes about 20 minutes by foot and I always walk. I usually arrive shortly after 9 a.m. and start the work day with some administrative tasks such as checking the mail and answering e-mails. I teach my first class from 10 a.m. to 12 noon and afterwards have lunch with co-workers, some time between 12 noon and 2 p.m., depending on who’s coming and where we’re going. The next class is from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and then I stay until at least 7 p.m., sometimes even longer. When I arrive at home, I have to prepare dinner for the family (or at least assist my wife) and then spend some quality time with my wife and children. The kid’s bedtime is usually at 8:30 p.m. and then it’s just my wife and me for about an hour or two before we go to sleep.

This cycle repeats the next day, every day, every week from Monday to Friday. I do not mind this at all. I value consistency and structure very much. I’m one of those guys who could eat the same meal every day and still enjoy it. I don’t get bored easily. Looking at this timetable there are hardly any opportunities for blogging. “By the time I am home from work, I don’t want to sit down and write blog posts. [...] I want to [spend time with my family] and do something relaxing”. This excludes playing video games. I’ve written a couple of posts at work but I just cannot take the time to do that anymore. Workload is very intense. Becoming a professor is no cakewalk. I suppose I could write on the weekends, but we clean the house every Saturday morning and Sunday is the family day where we visit relatives or have a picnic or go out for a walk or do other stuff together. That only leaves Saturday afternoon as my personal free time. When I’m not teaching, all the work I do is computer work or paper work (correcting papers, doing research, writing articles, etc.) so I’m glad if I can do something else in my spare time, like playing actual golf. Even when work was less demanding, I’d much rather spend my time actually playing the games I enjoy instead of writing about them. This explains why I was such a poor SW:TOR blogger.

Nonetheless, I wish to take up blogging again and for the future my plan is to publish one post every week, possibly on Sundays.