Friday, February 17, 2012


I play a lot of games. That being said, I don't play Risk because it's a little too simplified for me. I'm all about complexity, so that makes me an elitist about my boardgames, my beer (I generally avoid American mass-produced swill; I drink because I like the taste of it, not just because it's there), and my fiction. If you're going to try to hand me something recycled from 20 years ago with 2-dimensional characters and monosyllabic dialogue, but with flashier special effects, you will likely lose. On the one hand, this looks good: Guy Pearce, some witty banter, grim future; I'm all about it. On the other hand, it's Escape from New York in space and I'm betting that it lacks the moody direction of John Carpenter that made the latter rise above its B-movie level. The story overall simply lacks complexity. There's no risk inherent in presenting it because it likely doesn't push the boundaries of anything that's been presented before.

No one will ever be Snake Plissken again. That's probably a good thing.

I like risk-taking because I think it encourages original thought. Game design is a sterling example of how it can be done well and done poorly. Games Workshop is notorious for including minor rules in its games that presumably reward risky play. What they don't get is that, in the framework in which they provide such things (turn-based wargames that already involve a substantial amount of risk known as "dice"), those risks will preclude their participation because they create scenarios that go beyond individual choice. It's not a case of "If I make this move, I could win the game." It's "If I do this, there's a solid chance it could go horribly awry because of a die roll over which I have no control and I could lose what should be a sure win in this fight... or I could just do well in the fight." This is a risk-reward system predicated too heavily on the risk. (Why does a lifelong peace activist play wargames? Dichotomy, baby.)

That guy in front is a good guy. Fer reals.
WoW has been the same way over much of its development. Warlocks, historically, have been saddled with many abilities that focused largely on their traditional "attempts to control forces beyond their ken" (this is a recurring theme in GWs approach, as well, as many of the major "drawback" rules appeared in their games for Chaos (read: the bad guys.)) The problem is that, if you're into organized play, like raiding, you don't want random factors or large drawbacks to impede your progress. If that warlock summoning that demon is going to tip the balance against you in a tough encounter, most players will not engage that ability and would rather just work through the problem with abilities they know either won't damage them or will work more reliably. Blizzard, to their credit, has deemed said abilities "not fun" (i.e. no one uses them) and has been gradually weeding them out over the years. GW is a little slower on the uptake...

Should I sacrifice a friend to summon this thing that might attack me... or just grind through it? (rhetorical!)

This whole process is similar in a political vein: risk-taking encourages original thought because it often is original thought. By the same token, it also encourages knee-jerk, reactionary, and often hysteric responses. That's the risky part. Should we continue down a path of ever-dwindling and increasingly-dirty fossil fuel extraction or should we make a serious effort at transforming our economy and our infrastructure into something sustainable, despite the fact that the capitalist model of ceaseless economic growth will likely stall while this development takes place? Should we persist in demonizing (warlock term!) "non-traditional" lifestyles in the name of protecting the sanctity of outdated traditions or should we put all of that aside and pay attention to some problems that really matter? The answer to both of those is both more complex than a one word answer (which is one reason you'll rarely hear them addressed in an honest fashion by major party politicians) and perfectly obvious if approached in a logical and reasonable fashion (which is the other reason.)

Most political figures can't answer them in one word because they'd have to explain them. Explaining things requires context, which opens one up to being misquoted or having things taken out of context and then used against you. The reason that tactic works is the other reason you can't stop to explain things: the American electorate, by and large, is neither logical nor reasonable but, in fact, dumb as a bag of hammers. Containing complex concepts to three word soundbites ("Drill, baby, drill!") is a way of both staying on message (no matter how stupid said message may be) and risk aversion. Why doesn't anyone want to take the risky approach with their Chaos Lord or warlock? Because people are naturally risk averse; even moreso when presented with a bad choice (e.g. where one selection is not clearly more positive than the other(s).) There's a brilliant book on this sort of behavior that we're all subject to called Scorecasting. It contextualizes the concept of risk aversion into sports and makes it clear(er) why officials, coaches, and players often do what they do. Politicians, like most humans (speaking very broadly here...), are subject to the same psychological tendencies.

Are solar, wind, and geothermal sources of energy sustainable? Yes. Are they cleaner than fossil fuels? Yes. Will they create new industries and technological innovation? Yes. Can they be achieved on a national scale quickly? No. (There's risk.) Will it be an easy transition? No (There's risk.) Are there enormous moneyed interests working against it? Of course (biggest risk of all...) From this perspective, the idea that a politician may be abandoned by an enormous source of campaign cash and political influence (the fossil fuel industry) is indeed a warlock's bargain for him or her. It's a good risk for the rest of the world, but a bad risk for the short-term profits of BP and the short-term prospects of most American politicians; not to mention their personal short-term profits that BP would love to pay them as soon as they leave office.

Is fighting against gay marriage a waste of time and money...? Seriously, do I need to go into this? If you're concerned that the sanctity of your marriage might be threatened by the relationship of two other complete strangers, I'm sorry, but you're an idiot.

To be honest, I'm not sorry. You're just an idiot.

Risk and risk aversion are essential concepts in a lot of the things I enjoy. In many cases, I tend to focus on them because I like to see how other people are willing to engage or avoid them. As I said, I appreciate risky behavior because it often means people are thinking "outside the box" (to overuse an aphorism that should probably be killed by now.) Do I engage in it myself? Sure. I even tried using some of those horrible choices presented by GW and WoW; mostly because I just wanted to see what happened. It doesn't make me particularly good at playing said games. As a case example, I just played a couple games of Twilight Struggle (games and politics!) with Brian this past weekend. My risk aversion led to a play in our second game that likely sealed the loss for me. If I'd been willing to be more risky, things might have turned out differently. (The fact that I won the first game because he led the world into a nuclear war will go almost unspoken...) Are you considered more of a success at life if you take the safe path and are good at what you do or if you opt for the less traveled road, as it were?

The final example of risk today goes to the following clip, because it's the most beautiful political rant I've heard or seen in 20 years. Napolitano was already getting cancelled, so the risk is whether he'll ever land a TV job again. Bet he could get a few votes for public office at this point...

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