Subverting Minecraft

Two signs by the door just inside my Dank Spawn Hut: "Welcome to Minecraftia Nature Reserve", "Preserve the endangered mobs -- please play on Peaceful"

Minecraft is an endlessly entertaining game because it doesn’t have a plot, an end boss, a time limit, any rules, or any objective at all. This open-endedness forces you to invent your own goals, and it makes for many different modes of gameplay. However, the most common way to play (aside, maybe, from pixel art) goes like this: Wake up on island. Punch trees. Hide from monsters. Make weapons. Fight monsters. Start a strip mine or a quarry. Build a monster-proof base with a tree farm and a mob grinder. Move on to redstone-wired minecart railways. Etc.

I think this gameplay exemplifies a culturally ingrained way of thinking about colonization, nature, and the concepts of wilderness/frontier and exploration. You’re the only human; the land is uninhabited (because neither animals nor monsters count as persons), and you have a perfect right to extract natural resources and kill (naturally) hostile monsters as you see fit. Your goal is to establish control over nature, and by introducing civilization in the form of fortresses and farms, you are imposing order onto chaos. The unfortunate historical associations should be obvious…

Now, you could argue that aspects of this narrative are built into the game, which, after all, was not created in a cultural vacuum. You can turn monsters off, but there’s no way to make them friendly. The tools you can craft include pickaxes, swords, and bows. Et cetera. But much of the fun of Minecraft comes from players exploiting glitches or finding alternate uses for features in order to play the game in new, unintended, and certainly unexpected ways. It is possible to deliberately flip the script, and players are doing it all the time.

One of the first examples I happened to come across was the clan called Anarcho-Communists of Minecraftia (original forum thread). On multiplayer servers, economies often emerge, formally or informally–there are even mods like iConomy that allow admins to regulate currency and shops. The ACoM anticipated this and formed a group of strictly anti-capitalist players.

As for singleplayer, here are some threads from /r/minecraft where people share their own gameplay styles. There’s nomad mode:

I spend most of my time exploring and gathering the few resources I need to keep going. In the afternoon I start looking for a place to set up for the night. These are often in the side of a hill, in natural caves that I make minimal patches to for safety, or even just a simple dirt house near the water. The goal is simple: affect the landscape as little as possible. Reuse and maximize use of supplies. Never stay in one area longer than necessary, or if you do make it a temporary home, keep it as simple as possible. No big structures, no wasted resources. No hoarding of supplies or resources. Take only what is needed.

Then there’s Falloutcraft (a. k. a. Morlock or Moleman), where you spend the entire game underground; or Windwaker (island-hopping)–I imagine this would work well by using Biome Terrain Mod to create an archipelago-type map.

My favourite so far, though, is “caretaker forest elf” and (from comments) similar styles like “caretaker dwarf” and “hollower”:

The caretaker elf doesen’t extract dirt or stone, but she might want to bait creepers to blow on materials she might want to gather. She has no qualms about this since creepers want to blow up anyway. The World was birthed by a giant creeper, after all.
The caretaker exploits natural formations while making structures – building with them, not demolishing them. She also replants trees after killing them, preferably more trees than before, so that she enriches the world.

[…] Interesting problem: does this giant grass plain really want me to plant trees everywhere? should i go somewhere else to do that if the plains want to be endless and grassy? you may not care about this, but the caretaker elf does!

Another commenter describes their style as Lonely Vault-Builder:

I build a little home just under the surface, leaving the environment around me as untouched as possible. I build underground gardens to supply me with easy renewable resources, hidden arbors going down to bedrock (with light shafts and careful bracing). I leave only to collect sand from empty isles or wool from roaming sheep. Once I have a safe, sustainable home (with just a touch of glass, light and pleasing architecture) I wander around for a while, at a loss for what to do.

[…] edited to add: Unrelated to the above, I’ve also started embracing a relatively ‘cruelty-free’ playstyle. I don’t kill pigs or cows, and I only punch sheep enough to shear them. (I once accidentally punched a sheep into lava. It was quite sad D:) I only attack monsters that are coming after me, though I’ve no qualms about picking up bones and feathers after dawn […]

All this has got me thinking about how I could change up my more-or-less conventional gameplay. I recently downloaded a map with lots of little islands and open sea. Now, I could establish a base on one of the larger islands, with a mine and a nice house, and light up and mob-proof the islands one by one…but I think I’ll try something different. I’ll build treehouses or camp out in caves, mine only ores that are already exposed (which means just coal and possibly iron), and replant a tree for every one I chop down. I’ll do my best to build good shelters, but I don’t plan on making weapons, so if a spider or creeper gets me–well, if I die, I die! (No big deal, as I don’t plan on accumulating much stuff anyway.) I’ll make a little boat and journey from island to island. It’ll be an adventure!

In the News: Poverty, Housing, Health

Toronto Star, “Affordable housing to simplify onerous rent rules”, Nov. 29. The [Ontario] Liberals are coming through on their promise of an affordable housing strategy…sort of.

Globe and Mail, “Province tells Ford to back off on Toronto welfare funding request”, Nov. 29. The provincial government promised municipalities it would cover half the cost of running Ontario Works. But that cost has risen sharply thanks to the increased caseload during this recession. They’re hoping Ford’s frugality means a lower payout.

The Toronto Star, “The rich get rich, and the poor get sick”, Dec. 13. Poor people are vastly more likely to get type 2 diabetes, and, of course, be unable to afford the healthy diet that would help control it.

The Toronto Star, “Welfare rules forcing people into destitution, report finds”, Dec. 13. Includes a smattering of delicious nation-wide statistics. You don’t qualify for social assistance until you’ve exhausted nearly all your assets, and then payments are well below the poverty line—leaving no means of getting back on your feet. Some people seem to think that poverty just happens, like weather or something. In fact, government policies actively create and sustain poverty. You just need to look at the numbers.

In the News: Social Assistance and Affordable Housing

A few interesting articles in the papers recently:

Globe and Mail: “To end poverty, guarantee everyone $20,000 a year. But are you willing to trust the poor?

This week, a House of Commons committee on poverty released a report proposing a guaranteed basic income for Canadians with disabilities, on the model already available to seniors. The Senate released a similar report this spring calling for a study of how it would work for all low-income Canadians.

In Quebec, a government task force went further, recommending a minimum guaranteed income starting at $12,000 for everyone in the province.

The article covers several promising case studies from all over the world. As a pessimist, I expect the moralistic middle class to react by shooting itself in the foot. Bootstraps!!1!!1, etc.

Globe and Mail: “Health of 400,000 ‘nearly homeless’ as dire as those on streets: study”

So far, [the researchers have] concluded that the biggest gulf in health outcomes is not between the homeless and the housed. Rather, it’s between those who have adequate housing and those who don’t.

Their lifespans are about seven to 10 years shorter than the general Canadian population, the study points out, citing previous research done in 2009.

Men in vulnerable housing situations have the same chance of living to age 75 as an average man in 1921 – before antibiotics were around. They’re more than twice as likely as the average Canadian to commit suicide.

Women in similar situations are as likely to survive to the age of 75 as an average woman living in Guatemala. They’re six times more likely to commit suicide than the average Canadian.

Toronto Star: Porter: “Linda Chamberlain’s job was making her broke”

As I mentioned on Twitter, even a part-time minimum wage job pays substantially more than social assistance. The “welfare trap” comes into play when someone’s on social assistance and working: half your pay is subtracted from your social assistance payments. And if you’re in subsidized housing, your rent is geared to your income—your gross income. Such is the case of Linda Chamberlain.

After three decades of battling schizophrenia and homelessness and poverty, Chamberlain finally got a job. She worked 2 ½ days a week as a peer support worker on the very floor where she once lived at the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction. It’d be hard to find a better success story.

Except, under the antediluvian web of provincial rules, she lost half of her paycheque to the government, while her rent-geared-to-income skyrocketed by 471 per cent.

The article notes that, when a panel of welfare experts recommended—among many other things—that rent-geared-to-income be calculated from net and not gross income, the Community and Social Services Minister shot it down. Because we’re in a recession. And we have to cut expenses—inevitably at the cost of the poorest, most vulnerable, and most marginalized.

Poverty Is By Definition Unsustainable…

I have been doing cognitive behavioural therapy with a doctor at the practice—it helps you deal with negative thoughts and stress. But a lot of my stress comes from financial insecurity, and that’s really not something you can think yourself out of. The doctor encourages me to see the practice’s social worker to help me budget.

I make an appointment. I talk about how it feels impossible to improve my situation when I can barely get by, let alone put money aside. I talk about the panic at the end of the month, knowing exactly how much is in my account, hoping that I don’t have to buy anything before the next cheque arrives. “It’s stupid, but sometimes I’ve worried about dropping the carton of eggs because I didn’t have the $2.50 to buy another one.”

“It’s hard,” he says. “I see other people on social assistance and everyone worries about the same thing—the end of the month, the end of the month. And people do drop the eggs sometimes.”

I ask him how other people manage.

“Sometimes they go hungry.”

He gives me the addresses of a couple Parkdale food banks and says I can make another appointment if I’m having trouble with ODSP or anything like that.

“Thanks for your help,” I tell him.

On the Awesomeness of Ted Chiang

Because I don’t write about science fiction often enough. Crossposted from elsewhere.

Ted Chiang’s science fiction career has been pretty remarkable. While he’s only published a handful of short stories over the past twenty years, nearly all of them have been nominated for major awards, and most of them won. His subgenre is difficult to pin down—while stories like “Tower of Babylon” and “Seventy-Two Letters” are steeped in religious mythology, “Understand”, “Exhalation” and “Division by Zero” deal with more technical or scientific concepts. “Story of Your Life” and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” play with time and non-linear storytelling. I would say that they are all thought experiments of a sort—polished, philosophical explorations of clearly defined ideas.

That may make Chiang’s work sound rather dry—and maybe it is, I enjoy a certain amount of didacticism in my SF so I’m not the one to say—but while intensely cerebral, his fiction still remains human. Chiang is not one of those writers who seems to think that scientific extrapolation and character development are mutually exclusive, nor the kind that peoples his stories overmuch with brilliant straight white middle-aged men who have difficulty relating to women (which is why I hesitate to call his work “hard SF”). Rather, he eagerly explores how big, world-changing theoretical paradigm shifts affect the everyday lives of ordinary people. In “Division by Zero”, a mathematician’s discovery precipitates a psychiatric crisis and turns her marriage upside down; in “Hell is the Absence of God”, a brutally literal depiction of born-again Christian theology, people form support groups in the wake of angelic visitations, which heal some and disable others. “Story of Your Life” is both an inventive imagining of what alien language could be like, and the story of a woman coping with her daughter’s untimely death.

I could go on and on about Chiang’s writing, but why not see for yourself? Several of his stories are available online in various formats, as listed at Free Speculative Fiction Online:

  • “Understand” (1991), HTML. More conventional and much inferior to his later stuff, but you may find differently.
  • “Division By Zero” (1991), HTML.
  • “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001), podcast.
  • “What’s Expected of Us” (2005), published in Nature as part of the esteemed science journal’s “Futures” short fiction series (later published as an anthology). Available at Concatenation in PDF with many others. Also, podcast.
  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (2007), podcast, and archived (HTML): page 1, page 2, page 3.
  • “Exhalation” (2008), podcast, and various formats available at Nightshade Books (and may I say it is the most gorgeous and moving illustration of the Second Law of Thermodynamics EVAR, I highly recommend it if you want your MIND BLOWN)

Oh, and he recently had a new novella come out! There are quite a few interviews and reviews floating around out there, but I’ll wait till I’ve read it to write more.

You or Your Memory: Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine

The Mountain Goats, The Sunset Tree“You or Your Memory” (Lyrics.)

I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to write something appropriately reviewerly, like “Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine is as dark and heady as its fictional namesake drink”, without copious eye-rolling; nor do I have the patience to give a proper synopsis as you can find in any review online, such as “It follows several generations of mothers and daughters who blah blah blah…”—see, I’m bored already.

Let’s start again. What I find most extraordinary about Black Wine on a technical level is what Dorsey doesn’t do. The narratives are tangled and non-linear, and it takes a while to work out how many women there are—one? two? many?—and how they are related. Not every character even has a given name. There is very little physical description. There are lacunae and episodes of amnesia and dissociation. The geography of her world—which seems to be a descendant of our own or maybe an alternate version of it—is deliberately vague and yet dreamily evocative: the sailor town, the trader town, the mountains, the dunes of Avanue. There is no map on the frontispiece. There are several different languages, but we don’t “see” them—they are all represented by English. All this is immensely refreshing to the sf/f reader jaded by the last fifty years or so of worldbuilding wankery, and even more remarkable is that it works.

But none of this tells you what Black Wine’s really about.

So let’s start over yet again. It’s about pain, memory, language, and identity. It’s about how the authoritarianism of the state reproduces itself at every level, down to the power dynamics of sex. (There is a lot of sex in the book, from incestuous sadomasochism to joyously easygoing tripartite bisexual handfastings to furtive fucking that can only be named what it is, “love”, in the secret sign language of slaves.) It’s about the self-perpetuating cycle of domination, control, and abuse. Most of all, though, Black Wine is about freedom. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tehanu—which reminds me in many ways of Black Wine—Tenar says, “I am trying to find somewhere I can live.” (Or something like that; this is from memory.) Similarly Ea says, “Only today as I sat in my bath did I realize that my whole life has been spent in the search for safety.” And the trader says of Essa, “‘She had to find a place to live the rest of her life. And she set out.’”

Anyone who has ever cut a parent out of her life, or tried to, or would if she could, or subconsciously kept a list of what she would grab if she had to run and could only take what would fit in one bag, or vowed never to raise children lest she pass on her family’s heritage, or abandoned everything to start over somewhere else, where nobody knows her, or ever gets the euphoric urge to walk away from her home and keep on walking, as far as she can—any such person will understand intimately what Black Wine is about. But Dorsey’s writing is so viscerally true and her world so gorgeously realized that—I hope—any reader will come to know something of these things, too.

Old Habits Die Hard

Originally posted in November 2009

It seems that, even among people who should know better, it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking of oneself as a mind encased in a body. That is, thinking that there are two very different kinds of stuff in the world: mental stuff (thoughts, emotions, memories), and physical stuff (organs, bacteria, tables). This way of thinking, which expresses itself in platitudes like “mind over matter”, is called dualism, and it has been deeply unfashionable among philosophers for the past two hundred years or so. The cool kids have long ago moved on to monism, which is the idea that there’s only one kind of stuff in the world (nowadays, matter—i. e., atoms and molecules—but more on this later) and everything is made of it. Of course, the rest of the world generally takes longer to catch up with philosophy, so you still see people unashamedly espousing dualist metaphysics, unaware that it is the philosophical equivalent of wearing white after Labour Day.

This way of thinking is especially pernicious when it comes to matters of health. In some cases, the mind is thought to be “really you”, and your body is a thing that can conspire against you. “That’s the depression talking.” It leads to a kind of “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality with regards to disability or chronic illness…but having been well acquainted with that mindset I assure you it’s just a long-winded way of saying “hate the sinner”. However, in other cases, “mental” things are considered less real than “physical” things. “It’s all in your head” (as if your head weren’t a part of you, or what goes on in your head isn’t “real”). Or the artificial distinction between mental and physical disabilities.

It’s all the same stuff, people.

An Introduction

Hi, I’m Neville Park. I’ve been blogging under another handle for several years, but my blog is no longer public due to privacy concerns. I miss having a public voice, though, so here I am!

All I ask of you, readers, is to respect my anonymity and respect each other. Please don’t refer to or speculate on my other pseudonym or real name. Don’t make personal attacks. And if a comment you want to make is eerily reminiscent of Derailing for Dummies, step back and think about what you’re saying and why.

Here goes!

On Memory, and Other Things

There is a town in north Ontario
with dream comfort memory to spare,
and in my mind I still need a place to go;
all my changes were there.

Neil Young, “Helpless”

Memory oppresses me.

The Shadow of the Torturer, Gene Wolfe

Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiring mystery, my God, a power of profound and infinite multiplicity. And this is mind, this is I myself. What then am I, my God? What is my nature? It is characterized by diversity, by life of many forms, utterly immeasurable…

Augustine, Confessions X. xvii (26)

The priest in the booth had a photographic memory
for all he had heard

Belle and Sebastian, “The State I Am In”

I have recently been reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun tetralogy and thinking about how torture, time, memory, and confession are twined together. This essay, “Torture and Confession in Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun”, has been a kind of starting-point.