On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)

Since moving into a new flat two months ago, I resolved to demolish my pile of unread books that had been eyeing me reproachfully for far too long. Counting some extra books I tackled after the pile of doom, I read:

  1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
  2. The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
  3. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
  4. The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk
  5. The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser
  6. Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
  7. The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
  8. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
  9. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice, provided for free online by Harvard University and WGBH Boston, are as strong an argument for distance learning as you’ll ever find:

Most of my lecturers are university (Oxford, Cambridge, UCSD) were not particularly good or bad; they were merely average. In fact, I’ve only seen a single person who can rival Michael Sandel for clarity, engagement, and presence in the lecturing stakes – Prof. V. S. Ramachandran. Since Ramachandran, like Sandel, is a Reith lecturer, I can safely say that they are both exceptional.

(It says something about undergraduate education that Sandel’s free lectures online, with the ability to pause and rewind them at will, eclipses much of my ‘world-class’ education – but that’s for another post)

Justice (the accompanying book) is an expanded version of his lectures, covering the same ground with many of the same arguments and examples. While it’s arguable that there’s no point buying the book if the lectures are free, books are surely a superior medium to videos for helping people understand complex ideas and problems – even if videos are easier to watch.

For example, Sandel has a particularly fine explanation of Kant’s moral philosophy and his idea of heteronomy, one whose subtleties might be lost – or at least smoothed over – if done as a video:

People often argue over the role of nature and nurture in shaping behavior. Is the desire for Sprite (or other sugary drinks) inscribed in the genes or induced by advertising? For Kant, this debate is deside the point. Whenever my behavior is biologically determined or socially conditioned, it is not truly free. To act freely, according to Kant, is to act autonomously. And to act autonomously is to act according to a law I give myself – not according to the dictates of nature or social convention.

One way of understanding what Kant means by acting autonomously is to contrast autonomy with its opposite. Kant invents a word to capture this contrast – heteronomy. When I act heteronomously, I act according to determinations given outside of me.

… It is 3:00 a.m., and your college roommate asks you why you are up late pondering moral dilemmas involving runaway trolleys [a subject covered earlied in the book].

“To write a good paper in Ethics 101,” you reply.

“But why write a good paper?” your roommate asks.

“To get a good grade.”

“But why care about grades?”

“To get a job in investment banking.”

“But why get a job in investment banking?”

“To become a hedge fund manager someday.”

“But why be a hedge fund manager?”

“To make a lot of money.”

“But why make a lot of money?”

“To eat lobster often, which I like. I am, after all, a sentient creature. That’s why I’m up late thinking about runaway trolleys!”

This is an example of what Kant would call heteronomous determination – doing something for the sake of something else, for the sake of something else, and so on. When we act heteronomously, we act for the sake of ends given outside us. We are instruments, not authors, of the purposes we pursue.

What I enjoyed so much about this example is how it gave a word to a feeling that had been nagging at me for a while, the problem that it is so easy to completely relinquish your actions to external factors instead of internal ones; the use of investment banking and hedge fund management is sadly all too apt for Harvard and Oxbridge students (many of whom I know myself). Continue reading “On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)”

Yakuza 3: A Serious Game

I fell in love with Yakuza 3 at five different moments. Let me count them:
(It goes without saying that there are spoilers below – but only for the early/mid game)
1. Nakahara’s Pride
Kiryuu Kazuma, the hero of Yakuza 3, spends much of his time cooking dinner and solving petty disputes about pocket money at his orphanage in Okinawa. Still, Kiryuu is a former Yakuza – the Fourth Chairman of the mighty Tojo Clan, in fact – and he does spend the first hour of the game beating up various people in Tokyo (punks, old friends, etc.), but once he’s put everything back in order, he quickly heads home. Unlike other recent videogame heroes, Kiryuu is not bent on revenge, he’s not an amoral soldier looking to make a quick buck, he’s not interested in the least by adventure – he just wants to keep his head down, cook some curries, and take care of his kids.
An eviction notice predictably shakes things up, and Kiryuu (that’s me) heads into town to track down two punks who’ve been spying on the orphanage. A swift beatdown later, and the young men – Rikiya and Mikio – are persuaded to lead me to Nakahara, the boss of their local Ryudo family. I keep expecting to be ambushed by a mob of Ryudo heavies, but instead I walk into Nakahara’s office flanked by two deep and very genuine bows from Rikiya and Mikio – not the reaction I’d imagined, given the humiliation they’d suffered earlier, and it gave me my first inkling that Yakuza 3 might be a little different to other action games.
Inside, Nakahara, an old and heavyset man, explains that he’s owned the orphanage’s land for quite some time, and now he wants to sell it to people planning a huge holiday resort. He doesn’t care much for the resort, but he doesn’t want to stand in the way of progress either, and clearly it’ll bring money and jobs to Okinawa. Even more reasonably, Nakahara offers to pay a decent sum of money for the orphanage – more than he needs to offer, he thinks.
I’ll let Kiryuu speak for himself: “What you say makes sense. But it’s nothing more than selfish yakuza logic. I used to be in the business myself. I’d make up the same of excuse. I always had a good reason for ruining someone else’s life. But I’ve changed. Do you ever think about the innocent children whose lives you ruin? I won’t let the kids at my orphanage meet that sort of fate as long as I’m around. We’re done here.” – but he now sees that as a poor excuse for selfish acts, that in this case will harm the lives of innocent orphaned kids. So Kiryuu stands up, turn his back on Nakahara, and takes his leave.
At this point, I lean forward with my controller. Everything that’s happened in the last hour has been building up to this moment – the suspicious men watching the orphanage, the worried neighbours talking about the eviction notice, my fight with Rikiya, the Lieutenant of the Ryudo family. It’s clear that I’m going to have to fight Nakahara to save my orphanage.
Nakahara doesn’t disappoint me. “I may have spent sixty years of my life here in Okinawa,” he says, snatching up a sword, “but I’m not so old that I’d let a punk from the mainland talk to me like that!”. He swiftly unsheathes the sword, and takes up a fighting stance.
What a setup for a fight, I think: Nakahara’s a big man with a wicked-looking sword, but he’s out of shape. Then there’s me – Kiryuu – not so young myself anymore, but fast and full of energy. This should be interesting.
It is interesting, but not in the way I’m expecting. Kiryuu, very calmly, turns around to face Nakahara and says, “Is this really what you want?” He walks closer to the tip of the blade, as Nakahara looks puzzled. “Do you want to kill me, and put all my kids out on the street? Will that make you happy? If you really love Okinawa, you should be worrying about other things, not wasting your time trying to evict us.”
Nakahara stands motionless, conflicted, as Kiryuu strides away. Pausing before the door, with his back to Nakahara – and his sword – Kiryuu says, “If you want to fight, I’d be happy to oblige. But I won’t hold back.” Nakahara’s shoulders slump, and Kiryuu walks out. End of chapter.
In any other game, here’s what would have happened: I’d have beaten up Nakahara, then beaten up his underlings, and then trashed the headquarters. I’d have made some powerful enemies, and spent the next few chapters dealing with them. Instead, Yakuza 3 has Kiryuu – who we know is fully capable of taking on Nakahara, sword or not – reason with him, and ultimately win him over. I was
, rendered as a computer-generated movie (like all other such story scenes in the game ) complete with impeccable camera work, direction, and voice acting. I’m impressed.
2. Ballistic Missile Defence
Since WW2, the US has maintained over 20,000 troops in in Okinawa, sitting on over 10% of the total land area. They’re deeply unpopular among locals, and so during his election campaign late last year, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama pledged to move them away from Okinawa, or even off Japan entirely. Eight months later, he resigned, principally because he hadn’t been able to make the move work.
Rather presciently, Yakuza 3 makes a big deal about this through a fictional news story. We learn that Defence Minister Ryuzo Tamiya wants to expand the US military base in order to test a new Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system, capable of intercepting nuclear missiles from ‘hostile Asian countries’ (read as: North Korea). The Minister of Land, Yoshinobu Suzuki, opposes the BMD system, instead promoting the massive holiday resort. It soon emerges that the two Ministers have made a deal to let each go ahead, in return for one person being given a clear path to become Prime Minister. And naturally, the Yakuza are all tied up with this scheme.
The news story is impeccably detailed, with the perfect balance of person-on-the-street interviews, shots of protests, and politicians trying to avoid reporters. But what impressed me most was its grown-up nature – this story wasn’t fantasy, it was directly relevant to people in Japan. The equivalent might be a game about immigration or financial reform in the US, or (if it were fifteen years ago) Northern Ireland in the UK.
No-one has the stones to tackle really serious issues in Western games, but to me, Yakuza 3 demonstrates that it can be done, and that it can be successful.
3. Good Bad Guys
Yakuza 3 has a fine range of bad guys, who – as tradition dictates – must be taken down one by one before revealing the true bad guy(s) behind them all. Some of the bad guys are disgusting idiots, but even these caricatures are given a level of style and malevolence that outshines the bumbling clowns of Grand Theft Auto et al. You really hate these guys – you hate them for what they’ve done, and you take real pleasure in taken them down.
I would’ve been happy if the game left it there, but your real antagonist in Yakuza 3 (whose identity is pretty obvious fairly early on) is not the type you’d see in a typical game or movie. He’s drawn with a real sense of sympathy and honour, and his character development arc over the course of the game is a pleasure to watch. Fittingly, you don’t take much joy in taking him down at the end.
4. Emotion and Melodrama
Let’s not get carried away here – Yakuza 3 is still a Japanese RPG, and it has its fair share of melodrama. The discovery of a lost dog is treated with rather more emotion than it really deserves, but I suppose the writers can get away with it because the orphanage kids are so central to the story.
5. Wisdom
I feel confused about the state of storytelling in games. It’s no secret that I think it’s mostly dire. What confuses me is that many gamers – and reviewers – think it’s actually improving. I spent a while thinking about this while wincing my way through such ham-tastic bestsellers like Grand Theft Auto 4, Mass Effect 2, Fallout 3, Modern Warfare 2, and Assassin’s Creed 2, and have come to a startling conclusion: gamers think that cynicism, sarcasm, and irony equals a good, complex and deep story.
Let me explain. It used to be that your average adventure or action game would follow the standard hero’s journey of hearing the call to adventure, teaming up with some allies, bashing some enemies, learning some stuff, overcoming some personal weakness, and then winning.

1. Nakahara’s Pride

Kazuma Kiryu spends most of his time solving pocket money disputes and cooking dinner at his orphanage in Okinawa. It’s not what you’d expect from the hero of Yakuza 3, but Kiryu is a former Yakuza – the Fourth Chairman of the mighty Tojo Clan, in fact – and despite his cuddly nature, he does spend the first hour of the game beating up various punks, enemies, and old friends while visiting Tokyo.

But let’s not be mistaken – once Kiryu’s put everything back in order, he quickly heads home to the orphanage. Unlike other videogame heroes, he’s not bent on revenge; or an amoral soldier looking to make a quick buck; or saving the world from an existential threat; or interested in the least by adventure. The old ‘Dragon of Dojima’ just wants to keep his head down, cook some curries, and take care of his kids.

yakuza-3-ss-8

Which he does, for all of a few minutes, until an eviction notice shakes things up. Shortly afterwards, two punks are spotted spying on the orphanage, and Kiryu (that’s now me) promptly follows them into town. A swift beatdown later, and the young men – Rikiya and Mikio – lead me to Nakahara, the boss of the local Ryudo Yakuza family.

On the way, I keep expecting to be ambushed by a mob of Ryudo heavies summoned by Rikiya and Mikio, but instead I walk into Nakahara’s office, preceded by two deep and very genuine bows from the aforementioned punks. It’s the complete opposite to what I’d imagined given the humiliation I’d dealt them earlier, and it gave me my first inkling that Yakuza 3 might be a little different to other action games.

yakuza_3-ps3screenshots19012bow_down_bmp

Inside, Nakahara, an old and heavyset man, explains that he’s owned the orphanage’s land for quite some time, and now he wants to sell it to developers planning a huge holiday resort. He doesn’t care much for the resort, but he also doesn’t want to stand in the way of progress either; and at least it’ll bring money and jobs to Okinawa, which it certainly needs. Even more reasonably, Nakahara offers to pay a decent sum of money for the orphanage..

I’ll let Kiryu speak for himself:

What you say makes sense – but it’s nothing more than selfish Yakuza logic. I used to be in the business myself, and I’d make up the same kind of excuse. I always had a good reason for ruining someone else’s life. But I’ve changed. Do you ever think about the innocent children whose lives you ruin? I won’t let the kids at my orphanage meet that sort of fate as long as I’m around. We’re done here.

Kiryu stands up, turn his back on Nakahara, and takes his leave.

At this point, I lean forward with my controller, ready for action. Everything that’s happened in the last hour has been building up to this moment – the suspicious men watching the orphanage, the worried neighbours talking about the eviction notice, my fight with Rikiya, the Lieutenant of the Ryudo family. It’s clear that I’m going to have to fight Nakahara to save my orphanage.

Nakahara doesn’t disappoint me. “I may have spent sixty years of my life here in Okinawa,” he says, snatching up a sword, “but I’m not so old that I’d let a punk from the mainland talk to me like that!” He swiftly unsheathes the sword, and takes up a fighting stance.

What a setup for a fight, I think: Nakahara’s a big man with a wicked-looking sword, but he’s out of shape. Then there’s me – Kiryu – not so young myself anymore, but fast and full of energy. This should be interesting.

And then Kiryu, very calmly, turns around to face Nakahara and says, “Is this really what you want?” He walks closer to the tip of the blade, as Nakahara looks puzzled. “Do you want to kill me, and put all my kids out on the street? Will that make you happy? If you really love Okinawa, you should be worrying about other things, not wasting your time trying to evict us.”

Nakahara stands motionless, conflicted, as Kiryu strides away. Pausing before the door, with his back to Nakahara – and his sword – Kiryuu says, “If you want to fight, I’d be happy to oblige.” He shoots Nakahara a determined look, “But I won’t hold back.” Nakahara’s shoulders slump, and Kiryuu walks out. End of chapter.

In any other game, here’s the script: I’d beat up Nakahara, then beat up his underlings, and then trashed the headquarters. I’d make some powerful enemies, and spent the next few chapters dealing with them. Instead, Yakuza 3 has Kiryuu – who we know is fully capable of taking on Nakahara, sword or not – reason with him, and ultimately win him over. You don’t end up fighting Nakahara at all.

What delighted me about this (mostly computer-generated movie) sequence was not its impeccable camera work, direction, and voice acting. It was how it confounded my expectations of violence being the best – and the only – way of resolving this conflict; expectations that are reinforced with each and every game that seeks to paint the world in only black and white. Continue reading “Yakuza 3: A Serious Game”