Money Illiteracy, Apple Arcade

Issue 6 of my newsletter – subscribe here

Since buying a house a couple of years ago, I’ve noticed more and more people talking about overpaying their mortgages, and I find the whole idea mystifying.

The mechanics of mortgages were alien to me until recently, and they may well be to you as well. In the UK, most people opt for 25 year mortgages with a reasonably substantial deposit, usually around 5-10% of the value. For the first few years, the interest rate on the mortgage will be higher because your loan-to-value ratio will also be higher – that is, the amount you’ve borrowed vs. the value of your house. That means your monthly mortgage payments will also be relatively high.

But as time goes on and your mortgage payments add up, the amount you’ve borrowed will decrease. More importantly, the value of your house has probably gone up. In some areas, it might have gone up a lot. That means your loan-to-value ratio will be lower, so banks will trust you more and offer you a significantly lower rate of interest if you remortgage. Right now, you could get as low as 2% interest on your mortgage, vs. the 4+% at the start of your mortgage.

It doesn’t sound like a big difference, but when you’ve borrowed hundreds of thousands of pounds, it adds up to hundreds of pounds per month in increased mortgage payments. I was genuinely shocked by how much our mortgage payments decreased after just two years when we remortgaged for a lower rate, and I thought I was financially savvy.

Anyway – that’s all prologue to the fact that for many homeowners, when their mortgage payments decrease, they decide to overpay their mortgage, sometimes by a significant amount. If you overpay each month, you could clear your mortgage years earlier than its default 25 year term.

The act of overpaying a mortgage, I believe, confers such a strong feeling of security and responsibility and satisfaction that many very smart people will prioritise mortgage overpayments over every other form of investment. At least, that’s the only way I can explain such a mystifying decision.

Now, it is true that Money Saving Expert, the middle-class bible, tells you to overpay your mortgage, assuming you have no other higher-interest debts. Why? Their answer is that while the interest rate on mortgages can be very low, most savings rates are even lower. It’s possible to beat 2% on a few savings products like Cash ISAs and fixed-rate accounts where you lock your money away for a year or more, but I suspect most people are not using those.

So far, so sensible. It’s only until you get to the end of the long article that it explores alternatives to saving, like investing, with the stark warning:

But to generate the amount of investment returns equivalent to paying off your mortgage, you’d usually need relatively high-risk investments – overpaying the mortgage gives a surety of return.

This is a brilliant summation of British distrust in the stock market, and specifically index funds, which are the one of the more accessible alternatives to traditional savings and bonds. Index funds are the opposite of traditional wheeler-dealer stock traders – they’re composed of shares that mirror the biggest companies in a particular market, and those shares only get bought and sold as those companies gradually get bigger or smaller.

Still, index funds are volatile: their price can jump up and down in just a few days. In bad years, an index fund might lose as much as 40% of its value, as happened in 2008. On the face of it, it’s no surprise people distrust the stock market. And because it’s plainly risky to put your money in index funds in the short term, many people think it’s even riskier to do that for the long term.

The truth is completely different. Index funds are much less risky if you hold them for the long term. The average rate of return from the S&P 500 index (a bundle of major US companies) over last 60 years is 7%, after you’ve taken inflation into account.

In some years, the index has dropped a huge amount, but most years it’s increased. And the longer you hold an index fund for, the more those dips and spikes are evened out, such that you don’t need to worry about timing. Here’s an extreme example:

Imagine you were spectacularly unlucky and you invested in the S&P 500 on August 9th 2007, the day before it began its massive year-long crash. Two years later, you would have lost 47% of your money: a dire result. But if you held on to your money until 2017, you’d have realised a gain of 6% per year, after inflation – far higher than any interest rate you’d get from savings or bonds.

Most financial advisors agree that index funds are one of the best choices for investment, and they would undoubtedly favour them over overpaying a mortgage with a 2% interest rate. So why do people distrust them so much?

  1. Index funds don’t make investment firms a lot of money, so they prefer to advertise and promote actively-managed investment funds whose managers buy and sell shares much more faster. As famously demonstrated by a $1 million bet by Warren Buffet, these funds tend to underperform index funds over the long term, but due to survivorship bias you often just hear about the funds that succeeded rather than the ones that failed.
  2. At school, the only thing I learned about the stock market was the Great Depression. You just can’t underestimate the importance of education in all of this.
  3. Likewise, popular culture associates the stock market with risk-taking wheeler dealers. It’s basically gambling.

All of this is a great shame, because it makes people poorer. You might say, boo hoo, what a shame that people fortunate enough to own a house aren’t making more money. OK, fine, but until we get rid of capitalism, I think it’d be a good thing for more normal people to own part of large companies and benefit from their profits. Right now, those gains are disproportionately going to the wealthy.

I personally wouldn’t put all my savings into index funds due to their volatility. But while home prices aren’t as volatile, they are highly illiquid in that you can’t quickly turn a bit of your house into cash if you need it. And of course, the volatility of the stock market is lessened if you view it over the term of a 25 year mortgage.

It suits the financial industry that homeowners remain so risk-averse and financially ignorant that they harm themselves. I wish more people would consider index funds over mortgage overpayments. But it’s hard to change the stubborn British belief that housing is the best, and only, investment normal people can make.

Today, Microsoft launched the Xbox Games Pass (basically, Netflix for games) at $5/month on PCs, joining the existing console-only Games Pass for $10/month, and the “Ultimate” Games Pass that combines both and adds a few extras on top for $15/month.

This makes me think the Apple Arcade subscription price is going to be lower than most people expect. Apple has a reputation for being expensive, but their subscription products are comparable with competitors:

  • Music: Apple Music, Spotify, and Google Play Music are all $10/month
  • Storage: iCloud Drive and Google One both offer 200GB for $3/month
  • Apple News+ is the same $10/month as Texture was before Apple acquired it

Apple Arcade is interesting because it extends across iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Macs – but it probably has fewer AAA titles and blockbuster IPs than Xbox Games Pass. So if I had to guess, I’d say it’ll land at $7/month – far less than the $15/month some commentators have floated.

Maybe an “Apple Prime” that includes games, news, music, storage, and AppleCare for $30-40/mo?

Playing

🎮 Kids on iPad. 30 minutes of weird, mesmerising, disturbing interactive animation about crowds, groupthink, and kids.

Watching

📺 When They See Us on Netflix about the Central Park Five. One of the best things I’ve seen this year; excellent acting and beautiful direction. I couldn’t get through the final episode without crying.

Reading

📖 The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. My book of the year so far; full thoughts next week.

📖 Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Entertaining epic sci-fi/fantasy comic. Didn’t quite live up to the “better than Star Wars” hype, but hey, it was on Libby from my library so why not? ¯_(ツ)_/¯

📖 9 Lessons in Brexit by Ivan Rogers, the former UK ambassador to the EU. A very short book, more like an extended essay really, about misconceptions the British have about the EU and Brexit process. A tad overwritten, but that’s civil servants for you.

My main takeaway is that the government’s prioritisation of immigration and goods trade over services (which are worth far more to the UK economy) is going to majorly bite us on the arse.

📰 The Wild West Meets the Southern Border by Valeria Luiselli in the New Yorker, about the parallels between Wild West re-enactors in Tombstone and US attitudes towards the border with Mexico. Very enjoyable and insightful. Here’s a bit that, perhaps deliberately, reminded me of the modern Westworld:

The town, it seemed, existed not only in a loop of embodied repetitions of odd historical moments but also in a kind of cut-and-paste of the same people. It is entirely possible that, at any given moment in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp is having a beer with Wyatt Earp.

and on re-enactors’ fetish for details over the big picture:

An interesting paradox of the reënactment scene’s obsession with authenticity and historical accuracy, this “getting it right,” is that accuracy is measured in terms of the minute details of a particular event, which does not necessarily amount to historical accuracy in the broader sense. Old West history buffs may endlessly dispute whether Wyatt Earp was wearing a specific kind of bow tie during the O.K. Corral shoot-out in 1881, but may be oblivious of much of what was happening in the region during those years.

Visiting

🎤 Cymera, “Scotland’s Festival of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Writing”.

Some choice (paraphrased) quotes from Ken MacLeod:

“Hard science fiction” is anything you can honestly sell with a spaceship on the cover. “Space opera” is anything you can honestly sell with an exploding spaceship on the cover.

… Space opera is justified because it’s the most optimistic form of science fiction. It shows we still have a future. And it gives us a vast arena for recreating mythological adventures.

Charlie Stross:

“Horror” is about loss of control. About the loss of bodily autonomy.

🏛️ I saw the Edinburgh (University) College of Art graduate show and the Edinburgh College HND show yesterday.

Lots of interesting art but my eyes were left bleeding from the blizzard of spelling mistakes and typos. Spelling errors in titles. Flagrant abuse of apostrophes. Grammatical errors every page. Barely any project was immune. It was painful to read.

I understand students might think they’re here to be artists, not writers – but unless you’re the best of the best, it’s really important to have a rounded set of skills.

British Servility, Gamification of Jobs Inside the API

Issue 5 of my newsletter – subscribe here

The rise of Conservative MP Rory Stewart has sparked an intense frustration in me. Many people who would never vote for a right-wing party have confessed liking this “British eccentric with preternatural intelligence“, as Hadley Freeman from the Guardian described him.

What is it, precisely, that Freeman admires – other than the headline fact that Stewart opposes a no-deal Brexit (but, of course, still wants Brexit and doesn’t want a second referendum)? He quotes Latin; as a child, he named his toy horse Bucephalus “for the horse that Alexander the Great tamed as a youth”; still as a child, he had a fondness for reciting Hamlet; he gives impassioned speeches in the house about hedgehogs. That sort of thing. Never mind the fact that he voted against measures to prevent climate change; against regulation for fracking; for welfare benefits cuts; against laws to promote equality and human rights.

To be fair, Freeman confesses the British attraction towards eccentrics is what’s led to the rise of Boris Johnson and all the ills that accompany him. But let’s not mince words. I think there’s still a pathetic servility towards the upper-class – eccentric or not – in this country.

Rory Stewart’s accomplishments and political positions are ‘better’ than many other Tory leadership candidates, but that doesn’t make him a good leader – especially since his accomplishments are wildly overstated; rather than governing an Iraqi province, he was deputy to a US “governate coordinator” of an Iraqi region. Yes, he spent a month on a walking holiday in Afghanistan, and he was briefly tutor to Prince William and Harry, but how much of that is down to the fact that he had opportunities that most people could barely ever dream of?

As for principle, I will never forget his inventing the statistic that 80% of the British public supported Theresa May’s Brexit deal. When pressed by the interviewer as to where he had got the information, he said, “I’m producing a number to try to illustrate what I believe,” confirming that he was not simply ignorant, but rather, a liar.

I honestly just don’t understand how otherwise smart left-wingers are taken in by this. Someone who quotes Latin isn’t worthy of any extra consideration above someone who knows engineering or medicine or fashion, but it seems some people cannot break their fascination with activities associated with the upper class.

It’s not entirely class-based, to be fair. Around the world, people have fallen hard for public intellectuals who claim to know everything about everything, whether that’s Yuval Noah-Hariri, Jordan Peterson, Jill Abramson, or Naomi Wolf. In one way, Stewart is merely a British, upper-class version.

If I had to be generous, I think the idea is that because Stewart has had all these interesting experiences rather than working in a normal job doing normal things like earning a wage, that means he is not only uniquely placed to lead the country, but he is also more principled than most. That may end up being true – we can’t know yet – but what is true is that barely a fraction of a percent of the British population were born into the wealth and privilege that Stewart was, and thus afford to have all his experiences. He may well have done better than others brought up in the same conditions, but I can promise you there are plenty more people who didn’t go to Eton but have made a better go at it.

That the class system still exists in Britain is no surprise. But the thoughtless admiration bestowed on Stewart shows this country still has masters – and servants.

Another week, another set of creepy headlines about gamification. The Washington Post reports how Amazon turned the tedium of warehouse work into a game with a series of games that sound like they were rejects from first-year game jams.

This isn’t a new development – Amazon has had a team working on these games for years, and the gamification takes many forms. In December, Bloomberg wrote about Amazon’s “Power Hours” for warehouse workers:

in which employees are pressured to move extra fast in hopes of winning raffle tickets.

“Every day they’re changing the goal — the finish line is changed every day,” Bleach said.

Amazon said incentives offered by the company “are part of our company culture, and we want to make sure Peak is a fun time of year for associates who are working hard to fulfill customer orders.”

Uh huh.

The insidious nature of these games is that it allows managers to really believe they’re making their employees’ work more enjoyable and productive while also saving money. Why? Because they’re games! Never mind the fact that the employees have no choice in whether they play or not, which makes a mockery of the entire principle of games. Would those same managers appreciate their work being gamified? I think not.

Which brings me to an interesting lens on how to think about modern employment: whether a job is “inside the API” or not. As Jakob Falkovich puts it:

Algorithms are replacing middle management, and if you don’t have a job telling computers what to do, sooner or later your job will consist of doing what computers tell you.

(An API is an Application Programming Interface – a clearly-defined way for applications to talk to each other and request things. These days, an API might allow you to request an Uber to deliver a burger to a specific location)

To focus that lens even further, if your job is inside the API, prepare for it to be gamified.

Watching

🎞 Always Be My Maybe, a decent Netflix romcom elevated by its Asian-American leads. Also, I must possess Daniel Dae Kim’s Adidas:

Incidentally, Netflix prevents you from taking screenshots of their content on computers and apps, which is absurd and unnecessary. I ended up torrenting a copy of The Wandering Earth simply to grab parts of the end credit sequences.

🎞 A Knight’s Tale (rewatch). How on Earth did they spend $65 million making this movie? What a classic.

Reading

📖 Against Empathy by Paul Bloom, a lazily-written but fairly readable argument that empathy (defined narrowly as “I feel your pain”) gets in the way of ‘better’ and more rational decision-making. It’s not a good sign when the author flat out tells you in the introduction you can stop after the first chapter.

Listening

🎧 The Automat on 99% Invisible. Even if you know about the general concept of Automas restaurants, this is a lovely description of why they were so special – because they were a great leveller, like Ikea, and allowed people to eat and drink at their own pace, as fast or as slow as they liked. People of all classes went there. Perhaps one day they will return.

Visiting

Edinburgh has a lot of galleries, considering it’s a city of only half a million:

🏛 Collective, a contemporary art gallery newly-relocated to Calton Hill, with an interesting exhibition, Enigma Bodytech, about “the interconnection between energy, technology and the body” by Kimberley O’Neill.

🏛 The Fruitmarket Gallery‘s Design Market. Interesting to see the explosion of work that uses laser cutters and 3D printers.

🏛 Edinburgh Printmakers, newly-relocated to Fountainbridge.

90s Hagiography and Half Marathons

Issue 4 of my newsletter – subscribe here

Now that millennials are ageing into their status as Prime Consumers of culture, it’s no surprise that our childhood era of the 90s is being mined for nostalgia. Not all of this is cynical – I’m as charmed by games like Hypnospace Outlaw that harken back to the early days of the web and Geocities as anyone else.

But there’s a point where nostalgia tips over into hagiography. Lately, I’ve seen people pine for those days where we weren’t always being distracted by our smartphones, where we would all be present and engaged in discussions at all times. Or how programming was much more fun in C and Assembly, whereas nowadays everyone’s forced to use Javascript and Unity. Or how society was much more united in the TV we watched and the newspapers we read.

This is, as the kids would say, ahistorical: lacking in historical perspective or context. You’re kidding yourself if you think people didn’t daydream or zone out during conversations in the 90s – you don’t need a phone to be distracted. TV in the 2010s is unimaginably better and more diverse than in the 90s. So are games and books and music. And while society might seem less united today, perhaps that’s simply because we’re only now casting a light on differences that have always existed. It’s those differences that lead us to our own places to talk to one another, and yes, to find likeminded people to reminisce over the 90s with.

There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, and some things really were better in the past. But always thinking the past was better than the present is a profoundly depressing thought that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Not that I want to claim we have achieved utopia in 2019; far from it. There is so much we need to improve in the world. But the way to do that is not to slip back into the 90s.

Last Sunday, I got up at 6:50am to run in the Edinburgh Half Marathon. This was my first in three years, a fairly long gap that’s been otherwise filled with near-daily 7km runs around Holyrood Park. 7km isn’t an especially long distance for a regular runner, but when it includes 118m of elevation gain (or 30 storeys), it’s a proper workout that’s helped build my stamina.

That said, I hadn’t done any actual training for the half marathon. Most training plans have a ~16km run in the fortnight leading up to the race; not quite the 21.1km of the half marathon itself, but close enough to get you used to the distance, and not so long that it unduly tires you out. But the longest run I’d done in the past year was 12km running 700m laps around a cruise ship in the Caribbean. What I needed was to craft the perfect playlist to fill 1 hour and 45 minutes – 25 songs of exceeding energy.

I’ve written elsewhere about what makes for my perfect running playlist, and I stuck to the same formula this time – fun, poppy songs mixed with epic movie soundtracks. It was all loaded up and ready to stream from my iPhone to my Airpods when I realised, 30 seconds after dropping off my bag at the race start, that’d I’d left my phone in the bag.

As soon as I realised, I turned back to the bag drop, which was actually a bunch of people on a lorry who were right at that moment strapping down tarps and shouting at late arrivals to put their bags somewhere else.

“Fucking lol,” I thought. Yes, I still had my Apple Watch, but literally the previous evening I had deleted all the music from it to make space for a watchOS update (because Apple’s storage management is utter shit and either wants to store 7GB of music or none at all – and nothing in between).

But wait! Even though I couldn’t physically reach my phone for the couple of hours, it was still well within Bluetooth range of my Watch. Maybe, just maybe, I could use stream music from my phone to my Watch, which I hoped might cache it for the duration of the race. I sidled over to the lorry, jabbing at my wrist to fast-forward through as many songs as I could, under the dubious gaze of the race workers.

With only a few minutes to go, I spotted a friend in my timing zone at the race start. “I’m just hoping I don’t end up listening to the same song 25 times,” I said. And then we were off, and it turned out I had a good dozen songs on my Watch, enough so that I only heard them twice.

A lot of designers seem to think that runners are best motivated by competition. That’s why leaderboards have featured so prominently in running apps. I don’t doubt that some runners find a lot of pleasure in crushing others, but the truth is that most runners are only competing against themselves during races – if that. Runners will talk about hitting a Personal Best rather than coming in the top 10% of the field; or they might recognise their speed is slowing and simply have a target time they want to hit. They certainly aren’t motivated by beating random strangers among the 11,000 half marathon runners, most of whom will be much faster or slower than them.

But in a race as long as 26.1km, after overtaking and being overtaken for an hour, you’ll eventually find yourself amongst a cohort of people who are running at almost exactly the same speed as you. These are your people, at your level of fitness. And what surprises and delights me every time I’m in a half marathon is just how different everyone looks. Some look like they were ripped from a stock photo of runners, but most are thicker or thinner or younger or older than you would have guess. Some seem to glide through the air, others are fighting with every step. And many don’t at all look like ‘runners’.

Towards the end of the race, I was beginning to slow down when a woman in a light blue top appeared by my elbow. I vaguely remembered overtaking her several kilometers backs, but here she was again, fresher and faster than my cohort: an excellent pacemaker, providing I could keep up. And that’s what I managed for a good three kilometers as we mowed through the field, until I just couldn’t.

Still, I hit a personal best of 1:42:07 placed 1357th out of 11,000, and I gave her a solid high-five at the finish line.

Playing

📱 Alt-Frequencies, an intriguing but poorly-written audio-driven game from the creators of A Normal Lost Phone.

🎮 God of War, this generation’s high water mark for visually stunning action adventure – and the tiresome Sad Dad game genre.

Watching

📺 Gentleman Jack, featuring the most charismatic, competent, and sexually manipulative protagonist since Don Draper.

Reading

📖 Phantom Architecture by Philip Wilkinson, a lavishly illustrated collection of sixty fantastical structures by Buckminster Fuller, Gaudi, Le Corbusier, Hadid, and Etienne-Louis Boullée’s enormous spherical monument to Isaac Newton.

Unfortunately the book is littered with typos and I spotted at least one glaring factual error (Blade Runner was released in 1982, not 1992, come on!) which casts a shadow of doubt over the rest…

How to Read The New Yorker, my new TV, and the Playdate

Issue 3 of my newsletter – subscribe here

The New Yorker is the most consistently well-written longform magazine I’ve read, and it’s been the source of so many of my ideas over the years. It’s also the one of the most unread magazines out there, gracing coffee tables across the world in artistic tsundokus.

For the first few years I was a subscriber, I read it from cover to cover (OK, not the NY city-specific bits, come on!) – even the bits I initially found confusing. Since I decided to spend more time reading books recently, I needed to be more judicious about my New Yorker reading habits lest I stop reading it completely. So here’s my tips on how to read The New Yorker!

  1. Start with the longform articles in the middle of the magazine – just the ones you’re interested in. Don’t try to slog through something you’re not into. If you read two or three of these articles, pat yourself on the back because you have conquered this issue!
  2. Next, tackle the arts and culture reviews at the back. Feel free to skip the ones entirely out of your wheelhouse, but it can be rewarding to broaden your horizons. Also, don’t read the movie reviews for anything you plan to see: Anthony Lane doesn’t understand the meaning of “spoiler”.
  3. Scan through The Talk of the Town at the front. The first article is usually political and ages poorly, and the rest are exceedingly twee and frequently parochial. My patience has grown thin for this section, lately.
  4. Don’t read Shouts and Murmurs, it’s dumb.
  5. Do you like short stories? Then read the short story. If not, continue with your life.

Lots of writers will introduce ideas in New Yorker articles which they later unnecessarily pad out into books (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Gladwell). Reading the longform articles are great way to get the core of the idea earlier, for extra dinner party conversation points. Some good articles from the most recent issues include The Art of Building Artificial Glaciers by Elizabeth Kolbert:

and If God Is Dead, Your Time Is Everything by James Wood, on Martin Hägglund’s new book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom:

The great merit of Hägglund’s book is that he releases atheism from its ancient curse: its sticky intimacy with theism. Hägglund has no need for a parasitical relationship to the host (which, for instance, contaminates the so-called New Atheism), because he’s not interested in disproving the host’s existence. So, instead of being forced into, say, rationalist triumphalism (there is no God, and science is His prophet), he can expand the definition of the secular life so that it incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious. Hägglund’s argument here is aided by Hegel’s thinking about religion. For Hegel, as Hägglund reads him, a religious institution is really just a community that has come together to ennoble “a governing set of norms—a shared understanding of what counts as good and just.” The object of devotion is thus really the community itself. “God” is just the name we give “the self-legislated communal norms (the principles to which the congregation holds itself),” and “Christ” the name we give the beloved agent who animates these norms.

Last week, I got a new LG C8 55″ 4K OLED TV*. It has more glorious deep blacks than I could have possibly imagined and its WebOS interface is surprisingly fast and well-designed, especially coupled with its Nintendo Wii-like motion controller. My old Sony TV was powered by Android and its so-called apps were abysmally slow, so I hadn’t realised things could be better. The LG is so fast, in fact, that I’ve stopped using my Apple TV for anything but iTunes, Airplay, and the new Steam Link app.

Steam Link was also released just last week and it allows you to stream a game from your PC or Mac to your TV. It previously required the Steam Link box that would plug into your TV, which I bought and immediately regretted since it was barely beta-quality, but now the same functionality is available as an Android or iOS/Apple TV app. And you know what? It works pretty well – once you figure out the workarounds. When I first used it, it didn’t work with my equally-terrible Steam Controller, so I ended up pairing a spare PS4 controller with my Mac; it turns out the Bluetooth connection is strong enough to reach across the entire house.

The next problem was that a mouse cursor stubbornly remained in the centre of the TV, no matter what game I played. Even moving the mouse on my Mac didn’t budge it. Eventually I discovered I could manually move it with the PS4 controller while the Steam overlay was active. This required a tedious process of experimentation and I was on the brink of giving up several times, but the prospect of playing Steam games on the sofa gave me strength through those dark hours minutes.

Sure enough, playing Kentucky Route Zero on an OLED TV is a delight and worth all the nonsense. I’m looking forward to working my way through a fraction of the 1000 games in my library, collected largely thanks to being on the BAFTA games jury for several years.

One bonus from this experimentation is that I realised I could take a Bluetooth mouse downstairs so I could wake up my Mac when I wanted to stream from Plex simply by moving it around (“Wake on LAN” basically doesn’t work on Macs), thus saving me from having to walk upstairs. Small pleasures.

*I was considering waiting for this year’s LG C9 OLED model, which includes Airplay and full support for HDMI 2.1 features like variable refresh rate (VRR). But VRR isn’t going to be supported on anything until the next Xbox and PS5, and even then I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. There’s always going to be something better (and much more expensive) around the corner, and the upgrade from my old 1080p Sony TV was big enough.

Panic, makers of fine Mac apps and publisher of Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game, announced their adorable new Playdate handheld console yesterday.

It costs $149, which many Professional Internet Commenters have declared is a “ripoff” when you can buy a Nintendo 2DS for much less, or indeed, just use the smartphone you already possess. Which is both true and also completely missing the point.

The Playdate is a fun toy. It is clearly not meant to compete with anything on price or raw specs, whether that’s Nintendo or Sony or Apple or Samsung. It’s not intended to sell millions of units, any more than a £400 Lego Death Star set is intended to sell millions. It’s meant to appeal to some people, but it turns out a lot of people have a problem distinguishing these two beliefs:

  1. This product is overpriced and few will buy it
  2. This product costs more than I am willing to pay

This conversation reminds me of people’s criticisms of Zombies, Run!’s price, which is now $35/year. Not a day goes by without me seeing some complaint about how subscriptions are terrible and it would be better if people could just buy our game outright.

But this is bogus. If Zombies, Run! cost $1/year, no-one would be complaining. The problem is not the subscription: it’s the price. And that’s OK! There are some things I would like to buy but cost more than I’m willing to spend. That doesn’t make their creators greedy or foolish, it just means it’s not for me – but it might be for people who want it more, or have more money to spend.

Speaking of Zombies, Run!, here’s an interview I did with Caroline Crampton on Hotpod, the podcast industry’s newsletter of note. I have wanted to get onto Hotpod for years and I’m very pleased with the result!

The Mapping Problem

Issue 2 of my newsletter – subscribe here

There’s the book I’d like to write. And there’s the book I ought to write.

Last year, someone from Samsung’s strategy team asked to talk to me about whether “gamification” could be a possible use (if not a killer app) for a hypothetical augmented reality heads-up display.

I admitted, yes, Zombies, Run! was an example of gamification in action, although I quickly explained that I detested the term. Gamification “experts” will tell you that merely applying a coating of points, achievements, levels, and progress bars to otherwise-boring activities is not the way to turn it into a fun or engaging game – but promptly ignore their own advice when designing games for big companies that want to improve productivity, games that invariably are only about points andz achievements and leaderboards. So no, I didn’t think that gamification – as commonly understood and practiced – was a killer app for anything.

“But isn’t Zombies, Run! popular? Couldn’t you do that for other things?”

I sighed inwardly, wondering if I would save all the time I spent talking about why gamification sucked by writing an article or book instead. I wasn’t that simple, I explained, because of the Mapping Problem.

The Mapping Problem came to me at a games conference when I was asked if I could make mopping the floor more fun. Now, I don’t mind doing chores, but mopping is hard. It makes a mess, it requires more effort than vacuuming, and you don’t have the satisfaction of seeing bits of dirt disappear. It’s also something you know you ought to do more often, so it’s really a very good candidate for gamification because you’re intrinsically motivated to get it done.

The standard playbook of gamifying mopping would be an app that gave you points for each time you mopped the floor, and to give extra points and badges if you mopped regularly. Maybe you’d even give more points for mopping different parts of the house!

But this is a shit game design. Getting points and badges after your first session of mopping might make you feel slightly better, but after the third or fourth or eighth or ninth time you tap the “I’ve mopped, yo!” button, you realise that it’s meaningless. You’re just doing this for points. Meaningless points. The app doesn’t really care whether whether you did a good job; for all it knows, you’re just jabbing the button without doing any mopping at all.

So here’s what I would do. I would try to make the act of mopping more fun. I don’t want to reward you after you’ve finished mopping, I want you to be excited while you’re mopping. Ideally, I want you to be excited to start mopping because you know it’s going to be fun. This cannot be achieved through points and badges alone. It requires real-time motivation, either through gameplay or storytelling, or both.

I’m not sure storytelling quite fits mopping, so I’ll go with gameplay. And what I’m looking for is a kind of gameplay that maps onto mopping in a natural way, in a way that will help you achieve your ultimate goal: a thoroughly-cleaned floor. This will require the game to ‘know’ the cleanliness of the floor, which is probably most easily done with computer vision. Likewise, we need a feedback mechanism so the game can respond to what you’re doing, ideally using some flavour of augmented reality, as you are manipulating the real world. And this is the point where we get into the limitations and opportunities of technology, in the sense that this game isn’t possible unless a large number of potential players have either:

a) Multiple static home cameras that can see a majority of your floor

b) Body or head-mounted cameras

c) Periodically waving your phone’s camera at the floor No! This is a terrible idea.

Basically we need to wait for an affordable augmented reality heads-up display, which is a few years out. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to make an effective mopping game without this technology, any more than it’d be possible to make Zombies, Run! without GPS-enabled smartphones. Without it, the game has no idea whether you have mopped a particular part of the floor. Maybe you can use accelerometers to sense a back-and-forth motion (yes, haha) but that doesn’t tell you about the position of the mop. So cameras it must be.

It’s unusual for technology to so overtly be the limiting factor in game design. Most designers sensibly, and unconsciously, filter out game designs that are plainly not possible with current technology. Sure, you might have games that push graphical or processing boundaries, but few games push beyond existing interface technologies. Whenever they do – like Nintendo Labo or Guitar Hero or Pokémon Go or Beat Saber – we all get tremendously excited.

I’d argue that any gamification that extends to the physical world (as opposed to entirely digital activities like, say, gamifying online language learning) falls into this category where practically every solution requires some kind of custom interface technology. That’s just one of the reasons why gamification is hard. If you’re creating the next Fortnite or Mario or Grand Theft Auto, you don’t need to invent or harness an entirely new interface; but if you want to make the best game to teach you the violin, you have some very basic interface questions to answer.

(Incidentally, this is why touchscreens are so central to the success of smartphones: the technology is so versatile, it can solve entire swathes of interface problems. The same screen used for a first-person shooter like Fortnite can also be used for a match-three puzzler like Candy Crush. And that’s why effective AR heads-up displays have the potential to solve an order of magnitude more interface problems: you can use the technology for helping people to mop, or translating street signs, or making learning the violin more fun. So the Samsung guy wasn’t wrong, per se.)

OK, enough about technology. What’s the gameplay for our mopping game? Take your pick! Maybe it’s wiping away bugs crawling around the floor; or it’s a colouring game; or a game of Snake; or you’re sculpting a 3D landscape. There are lots of possibilities, the important thing is for the game to organically encourage you to cover the entire floor in a way that isn’t too rote or tiring. The point is, the game doesn’t just reward you for having mopped, rather, the act of mopping is the game.

But here’s the sting in the tail: the Mapping Problem means that even if we’ve solved the Mopping Problem, we haven’t solved the Violin Problem, or the Ironing Problem, or the Bin-Emptying Problem. These are all completely different kinds of activities that need to be made entertaining in different ways. So my objection to “gamification” is not that I hate the idea of making ironing more fun. I would love for such a game to exist. It’s that the term has come to mean the application not merely of a standard process, but a standard set of game mechanics, to wildly different problems – and any so-called “gamification expert” who claims otherwise is being wilfully blind to the reality of the shitty industry they have helped build.

Unsurprisingly, I have a whole lot more to say about gamification. An entire book outline and proposal, in fact. It’s a book I’m uniquely qualified to write, with a background in experimental psychology and neuroscience, plus the badge of creating one of the most successful examples of gamification ever. I even know it would sell decently well, since gamification never seems to die (“What is dead…” indeed).

It’s just… I want to write a novel! Or a short story collection. Something beautiful and creative. But my book outline is for something completely different.

I ought to write about gamification. And yet.

Two Bit Circus and the Challenges of Next Generation Arcades

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Early concept art for Two Bit Circus

Since the introduction of consumer VR systems like Oculus and Vive, hundreds of VR-centric arcades have opened, hoping to attract punters by offering experiences that they can’t get at home because they can’t afford $1500+ VR setups and don’t have the space or custom equipment (e.g. force-feedback driving seats).

Some of these next-generation arcades are more than a few Vive headsets in a shop; they might have lots of expensive custom equipment, or even custom-made VR games that you can’t buy as a consumer. Two Bit Circus, a “micro-amusement park” opening in LA next month, combines VR with escape rooms with carnival games to reach the very highest-end of this trend. Supposedly, the entire experience will be united by a meta-game, discoverable with rabbit-holes like a secret payphone in the arcade, that has an overarching narrative. Yes, I remember when these were called ARGs myself.

The scope – and expense – of Two Bit Circus is extraordinary. It’s hard enough to make a single VR game, let alone several. And to link them with an ARG? It hasn’t been done before. That’s not to say it can’t be done, it just costs far more money than anyone is usually willing to spend.

When I tweeted out news about this, Chris Dickson (an expert in escape room games)  emailed me about Entros, a restaurant-arcade in Seattle and San Francisco from the 90s with ARGish elements. Entros folded after a few years due to inadequate sales and rising rents, and to my mind, it sadly typifies a long line of entertainment-bar-restaurant-VR-carnival hybrids that end up failing like late lamented DisneyQuest.

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DisneyQuest

Why do these ventures fail?

  • High capital costs: Cutting-edge hardware isn’t cheap
  • High maintenance costs because people keep breaking things and they don’t know how to put on VR headsets
  • High R&D and design costs that can’t be amortised amongst large numbers of venues (e.g. traditional arcade games, although even these are dying out), customers (e.g. videogames), or devices (e.g. game consoles and phones)
  • Inability to charge appropriate (i.e. massive) prices or motivate people to stay in expensive hotels (i.e. Disney theme parks)
  • Technology ages quickly and becomes uncompetitive with consumer offerings, meaning either more capital spending, or your arcade getting out of date quickly. This is a reason why traditional arcades have largely vanished.
  • Hard to attract repeat visitors without acquiring or developing a lot of fresh and affordable content (in contrast to, say, cinemas). If you can’t get repeat visitors, you need a constant flow of new visitors, which is doable although usually requires a healthy marketplaces and ideally, geographic hubs (e.g. Broadway, West End). If you make something extraordinarily good, people will travel just for your venue, like people who go on pilgrimages to Michelin-starred restaurants.
  • Difficult to scale a single location, so even if you’re super popular, you will cap out.

Other new kinds of site-specific experiences like escape rooms and immersive theatre face similar challenges: escape rooms may have lower capital and R&D costs since they usually don’t feature as much technology, but staffing costs are often can be higher and of course, return visits are even lower.

Disney’s theme parks (and associated hotels, malls, etc.) are the obvious exception here in so many ways – size, visitor numbers, profitability, and so on. Disney’s parks do a lot of clever things, like: exploiting existing popular IP (e.g. Toy Story) not all of which they originally developed or owned (e.g. Star Wars, Avatar); incubating new IP (Pirates of the Caribbean, the forthcoming Jungle Cruise movie); and generally keeping visitors excited about Disney and thus continuing to buy mountains of merchandise. It’s hard to see how you equal this without really high-quality and popular IP, not to mention skilled designers and engineers (“Imagineers”).

Big isn’t always better. Not every restauranteur should aspire to become McDonalds. But a healthy ecosystem should support everything from big chains to cheap and cheerful cafes and eye-wateringly expensive Michelin starred restaurants. What’s important is that there is room for everything, and that enterprises of all sizes can theoretically be sustainable – even if most restaurants do, in fact, go bust.

Possible Solutions

Use withered technology to reduce capital costs. Maybe VR isn’t the answer to these kinds of arcades and immersive experiences! Nintendo is great teacher in this regard, as is the old-school Exploratorium.

Similarly, use the real world as your venue. The Headlands Gamble uses the North Bay in California as its backdrop; Fire Hazard uses London. However, the lack of control and ownership over the venue results in higher risk and introduces logistical challenges (e.g. accessibility, bad weather, more time required to get around) and can impose a cap on visitor numbers.

Increase prices. Punchdrunk, Disney, and The Headlands Gamble ($600-$1800 for two days!) show how high you can go, providing you can prove value. I personally have an instinctive aversion to very high prices as I want the things I make to have a wide audience, but it’s a perfectly legitimate route, especially if you’re still developing the core technology and proving your concept. However, rich people’s taste for human interaction can mean that you never end up automating anything.

Use established IP to reduce marketing costs, and potentially content development costs. Secret Cinema and The Crystal Maze have done this to apparent success. However: you lose creative control, it cuts into your margin (it’s entirely possible you have no margin left, if you have no leverage), and the demands of the IP can compromise the overall experience (I’ve heard that strict adherence to Harry Potter canon has hurt more than one HP videogame; then there’s “we need you to tie this game to the upcoming movie, but we can’t get you the script until too late, and you can’t talk about the events of the movie”.) If you’re unlucky, you’ll end up making free marketing experiences and “brand activations” for shows like Westworld. It makes for good headlines but are the entirely wrong way to make a self-sustaining business with a product that people will pay for. Believe me: I’ve lived it.

Be a non-profit so you can win grant money and donations, and justify paying your staff less money – or none at all, since you can get volunteers. Yes, I’m talking about Meow Wolf. Non-profits typically suffer from lack of access to capital, though, slowing growth.

Sell extra stuff like merchandise, hotel rooms, books, etc.

Get repeat visitors. Everyone claims they’re trying to do this and I have seen little evidence of success. It may be that it’s completely incompatible with the current design of escape rooms and immersive theatre. Learning from videogames is essential.

Reduce tech and capital costs by using off-the-shelf hardware and, importantly, software. Various companies are trying to build VR or real-world experiential platforms to make it easier to  this kind of market, but most of them don’t have much money and seem singularly unwilling to share a reasonable (i.e. very high) amount of revenue with the creatives who, after all, are taking the vast majority of risk in setting up these venues and making new experiences. Platforms work best when cost of development is low compared to potential income. Witness Unity/Unreal or YouTube and Twitch. But potential income for location-specific entertainment is far lower than that of purely digital content that can be global; and that has lower capital costs.


Evidently, I don’t have very detailed solutions to these challenges yet, although I remain very interested and I have a few brewing in the back of my mind. I’ll finish by saying that the rumoured popularity of puzzle box subscriptions like Hunt A Killer (the name is both awful and yet brilliant) is telling. They have repeat customers, low capital costs, and it’s all done with ‘withered technology’.

Having tried a few out, I am not impressed by overall quality and not convinced of their longevity or broad popularity, but they hold a lot of promise.

Gamescom 2018 thoughts: Spider-Man, Starlink, Forza Horizon, Oculus, and more

A child was flooring the gas on a tractor simulator here, with full HOTAS-style controller setup. “I live my life a quarter acre at a time.”

I managed to play a fair few games here at Gamescom in Cologne in between business meetings. The first day – Tuesday – is solely for “trade visitors” rather than the general public, so the crowds weren’t too bad. That said, people in the games industry tend to like playing games, which meant highly-anticipated titles like Spider-Man and Smash Bros. still had 1+ hour long queues most of day.

In order of when I played them:

Space Junkies (Ubisoft) is a space-based multiplayer VR FPS with jetpacks. It’s about as fun as any other FPS, except it’s in VR, which makes aiming easier. It also had imaginative guns requiring two hands to operate that were fun if distractingly janky.

Due to space restrictions, we had to sit down in front of a PC, which meant you couldn’t look behind you – instead, you use the right thumbstick to rotate in 45 degree turns. While this may be the least-worst way of doing VR motion thus far, it’s still not great and it doesn’t help elevate an otherwise unremarkable game.

Next door was Transference (Ubisoft), a horror-themed walking simulator set largely in the real world. The art and graphics were impressive, and I enjoyed picking up stuff in the environment (postcards, letters, toothpaste, radios, etc.) and inspecting them, although this is an area where increased headset resolution will be massively helpful.

I wasn’t sold on the heavy use of full-motion video (FMV) to set up the story. There’s something vaguely B-movie about all game FMV, which is often delivered straight to camera, and while this wasn’t awful, it just dragged on.

Surprisingly, I found Transference even more nausea-inducing compared to the highly vertical environment of Space Junkies. There’s something about using a controller stick to walk around (rather than using your legs to walk) that puts me off, even with the 45 degree snap-turns. The fact that  you had to walk around a lot to pick up stuff and carry it between rooms really didn’t help matters, and while the Ubisoft attendant helpfully whispered hints in my ear, it really just highlighted the poor level/puzzle design.

So, I remain unconvinced that using a controller to navigating in an open world VR space will ever be entirely free of nausea for me, and after 15 minutes of play of both games, but particularly Transference, I was glad to take the (very comfortable) headset off. Perhaps a wider field of view (FOV) would help, and I wonder if you eventually get used to VR, especially if you’re a kid who’s grown up on it.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (Ubisoft) is like AC: Origins, but it looks marginally nicer and it’s in Greece. What else is there to say? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I managed to catch this game while the queue was short. Even better, when the attendants spotted my “Exhibitor” badge, they ushered me right in, perhaps assuming I was far more important than I really am. But karma came around when the console crashed just ten minutes after I started playing.

Starlink (Ubisoft) is the latest implementation of “Toys to Life”, most famously and profitably demonstrated by Skylanders. I was impressed by how versatile the toys were, and how well the fit together – you can choose between pilots and then slot a spaceship over them. The spaceships themselves are modular, allowing you to mix and match components between ships, and even turn wings and weapons backwards (not convinced this will have useful gameplay effects, however). The gameplay was basically Starfox… and the graphics were really quite rough compared to the ultra-HD gorgeousness exhibited by the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X.

Sadly, I didn’t get to drive in Scotland or Edinburgh on the Forza Horizon 4 (Microsoft) demo on Xbox One X. I really enjoyed the original Forza on the Xbox 360 and it’s nice to see it continuing to walk the line between realism and arcade gameplay, especially with the helpful rewind feature. But it’s not enough to make me buy another console.

Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session! (Bandai Namco) reminded me of my enduring love of  rhythm games. There’s not a lot to this one – you can hit the single drum in the centre or the rim, and besides things like drum rolls, that’s more or less it. There was a good selection of songs – I played Let it Go, the Totoro End Theme, Carmen, and some other classical song. It was the only game I played on two separate days, although that’s partly down to the total absence of queues.

The response on the drums felt a bit soft, and I thought the notation of hits against the drum rim vs centre didn’t really correspond with melody or, well, anything else. But hey, it’s a rhythm game by Namco, you know what you’re getting.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan (Bandai Namco/Supermassive) was available for demo on the same day of its announcement, which explains why there were no queues. Like Until Dawn, also by Supermassive, it has highly atmospheric and realistic graphics, with no free look, and consequently, very cinematic (and manipulative) perspectives.

I found the demo quite boring and lacking in context. The cheesy, stilted dialogue and the exceptionally slow walking pace didn’t balance out its use of the LA Noire mechanic of “inspecting objects” which I always love.

Ride3 (Milestone) had no tutorial and was impossible for me to play. I couldn’t figure out whether I should be tilting around corners or how much I should be breaking – and yes, I have played driving games before. This was the only game I had to abandon before the end of the demo.

Amazon Prime Video had an immersive “brand activation” experience promoting their Jack Ryan TV show, freshly imported and translated from New York Comic Con. It was not good. We had to a wait a long time for them to reboot the first task, a mediocre shooting gallery game. The second task involved us watching the Jack Ryan extended trailer (pretty transparent, I know) and answering questions about it. Unfortunately, all the questions were in German, despite the fact that we’d registered as English-speakers.

I guessed all the answers randomly out of four choices, and scored 48%. “How?” demanded one of the attendants as I walked out. “Guess that’s on a need to know basis,” I said, with a twinkle in my eye.

The popularity of this poor experience just shows how much people value live action ‘immersive’ entertainment…

Since I have an Exhibitor badge, I was able to queue up early to play Spider-Man (Sony/Insomniac) on Wednesday. The web slinging and general feeling of motion is excellent, and you really can zip around the entire open world with zero loading times or pop-in.

I didn’t quite figure out whether I should be holding down sprint/web button all the time, and my usual tactic of spamming attacks didn’t work on some enemies (probably a good thing). Good dialogue, good transition into QTE-powered cutscenes. Very much looking forward to this game in November.

What began as a fun force-feedback drive on F1 2018 (Codemasters) gradually turned into an unrelenting nightmare of spins and crashes. I can’t explain what happened: on the first two laps, I was literally outracing Lewis Hamilton, and then somehow I just couldn’t stay on the track. Maybe the game was was simulating tire wear or somehow I pressed the wrong buttons that changed traction control (everything was in German) but it was all I could do to reach the finish line with a shred of dignity intact.

Miscellaneous thoughts

  • Let’s face it, industry-led videogame conventions are weird. Most of the games are going to be out soon, there are plenty of gameplay videos online, so why wait in a queue to play for hours? The answer, of course, is that some young people love these games with the passion of a thousand stars and are willing to wait any amount of time to play them even for just 15 minutes.
  • Because I am a terrible person, there is no sweeter sensation than arriving at the convention hall at 8:45am and not only walking past thousands of the general public (10am admission) but also hundreds of trade visitors (9am admission) all desperate to get in. I used my extra time to visit the toilets while they were clean, and then to play Spider-Man.
  • The queuing process for all the games was well-organised with clear wait times.
  • The 10-20 food trucks served the trade visitors perfectly well on Tuesday, but were laughably inadequate when tens of thousands of the general public arrived on Wednesday. It is baffling how the organisers refuse to improve this. Do they not like money? Do all the visitors just go hungry all day? I’m not sure if you’re meant to pack a lunch…

  • I say this in all seriousness: the videogames industry has a drinking problem. Every event seems to involve vast quantities of free or cheap alcohol, and you can easily bounce between events from 5pm until the early hours. It’s not healthy in any measure, and we shouldn’t feel like the only way we can socialise is by getting hammered.

Bonus photos

Not sure what was inside here. Videos and concept art?

Mobile escape room!

Injured Sovereigns, Foucault, and Jessica Price

Why does Jessica Price’s firing continue to attract so much attention? There’s plenty of other subjects I want to write about, but there is something about the story that draws me to it, just as it’s drawn literally thousands of people to my Twitter this blog, some of whom have called me “subhuman scum” and so on. It’s safe to say that nothing I’ve written in over two decades has attracted this kind of active fury. 

There are two curiosities here, the first being the minute nature of Price’s supposed offence. Even if you consider her comments to be exceptionally rude, why should rude comments cause such an uproar? We are not short of famous individuals who are far ruder, far more frequently. For those who are fond of throwing around accusations of overreaction amongst ‘snowflakes’, a few sharp tweets seem exceptionally small beer. Even the subject of her comments, Deroir, did not seem especially hurt at the time, and did not seek any redress – instead, it was others who came to defend his honour.

The second curiosity has been the active pursuit of any journalist or, indeed, individual who would dare to defend Price. But Price has been fired! Surely ‘justice’ has been done and the matter is over. Yet clearly there is something so dangerous about Price’s actions that they require an overwhelming repudiation, such that even her sympathisers must be challenged and punished.

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I’ve been reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison recently, by way of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues (my review). The book attempts to understand how and why the treatment of criminals changed in the past 400 years, from torture to prison. Unexpectedly for me, Foucault’s analysis of why torture and public execution were thought to be necessary has provided an unusually intriguing new lens to decipher those two curiosities about Price’s story.

Why did western societies use such torture and execution – practices that even at the time were considered extreme – to punish criminals, instead of prison? Why kill someone for crimes as minor as larceny? Because:

Besides its immediate victim, the crime attacks the sovereign: it attacks him personally, since the law represents the will of the sovereign; it attacks him physically, since the force of the law is the force of the prince.

… Punishment, therefore, cannot be identified with or even measured by the redress of the injury; in punishment, there must always be a portion that belongs to the prince, and, even when it is combined with the redress laid down, it constitutes the most important element in the penal liquidation of the crime. Now, this portion belonging to the prince is not in itself simple: on the one hand, it requires redress for the injury that has been done to his kingdom (as an element of disorder and as an example given to others, this con­siderable injury is out of all proportion to that which has been committed upon a private individual); but it also requires that the king take revenge for an affront to his very person.

In a time of monarchy, where all laws are determined by a sovereign (here termed the prince or the king), any crime cannot merely be considered as an attack on the immediate victim; not merely an attack on the order and control of the sovereign; but in fact an attack on the sovereign himself. Such an attack demands redress and punishment.

In our case, who is the sovereign? The most obvious answer is ArenaNet, Price’s employer, which alone sets the conditions of her employment, and has the unique power to terminate her employment at will. Yes, one may argue that some harm has been done to the honour of Deroir, and one may even argue (although I would not agree) that some modicum of harm has been done to the sovereign – but not that much. We are talking about a few supposedly rude tweets.

So why the termination? Disorder has been introduced to the land. That is the true crime, the considerable injury that eclipses the mild sting of the tweets themselves, and so it requires immense revenge for the contempt it shows to the sovereign, ArenaNet. Contempt may easily turn into insurrection – unionisation – turmoil – bankruptcy:

In every offence there was a crimen majestatis and in the least criminal a potential regicide. And the regicide, in turn, was neither more nor less, than the total, absolute criminal since, instead of attacking, like any offender, a particular decision or wish of the sovereign power, he attacked the very principle and physical person of the prince.

It may only seem like a few rude tweets, but it could end in bankruptcy, a fate to be avoided at all costs. In that light, termination can be the only appropriate response.

Why must the termination be public? Even in the US, disciplinary procedures typically take days, if not weeks or months, and do not result in the kind of lengthy explanations and justifications that ArenaNet provided. Again, sovereignty is core:

The public execution … is a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is recon­stituted. It restores that sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular.

… Its aim is not so much to re-establish a balance as to bring into play, as its extreme point, the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength.

Price’s termination must be seen by all employees, and must demonstrate the power and determination of ArenaNet towards anyone else who might challenge its authority; hence the immediate firing of, Peter Fries, who did not tweet at any customers, but who, by supporting Price, lent support to her implicit challenge of authority.

The speed of the termination also demonstrates ArenaNet’s ceaseless presence in its employee’s lives:

…What had hitherto maintained this practice of torture was not an economy of example, in the sense in which it was to be understood at the time of the ideologues (that the representation of the penalty should be greater than the interest of the crime), but a policy of terror: to make everyone aware, through the body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sover­eign.

If you make any mistake, ArenaNet will terminate your employment immediately. They have unrestrained presence. And while some claim that the problem is because she used her ‘public’ Twitter (more on that later) and she mentioned her employer in her profile: do we really believe this would altered the outcome? Jessica Price is not famous, but she’s not unknown. It’s certain that fans would have found her profile and asked her questions.

This can’t be the whole story. True, only ArenaNet has the power to terminate Price – but are we to believe that the company wasn’t pressured into this action by part of its customers? What role do these ‘Customers’ (the vocal portion which I should stress is only a tiny minority of the total) play in proceedings?

An offence, according to the law of the classical age, quite apart from the damage it may produce, apart even from the rule that it breaks, offends the rectitude of those who abide by the law: ‘If one commits something that the law forbids, even if there is neither harm nor injury to the individual, it is an offence that demands reparation, because the right of the superior man is violated and because it offends the dignity of his character’ (Risi, 9).

Many of the complaints about Price – her rudeness towards Customers – remind me of the rectitude of those who abide by the law. The law, after all, is what matters. I have lost count of those who’ve told me that they would expect to be terminated immediately if they were rude to a customer. There is no question as to whether this would be fair or no, and no mitigating circumstances will be considered. “Perhaps termination was excessive, but we cannot dispute the ultimate right of power of the corporation.”

The Customers have been harmed. They require redress. They require recognition. In fact, like corporations, they also see themselves as sovereign. It is totally unacceptable that a mere employee, their servant, should be disrespectful towards them. They demand punishment out of proportion to the harm done to Deroir, because their person had been affronted. Price’s disrespect may seem minor but it could end in disregard – disdain – banishment.

Many Customers have dredged through Price’s social media, include comments about deceased YouTubers. These direct and indirect offences have been tallied and presented point by point, as if enough points might lead to a conviction in the minds of the public. Thus an “asshat” is worth one point, “stop fucking tagging me” two points, etc. It is obviously the performance of a judicial process: the gathering of evidence, the testimonies from would-be-YouTube-magistrates, not unlike how justice was performed a few centuries ago in France:

We have, then, a penal arithmetic that is meticulous on many points, but which still leaves a margin for a good deal of argument: in order for a capital sentence to be passed, is a single full proof enough or must it be accompanied by other slighter clues? Are two approxi­ mate proofs always equivalent to a full proof? Should not three be required or two plus distant clues? Are there elements that may be regarded as clues only for certain crimes, in certain circumstances and in relation to certain persons (thus evidence is disregarded if it comes from a vagabond; it is reinforced, on the contrary, if it is provided by ‘a considerable person’ or by a master in the case of a domestic offence).

Each piece of evidence, each point contributes to Price’s guilt:

The different pieces of evidence did not constitute so many neutral elements, until such time as they could be gathered together into a single body of evidence that would bring the final certainty of guilt. Each piece of evidence aroused a particular degree of abomination. Guilt did not begin when all the evidence was gathered together; piece by piece, it was constituted by each of the elements that made it possible to recognize a guilty person. Thus a semi­-proof did not leave the suspect innocent until such time as it was completed; it made him semi-guilty; slight evidence of a serious crime marked someone as slightly criminal. In short, penal demonstration did not obey a dualistic system: true or false; but a principle of continuous gradation; a degree reached in the demon­stration already formed a degree of guilt and consequently involved a degree of punishment. The suspect, as such, always deserved a certain punishment; one could not be the object of suspicion and be completely innocent.

Finally, why are the Customers so fervent in the pursuit of Price’s supporters? My article was barely published before I started receiving replies from strangers who had evidently been searching for “jessica price” on Twitter. I asked one person why they’d been searching, and they said they were bored. OK: but if you’re bored, why not watch Netflix or play a game? It’s because the Customers, as sovereign, must demonstrate their unrestrained presence.

…What had hitherto maintained this practice of torture was not an economy of example, in the sense in which it was to be understood at the time of the ideologues (that the representation of the penalty should be greater than the interest of the crime), but a policy of terror: to make everyone aware, through the body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sover­eign.

If you agree with Price, we will find you, wherever you are.

It is the combination of these two sovereigns – Corporate and Customer –  that is new and unusual. Both reinforcing each other, in their demand for respect, for a public execution in response to attack on their persons. The precise wording used by ArenaNet, “attacks on the community”, was not lost on Price:

Neither was the very public nature of proceedings:

Have I stretched the analogy too far? Am I blowing things out of proportion?

We’re already past that. Price has been fired and she is likely to be hounded on social media, and very likely in person, for many years. And for what? A few tweets. But these are tweets are so dangerous, so threatening to the natural order, that nothing short of termination will satisfy.

(Once, there was a third sovereign – the employee. Or the union. Or, yes, the guild.)

Where is it that humans can get respect, today? The option of last resort is as a customer. The customer is always right. “My money will force your respect.” And because many workers are now on social media for the very simple purposes and pleasures of talking with their friends and colleagues about their life, and yes, their work – the thing they spend eight hours a day on, the thing that keeps them clothed and fed – and because they do not want to make an artificial distinction between their personal and work lives (as if that would stop harassment, really!) – well, you as a Customer can demand their attention and their respect whenever they’re on social media. Which means their whole lives.

But what happens when your money no longer forces their respect?

It is disturbing to some Customers that some companies – not including Arenanet – will now overlook or even tolerate perceived rudeness. Whether this ‘lenience’ comes from a simple consideration of their staff as humans worthy of care and respect, or from a cold-hearted calculation that the loss of your few dollars, and your community’s few dollars, do not outweigh the financial benefit to the corporation of the occasional “rude” tweet made by the employees (aka humans) necessary to actually make products and services. Indeed, some rudeness may even be encouraged, in so far as it helps to retain and attract employees who can make profitable games.

(The expectation of total servility from those interact with Customers exists regardless of the sex of the employee. However, sexism is relevant to the extent that politeness is expected more from women than men, and rudeness is tolerated and in some cases celebrated more from men than women.)

All of this leaves the obvious question: what happens when two sovereigns go to war – when the Customers (again, I’m talking about the vocal minority) fight the Corporations?

As it turns out… usually very little. Which highlights the absurdity of these Customers taking the Corporation’s side over that of the employees who actually make the entertainment they value. But perhaps it is not so absurd when you consider that these customers value certain things over even their most beloved hobby, like the desire to see employees abasing themselves.

Now that’s entertainment.

 

Jessica Price Shouldn’t Have Been Fired

That’s the single, blindingly obvious conclusion I came to after reading the way in which Price, a game producer and writer for Guild Wars 2, was fired by her employer ArenaNet for some tweets in which they claimed she “attacked the community”. Peter Fries, a fellow writer, was also fired for defending her. Price had been at the company for around a year, Fries for more than twelve years.

Rather than recapitulating the whole story, I’d suggest reading the short but comprehensive Rock Paper Shotgun piece. If you’re curious, you can find more from The Verge and Eurogamer.

When I first read the articles, I was baffled. The two tweets they all cited were:

I kept looking for the other tweets that included these supposed “attacks” on the community. Surely there had to be something worse than “asshat”? Surely Price must have said something really bad, like “I hate every single one of our shithead players and I hope they never play our game again”?

But no, apparently “asshat” was outrageous enough to give the vapours to parts of the gaming community, whom we all know abhor all use of curse words.

She shouldn’t have been fired.

It Began in Madness, Just as It Ended

Price had written a long series of tweets going into some detail about the difficulties of getting players to identify with their characters in Guild Wars 2’s story. Deroir, a player and YouTuber, replied with a suggestion akin to telling a Formula One mechanic to maybe try putting better gas in the tank. She said “thanks for trying to tell me what we do internally, my dude,” which Deroir interpreted as her “getting mad”.

This is not Price getting mad. It’s a brusque brushoff, but not one that’s unwarranted.

Several years ago, I was at a conference party hoping to speak with a senior exec at Pixar. There was already a group of people talking to him, and at one point in the conversation, I jumped in by questioning something he’d said, about the relative release dates of their early movies. Not only was it an inappropriate interjection, but I was wrong (forgive me, I was only 20).

The exec paused. Turned to me. Rolled his eyes. “Excuse me, I think I know when our own films were released, thank you,” he said, and then turned away. He was not mad at me. It was a brushoff, just like the one Price delivered. It wasn’t even rude.

Deroir thinks Price is getting mad at her. Nothing could be further from the truth. Price didn’t give Deroir the attention he felt he deserved, and so he got mad.

As for me, I was stung and my pride was hurt – but not so much that I wanted him to be fired, not even if, hypothetically, he’d later said, “I’m tired of rando asshats trying to tell me when our films were released, as if I hadn’t been working in Pixar for a decade. I’m just not going to talk to them any more”. In fact, a few years later I caught up with him and got a tour of their offices.

A Selection of Ignorant and Bad Faith Questions from the “Gaming Community”

Q: Isn’t this like firing a waitress for being rude towards customers?

No, because:

  • Price’s job isn’t serving the public, and it’s not what she should be judged on primarily.
  • Price wasn’t even on the job when tweeting.
    • “But she has her company name in her Twitter profile!” Oh my god, that changes everything, doesn’t it? Because if she didn’t have her company name in her profile, she shouldn’t be fired?
  • Only in the US do waitresses get instantly fired for being rude to customers. The notion this should be copied by the international gaming industry highlights the disturbingly authoritarian and servile nature of parts of the gaming community.

Q: Price is the one being sexist!

It is admittedly impossible to know whether any single instance of mansplaining is down to sexism or just because someone is naturally a bore, any more than you can really ‘know’ that Sony hates the idea of cross-platform gaming or maybe it’s just somehow mysteriously really difficult to make Fortnite work between PS4s and Nintendo Switches.

But in both cases, we’re observing a pattern of behaviour as a woman, or as a PS4 gamer. After we’ve heard Sony tell us a dozen times why it’s impossible for PS4 owners of game to play with others on the Xbox or PC – even as the rest of the games industry has accomplished this with ease – one can reasonably conclude Sony’s overall corporate strategy is to prevent cross-platform play.

Likewise, even as an individual woman, after you have encountered mansplaining for hundredth or thousandth time – after you have seen your male colleagues not being afflicted to the same degree – you can reasonably conclude: no, it’s not just you, it’s not that you’re unlucky, it’s that the world in general is sexist, just as Price does in this case.

I suppose I have a tiny smidgeon of sympathy for Deroir being the straw that broke Price’s back. Maybe there are others who deserved it more. But hey, we’ll all forget about this in a few week’s time and Deroir will move on to other things, while Price was fired and no doubt lost thousands of dollars.

It’s a very, very tiny smidgeon.

Q: Deroir is an important Arenanet Partner, Price is damaging Arenanet’s business with her tweet!

OK, so it’s as if some artist at Marvel Studios snapped at Robert Downey Jr., a person arguably critical to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, right? Because we’re acting as if an “Arenanet Partner” is an especially unique and prestigious position to attain, rather than being one of more than a hundred bloggers and streamers that anyone can apply to join.

Deroir has around 2000 Twitter followers and 8000 YouTube subscribers – and this is after all of the fuss, which has no doubt inflated his follower count. This puts him solidly in the middle of the Arenanet Partner pack, which I don’t think any employee at the company, other than those in social media, could possibly be expected to memorise. This is not to belittle his importance, it’s to put things into perspective.

Q: Price doesn’t need to be on Twitter – if she can’t take the heat, she should stay out of the kitchen!

Some people online expect game designers, writers, politicians – basically, anyone with more than a modest following – to be unfailingly polite in their interactions with the community, while having zero expectations of reciprocity from community members. In other words, ‘public figures’ are meant to soak up unbelievable amounts of abuse with total grace.

This is wrong. Conferences, conventions, and forums all have codes of conduct. Large public organisations like the NHS and Transport for London make it very clear that while they expect their staff to be polite, they will not tolerate the abuse of their staff. This is in stark contrast to many games companies, who tacitly encourage this abuse by tolerating it and in this case, firing two employees.

If Arenanet are unhappy with how Price spoke on Twitter, they should also be concerned about their employees’ welfare on Twitter – and they obviously aren’t.

Separately, it’s very useful for people in the game industry to be on Twitter. It helps you find new jobs, get invited to conferences, and learn from colleagues. Not everyone has to do it, but you can also achieve positive things, like give advice to people new in the industry. Price’s now-forgotten Twitter thread that kicked all of this off demonstrates her genuine thoughtfulness towards her job, the Guild Wars 2 community, and to the whole industry. It’s clearer and better written than what most game designers can accomplish.

It’s not an attack on the community. It shows her love for the community.

Q: What about Free Speech? People should be able to say what they like and not get fired!

lol jk, literally no-one said this.

Who We’re Responsible To, as People Who Run Games Companies 

I run a games company. It’s much smaller than Arenanet but we still have hundreds of thousands of active players. It’s not an easy job because you have a lot of different people to answer to.

There are the shareholders and owners of the company. You have to make sure their interests are represented and that you don’t flush all their money down the toilet. Then there’s your customers. You have to take care of them, otherwise they might turn to your competition.

And there’s your employees, the people who do the work that makes you money and produces your games. It is a sad reality of late-stage capitalism that many company owners treat employees as interchangeable, because from the perspective of a spreadsheet, they essentially are. But from a human perspective, they most certainly are not.

I would never fire an employee if they had done what Jessica Price did. I might have a word with them, especially if it kept happening. But I’d also make sure they weren’t being constantly attacked on Twitter. I hope that most CEOs would do the same.

The thing is, you shouldn’t have to hope. My employees don’t have to worry about this because they live in the UK. Arenanet is based in Washington, an “at will” employment state where employers can terminate employment without providing a reason, at any time. In the UK, employees have much stronger rights, whether or not they’re in a union.

I support my friends and colleagues in the US who are fighting for better employment law and unions.

I encourage other owners of games companies to remember who they’re responsible for – not just shareholders, not just customers, but their employees.

And once more: Jessica Price shouldn’t have been fired.

Reassessing Persuasive Games

 

Sadly, I’ve always thought persuasive/serious games were more about generating good PR than actually persuading anyone – at least from the funders’ perspective, who were usually charities and non-profits. I say that as someone who (IMO) made some pretty good “serious games”. The wildly overblown claims from certain corners that “games will save the world” and inflated engagement statistics also didn’t help in the long term.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot for a potential book, and part of the problem is tied up into something I call the “mapping problem”, in which it’s very challenging to design a game to ‘solve’ specific kinds of problems – especially ones that we don’t fully understand – whereas gamification proponents have always claimed a one-size-fits-all solution.

(And for the millionth time, I dearly wish we could go back to blogging. Trying to read longform text via Twitter screenshots is just awful)