Categories
Technology

The Last of Us Part 2 is a flawed masterpiece

I finished playing The Last of Us Part 2 yesterday. It made me cry, a lot. I think it’s a masterpiece.

I agree with Eurogamer’s Oli Welsh, who wrote:

It gets messy and problematic, and neither side comes out unscathed. But, by taking some big gambles, the developers land decisive blows that will send you reeling.

…You will be halfway through the game before you understand what it’s actually doing and more than that before you really begin to feel its dread pull. Towards the very end, it is devastating.

It’s ostensibly a survival horror game: your job is to battle your way through various kinds of enemies to reach your goal. TLOU2 does it with incredible skill – some of the set-pieces are truly exceptional, and it’s extremely tense and often downright terrifying. But what makes it different to other post-apocalyptic video games are two things: the characters, and the violence those characters commit and suffer.

The writing and acting in TLOU2 is exceptional, and for once the key characters aren’t grizzled muscle-bound men . Most of the important characters are women, and those women are portrayed as real and complex people, not stereotypes or equally lazy “sexy women who KICK ASS!” fantasies.

Welsh again:

This is a game about women – not about the female experience per se, but a game in which almost all the notable characters are women and in which they are not only shown exhibiting great capability and physical prowess, but also contending with dark impulses typically ascribed to men: trauma, obsession, rage and revenge. It is also a game featuring LGBTQ+ relationships and characters in a prominent but matter-of-fact way – it’s not a big deal, they are just there.

TLOU2 is a game about violence. I was trying to think of a cinematic analogue and I thought of Clint Eastwood’s classic western, Unforgiven. Like TLOU2 it subverted the tropes of its genre, in that case the Hollywood western; like TLOU2 it used the violence to hold up a mirror to the audience. In a genre where you’re supposed to cheer when the hero kills somebody, Unforgiven wanted you to question it. In a key line, Eastwood’s protege The Kid kills somebody for the first time and finds it hard to process. Eastwood’s character, Munny, tells him:

“It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it, killin’ a man. You take everythin’ he’s got… an’ everythin’ he’s ever gonna have…”

TLOU2 takes a similar theme but amplifies it. It is a very, very violent game, but that violence is sickeningly realistic and has very serious consequences. I can’t go into detail without spoiling key plot points but by the end of the game I was sickened and horrified by the violence; in one battle, a scene that in other games would have you pumped full of adrenaline, I wept.

Walsh:

it isn’t until the game’s final stretches that it gathers its true power, as you approach a point that is all the more horrifying for its total inevitability.

It’s a huge roll of the dice from the developers, but it works, and the pay-off is almost indescribable. It would be too much to claim that you will never feel the same about video game violence again, but the shock is profound and discomfiting.

There are many flaws. There’s a section right at the end that feels like an afterthought and which lacks the characterisation of the rest of the game. Sometimes it’s a little heavy-handed with its message. And because the writing is so good, on the odd occasion it isn’t so impressive it’s really noticeable. But you won’t be thinking about that when the final credits roll. Chances are you’ll be like me, sitting on the sofa, tears streaming down your face.

The Last of Us Part 2 is the most incredible game I’ve ever played. I never want to play it again.

 

 

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Hell in a handcart Media Technology

“That is phenomenal engagement. What’s not to like?”

Alex Hern explores the tragic and frightening tale of one man’s descent into psychosis, a descent that was speeded up by online radicalisation.

There is no doubt that people have been radicalised by the internet, and by this particularly horrible corner of it. There are just too many cases like Slyman’s, where we can see, in the pattern of YouTube likes, Facebook groups and Twitter follows, someone entering the funnel at one end – watching Jordan Peterson videos, or listening to the Joe Rogan Experience – and then, six months or a year later, fully “red-pilled”, accusing Hilary Clinton of child murder or calling for a second civil-war in the US.

(One particularly curious thing about this as a Brit is that that’s even the journey of radicalisation of much of the UK far right. God knows we have our own pathways too – with Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins playing major parts – but the number of Trump t-shirts and MAGA hats at British fascist gatherings is wild.)

But in this case, six days just feels too quick for the normal radicalisation narrative to fit.

Hern asks a frightening question: what if the algorithms that push content to us can push us over the edge?

if YouTube’s recommendation algorithm had learned to recognise the signs of someone on the edge of a psychotic break, and had learned that if you show them a lot of QAnon videos at that stage in their life engagement goes through the roof, what would be different from the tale we’ve just heard?

We’re still not taking the problem of online radicalisation seriously enough. Part of it is human, where extremists use cult tactics to recruit people to their cause and create echo chambers of increasingly extreme ideology. But a great deal of it is automated, and that automation not only rewards extremism but promotes it to the people least able to sort fact from lurid fiction.

Five days after he watches his first Q video, he is live-streaming his belief that the local radio station is sending him coded messages from Q. Later that day, the song You Spin Me Round by Dead Or Alive convinces him the Deep State is coming to kill him, and he gets in the car with his wife and kids and begins his drive.

Categories
Technology

The world smells the same and there are no new flavours

This is an extraordinary story.

One day in December 2016 a 37-year-old British artist named Sam Winston equipped himself with a step-ladder, a pair of scissors, several rolls of black-out cloth and a huge supply of duct tape, and set about a project he had been considering for some time.

…No screens. No sun. No visual stimulation of any kind. He was going to spend some time alone in the dark.

Categories
Technology

“What’s the deal with all the car selfies?”

A great piece by Pam Mandel in Longreads about online dating in her 50s:

When I can’t sleep, I pet the dog and listlessly scroll through profiles, feeling all the markings of my 55 years, looking for something — someone — to stop that feeling of loss. It’s bad for me, junk food for my psyche. I’m reminded how bad it is every time I feel that bump when there’s a match. In my head I understand that I am being manipulated to feel just this way. I know that coming out of a relationship takes time and I should probably resolve all the old stuff before embarking on anything new. I know I should turn off my phone and go back to sleep or get out of bed.

Categories
Music Technology

Useful, free apps for music and video

I get quite annoyed by social media posts urging us all to be productive and/or learn new skills during THE END OF THE BLOODY WORLD – but I also get really bored when I’m stuck at home and I find messing around with music helps enormously.

If you’re a musician or want to be one, there are currently some really useful offers you can take advantage of.

First up, Fender Play is currently offering three months free. That’s three months of really good lessons for beginners and more experienced players alike. The lessons are for acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar and ukulele. The deal was originally limited to 100,000 people but it’s been upped to half a million now. Fender:

We’re all going to be spending more time inside – so we might as well make some noise.

Apple has announced a 90-day trial of its music production studio, Logic Pro X. That’s the app I use for almost all of my music, and it’s usually £200. It’s a digital recording studio that’s ideal for any genre of music, and three months is long enough to make some really cool musical projects and/or learn transferable skills that’ll stand you in good stead for any other music production app. If video is more your thing, Final Cut Pro is free for 90 days too.

For electronic musicians, the mighty (and to me, terrifying) Ableton Live is also free for 90 days. And Avid, makers of Pro Tools, Media Composer and others, is offering 90-day trials too.

Korg’s wonderful Minimoog synth app is free for another couple of days, alongside its excellent iKaossilator beat-maker.

Categories
Technology

How to avoid buying fake headphones

Step 1: don’t buy headphones on eBay.

Step 2: there is no step 2.

I did a very un-me thing last week after losing my beloved Sony headphones: I bought a replacement set on eBay instead of paying a little more to get them from somewhere reputable such as John Lewis.

Inevitably, they turned out to be counterfeits.

It’s not always easy to tell, but there are ways to identify fakes even before you listen to them. Slightly blurred text and inconsistent spacing on the packaging is the first tell; the lack of a warranty card is the second. If you compare the cable to a genuine pair it’s thinner and patterned differently; if you look carefully at the body of the headphones you’ll see imperfections in the lacquer.

And of course, they sound shit.

Counterfeits are a huge problem on eBay, and from third party sellers on big name sites: as a rule of thumb, anything under 72% of the usual retail price is probably counterfeit.

It’s a pain, but at least counterfeit headphones won’t kill you. Other counterfeit goods might.

All kinds of electronics are widely faked, and many of those fakes are actively dangerous: battery packs and chargers in particular have been found to be significant fire risks, and you shouldn’t buy them from anywhere you don’t trust or for prices that seem too good to be true.

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Hell in a handcart Technology

We should not build certain technologies because the human cost is too great

Danah Boyd has long been one of the smartest voices in tech, and in her recent awards speech to the Electronic Frontier Foundation she must have made a lot of people uncomfortable. In it she talks about the tech industry’s sheltering of terrible men, and how its technologies can have terrible consequences.

Tech prides itself in being better than other sectors. But often it’s not. As an employee of Google in 2004, I watched my male colleagues ogle women coming to the cafeteria in our building from the second floor, making lewd comments. When I first visited TheFacebook in Palo Alto, I was greeted by a hyper-sexualized mural and a knowing look from the admin, one of the only women around. So many small moments seared into my brain, building up to a story of normalized misogyny. Fast forward fifteen years and there are countless stories of executive misconduct and purposeful suppression of the voices of women and sooooo many others whose bodies and experiences exclude them from the powerful elite. These are the toxic logics that have infested the tech industry. And, as an industry obsessed with scale, these are the toxic logics that the tech industry has amplified and normalized.

…“Move fast and break things” is an abomination if your goal is to create a healthy society. Taking short-cuts may be financially profitable in the short-term, but the cost to society is too great to be justified. In a healthy society, we accommodate differently abled people through accessibility standards, not because it’s financially prudent but because it’s the right thing to do. In a healthy society, we make certain that the vulnerable amongst us are not harassed into silence because that is not the value behind free speech. In a healthy society, we strategically design to increase social cohesion because binaries are machine logic not human logic.

…The goal shouldn’t be to avoid being evil; it should be to actively do good.

Categories
Hell in a handcart Technology

How YouTube perverts politics and spreads fear and rage

This, the result of a months-long investigation by the New York Times, is terrifying: How YouTube radicalised Brazil.

A New York Times investigation in Brazil found that, time and again, videos promoted by the site have upended central elements of daily life.

Teachers describe classrooms made unruly by students who quote from YouTube conspiracy videos or who, encouraged by right-wing YouTube stars, secretly record their instructors.

Some parents look to “Dr. YouTube” for health advice but get dangerous misinformation instead, hampering the nation’s efforts to fight diseases like Zika. Viral videos have incited death threats against public health advocates.

And in politics, a wave of right-wing YouTube stars ran for office alongside Mr. Bolsonaro, some winning by historic margins. Most still use the platform, governing the world’s fourth-largest democracy through internet-honed trolling and provocation.

YouTube continues to deny what’s obvious to everyone: its algorithms prioritise conspiracy theories, right-wing bullshit and any other content that purports to tell you the truth that others are trying to conceal. And that has horrific real-world consequences – to the point where we need to warn parents of the signs that their boys are being radicalised by YouTube gaming commentators.

YouTube’s recommendation of awful content isn’t a bug. It’s feature. The entire system is built to prioritise attention, and what gets the most attention is the most inflammatory, fear-mongering, hateful content.

When even the far right are crediting YouTube with their political successes, it’s clear that YouTube’s protestations mean nothing. Whether it’s spreading anti-vaccine fear or right-wing conspiracies, YouTube has become a cancer at the very heart of modern life.

Categories
LGBTQ+ Media Technology

Playing video games

In the Mass Effect series, players can customise Jane (or John) Shepard (left). The version here is from the launch trailer; my Jane looked very different.

Writing in Metro, Owl Stefania writes about the importance of video games in her coming out process: “Growing up, video games were my escape, providing an avenue where I could explore who I was.”

I’ve written about this too, and a version of the following article was originally published in 404 Ink magazine in late 2017.

Video games have a special appeal for trans people. In addition to the usual escapism from the everyday, some of them enable you to play as the gender you feel you should be, not the one you’ve been assigned.

For many trans people the first such games were MMORPGs, massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Many of those games enabled you to play as all kinds of characters from humans to hobbits and space aliens). As many trans people discovered, when you communicate with other players in an MMORPG they’re quite happy to stay in character, so if your character is female you’ll be addressed as such. That isn’t always a good thing — there’s plenty of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia online, and online games aren’t immune to that — but as trans gamer Rissa Trent writes on MMOGames.com, being able to present as a female character is incredibly powerful. “To some people, it might just be pixels, but to those of us who want to break free from everyday life, and our own skins, it’s everything.”

I never really got into MMORPGs, but I fell hard for a sci-fi series called Mass Effect. In the first three Mass Effect games you play Commander Shepard, and that commander can be John or Jane. Not only is Jane Shepard better company — she’s voiced by the wonderful Jennifer Hale, who makes even the daftest dialogue breathe — but you can completely customise the character’s appearance in the game. Hair colour, facial structure, eye shape, jawline, hair, makeup… given enough time, and believe me I gave myself enough time, you could create a Jane Shepard who was an idealised version of your feminine self. 

To then have the game offer romantic options beyond the usual straight man/woman binary — something that caused controversy at the time, because while gamers had no problem with interspecies alliances (the same man-with-sexy-space-chick trope that goes back to Star Trek), same-sex attraction couldn’t possibly be a thing in the far future — was the cherry on top. Sadly the game wouldn’t let my character have a relationship with the character I really liked, the gorgeous, kick-ass soldier Miranda Lawson, and I clearly wasn’t the only one disappointed: the internet is packed with fan fiction where Jane and Miranda are an item.

Mass Effect and MMORPGs (and other games where you can be a girl, such as Dishonored 2 or Destiny) are very different games, but they both offer trans people something really important: the opportunity to inhabit your preferred gender, if only for a while. And as games get more realistic and immersive, that’s going to become even more powerful. 

Categories
Bullshit Technology

It’s not video games. It’s Nazis

In the aftermath of the latest US gun massacres, there have been lots of attempts to pin the blame on things. Despite at least one shooter leaving yet another manifesto that says “I did it because I’m a huge Nazi”, US Republicans and right-wing types generally have been quick to apportion the blame for gun massacres to pretty much anything else. Some Republicans claim it’s because of the gays, others because of the trans folks, and quite a few have pointed the finger at video games.

Here’s an interesting graph.

Clearly if video games caused gun deaths, you’d expect to see many more shootings in China and South Korea, where video games are even more popular than in the US. And you can’t say “ah, but they don’t play violent games like US gamers do”, because we do in the UK and we don’t have regular school shootings either.

Access to guns is a huge part of it, but let’s not turn away from video game just yet. Here’s author Christopher Keelty on Twitter.

Video games do not make murderers. If they did, China (which has almost as many gamers as the US has humans) would have constant domestic attacks.

HOWEVER.

Gaming-related media in America is filled with Nazi trolls working hard to recruit children.

If you’re not of a generation that plays games, this may well be news to you. However, it’s been well known in tech and tech journalism for years.

Sites like 4chan and 8chan [the site connected to the last five gun massacres] were built on gaming, by gamers for gamers. Reddit and YouTube have MASSIVE gaming communities. All are infested with white supremacist terrorists, working to get your kids killing for them.

It’s often not the content itself that’s dangerous, it’s the comments. Virtually any Google search for ANY game will turn up at least one page with Nazi talking points in the comments. Try it and see.

He’s right. People all over the world play video games, but people all over the world don’t have the same incredibly toxic online media that the US does.

Games don’t cause murders and people who play video games aren’t Nazis. But gamers in the US in particular have proven to be a very fertile recruiting ground for some of the worst people in the world.