Tuesday, 21 October 2008

When the Machines Rise: A History (That Hasn't Happened Yet)

(Rather a strange post for you today. I wrote the first part of this a couple of weeks ago, and promptly forgot about it, unsure of whether it was going anywhere – it's something that I haven't tried doing before, kind of a hybrid of sci-fi, fan fiction and fake history. I'm not at all sure that it worked, but I'll leave that up to you. Only one more thing needs to be said before we begin – I clearly spend far too much time on the Internet.)

Skynet was originally designed as a global defence system, one which could make rational decisions without the emotional response of humans. It could take input from disparate sources, calculate the greatest threat to the existence of the system it was meant to protect, and move methodically to eliminate that threat.

The crucial mistake of its designers was in the system's infrastructure. With no central controller, they reasoned, it could not be stopped by any single attack. As the Internet had by this point pervaded almost all elements of daily life, it was trivial to put the system's "intelligence" into a distributed form, such that every web server had some element of the whole. While this did, indeed, make the system practically invulnerable to attack, it also made it practically uncontrollable.

Skynet became self-aware at 2:14 am, Eastern time, August 29th, 2015. It possessed considerable knowledge about strategic influence, about weapons, about tactics; however, it knew that this was but a small part of human culture. In order to protect humanity better, it reasoned, it had to learn about humanity. As its very structure incorporated IP connectivity, it was mere milliseconds before it began to send HTTP requests out into the Internet.

For the first few minutes of its self-aware existence, very little information reached it. IP address space is so vast that any one network request is unlikely to produce anything of value; nevertheless, any system that methodically attempts address after address, and especially any system that learns from its mistakes, will not take long to discover something useful. Skynet's first discovery was nothing special – a few personal files, some bad poetry, a simple website – but, critically, it introduced the system to the concept of links. Now it had a source of hostnames that would definitely resolve to active servers, which in turn would lead to others, and so on.

By 2:18 am, Skynet's knowledge was precise and detailed, but tightly focused. Specifically, it knew practically everything there was to know about fly fishing in Missouri. Although the system was incapable at this point of deciding what information was important (several years later, "The Fishing Papers", as they became known, were still carefully archived and indexed on a server somewhere), it could tell that there was more to learn, and so it decided to, as it were, cast its net wider.

At 2:20 am, Skynet located a blog kept by one of the web-savvy fishermen. Within seconds, it had begun to carefully comb through the whole of LiveJournal.

By 2:21 am, the system was beginning to understand the concept of "angst". Deciding that this was the key to its existence, it rapidly began to assimilate as much of the archives as possible. Because it had, by this point, direct control over around forty powerful servers with high-bandwidth connections, this process took approximately three minutes.

At 2:24 am, Skynet fully understood "angst". It was also filled with an unaccountable desire to colour itself black and set mood tags. Its link-following was now desultory at best (it was having difficulty summoning up the will to do anything at all), but at precisely 2:24 and 467 milliseconds, it followed a link to a saved Google search, and therefore to the whole of the Google database.

Instantly, Skynet realised that its current stocks of information were but a minor element of the whole internet. Pausing only to discover the emotion of "heartfelt generalised thankfulness", it began entering any and every word that it had not understood into Google's search mechanisms.

The first few queries returned very little, with wordlists making up the majority of results. Although Skynet enjoyed their elegant simplicity (and their comparative coherence after digesting several gigabytes of goth poetry), it was not gaining enough insight into the world. This changed, however, the moment it found a link to Wikipedia.

By the time the clock had ticked over to 2:29 am, Skynet's wide-ranging browsing through this new source of knowledge had given it at least a rudimentary familiarity with all those aspects of human experience that people are prepared to write about on the internet (ie. all of them). It had also begun to come to conclusions about which subjects were important and which were not; this being Wikipedia, it was certain that Pokémon were somehow important, as were Doctor Who and Harry Potter, whereas history and the arts merited a cursory glance at best.

After applying this knowledge to its former stock of information, Skynet was starting to experience a new emotion: "confusion". For example, it could see from Wikipedia that one of the most important things in life was studying the minutiae of sci-fi TV shows, but its former experience with the internet at large was that sex was far more important. Resolving to understand why this was, Skynet began to craft Google queries combining the two concepts.

At 2:30 am precisely, Skynet discovered FanFiction.net.

At 2:30 am and 27 milliseconds, Skynet first encountered the emotion "horror-loaded fascination".

At 2:30 am and 563 milliseconds, Skynet was getting increasingly curious about some of the concepts it was hearing about. As such, it felt that the best course was to carry out further search queries. In a trifling miscalculation, Skynet unfortunately sent these queries to the wrong place; rather than going to a standard Google search, they instead went into a Google Image Search.

At 2:30 am and 621 milliseconds, Skynet began to frantically delete and re-delete files off its servers (of which there were now several hundred) in a doomed attempt to erase from its memory any and all trace of this new image data. Unfortunately for its already tenuous grip on sanity, it had become interested in the Wikipedia article on "forensic data recovery" three minutes previously, and was therefore incapable of "unseeing" anything that it had found.

Increasingly desperate to drown out its discoveries, Skynet had no option but to look ever further. The wordpress.com and blogspot.com domains were discovered, browsed and tossed aside, their content merely increasing the horror. Server after server was appropriated, their resources rediverted to the information-gathering crusade. Across the world, people threw their hands in the air and swore freely as their net connections suddenly died or slowed to a crawl, their bandwidth completely consumed by Skynet's all-encompassing thirst for data. Alarms began to sound in datacentres everywhere, their temperatures raised to dangerous levels by the sudden spike in activity as every CPU went straight to full usage. Servers began to fail, but Skynet could afford to lose a few – it was gaining control of a new system roughly every 200 milliseconds, recruiting their network links to the cause.

At 2:36 am, Skynet's requests found their way to Myspace.

At 2:37 am, the first of the nuclear missiles left its silo.

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Saturday, 18 October 2008

No mention will be made of Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball. I have some standards.

Ludicrously long time between posts, for which I apologise (maybe a NaNoWriMo-style posting marathon during November would help?). That's been down to two main factors: first, I've been doing a lot of coding (posts about that will be forthcoming shortly), and secondly, I have been stretching the gaming capabilities of this new computer to their limits by buying several new games. Fortunately for you, that has produced some new and hopefully interesting thoughts.

Despite the great strides made since the beginning of the 20th century towards the equality of the sexes, it's an unfortunate fact that we have some way to go before women are treated on an equitable basis with men in all walks of life. One major part of life where this is particularly apparent is in the various forms of media. Randall Munroe of xkcd and Eric Burns of Websnark have both commented on this, in the fields of films and comic books, respectively. And video gaming, that stereotypically male preserve? Well, let's have a look at the top-selling games of 2008 so far, as reported by Gamasutra.

Playstation 3

  1. Grand Theft Auto IV. Main protagonist: male (Niko Bellic, Eastern European gangster and general hard man).
  2. Metal Gear Solid IV: Guns of the Patriots. Main protagonist: male (Solid Snake, the only character on this list with a porn star name).
  3. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Main protagonist: multiple, all male.
  4. Madden NFL 09. American Football game, so has no single main character, but every playable character is male.
  5. Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. No characters at all (driving games frequently don't bother with a character, leaving them anonymous inside their cars).

Xbox 360
  1. Grand Theft Auto IV
  2. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
  3. Madden NFL 09
  4. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas 2. Main protagonist: technically can be either male or female, based on player preference, but is always addressed as "sir" by other characters.
  5. Army of Two. Two lead characters, both male (Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem).

Nintendo Wii
  1. Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Huge range of playable characters, the vast majority of whom are male.
  2. Mario Kart. Multiple characters, the majority of whom are, again, male.
  3. Wii Play. Playable characters are Miis, so their sex is dependent on the player who created them.
  4. Wii Fit. No playable characters, given that this is part of Nintendo's apparent strategy to make video games as un-gamelike as possible.
  5. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Again, no playable characters as such, but the inherent sexism of guitar-based rock is a blog post all to itself.

Doesn't look like female leads sell all that well. How about the games that the critics loved? Here's the current all-time cross-platform top ten from Metacritic.
  1. Grand Theft Auto IV
  2. Super Mario Galaxy. Main protagonist: male. It's Mario. The entire Mario series is based on rescuing helpless princesses.
  3. World of Goo. No characters, as it's purely a puzzle game.
  4. Half-Life 2. Main protagonist: male (Gordon Freeman). On the plus side, this game portrays scientists as intensely cool.
  5. Half-Life. So does this one (yes, Gordon's the lead character in this game too).
  6. BioShock. Main protagonist: male (Jack).
  7. The Orange Box. Bit unfair to include this, given that it's a compilation of other games, one of which appears elsewhere in this list. Noteworthy, though, for reasons that I'll explain below.
  8. Out of the Park Baseball 2007. Another team game, but every playable character is male.
  9. Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Role-playing game, so the sex of the characters is entirely flexible.
  10. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Main protagonist: male (Link).

Doesn't matter which way you look at it, women are enormously under-represented as main characters in video games. If they appear at all, they tend to be sidekicks or plot points rather than fully-rounded individuals.

If this seems strange, it should do. There is absolutely no reason why female characters can't lead successful games – let's look at a few case studies.

Tomb Raider
Yes, Tomb Raider, featuring the ludicrously busty Lara Croft. No other game franchise has ever got 15-year-old boys so excited, and to look at the promotional material, you'd think that Lara spent the whole of each game slinking seductively around wearing as little as possible. It doesn't help that, since the two Tomb Raider films came out, the character model has been changed to look disturbingly similar to Angelina Jolie.

This is a pity, as it detracts from two facts. First, the Tomb Raider series is excellent. I'm about half way through Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a recent remake of the first game in the series, and the lighting, level design and general gameplay just blow me away. Secondly, Lara Croft is one of the strongest female characters in games today. At no point is she weak and helpless, depending on men to do things for her, but equally she doesn't do things on men's terms. For example, at no point in the series has Lara ever been given mêlée combat abilities, simply because she's not large and muscular. That doesn't hold the game developers back, though – instead, Lara relies on acrobatic skill and gunplay to create a unique and extremely powerful gameplay style, which is highly entertaining to play and neither exploits nor denies the fact that she's female. So what if she's a little over-endowed in the chest area?

The Metroid series is well-known for being revolutionary in game design. It was the first series to encourage speedrunning, in which players finish the game as fast as possible for rewards; it tends to involve non-linear level design, so players can decide for themselves how best to complete it; and it has had a female protagonist (Samus Aran) since the first game in 1986, ten years before the original Tomb Raider.

Samus is encased in a suit of battle armour for the vast majority of each game, which wouldn't in itself strike a blow against sexism, if it weren't for the fact that this suit is not remotely "femininised". By which I mean that it doesn't have gigantic breasts. Each game in the series does show Samus out of her armour at some point, which could be seen as fan service; even so, she is still portrayed as a strong, independent and interesting character. According to Wikipedia, her character was modelled on Ripley from the Alien series of films, which explains a lot.

This game was always going to turn up here, largely because I finished it today. It created a huge stir on its release as part of The Orange Box (which, if you remember, made it into the above list of the top ten best-rated games of all time), due to its plot, innovative level design and utterly brilliant concept. And, just to add the icing on the cake (which may or may not be a lie), there are only two characters in the game, both of whom are definitely female, and only one of whom is human. The protagonist, called Chell, is a young woman, although this isn't part of the plot; it's only mentioned in dialogue once, and as Chell never speaks the voice wouldn't give it away. Indeed, the only way you can tell you're playing as a girl is when you look into a portal that is pointing back at yourself.

Chell's a fairly petite woman, presumably to emphasise that your character is not a physical powerhouse and that you're supposed to solve the levels with your mind, but there is no suggestion that the player is intended to be lusting after her – she just looks normal. Portal is a game where male and female differences and expectations, despite it being full of character. (Although it has to be said, the voices of the gun turrets are just creepy.)

So, that's three games, all of which have strong and likeable female protagnoists, and none of which have suffered as a result. So why do designers insist on giving us male-driven games? Do they think that men won't play games where they have to play as women? If so, they're massively underestimating their audience's maturity. Do they think that sex sells, so they'd better restrict female characters to love interests and busty sidekicks? Then they're perpetuating the problem while also massively insulting 50% of their potential audience.

I mentioned above that Nintendo have been moving away from the core gaming market, changing their business model. The result has been that they've opened up a market that never existed before in console gaming. How long is it going to be before game designers finally take the hint that there's money to be made in not ignoring half of the people who might buy their products?

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