When the Internet says, “No!”: Scientology *Spontaneously Updated! Awesome!*

15 04 2010

I’m not here to tell you that Scientology is a dangerous, money-hungry cult. I don’t have near enough lawyers to say that (and I’d be putting plenty of hardworking deprogrammers out of jobs). What I can say is that a man named L. Ron Hubbard used material from his science fiction stories as facets of a religion he created himself, so I feel justified writing about him in a blog about “cultural recycling.”

Let me make one thing clear: you have to work pretty hard to piss off the internet. Oh, sure, there are plenty of pissed-off people on the internet, but that’s not the same thing. People on the internet are justifiably pissed off. They live in a world where gory shock pictures lurk around every corner, where every sick sexual fantasy is played out in the flesh, and where Nancy Grace has more than three websites dedicated to information about her. Given this environment, it would be singularly hard to create one issue that simultaneously raises the ire of thousands of anonymous people enough to make them act in concert. So, way to go Scientology, I guess!

Most people aren’t sure whether Scientologists are full-on evil “hood ‘n’ cloak” religious nuts, or run of the mill lawful-neutral “read my pamphlet” religious nuts. This might be a good time to increase your knowledge about Scientology. Why not consult your local library for books on the subject? Ha! Kidding! Just use the internet like a regular person. Check out “Scientology” articles at Wikipedia, and its comedic clone, Encyclopedia Dramatica.

To summarize quickly and in broad strokes: Scientologists are strongarm thugs with technobibles. They take your money, acquire information to blackmail you with, and spent all day suing people who say mean things about them.

In early 2008, Project Chanology was unleashed on an unsuspecting nation. It was when the internet rose up as one, put up a hand and said “nay!” Discussions about religion on the 4chan messageboards resulted in growing anger about Scientology among the commenters there. Moving past standard 4chan battle tactics like DDoS attacks on Scientology websites, the protesters used their version of the nuclear option by actually leaving their houses and organizing. Thousands of people in Guy Fawkes masks (if you don’t already know, please don’t ask me. I can’t explain the whole internet to you in a day) gathered outside Church of Scientology centers nationwide as a form of nonviolent disruption. Since 2008, Project Chanology has definitely changed the discussion around Scientology, and the dust is still settling over the affair.

Given that 4chan attracts a younger crowd, what can we glean about my generation from this strange, spontaneously-conceived event? Well, no matter what your political leanings, I think Project Chanology encapsulates our sensitivity and anger about being manipulated. It often feels like objective truth has evolved into political truth. These protesters were people who spent their formative years in the political (and let’s face it, factual) uncertainty surrounding the war on terror and the wars abroad, a time when all the information available seemed to serve an ideological end. So, I think the fact that Scientology used “humanitarian” rhetoric for private gain resonated with larger feelings of anger about being fed “strategic disinformation.”

Lastly, I think Chanology says that we love our right to free speech. We love data. We want content to be free and plentiful on the internet, and we want to be able to say any tomfool thing we want to on it. We like a world where nobody has the monopoly on communication, where there’s never one single message, where there’s never one single voice. So when the Church of Scientology starts trying to silence dissenters, it just plain rubs us the wrong way.

*UPDATE* So I’m super behind the times and all, but I just found this awesome little documentary (WARNING: SP-SP-SP-SPOOKY STUFF AHEAD. NO JOKE. I FEAR FOR MY LIFE) from the distinguished men and women from YTMND. So I’m in a class called online journalism, right? This link is pretty much a stellar example of the type of thing we talk about all day long. And it’s from a site associated with simple one-off jokes. It makes me feel vastly inferior as a journalist and a human being.

Ancient Geek History: Interactive Fiction 2- Electric Boogaloo

3 02 2010

For those of you who have not read the thrilling prelude to Interactive Fiction 2- Electric Boogaloo, I suggest you check it out here. For the rest of us, onward and upward.

The main reason that I wanted to blog about interactive fiction was because I started playing IF games around 2002. By that time, text adventures were ludicrously outdated. I might as well have been smashing two rocks together and watching the spark for all of the technical capacity that text adventures require. How the hell did this come to be?

As I mentioned in the earlier post, it’s all Douglas Adams’ fault. He led me to Infocom’s back catalog of games, and I was mostly unimpressed. Most of the games involved pretty abstract puzzle solving logic. Much of your time was spent wrestling with the parser, trying to phrase your sentence in the exact way that the game designers thought you should.

Infocom went the way of the dodo in 1989, staggering along as an undead fiend bewitched by Activision’s voodoo magic until around 1996. And frankly, after that, there was very little commercial interest in interactive fiction. But never underestimate the drive, creativity, and inventiveness of the wackaloons on the internet. As soon as something becomes archaic, esoteric, or difficult to use, a certain type of person is bound to celebrate it. Now that interactive fiction had moved beyond the commercial realm, it was primed to become a medium for the people.

Internet communities began to form around text adventures and interactive fiction. Enthusiasts began to congregate. Soon, pioneers like Graham Nelson and Micheal J. Roberts developed new programming languages for text adventures. By 1993, about anyone with sufficient time could write an IF game. And some of them were even pretty good at it.

The text adventure games that were my favorites were always the fan-produced ones. The ones penned by people on their personal computers, over weeks of programming and testing. The good ones were always labors of love: weird, idiosyncratic, and fully realized. I think it’s fascinating that people would choose to express themselves in a unequivocally obsolete medium. It would be like if I wrote my stupid little pop-culture blog in a mixture of Latin, Esperanto, and Klingon.

For a long time, there was a pretty dedicated community of IF programmers releasing their own games and participating in interactive fiction competitions like the XYZZY Awards. Even today, there are still a select few IF true believers who are pumping out purposefully archaic games. So why does this ostensibly dead medium still have legs?

I can think of a few reasons, the least noble of which being nostalgia. For whatever reason, people have gotten it into their heads that the 80’s were a decade worth remembering. Personally, I think the only good things to come out of the 80’s were The Dead Kennedys, A Fish Called Wanda, me, and the 1988 Dodge Shadow. But some people wistfully hope to reclaim that pimply period of their lives where they spent hours staring into a glowing screen that had half the computing power of an iPod. And God bless ’em for it.

More importantly, interactive fiction allows for a different type of interactivity than what most videogamers are used to. Current generation videogames are marketed on, and ultimately hindered by, their ability to render graphics. That is, you can only interact with the environment based on what animations are programmed.

Imagine yourself playing the next unavoidable installment in the Grand Theft Auto series. Say, for instance, that you want to put down your Heckler & Koch HK53 for a moment and give a nearby puppy a loving kiss on the nose. You will likely find that this action is unsupported. No “puppy-kissing” animation has been created, no “puppy-kissing” button has been assigned, puppies cannot be kissed. In a text adventure it’s much easier to allow the user to interact freely with his environment, because of the simplicity and versatility of a text interface. It’s relatively easy to code the command “Kiss Puppy” in your IF game (“The puppy wags it’s tail enthusiastically. You appear to make friends very quickly.”), and even if it’s not necessary to the “plot” of the game, it’s still very rewarding to the user.

Lots of text adventures abandoned the idea of a set “plot” in favor of increased interactivity. There are lots of “toy” games where the object is to interact with your environment in interesting ways. Many games forgo traditional puzzle-solving in favor of creating a branching plot where your interaction with the environment alters the course of the game.

Games with graphics try to pull this trick off, but just can’t. Ultimately, you’re tied to the mechanics of the game, the environments that have been created, and the cutscenes that have been designed. There might be a little bit of variation allowed, but by and large gamers must color within the lines. No real meaningful changes to the course of the game can be made.

Interactive fiction can allow people to change the course of their experiences within the game. The nature of the games allows for lush detail and obsessive description, often creating a very fully fleshed out universe. There is no other type of experience that is analogous to playing an IF game, it is a specific medium with bizarre  set of limitations and advantages.  It allows for a type of interactivity that contrasts strongly with the type of videogame interactivity we’re used to. In the hands of a skilled designer, it can be an experience that defies explanation. But that’s a story for our next installment of “Ancient Geek History.” Tune in next time for, “Interactive Fiction 3- With a Vengeance.”

Ancient Geek History: Interactive Fiction, Pt.1

25 01 2010

For one of my classes last semester, I was coerced into reading “A Rape in Cyberspace” by Julian Dibbell. It’s an interesting little essay, and it’s pretty colorfully written as well. There’s a lot of meditation about the nature of rape as a crime, as well loads of compelling insights into the way that an internet community regulates itself.

Dibbell’s essay analyzes events that took place in Tiny Society, an online MOO game. MOOs are a particular breed of online text adventure (sometimes referred to as “interactive fiction” by snobs). The term “text adventure game” is pretty self- explanatory. The game describes a setting (“You are standing on a path in the forest. Ahead, there is a fork in the road. Exits are Northeast, Northwest, and South. From the Northeast, a troll appears carrying a sack of trinkets.”). You are able to interact in the game’s universe by typing commands (“Smack troll with enchanted tire iron, steal the troll’s trinkets.) Basically, it’s a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” novel to the umpteenth degree. MOOs are differentiated from other text-based games largely by their overwhelming lack of anything interesting to do.

When discussing Dibbell’s essay, most people in my class thought the concept of text-based games was pretty absurd, especially the current-generation  console gamers in the group. Few seemed able to comprehend the enjoyment that one could glean from interacting in an environment that is described rather than shown. I was one of the few people that even understood the concept of text-based gaming. And it was at that point that I accepted my status as a walking anachronism.

The reason that I’m one of the select few of my peer group who knows anything about interactive fiction is because I come from a family of unabashed Luddites. We do not like technology, and we’re very skittish about change. We railed against the concept of cell phones for as long as we could. Computers were considered “unnecessary” in our household.  Once, when I was five, my father smashed my Speak & Spell with a stone, decrying it as “Double-A fueled electronic devilry!”

But eventually, in my early teens, I did get my own computer. It was just a patchwork Frankenstein of a computer that I slapped together myself using spare parts I had scavenged from attics across the land. I wasn’t a particularly competent computer technician, but I knew how to hook up ribbon cables, and that’s really all you need to know besides DON’T EVER TOUCH THE MOTHERBOARD, YOU TWIT!

So I built my own computer. But understand this: it was a piece of garbage. It was slow, clunky, prone to error messages, and too obsolete to do anything useful. It was about as interactive as a calculator or perhaps a small chunk of obsidian, and I used it mostly for weighing down various important documents.

Now, this was at a time in my life where I pretty much worshiped Douglas Adams. I had read the entirety of his literary works (with the exception of Last Chance to See), I’d gone through his collected essays online, I’d listened to his radio plays, and I’d watched his episodes of Dr. Who. At that point, I’d almost exhausted the stockpile of Douglas Adams-penned material available on the open market.

But Douglas Adams was a technophile. As such, he saw a tremendous opportunity in the burgeoning videogame market of the mid-1980s. Adams understood that videogames represented a powerful new medium in which artists could create forms of art heretofore unimaginable. So, Adams teamed up with text adventure giant Infocom to create two videogames that reflected his iconic comedic sensibility, namely 1984’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and 1987’s Bureaucracy.

So, once I discovered that there was more Douglas Adams out there to be consumed, I set out to consume it. Luckily for me, text-adventure games are so tiny and simplistic that even my idiot man-child of a computer could run them. Unluckily for me, the games were unforgiving, spiteful little demons that seemed to actively take pleasure in my pain. In fact, most interactive fiction games were nearly-unplayable messes designed to drive sane people to the brink of madness, but many others were absorbing experiences that blended the lush verbal realm of writing with the interactive experiences of gaming in a unique way. But that’s a story for another post. Stay tuned!