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Six Reasons to Play MechWarrior Online

April 16, 2013 Leave a comment

For those of you not familiar with the MechWarrior franchise or the BattleTech universe, allow me to introduce you to MechWarrior Online, the latest installation in the series.

The basic premise of the BattleTech universe is as follows:

In the distant future humanity has broken free of the shackles of our solar system and begun settling the vast reaches of space.  Over time human nature rears its ugly head, leading to any number of wars over the period of a millennia.

At some point in time humans perfected the IndustrialMech—a (usually) bi-pedal humanoid machine capable of aiding humans in completing various work more quickly and easily.  As usual, the military applications of the technology become far more important and it isn’t long before the mechs become weaponized.  From that point on, mechs dominated the battlefield.

Inner Sphere Ca. 3050

The Inner Sphere (ca 3050) with colors denoting the various Successor States and their holdings. The center point at which all Successor States meet is Terra Firma (Earth).

MWO is set in the year 3050, long after the Star League—a government uniting almost all humans under one banner—fell and the various states that existed attempted to fill the vacuum left by the Star League in the most selfish manner of all.  These states—known as the Successor States—engaged in numerous wars leading up to 3050.  Currently, the MWO universe resides on the precipice of an impending disaster—one that will shake all of the Inner Sphere (the geographical domain of the Successor States).Until then, the various Houses in power are still engaging in their various squabbles and wars over land, power and resources. MWO is an amazing game, and if you aren’t already playing it I suggest that you begin to do so.  If you aren’t totally convinced, allow me to provide the following reasons to help sway you.

MWO Is Familiar…

MWO is, at its core, a first-person shooter.  The various objectives in the two game modes are reminiscent of the game modes available in the most popular FPS games.  There is, upon playing a match in MWO, a sense of familiarity to it all.

The familiarity is what makes MWO so welcoming to people who are not familiar with the franchise.

Atlas HUD

The HUD within your mech. Note that it is very similar to other HUDs in FPS games.

Matches in MWO are played in teams of 8 players, for 16 total in a match.  The matches themselves involve various capture points that each team can capture, though destruction of all enemy mechs is also a condition for victory.  At the end of a match players are awarded XP and c-bills (in-game currency) that can be used to advance your character and customize your mech.

If it all sounds very much like the COD or Battlefield series of FPSs, you’re right.

The control method is also similar enough that players who have yet to touch any MechWarrior games will not be totally lost in their first matches.  Nonetheless, the controls still have a learning curve to them.

So while MechWarrior games may be foreign to you, MWO is going to be familiar enough to be welcoming and easy to learn.

…But It Is Also Different

While at the most fundamental level MWO is an FPS that is similar to other FPSs, the game is true to the MechWarrior franchise and BattleTech universe, as various unique systems are introduced into MWO that will be familiar to experienced MW players. What separates MWO—and really all of the MechWarrior series—is that it is really the thinking person’s shooter.

I am not a big fan of the COD/Battlefield games.  For one, if I wanted to be yelled at by thirteen year olds who think it’s cool to shout racial slurs, I could have become a junior high teacher.  Since that is not the path I took, I want a game in which I don’t have to worry that some tween is going to lose his shit and/or teabag me.

But the real reason I never got into games like COD/Battlefield is the gameplay itself.  While the core basis of the game is not objectionable, the game itself feels like one must be on speed in order to actually play well, much less enjoy the game.

Consider the following gameplay from a COD game:

There is a lot going on in that game.  Players are falling left-and-right and the player recording even respawns at one point.  People walk around a corner only to be taken out with a single shot.  Movement is paramount, as stopping to time your shot is asking for a bullet to the face.

All-in-all, the COD/Battlefield games are twitchy FPSs that rely on instinct and lightning-fast response times in order to do well.  I do not deny that there are certain elements of strategy, but in general that strategy is limited to the following key points.

1)      Never stop moving.
2)      Always strafe.
3)      Fire your gun at the slightest provocation.
4)      If you die, it’s probably because you were too slow or stopped moving.
5)      Don’t stop moving.

Frantic games have a place in the hobby of gaming as a whole.  But the homogenization of the industry (to which I have previously devoted a post with no small amount of ire) means that almost every game plays this way, with the same elements.

Having a game that is familiar is nice, but I also think that it is about time we as gamers asked for a change of pace.  MWO is that change of pace.

Again, while the basic elements will be familiar, it is the rest of the game that is not.  For one, combat is slower and more deliberate.  Consider this video of MWO gameplay:

There is no shortage of excitement and even some very fast-paced action in MWO.  But for the most part, the game relies on your wits and coordination with the team.  If you are not cooperating with your teammates—even at the most fundamental level, which is sticking together as a group—you will watch your team get picked apart one-by-one.

Note the last event before death was “ammo explosion”. Which means this jackass was either running way too hot or got shot there, and either way didn’t have a CASE to contain the blast.

But the strategy goes beyond that.  Your torso twists separate from your legs, which means you can fire at enemies while retreating.  Your weapons also have maximum (and often minimum) effective ranges.  Selection of weapons for your mech depends upon what role you wish to fulfill, and in combat situations which weapon you use depends upon the range of engagement.  Finally, weapons generate heat, too much of which can cause damage to your mech or shut you down in the middle of a fight.  Heat management is a key to the game, both in terms of mech design and actual gameplay.

What all of the above translates to is the requirement that one think before doing in MWO.  Firing all of your weapons at once may do a lot of damage, but if it shuts you down— and you cannot move or fight back—then the damage will have been for nothing.  If you design a mech for long-range combat with no short-range solutions, you need to be aware of your surroundings and always keep away from the front lines.

I could, quite easily, go on for pages and pages about all the ways that MWO separates itself from the COD series and its clones.  But I will just repeat that MWO is a shooter for the thinking person.  Every action—in the mech lab or on the battlefield—has far reaching consequences.

Make no mistake, though, that the game is intense even if not as fast-paced as COD.  There is no lack of excitement, but rather it is just not as twitchy and reflexive as your typical FPS.

The Game is Free-to-Play—and it’s F2P Model Works

No, really.  You are actually required to pay nothing—as of right now—to enjoy every major benefit of the game.  This is a topic I am going to address in its own post, so the following information will have to do for today.

I have a lot of qualms about free-to-play games, mostly because I have a lot of issues with microtransactions.  If you didn’t read that article previously and you’re not going to click the link, I have two issues with real-money transactions in games:

  1. Often microtransactions are a means for companies to make quick money off people for content that should have been included in the first place or that is hardly worth the money
  2. The second use is to provide players with powerful in-game items without having to do any of the work to actually earn them.  In most games time is a kind of currency that can be exchanged for more powerful items.  There is a reason you don’t get the best weapon from the first moment of the game.  Real-money transactions allow people to skip this work and, in online games, can result in unfair advantages for players who are have the money to spare over those who do not.

So I was a bit hesitant to immediately buy into MWO (in the figurative sense), as I did not want to enjoy the game only to find out that I cannot buy the exact mech I want without dropping real money.

Image

This is the various subscription levels for Star Wars: The Old Republic in its new payment model. Left column is full payment, right column is free-to-play. You might see why I was a tad concerned to hear MWO was F2P.

Fortunately, my concerns were unfounded.  Real money purchases MechWarrior Credits (or MC) which can be used for the following services:

1. Premium time.  This basically earns you more money and experience from each match in which you compete.
2. New BattleMechs that you can use right away and begin customizing immediately.
3. Exchanging one type of XP for another, harder to earn type of XP
4. Mech camo specs, essentially visual customization of the interior as well as cockpit of your mech.

What this means is that given enough time you can purchase the mech you want, give it the loadout you want and play it as much as you want.  If you are determined not to support Piranha Games, then you will have to live without custom camo for your mech.  I think that is a fair trade.

As far as those who do drop money—sometimes lots of it—to get mechs within the game, I would tell you not to be too concerned.  In any game there will be people who are very far ahead of you in terms of progression and skill.  The thing is, none of what that person has (besides perhaps his camo spec) is not obtainable through in-game money.  So, given enough time, however, you can balance out with other players without dropping a dime into the game.

Seeing as there is inequality inherent to games anyway, I figure that PGI’s model for f2p not only works, but addresses quite well the inequality issues inherent to the f2p or microtransaction model.  It isn’t perfect, but there is incentive to play even if you never intend to spend money on it.

It Needs Your Help

MechWarrior Online is the retooled MW5 game, made into a multiplayer online game.  Currently MWO is in its open beta phase, with a planned release date of late summer this year.  Pirhana Games, the developer, decided to use a free-to-play model for the new MechWarrior game and make it multiplayer only.

Image

Uncle Atlas want’s YOU. He also doesn’t want to get scavenged for parts and end up in a box for twenty years. Do not anger him.

Gamers familiar with the model will probably recognize that moving a game to free-to-play status is often a last-ditch effort by the devs to bolster falling subscription rates.   Star Wars: The Old Republic moved toward a three-tier free-to-play model to, as BioWare put it, “expose [the] game to the widest audience possible, so [they are] allowing everyone to download the game for no charge, then play the level 1-to-50 game without having to purchase anything.”  That is corporate buzzword for “our subscription numbers were falling and we figure if people play they’ll get hooked”.

Needless to say, starting off as free-to-play is a bit risky.  We live in an age where people can hardly be bothered to pay for the movies they watch or the music to which they listen.  Offering a fully-functional game for free and hoping that people will be willing to drop real money on bonus features is hoping for the best from an audience—i.e. the internet—that has shown nothing but disdain for the very corporations upon which they depend for entertainment.

That’s the risk: games cost a lot of money to develop and so Piranha and Infinite are putting down a lot of money for something that isn’t guaranteed to return that investment. There are discussions about certain future elements of the game requiring real money investment from players, but for the most part discussion is centered on the game still being fundamentally free.

That’s where you come in.  The more people who play the game, the more people there are that will enjoy it.  The more people that enjoy it the more people there are to feel the desire to pay for elements of the game to provide Piranha/Infinite with some money.  (While I currently can’t afford it, I will definitely support Piranha/Infinite in the future in this manner.)

The best part, though, is that the game really is absolutely free.  Like I said above, it is possible to play and enjoy the game without spending a dime.  You can pick it up, play it and—if you’re unimpressed—just uninstall it.  If you like it, you can still play without paying or you can choose to support the developers.  Regardless what option you choose, there is no risk to you. If it sounds like the kind of game you’d enjoy the least you can do is support the developers by giving it a shot and seeing where it takes you.

It’s Giant Walking Death Robots

Image

Except the ones in MWO have numerous weapons. Many, many weapons.

MechWarrior online is, really, just Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots for adults.

Do I really need to say anything more than that to get you interested?

It May Be the End for MechWarrior

As I stated above, PGI is working on MWO instead of MW5.  There was not enough interest in the game—especially without a PS3 version—and so PGI went this route.  It is a huge risk for them, but also for the fans of the BattleTech Universe.

From the release of MechWarrior 2 until the release of MW4: Mercenaries in 2001, the MechWarrior series was at least alive, if not moving in fits and starts.

Should MWO fail it may well mean no more MechWarrior games for a long time.  It took 9 years for MWO to come out after MW4.  In the meantime we saw some BattleTech video games, namely the MechAssault series.  But these games were not MechWarrior.  They played from a third person perspective and had none of the strategy required in previous MechWarrior installments.  These games are more in line with today’s FPS or games like Gears of War than with anything BattleTech.

Should MWO fail, it shows all the developers and publishers that gamers are only interested in clones of Gears of War, COD and Battlefield.

I am sick of those being the only games that anybody makes anymore, and I hope you are too.  They are insulting in so many ways (see my article about them, linked above) but most of all we need variety.  Even those who love COD/Battlefield no doubt need a break from those games from time-to-time.  MWO can be that break, and in doing so you help make sure that we continue to see quality MechWarrior titles in the future.

I have lived far too long without being able to build my own mech and unleash destruction on all who oppose me.  MWO has brought that dream back to me, and so I hope you’ll help keep MWO alive to keep the dream alive.

Yeah, I said it.

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What Kills More Unborn Babies: God or Abortions?

October 23, 2012 3 comments

A Disclaimer

This is one of my longer posts.  I’m hoping to bring things back to about 1/3 the length and to lighter subjects in the near future.  But because I don’t post often, consider this to be a few posts worth in one update.

Today I’m going to, as the title says, look at who kills more babies: God or Planned Parenthood/abortions.  I am then going to look at the implications of that information.

Normally I write more traditional, attention-getting introductions.  I like to start with a story that makes this personal and then segue into my topic. Today I’m not doing that.

Sometimes I start with a disclaimer of sorts, and I will do that.

Read the entire post.  I don’t care how it makes you feel.  If you clicked on the link you were interested enough in what I had to say, so read it all.

When I get comments from people telling me that I missed the point I’ll know that they probably didn’t read the whole post.

You’ve been warned.

The Assumptions

Before I begin the showdown, as it were, I’m going to define my terms.

I…I think that counts.

First, so that nobody can accuse me of too much bias, I’m going to define things as follows: life begins at the moment of fertilization, regardless of implantation upon the uterine walls.  Scientifically and medically, implantation is the key moment at which pregnancy starts.  I am using fertilization because it is the most conservative (in all senses of the word) way of defining the issue of “life” and pregnancy.

Second, I will be explaining a lot as I go along, but in strict terms, abortion refers only to human intervention affecting implantation and/or termination of the pregnancy afterwards.  In other words, I am again being conservative and assuming that emergency contraceptives such as Plan B actually end a life, rather than prevent a pregnancy.

Finally, I am taking the strictly and vehemently pro-life stance that any abortion, regardless of the reasons for it, is wrong.  Thus, many of the numbers I will quote will be abortions conducted for the health of the mother or in cases of rape or incest.  However, reasons are irrelevant here, on both sides.

If those of you who are pro-life are sitting there cheering at how this isn’t even a contest because of the way I’ve defined things, hold on to your hats.  Shit is about to get very real for you.

It’s nothing, if not tasteful. Please see my cover letter if you’d like to hire me to do graphic design work for you.

The Throwdown: Planned Parenthood and General Abortions

To start, Planned Parenthood estimates their total abortions per year to be roughly 300,000.

Based upon research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, it is estimated that the total abortions per year actually numbers at about 1.3 million.

For those keeping tally at home:

Planned Parenthood – 300,000 (23% of total abortions)
Total Abortions – 1.3 million

The Throwdown: God’s Numbers

This, my friends, is where things get complicated.  Those staunchly pro-life and religious that, somehow, are reading this, will probably say there is no way God actually has any numbers to count.  But based upon the strict definitions that the most conservative pro-life standpoints argue (and that I noted above), this is untrue.

God loving the fetus, or lamenting it before it becomes another statistic?

With that said, these numbers were harder to count.  I could easily spin the statistics in favor of abortions by any method, but I figured I’d give a few ways that those numbers work out so as to avoid anybody saying I totally ignored some fact.

So I will start with a first set of numbers, based solely upon “natural” terminations of pregnancy including stillbirth, miscarriage and premature delivery resulting in death.

I included the latter because even with modern medical intervention, some premature babies don’t make it.  With that said, the pregnancy was technically “ended” early by natural means, so this one is on God’s head.  (I could, if I wanted to spin this more, include any premature birth, as prior to modern medicine this would have been a death sentence for the baby.  However, while I may be biased—see below—I do not want to be that blatant about it.)  This, to the best of my ability, only counts those that ended immediately in death.  That is to say, I did not includedeaths a year after the premature birth.

After this, I will include a second set of numbers will be all babies lost due to pregnancy complications.  This number is far wider and harder to keep track of, so I included both numbers because I figure it can provide a more even picture of how much baby death is on God’s hands.

Seeing as the general idea of this post is who kills more babies, it seems only fair to count infant death that results from complications of pregnancy against God.  You may argue otherwise, but if life begins at fertilization, anything related to pregnancy after that point has to necessarily be fair game.  You cannot arbitrarily cut off anything attributed to God after the baby leaves the uterus, as that would not credit him with the variety of problems that result from pregnancy.

One final note on God’s numbers: pregnancy loss can be categorized many ways.  While miscarriages and stillbirths are—it would seem—easily noted and reported, early pregnancy loss can occur well before a woman is aware she is pregnant.  As such, early pregnancy loss numbers are often difficult to compile and may be much higher than reported.  I have thus decided to include an additional section to account for those factors.

All of the following is based upon statistics pulled from these three sources and Wikipedia.

The Guttmacher Institute estimates that about 6.7 million pregnancies are reported in the US each year.  Two thirds are live births, a fifth are abortions and the rest are miscarriage.

This graph from Google, which errs on the conservative side of the numbers, still paints a bleak picture. It’s not looking good for the Big Guy.

Based upon the math that the Guttmacher Institute provides, these numbers are our results for the first category: 6.7 million pregnancies, 4.48 million live births, 1.34 million abortions, 880,000 miscarriages.  hopeXchange estimates about 26,000 stillbirths per year.  Additionally, the American Pregnancy Association estimates that 64,000 women per year lose pregnancies through ectopic pregnancy and 6,000 women through molar pregnancies.

For that second category, statistics indicate that 19,000 infants die in the first month and 39,000 in the first year.  This appears, to the best of my ability to narrow it down, to be limited to those caused by complications resulting from pregnancy in some way.

Finally, the numbers based upon early, underreported or unreported pregnancy loss.  hopeXchange estimates that up to 40% of all conceptions result in pregnancy loss (with many of the women being unaware of a pregnancy in the first place, and thus ending up being unreported).

Other estimates are far less forgiving.  One study found that 25% of all pregnancies abort by 6 weeks, while other studies place that as high as 50% of pregnancies.  In either case, these spontaneous abortions are not recognized by the woman because it occurred so early she was unaware of pregnancy in the first place.

So let’s look at those numbers and work backward to see what number are spontaneous abortions.  If one assumes that 6.7 million pregnancies occur each year and are known, and half of all pregnancies (from conception onward) result in spontaneous abortion, that means that—based upon the 50% estimate—6.7 million pregnancies are lost each year.  Even with the more conservative 25% number, we still end up with about 1.6 million pregnancies are lost before the woman is even aware she is pregnant.

Now let’s recap those numbers and total them for God:

First Set of Numbers:
Miscarriages: 880,000
Stillbirth: 26,000
Ectopic Pregnancy: 64,000
Molar Pregnancy: 6,000
Total pregnancy losses for group 1: 976,000

Second Set of Numbers
Infants lost in first month: 19,000
Infants lost in first year: 39,000
Total infants lost due to complications: 58,000
Total pregnancies lost, including infants: 1,034,000

Third Set of Numbers:
Infants lost in first month: 19,000
Infants lost in first year: 39,000
Total infants lost due to complications: 58,000
Pregnancies lost at 25% estimate: 1.6 million
Pregnancies lost at 50% estimate:  6.7 million
Total pregnancies lost at 25%: 2.6 million
Total pregnancies lost at 50%: 7.7 million

The Throwdown: Who Loses?

Let me be clear here: we are discussing pregnancies ending.  There is no winner.  There is only who does more damage.  That is something I’ll talk about shortly, though.  Let’s focus solely on numbers for now.

Based upon those numbers, I have reached the following conclusions.  I am presenting them in easy-to-digest list format:

  1. If one only does PP vs. God, God loses at 3x as many babies killed.
  2. If one figures total abortions vs. God, abortions lose. God kills 75% of the amount that we do by abortion.
  3. When one includes post-birth deaths, God kills 80% of the babies that people do through abortion.
  4. If you consider the last group of numbers, unreported pregnancies, god kills between two to six times as many babies as all people.  That’s 200-600%.

What’s the point?

Part of the “experimental” nature of this particular post was not equivocating at all in the introductory portion.  Normally, on a subject as particularly contentious as this, I might make the effort to ensure that my intentions are clear.

Also, I consider myself irreverent.  I’m bad at serious, even when I’m being serious.  But to me, this topic isn’t serious.  Neither God nor PP nor abortions, in my mind, kill babies.  So over-the-top and offensive as it may be to some, this post is more an exercise in dark humor, than anything.

But I didn’t want people to know whether I considered this actual ironclad logic or just a tongue-in-cheek showdown.  The answer is, really, a tiny bit of the former and a significant portion of the latter.

So then you might ask, what is the point?  Was I just trying to piss people off and get views? Clearly, yes.  But there also is a point buried in those statistics.

My point is that abortion is a ridiculously complex issue that cannot simply be boiled down to when life begins and how to avoid “taking” said life.  Rather, we must consider all aspects of the issue and ultimately, I would argue, leave the decision about abortion in the hands of women.

I could write an entire post about the intricacies and difficulties of this, but I believe that women should decide if abortion is right for them on their own, without the government interfering.  Especially because some women do not see the fetus as being a life, and some women do not believe in the religion that says—somewhere in the Bible, like it always does—how wrong it is.  This is not a decision for the state, but for the individuals involved.

But then, what do we do with the women who, unaware they were pregnant, accidentally caused a miscarriage through consumption of alcohol or punishing physical activity?  Do we try them all as murderers?  Do we ignore that?

But where this leads is neither here nor there.  I do not want to get bogged down in the intricacies of the debate, but rather only what my post might mean for it, if anything at all.

A Short Note on my Biases

There is no possible way this could be biased.

I am a firm believer in laying out my biases.  It is my belief that biases are the author’s most powerful tool.  When they are present but invisible, the audience runs the risk of being swayed in one direction.  When they are present but overly visible, it’s Fox News.

But when they are present, visible and acknowledged it means the author has to, in my mind, step outside of himself and accept that he is seeing things a certain way.  In doing so, the biases remain but, I feel, the power shifts to the reader, who can then decide if the information presented is still appropriate, even when examined in light of a known bias.

For that reason, I’ll openly state that I am not a fan of organized religion.  I am socially progressive, and I believe that abortion should be available to any who feel they need it.  (I’ll get more into that in a little bit.)  It is my belief that were religion to be robbed of its power in terms of this argument that the science and our own ethics would lead us to accept, rationally, that abortion must rightly be available to women as an option in order to maximize social good.

I do not, however, wish to undermine anybody’s belief in religion.  So while I speak harshly of God in the following passages, do not mistake my distaste for his presence in this issue with an attempt to dissuade you of religion.  Rather, I just feel that this is one place where religion needs to either step aside and let humans make the decision free of God, or find a way to cope with the social changes that are taking place.

Let me also be clear that when I sat down to see how these numbers added up I had no idea what it would look like.  Had it turned out the other way I would still have written a post, and it would look much different.  I don’t know that my convictions against religion’s place in this argument would be nearly as strong.  You do not have to believe me, but I am making it clear now that my intentions with this post are, really, the exploration of a new idea toward simply gathering knowledge.

God’s Plan

(Please note, I will capitalize “God” when I speak of the Christian deity, but I will not go to the effort of capitalizing pronouns because he is not my god, and I also just think it’s silly. Call me lazy, but it’s not happening.  It’s not a habit and I don’t care enough about it to take the time.)

I’m glad God things the universe is akin to playing sports.

Ultimately, what I have shown above is that as a result of natural or supernatural influence, more than 0 women per year lose pregnancies.  That is to say, either God or Allah or whatever deity, or nature, decides to terminate the pregnancy.

There is no conceivable rhyme or reason to the people upon whom this potentially devastating turn of events falls.  Sometimes women who were raped end up carrying children to term and sometimes women who want nothing more than a child of their own genes find out they cannot have one, and anytime they do it terminates.

Simply put, there is no outwardly rational decision-making process behind what pregnancies nature/God ends and what stays.  Because of that, many women suffer unnecessarily, either because of pregnancies that should never have happened or because of pregnancies that should have but never came to term.

To the pro-lifer who believes life begins at fertilization of the fetus, every single one of those pregnancies ended a life.  In this sense, the only difference between us doing it and nature doing it is the reason behind it.

For those not familiar with utilitarianism, a grossly boiled down version of it is that what is right is what does the most good for the most people.

Currently, we are not doing that.  Not in the slightest.  My super-boiled-down version of utilitarianism would, then, argue that we provide the option to provide the most happiness to the most people.  In other words, we can control who is forced to carry what child to term.  This means increased happiness (or a better chance at it, perhaps) in the life of the pregnant woman, as well as eliminating the chance of unhappiness on the part of the would-be child.

That may seem somewhat coldhearted, but ultimately we do not know that the child’s life would be all sunshine and giggles.  I cannot imagine the life of a child born of rape being without difficulties, even if he was living in an adopted family.

If all unwanted pregnancies ended in strange and depressing, yet oddly charming, musical numbers maybe we wouldn’t need abortions.

In other words, we have it in us to correct some of the failings of nature.  Pregnancy is indiscriminate and without intent.  It happens when it happens and doesn’t when it doesn’t and it terminates on its own when it does.  What abortion allows is an option for us to provide agency to these outcomes in an attempt to maximize happiness.  That is, of course, assuming there is no intent behind those actions.

Now, the only way that one could reconcile the problems I listed above is to assume that there is a grand design behind these decisions, but that said design is not visible to us.  In other words, that a rapist being pregnant and seeing a reminder of her violation in the face of a child makes sense, while the woman facing perpetual miscarriage is also part of some grand design.  We just can’t see it, but it is all part of some plan.

Since it is unlikely that nature likes to reward rapists—and is unfortunately just as unlikely that it likes to punish them—the only actor whose means and intent could be unknowable would be a deity.  Since America is largely (and in my view, unfortunately) composed of Christians, the presumed “actor” in this case is, well, God.

So this goes into God’s plan.  Because God has one, as most Christians will tell you, and when little kids die of diseases and murderers and rapists live long lives, it’s because he totally intends it that way. I, for one, am not content to assume—in light of all the evidence to the contrary—that God’s plan for us is ultimately benevolent. Consider, the next time we discuss reproductive rights, if God’s plan so far has made any sense.

Ultimately what my little argument above intended to lay out was that God is responsible for greater than 0 deaths every year—deaths that his believers tend to consider unborn children.  Deaths that the same believers consider ultimately sinful to end.  And yet, it is okay for God to do so in His plan, but not okay for us to do so to maximize social good.

Thank you, Philosoraptor, for summing up my post in a meme.

That is the crux of my argument.  That God is ensnared in the same moral quandary that pro-life believers will use to try to dissuade those advocating choice.  That is a life, it is wrong to end a life, and thus we should not end it.

But if God is benevolence, omnipotence and omniscience incarnate, then he could not engage in any act—by definition of those traits—that would be immoral.  He simply could not end those pregnancies if it were wrong.  Pro-life: 0, Pro-choice: 1.

But let’s say that, somehow, we still have a strawman of a pro-lifer that says that even then, killing those babies is wrong.  God knows it, God is still benevolent, but it is part of his plan an ultimately it leads to benevolence, even if the means to that end isn’t necessarily so.

To accept that premise we’d have to accept one of two things: first, that God either does not consider those fetuses as “alive” or that God is capable of immoral actions if the good from it is greater.  Which means that, if we were to live in his example—he is supposedly perfect—we should also be able to engage in actions that are immoral if the good is greater.  Pro-life: 0, Pro-choice: 2.

But let’s say another, different pro-lifer strawman decides to argue that God isn’t benevolent—he cannot be benevolent in order to truly enact his plan, as he must sometimes act immorally even when the ends are not positive in order to, further his plan.  In other words, sometimes God is an asshole.

If that is the case, why would we ever consider his example?  Why would we follow a deity that is ultimately capable of bad things without it leading to greater good?  Why would we, then, follow what he supposedly says about abortion, the argument religions that follow him make?

These are not proofs.  Nor do I believe that somebody couldn’t punch holes in them in the manner I wrote them (or even in a lengthier, more solid format).  But that is to say that these are things to consider, because we have a case where religion is telling us God doesn’t want us doing something and then he does it himself.

It is the classic case of do as I say, not as I do.  Which, let’s face it, is just shitty parenting.  Thanks, God.

Other Things to Take Away

Not that I’d be the first to point this out, but my big reason for giving women the ultimate say in the issue is because it is ultimately mostly their lives at stake.  The more observant out there would probably agree that a small portion of the abortion debate, no doubt, lies in the idea of men controlling women’s reproduction.

If Arnold Schwarzenegger is counted among that 77% then we have to change the percentage. Sup, Junior.

After all, it’s cool when men use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy, but as the argument over the Pill showed, it’s not cool when women do it.  (Admittedly, the Catholic Church is just backwards enough to have never really been in favor of either, really.  Even if they do sometimes change their mind when it is politically expedient to do so.)

Abortion is the ultimate one-up on men.

A man can rape a woman, he can ignore contraception and impregnate the woman.  All of these things are, ultimately, shows of the control.  But when the woman goes to end the pregnancy the rapist forced upon her, she is told that she is wrong.  That she must live with what he did.

Perhaps I’m being excessive, but it does not have to be in situations of rape.  Men can “forget” condoms and be cavalier all they want, and the women must suffer the consequences.  Abortion is an equalizer.

This, too, could be discussed in lengthier posts.  It could also and has also, no doubt, been discussed by far greater minds than I.  But religion has never been noteworthy for being particularly socially progressive, so why would it be any different in the case of pregnancy?  Women should get pregnant when men decide it is okay, and they shouldn’t have a way out, right?

Finally, The End

One of the key parts of my statement is that there should be no real restrictions on abortion, not in the sense of it only being available to rape or incest victims.  That is a politically expedient way for rich, old white men to say that they hate women controlling their bodies but accept that men do stupid shit and they can’t pretend they don’t.

In other words, it’s a cop out.  The act of abortion is no more or less wrong in those cases, really.  The same action takes place, and while the motivation changes that does not mean that the woman who wants an abortion but wasn’t raped doesn’t feel it is any less necessary.  I don’t think any of us could really say.

Recently unearthed science.

But also, when you start adding in restrictions you allow the system to become more restrictive.  Who’s to say that suddenly rich old white men in congress decide that some rapes aren’t legitimate.  What if incest only counts when it’s a parent, not a cousin.  What if harm to the mother only means if there is an absolute medical certainty that the mother would die, and if there is any chance she wouldn’t abortion is off the table?

In my mind, it is far easier to accept abortion as an all-or-nothing.

The problem is that we often hear slippery slope arguments about abortion as a contraceptive.  And you know what, a world where women get abortions instead of using the pill scares me.

Of course with any system we must always run the risk that said system will be abused.  But in my mind if a single woman every year is spared the mental torture of, say, carrying the child of her rapist to term, keeping abortion legal is worth it.  It an expected product that some person will abuse a system in place for good and assistance, but we cannot assume that system is now worthless because of that.  For as long as that system helps a single person, it is doing its job. (I’m looking at you, republicans looking at welfare with greedy eyes and malicious intent.)

In a perfect world, every pregnancy would come to term and there would be no rape, incest or danger to the mother. Ina perfect world a woman could only become pregnant when she really, really wanted it, not just any time one of the guys happened to sneak in past the guards and crash the ball.

But the world is not perfect.  According to the numbers above, neither is God.

I guess my intent is to ask why we cannot, for just this one issue, ignore what the Bible and religions say and discuss this in terms of what it means to women?  Why must abortion be about a grand message in morality?  Why must it, really, all just be about religion grandstanding?

Random Googled pro-life girl is pro-life until she gets knocked up and her parents want to hide it so their friends don’t find out. Or she just won’t get any, making abortion a moot point. Pick one.  Also, is she foaming at the mouth?  Because I could swear she is.

Why must men be so threatened by the idea of women having control over their bodies, something that, really, we have denied them for almost all of human civilization?  Why must men be such a dominant voice in the debate?  Why can’t we simply defer to the women, graciously saying
“you know, it’s kind of all about them” as we do so?

Why can’t the debate over abortion be about what it has always been and should always be about: women making decisions about their health and reproductive rights?

So if I have to call God a mass-murderer—one with death tolls yearly that rival Hitler’s, and that’s only counting unborn children—I’ll do it, even if it’s polarizing, glib and ultimately pointless.  I’ll do it if it stands event the remotest chance of turning this debate back to the women about whom it should be.  I’ll do it even if it changes only one person’s mind.

I’ll do it even if I’m just yet another man talking about something that he, really, probably shouldn’t be talking about in the first place.

As an aside, I rarely ask for comments but I am interested in what women have to say about this.  That is, about the removal of religion, men and morality from the issue and discussing it solely in terms of women’s health.  Am I just talking out of my ass, or do women actually want it to be centered upon the issues of health, rather than what evil jezebels they are?

Natural Doesn’t Mean Safe, Unnatural Doesn’t Mean Dangerous: The Problem With Growing Trends in Alternative Medicine

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

1.

A few days ago I was visiting a friend of mine.  She was putting her kids to bed, and I knew that if I wanted to actually get time with her that night I would have to help.  With that in mind I volunteered to assist with them brushing their teeth.

Before starting I asked if the two kids—ages 4 and 6—were able to do it themselves or if they needed help.  Both of them proudly told me they could do it themselves, so I left them to their tasks and merely stood back, supervising.  The older of the two—Andy—had no problem.  My heart raced however when I noticed that Amy—the younger—had swallowed a mouthful of toothpaste.

I began searching around to see what she had used and saw only Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, nothing meant for children.  I asked her which she used and she pointed to that tube.

Tom's of Maine

Tom’s of Maine Toothpaste: another way to spend more money to show people how awesome you are.

Keep in mind that I knew that a small amount of toothpaste probably wouldn’t kill anybody, even a young child like her.  Nonetheless, I couldn’t know that for sure and figured I had to let their mom know.  I ran out into the living room where my friend waited—sliding into the room as frazzled as Kramer—and told her what happened.  For all of my worry, I was astounded at the answer I received:

“She can swallow that stuff.  It’s all natural so it’s okay if she swallows it.”

The next statement to come out of my mouth came as a matter of reflex, not forethought.  I told my friend, and I quote, “I don’t think that means what you think it means.”

I began an explanation about the fact that many of the ingredients in normal, not-natural toothpaste were technically natural and probably also in this toothpaste.  Nonetheless, I kept being met with ardent denial that any harm would come to Amy, always because the toothpaste was natural.

Exasperated, I realized I was probably overreacting anyway.  (It was a small amount, after all.)  But I still couldn’t help but think about her statement.  Throughout the night I curiously asked her about the issue, soon beginning to discuss medicine in general.

What I found was that my friend—in matters of her own and her children’s health—was completely mistrustful of the medical discipline and ardently refused to take herself or give to her children any medicines that weren’t natural as anything but a matter of last resort.

I tend to have a problem keeping my opinion to myself, which meant that this discussion soon led into a debate of sorts.  I kept hearing arguments from her about how little she trusted doctors because, after all, they are know-it-alls who are wrong more often than not, who overprescribe medicine and, above all, are just another cog in the machinery that is “Big Pharmaceutical”.  The doctors we once trusted were now the enemy.

Perhaps I’ve kept myself in the dark on this to avoid facing the truth, but attitudes like those of my friend are more widespread than ever.  I can’t help but feel that a decade or two ago my friend would be looked at as nothing more than a conspiracy nut, an outlier.

Which led me to wonder, then, why thinks took such a sharp turn.  Why is it that doctors and medicine are taking a back seat to alternative treatments?  The kind of mind-body and herbal treatments that once laid on the fringe of medicine now find proponents in seemingly reputable places.  What is it that drives people away from medicine and into the arms of the alternative?

2.

Pictured: stress relief, the cure for cancer and how to prevent heart disease.

Perhaps I should first define my position on this topic and, more so, the reasons for that position.

I find myself of the mindset that doctors have trained themselves and honed their skills and that, for that reason, they are reputable sources of information.  Is every doctor going to be totally trustworthy? No. That is why there exist ethical review boards and second opinions.  But are some untrustworthy or incompetent doctors a reason to turn away from medicine?  I, personally, think that is a rash and potentially dangerous decision.  Let me be clear: if there isn’t a damn good, peer reviewed study that supports the claims of this treatment I don’t think people should be using it.

If people were seeking alternative treatments for only minor ailments and in conjunction with “traditional” medical treatment, I think that I would not be so opposed to this.  However, somehow people have gotten it into their heads that traditional medicine is less effective than these alternative treatments. Yet, every year Americans spend $27 billion on alternative treatments, especially herbal remedies.

Unfortunately, the FDA does little to regulate these alternative treatments and independent labs often come up with results that are inconclusive or show that alternative treatments are ineffective.  The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine continuously says that these treatments are effective, yet the contrary seems to be empirically true.  If they are ineffective, you’d hardly know it from the 48% of American adults who sought alternative treatments at least once in 2004.

3.

I should be clear about the reasons people seek alternative treatments.  The ones I’m focusing on are herbal remedies and certain holistic, mind-body methods as well as integrative medicine (mixing these bullshit procedures with traditional medicine.

Though I cited that kind of example at the start of this post, cases like that are actually the minority of people who eschew traditional medicine because of bad experience or mistrust. At least, that’s what “research” by the NCCAM and other entities suggest.  Instead, they say, people just find that alternative treatment methods fall more in line with their belief systems.

All doctors look like this to the proponents of alternative treatments.

Understandably, though, some people also wish to avoid the unpleasant and potentially life-threatening side-effects of traditional medicine.  What good does it do, the thinking goes, to fix one illness at the risk of other side-effects?

I would argue that despite the NCCAM claiming otherwise, mistrust Americans feel for doctors plays a significant role in seeking alternative medicines.  Doctors, like all people, are people.  (I know, you wouldn’t have thought that, right?)  Unfortunately, these people have our lives in their hands.  It’s no surprise, then, when some people don’t like it when doctors make mistakes, something that—being people and all—they are wont to do.

In the NY Times article I linked above about mistrust toward doctors, one Ms. Newman—who has moved toward alternative treatments—says, “I don’t hate doctors or anything, [. . .] I just know they can make mistakes, and so often they refer you on to see another doctor, and another.”

I can understand Ms. Newman’s frustration with being referred in a circle.  But she said it herself, doctors make mistakes.  Wouldn’t you prefer that your doctor ensures his opinion is well-founded before he goes on with treatment?

In the case of Ms. Newman—and the many others like her—it seems doctors can’t win.  If they make a mistake they will have undermined the fundamental trust they require from patients and thus drive her toward alternative treatments because, you know, how dare they make mistakes.  But when they refer her for second opinions to help ensure her safety, she is equally pushed toward alternative treatments.

Recently I was watching an episode of Warehouse 13 involving a woman who worked for a drug company.  When she was asked why she didn’t follow in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor, she responded with the entirely convincing: “Have you ever noticed that doctors seem to know everything already?”

Or like this. Just look at how self-satisfied she is. She probably gave her expensive sports car a name and lights cigars with your money.

To many, that would seem to be incredibly arrogant.  To me it just means he is a good doctor.  This is the man who diagnosed my appendicitis—before any diagnostic testing—by just looking at me.  Was it a hard diagnosis? Probably not.  Is it a good thing that my doctor can accurately diagnose me that quickly?  Yes, because any delays or wrong diagnosis could have cost me my life.  (My appendix was, after all, just shy of bursting.)

There is a concept called “systemic arrogance” within medicine, the idea that highly impersonal healthcare systems—such as our own—force doctors into seeing patients as objects, rather than people.  They are a mechanic and you are the vehicle.

To the doctor, treatment needs to happen quickly and efficiently, else that is wasted money and potentially loss of a job.  There are more patients than doctors by a large margin, and there is only so much time to see each one.

To the patient, the doctor comes off as a know-it-all who disregards the patient in favor of his own expertise.

I understand all of these things, but there are some reasons I regarded my doctor’s ability to diagnose me and finish the office visit in about five minutes with a sort of reverence, rather than considering him arrogant.  The first of those is that, despite his need to be efficient, I have been a part of his practice for a long time and he knows me well.  He has put his time in over years, five-to-ten minutes at a time.  Not all doctors have this luxury, though.

But the other thing I wish I could explain to people is that doctors have a ridiculous amount of education and, in most cases, actual experience.  He has a title in front of his name—doctor—that implies a certain level of expertise in medicine.  We, as patients, do not have that.

So while we may not like the doctor’s diagnosis, that doesn’t mean that we suddenly have the expertise to question it.  Doctors are there to treat us, not coddle us.  Just because your symptoms came up as cancer on webMD doesn’t mean that it’s not a far simpler disease.

So of course, what that also means is that when it comes to matters of health, that doctor is a much better source of information than you about anything medical.  When we feel condescended to it is unfortunate—and a sign, perhaps, that the doctor’s bedside manner could use some improvement—but it seems like the knee-jerk reaction lately is to ignore the knowledge behind that arrogance or, even worse, to avoid doctors.

I know it’s hard for people to accept, but doctors far outstrip the general population in that sense and the sooner we accept this fact the sooner we can improve our health.

4.

I can think of no person more representative of this shift toward alternative treatments than Dr. Oz.

He’s on TV! He must be more trustworthy than any other doctor. Television never lies to us!

As a general rule, many doctors don’t like him.) Why? Because Dr. Oz is a medical professional willing to step outside of the mainstream to push alternative methods to wellness that other doctors won’t.  This is important, so keep it in mind.

I believe I’ve discussed before the idea of the insider connection.  People, in my experience, seem more inclined to believe information when it is attached to someone within said establishment, regardless of actual expertise.  It makes some sense.  If you’re going to take advice on how to get the best deals at Wal-Mart, it makes sense to talk to a Wal-Mart employee.  Similarly, if you want medical answers you’re going to get them from a doctor, not the homeless guy on the corner.

Dr. Oz is not only an insider, but an insider that has a great personality and couchside manner (I call it that for hopefully obvious reasons) on his show.  So we are already more likely to trust him more than other doctors, and this is even more exaggerated when he tells us what we want to hear, like when he tells us something that disagrees with the rest of the medical profession.

When doctors agree that X is a good treatment for Y, some people resist it because they have an inherent mistrust for doctors.  But people love it when Dr. Oz comes along and says W is a great treatment for Y.  People eat that shit up.

When Dr. Oz says that stinging yourself with bees (to use the enzymes in the venom to do scientific shit) on purpose works to help arthritis, among other illnesses, we eat that shit up.  Never mind that there is literally not a single shred of peer-reviewed evidence that apitherapy does anything at all, because Dr. Oz says it works.  Never mind that it would typically be administered by an acupuncturist—someone whose main practice depends upon energy gates in our body being opened by needles (to be glib)—it must be safe and effective.

This is only one example, but how much nicer must it be to hear that there is a non-medicinal treatment for your arthritis?

Of course apitherapy is on the crazy end of the spectrum, really.  Most people wouldn’t want to be stung by bees, and definitely wouldn’t find it invigorating.  But people do rely on herbal treatments.

5.

Perhaps its unfair of me to focus so much of my effort on attacking alternative treatments and the proponents of those treatments while saying little of traditional doctors and medicines.

I can completely understand people’s reticence toward becoming overly reliant upon either traditional doctors or traditional medicine.  After all, seeing doctors as arrogant and not trusting them is one thing, but most people would say there is a reason for said lack of trust.  Often those people will point to traditional medicines.

After all, just listen to the last ten seconds of any medicine advertisement.  Listen to the side effects.  Terrifyingly, death is sometimes included among those side effects.

Is it really so shocking that people would want natural treatments?  These lab-born medicines may seem to do more harm than good.

Of course, I should not have to do much to defend these medicines, but I may as well do it anyway.

For one, many of us seem to see drug companies as big, heartless corporations intent upon making money on our illnesses.  We think of companies withholding cures, rushing medicines to market without regard for patient health and, most commonly, charging exorbitant prices for the medicines we so often need.

I could write many posts just about the process behind creating a drug.  Needless to say, the majority of costs from medicines come not from researching it, but from performing the studies required to get FDA approval.  Once the drug hits the markets—and if the company has a patent—they will charge an amount that helps them recoup some of the losses.  If they didn’t do this they would be out of business and we wouldn’t have any medicines to blame for society’s ills in the first place.

6.

But let’s go back to the all-natural piece.  Think of my friend’s daughter, Amy, eating her toothpaste.  It’s all natural, so it must be safe.  Right?

Clearly if these doctors say it’s safe, it must be!

While people have no illusions about the general dangers of taking any traditional medicine—because there are always some, even if the dangers are merely minor side-effects—they seem to shut off that part of their brains when it comes to herbal or natural remedies.

What people don’t seem to realize is that just about any combination of herbs can make its way to your store shelf, regardless of safety.

Medicines undergo years of testing to find out if they’re safe and what side effects are common.  In the cases where you hear “death” as a side effect, the FDA and drug company must determine the cause of such incidents.  Sometimes they are related to something like a drug interaction or are so isolated as to be statistically insignificant, other times the severe side effects are more common and, as a result, the drug must go back to the drawing board.

No such process exists for herbal remedies.  If you go to your vitamin section of your local store, you’ll see shelf after shelf of supposedly natural remedies.  The thing is, the company can take any plant or other natural substance, claim it does something and sell it to you without the FDA ever testing those claims.

Any company can put out a natural supplement and claim it helps something.  All they need is some supporting evidence, but it does not need to be independently verified.

It should be no surprise that there are unscrupulous doctors and researchers out there—as there are in any field—that will author a study with a certain result in mind.  These studies can then be used to support the claim on the bottle, so long as it has the familiar disclaimer that the FDA has not evaluated those claims.

Enzyte: because fancy cars don’t help once you get to the bedroom.

We often ignore that disclaimer, but it is important.  Consider, for example, Enzyte.  This pill is a remedy that claims male enhancement.  You’ll always see fine print on the bottles and the commercials stating that those claims ahven’t been evaluated by the FDA.  While some people ignore that and fall for it, the rest of us laugh because how would some stuff actually make a dude’s unit bigger.

Does it make sense that we dismiss those claims and yet equally believe that somehow a combination of herbs will actually reduce stress, help prevent heart disease or any number of other benefits?  In either case, though, people will often say that it can’t hurt, because it’s just natural remedies.

Though, that’s not really true.

Once the item is on the shelves, the FDA need only ensure that no safety issues arise from the supplement.  Only if someone reports an adverse reaction or illness is there a chance that said supplement is either removed from the shelf or the company sanctioned.

Next time you wander down that vitamin aisle, keep an eye on all the bottles.  Each one will say what it supposedly helps.  Typically those claims are beyond unclear, stating that they lead to the health of some organ, rather than claiming to reduce the chance of some disease or disorder.

You might see a supplement that claims to support “heart health”.   Planters has a line of nuts that come in various mixes that support heart, digestive and other organ health.  Some claims are even more nebulous, such as a “stress formula” that is claimed to reduce stress levels. There is little to no evidence that any of these claims are true, but there is no need for the companies to do anything other than furnish a single study that supports their claim.

Were the only concerns about herbal supplements the misleading nature of the packaging, I perhaps wouldn’t be writing this post.

In fact, vitamins and supplements can be just as dangerous as prescription drugs.  Even Dr. Oz admits that too much can be dangerous.

This is monkshood. It will kill you dead and never feel bad about it. It also happens to be natural. Therefore, it must also be safe.

The problem is that the FDA is also not really monitoring the amounts within supplements terribly closely.  While companies are expected to attempt to keep contaminants (such as other ingredients) out of and the right ingredients in the right doses in their supplements, there is still gross inconsistency with some supplements.  Often, the amount you think you’re taking and the amount you get are not the same.

One supplement that was recently recalled contained belladonna, an incredibly toxic plant.  In large doses belladonna can be lethal, and in smaller doses symptoms include tachycardia, blurred vision, rash, hallucinations, delirium and about ten other nasty-sounding health issues.

Just imagine if carelessness on the part of the company resulted in large doses making it into some batches. The problem is, that’s not too uncommon.

Beyond all of this, herbal supplements and vitamins, as with any drug, can interact with OTC and prescription drugs in potentially fatal ways.  Additionally, in the same vein as “too much of a good thing”, some of the supplements can be absolutely dangerous in large doses.

So does natural mean safe?  Absolutely not.

7.

As I’ve pointed out, I totally understand why people are tempted to shy away from traditional medicine—at least to an extent.  The reasons I pointed out above certainly are big ones, but there is a deeper reason that I didn’t touch on.

Ultimately, I think that the move toward traditional medicine comes because it is easy and it makes us feel good.  The general idea that people like Dr. Oz espouse is that if we love our bodies hard enough, if we eat healthy enough, take the right herbal supplements and buy the self-help book that Dr. Oz is pushing that week, we can be healthy enough to never need a doctor or traditional medicine again.

On one level, this provides us with control. We love control.  The idea of putting our lives in someone else’s hands is terrifying.  If we can avoid it, why wouldn’t we.

Sure he may have just ripped you off and convinced you that you needed $1000 in repairs you actually didn’t. But the joke is on him, because he’s just a working class schlub. He’s one of Romney’s 47%.

But I think there is an even deeper component to it than that.

It’s one thing when your car breaks down and you have to take it to a mechanic for a fix.  He may spew some words you don’t understand and leave you with a hefty bill, but at the end of the day his position in society is low enough that any arrogance we might see in him is undermined by the fact that society looks down on mechanics.  And not just because they’re blue-collar workers, but also because they are frequently stereotyped as trying to take advantage of customers.

Doctors, on the other hand, seem to stand above us both intellectually and socially.  We see doctors driving nice cars and then we go to their offices to be looked down on.  It is something wholly unsettling for the average person.

In the same way that looking down at the mechanic’s social standing is a way to retain control in that situation, moving toward alternative treatments is the means by which people can knock doctors down a peg.  If all it takes to get rid of your illness is a few herbs, a book Dr. Oz is shilling and some happy thoughts then it is well worth it.  Why?  Because that cure is common sense, and that takes the power away from the doctors and places it back in our hands.  Now doctors are just people with fancy degrees who rely on unnatural drugs to do the same job that herbs can do.  We have undermined them by making their field useless, and in the process made ourselves feel better.

Is this how every person thinks of the situation?  Probably not.  In those for whom this is true, is this a conscious thought process?  Probably not.  But it gets the job done.

Perhaps the best of all of this, though, is that alternative treatments are easy.  To treat your illness traditionally you have to make doctor visits, go to the pharmacy, take medicines and basically spend a lot of time and effort.

Conversely, if you eat right, think happy thoughts and take a few herbal supplements you can avoid all illness and in the end it’s even easier to do than going to the doctor.

8.

The market for alternative treatments is probably not going anywhere anytime soon.  As an industry it is seeing extreme growth across the globe.  People are increasingly wary of traditional medicine and traditional doctors, and until that is fixed people will flock toward alternative medicines.

I typically like to make things personal on my blog.  While I’ve certainly made clear my feelings, I have to say that this is something I have recently become passionate about.  The idea that natural means safe has recently become a part of American culture and it leaves a very sour taste in my mouth, all because it isn’t just my one friend that thinks this, it’s a great deal of Americans.

A lot of people seem to think that natural means something it doesn’t, and they think that wellness is something to be achieved through happy thoughts and watching a doctor on television.

I can’t see that being a good thing in the long term.

What Conspiracy Theorists and Tea Partiers Have in Common

August 25, 2012 Leave a comment

I suppose it was only a matter of time before I gave in to the pressure and blogged about something political.

But before I start, let me first discuss my political beliefs, albeit briefly.  I think I can sum them up in one word: apathetic.  I certainly do my part and vote when the time comes, but I have grown utterly weary of dealing with all things political.  I’ll talk about this in a bit more detail shortly.

Anyway, back to my point.

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago.  My parents are split down the middle politically—my mother is apolitical and doesn’t vote, my father is a card-carrying member of the “Bill O’Reilly” fan club.  It is slightly surprising, then, that I’ve been staunchly liberal for as long as my brain could understand that concept.

Perhaps Bill should become a Juggalo. MAGNETS.

(One note, I do not really identify with the Democratic Party, nor the greater “liberal movement”.  I am liberal, but I do not consider myself a liberal.  At least, not in the sense of the word that ties me to a group of people with supposedly similar ideologies.  While that may seem a minor semantic difference, I do not derive my views from a party, but rather on my own and they just happen to be described well by the word liberal.)

But while I do my best to respect all peoples’ political beliefs, sometimes it becomes hard.  For example, I think George W. Bush was a horribly misguided President, but have never thought at any time that he wasn’t doing anything that he didn’t think was in our country’s best interest.

This, apparently, separates me from certain people within the political arena.  In the past I think most people viewed political affiliations besides their own as perhaps misguided, but still doing what they think is best.  Lately the rhetoric seems to indicate that there are a number of people who think that some politicians literally want to destroy our nation.  (The rhetoric surrounding Obama is a no holds barred example of this.  Detractors often assume Obama wants to destroy all things American.)

But I digress.  Recently I saw a sign for the “Northern Illinois Patriots”.  I have this unintentional reaction to the use of the word patriot—specifically that of revulsion—because often one only hears it as a means to define anybody who disagrees with them as unpatriotic.

So out of curiosity I looked up this organization.  Turns out that they are affiliated with the Tea Party.  Big surprise.  That’s what led me to this article.

Why I’m Apathetic, Just So We’re Clear

Before I go any further, I feel I should define my political standing so there is no misunderstanding about where I am coming from.  This post, as with everything I do related to politics, has an agenda.

As a teenager I found myself profoundly interested in becoming politically active and making my voice heard.  Perhaps it was the delusion that all teenagers hold—that I had an opinion that had to be heard—or perhaps the realities of college numbed me to that idea, but I no longer care so much about that.

I am liberal.  I am probably as socially liberal as they come, and I think that anything abridging anybody’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is wholly wrong.  That means I am, in fact, pro-choice and think it is despicable that there is even a debate as to whether or not homosexuals can marry.

Moses on the Supreme Court. His depiction is not religious, but rather of him as a lawgiver. An example of religion in government, but not defining government.

I think that religion has no place in how we govern, but I think that it is welcome in the government.  That is, I have no problem with people who wish to be sworn in on the Bible, nor do I oppose “In God We Trust” as a national motto.  What I do oppose is using religion as the basis for legislation, as in the case of every argument that has ever stood against gay marriage.

The 24-hour news cycle, the internet, the rise of blogging and numerous other factors have made it so every person can have his voice heard.  In general, this ends up creating a cacophony of voices, none of which are saying anything but all of whom refuse to stop speaking.  Pundits like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly cater to a subset of viewers who only wish to have their views confirmed.

(In case you’re wondering why I’m adding to this, I would respond that I feel I have something slightly different to say than most, otherwise I would just shut up and let other people do the work for me.)

If you’re Republican you watch FOX News.  If you’re liberal you watch CNN and bitch about it.  If you’re part of the Tea Party, you believe even FOX News is part of the “liberal media” and find your information in various e-mail forwards, rumors and blogs across the internet.  There is this neat little thing called the confirmation bias, a cognitive bias through which people filter out information that does not fit their hypothesis.

Each media source spews the kind of vitriol that would previously be unheard of, accusing the “others” of being the ones who are deluding themselves.  Liberals think they have no bias—CNN is totally balanced—but FOX News spins everything.  On the other hand, the extremely conservative are convinced that anybody who doesn’t agree with them is part of some diabolical “liberal media” out to destroy the American family.

The truth actually lies somewhere in the middle. Nobody wants to seem to admit this, but if we could then maybe we could actually start a dialogue.

That depends on what the definition of “diddle” is.

Beyond all of this, the person behind the policy has become such an obsession within the political arena that our politicians are subject to the same invasions of privacy that every celebrity faces with the paparazzi.  Is it any of my business if a politician decided to diddle a staffer?

Not really. Not as long as he hasn’t impacted his ability to hold the office and/or abused the powers of the office in doing so.  Yet we call for the modern day equivalents of putting politicians in stocks when they should happen to be less than the paragons of moral virtue that, for some reason, we want them to be.

In the “good old days” of politics (if there is any such thing), you got set news from set sources, so you could not just tune in to a channel that confirms what you want to hear.  Now we have that, and it should be no surprise that the partisan gap in the United States has become almost completely polarized.

If you haven’t gathered by now why I consider myself politically apathetic, you probably do not have a career in detective work.  That is to say, I cannot stand any of the above, and in the end I think it gets in the way of policy-making.  At a time when our candidates are too busy insulting each other to actually tell us what they’ll do for the country, I find it safe to say that we have hit perhaps the lowest possible point in the history of American politics.

Besides telling you about me so that you can make up your mind about what my agenda actually is, I think that everything I just said has a fair amount of relevance in this post.

About Conspiracy Theories and Otherness

It may seem strange to lump conspiracy theories in on this, unless you are prescient enough to know where I am planning to go with it.

We probably all know someone who thinks there was a second shooter that took out JFK, or who insists that the Moon landing never happened, or perhaps even someone deluded enough to believe that 9/11 was an inside job.

If you’ve ever dealt with a conspiracy theorist but weren’t, before this post anyway, aware of the confirmation bias, I would imagine that just this sentence can link those two concepts so inextricably together for you that you will never view their behavior in the same light again.

Go ahead and add “and Tea Partiers” to that caption. Plus, I think that “racist” and “are Jesse Ventura” are being underrepresented in this totally reliable pie chart.

What I’m saying is, conspiracy theorists only hear what they want to hear.  Anybody who disagrees is either in on the conspiracy or is part of some group of “others”, those who just haven’t opened their eyes to the truth yet.

Given that trifurcation of the world in the eyes of the conspiracy theorist, one might wonder why they are always so vocal about it.  After all, you’re either in on the conspiracy, you know the secret, or you are just oblivious.  Why bother telling the world about it, especially when the odds are you won’t convince anybody?

The simple-to-the-point-of-glib answer is to feel special or unique and, quite possibly, to give order to things.

Imagine how difficult a time some would have if our world truly were just completely random.  Events like 9/11 have no greater meaning or purpose, but are just random acts perpetrated by evil men.  There is, really, a sense of comfort in knowing that there is a reason or cause behind it.

More than that, there is something that people like about knowing secret information, we like when we are somehow “smarter” or more in-the-know than the masses.  We absolutely love being in that position that seats you with power, while everyone else is just outside of it.  We are the special ones, everyone else is the “others”.

Furthermore, by sharing their knowledge the conspiracy theorists are both bringing people into the fold as well as ensuring that there is an otherness to people who do not accept their ideas.  If the conspiracy theorist held his beliefs quietly, he would not be in defiance of any evil cabal organizing the events, nor would anybody know that he is not an “other”, but special in his knowledge.

The Northern Illinois Patriots and Otherness

What spurred this post is looking at the website of the Northern Illinois Patriots (NIP from here on out).  They are affiliated with the Tea Party, so it’s safe to say they share many core beliefs.  However, they may differ slightly in some aspects, so for that reason I’ll be referring mostly to NIP, with the occasional reference to the Tea Party.

There’s no racism in that at all. I take back my remarks about that pie chart. It should be 90% “racist” and 10% “Sell T-Shirts”. (From NIPatriots.org)

The core purpose of NIP is “to help protect our God-given rights as intended by the framers of the Constitution by being informed, getting involved, and making a difference in our great nation.” (As oen of my soon-to-be-trademarked completely irrelevant asides, I think it’s interesting that their abbreviation doubles as a racial slur.  I’m sure it’s entirely coincidental, but it still makes me slightly uncomfortable.)

At first glance this is a particularly innocuous goal.  But a further look at their “9 Principles” should help clarify their agenda.  I will not reproduce all of them here, but I will give you some of the highlights. (I will also ignore some of their egregious spelling and grammar errors instead of making light of them.  Because I’m just that nice. Also, nobody is perfect.)

The 9 Principles start innocuously enough, stating that America Is Good, God is the Center of My Life, and that we must always try to be more honest and that family is sacred and the spouses are the ultimate authority (not the government), plus some platitudes about not being above the law.

When things get interesting is on number eight, which states:

Good old American Values, like teaching your kids to attack someone’s race the second you disagree with him.

8. It is not un-American for me to disagree with authority or to share my personal opinion.
On your right to disagree “In a free and republican government, you cannot restrain the voice of the multitude; every man will speak as he thinks, or more properly without thinking.” George Washington [Emphasis mine.]

I will not be so kind as to ignore the fact that the quote these people chose is actually a chastisement of the voice of the multitude.  Had they selectively cropped “or more properly without thinking” from this quote, perhaps the sentiment would be another cute touch to their website.  Instead what we get is a self-defeating quote, one that basically states that while the multitude will always try to be heard, those people will often do so without bothering to think about what they’re saying.

Certainly this is an unintentionally appropriate quote from avowed tea partiers, those who seem to so often make statements without vetting them as the truth.  However, I cannot imagine that NIP would have intended that interpretation of the quote.

But I promised a discussion of otherness, and I will deliver. On the website there exists an item called “The Patriot’s Pledge”, a pledge that all members (presumably) must take.  This is where NIP really begins to distance themselves from everyone.

One of the items that the member pledges to be aware of is “[u]nderstanding the infringement on my constitutional rights and the erosion of the American Dream that is currently taking place.”

While I may have poked fun at the lack of thought the NIP put into the Washington quote, let me be clear that I do not underestimate these people.  In this case, what the NIP have done is state clearly that the “American Dream” is eroding.  That part is not even remotely in question.  Rather, what is in question is whether or not you are aware of it.

Presumably if you are aware of it you are one of the selected, while if you are not aware of this you are just “other”.  Just as knowing that there was a shooter on the grassy knoll brings you into the fold, so does its denial make you one of the others.

I won’t bother going into terrifyingly deep detail with the rest of their points because we all know what Tea Partiers stand for, and NIP are nothing if not a part of that movement. Rather, I want to discuss why this otherness is so useful.

As I discussed earlier in the scope of my politics, it seems as though both political parties and most people engaged in politics are so affected by the confirmation bias and yet completely oblivious to it.  Groups like the NIP are, perhaps, the most oblivious of the bunch.

Pictured: Reasonable political discourse for the average Tea Party member.

Normal political discourse, if there is such a thing, may disagree on policy but they may also disagree and actually discuss the fundamental underpinnings of those ideologies.  While liberals and conservatives may disagree about government spending, most of them would agree that the government should spend money on at least certain things. The finer details of what those things might be is a part of what politicians discuss and compromise about.

The Tea Party, NIP and other groups have circumvented this process.  They have assured themselves that the underpinnings of their ideologies are non-negotiable, a feat they accomplish by claiming to believe in the Constitution.

Let’s look back to the example of the American Dream.

Some of us (hopefully most) would question if the dream is even eroding, the NIP has moved beyond that portion and thus made it so that the basic underpinnings of their beliefs are not in question.  The JFK conspiracy theorist doesn’t ask if there was a shooter on the knoll, but if it was a government agent, foreign national or what have you.  Those who deny the second shooter don’t bother with that question, because they do not accept the premise upon which it is based.

This is the same picture the NIP paints with the Constitution.  The question isn’t if its being ignored and circumvented, but rather how any by whom.  They ignore that most people who are not wildly conservative or liberal don’t consider that the truth, and instead just assume it is a fact.  In drawing the lines in this way, they allow their entire set of beliefs to go unchallenged.

Just as the conspiracy theorist also feels special for knowing what he knows and considers other people either complicit or ignorant, so too does the NIP member/tea partier.

If you disagree with these basic understandings you will find no compromise (as recent politics has shown us), but rather are just considered an “other”, a person who doesn’t get it.  You haven’t taken the oath.  You aren’t aware that the American Dream is being eroded by ignoring the constitution, so you couldn’t possibly understand what their beliefs are, but you are definitely wrong.

 

About the Constitution

I feel it would be unfair to go through this article without providing even a little justification for why I think the Tea Party and NIP are so wildly misguided.

See also: racism.

A premise that Tea Partiers refuse to accept is that the Constitution is necessarily a fluid document, the interpretation of which must change as the world changes in order to ensure our continued survival as a society.  To these people the Constitution is a one-shot, a document that must never be amended, reinterpreted or circumvented.  The idea that the Founding Fathers could not have predicted various aspects of the modern world is irrelevant, solely because to agree with this would be to undermine the basic premise of everything for which they fight.

To act like the Constitution is not a fluid document, one that must continually be reconsidered in light of technological and societal shifts, is a discredit to the Founding Fathers. While the Constitution (as well as the Bill of Rights, just to be clear) is an extraordinarily resilient document, it can only bend so much with the times before it becomes implausible to uphold it.

What NIP and Tea Partiers suggest is that there is no reinterpreting that document. What I suggest is that there is a way to do so that is in line with what, given access to society as it exists now, the Founding Fathers would have wanted.

A great example is gun control.  Tea Partiers often consider the Second Amendment to be absolute.  You either can bear arms or you can’t (which, besides being a pointless way to interpret it, is incredibly dangerous as I’ll explain near the end of this post).  If we strictly interpret the constitution, as the Founding Fathers intended it, would gun control be even remotely constitutional? No.

But the times change, and so does technology.  At the time of the drafting of the Constitution the average weapon—in the hands of a skilled soldier—could fire two, perhaps three, times per minute.  When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution they did so with such arms in mind.  That Constitutional protection does not necessarily extend to assault rifles, a type of weapon that the Founding Fathers would likely never have conceived when they drafted our Constitution.

Totally what the Framers meant.

To consider this on an even more extreme level, grenades are an armament.  If one were to read the Second Amendment as the right to bear arms, clearly one must be allowed to have a hand grenade.  And  a jet fighter.  Also, since technically it’s an armament, probably a nuclear weapon.

In a hundred years when our wars are fought with giant mechanical exoskeletons with railguns capable of leveling an entire building, I can imagine that Second Amendment proponents will argue that such a weapon is constitutionally protected.  Plus, it’s only to hunt. Clearly.

I realize I’m creating a ridiculous example, but I have two points from that.  First, that a strict reading of the Constitution as just the words on the page, without considering current social context, is not totally appropriate.

We would have to assume that when drafting the Constitution they sat around and discussed every possible technological and societal change that could happen and, in response, drafted the Constitution with all of those possibilities in mind.

If the Founding Fathers had such foresight, why has a Constitutional amendment ever been necessary? Why, if they were so able to draft an infallible document, wasn’t slavery abolished within the Bill of Rights?  Thomas Jefferson held slaves, and if we are going to interpret the Constitution in the spirit that Founding Fathers such as Jefferson intended it, why have we not repealed the amendments abolishing slavery? If the Founding Fathers predicted (as they must have, if they had the foresight that the Tea Party ascribes to them) that abortion would be such a hot button issue, why does the Constitution remain silent on it?

While I am a huge admirer of the minds that founded our nation, I do not hold them in such high esteem that I consider them to have near omniscience.  To do so is the height of hubris, as well as the true depths of stupidity. If one is going to argue that we can interpret the Second Amendment to be so well crafted and have such foresight to extend to the devastating weaponry of today, we cannot selectively pretend that assumption doesn’t apply to the rest of the Constitution when it is not politically advantageous.

The second point I wanted to make was that even a staunch proponent of the Second Amendment would probably oppose allowing private citizens to own and use a military aircraft and/or nuclear weapons.  They might argue that the Founding Fathers were referring to the arms a single person could use.

What the logic that my straw man opponent reveals says is that the Founding Fathers had intentions, and that those intentions are relevant to how we read the Constitution.  Such an argument is self-defeating, then, as we have to consider what the Founding Fathers would have intended given today’s societal circumstances.

Conclusions

I’ve been hoping that you, my esteemed readers, have been able to draw your own conclusions about the (tenuous) connections I’m making in this post.  If you haven’t, though, allow me to connect the final dot: NIP (and on a larger scale the Tea Party) is a conspiracy theory.

Where conspiracy theorists feel in the know, so do the members of NIP.  These people believe they’re the only ones who are truly trying to uphold the Constitution, and anybody who disagrees is something wholly “other”.  These people may have the best of intentions, but their methodology is to ignore anything that disagrees with their preconceived world view and carry on as if it never existed in the first place.

The issue here is that NIP and the Tea Party are mired in inherent contradictions.  They insist that they have a right to their opinion (and, in theory, so would anybody who disagrees), yet cast crude Us vs. Them distinctions to demonize anybody who would stand against them.

The name “Northern Illinois Patriots” says it all.  You are either a patriot or you aren’t.  You either believe in the Constitution or you don’t.  You’re one of Us or you’re something other.  In the end their tactics are the same as the conspiracy theorist, except that for some reason people take them seriously.

The last part of that statement is what could do the most damage.  Conspiracy theorists never have the best interest of anybody but themselves at heart, despite their admonitions to the contrary.  Those who claim 9/11 was an inside job do not do so to inform the public, but to wield the power of knowledge over the rest.

In the same way, the Tea Party and local groups such as the Northern Illinois Patriots attempt to wield knowledge over the rest of us.  They know something the rest of us don’t and intend to use that to gain their own political advantage.

You may think I’m being extraordinarily harsh, especially for someone who claims to be apathetic about this whole political ordeal.  The fact of the matter is that I find the basic tenets of the NIP and Tea Party to be wholly offensive to Americans.

The world is not black and white, good and evil, etc.  There is no “us” and “them”.  You are not Tea Party or “other”.  To cast the world, and America, in such a light is to stand against everything the Founding Fathers would have wanted.  It is an affront to America and an affront to our Constitution.

Perhaps most of all, though, it is the ultimate irony that those who claim to best understand and want to most faithfully uphold that document are the ones who are the most ignorant the spirit in which it was drafted.

Infomercial Madness: 5 Infomercials Selling Insane Products

June 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m probably in the minority for this, but I absolutely love watching infomercials.  There is something charming about their over-the-top selling techniques, trying to convince you that the latest as seen on TV product is not only worth buying, but worth overpaying for.

In all of my time seeing infomercials I’ve noticed that they generally seem like the kind of thing some guy felt he had a need for and created—indeed this is likely where many of them spawn.  I can understand that there is a niche group for whom the Heel Dock might seem like a useful invention, so kudos to the guy who figured out he could charge people money for what is basically a smaller version of a bath mat.

But then there is that subgroup of items that, honestly, seem to have no use whatsoever to any human.  Some of these items are just ridiculous takes on already existing items, others are just outright insane items that nobody should ever feel necessary.

Today I’m presenting you with a collection of five infomercials that are selling what I think are some generally insane (and totally useless products).  Enjoy!

 

#5 – The Tiddy Bear

 

 

Whether or not you’re not familiar with the product and have never seen the infomercials I am still guessing you can figure out where I’m going with this just based off the name of the product.  But if you haven’t seen the infomercial before I urge you to do so, simply because it’s one of the better infomercials out there.

I’ll wait.  You done yet?

Tiddy Bear

What every woman wants on her breasts.

Yes, that’s “tiddy” pronounced similarly to “titty”.  Yes, it’s a small teddy bear that hugs the breasts of the woman using it.  In many ways I could probably leave this section here.  But I’m not some hipster news outlet that wants to make you do all the work.  So here goes:

The best part about the Tiddy Bear is the fact that it could have been shaped like absolutely anything.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

While they do show a man or two in the infomercial, I can only assume that seat belts digging into breasts or shoulders is a problem reserved for women with sizeable breasts or extremely obese men.  I base this assumption on two things: first, that I do not have breasts and have also never felt the pain from the seat belt described in the infomercial; second, that all of the women in the infomercial are fairly well endowed and are wearing low-cut shirts to make sure that we’re aware of that fact.

So it’s a problem almost exclusively for women and a the resulting product is likely advertised solely to them.  Which brings me back to the design of the product and that it could have been anything.  The whole point is that you just need padding that keeps the edge of the seat belt from causing discomfort, the shape of that padding is irrelevant to its functionality.

Tiddy Bear Couple

…And apparently every man.

I can just imagine some guy whose wife always complained about this issue and so he created the prototype—a pad that kept seat belts from digging into you.  I have to imagine that he proposed the idea to a manufacturer and that every person in the room was a man.  What other explanation is there for this product being advertised in a commercial that says “titty” so many times?

I mean, I know many women who aren’t offended outright by the use of the word “tits”, but it’s not something they usually say unless they are being purposely crass.  Advertising a product to women using a term that is on the more lewd side of the spectrum is insane in and of itself.

But beyond that, I have to imagine a man made this because only a man would think it’s a good idea to make women feel like they’re being constantly fondled by a little teddy bear.  I just cannot imagine a woman thinking to herself how great it would be to solve one problem by creating another.

After all, the Tiddy Bear in the commercial looks like it’s on the edge of a cliff holding on for dear life.

 

#4 – Ronco Smokeless Ashtray

 

 

Hailing from the early 1980s is this infomercial for the Ronco Smokeless Ashtray.  This is a product of an entirely different era, a magical time when Joe Camel still shilled his death sticks to kids, a time when Marlboro Country was a favored vacation retreat and not just the faded pipe dream of a bygone age.

Asshole Science

Pictured here: the science of being an asshole.

For something so short this commercial is just plain full of comedic gold.  Perhaps my favorite line is at the end when the spokesman tells us we should show we really care by giving a smokeless ashtray to our loved ones.  I’m not sure which part is more ridiculous: assuming my loved ones want a Ronco product in the first place, or that giving my family a way to smoke around me without having to open the car window is somehow a sign of love.

The entire premise of this commercial—and product—is based solely upon that idea: showing you really care.  We are introduced to a father who loves to smoke cigarettes and cigars and knows the bad smell and cancerous smoke irritates his family.  Thank god he decided to show he cares by getting a smokless ashtray, ensuring he can continue to destroy his lungs uninterrupted.

It’s at this point that I’m going to ditch the sarcasm and divulge that I’m a smoker.  I, too, am not inconsiderate and don’t like irritating my family and friends with the smell of cancer from my cigarettes.

I frequently smoke while driving and am just utterly baffled by why the need for this product would ever arise.  Let’s get serious for a moment: the only time I can imagine the need for the smokeless ashtray coming up is in a situation where the smoker is in a place that has no means of ventilation.

showyoucare

Anybody who gives me something from Ronco for Christmas is never getting invited to celebrate with me again.

But in the infomercial we see that this loving father is in a car. You may not know this, but the cool thing about cars is that they have these windows.  These windows—like most windows—can actually be opened in order to let fresh air into the car.

When I smoke in my car I roll down the windows and people who might happen to be riding with me don’t have to deal with nearly as much smoke as before.  The only situation this ashtray actually helps resolve is one in which that smoker is insisting on hotboxing his cigarette with his friends and/or family inside the car.

So, given that this father is so considerate of his family’s health and safety, I just cannot imagine that he’d actually ever use this product.  Unless, of course, he’s just putting on a show and in fact there is a darker side to that family.  I can only imagine that those children are thankful they live in an era where automatic windows and the ability to lock said windows doesn’t exist.  Otherwise, dad might decide to be a complete asshole and force them to inhale second-hand smoke for the duration of the car ride.

 

#3 – Germ Bloc

 

 

Anything that opens with a blaring siren and what sounds to be a B-Movie robot voice from the 60’s is just plain awesome.  When the infomercial does so while shouting “GERM ALERT! GERM ALERT!” repeatedly I have no choice but to declare my instant respect and admiration.

The “Anywhere you fear” caption describes their target audience perfectly.

Prior to seeing this advertisement I was often wondering what I was supposed to do when using a public restroom and needing to use the flush levers and door handles, or what to do when I was riding public transportation and could clearly see the layer of bodily fluids on the hand-holds.  Thankfully, the Germ Bloc is there for me.

At first glance the Germ Bloc doesn’t seem like too awful an idea.  Granted anybody who sees you using it is going to assume that you have an aversion to germs worse than Howie Mandel and Adrian Monk combined, but that’s a small price to pay to avoid dealing with the horrifying bacteria that exist—with the sole intent of killing us—in the world around us.

But then I realized something: you could—nay, should—always just wash your hands after you use the restroom or touch something nasty.  I mean when you use the restroom and don’t wash your hands you risk getting horrible bacteria all over everything you touch afterwards, so it won’t do you any good to take an enormous shit and then put your nasty, shit-covered hands on your germ bloc.  All you’ve done there is make things worse.

Above the ridiculous lack of real necessity here, though, is a deeper implication with the Germ Bloc.  Watch the infomercial again and see if you can figure out what I’m on to.

Did you notice anything awry in this video?  (Besides the germ alert, that is.)  If your answer is the part where the mom attached a Germ Bloc to the child’s backpack then congratulations, you’ve realized the terrifying implications of this product.

If your answer was anything other than that (or that nothing was wrong with it) then you should probably go ahead and dial the number at the end.  You might be the kind of person who needs one.

You see, you get a couple of Germ Blocs and some refill pads for $10.  That’s not a bad value at all, especially when you consider that you can attach it to your child’s backpack and instill a totally unhealthy fear of germs and public places.  Beyond that, you’ll also ensure that they’re mercilessly made fun of by other kids for using his Germ Bloc to touch every surface.

That double protection isn’t going to help at all when your child is getting his ass kicked–by both bullies and life.

Think about it for a second.  If your mom was so concerned with bacteria that she made you use a Germ Bloc in public places, probably telling you how if you don’t it’ll make you sick, you’d probably have turned out a little differently.  I mean in this case we’re talking the difference between a child playing around in dirt and dealing with that and creating a tiny little germophobe who refuses to pee at school because it might be dirty.

That kind of life-long emotional damage for so little money and effort is almost unheard of.  Normally it takes years and probably more than $10 to screw up your kids that badly, and now you can do it by clipping a Germ Bloc onto them and making sure they use it at all times.

 

#2 – Mobe Flask

https://www.buymobe.com/

First, sorry I don’t have a YouTube on this one.  You’ll have to go to their website and watch it there.  But while you’re there feel free to explore and enjoy the insanity.

Everything that is wrong with both flasks and hipsters.

I can say unequivocally and without the slightest bit of shame that anytime I see someone drinking from a flask I cannot help but wonder how sad that person’s life must be that he felt it necessary to sneak alcohol somewhere that it’s not allowed.  In other words, I think: “wow, what a damn alcoholic.”

The flask is the perfect solution for the person who thinks “drinking alcohol” is a perfectly legitimate answer to the question of how to make something more fun.   After all, flasks are an item of desperation; they are a means of admitting that you aren’t supposed to have alcohol where you are but that you’ll be damned if that’s going to stop you from getting sloshed.

There is a small segment of people who own flasks and use them regularly but are totally aware of how harshly society judges them for feeling the need to bring alcohol with them at all times.  No doubt these people often wish for a way to still bring alcohol with them, but without inviting the social stigma that flasks entail.

Search no further all you self-aware alcoholics, for the Mobe flask had you firmly in mind when developing their product.

The Mobe flask is a flask that is designed as a small pouch within a neoprene case.  The main way that Mobe advertises their product is that it is “so discreet nobody knows it’s a flask.”  When your main selling point is a bunch of fancy words for “nobody will notice you’re getting sloshed until it’s too late” then you know you’ve invented something truly terrifying.

Absurdly Discreet – Nobody will know about your life-crushing alcoholism.

I almost wish that I had never stumbled upon the Mobe flask, only because I feel I’m obligated to tell the American Psychiatric Association that they need to update the DSM’s diagnostic criteria for alcoholism to include “owns a Mobe”.  If you think I’m kidding then you haven’t watched the infomercial for this.

The infomercial opens by asking us, the prospective (or current) alcoholics if we’re ready to have more fun, so you have to know it’s only getting better from there.  After a few seconds we find out that the Mobe is the most discreet and convenient way to mobilize your beverage of choice.”  The word discreet is used so often I can rest assured that if I bought a Mobe nobody would know how I got drunk, just that I am.

If any of you were thinking of arguing that, perhaps, it wasn’t meant exclusively for alcohol then I again would like to tell you to actually watch the infomercial.  The only testimonials they include are from people at around the college-age, probably the number one demographic for flasks besides George Thorogood.

Everything is wrong with this.

Above all else I have to say my favorite part is their suggestion that they could, in fact, use the Mobe when you hit the slopes.  They show a picture—both on the website and in the video—of a family (with children) on top of a mountain.

What they apparently forgot to mention was that after dad downed his third Mobe full of whiskey he was too drunk to ski and slammed into a tree.  Because nothing says “good idea” like combining a flask, mountains, snow and high speeds.

The only solace I have is that I’m pretty sure nobody has actually bought the Mobe or we’d have heard of them going out of business after a rash of alcohol-related ski accidents.

 

#1 – The Magic Bullet

 

 

His parents decided they’d make him into an experiment to test the idea of “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

I’m going to start with the blatantly obvious observation here: do these people really have a friend named Bourbon whose entire role in this infomercial is to be the hung over guy?  I mean, I’m trying to figure out of that’s his nickname or his parents just decided to prove that alcoholism is a product of environmental factors? Regardless of how he got that name, I can’t help but to wonder if Bourbon is just an actor who got lost on the way from (or, maybe to) the shoot for the Mobe flask.

Since I’ve digressed here I might as well do it some more.  Am I the only person that titters like a pubescent boy who hears his teacher say “penis” when someone says the name of this product?  I’m going to assume that I am, but nonetheless every time I hear “magic bullet” my mind immediately goes to the similarly named Magic Bullet Vibrator (I would not suggest clicking that if you’re at work).

If I’m not the only person who thinks that then I can imagine cooking for someone using the Magic Bullet (the blender version) could get very awkward.  I can just picture telling dinner guests that you cooked the meal with your Magic Bullet.  That would probably be followed by immediate vomiting.

Of course, I’m probably on the immature side of the spectrum.

Anyway, back to the main point: the Magic Bullet is really a product that isn’t all that insane.  The prospect of doing away with blenders, cutting boards and about half of the other automated appliances in the kitchen is actually quite appealing.

He just looks so sad.

According to the infomercial it makes cooking fun (what As Seen On TV product doesn’t?) and you’ll be using it every day.  Hell, you’ll be having so much fun cooking that you’ll just leave it on your counter and cook breakfast for the other couples who joined your orgy on the previous night.

If you’re wondering why I assume all the people in the video had an orgy the night before then you have to ask yourself one very simple question: why the hell else would there be that many people in that kitchen, especially with one guy coming into the room clearly hung over and in the throes of deep, deep remorse?

The thing is that I don’t cook because I’m too lazy.  It has nothing to do with cooking not being fun.  I love cooking.  I’m just usually more interested in doing something else than preparing my meal, especially when it’s just for me.  So with that problem firmly in mind, why would the Magic Bullet change any of that?

I guess you could argue that it’s hard to be lazy when you only need one tool to do the job for you.  This means less mess and faster cleanup and prep times.  Certainly a meal that once took an hour could be produced within minutes!

That is, unless you’re one of those (silly) people who has some kind of aversion to food-borne illnesses.  After all, you wouldn’t want to make an omelet with raw eggs and then go grind your coffee.  You still have to clean that thing out after every use.  The only difference is that instead of doing all the dishes at one point you have to do them as you cook.

If I bought one of those I’d make an 8 second sorbet once and then it would sit on the shelf for the rest of my lifetime.

That, my dear readers, sounds like more work to me. When I cook I put the dishes off as long as possible, usually until after I’ve finished the meal. Sometimes I find a way to con someone elses into doing the dishes for me. (Again, I’m really lazy.) In this case I can’t do that, meaning I’ll have to actually do cleaning.  Given the epic scale of my laziness, one can only assume I should totally avoid the Magic Bullet.

In the end I have to conclude that if the Magic Bullet were even half as useful as it claims to be that most American households would have one.  Since I don’t know a single person who has ever purchased one I can only assume it’s a piece of trash like every other product sold via infomercial.

Of course, the other Magic Bullet has gotten rave reviews, so if you’re shopping for a new “personal massager” that might be a good way to go.

Lamenting the Death of Immersion in Gaming—Talking About Piracy and DRM

May 31, 2012 1 comment

Normally if someone writes an article or post elsewhere that is pretty similar to mine I’ll make a point of referencing it, usually just so people know it’s coincidence rather than me shamelessly ripping off.  In the case of this Cracked.com article, I had to add more than a reference.  As I read it I could not help but feel that I was reading my own post.  I wrote this article last night, before John Cheese’s contribution was put up on Cracked.

With that said, I cannot help but notice how similar the two are so I figured I’d point that out in advance.  John Cheese has talked about stuff like this before, so it’s not a huge surprise to me that our discussions of gaming should overlap.  You can believe that or you can believe the far more likely explanation that Cracked sees me as a threat and has installed a keylogger on my computer to steal ideas.  They have referenced the Miller Lite ads in a similar manner to how I discussed them, but did so well after I originally did.  I smell a conspiracy theory in the making.  Anyway, back to the post.

Recently I started playing Diablo 3. As we are apt to ignore the flaws in so many things until they are highlighted for us, I had hardly noticed how prevalent this kind of jarring experience was in gaming until Diablo 3 brought my attention to it.  Since then I cannot help but to notice how much my “immersion” has been hurt within games.

Once you load it up you have to go through about fifteen different EULAs to get to the login screen.  From there, you log in to your battle.net account (each time you play).  Once you do that you’re told you need to create a gamer tag or whatever Blizzard is calling it.  That takes you to a separate browser window that creates it, then you can start to play.  That is, once you’ve logged in again and created your character.  To use the auction house or see many features, you must exit the game you’re in and do so from the main menus.

If that seems excessive to you, consider that Diablo 3 isn’t the first or only game to require the player to jump through hoops before playing.  While it is incredibly noticeable, other games have been doing this for a long time.

Perhaps I just never noticed because the hoops I was jumping have been added one by one, such that it never drew my attention to the fact that they were being added.

Why Immersion is Necessary

With the way video games have moved to a heavily story-based model, we expect our video games to fully immerse us in the game universe.  When you play Diablo 3 (even if the story is laughably bad) or Mass Effect or Deus Ex: Human Revolution you are expecting to have a seamless and immersive experience.

Give credit where it’s due. They made plastic surgery into a gameplay element.

Consider, for example, character creation in the first Mass Effect.  When you go to create a new character you’re presented with a menu that mimics that of theAlliance’s internal personnel database.  If you choose to create your character the menu acts as though there was a corruption in your file that you must reconstruct.

Developers do not go to so much pain creating immersive menus to create games that leave a distance between the player and the characters.  While some succeed at this more than others, this immersion is necessary for most games out now.

In my discussion of video games as art I talked a little bit about gamers becoming the characters.  When we play a game we take on that person’s role with him as our avatar and, as such, need to have a seamless experience.  Where television can take time out for commercials, doing so in a video game would jar us back to our reality and remind us that we are playing a game.

You see, I’m not a super soldier who can take on armies single-handedly.  I don’t think Hell is real, and if it is real it is at the very least veiled from my perception.  Because of that I am not ever going to be able to run out and fight demonspawn a la Diablo or Doom.  Yet I find it incredibly enjoyable to murder massive numbers of people, demons and anything else that gets in my way–just as long as its in a video game.

I do not enjoy this because I enjoy murder in real life.  (Despite what some people would have you believe.)  In fact, the idea of me ever killing someone is one of the most repulsive things I can imagine.  But video games aren’t real, and for that reason I am okay with doing whatever it is that I do in the various video games.

That is because video games are forms of escapism.  We do not become other people in video games for anything other than a vacation from ourselves (we could, alternatively, go for drives in the rain with the radio off).  We adopt the persona given to us in the game because for that reason it is not you performing those actions, but the person within the game.

What possible reason besides escapism could one have for having and taking care of a virtual baby?

Escapism has a negative connotation in common parlance, mostly because people tend to view it as running away from something.  With video games, however, escapism acts as a means for us to be someone else and do something we never would without any of the consequences that would arise.

In theory, any of us could go out and act out the things we do in Grand Theft Auto.  Unfortunately jail in reality is not a half-day affair that causes you to lose your weapons and money.

If you still don’t love or fully buy into the idea that we immerse ourselves in games to escape ourselves, just look at The Sims.  Three games and about a decade later we’re still seeing versions and expansion of The Sims.  At first glance a game that simulates having to work would be completely uninteresting, and yet these games are immensely popular.

If you’re not convinced yet that immersion is not only necessary to enjoy video games, but also that video games are enjoyed because of said immersion there is just no hope for you.

Piracy At A Glance

I have such mixed feelings about piracy that I don’t know if I can do them justice here.  Every argument for or against piracy seems to make sense to me.  After all, piracy is the reason that games are developed for consoles and ported to the PC, when historically that process was done in reverse.

Ironically, finding a way around Origin is probably the reason half of piracy exists now.

After all, even with measures such as Steam and Origin, piracy of PC games is alive and kicking.  But where those services can be circumvented on the PC with impunity, attempting to do so on a console could result in your account being banned.  This makes piracy on the consoles far more difficult (and potentially less worthwhile) while they provide graphics that are equal to most PCs.

Video games are going through much the same thing that music and movies are right now, which is to say the volume of shitty games is far greater than that of games worth playing.  While music and movies have a less favorable shit-to-quality ratio than video games, the problem is alive for both.

So the argument you often hear people use when pirating, say, a current radio hit is why would he pay for the whole album when everything but the couple singles on it are guaranteed to be shit?  iTunes has helped solve that problem, but again people aren’t deterred by that.

Granted, I know plenty of pirates who will purchase albums they genuinely like while still pirating the shit out of artists who don’t bother to produce an album worth of quality music.  But these people are few and far between. Most pirates don’t care about supporting artists even if they deserve it.  They just succumb to the mentality of “why pay for it when I can get it free?”

I have no doubt that a good deal of people would stop stealing music if the quality of albums were to increase substantially and across all genres of music.  Those who make that argument, however, are drowned out by those who just steal because they can.  And its true for video games, as well.

With this section all I hope to point out is that while I generally side with those who say that if people made better games, music or movies that they’d actually bother to buy it, I also understand that developers and publishers of video games need to stay in business to get a chance to produce quality games.  And staying in business means finding ways to counter pirates.

DRM, Digital Distribution Platforms and the Gaming Experience

Do you know what bothers me about Diablo 3?  Last night I had a short internet outage and was disconnected in the middle of a game I was playing with a friend.  Those of you who don’t have Diablo 3 and aren’t aware of how it works might just say: “big deal, play  singleplayer”.

Seeing this screen while playing solo is as disheartening as it is maddening.

That’s what bothers me, though.  You can’t play solo without an internet connection.  Diablo 3 isn’t the only game to do this.  Most of Ubisoft’s games have DRM that requires internet connections to play, even if it’s the solo portions of the game.

Most games with this type of DRM only check with a server to verify you’re playing on the same computer, but they do not require an account login (in the manner of Diablo 3).  As such, I know for a fact that intrepid hackers have found a way to circumvent this DRM in some games to allow one to play a pirated copy.

I mention this because I feel that DRM of this particular brand is insidious and is killing PC gaming, perhaps more so than piracy.  After all, if pirates are getting around it anyway—which they are—all you’re doing is pissing off the legitimate players.  Some of us have Comcast for our internet, in which case we face outages that are far more frequent than they should be (read: at times other than in the wake of severe storms).

The idea that I cannot play a game that I purchased and own (or rent, really, if you read the EULAs) because of a lack of internet connection is downright insane.  Imagine if your car forced you to input your fingerprint and verify that you were the driver via a satellite connection before you could drive.  Only, it’s really stormy and it can’t connect so you can’t drive it.  While this analogy isn’t the best, people would never buy that car.

If someone was this angry about the car situation we’d understand. Yet a gamer gets pissed like this because he can’t play the game he paid $60 for and we say society is falling apart.

In both of those cases the circumstance is one that won’t happen often—either an unplanned internet outage or weather so severe that it’s blocking a satellite signal—and yet in the case of the car nobody in his right mind would purchase it, knowing there may be a time he couldn’t use his own item.

Platforms such as Steam and Origin are, also, hugely problematic.  While Steam is far less terrible than Origin, the fact that to play any game I must first load and log in to either program is just a tad frustrating.  There was one point in time where a service I had disabled to improve system performance was required for Steam.  I spent three days trying to figure out what the problem was—and not playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution in the meantime—before I could fix it.

Beyond that, I get sick of these games telling me I have to download and install a patch before playing.  Until I played World of Warcraft I don’t think I once installed a patch for a game.  I may have missed out on some content, but most of the time I never experienced any bugs that would make me seek out a patch.  As such, I considered it to be irrelevant and unnecessary.

I will credit Steam with being pretty good about this, usually letting you background download the patch (if you do at all) before playing.  Origin, on the other hand, just patched Mass Effect 3 for me earlier tonight.  I wanted to play the game while it was doing that but found out I could not.

What an immersive and cool menu. If only I didn’t have to wait 15 seconds for it to verify my goddamn internet connection so it can sell me DLC.

All of this complaining is to make a point, that point being that it takes far too long to actually start playing a game now.  Take Mass Effect 3 as an example.  When I double-click to start the program it loads Origin.  Once Origin loads and finishes forcing patches upon me it starts the game.  This may not take long—around 15 seconds at the most if no patch is involved—but it’s more than zero.  I consider that unacceptable.

Once I get past the opening publisher and developer credits I’m brought to the menu.  But I can’t start playing yet.  It has to take around 10-15 seconds to connect to the network to pull up the multiplayer stats.  Can I point out that unless I click “Multiplayer” I don’t give a good god damn what any of that looks like?   Plus, don’t you think they could have found a way to streamline that process with Origin.  In that case Origin would have actually served some useful purpose.

Anyway, that whole thing may take me a total of, say, 30-45 seconds before starting the game.  Nonetheless, that’s still too much for me.  The actual load time of ME3 is obscenely quick if you were to remove Origin and checking the internet connection from the process.  Yet, I’m forced into that every time I play.

I’ve focused a lot on the issues facing PC gamers in this, but console gamers don’t get off any easier.  PSN and Xbox Live are ridiculous pieces of software that shove advertisements, avatars and other useless features into your face before you can start playing your game.  While their purpose is exactly the same as Origin or Steam, their interfaces and features are far more intrusive than either of the PC-based platforms.  If you can believe that Origin isn’t the worst in some way, that is.

 

The Effect on Immersion

When I talked about immersion, it is things like this that kill said immersion.  While starting up a game I am hardly immersed, but I hate to be reminded of the fact that I am using Origin at all, much less during the game.

Nonetheless, I am faced with frequent reminders of Origin all the time.  Some features within ME3 require you to enable Origin in-game (something I chose not to do the moment it installed on my system).  Fortunately these features are small, but just seeing that warning message on my screen is an instant mood killer.

My immersion is ruined, time to stop playing the game.

Achievements are another intrusion into my game space that I cannot stand.  To the credit of Mass Effects 2 and 3, the achievement system was implemented in-game and, thus, made to match the style of the game.  You could even see them in your cabin, a nice little touch to keep you feeling like you’re Shepard the entire time.

On the other hand you have Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s achievements.  Every time you get one of these you see a pop-up in the style of Steam.  For a game that does so much to invite you to feel as though you’re in the game world, that is a jarring reminder that you aren’t.

It’s even worse on every Xbox game, as the achievements pop up in the same little bubble for every game (that I can think of, at least). Again, it’s an instant reminder that you’re playing the game.

I should probably point out that achievements as a whole are kind of a killer of immersion, namely because a soldier in the field wouldn’t be rewarded for a kill streak with a little trophy when he gets back to base.  Games that can implement it into the game itself (a la Mass Effect) at least do something to combat that feeling, but I cannot help that other games implement them as an afterthought.  (I may actually write a full post about achievements now, as I’m reminded by this paragraph of how stupid they really are.)

In the end, these are all little things.  No single one of the things I listed has ever completely destroyed a game for me (in the way that the DLC selling NPC in DA:O did, at least).  With that said, though, I cannot help myself feeling a little bit nostalgic for the days when you opened a game and you were a part of that world from then on without interruption and until the moment you closed the game.

The latest victim of excessive DRM: Assassins Creed 3. Think that “on the cross” pose here is coincidental?

Do not think for a moment that I am arguing that DRM or digital distribution programs should go away completely.  Companies have every right to take reasonable steps to protect their intellectual property.  (Note the keyword reasonable.  Some companies go way beyond the reasonable, in which case I tend to have an issue with the implementation of DRM.)

Nonetheless, those days are long gone, mostly due to pirates and models of profitability that include programs like Origin and Steam or the dashboard of our consoles.  While we will never truly get to go back to the days of clicking an icon and starting a game, I do hope that developers will realize that we play games to escape and these interruptions aren’t helping us any.

Video games are a medium that have many places to go, and right now I feel like we’re in a rut.  PC gaming is dying, gaming in general has been taken over by rehashes of the same two genres (cover-based shooters and multiplayer explorgies with yearly installments), and the pirates stealing the games and the companies trying to protect them are both endangering gaming for the rest of us.

All I want to do is play a goddamn computer game and get so lost in it that I lose 6 hours of my life and still just want to play more.  Why can’t we go back to it being that way?

Microtransactoins: Killing Games Through Economics

May 29, 2012 1 comment

I’d like to start by apologizing that I missed my Thursday post last week.  I recently started a new job and my sleep schedule (and all scheduling) has been thrown off immensely. 

In Mass Effect 3 the multiplayer works by leveling up characters to get more abilities and winning matches to gain money for equipment.  The best equipment comes in a random package that takes about 4 wins to save the money for, assuming you’re playing on the lowest difficulty. Imagine my surprise when I went to go purchase this and realized that the package was also available for BioWare points, or for those who aren’t familiar with that concept, real money.

This says it all.

The idea of microtransactions in video games is to allow the player access to additional goods for real money.  Most games that allow microtransactions use this as their money-making model rather than charging subscription fees.  For example, the MMORPG Aion at first charged a monthly fee but has recently moved toward a microtransaction model.

Microtransactions are everywhere in gaming today, but the various MMORPGs out there seem to be keen on taking advantage of it.  The basic idea is that you can access various parts of the game, but to truly get any further you’ll have to pay to purchase the items that make that possible.  Often these items are available through other means, but acquiring them in the “traditional” manner would require significant time output.

If you’re familiar with microtransactions in any of the forms it takes in gaming, chances are you’ve probably got the same mixed feelings about it that I do.  At least, until you really think about it and realize that microtransactions don’t benefit gamers at all while, in reality, destroying the very games they attempt to improve.

 

Game Currency

Within video games there are two types of currency with which one acquires better items: time and money.

The game currency most of us are familiar with is time.  Consider World of Warcraft, a traditional MMORPG that has (as of yet) not succumbed to the lure of microtransactions.  In WoW you acquire better items by participating in raids, dungeons or various player vs. player matches.  In doing this you acquire the items you want through luck (a boss drops the item you want) or through in-game currency (arena points, honor points, raid tokens).

The currency used here is obtained in dungeons. This is the original implementation of this in-game currency with a list of terrible items.

In the days of The Burning Crusade, if one wanted the best gear for pve encounter he would have to raid the same place in hopes of getting a token that could be traded for the gear.  As players complained that they were waiting on the same drops, Blizzard introduced raid tokens which could be traded for gear that was almost—but not quite—as good as the gear obtained in raiding.

The idea of adding these currency microtransactions was to compensate for randomness.  Some players could defeat the same boss a hundred times and never see the items they wanted.  As a result, it felt like your time was wasted without compensation.  Thus, Blizzard added raid tokens to allow you to gain gear that was better than what you had, but which would still be replaced by the raid drop.

The key concept here, though, is that no matter how Blizzard gave you the items you were still trading your time for a better virtual good.  If you put in enough time you would eventually be rewarded.

That is what I mean when I say “time” is a game currency.  In any game you play you need to put time into it to get better items along the way.  In RPG games—especially MMORPGs—this is readily apparent.  In action games it is less obvious but still a system in use.

On the other hand microtransactions in the sense I am using refer to purchasing items with real-world money.   That concept is not particularly difficult.  Every game implements differently, but usually the same items that are available with real money are available through using time as your currency.

 

Microtransactions Favor a Certain Type of Gamer

The problem with microtransactions is, as this subheading states, that they favor a certain type of gamer.

Consider the probable reasoning behind allowing real-money transactions: some gamers do not have enough time to reasonably get the items they want.  They should not be precluded from enjoying the game, so allow them to trade real money for the items they’d like in order to skip the grind.

You know what’s a sound financial decision for me? Paying money for virtual weapons I can earn by just playing the game more. Even better is when they obscure the cost as “BioWare Points” so I have no idea how much that just cost me!

Of course, not everybody has a ton of money just laying around.  Personally, I would love to spend money on BioWare points to use in ME3’s multiplayer.  I’d love to get the best weapons without having to spend hours playing through matches.  Unfortunately, I just cannot justify spending real money—of which I do not have a ton—on something that is a virtual good.  This is especially true when I can get it by playing the game.

On the other hand, not all gamers have a ton of time.  Lately I’ve been quite busy and have been unable to play games as much as I’d like.  In a sense, microtransactions appeal to me for that reason: I can stay competitive without having to put in a ton of time.

This real distinction is a good reason for microtransactions.  Unfortunately there exist gamers who have neither a ton of time nor a ton of money as well as gamers who have quite a bit of both to spare.  If you fall into the former category, good luck trying to stay competitive in any game you play.  If, on the other hand, you fall into the category of gamers with money and spare time, you now have a massive advantage in that you can acquire these powerful items far more quickly than any other gamers.

When I say that microtransactions favor a certain type of gamer, however, I am not just referring to the lucky ones with time and money in spades.  I am referring to any gamer that can afford microtransactions.

Consider the case of ME3 multiplayer.  I have about 100 N7 points, which are basically a measure of how much you’ve played.  That puts me on the low end of the spectrum, especially when you see people with 500+.  In that time I have amassed quite a collection of additional weaponry and weapon mods, but I still am fighting with some generally poor equipment.

Imagine my surprise when I join a game and see someone with 10 N7 points and two of the ultra-rare weapons equipped.  For those not familiar with ME3’s multiplayer, it is almost impossible that he actually earned those items; rather it is far more likely that he purchased quite a few equipment packs and got lucky with them.

When I talk about favoring certain types of players, that is almost exactly what I’m talking about.  This guy—whose character was level 10 (on a max level of 20) put out more damage than two of the other players, both of whom were level 20.

Skill plays into these things a fair amount, but no amount of skill can overcome the massive handicap that comes with a low-level character and low-quality weapons.  Having the “best” weapons in the game for your character helps overcome that problem.

 

The Future of Microtransactions

Microtransactions aren’t going anywhere.  They make a ton of money for the developers who use them and they can be touted as a way to even the playing field (despite them doing the opposite).  No developer who has moved to this model is going to move away when they realize how much money it really can make.

The unfortunate side effect of microtransactions, beyond being unfair to some gamers, is that it generally detracts from the game as a whole.  When I play a game I do so because it is fun.  Earning rewards is part of that fun.

“Congratulations on purchasing the ‘Dragon Armor Pack’. Your character will now have the best armor in the game right away. Laugh as enemy attacks glance off the armor you shouldn’t have until the very end!

If I started a game of Skyrim and was instantly handed the best equipment in the game I would no doubt find myself somewhat bored.  The same would go for World of Warcraft, as the whole point of raiding—beyond seeing the content—is to be rewarded with better gear.  If you’re just purchasing that gear you have no reason to play the game.

When I first started thinking about microtransactions my stance was that it’s fine.  The players who buy their way to the top miss out while the rest of us can enjoy the game as it was “meant” to be enjoyed.

The problem with thinking that is that more developers are going to move to this model to remain profitable as gaming advances.  As they do so more players will succumb to this model of playing a game until eventually it dominates the industry.

If you wonder what ill effects this could have, just imagine a game in which all achievement is essentially based upon how much money you are willing to spend.  End-game encounters are meaningless because you’re already in the best equipment.  Anybody who has raided in WoW (or any other MMO, really) will tell you that once your entire raid has better gear certain encounters become trivial.  The fun of an encounter in these games is often the challenge and difficulty.  Walking into a lower-tier raid in WoW was something you did for shits and giggles, not a genuine sense of accomplishment.

Competitive multiplayer in video games will also suffer immensely.  While ME3’s multiplayer is co-op, any game with microtransactions and a pvp model of multiplayer is going to, essentially, force players to buy items to be competitive.

Consider World of Warcraft once again.  While the pvp items are not based upon real currency, you do have to spend time playing to get those items.  These pvp items make it more difficult to kill a player wearing them.  When everyone in the match is in all pvp gear it just adds longevity to the fight and keeps it interesting.  When one side has no pvp gear and the other is decked out in the best, the fight lasts about ten seconds and is not at all interesting for the person being trounced.

This is the N7 Valiant. It is the best sniper rifle in ME3. You can obtain it by just spending enough money and never playing multiplayer.

Anybody who has done any competitive multiplayer that is that one-sided will tell you it is more frustrating than fun.  But this is the road we are heading down, a world in which microtransactions dominate the gaming industry as just another way for the companies to make more money off us.

It’s hard to say exactly where this will go, but the point of video games is to be rewarded for your progress (i.e. time spent) in the game.  In a model where people can take the easy, effortless way out many will.  As this happens the content of the game becomes less meaningful because it is, simply put, easier.  It’s not hard to imagine a future, dominated by microtransactions, in which developers put far less effort into the content of the games because they know gamers will circumvent those challenges by just purchasing better items.

Again, you may think I’m being alarmist but look at what other forms of DLC have turned into.  What started as a way to just add fun but unnecessary content to a game has turned into a medium to sell players an incomplete package and convince them they need to spend that extra $10 to really enjoy the game.

The more that we, the gamers, buy into the idea of microtransactions the more the developers are going to create them.