Two Boys Play Chess: Madness Follows


Matan Poleg (above left) and Omar Eltigani (right) were paired at the World Youth Chess Championships in South Africa last week. They played a game. Poleg won on the 45th move.

Outrage ensued. Denunciations were issued. The Sudanese media couldn’t even bring themselves to mention Matan Poleg’s name. The head of the Sudanese Chess Association resigned, offering grovelling apologies.

You already know the punchline to this, of course.

Poleg is an Israeli Jew. Eltigani is Sudanese. In the Muslim world, this is an unbearable outrage.

[a] top Sudanese religious official issued a scathing rebuke of the Sudanese government for not stopping Eltigani from playing, asserting that Sudan is in a state of war with the Jews and has a policy of not recognizing “the Zionist entity.” He said that competing against an Israeli player is tantamount to recognizing Israel and gives it legitimacy, according to Sudanese news site Al Nilin.

Two girls under age 10–one Israeli, one Algerian–were also matched, and were also forbidden to play:

An Israeli Arab girl was paired against an Algerian girl and the Algerian girl was not allowed to play the match, he said. The girls, who conversed in Arabic, were each awarded a point even though the match wasn’t played, he said.

Good ole fashioned Jew-hate: it’s never out of season, even in the world of chess. As a writer and magazine editor, I’ve covered chess before, and this is not unusual. WYCC doesn’t have the guts to do what they should do: ban any team that refuses to play against Israelis. Cowards.


Benedict: The Liturgy as a Game

Reading Ratzinger’s Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, this passage from Spirit of the Liturgy struck me again as a fascinating analogy (re-paragraphed for ease of reading):

download (2)What is the liturgy? What happens during the liturgy? What kind of reality do we encounter here? In the 1920s the suggestion was made that we should understand the liturgy in terms of “play”. The point of the analogy was that a game has its own rules, sets up its own world, which is in force from the start of play but then, of course, is suspended at the close of play.

A further point of similarity was that play, though it has a meaning, does not have a purpose and that for this very reason there is something healing, even liberating, about it. Play takes us out of the world of daily goals and their pressures and into a sphere free of purpose and achievement, releasing us for a time from all the burdens of our daily world of work. Play is a kind of other world, an oasis of freedom, where for a moment we can let life flow freely.

We need such moments of retreat from the pressure of daily life if its burden is to be bearable. Now there is some truth in this way of thinking, but it is insufficient. It all depends on what we are playing. Everything we have said can be applied to any game, and the trouble is that serious commitment to the rules needed for playing the game soon develops its own burdens and leads to new kinds of purposefulness. Whether we look at modern sport or at chess championships or, indeed, at any game, we find that play, when it does not degenerate into mere fooling about, quickly turns from being another world, a counter-world or non-world, to being a bit of the normal world with its own laws.

We should mention another aspect of this theory of play, something that brings us closer to the essence of the liturgy. Children’s play seems in many ways a kind of anticipation of life, a rehearsal for later life, without its burdens and gravity. On this analogy, the liturgy would be a reminder that we are all children, or should be children, in relation to that true life toward which we yearn to go. Liturgy would be a kind of anticipation, a rehearsal, a prelude for the life to come, for eternal life, which St. Augustine describes, by contrast with life in this world, as a fabric woven, no longer of exigency and need, but of the freedom of generosity and gift.

Seen thus, liturgy would be the rediscovery within us of true childhood, of openness to a greatness still to come, which is still unfulfilled in adult life. Here, then, would be the concrete form of hope, which lives in advance the life to come, the only true life, which initiates us into authentic life—the life of freedom, of intimate union with God, of pure openness to our fellowman. Thus it would imprint on the seemingly real life of daily existence the mark of future freedom, break open the walls that confine us, and let the light of heaven shine down upon earth.

Real Catholic Men Can Play Games

The 40 Year Old Virgin

“You know how I know you’re Catholic?”

A couple weeks back I read something by a priest arguing that Real Catholic Men should not play videogames. The article was pointless and ill-informed, and proved mostly that the author had not one single solitary clue about his subject matter and only the vaguest notion about “videogames” and the people who play them.

We were treated to the standard hand-wringing about man-children, wasting time, how people could be improving themselves rather than engaging in “pointless” activity, and so on. Honestly, the piece could have written itself by dropping almost any cultural artifact–rock music, comic books, TV–into a Disapproval-o-Matic and churning out the same hollow junk.

I want to just point out two of the main problems with these useless critiques: the assumption that playing a computer, mobile, or video game interferes with life, and the idea that it’s somehow unmanly and time-wasting.

Let’s look at the time factor first, and imagine two dialogs with the author, who we’ll call Fr.  Beaman.

A man in his 20s comes to visit Father for counseling. Part of their conversation goes something like this:

MAN: I spend about 12-15 hours a week following professional sports, and another 3-5 on my fantasy sports league and brackets. I also watch about 2 hours of TV a night.

FR. BEAMAN: Ho, ho! How about those (insert local sports team)!

Now let’s imagine a different exchange:

MAN: I spend about 12-15 hours a week playing Civilization V or Titanfall. I don’t really watch TV. I don’t like sports.

FR. BEAMAN: [curls his lip in disgust] And you call yourself a man?

Here’s the thing: I don’t follow sports, at all. Ever. I don’t judge people who do, but I think it is one of the most mind-numbing, pointless activities I can imagine.

If a man spends his leisure time in a complex and deep game world in which he takes an active part, while another man spends the same amount of time watching TV or following football (a fundamentally passive act), the second man is somehow judged to be more “manly” and not “wasting his time.”

This doesn’t follow. There’s nothing less “masculine” about playing World of Warcraft than there is in watching American Idol or Monday Night Football, or even going fishing. It runs afoul of none of the three moral determinants (object, end, and circumstance), and given the complexity of modern electronic gaming, it is not an empty or mindless activity.

Gamers watch far less television than non-gamers. One could even argue that gaming is morally superior to television because it can engage the intellect, stimulate the imagination, and require an element of physical interaction, whereas television renders the individual into a passive receiver.

If you’re a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, sure, I’ll give you extra “Man Points” if that’s important to you, just like I would if you were a soldier, fireman, ironworker, commercial fisherman, or longshoreman.

But if you just follow the Philadelphia Eagles? No. You’re just a guy sitting on a couch watching other men exert themselves for your amusement.

Beyond this, parsing who is a “real man” and who isn’t is a fool’s errand. Masculinity is not a set of things to be checked off a list.

The second criticism is the “you’re wasting your life” bit. We get the usual examples: you could be hiking! Learning a language! Deepening your faith! Helping the needy!

So one precludes the other? Why?

Here’s a partial list of things I have done in my life: camped, fished, sailed, fired a variety of weapons, built things out of wood and metal, painted and sketched, written and published books, learned to play several instruments, traveled to foreign countries, been in a fight, worked on a television series, earned the love of a good woman, made love to said woman, sired children, studied and taught the faith, volunteered thousands of hours, worked with the poor and sick, raised money for a charity, prayed daily, earned two advanced degrees (one of them in Theology), learned a language, raised and cared for a variety of animals, played a team sport, took care of my dying father, run a 6-minute mile, chopped a tree and made a fire, earned an income and supported a family, paid a mortgage, conducted pilgrimages, and earned a reputation in my profession.

Some of these I still do. Some of them I tried and do not enjoy, and thus will not likely do them again. I do not like camping, for example. My wife loves it. We’ve tried to compromise. I can take or leave fishing. I don’t oppose hunting but neither do I enjoy it. I’m not handy. And although my physical problems sometimes limit my ability to get around in the world, I don’t feel this makes me less of a man or my life less full.

Thus, this idea that all men who play games are living withered and incomplete lives is a fantasy. Some men indeed may be letting games interfere with a full life, and that is a problem just like any other disordered attachment. If Father had merely said “Men who overdo the gaming thing need to get out now and then and see the world,” he would have had no complaint from me. An obsession is bad regardless of the object.

But that wasn’t the point being made. Gaming was singled out as something no Catholic man worth his manhood should be doing.

Well, I’m a man, and like many other men my age (46), as well as men both older and younger, I enjoy computer and videogames now and then.

And that’s just fine.


Tech Addiction:Technology & The Synod on the Family

Alienation: Technology & The Synod on the Family

Tech Addiction:Technology & The Synod on the Family

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.

The working document for the upcoming Synod on the Family lists “Dependence, the Media, and the Social Network” as one of the critical situations within the Family. The passage identifies various areas of concern with the way media and technology impacts the life of the family. I’m breaking these down into four distinct categories:

  • Addiction: Compulsive and damaging use of new technology.
  • Alienation: The ability of technology and media to push us further apart, eroding relationships within the family.
  • Values: Transmission of false values.
  • Information Noise: Information overloaded coupled with the dubious quality of much of what we see and read.

I’m going to try to write a post on each of these, starting with addiction.

Technology Addiction
Electronic gadgets have a powerful gravitational pull. The quick look at Facebook becomes an endless spiral of links, memes, cute videos, and listicles. A session of World of Warcraft doesn’t end until five hours later. There’s a growing unease when five minutes pass without checking a smartphone.

What do all these behaviors have in common other than the general medium of “new technology?” What do they provide that makes them so appealing and hard to resist?

Technology use stimulates pleasure in the brain. The stimulation of pleasure is nothing new for humans: a sight, sound, smell, sensation, or taste can give us pleasure or trigger some psychological or physiological response. The smell of a sizzling steak can make us hungry. The touch of a lover’s hand can make us aroused.

This pleasure-seeking behavior is not in itself always a problem, but it can easily be taken to excess and lead to sinful and illegal acts. People have over-eaten, used pornography, used drugs, and found other ways of stimulating pleasure. Those who did so compulsively and to excess became addicted: that is, they lost the will to break away from a certain behavior even after that behavior became destructive.

Today, we see new forms addiction with excessive use of social media, inability to disconnect from technology, long hours spent in virtual environments such as games, and pornography.

These addictions pose a different challenge to us because they are free and easy to indulge, they are in the home, and often they appear harmless.

Checking your Facebook status is a perfectly reasonable behavior. Checking it a hundred times a day is not.

Playing a video or computer game for a couple hours is a nice way to spend the time and even interact with friends. Playing the game for 5 or 8 hours at a stretch is unhealthy.

The barrier to finding pornography has vanished. In the past, a man (it’s almost always men) had to buy certain magazines, rent certain movies, or go to certain parts of town to experience pornography. That involved being seen in public and interacting with people, with all the attendant embarrassment and potential social stigma that entails (or, at least, used to entail before the mainstreaming of porn).

Now porn is, literally, anywhere you want it, any time, for free. You can carry an endless supply around in your pocket. Your kids can find it by typing harmless phrases into a search engine. This drastically reduces the challenge of getting it. The effect is akin to running a line of sewage into every house in America.

Thanks to the internet and our gadgets, we are now living full-time in a Skinner Box. Technically called an “operant conditioning chamber,” a Skinner Box is a basic research device in which a cue signals a test subject to perform an action for a reward. The light goes on, the rat hits a lever, a food treat is dispensed.

The structure of much new media and technology creates a compulsion loop. We see something (for example, a link to a video), we click it and experience it, and we react emotionally, either with pleasure or outrage. In either case, there is a psychological and, potentially, neurochemical, reaction. And it was all effortless.

With social media, we shape an image of ourselves through status, comments and link-sharing; projecting that image into the virtual space and then revising it for reactions which provide affirmation. Even people engaged in hostile and trolling behavior online are responding to a pleasure drive: it’s just that their pleasure comes from making others feel bad. Their pleasure is found in unleashing the id in a consequence-free environment.

Games provide instant gratification and constant feedback. They are cannily designed to balance risk and reward in order to keep the gamer playing. There’s always another level, another batch of gold or points, another foe. The compulsion loop is actually part of the design.

(And we haven’t even seen the worst of it. Members of the Synod are probably unaware that we’re preparing to sail into uncharted waters of virtual reality with Oculus Rift. If Call of Duty on a screen is addictive for some people now, imagine it as a fully immersive virtual world with a headset that shuts out the world. Pornographers are already trying to figure out how to harness its power to deliver visual and tactile sexual stimulation.)

Is there an answer to addiction?

Not an easy one, no. To some degree, many of us already probably have it in our households and experience it ourselves. How many of us feel twitchy without our smartphones or check to see who liked or shared a recent post or comment? How many have kids who need to dragged away from videogames or YouTube? How many men dial up some quick and easy porn?

We need to learn to draw back, as families, because as families we can do things together that might be more difficult to do alone.

Families need digital detox days in which they unplug in part or completely for a day in order to reconnect with the world around us. We need to set limits on how long we spend, and if we can’t set those limits ourselves, we need to use tools which turn off certain sites or block certain technology after a specified amount of time.

Our technology needs to find its proper place in the scheme of family life so there’s no room for addictions and compulsive behavior to take root.

Simple actions like this may help us face some challenges, but long-term solutions are going to be hard to come by. All of this technology is still new and we haven’t yet learned to fear it as much as we love it.

Fire is easy. Fire burns. We learn to respect its power and harness is for positive ends.

The internet, mobile devices, and other new media do not burn; not right away at least. We’re the proverbial frog in the pot, enjoying the rising temperature of the water so much that by the time we notice it’s boiling we’re already dead.

Titanfall [Game Review]

Since we’re getting into the summer months, I thought I’d run a few more game reviews, starting with that rarest of all things: a multiplayer shooter that I don’t hate.

You see, Titanfall (Electronic Arts: PC/Xbox 360/Xbox One) is fun.

Yeah, I know: big deal. It’s game. Isn’t “being fun” a basic part of its purpose?

If you’ve playing many multiplayer shooters lately, you’ll know “fun” doesn’t always follow. Grim, violent, often excessive, hard, and dominated by obnoxious teenagers? That’s your basic Call of Duty experience.

Titanfall seems to sidestep much of that, at least in its PC incarnation. When it was released, Titanfall was dismissed as Call of Duty: Robots thanks to a complete failure of the imagination on the part of reporters. See, it’s a multiplayer shooter developed by people who worked on Modern Warfare, so let’s write it off with a cutesy log line and move along.

The CoD comparison has absolutely opposite effects depending upon platform. Tag something as CoD: Robots and the Xbox players will line up at midnight. Say the same thing to PC gamers, however, and many of us will return to DOTA or Transistor. And that seems to be the case here: PC gamers are not giving the game much love, and Respawn is returning the favor by dropping modes and app support from the PC version.

I really hate it when mom and dad fight like this, because Titanfall is the first fun multiplayer shooter I’ve enjoyed since … gosh, was it really Battlefield: Bad Company 2? Crikey.

And Titanfall is just dang entertaining. It offers a great rewards structure and makes the player feel powerful and important. Despite an introduction/tutorial that utterly fails to convey the true nature of the game—making it look like, well, CoD: Robots with lots of wall-running–I stuck with it and found one of the real gems of PC action gaming, and one which also shines on consoles as well.

Titanfall is a first person shooter in which you play as footsoliders (“pilots”) who can also control giant mechs called Titans. The game is fun whether you’re just running around as a pilot with his standard weapons, or inside hulking, powered chunks of battle armor. This balance itself is a minor miracle of design. The footsoldier bits should be just a time-killer while you wait for your new Titan to be delivered, but the agility and unique properties of the pilots make this mode every bit as entertaining.

There are classes, of course: a standard soldier with an automoatic weapon, a heavy with a shotgun, and a light “assassin” class with a multi-shot autotargeting pistol.  Pilots can run up walls, access areas unavailable to Titans, ride titans (either friendly, just for a lift; or enemy, in order to take over the mech), and even do some damage to the big boys with shoulder-mounted rockets. They even have jetpacks! As you earn points you get upgrades and other bonuses for climbing the ranks.

Like pilots, Titans come in light, medium, and heavy varieties, ranging from the light and fast Stryder to the slow heavy tanklike Ogre. The pilots sit inside the cockpits and control these beasts like more agile, stripped-down versions of Battlemechs from MechWarrior. They don’t have the subtly of control and more complex power management that made MechWarrior the flight sim of robot games, but they make up for it with speed and power.

The game is exclusively multiplayer, which is a weakness. It’s clear that the issue wasn’t programming AI opponents. The game is full of grunts: AI-controlled canon fodder for each side in a multiplayer session. (These are great targets to have around, by the way, since they’re easier to kill and ensure that the game relatively modest 12-player maximum doesn’t lead to long empty stretches with nothing to do.) Even the campaign game is lacking in drama. It’s odd that to see developers expend this kind of effort on world-building and then not attempt to populate it with some kind of narratives.

It’s hard to really put a finger on what works so well, but the game just makes you feel good. The AI characters bend the curve just right so less skilled players have something to do. There’s a real sense of power behind the mechs and weapons, and pilots and Titans are equally fun to play due to their distinct qualities. Finally, the radio chatter, bots, and mission structure just make you feel kind of important, like you matter in this game world. Military shooters almost always begin with some kind of grim intro or “listen up, maggots” training session designed to make you feel like loser, but Titanfall is designed to make you feel like a tiny god in armor, and I like that a lot better.

Content Issues For Parents: Rated M for Mature. This is a violent shooter, so it’s for discerning older teens and adults. Since it’s online, there’s no controlling the nature of the text chatter. Violence, blood, gore, and some swearing is present, although not with the grim and amoral nihilism that’s characterized shooters lately. Half the action is fighting in robots.

This is a team-based first-person shooter in which players fight as either members of a militia or as soldiers from the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation. Players use a variety of firearms (e.g., pistols, machine guns, missiles, grenades, mines, sniper rifles) and mech-style robots called Titans to seek out and kill enemy forces. Titans use their robotic arms to punch soldiers and vehicles and can also use large-scale firearms (e.g., chain guns, mine launchers, electric pulse guns) to kill enemies. Combat is frenetic and realistically depicted, with frequent cries of pain, impact sounds, and blood splashes. Some weapons blow enemies apart into small chunks of flesh; Titans can also punch enemy soldiers or crush enemy Titan pilots until they burst into chunks. The words “f**k” and “sh*t” appear in the dialogue.

Nintendo Says No to Gay Love

The grand modern project to jam homosexuality into every orifice of modern life has hit a brick wall at Nintendo.

The family-friendly publisher is getting ready to bring their bizarre life sim series Tomadachi to America as a 3DS title called Tomadachi Life. Part of the gameplay is having your characters fall in love, and the advocates of the Love That Just Won’t Shut The Hell Up Already are vexed that same-sex couplings will not be part of a gentle, child-friendly game. They’ve started a hashtag called #Miiquality to protest, because it’s 2014 and that’s what you do.

Nintendo had this to say:

The ability for same-sex relationships to occur in the game was not part of the original game that launched in Japan, and that game is made up of the same code that was used to localize it for other regions outside of Japan. The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation. We hope that all of our fans will see that Tomodachi Life was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game and that we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary.

Interestingly, the very first version of the game had male-male relationships, possibly as the result of a glitch. They were removed in the first patch.

Gay marriage isn’t legal in Japan.

Another Look at Bioshock: Infinite

I was disappointed in Bioshock: Infinite in the end. The game started out like gangbusters, with an incredible world, solid action, and the same kind of set-up that allowed designer Ken Levine to explore complex issues in such depth with the original Bioshock.

Then all of it ran aground on the shoals bad ideas, all of them linked to the festering problem at the core of the game: nihilism. The thin silver strand of hope and moral seriousness that made the grim world of the original bearable is almost completely repudiated in the sequel. It’s odd: the world of Bioshock: Infinite is more bright and beautiful than the world of the original, but the world of the original was less morally oppressive.

The worst thing Levine did with the sequel was to twist the best character–Elizabeth–into a force for evil. I kept expecting him to pull back and offer redemption, but nope: he just kept doubling down right through an ending that mocked baptism and the very notion of freewill, and DLC that made her character even worse.

Catholic writer Paul Schumann has posted an interesting review that provides some good perspective on the game:

Levine has said he doesn’t set out to write a story for any particular agenda. Levine deserves credit for writing characters who are interesting rather than seeking to please whichever interest groups are in vogue. He certainly achieves that — there’s no question that the Lutece twins, Booker, and Elizabeth are beloved by fans. But what is BioShock: Infinite trying to say if choice is meaningless? Through Infinite’s tale of amnesia, madness, death, and despair, the player learns that attempting to do good is folly. Death for the protagonist is the only way peace can be secured; you can’t see Booker and Elizabeth ride off into the sunset. I almost wonder if Infinite’s nihilistic ending is a sly statement about the huge amounts of time gamers spend with their favorite pastime. In a way, the only way to stop the madness of Infinite is to stop playing the game. As much as “player choice” may be a tired or poorly executed game mechanic, the fact does not change that we are human beings who can and must choose.

At best, Infinite warns the player not to be Booker. According to Thomas Aquinas, Natural Law can be discerned by reason, so one’s path shouldn’t be regarded as entirely a result of chance, environment, or fate. If anyone is doomed, it is the person living an unexamined life. Booker DeWitt would seem to fit the bill. He’s not concerned with good or bad — he’s the guy with the gun. In light of that, the takeaway from BioShock: Infinite is simple (forget trying to explain the rabbit holes of different dimensions). Booker’s unexamined life makes him a slave to his passions, and refusing to face his faults leads him to use religion as yet another excuse for his bad behavior.

Read it all.

Anti-Gaming Crusader Charged With Gun-Running

Number of people killed by video games: still zero.

Number of people killed by weapons allegedly smuggled by Democratic Senator and video game industry scourge Leland Yee: unknown, but given that the FBI claims Yee conspired with crime lord Kwok Cheung “Shrimp Boy” Chow to bring $2 million worth of weapons into the country from the Philippines, and that machine guns and motherflippin’ rocket launchers were among the weapons included, I’d say the answer is much more than zero.

You should look at the criminal complaint yourself. It’s long, but it really gets cooking about Yee’s gun suppliers and schemes around page 93 or so.

The whole thing reads like a script treatment for a Chow Yun-fat movie, complete with guns, drugs, smuggling, violence, Asian organized crime syndicates, goofy nicknames, and crooked pols.

Honestly, all it needs is a handsome guy in dark sunglasses firing pistols with both hands to complete the cast and we’re ready to put this thing before the cameras. Let’s make it happen, people!

Yee was one of the more irritating critics of video games. He just plain lied about the ESRB (the organization that provides parental ratings for games) by claiming they knew about the Grand Theft Auto “hot coffee mod” when they rated the game, when of course a mod is something applied to software by a user after purchase.

He managed to create enough hysteria to push through laws criminalizing the sale of M-rated games to minors. Those laws were so blatantly unconstitutional that they were not merely struck down by the courts, but the state of California had to pay the Entertainment Software Industry over $300,000 in legal fees.

Yee’s background as a child psychologist lent a certain amount of credibility to his claims that violent videogames caused violent behavior in minors. In fact, there is no such direct link. During the same period in which game sales rose rapidly, violent crime declined.

Hey, you know what causes violent crime? Illegal weapons smuggled into America from foreign countries under the aegis of corrupt politicians.

Yee was also a notorious foe of the second amendment and critic of gun owners, which just adds a thick layer of Schadenfreude-Flavored Icing to this Layer Cake of Overdue Justice.

So, yeah, I’m just gonna sit back,  cut myself a slice, make a nice White Russian, and enjoy this one.

Some more of my posts on games and violence:

Game Violence Debate Returns to Washington

Videogames and the Family

Choosing the Right Game For Your Kids

Since comboxes are closed for Lent, you can reach me via The Twitters.