Monday, February 23, 2009

How You Know That Something's Gone Terribly Wrong

...When your laptop computer begins making funny scritchy noises, and a dainty ribbon of dusty smoke rises from the back vent.

I'm off to the Apple Store to get it looked at. Until then, posts shall be in short supply!

Friday, February 13, 2009


I've been playing video games again a little bit lately. Well, one video game: Oblivion, being the fourth installment in the fantasy role-playing game series, "The Elder Scrolls".

I play video games, as most people do, for a variety of reasons. A less entertaining reason is that it's a stress reliever. A more entertaining reason is that I enjoy being in the role of someone who can accomplish spectacular things in other worlds, living through dramatic stories with no consequences to myself but emotional ones. I want to call lightning with the power of my mind, find ancient supernatural artifacts in underground caves, leap off mountains and survive. This is why I tend to play video games like "Oblivion".

"Oblivion", and the Elder Scrolls series in general, is a roleplaying game, and is somewhat unique in the video game world. The game starts you off as a forgotten prisoner in a dungeon; what you did to be put in the dungeon is never explained. As the game opens, the Emperor of the continent, voiced by Patrick Stewart, comes traipsing through your prison cell. His guards are very annoyed to see you there - apparently your cell houses a secret escape route from the city (if only you'd known!) and the Emperor is being chased by assassins. It looks like a bureaucratic mix-up stuck you in the middle of this - or maybe Destiny, because the Emperor recognizes your face. It seems he's seen you in his dreams. Before the next few hours are out, he'll be dead, and you'll be tasked with the mission of finding his illegitimate surviving heir and delivering to him a supernatural heirloom.

The story continues from there, of course, but if you just follow through that story and nothing else, you're missing the point. The world of "Oblivion" (and its predecessors "Morrowind" and "Daggerfall") is huge and open. It is over 16 square miles wide in 'real' absolute terms, with giant cities, small towns, open tracts of wilderness, rivers, mountains, swamps, forests, and people everywhere; that's not even counting the alien world of Oblivion (a combined metaphor for outer space and hell, believe it or not) which the player can venture to. It's a world to get lost in.

Sure, technology puts limits on the realism; some of the world is randomly generated, the people who populate the world have limited dialogue, and, well... you're playing a video game. It's as unrealistic on the edges as you would ultimately expect.

Still, "Oblivion" is powerful in that, within the loose bounds of the fantasy world provided, you can be anyone. You choose and design your own character, appearance, personality, skills and physical traits. It's easy to design a range of characters who do completely different things in this other world, live in different cities, befriend different people. This is the appeal of the role-playing game; god forbid I play a game like "World of Warcraft", in which the possibilities are truly infinite because you're surrounded by real people. It's this kind of thing that turns people into addicts, who sacrifice their outside social lives on the altar of a fantastic world where they can live lives they never could in the outside world.

Not I. There's an edge of frustration involved, and for me, it makes me want to write. A game like "Oblivion" has an inevitable story problem; it's sharply limited despite the openness of the world. There's only a few conversation options, and an ultimately finite number of unique stories you can experience in the world. Inevitably, most are predictable, and the ones that are surprising still amount to very very short stories once you subtract the amount of fighting and looting and exploring that you do to get from point A to point B. The beautiful world of the game triggers inspiration; walking down a woodland road in the rain holding an enchanted sword gives one a sense of possibility, a sense of wondering, for me, what this character that I have so carefully created might be doing or feeling walking down this road in another world. The game, good as it is, cannot but fall short of these speculations. It's from these frustrations that stories can be born.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


I just realized that my posts on Blogger for the last month of January totaled more than either of the past two years altogether. I didn't realize I'd been that bad with updates. On the other hand, now I feel a little more accomplished.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The 80's-90's Daycare Sexual Abuse Hysteria

I have this tendency, a tendency in which I am certainly not alone in possessing, to become interested in completely random subjects and devote excessive periods to studying them. I find this tendency gets worse when I'm sick, as I am now.

Subject of the hour: the day care sex abuse hysteria from the late 1980's to early 1990's. This was a moral panic touched off by an increase in day care centers and parents becoming insecure about them. A mentally ill grandmother and a schizophrenic alcoholic brought up some rather crazed accusations involving quite spectacular stuff - orgies, torture, child pornography rings, secret hidden tunnels, livestock and pet butchery, blood drinking, feces eating, Satanic worship and rituals... some daycare providers were even had a Satanic power of flight. All of this (minus the flight, which was generally ignored) was held credible by people across the nation, law enforcement officials and courts who rigged or forced convictions, and of course parents who knew 'in their hearts' that this had been true all along.

Of course, it wasn't. Kids were bullied into confessing, the lives of those accused were completely ruined, and, more subtly, I suspect some actual abuse cases were pushed under the rug once they all got the taint of the hysteria. And now arrogant young folk like me look back on this and say, "What were they thinking?"

Moral panics. They're fascinating things, really.

This article from the New York Times gives an interesting take on the whole thing. A choice quote:
In the prototypical witch hunts in Europe and in the Massachusetts colony, the accused were often scapegoats for some calamity -- disease, bad harvests, the birth of a deformed child. In the witch hunts of the 80's, there was no such injury to be avenged or repaired. There was, however, a psychological need to be fulfilled. Our willingness to believe in ritual abuse was grounded in anxiety about putting children in day care at a time when mothers were entering the work force in unprecedented numbers. It was as though there were some dark, self-defeating relief in trading niggling everyday doubts about our children's care for our absolute worst fears -- for a story with monsters, not just human beings who didn't always treat our kids exactly as we would like; for a fate so horrific and bizarre that no parent, no matter how vigilant, could have ever prevented it.

Many of those of my generation (I'm 23) may look at this with bemusement, as something 'our parents' worried about, something irrelevant, even, if an era post-9/11. But then again, most of those who fell for this craze lived through or had parents who lived through at least one World War; we are all equally susceptible to this brand of madness, I suspect.

Though I have to admit, as a writer, my first thought isn't so much "What can I, or we as a society, do to stop something like this from happening again?" so much as "How can I use this in one of the stories I'm writing?" I take comfort in the fact that my immorality is a shared one.