Monday, January 29, 2007

Message to a Senator

I sent an e-mail to a (Georgia state) senator today.

First, I should probably introduce myself. My name is *removed*, and I am a Computer Science major at *removed*. I recently saw this article on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website, and it worries me.

There are a multitude of problems with this proposed policy.

The first, and most obvious one, is enforcement- Neither of the websites cited in the article (Myspace and Facebook) are based in the state of Georgia. The Internet is also known as the "World Wide Web", and for good reason. As an example, I started a blog yesterday that's had over a dozen visitors- 2 from Washington state, 2 from California, 2 from Canada, 2 from the New England area, 1 from England, 1 from Germany, 1 from Egypt, 1 from India, and 1 from Japan, and 2 from the state of Georgia. This isn't a lot of people (nor is it a very large blog) but it serves to show just how widespread the Internet is- within a day of putting the page up, I had visitors from multiple continents.
The reverse is also true- I've visited web pages multiple times that I had to pass through a translator to glean the contents of. I regularly read news sources from England, Canada, and Australia. Myspace is not just a Georgian thing- it's an international thing. I do not have a Myspace page, but I've visited some. Regardless of if it was even possible in practice to implement an age verification system, how would you deal with the site if they did not?
A lawsuit against the company in question would be a drain on our taxpayers' dollars, for an unlikely outcome and little gain.
Blocking the site from everyone in the state of Georgia is censorship, plain and simple, and furthermore it is technologically unfeasible due to the physical nature of the Internet connections in America.
The Internet Service Providers (such as AOL and Comcast) are not responsible for the content people load on their computers, and could not practically block it.

Second, the proposed policy reeks of being an un-thought-out kneejerk reaction to the news stories about child molestations and murders that are tangentially related to Any form of contact to another human being through the anonymous wall of the internet has the potential to lead to disaster. It is true, and sadly regrettable, that people will abuse anonymity to claim that they are someone they are not- you need not go far on Myspace to see profiles claiming to be Mickey Mouse, for instance. (A quick search on Google finds multiple of them- several of which are actually informative of the history of Disney in general and the Mickey Mouse character specifically.)
However, the anonymity of the Internet is also one of its greatest benefits- the Communist government's censorship in China can be worked around through various anonymization tools, for instance.

However, most child abuse and child molestation cases do not come from outside. They come from inside- the majority of child abuse and child molestation cases are relatives of the child. It is unfortunate that it happens at all, but stifling the innovation of the Internet is not the answer. Most of Myspace's users are teenagers who use it to communicate with other teenagers. You shouldn't be stopping them from doing this. Don't go after the people who want to use a webpage on the internet as a tool to talk to their friends. Go after the people who use a webpage on the internet as a tool to harm people. Don't blame the tool, blame the person who abuses it. The "dozens of teens" that the article says you cited are a tiny, tiny minority of Myspace users, of which there are millions. Certainly, there shouldn't be anyone raped, molested, or killed, but punishing everyone for the actions of a tiny minority is not the answer.

Finally, requiring teenagers to have parental permission to use Myspace is a far cry from common sense. Would you also require them to have parental permission to use an Instant Messaging program or a chat protocol? There have been horror stories about the dangers of the Internet since before the early days of AOL. The vast majority of it does not materialize. The people of the internet are, as a rule, extremely good at policing themselves. While someone may decide to post a shock image (such as the infamous Goatse or Tubgirl images, neither of which I recommend you look up) on an internet forum, that user is typically banned from the site or chat room, or has his posts moderated down to invisibility, or gets put on the ignore list of everyone in the room, or whatever applies to that particular medium of communication.

Keep in mind, Senator, that the Internet is to today's generation what the telephone was to prior generations. The sitcoms of the past depicted teenagers spending all day on the telephone talking to their friends. Replace the telephone with the Internet and cell phones, and you've got the modern era of communication in a nutshell.
Furthermore, practically speaking, any teenager who has access to Myspace has his or her parents' de facto permission- that person has a computer and internet access, and either the parents have not installed "parental control" software, or they have it configured to allow Myspace.

In short, Senator, the bill you have proposed, if the AJC article is at all accurate, is a horrible idea- a kneejerk reaction that is not only ill-advised and contrary to the spirit of freedom for all that pervades America and the Internet, but also practically impossible to enforce.

I appreciate your concern and applaud your efforts, but this bill simply is not a good idea. I ask that you retract your support of this bill and rethink the policy you are proposing to one that is not contrary to freedom (many people choose to have anonymous Myspace accounts for the sole reason that they do not want to connect who they are on the Internet with who they are in real life- requiring parental permission would remove this anonymity, and revoke their means of protecting themselves) and is recognizant of the interstate and international boundaries (or lack thereof) and is somehow enforceable.

Personally, I suspect that the latter is next to an impossibility on the state level, and difficult on a national level. The internet behaves in a manner of its own, almost (but not quite) self-governing in practice if not in theory. However, as the specific sites in question (Myspace and Facebook) are both based within the United States, national law is applicable. A Georgia state law is irrelevant and would ultimately be self-defeating: any company considering a webpage that falls under the jurisdiction of the Georgia law would simply host it outside of Georgia to avoid having to meet the requirements.

Thank you,
*name removed*

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Short post today

I just submitted a level to the X-Moto people- it's titled "back and forth" because I'm horrible with naming, but I think the level plays pretty well- but obviously I'm biased. We'll see if the level goes in, if so that's my first real contribution to a Free Software project, even though a single level in a single game isn't much. Hopefully I'll be able to do a lot more later on.

The Roguelike Trap, or "Why savepoints matter"

First, let me give a quick definition of what I mean by the two kinds of savepoints:
1- The "pick up where you left off/overnight" kind. This is so you can continue playing the game when you get back from school, or when you wake up the next morning, or whatever, without having to turn the console/pc off.
2- The "checkpoint" kind. This is where you go back to when you die, but not necessarily a permanent save.

The best example games I can think of that demonstrate the difference between the two would be the Final Fantasy remakes on the Playstation 1. They had a "quicksave" feature that let you save anywhere and resume there if you died in addition to the normal save feature that would only let you save at a save point or on the world map (but was persistent- it saved to the memory card so you could turn the system off).

The "overnight" savepoints showed up in the early roguelikes, such as Hack, and one of the defining traits of the roguelike genre is that they don't have any checkpoints- only savepoints, and the game deletes the save when you die. In short, death is permanent.
The next major savepoint mentality is basically the same thing- you save the game, and if you die you simply load from your last save. This shows up a lot in modern RPGs.
The third major mentality that you see in games is that there will be two "classes" of savepoints- one that's more permanent and one that's more temporary. A mild form of this is visible in the recent RPG Final Fantasy XII- where there are actually three kinds of savepoints- the orange ones (which let you teleport with a fairly cheap item). These are the best place to leave the game overnight as they enable you to go basically anywhere when you start the game up the next day. They don't really serve the purpose of a checkpoint because they're never in the middle of a quest- they're usually at the end of a quest or in a town center. There are also blue ones in some places, which allow you to save, but not teleport- these serve the purpose of allowing you to stop what you're doing in the middle of a quest and set it aside, and also allow you to return there when you die. The third kind is also blue, but the game warns you that you're at a point of no return- you can't go backwards and return to a town to stock up, so the game warns you to suggest that you save it in a different file slot. These almost exclusively serve the purpose of checkpoints so you can return there when you die, but if you need to turn the console off you can pick up there.

They all function the same way- saving to the memory card- so they all allow for the overnight save, but this is more of a bonus for the player than anything else.
Let's go back to the roguelikes for a minute. The Hack/Nethack line of roguelikes are all fairly long games, lasting upwards of 10 hours. If you die, you have to start over completely, making playing these games an extremely frustrating experience. Despite that, plenty of persistent people have beat the games (I personally have beat Nethack) but they're definitely not for the faint of heart.
While hardcore Nethack players will vilify me for this statement, I am of the opinion that the "you die you start over" mentality is a terrible, antiquated design. Nobody wants to put 10 or more hours into a game only to have it wiped out by a death to something that they didn't even know could kill them- such as falling down a pit while holding a cockatrice corpse (even if you're wearing gloves!) - and have to start completely over. ADOM (Ancient Domains of Mystery) is an even worse offender in this regard, in large part due to the longer length of the game.
ADOM is a perfect example of a roguelike that could benefit from checkpoints, as it (unlike Nethack) is split up into multiple quests and dungeons. Having the game save your progress permanently after each dungeon would vastly improve the long-term playability of ADOM. (However, ADOM suffers from enough game design flaws to fill up multiple entries, so I'm not going to talk about it any more here.)
Advocates of the "permanent death" viewpoint claim it makes the game harder, and often point out that making a game save a true checkpoint can be done by copying the save file to a different folder, then restoring it if you die. However, if someone does this, they cry "cheater!" and refer to that player as a "savescummer". While it's possible to abuse the system (ie: save the game, kill a monster, see if it made a rare item drop, if not reset) simply doing it so that you don't have to start over after death is not abuse- it's compensating for a horrible game design.
There's a reason roguelikes have next to zero mainstream appeal- and that reason is not the graphics. It's the horrible game design prevalent in so many of them.

However, the modern RPG concept of savepoints is often flawed as well. It is undeniably true that death flat-out doesn't matter in modern RPGs- the savepoint is often placed right before the boss of a dungeon so that players don't have to repeatedly slog through the dungeon if they die to the boss. If you load up Final Fantasy XII, you can notice that every boss (and many, if not all of the hunt enemies) have a save point a very short distance preceding them. In short, you are free to restart and try again until you get it right, with no penalty other than wasting the 10 or 15 minutes it took you to die. While this is a much more tasteful proposition to people who play infrequently, it means that a hard boss results in nothing more than "Well, I've gained two levels and have a better weapon on all my characters, let's try that again."

Furthermore, the concept of "savepoints" often results in people being between savepoints when they have to leave somewhere, forcing them to either rush to the next savepoint (possibly skipping storyline events to do so) or give up what they've done in the interim. This isn't so bad if it's only 15 minutes of fairly easy stuff, but if it's something hard or time-consuming, this is a major annoyance to the player and shouldn't happen.

It seems that the best compromise would be to allow the player to save anywhere and resume from there overnight, but if they die, to throw them back to a predetermined checkpoint based on dungeon difficulty. This would require deleting the overnight save file so that people couldn't simply restart to use the save-anywhere feature. However, this poses its own complications unless a way around it is implemented.

Therefore, I propose the following savepoint system for future RPGs-
Every major town, dungeon entrance, etc has a save point that the player can use to save permanently. The player is allowed to save at any time for the purpose of turning the game off, but that non-permanent save file is deleted after it's loaded to prevent abuse. Dungeons, quests, and similar have checkpoints that they return the player to after they die- possibly even invisible so that players can't use them as cues to know a boss is upcoming or take excessive risks knowing that they don't lose anything after hitting the checkpoint.
Dying should have some form of penalty, though it must be carefully balanced so that the player does not merely restart at the previous "permanent" savepoint location- the player losing all his weapon and armor is obviously taking it too far- not only is the player losing stuff he likely spent a long time acquiring, it also makes him even more likely to die again. A better solution may be the simple death counter, which the serious player would insist upon keeping at 0 (perhaps for some reward at the end of the game) even if it does result in wasting the time of going back. Alternatively, the player taking a financial hit ingame (such as losing half his gold) may be a sufficient penalty to be annoying without being so severe that the average player is essentially forced to restart upon death.

The important part is that players are allowed to save anywhere so they can leave the game whenever they need to, while the game still penalizes somewhat for dying and doesn't allow them to use the save mechanism for abuse.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

First Post!

Ah, the internet tradition- the "First post". This is just a placeholder for now, and will likely be deleted when I put a real article up detailing what I'm going to do with this blog.

I guess I should probably put a little bit about me here. I'm a college student in the USA, majoring in Computer Science. I've played video games since I was a kid, and have a pretty strong interest in game design as well as the political implications of technology- which is where the "Freedom" in the title of this blog comes in. Right now, technology is a tool used by people for free speech, freedom of expression, etc- but it's also used by the government and large corporations to take away peoples' basic rights and freedom for money.

I haven't decided on a regular update schedule for this blog- I expect that I'll put a ton of stuff up over the next couple weeks with no real plan on timing then go to a more consistent schedule afterwards- probably something like 2-3 times a week, but no promises. After all, I'm in college and I have to deal with schoolwork and crap on occasion.

I'm willing to take suggestions on what to write about- feel free to leave comments.