Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Playing Fortnite as a Pacifist

As both a pastor and a lifelong gamer, I often dip my toes into the game du jour.

I played Candy Crush.  Once.'t my thing.  I played Pokemon Go, for about an hour.  Cute and good exercise, but again, not really my thing.

And The Game right now?  It's Fortnite Battle Royale, a wild free-for-all third person shooter/building game.  One hundred players start it, parachuting onto an island from a "battle bus."  There, players spend their time collecting weapons and equipment and resources to build forts, as a lethal energy storm slowly closes in and the play area gets smaller and smaller.

The goal: survive as long as you can.  Top 25 is great.  Top ten is better.  And being number one, the last player standing?  That takes some skill.

I wasn't sure how much I'd enjoy the game.  But my son downloaded it to our PS4, and so I gave it a go.

I was terrible.  I am terrible at the game as it is meant to be played.  I can't hit the side of a barn.  I can't build.

Yet most of the time, I'm top ten out of a hundred.  Sometimes, top two or three.  How?  Because I've found it's highly entertaining to play as a pacifist. 

In a game defined by gathering weapons and aggressively harvesting resources and building, I don't do either.

I don't collect weapons.  Oh, maybe a pistol, because it's easier to be small if you're holding a pistol instead of a pickaxe.  But I don't use it for anything other than reducing my profile.  I pick up heals and shield potions as I can find them, and then...I sneak.  I hide.  I move from shadow to shadow, behind trees, under stairs, and in bushes.

I also don't build.  Because building calls attention to yourself, makes you a target, brings in the aggressive players, instigates conflict over resource.  Why bother?

I don't hurry out of the Battle Bus, plunging in a wild rush to the island to grab resources and fight for advantage.  I wait as late as possible, and then open my glider immediately.  Then I peacefully float above the island, as the fighting begins far below me and rages on.  I have no part of it.  By the time I land neatly in the center of the storm's first circle, nearly four minutes of game time have elapsed, and typically half of the players who started have already been eliminated.

Then I just move slowly and quietly, and find cover.  If I choose that cover well, I might not move for ten minutes.

In a round I played yesterday, I got to number two, tucking myself neatly into a crevice in his fort while the gamer who would ultimately win fired wildly at nothing for nearly five minutes, building and building and building as the storm closed in tight.  

Eventually, I walked out into the open, pickaxe in hand, and stood there until the player saw me and ended the game.  Good for you, buddy!

My son thinks playing this way is insane, and he's probably right.  Camping in a virtual bush for 15 minutes with no intention of winning is...odd.  But it changes the whole dynamic of Fortnite.

Early in the game, it's peculiarly calming.  Soaring down, gentle as a dandelion, selecting your landing place with care.  Then finding cover and sitting quiet and watching the storm billow and the simulated grasses rock in a softly blowing virtual breeze.  You just sit and chill.  Maybe read a blog post.  It's nice.

Midgame, as other players build and battle one another, it's fascinating to watch their frantic exchanges, and more situational awareness is required to move stealthily, seek optimal position, and choose cover good enough that another player can run right by you and not notice.

Endgame requires considerable focus and a sense of where the remaining players are, as you move from cover to cover inward, the storm tightening into a tiny ring.  It also means...when you're in the top five...that you get to watch some brilliant and subtle building skills, reminiscent of something out of Inception or Doctor Strange.  And playing hard-core anyone who's stealth-played Metal Gear games will attest...can be genuinely intense.

Do you win?  No.  It's possible, if the other player fell or got trapped in the storm.  I know it has happened, and have seen the videos from others who use the same playstyle.

But the goal of pacifist play is different.  Success is not "winning" at the expense of others.  Not zero sum.  But enjoying the game, as you wish to play it.  

And that such a strategy means  consistently making top decile doesn't hurt, either.

There's a lesson in there somewhere, I think.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

On Trump and Cyrus

Over the last couple of bizarre years, the evangelical movement in the United States has faced something of a conundrum.

On the one hand, they've just gotten everything they've ever wanted in the political realm.  They've gotten a president who aggressively declares his support for the core political aims of evangelicals.  Finally, after enduring eight years of Obama forcing Christians into reeducation camps, where we all had to wear hijabs while watching drag queens dressed like Streisand sing the Internationale, a president who respects Christian values.

He's pro-life, pro-America, pro-guns, and promises to protect white American Christianity behind that big beautiful wall that's going up any day now.

On the other hand, the president is flagrantly, transparently, and obviously not a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  He built much of his business empire on gambling, and his brand on being a Hefner-style playboy who trades in his wives for younger models...while still fooling around with whatever he can get on the side.  He celebrates conspicuous consumption and the power of Mammon.  He's brash, profane, and a deeply skilled bully.  He lies without shame.  The spirit of repentance and selfless humility that defines the Way of Jesus is not to be found in the golden-calf shine of his brand.

He is not a Christian.  I mean, c'mon.  If the ethic that governs your life is the opposite of what Jesus asked us to believe, and you don't do anything Jesus taught us to do, you are not a Christian.  That's not being judgmental, any more than saying "Anton LaVey was not a Christian" is being judgmental.  It's simply a statement of fact.

And that gobsmackingly obvious empirical reality creates a dissonance in the evangelical movement.  The president is not part of the Jesus thing, in language, appearance, form, belief, or deed.  He is Other, and for a movement that often relies on Other-fear more than it should, that's challenging.  

When confronted with a dissonance that threatens to destabilize our self-understanding, human beings have various coping mechanisms.  We can resolve the dissonance through honest self-appraisal, after which we change our path and redefine ourselves honestly.

Or we can find a way to rationalize, which is a hell of a lot easier on our pride.

In choosing door number two, evangelicals have gone digging through their bibles in search of an obvious infidel/unbeliever who served God's purposes.  For that, they've taken a cue from the far-right and ultra-orthodox in Israel, and point to an unusual figure in scripture: Cyrus of Persia. 

Cyrus, though he was the farthest thing from a Jew, liberated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity and helped re-establish them in the land of Israel.  The book of the prophet Isaiah praises Cyrus as an instrument of YHWH, going so far as to describe him as a mashiach, an "anointed one" of God.

Over the last year and a half, I've been researching Cyrus and the fall of Babylon for a recently drafted work of historical fiction, and having immersed myself in both contemporary histories and ancient texts about Cyrus the Great, I can say without reservation: The idea that our current POTUS is Cyrus?  

It's total bollocks.

Why?  Because Cyrus of Persia, as a leader, bore almost no resemblance to the current president of the United States.  Sure, they were both male bipedal hominids, but that's pretty much where the similarities ended.

Cyrus was raised as a warrior-scholar, and was front and center as a general.   He was a remarkably dangerous opponent on the battlefield, and a long-game strategist in all of his conquests.  But he wasn't a chickenhawk.  When Persia fought, Cyrus fought on the front lines.  That was, in point of historical fact, how he died...fighting alongside his "Immortals" against an insurgent barbarian queen.  He did not stay back in the royal city of Pasargadae, carefully nursing his bone spurs on the tennis court.

Cyrus of Persia was a man of deep personal honor.   He kept his word, which meant he could be trusted by both friend and foe to honor an agreement.  He was a legendarily good and faithful husband to his beloved wife Cassandane, whose death was recorded as a shattering tragedy in his life.

Cyrus of Persia united his people.  He didn't play to one group or another, because that kind of "disruptive leadership" does not unite a nation around a single purpose.  Just as a moral person directs themselves towards a unifying purpose, so too does a moral nation find its identity in great aims.  In that, Cyrus assiduously cultivated an image of honor and nobility among his people.  He knew, as humanity has known from ancient times, that chaos, moral ambiguity, and devouring entropy are not the tools of greatness.

Cyrus of Persia was a classical liberal, whose primary strength as a leader was a deep and respectful understanding of other cultures and their strengths.  He was perfectly willing to learn from other societies, and to integrate them into the greater Persia he spent his life building.  For pointed example, after defeating Croesus of Lydia...the man who pretty much invented currency...most historical accounts tell us that he brought Croesus back to Persia.  There, he replicated Lydia's success in creating a trusted monetary system for Persia.  Cyrus also knew other cultures and peoples were all potential allies, and knew that Persia was strengthened by honoring her neighbors rather than bullying them.  Ahem.

Cyrus, by reputation, was a man of unusual graciousness.  He treated defeated enemies with respect, often co-opting them into his empire.  He did this with Croesus, with his uncle Astyages after the defeat of the Medes, and with Nabonidus, emperor of Babylon, whom he spared.  His prodigious abilities on the battlefield were ultimately less significant than his ability to win over the hearts and minds of his enemies.

Cyrus was respected, deeply, by those who were enemies of Persia.  Even the Greeks--no friends of Persia--looked on him as a model of what it meant to be a perfect leader.  Xenophon's Cyropaedia, written from an Athenian perspective, may be more hagiography than reliable history...but it's a mark of how powerfully Cyrus was held in regard in the ancient world. not the case with the POTUS now.

To be utterly honest, there is one interesting similarity between the two, a similarity that's at the narrative heart of my now-drafted novel manuscript.  

How did Babylon fall?  Not battles.  Not force of arms.  From the admittedly variable historical record, it's apparent that Cyrus of Persia significantly used disinformation and weaponized information to conquer Babylon.  The "fake scrolls" produced by Cyrus and his scribes brought Babylon to her knees.

Building on the festering resentments of Babylonian conservatives, Cyrus used weaponized information and propaganda to drive a deep wedge between the worshippers of the traditional Babylonian god Marduk and the royal house of Nabonidus and Belshazzar.  It meant that when Cyrus invaded, Babylon was so divided against itself that it folded like wet tissue paper before his advancing Persian armies, and that the gates of the city of Babylon itself opened to him as a triumphant hero.

Though Babylon the Great had stood as the greatest power in the ancient near east for generations, Cyrus so completely divided Babylon that it was forever shattered as a nation.

So I suppose, to be fair, that this may yet prove to be a similarity between the two.

Which is something I'm sure American evangelicals can feel good about.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Lent, Social Media, and Social Isolation

I haven't had that rough a Lent since I tried to give up coffee.

To be honest, I thought it'd be easy.  My discipline, for the Lenten season, was simply to curtail my level of social media engagement.  I allowed myself one hour in the morning, and nothing more.  After nine in the AM, I was done for the day.

No more Facebook.  No more Twitter.  That was it.

This seemed entirely viable, and for a day or so, it felt fine.  Just a quick check in, and then on to my day.  How civilized!  How straightforward!

And with the increasingly pernicious hold that corporatized social media has had on our culture, it also felt faintly empowering.  No more manipulation!  No more everyone freaking out about everything always!  No more microtargeted ads I don't need to see!

But after a week or so, it began to feel rather less positive, and significantly more...isolating.

In large part, that's because the dynamics of my life have trended towards isolation.  As a pastor, I serve a wonderful community of souls, but my work with my sweet little Jesus tribe is very part time, and I'm not nearby.  That means I may see that group of people Wednesdays and Sundays, but otherwise I'm working remotely.  Meaning, by myself.

I've also been trying to make a go of it as a writer, with modest success.  Writing, though, is a semi-monastic avocation, also involves a tremendous amount of time spent by oneself.

With that, and with my offspring now both basically adults and my time as a shuttle-dad at an end, I find myself in a position familiar to a surprisingly large number of American adults.

I'm alone, most of the time.

I've always been an introvert, so my energies do tend that way, and I'm comfortable with...and need...more time by myself than most souls.  There are boundaries, though, to what is and is not healthy solitude.

Four days out of seven, from the point at which I drop my wife off at the metro in the morning to early evening, my life currently involves functionally zero face-to-face human interaction.  I might talk to a friend now and again, or get a call from family.

But most days, it's pretty much just me and the empty house.  If I go for a walk, it's me and an empty suburban neighborhood, one that seems less "quiet" and more "desolate" in the middle of what for most folks is their working day.

Like many who look around and realize things have become too quiet, I'll find ways to get out, creating intentional inefficiencies in my day.  I'll do smaller grocery shops, fully aware that I'd rather walk or bicycle to get a small load of groceries simply because it means I'm not rattling around at home.  I'll hit the library for books.  I volunteer, delivering food for Meals on Wheels, which gives me an opportunity to be socially present for the chronically ill and the elderly.  I feel their isolation, and taking a few moments to talk and be present is as life-giving for me as it is for them.

In the context of that life, social media had become a synthetic proxy for human interaction in my day.  It is...for good or ill...a virtual watercooler, to which I can go and get a sense that there are still other human beings out there that I know and that know me.  I like, I retweet, or I comment, and it almost feels like people are around.  What that offers, in moments when the sense of disconnect feels too potently concentrated, is a social lifeline.

Meaning, simply, that setting aside that form of media for forty days really did feel like a desert experience.  It stripped away Zuckerberg's synthetic veneer of connection, and the ooh-here's-a-thingness of my curated Twitter feed.

For forty days, it was just me and the reptiles of my stagnant mind, as William Blake once put it.

And that was unsettling to my soul's complacency, as Lent should be.  Curtailing social media had the effect of stopping a numbing process, like day two of the flu when you back off the laddered acetaminophen and ibuprofen to see if the fever comes back.  That you are artificially suppressing symptoms doesn't mean the illness is gone.

As the time progressed, I found myself adapting.

My library journeys found me returning with a book about the dynamics of human isolation and our fundamental need for social connection.  Among the striking things in that book were two things.

First, that isolation sabotages our thinking.  We lose the ability to critically assess our own actions, which leads to both fearful and recursive thought patterns and a tendency towards socially awkward behavior.  I know those ways of thinking have roots in me, roots that have me rehashing or ruminating over things in ways that are not healthy for my soul.

Second, that the only way out that consistently works is turning yourself towards others in selfless service.  What that does, according to those who research the human psyche, is create the positive other-ideation that isolation destroys.  And from positive other-ideation, we learn to trust, and from trust, we find connection.

Then I went back and studied the sayings of the Desert Fathers, the anchorite monastics of early Christianity, who spent a soul-staggering amount of time by themselves.  They all went just the tiniest bit crazy, but they also seemed to find ways to cope that preserved their integrity.

Not all of those can be replicated these days without loved ones applying clinical interventions, but some can.  The desert fathers defeated the demons of isolation by being relentlessly selfless, defying the demons..and they really did think they were demons...of anxious fearfulness, sexual compulsion, and gnawing greed by doing precisely what the best psychological research suggests.  Though many spent years in their monastic cells or in wilderness places, when they did wander shabby and wild-eyed into the company of others, they were relentlessly compassionate.  Even they took time for what they called synaxis, for "being together," and it was a place of nourishment for them.

And there, perhaps the best spiritual insight offered up from this last season of fasting:  Both psychology and the insights of monastic mysticism present us with the strangest paradox of human loneliness and social isolation.  It's negative impacts cannot be overcome by the mediating structures of technology, and most particularly not by profit-driven structures designed to create compulsive use.  Those can distract, or numb, but they do not provide what we ultimately need, any more than an opiate cures a broken bone.

We need each other, face to face, real to real, soul to soul.

And more significant, this year's fast came with the reminder that the self blossoms in the soil of others.  We do not love ourselves most deeply by turning that love inward, by "learning to love yourself."  Our souls grow when we love the other, and when we ground that love in something deeper still.

Good to get that most fundamental reminder, this Lenten season.