Westworld: Evil Pricks

I was in the process of writing an article about the awesome way Westworld uses its own story to teach people about good storytelling, when this line from last night’s episode reminded me of something I wanted to talk about for a long time.

“Why is it every time you come to this place you turn into such an evil prick?” William to his friend, HBO’s Westworld.

That’s the same question I’ve had about video game culture for quite some time, and I think it’s time I talk about it.

I used to play multiplayer games, specifically a game called Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries. I was a young teenager suffering from crippling depression, I had no friends at school or at home, I was tormented by both depression and the hormonal rollercoaster of puberty, and I felt like I had no future. To make a long story short, Mechwarrior and the friends I made playing it, made my life somewhat bearable. I’m still friends with many of the people I met playing Mechwarrior, even as we come to a mind-boggling 20 years since I’ve played it.

This was cutting edge when I played it.

It’s those friends I want to talk about, because over the years I’ve watched them become evil pricks in video games. It didn’t start that way. Back when I first began playing, it was just good fun. Oh we made fun of each other, called each other gay, and joked about sex, typical young teenager stuff. But over the years my friends began to change.

The jokes became crueler, more personal. Those who lost competitive games against our team were mercilessly ridiculed, and then called cowards when they didn’t want to play us again, when it was more likely they simply didn’t want to play a bunch of rude petty people. The changes were subtle and at first I didn’t notice them.

Eventually Mechwarrior’s multiplayer died out, it wasn’t exactly the most popular game even in its heyday, and while we tried to play other games together, I lost interest. About ten years later though, a new Mechwarrior title arrived: Mechwarrior Online. Suddenly we were all back together again, and for the first few months it was like old times. And then I began to notice things.

My friends began openly trash talking, calling people faggots, ridiculing new people who asked questions, and following people they didn’t like from game to game specifically to “grief” them. Still, this had become such a normal part of online games that I was able to shrug it off. What I couldn’t shrug off, is what they would say to each other in private.

I began to love this symbol.

Several of my old friends were now referring to each other as n***ers, and I grimaced every time they said it. Mechwarrior Online was also a free-to-play game featuring microtransactions, where you paid to unlock certain mechs and equipment.

When my cash-strapped friends couldn’t afford these microtransactions or bought only the cheapest available, they called it “Jew.”

“I’m too Jewish to spend that much money.”

“I got the Jew option.”

I was shocked, and I told them: “Oh I’m sorry, apparently I stumbled into Nazi Germany by accident.” The joke was an icebreaker for me to voice my discomfort with using old antisemitic insults.

“You’re being too sensitive, they’re just words.”

They’re just words.

That’s the excuse I heard over and over again for all manner of utterly inexcusable behavior.

Words are powerful. The right words can help someone find hope in a hopeless situation, humor in a tragedy, and joy in a moment of despair. The wrong words can make someone cry, make them feel alone, and even drive them to suicide. My friends didn’t seem to understand that.

And I was putting up with all this for a game that thought $500.00 qualified as a microtransaction. 

They began insulting me, and not the friendly jibes and insults that people exchange. They told me how bad I was in the past, to stop being bad during games, and stop being so emotional about the toxic conversations they’d have. This poisoned not only my relationship with them, but also in how I perceived our previous relationship. Did they ever actually like me? Was I really that bad in the past?

My friends used to have a nickname for me when I was young “tightpants”, and I never understood the reference. I thought perhaps it was a reference to my weight, which would have been fine because I was constantly joking about that myself. After we began playing Mechwarrior Online they began to refer to me as “tightpants” again, and this time I asked what that meant.

Turns out whenever I spoke on comms, I had a high pitched voice, and apparently I still did. Except now they weren’t so kind about it.

“Jesus, didn’t your balls ever drop?” They once asked me.

That, unfortunately, got to me. I asked my best friend if I had an unnaturally high voice, and she hedged saying she didn’t really notice. Which only convinced me it was true. For a few weeks there I actually tried lowering my tone of voice while talking to people, until I noticed it was just getting me strange looks from people. I’m also not as insecure as I was when I was young, and after a couple weeks I figured that even if I did have a high voice, it wasn’t like there was anything I could do about it. So why worry?

Besides, Varys has a high voice and he’s bitchin’. 

I continued playing with my friends, because between their occasional bouts of cruelty, we still had a good time together. Then one day we were playing, and having a grand old time. I remember I was laughing so hard my ribs were actually aching. I was trying to talk over my laughing to convey some information about the enemy team when:

“Shut the fuck up!” Someone yelled over the comms.

This person wasn’t one of my friends, but he was a talented gamer, he outranked us all when it came to talent. That alone was enough to let him play with us. It wasn’t a friend yelling at me, but they also did nothing to discourage it.

I disconnected and didn’t talk to them for about six months, until one of them decided to contact me on Skype and ask how I was doing. They asked me what had happened, and I simply joked around with them saying that I’d been asked to shut up and was just following the order to the letter. The reality was even simpler: I play games to have fun and relax. The moment that stops happening, the game is over. Yet I kept coming back to these people, because I’d known them for nearly fifteen years! These were the friends that kept me alive in the darkest period in my life, and I couldn’t simply write them off.

One of my friends, whom I’ll refer to as DV, I counted as among my closest friends.

If I was Varys, he was definitely Tyrion.

When I was thirteen/fourteen, I was absolutely infatuated with a girl I knew. Being a moronic teenager I lost all perspective and restraint, pronouncing my undying love for a girl I barely knew, which of course scared her into never talking to me again.  That sent me into probably the darkest depression I’ve ever experienced. At the same time DV, who was slightly older in his late teens, was having problems with his girlfriend constantly dumping him and taking him back. We were both hurting and we helped each other through it by talking about our mutual girl problems.

“Oh back from your emo trip? Show me on the doll where [the guy who yelled at me] touched you.” That was how DV greeted me, the man who I once would have done anything for. If I was rich and he needed money, I would have written him a blank check, that’s how deeply I trusted and respected this man. He was one of my closest friends.

And I no longer recognized him.

I felt like Bruce Willis in Surrogates when he first steps out into a world populated by mechanical dopplegangers. It’s seriously a good movie, and I encourage you to watch it if you haven’t.

The boy who had once been my friend would never have been so casually cruel to me, so indifferent to my feelings. A few weeks later GamerGate happened, and I’ll spare those of you who don’t know about it the indignity of hearing about this stupid event. The cliff notes is that a girl made a video game and one of the reviews may not have been entirely without bias. The dumbest and cruelest elements of the gaming world took this as an invitation to threaten her life, threaten her with rape, post her address, phone number, and work location to everyone on the internet. They made her life a living hell for years. I haven’t looked into it, but I’m sure she probably still gets harassed.

And my friends supported it.





I have no explanation as to how this happened. Some of my friends were now married, DV even had children, and they were either cheering on the harassers (perhaps even taking part) or tacitly approving of it by offering excuses for turning a woman’s life into a living hell over a video game. When, and how, did my friends turn into these people?

How do otherwise decent people turn into this guy?

It can’t just be an effect of video games. I ran over crowds of people in Grand Theft Auto; mowed down innocent civilians in Postal; tortured and murdered people in the cruelest ways imaginable in Manhunt. I’ve committed every war crime and atrocity imaginable across twenty years of gaming, but I never turned into the evil pricks my friends became.

It can’t be their social and economic situation. One of my friends was working at a fortune 500 company and would show us pictures of his fancy new cars. Others were working a variety of jobs with varying levels of success. Some were married or had girlfriends. Hell, DV was working as a cop in London with three kids and a wife. If anything, I was the one who fit the stereotype: a fat, single guy who hadn’t had a girlfriend in years, no job and no prospects.

Maybe it was because I had depression, and I knew the kind of damage words could inflict. I know what it’s like to feel like the world is against you, to feel like your fate is suffer constant pain. Did that give me an empathy my friends lacked?

Were they missing an ingredient in their soul?

I don’t play multiplayer games anymore, because the unfortunate truth is that my friends are the rule. I’m the exception. Go into a multiplayer game and you’ll find a cesspool of insults, negativity, and downright cruelty.

As seen here in a great comic by The Oatmeal

That’s not to say I think all gamers are horrible. In fact I think the vast majority are just like me. The problem is that, like me, they can’t be bothered to deal with assholes when they’re trying to relax. So people leave, like I did. They stick to single-player games, or maybe they find a new hobby all together. Hell maybe that’s why games like Candy Crush are so popular, you don’t have to put up with racist misogynists to play Candy Crush.

So the decent people leave, and that just leaves the assholes in an echochamber of assholes. All they hear is the same toxic drivel they spout, and it becomes normal to them. It becomes a cycle of constant abuse, and it becomes so normal that they don’t even realize their language is abusive. Last time I was in a multiplayer game, someone threatened to rape my sister (I’m an only child).

My sister.


And the eerie thing about it was that he didn’t say it with hate or anger in his voice, it was a reflex. I killed him in a video game, and his immediate instinct was to launch into threats of sexual violence. He said it in such a way that I’m pretty sure if I could have been bothered to confront him about it, he wouldn’t have even comprehended the problem. Just like William’s friend in Westworld, who couldn’t understand why William calls him evil.

I still talk with my friends occasionally on Skype, because when they’re not talking about video games we still have great conversations about politics and life. One of them discovered they had kidney cancer, the same disease that killed my father, and we commiserated over how shitty cancer is. If I ever met them in real life, I’m sure I’d see the great friends that I once knew. But I don’t play with them anymore, because like the man said in Westworld: 

“Why does coming here turn you into such an evil prick?”

I wish I knew the answer to that, and I’m hoping that maybe through Westworld‘s exploration of this frightening transformation people undergo, that maybe I will find the answer.


Confidence (Or the lack thereof) and Writing

So while I was struggling with my latest article on The Witcher 3, I got a helpful tip from a roaming robot about my blog.

Robot Taunt

First of all, it’s “too” lazy you god damn machine, if you’re going to insult me at least be grammatically correct. Second of all, how dare you impugn my honor!? Being lazy is only like 5% to %10 of my problem.

Okay, 50% at the most...
50% at the most…

To this spam bot’s favor, its comment did get me wondering… why don’t I update more? What the hell is wrong with me? That’s an excellent question. The answer is, as usual, I’m a terrible human being. 

No, not really. But that’s what my mind is always telling me, and that’s the problem.  I have no sense of self-worth I guess, all of my self-esteem is tied up in the opinions of everyone else. Last year I was staying with some friends in Portland when I got to interview for a job with Microsoft to do writing for the Halo series. When I got the initial call from the recruiter, my friend Emma described me as “glowing,” which I’m pretty sure is the only time I’ve ever been described as that. Then I didn’t get it, and I fell into a pretty black depression and didn’t write another blog post for three months.

That post about Microsoft was mostly trying to bluff myself out of falling into a depression, but obviously that didn’t work.

This is Pixar, they're better than you're annoying facebook friends.
I don’t need to say hello, we’re on a first-name basis.

So I lost a similar job opportunity with AT&T a few weeks ago. Of course my brain doesn’t focus on:

The fact that my resume managed to impress a recruiter enough to contact me.

That I got through four rounds of phone interviews with first the recruiter and then various members of AT&T team.

And then actually got an in-person interview.

No what my brain focuses on is the fact that, at the end I didn’t get the job. Sure, being sad you didn’t get a job is a probably a normal reaction, but it probably shouldn’t take my entire sense of self-worth with it. For weeks at a time. 

But then there’s not really much self-worth for these failures to take with them. Let me show you something else:

70 Drafts
Zoom and Enhance!
Yes, that says 70 drafts.
Yes, that says 70 drafts.

That’s a screenshot of my WordPress control panel, telling me I have 70 drafts. Now I’ve always assumed this was just a bunch of half-baked ideas I’d written down and just never followed up on. Spring cleaning that I’d never bothered to do, like the drafts folder of my email. I started hunting through my drafts after I thought I’d lost part of a Witcher 3 article I was working on (turns out the paragraphs that were missing were on my phone, I just hadn’t uploaded them), and about half of it was half-written ideas.

The other half though? Fully written articles that I never published. Just sitting there.

Draft Examples 2

The 5 tropes that need to die article, was just 5 sentences, a bare bones idea for an article (which I’d actually forgotten about but now I’m gonna finish it because these tropes are terrible). The other two pictured though? Total articles, both around two to three thousand words long. Pictures included.

Why did I decide to not post those?

I haven’t the slightest fucking idea. 

I didn’t take an exact count but, out of the 70 drafts I have, there are probably 20-30 fully and partially written articles. I could release one a day and have enough content for nearly a month. I could release one a week and have enough content for half a year.

Well maybe I’m just a really good editor right? I’m like J. K. Simmons in Spider-Man, I know when something is crap and I simply don’t bother my readers with it. Yeah, that’s it, I’m just a really great editor. The best.

Yeah, okay, maybe not.

Because this is another one of my drafts:

Draft Examples

These are two articles (the bottom one is only partially written) about Planescape Torment, and somehow my brain convinced me that no one wanted to read those. Even though one of my amazingly generous patrons (from my Patreon page. which you should still contribute to despite my just admitting how terrible I am) actually requested articles on this very subject, my brain still figured that no one wanted to read any of that.

My brain cannot be trusted. 

So in the interests of posting more frequently, and to stop wasting my time writing articles and then not posting it, I’m going to just post everything. I’m almost going to post everything. I’ll also start going backwards through my collected drafts and actually start posting them.  So look forward to that I guess, unless all these articles really are terrible, then… apologies in advance I guess.

The Nutter Butter Follow Up

Nutter Butter crop (1 of 1)Just wanted to give everyone who contributed to the Nutter Butter fund a HUGE thank you. The limp she had turned out to be a symptom of bone cancer, but it hadn’t metastasized beyond the the leg, so an amputation seems to have gotten most of it. Even if it does return, with your help, my parents have another year with her at least. So thanks everyone!

Newly three-legged Nutter, who doesn't seem to notice her missing leg.
Newly three-legged Nutter, who doesn’t seem to notice her missing leg.

The Trouble with Irony

What do you think of when you hear the name Machiavelli? If your like most people, and like I was until only recently, you imagine a devious plotting egotist who is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve power. Someone willing to cheat, steal, and even kill in his relentless drive for power. You know, someone like me!  (Did I say that outloud?)

You know what Machiavelli really was? A writer, and he was a damn good one (also like me). So good, in fact, that his name is to be forever linked with corrupt politicians, opportunists, and psychopaths.

Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli
To be fair, he does kind of looks the part.

So how did this happen? I’ll tell you. He was a master of Irony. Now stop right there! If you just started singing Irony by Alanis Morisette, you are wrong! That is not the irony to which I’m referring, that’s cosmic irony, but I’m talking about a different kind of irony. Namely, this kind (as presented to you by Bender the educational robot):

You see The Prince by Machiavelli was written after the corrupt Medici family hired some thugs to reduce Machiavelli into a fleshy bag of broken bones. The Medici family had recently overthrown the Florentine Republic, a o that Machiavelli both worked for and found incredibly sexy. Nothing turned him on like a good beaucratic process. In fact most of his writings dealt with the the inherent superiority of republics over dictatorships. Well when Medici took over again, the first thing they did was torture and exile Machiavelli for his dangerous ideas of liberty and such. Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a giant literary middle finger to the Medici government and tyrants everywhere. Unfortunately for Machiavelli, the context of The Prince was lost over the centuries and became a how-to guide for tyrants, completely unaware that the satirical work was actually mocking them.

And that’s the trouble with Irony, the risk of the reader taking it literally. With sarcasm, spoken irony, it’s easy to understand because we can detect the mocking tone of voice. Though even then people sometimes take it literally. However there is no sarcasm punctuation mark, and putting sarcastic quips in quotations just makes you look like a pretentious ass. So your left having to very carefully word your ironic statements and try to make it clear that your being sarcastic. Mark Twain was a master of irony, in fact his books are irony distilled into a perfectly refined oil. You could liquefy Mark Twain’s books, inject it into someone, and instantly transform them into Jon Stewart.

The trouble I’m having is that obviously I know when I’m being sarcastic, but in order to tell if anyone else will be able to tell I need to let them read it. But of course isn’t that the point of writing? To let others read it?

Well yes, at a certain point. However, I’ve made the mistake of letting people read roughdrafts of my stories, friends who have insisted I let the read it, who then swear they understand what roughdraft means. Only to find that, after they’ve read it, they’ve renounced all their worldly possessions and moved to Tibet to pursue a life of quiet tranquility.

Half these people are here because they read a roughdraft of mine.

So, with these experiences in mind, I’ve taken to not letting anyone read anything until its a second or third draft, which takes loads of time and work to actually get to. By the time someone gets around to reading my story, it might end up that half the story didn’t come across right because the irony was lost in translation. Which is a royal pain in the ass because I then have to go back and rewrite half the story (yeah I use irony alot), but that’s just part of the writing process. The real trouble is when the irony backfires so horribly that I come across as an arrogant and pretentious asshole.

Working on It’s Always a Sunny Day I’ve found myself using irony a lot to provide juxtaposition from some of the darker moments in the book when I talk about my depression. After all, the point of It’s Always a Sunny Day is that things get better, and to give people suffering from depression hope. Last thing I want to do is drown them in 100,000 words of crushing despair. But, I also don’t want to come across as bragging or preachy either, and I find irony is often a great way of getting a point across without appearing to be either.

So what’s my solution to this dilemma?

Well I may just have to bite the bullet and let some people read the early drafts of this story. In all honestly, it’s not just a fear of subjecting people to a horrible first draft that I fear. This book represents something I’ve never done before, exposing my flaws for everyone to see. To let people inside my mind and rummage around to figure out what makes me tick. I wasn’t a very pleasant person when I suffered depression, and of course no one suffering from a debilitating illness is expected to be pleasant, but to reveal my unpleasant past to friends who have only known me post-depression and to complete strangers, makes me apprehensive to say the least.

I may end up posting excerpts on here and testing out my Irony skills on y’all to see if it holds up. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

What Depression Taught Me

It’s that time again folks, time for my one sentimental post of the year. I’m going to lay it all down on the table, and you better damn well enjoy it, no matter how depressing it gets!

So I was watching Oprah’s Life Class last night. Yeah, that’s right, I was watching Oprah. There, I said it and don’t you dare judge me. Anyway, on her Life Class, she touched briefly on how we are all constantly learning, even from horrible situations. It was at this point that I wanted to counter her with my years living with clinical depression, I mean what the hell could that possibly have taught me? And yet as I reflect back on those years, I find that I did indeed learn a lot from living with depression. In fact I wouldn’t be the strikingly handsome, and cuttingly witty man you see before you without those years teetering on the edge of oblivion.

I was diagnosed with depression when I was still in elementary school, sometime around age seven or eight I think, and I lived with it until it finally went into remission at the age of nineteen. Like most things I think you need to live it in order to truly understand it, but depression isn’t something I would wish on anyone, so I’ll do my best to describe it.

What is it that you care about? What’s your greatest passion? Now imagine that one day you wake up, and that you no longer cared, or worse yet, felt physically sick at the very idea of pursuing what you once loved.

Imagine waking up every morning wishing you hadn’t. Imagine going to sleep every night wishing you wouldn’t wake up the next morning. Imagine feeling physical pain when you did something as mundane as go to school, or work. Imagine having a voice in your head telling you your a worthless human being not worthy of the air your breathing, repeating in an endless loop, and drowning out your other thoughts.

Now imagine these kittens and cheer yourself up!

What I’m trying to say is that suffering from depression is like being in a nightmare you can’t wake up from. For nearly twelve years this was my life, from the age of seven until around nineteen when it finally went into remission. I’ll be talking about my recovery, and my upcoming book, next week. Right now I’m going to share with you the three things that depression taught me.

1. Setting Small Short-Term Goals

In the darkest days of my life, I didn’t see myself having much of a future. My fellow classmates would talk about college, and careers, things that I couldn’t possibly imagine for myself. Hell sometimes they’d talk about parties they were going to go to that weekend, and I couldn’t see that far ahead either. Luckily for me, there was one thing that I could see. Every night I would sit down at my computer and boot up Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries, a computer game about gigantic walking death machines blasting each other with lasers.

Every night I would join a group of people online and play Mechwarrior like it was the only thing that mattered, because at the time it was. My online persona was a Galaxy Commander, and it was just as badass as it sounds, I was in command of thousands of mechwarriors cutting a bloody swathe across the galaxy. Okay it was actually only a dozen or so people, and my rank was purely symbolic rather than functional, but for a couple hours a night I was no longer a sad depressed teenager who couldn’t even get through a day of school without breaking down in tears. Mechwarrior became a refuge for me, a place to escape, and where I could interact with other people and not feel threatened or inadequate.

So instead of wondering how I was going to make it through high school, or how I was going to make it through the week, it all came down to how I was going to make it through the day. All I had to do was last a couple hours and I could go home and play mechwarrior. That one goal, the 1’s and 0’s contained on that now well used disc, allowed me to survive some of the worst days of my life. Even on the worst days, when teachers gave me trouble or some particularly cruel comment was thrown my way, I would remind myself that I was needed that night for a game. Who was going to pilot the Vulture if I wasn’t around?

I still use the same techniques today. I don’t worry about how am I going to write an entire book, I work on one chapter at a time, and sometimes if that’s too daunting, one paragraph at a time. I tackle this blog one subject at a time, I don’t worry about what I’m going to be writing about a year from now, I go week to week, day by day. I let myself enjoy the small triumphs in life. Speaking of which:

2. Enjoying the Small Things in Life

When your severely depressed, you don’t have many big triumphs, or if you do you don’t realize them at the time. The big things that most people enjoy (parties, dates, success at work/school) just don’t come easily to someone who’s constantly having to fight his own mind in order to simply exist. For me, it was the small things that I was able to find happiness in. Going out to dinner, seeing a good movie, or even just making it through the day without crying was a triumph for me. The little things are what kept me going.

And looking back I had my share of big triumphs, I simply didn’t realize it at the time. I once got a misogynistic and borderline abusive teacher fired (well he “resigned” but I can read between the lines), because I spoke up when one else would. I was told by a member of the school board that they’d been looking for a way to get rid of him for years, but it wasn’t until a student finally spoke up that they could do anything. I also once went to a week long program at WSU, visiting their Veterinary Medicine program as part of Cougar Quest. So if you’re depressed and reading this, don’t feel like you’ve not accomplished anything because I’m sure you have. The only problem is that you can’t see it yet.  But the point is, don’t worry about seeing it yet, that will come in time. For the moment just live…well in the moment.

Even now that I can see my bigger triumphs, I still take pleasure in the small ones. I applaud myself for going to the gym, I allow myself to feel joy for doing something as simple as writing this blog entry, or enjoy a sunny day (which is a rare thing here in Washington).

A Sunny Day: Nature's way of saying "Hey, it could be worse. The sun could explode!"

3. I Learned to Write

Oh of course schools had taught me to write the English language of course, but there’s a huge difference between writing a class assignment and writing for yourself. And that’s who I write for, me. I’m thrilled that I have an audience that seems to enjoy what I write, but even if you all left, I would still write. Probably less often, but I would still write.  And that’s the most important lesson depression taught me, that I’m meant to be a writer.

Even before Mechwarrior, writing was there. Before I came to enjoy the simple things, pen and paper brought me peace. Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of half written stories, brainstormed novels, and fan fiction stories lay scattered in my wake. During classes, when I was too stressed out to listen to the teacher, I would write a story. When life got too unbearable I would sink myself into a fictional world I’d created. Once, even a suicide note turned into a story, saving myself from actually following through on the note.

Oprah said on her Life Class show that you should pursue what you believe you can contribute to the world, not what the society tells you to contribute. I used to make myself miserable during high school, thinking I should be a star athlete or Valedictorian, because that’s what society was telling me to do. Would I still have become a writer had I not been suffering from depression? Or would I instead have pursued being a football or basketball star? Would I have spent hours on hours on hopeless manuscripts and stories, and by extension would I have learned the lessons about writing those disasters had to teach me? Probably not.

That’s why, even if I could, I wouldn’t change a thing about my life. I once looked on my years of depression as a waste, but now I can see those years for what they were, a valuable part of my life. I learned things during those miserable years that might have otherwise taken decades to figure out.

Don’t get me wrong, depression is a terrible thing, and if you’re suffering from it get treatment immediately. What I’m trying to say with this post, is not that depression is a wonderful teaching tool, but that you can learn from even the most terrible of situations. If you’re in a place right now where you feel nothing is going right, that you’re up against the wall, just take a deep breath and look around. Figure out what that moment is trying to teach you.

And then push your way out of that corner, using the very lesson you learned from it.