Star-Bellied Sneetches, Wanton Bodice-Ripping, and Baselining Sci-Fi Allegories

Ξ February 2nd, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Uncategorized, star trek |

I write for a Star Trek sim.

Before you get all excited by the use of the word “sim”, let me first qualify that this is not, in fact, a computer program which simulates Star Trek adventures for which I write dialogue trees. (Though – holy shit! – that would that be cool. Is anyone hiring for that?!) It is not, in fact, a giant flight simulator to help you brush up on your docking procedures for the next time you find yourself in a starship approaching spacedock.

Simming is, in fact, a bunch of people who create unique1 characters in the Star Trek universe, throw them together on a ship, and let hijinks ensue. Each player has a character and contributes to the central story via that character’s perspective. You have your various methods (and various universes, I might add; I’m told the writing is typically very good on the Firefly sims, though I’ve never tried one personally) with IRC, forums, and email being the three big ones. IRC is a little too dorky for me (it sounds impossible, I know), forums are a little too informal for my tastes and generally don’t handle time disjuncts very gracefully, and email… well, email is just right.

For those of you who are horrified/vastly amused/vaguely nauseated by this very idea, let me introduce myself: Hi, I’m blah. I’m a dork. I refer you to all previous and, I suspect, all subsequent posts.

So yeah. I write for a Star Trek sim.

Now, contrary to…

Ahem. Are you done laughing?

All right then. Now. Contrary to what you might…

Okay, you just… you just finish. I’ll wait.

Thank you.

As I was saying… contrary to what you might think, it’s not all holodeck shenanigans, sweaty turbolift sex, mirror universe bondage escapades followed by awkward looks across the bridge, or viruses that somehow always manage to target the impulse control centers of the brain2. One of the greatest things about Star Trek – and about all sci-fi and fantasy in general, I think – is its ability to act as a proxy for human exploration, to function as an allegory we can use to explore fundamental human conditions, to provide a framework we can use to test our assumptions about those fundamental conditions. Star Trek, for all the heat it takes for its idyllic, antiseptic approach to science fiction, provides an easy mechanism for these explorations, one that is unencumbered by more realistic though endlessly complex elements like drug trades and social and economic stratification so crippling that non-government ship owners can’t even buy new port compression coils. These are dirty things, hard things and I think we need to consider them. If we need to cloak them in a fantastical allegory to make it go down more easily, sure. The power of Star Trek, I think, is that it gives us a clean slate we can use to look at each of even the dirtiest, hardest things in turn and in isolation.

This isn’t to say that Star Trek is particularly subtle about the issues it explores. It can be downright hamfisted at times. Did anyone else watch Let That Be Your Last Battlefield and immediately think of the Star-Bellied Sneeches3?

Now, aliens from Cheron had white and black faces.
The colors were reversed in half of the cases.
The difference wasn’t big. It really was small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

But because they were ‘right’ all the dudes halved like Bele
Would brag to themselves, “We’re the best sort of fellows!”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort,
“We’ll have nothing to do with the wrong-colored sort!”
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking.

When the White On Left kids went out to play ball,
Could the White On Right play? No, not at all.
You could only play ball if your black was on right,
So the others sat by, lamenting the white.

When the White On Left grown-ups had frankfurter roasts
Or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,
They never invited the White On Right crowd
They were left out cold. All that white’s not allowed!
They kept them away. Never let them come near.
And that’s how they treated them year after year.

ANYWAY, while Star Trek is at times about as subtle as Kirk round-housing a Nazi, it really does provide a nice, clean baseline from which we can construct the very issues we need to explore. Note that I’m not saying that this is the right way to use science fiction as an allegory or that this is the only way to use it. Rather, I’m pointing out that the very sterile, tidy environment that the Federation and Starfleet together create gives us a chance to set a clean baseline we can work from, delving into issues in targeted doses… in short, that the supposed weakness of Star Trek as an exploratory device is actually its greatest strength.

And this is why I love writing for a Star Trek sim. Not the only reason, mind you. I like writing. I like having an outlet. I like Star Trek in general. I think the uniforms are hot. But beyond all that, it gives me a platform to think about things and moreover, I often have a chance to explore interesting ideas and concepts with other writers. Challenging cultural and sociological issues are cropping up all the time as part of our gameplay (unsurprising, I suppose, since it wouldn’t be Star Trek without a convenient Weird Forehead Of The Week). Take, for example, this recent exploration of the process of enculturation as an analog to Borg assimilation:

“Spunau bolayalar t’Wehku bolayalar t’Zamu il t’Veh,” Nerali said, her attention still on her console. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or one. It is not so dissimilar an approach. The Collective simply enslaves its practitioners where Vulcans enculturate theirs. It could be argued that the Borg approach is morally superior in that it does not inherently and by design prevent the development of individuality; it merely removes it at a later time.” She peered over her shoulder in his direction. “Will the modifications to the deflector array impact any other onboard systems?”

Enculturated? Qeynan’s brow furrowed as he focused first on her latter question. “The modification to the deflector array will not interfere with any functional control of the ship. The only problem I see is the need to lower the Cross’ shields around the shuttle bay in order for us to disembark and return. With these shuttles adjusted to match the Curie they’ll never be able to get back through the Cross’ shields until they’re remodified to their original settings.” He shifted in his seat to look back at her. “As for enculturated ideals I could argue by the rogues in the annals of history that such still allow for the freedom of choice. It’s part of sentient nature to pass on such core values to the next generation in order to establish safe boundaries of conduct; and the responsibility of the next generation to examine those values and decide whether or not to perpetuate them in the generation beyond.” He paused for a moment, considering the differences between boundaries and cages. Shaking his head, he went on. “The Borg approach is not morally superior by any means, Nerali. They do not allow individual development in the noble manner in which you suggest. Rather they allow each species own kind to enculturate their beliefs and ideals only to rip such from them and replace it with their own directive – assimilate or die. How is that morally superior?”

Nerali raised an eyebrow, saying merely, “I am speaking precisely of freedom of choice, Ensign Sehvi, and the development of the individual. Very few of us are offered the chance to choose our society, its morals, its bounds, its structures; I was able to choose, but so many others do not realize such a choice even exists or are afraid to take it if they do. Most often, we are simply born into it, trained via pervasive enculturation processes to accept it, to conform to it, to pass it on, all before we are capable of sentient, individual, self-aware thought. Cultural assimilation, Ensign Sehvi. It is a socio-evolutionary necessity for the continuance of cultures. But just because we associate the term ‘culture’ with family traditions, language, music, and works of art rather than assimilation tubules and regeneration alcoves does not mean that cultural assimilation is benign or that it is in any way less invasive than the atrocity you suffered. You were assimilated, made to fit into the whole, constrained, separated from self, unable to protest what was being done to you as it happened, and unable to fight against it once it did. And when you grew up, the Borg did the same.” She turned back to her console. “I don’t wish to justify the works of the Collective, Ensign, and even if I did not find you as pleasing as I do, I would never seek to dismiss the great cruelty you suffered at its hands. But as one of the very few who was able to choose her own cultural collective, I find it difficult to imagine a more heinous crime than denying a child self-determination.”

Seriously, now. Where else do you get to have a Vulcan with daddy issues and a liberated Borg drone debate sociological issues?

Answer: The same place you can go to explore the Prime Directive as an absolute extreme view of cultural relativism. I know, I know. You couldn’t watch an episode of Voyager without tripping over a Prime Directive violation and I’m pretty sure you could power a Type-9 shuttle with all the Earl Grey Picard went through as he wrestled with those issues in his ready room. But I don’t think I believe in the Prime Directive; I want to take a closer look at it. Oh, I believe in it as a plot-hole filler and I believe in its ability to generate character-building moments. I even believe in what I think it was originally intended to be. (It’s all supposition, of course, but I’d be a pretty easy sell if you were to tell me that a premise introduced in the 1960s could have been related to two technologically advanced groups of people taking advantage of lesser advanced peoples to further their struggle against each other.) But… Whew. Cultural relativism is one thing. Cultural determinism is one thing. The Prime Directive is way beyond both.

Thanks to the sim, I have the perfect place to explore this. And thanks to Star Trek, I have just the right foundation to do it on. I have a security chief on one ship. She just broke the Prime Directive4. We’ll see where this goes.

  1. I use the term “unique” loosely. (Yes, I know it’s a binary. Shut up!) Everyone creates their own characters, rather than usurping an existing one from Star Trek canon, but I don’t think I’ve ever been on a ship where at least 50% of the characters weren’t either telepaths or shapeshifters.
  2. In terms of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I find nothing remotely wrong with any of those things and should one of my ships end up having a mission like that, I will jump on the bandwagon with reckless, bodice-ripping abandon.
  3. By the way, did anyone else find it actually quite ironic that the Enterprise crew, upon first meeting Lokai, assumes that his coloration is a mutation? The entire episode is about racial segregation, social stratification… and the crew’s first impulse is to assume that the dude’s color must be a mutation, must be a flaw because it isn’t like theirs. Niiiiiice.
  4. Er… I think she broke the Prime Directive. There could be some extenuating circumstances – i.e. prior contamination of the culture in question though I think that argument is only valid if the actions then taken are taken only to correct that previous contamination – that would make her representation at the court martial breathe a sigh of relief, but close enough. She broke it enough for a good look. I blame my lawyer husband for this footnote.

Original post by blah



Ξ January 28th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Uncategorized, WoW, data nerd, star trek |

The Dork
Believe it or not, it has occurred to me that I’m pretty dorky. I know. Between the hours a week I spend writing for a Star Trek RPG (yes, it’s measured in hours), my habit of muttering “failed reflex save” whenever I trip into or out of the conference room (because simply tripping in front of the executives isn’t quite the right kind of embarrassing), and the fact that I have my WoW raid schedule in my work calendar so no one schedules a server maintenance window they expect me to attend over the dragon-slaying, it took me a long time to come to the same shocking conclusion… but here we are. Pretty dorky.

Or rather, there we were.

I have realized today that I may have stepped away from the realm of “pretty dorky” and, if not entirely doused myself in, at least tested the waters of “Good god, what is wrong with you?” levels of dorky. Perhaps I’m even ascending ever closer to the tantalizing heights of the transdork threshold1.

What could possibly be dorkier than spending one’s free time writing for a Star Trek RPG and playing WoW?

It might just be worse than you can even imagine2.

The Meta-Dork
Have you ever wondered about the population variations between PvP and PvE realms? What the most popular gems are by class and spec? If the character gender distribution skews toward female for more attractive models? I have. So has zardoz, of recent WoW Insider fame. He has managed to collect a great deal of raw data and, between a little SQL and a dash of xsl, has started giving us some neat insights into population characteristics.

But beyond simple data collection and reporting…

Have you ever wondered about causality? Suspected anecdotally that there has been some sort of change to the population, proven or disproven by actual comparison to a baseline that such a change has actually occurred, and then wanted to dig deeper to identify possible causal relationships? A content patch? A major class modification? A critical change to PvP mechanics? Changes to gear scaling or stat mechanics?

Have you ever wondered what makes a world-class guild precisely that? Beyond the simple explanations – They’re better players. They raid more often. It’s a hardcore guild. – are there other behavioral traits that contribute to their success, traits we can actually tease out from the data about their players? How do members of a world-class guild spend their time in game? What is the temporal relationship between a dungeon/raid launch, the accumulation and dissemination of gear, and the receipt of achievements? How quickly do members change specs, gems, or gear following a significant mechanics change? Do gear, gem, stat, and build preferences vary greatly between functionally-analogous individuals within a class or are the same trends occurring between all? If it’s the latter, does it occur all at once, suggesting a much more structured, top-down guild management structure, or is there a waterfall effect between members, a more bottoms-up kind of view, with the changes occurring at the individual level before spreading over time to the rest of the group? If it’s the latter, are there individuals who consistently drive the changes, power-players we can identify simply through these relationships?

Given a spectrum of characteristics, some relevant and some not… have you wondered where your guild lies compared to the world-class ones? Have you wondered where you lie on that spectrum, compared to same-spec toons in those world-class guilds or sitting pretty on top of the PvP rankings? Which of those characteristics are relevant? Which are suggestive? Which are evocative?

Oh yes. I wonder about these things all the time.

And more than that, I wonder how I can answer these questions using nothing more than raw, clinical data. This is the good stuff, the holy grail hand grenade.

I’ve been mining both the Armory and Wowhead for quite some time3. We’ll see where this goes.

1. Or maybe I just need a new kind of dilithium.
2. Please just take my word on this and don’t even try. The Borg are still working on it.
3. I’ve actually been mining my Star Trek RPG for years too and there’s some great stuff there. (And maybe some not so great stuff. Do I really want to know why the writers on one ship in the fleet write proportionally more posts – we’re talking a statistically significant number of posts here – with their characters on the holodeck versus any other location? I’m not so sure I do…) But really, we’ll have to save that discussion for another day. There’s only so much dorkiness a single post can hold.

Original post by blah


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