New paper: “Good Violence, Bad Violence: The Ethics of Competition in Multiplayer Games”

Jose Zagal just presented our co-authored paper, “Good Violence, Bad Violence: The Ethics of Competition on Multiplayer Games” at the DiGRA-FDG 2016 conference. It’s coming out in the conference proceedings soon, but, if you just can’t wait, you can get your hot little hands on the final version right here.

There’s a more formal abstract, but here’s a quickie version:

There’s a whole set of fascinating questions about the ethics of competition. Some kinds of competition seem healthy and transformative – they take our hostile impulses and turn them into something positive for all involved. Other kinds of competition seem problematic, including, perhaps, trash-talking, spawn-camping, and ganking. But where’s the line, and how do we draw it? The paper argues against certain standing accounts that provide a simple, unidimensional answer. One target is the view, from the philosophy of sports, that all that matters is player consent. Instead, we use a magical sprinkle of Bernard Suits’ work to argue that morally good competition requires a whole host of factors in alignment, including player consent, successful game design, and psychological fit. Many older views tend to locate all the moral lifting in the intentions of the players. Our view distributes that responsibility between the players, the game designers, and the structure of the player community.

(This paper is the first published tip of a massive and sprawling project that I thought was just one quick idea, but has metastasized into multiple distinct papers on various aspects of the morality of game competition. Turns out: it’s a complex topic.)


The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Games

The Journal of the Philosophy of Games is here! Here is the call for papers for the inaugural issue, deadline March 1, 2016.

In addition, we are in the planning stages for a (hopefully) annual North American conference/workshop on the philosophy and aesthetics of games. If you’d like to participate, please drop me a line and we’ll put you on the mailing list.

Food assembly and the idea of a dish

The Korean dish of bibimbap comes as a bunch of distinct little piles of veggies and meat, on a bowl of rice. You pour out a little splat of hot sauce, and mix all it up yourself.

Yukkwe Bi Bim Bap - Buga

My friend Kathy Shin told me that mixing it up yourself was part of the very meaning of bibimbap. When I asked her what would happen if they brought it to you pre-mixed, she jumped out of her seat and actually smacked me. “It wouldn’t be bibimbap! You’d be eating something, but it sure wouldn’t be bibimbap.” When I pointed out that the (non-Korean) patrons at the next table over were eating their bibimbap without mixing it up at all, she recoiled it almost moral outrage. “I don’t know what they’re eating, but it’s definitely not bibimbap either.”

Her horror and semi-comic outrage might map onto how an American might react, say, if they saw somebody carefully disassemble a sandwich and eat the bits daintily and separately, with chopsticks: they’re eating something, but it sure ain’t a sandwich.

All of this makes me wonder how culturally complicated the idea of a particular dish is. Is our idea of “sandwich” or “bibimbap” or “egg roll” made of, not just the ingredients, but how we how we assemble them for ourselves? Does the idea of a particular dish include a very specific idea of the eater’s role in assembly or disassembly?

Hsian Ju Lin, in Chinese Gastronomy, comments that, though Westerners often view the chopsticks of the East as comically uncivilized (“look at ’em, eatin’ with a bunch of sticks”), to the Chinese watcher, Western eating traditions are unbearably barbaric. European eating culture involves bringing tiny little tridents and tiny little knives to the table, for God’s sake. It’s one step away from Vikings in the long hall, eating with their hunting knives and throwing the rest to their dogs. Whereas in high Chinese cuisine, everything comes to the table perfectly bite-sized and ready, all the violence confined, out of sight, to the kitchen.

In fact, it becomes curiously evident that a lot of Asian culinary traditions involve building the final dish-entity at the table. In a Vietnamese restaurant, when you order egg rolls, you’re brought the egg rolls with a plate of fresh green herbs, and you’re supposed to wrap the egg rolls in a bit of lettuce with a few bits of fresh herbs, and eat the whole thing, glorying in the contrast between the hot crispy roll and the cool crispy lettuce. There’s the various forms of beijing duck (a.k.a. Peking duck) where you assemble just the right amount of crispy skin and soft wrapper and sweet sauce, just to your precise desire.

And there’s my beloved pani puri, the mint hand-grenades of Indian street-food culture, where you take a little tiny crispy fried hollow bread puff the size of a golf-ball, and carefully tap-tap-tap a hole in the top, and fill it with bits of chickpea, bits of potato, a little drizzle of sauce, and the fill it to the brim with cold spicy mint water and – quickly now! – throw it your mouth and bite down and feel the whole thing explode cold mint water and crispy shards of bread all over the inside of your mouth.


And then think of the Western traditions: carving the chicken at the table. Carving the ham at the table. Carving the roast at the table.

And here, I was so goddamn excited about the clarity of this contrast, that I was pounding on the steering wheel and shouting to Melissa: “Don’t you see? The Asian traditions are all about creation at the table, and the Western traditions are all about destruction at the table, and of course it must seem so goddamn uncivilized! You’ve got to kill the thing outside, and then symbolically kill it again at the table!”

But, of course, she brought me down to earth. Western culinary tradition is full of assembly-dishes, too. Most preciously: the Thanksgiving dinner. Think of the horror if you were to come to a Thanksgiving dinner, and were presented with a pre-assembled plate. No no! The right thing, the only thing, is to make your plate yourself, to assemble just the right balance of turkey and ham and stuffing and potato and gravy, placed with just the right amount of overlap – mashed potatoes just barely spilling over the turkey, maybe – arranged on the plate to by yourself to please nothing but your very own gut. The notion of self-assembly is so deep in our soul-concept of Thanksgiving dinner, that you probably don’t even see it, until somebody breaks it.

So inane cultural reductionism doesn’t work here. Maybe there’s a practical explanation for some of this stuff – for the lettuce-wrapped egg-rolls, for the pani-puri, you have to assemble it at the last moment. Otherwise, you couldn’t get the temperature contrast, the crisp-wet contrast. But that doesn’t explain all the cases. It doesn’t explain bibimbap; it doesn’t explain Thanksgiving.

I need more examples.

The DSM 5 controversy: readings and related criticisms of the mental health profession

The two biggest critics of the DSM 5 are Allen Frances, former lead psychiatrist for the DSM-IV, and Gary Greenberg, psychotherapist and author of The Book of Woe: the DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. Frances wants to save the psychiatric profession from the particular problems of the DSM 5; Greenberg is skeptical of the scientific validity of the entire profession.

I’ve learned from some folks in the industry that insurance companies are about to move over to the ICD-10. But others mental health professionals I know think the DSM-5 problems were merely the worst and most obvious, and that corruption and bad practices are endemic.

Here’s some further reading on the controversy, and some related issues from critics and questioners of the mental health industry

Allen Frances

Allen Frances has been writing furiously in criticism of the DSM 5 since he resigned from the DSM task force. His view is that the DSM 5 is a particular problem, but that something like it is absolutely vital to psychiatry as a profession and as a long-term research project.

DSM 5 Is Guide Not Bible—Ignore Its Ten Worst Changes summarizes Frances’ criticisms, including the expansion of “Major Depressive Disorder” to include normal grieving for the death of a loved one, diagnosing excessive eating 12 times in 3 months as a new “Binge Eating Disorder,” and creating a new set of loosely defined “Behavioral Addictions”.

He also thinks that Attention Deficit Disorder Is Over-Diagnosed and Over-Treated – he ties the tripling of ADD diagnosis rates to the deregulation of the FDA, and increased legality of pharmaceutical advertising.

He sums up his views in this NY Times op-ed: “D.S.M.-5 promises to be a disaster — even after the changes approved this week, it will introduce many new and unproven diagnoses that will medicalize normality and result in a glut of unnecessary and harmful drug prescription…. Many critics assume unfairly that D.S.M.-5 is shilling for drug companies. This is not true. The mistakes are rather the result of an intellectual conflict of interest; experts always overvalue their pet area and want to expand its purview, until the point that everyday problems come to be mislabeled as mental disorders. Arrogance, secretiveness, passive governance and administrative disorganization have also played a role…”

Gary Greenberg

Gary Greenberg’s opus, The Book of Woe, is generally considered the most intimate and carefully researched criticism of the DSM-5. It’s a terrifying, meticulous hit-job, based on two years of interviews and research, that paints a portrait of the DSM-5 team as a desperate, scientifically shoddy, financially corrupted grab for authority and money. He’s more skeptical of scientific validity of the entire profession.

Inside the Battle to Define Mental Illness | WIRED is the 2010 article that would eventually become The Book of Woe

Some reviews: Gary Greenberg ‘The Book of Woe’ Reviewed by Martha … is particularly good. Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry by … gives a breezy overview of the whole scene. “The Book of Woe”: Psychiatry’s last stand takes a more scandals-and-payoffs overview of the whole scene.

More on the DSM 5

Lisa Cosgrove summarizes her team’s findings about conflict of interest in the DSM-5 task force, published in the New England Journal of Medicine: 70% of the task force has financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, up from 20% in the DSM-IV. And: the DSM has entirely inadequate reporting of known side-effects from pharmaceuticals, even life-threatening ones.

Ian Hacking is one of the sharpest philosophers of science. Though frequently skeptical of arguments that scientific concepts are socially constructed, he’s also a critic of the DSM 5. Lost in the Forest is his review of the DSM 5. But it grows out of Kinds of People – his very subtle treatment of how classifying people changes the people classified.

Other interesting material

Marcia Angell has an extraordinary set of reviews overviewing some of the recent literature critical of the psychiatric and pharmaceutical industry.

There’s a lot of really interesting research about the effects of labeling somebody as mentally ill, or as having a chemical imbalance:

The role of biological and genetic casual beliefs in the stigmatization of ‘mental patients’ is a fascinating study that shows that ascribing biological causes, rather than psychological causes, to a patient’s mental illness creates, in others, decreased blame for the patient, but increases the others’ beliefs that the patient is unpredictable, dangerous, antisocial, and decreases the willingness to become romantically involved with the patient.

The Rosenhan Study, from 1973, is a terrifying study, in which non-psychiatric psuedopatients were inserted into mental institutions. They made a single statement of abnormal mental behavior at admission, and then reverted to normal behavior. The institutions were unable to detect any change in their behavior, and continued to believe the patients to be schizophrenic. The psuedopatients report the experience as alienating and dehumanizing. Rosenhan writes: “A psychiatric label has a life and an influence of its own. Once the impression has been formed that the patient is schizophrenic, the expectation is that he will continue to be schizophrenic… Such labels, conferred by mental health professionals, are as influential on the patient as they are on his relatives and friends, and it should not surprise anyone that the diagnosis acts on all of them as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Ray Moynihan is an academic and journalist who specializes in medical overdiagnosis.

Special thanks to Elle Hipol for helping me assemble much of this material.

Vietnamese crawfish and why racial diversity is a sign of good food


So, this Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish boil place turned out to be the single most racially diverse joint in Utah. Asian, black, white, Latino, all united in a bliss of smeary crawfish slurping and crab-leg cracking and goo. A little part of me that had been clenched up for so long that I’d forgotten about it, unclenched momentarily.

And I remembered something, something I’d almost forgotten since I’d left Los Angeles, three years ago. Back when I was still posting on Chowhound like a madman and working for the LA Times, on the food beat, trying to cram in enough time to check out about four new restaurants a week between my bouts of grad school, I started noticing some patterns.

Like: diversity is a sign of good food. Not a sure sign, but a damn good one. I mean: racial diversity, economic diversity, cultural diversity, age diversity. If you hit a restaurant and it’s all young trendy Korean club kids, you’re screwed. If you hit a restaurant and it’s all elderly couples who’ve been going there for twenty years, you’re screwed. If you hit a restaurant and it’s wall-to-wall manicured mustaches and thrift store sundresses, you’re about to get screwed AND overcharged.

But if you walk in the door and there’s everybody – young kids, older couples, Asians, white people, black people, every indeterminate color – well, it’s a good sign. I’m not saying this out of some kind of soggy pseudo-liberal hopefulness. I’m saying it because there’s a genuine goddamn empirical correlation.

My theory, in the end, was this: people tend to move in herds. Like attracts like. But something that can break through that barrier is some good damn food. It calls people out of their comfort zone, of their cultural class.

So, Salt Lake City, I give you: Bucket ‘o Crawfish, a Vietnamese-Cajun seafood joint, and the best damned seafood in town.


The philosophy writing workshop sequence

Most undergraduates who come into my classroom seem to have no idea what it’s like to work on a paper with other human beings, or work on a paper in stages. They just sort of crap out a paper in one long go and throw it at you, starting with an empty screen and making it up as they went along. So I started forcing them to do what most serious writers do: write down their ideas at every stage, show them to other human beings, and get feedback. I tried to gather as many of the different methodologies I knew about for paper-writing, and turn them into a set of exercises. I’ve been fine-tuning it for about eight years.

The biggest thing is to break apart writing into a conceptual stage, and a communication stage. I mean doing an outline first, settling what you want to say, and then starting to actually write prose only after most of the conceptual work is settled. Most students, I think, start writing by opening up their word-processor, with no idea of where they’re going, and just start writing.  (I polled a class of thirty philosophy majors once about how many did at outline first, or anything like that, before starting to put prose to page. The answer: one.) I emphasize that separating the stages makes it easier: you don’t have to worry about communication when you’re figuring out your arguments, and when you’re writing, you can focus on the task of clearly presenting your ideas.

Most importantly, this introduces a low-cost stage where students are willing to change and revise their ideas.  I used to comment on rough drafts, but my students were almost never do any deep surgery when they’d already written a draft. It’s just too easy to get too attached to your own prose, and the sunk effort. But if you get the criticism in at the outline level, it’s so much emotionally easier to pivot. The moment I started doing outline-level work, the quality of argument in the final papers took a major jump up.

Students often hate it at first. And then they love it. Usually, they get frustrated and ego-wrecked for the first few sections. By the end of the term they’ve come to terms with it. And then so many of them come back to me in a year or two and tell me that they think this is how they actually learned to write, that they’ve been using this style of thing forever paper since, that this workshop sequence was one of the most valuable things they’d gone through.

There are many variations. Below is how I run it in a standard upper-division philosophy class. It’s designed for maximum impact for minimum in-class time expenditure. Here’s how it goes:

First Paper Outline Workshop

The first paper in the class involves a single workshop. First, I have students write a one to two page outline of their future paper, based on several provided essay prompts. It helps to be very explicit about the fact that I’m asking them to separate the conceptual stage from the communication stage. When they’re thinking about their arguments, they only think about their arguments. And by the time they’re actually writing a paper, they’re supposed to already know what they want to say, and only have to worry about how they’re going to say it. I say, for the outline, to not worry at all about reading clarity, and just to worry about their arguments.

They come into class with copies of their outline. I break them into groups of four or five. Each students takes about twenty minutes to stand up in front of their group, and present their thoughts. I tell them to do it in two stages: first stage, present the argument, where the audience only asks clarificatory questions. Second stage: the audience raises challenges, look for gaps in the argument. I emphasize that the goal in the second stage not to be antagonistic, or to crush the presenter, but to help them locate weaknesses in the paper, and to think together about how the paper might be improved. The goal is for each student to use their fellow students to locate weaknesses in their paper, so that they might be improved. And, more importantly, to figure out which criticisms are deepest and will lead to the most interesting dialogue.

I also tell the students not to be too attached to where they originally thought their paper was going. It’s easy for students to get broken-hearted if their original line of argument seems to fall apart. But if you tell them that the goal of this session is not to defend their original argument, but to search for the most interesting version of their paper possible – if you tell them it’s OK to modulate, or restrict, or even switch directions for their conclusion – things go a lot better.

I give them colored markers and white-board space and usually make them sketch out their arguments in some sort of logical flow-chart. Usually, students resist doing this at first, but it seems to really help a lot of the groups talk about the structure of the argument.

I usually give them about 1.5 to 2 weeks to generate their first paper from this workshop, which is submitted to me without further workshopping.

Second Paper Outline Workshop

The path to the second, and final, paper in my class involves two workshops. First, we do an outline workshop much like the first, but I provide no essay prompts. Typically, students struggle with choosing topics of appropriate size. Thus, the second paper outline workshop often forces students to focus their topic, refine their thesis, and clarify their direction of argument.

It’s really important here that students have a sense of ownership over their ideas. Having to present an original idea in front of their peers seems to force students towards coherency, and towards actually thinking about the motivations for taking on a particular topic. Without this, papers often have an automatic quality, as if the students are simply filling out a template passed down from on high. There’s a sense I often have that students have been taught this thing, this essay form that they plug through, which is completely disconnected from any sense of communication. But by doing peer presentations of their own ideas, the students suddenly seem to start viewing themselves as actually communicating, and their natural sense of clarity and order emerges.

Second Paper Draft Workshop

A week after the second paper outline workshop, the students bring a draft of the paper into class. I break them into groups of four or five, and circulate their papers, reading and commenting on them. I tell them that, though they’re free to raise criticisms, the primary goal of this session is to focus on writing clarity. I tell the students that they are not editors today – they don’t need to provide fixes. They are simply reporting their reading experience. They’ll write down where they become confused, what words they don’t understand, what questions they had, where they got lost about the structure. I say: “It’s often so hard to see your own writing, because you often don’t actually see what you put on the page – you just fill in what you wanted to say, from your own head. But a lot of times, the most important thing is so obvious to you that you don’t put it on the page. So now, as a reader, your job is to communicate to the writer what the experience of reading was like for you, where you stumbled or got lost, so the writer knows what got through into the writing, and what was left out.”

I have a theory here that most important thing here is being on the reading end of this exercise. Of course, getting feedback is great. But having to trudge through all these other students’ papers for an hour or more is the heart of it. They see: how easy it is to get lost, how important structural transitions are. They see how, over and over again, little tiny vaguenesses in grammar or simple pronoun ambiguity accumulate and destroy communication. They see how hard it is to understand argumentative material when it is anything less than absolutely lucid. And usually, in a batch of papers, there’s one or two that are much more clearly written, and it suddenly becomes clear to them how much work the little transitional and structural details are doing, to help the reader.

They usually end up in a state of misery and nausea, and a lot of the times what I hear is, “How the hell do YOU manage to read papers like this without shooting yourself?” And then they get their own papers back, covered with marks from their peers about the very same problems – the ambiguities, the confusions. And it’s so much easier to understand what’s missing in their paper when they’ve just been in the confused-reader role on their peers’ papers.

Peer-commentary is also, I think, more emotionally convincing. A lot of students are, I think, ready to dismiss their professor’s comments as coming from some weird, nit-picky, ivory-tower sort of place, but willing to accept their peers’ comments about unclarity or incomprehensibility.

The final drafts I get after this work are so, so, so much clearer.

Feel free to use these ideas in your own class. One request: if you do, let me know how it goes, and let me know any tweaks or improvements you come up with.

Wanderings: the underdog juicy dumpling

Mmm…. tenderness layers…

Layers of love

That outside layer: it’s fish paste. It’s one of these weird gossamer-textured things that dissolves before you can fully come to terms with the texture.

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