On trans athletes

Lately people have been talking about the downturn of the Austin Community of Atheists (see video explaining timeline, or transcript). But the point of me leaving the atheist movement was so I didn’t have to concern myself with all the bullshit that goes on in atheist groups, so I’m not going to talk about it. Instead I’ll address an issue that came up in relation to the drama: the right of trans athletes to compete in athletic events. HJ Hornbeck has been talking about it for literally months, and this is my independent take.

I’ll admit upfront that I don’t care about athletics. The only sports I personally care about are video game speed running and competitive Dominion. I only care about athletics to the extent that I have empathy for things that other people care about.

So a good place to start is with someone else who cares more, and has more expertise. I present Dr. Rachel McKinnon, who is not only a trans athlete, but also a philosophy professor who teaches courses about sports ethics!

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The physics of Dominion

For this month’s repost, I’m publishing up an article I wrote in explanation of a programming project in 2018.  In theory you could find it on Github, but to maintain a layer of pseudonymity I’m not linking it directly.  A few minor revisions have been made to adapt to the audience.


The goal of this project is to create Markov Chain simulations showing that the card game Dominion contains phase transitions, much like the physical phase transition between liquid and solid.

Dominion is a popular card game created in 2008. In Dominion, each player has their own deck, and they add/remove cards from their deck over the course of the game. Each game has a unique set of cards available to be added to players’ decks, making the optimal strategy in each game different. However, there are two archetypical strategies, based on two fundamentally different decks. The “Big Money” deck makes the best of the 5 cards drawn each turn. The “Engine” deck includes cards that draw more cards, and tries to draw itself in its entirety each turn.

Because of my background in physics, I recognized that the line between “Big Money” and “Engine” strategies is a phase transition. More specifically, it’s a one-dimensional percolative transition. That explains why there is such a strong dichotomy between the two strategies over a wide range of conditions.

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Race in Horizon: Zero Dawn

Content note: This will contain minor spoilers only.  No guarantees about the comment section.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a 2017 video game that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where robotic beasts roam the earth. The protagonist, Aloy, is an exile from the Nora, a tribe of hunter-gatherers. Aloy’s mission in life is to end her own exile, but as soon as she succeeds, she receives her call to adventure, and must venture out of Nora lands into Carja territory.

HZD has some genuinely interesting things to say about race, far surpassing my expectations for a big-budget video game. Here I will discuss how the game hits the mark on several issues. Then I’ll discuss how the game has been criticized for cultural appropriation of Native Americans. Finally, I will discuss my own criticism: Where the main game succeeds, the DLC pack The Frozen Wilds falls flat on its face.

Where Horizon: Zero Dawn succeeds

The first thing that stands out about HZD is its racially diverse cast. Behold:

A bunch of minor HZD characters

Credit: AbyssOfUnknowing. These are all minor characters, because the image was challenging people to name as many characters as they could remember.

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Why video games are so flammable

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2013.  I was reminded of this post because I recently wrote about a queer theory paper about video game economics.  Wow, some of my references are quite dated!  And this predates gamergate!  Also, LOL at “I don’t intend to make a habit out of discussing economics”.

With Black Friday upon us, the flame wars over next-gen gaming consoles have really been heating up.  Which will win: the Wii U, XBox One, or PlayStation 4?  No one truly knows, but gamers everywhere agree that everyone else is wrong and should feel bad about being so stupid.

While I don’t intend to make a habit out of discussing economics, I do think that video game flame wars can be understood within economics.  The problem is twofold:

  1. There is limited space for video games and video game consoles, and everyone knows it.
  2. Video games are in a state of monopolistic competition.

Video game producers are most efficient when they make fewer, larger games, for many reasons.  Developing a game is a one-time cost, while actually manufacturing the game is cheap.  Selling more copies of a game is not a matter of paying for more manufacture, but paying for better advertisement and development so that more people want to play.1  Note that it’s much easier to advertise one big game than to advertise many little ones.  The main reason to have more smaller games is to better cater to different tastes (e.g. see the indie game industry).

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Beyond Character representation

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015, with a few edits for clarity. I chose this post because the paper I just discussed makes a mention of QGCon, and I was reminiscing about the event.

I’m lucky that the Queerness and Games Conference is right by where I live, and has many fascinating talks on the subjects of queer theory, games studies, and game design.

The QGCon logo

A major theme at the conference is the idea of going beyond mere character representation. That is, a queer game doesn’t just mean having a character who is queer, or giving the player the choice of who to romance. It could be about having queer themes, such as the theme of rebelling against the status quo.

Of course, me being me, I have a rather different style of thinking from most people at QGCon. At QGCon, no one ever voices disagreement, and everyone is happy and constructive. Who would ever want to discourage all these awesome but anxious creators by saying anything even mildly critical? But personally, I don’t feel like I have properly engaged in any subject until I have cast a critical eye upon it, and listed its disadvantages. So this is the critical discussion of non-character representation that I wish I heard.

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Paper: Gaming’s Queer Economy

In my last link roundup, I pointed to a paper called “Coin of Another Realm: Gaming’s Queer Economy“, by Christopher Goetz. I’m all over this, because I’m really interested in the economics of video games, and what this means for people with minority tastes. That’s not the direction Goetz takes, but still.

But I must warn you, you may find this paper infuriating. It shows some of the most frustrating tendencies of critical theory and queer theory. For example, in queer theory, “queer” often does not refer to sexuality, but instead means something like, “against norms”, “relating to oppressed groups”, or “in opposition to reproductive futurism”. Frustrating, as an activist, but also frustratingly standard!  And it’s not really much of an economic analysis–the paper quite literally uses a child’s understanding of economics. It’s a “literary” view of economics: myths, not maths.

But my purpose is neither to attack nor defend the paper (although I may do either incidentally), but to engage with it in good faith. The reader is welcome to quit in frustration at any point, and tell me about it in the comment section.
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Colonialism in Eurogames

There’s a board game slash art piece called Train, where players shuffle meeples around in a train, until they come to the realization that the game is about shipping Jews to concentration camps. At this point, the players stop, usually shocked and disgusted with their own complicity.

But Train is a very unusual board game. Suppose we were playing another board game that involved putting brown disks, called “colonists”, onto plantations. Eventually, you put two and two together and realize that the “colonists” actually represent slaves, and you’ve been participating in trans-atlantic slave trade. Would you stop playing, feeling disgusted with your own complicity? Would you never play again? No, because you’re not playing an art piece, you’re playing Puerto Rico, one of the great classics of the Eurogame genre. So you just accept it as problematic, and play on.

It isn’t just Puerto Rico. Many Eurogames feature themes of colonialism, erasing or sanitizing its most evil aspects, like slavery, subjugation, or genocide. Instead, these games focus exclusively on the interests and perspectives of competing colonizing powers.

So, why do you think that is? Here I offer a bit of speculation.

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