Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Participating in the Emergent Internet

So you like the idea of the internet getting better and better. You want to do your part. You share cool things with your friends - and with strangers, you're not particular.

But maybe you could do a little more? You know, make the internet better without actually putting any effort into it?

Can do!

The internet of the future is not simply sites, but links. Who links to what? What links to who?

To help build this, simply remember that there are two kinds of posts - two kinds of content. One kind introduces new stuff, while the other kind reshares that stuff. Both are important. Creators are often not very good at the whole "resharing" thing, while people who reshare continuously get very, very good at knowing what will make a splash with who. They're different jobs.

Right now, you're a resharer. You find something interesting and want to share it. So you do.

Well, if you want to help the internet grow and flourish, you need to give credit.

Nothing about giving credit diminishes your reshare. Giving credit makes you look like not a dick. So let's give credit!

First and most importantly, give credit to the original poster - the person who originally created the content. If you're sharing directly, this is easy: just link to the page you got it from. But even if you are sharing a reshare of a reshare of a reshare, give a link or a name-drop to the original source. If you can't find the original source, say so.

Then make sure you give credit to the other resharers who, like you, are striving to make the internet more interesting. If you read someone's resharing of a Shatner video and want to spread the love around, link to the original video and to the resharer's post. Links are free. If it's a long chain of links, or of the sharer's link is not something you want to directly link to for some reason, no problem. Do a "via" and tag everyone. "via +doggydoggydoggy and @mobileskunkarmor" or whatever.

Pretty easy, right? Just link. LINK LINK LINK LINK. Links are free. Just get in the habit of linking. The more threads you connect, the better a netizen you are.


What, you want a more advanced course? Okay.

If you want to be a good citizen of the internet, one part of that is being a filter to purify all the bad citizens.

Bad citizen number one shares images and animated gifs by reuploading them to imgur or G+ or whatever. The cool image just pops up in his stream. Even if he doesn't claim he created it, he certainly doesn't give any link love to the author!

Well, simply post the link yourself. A simple reverse image lookup at http://images.google.com/ can give you the source. Don't make any accusations, just a simple comment that says "original source -> LINK". Chances are, the author isn't intending to be a dick, and if he gets upset at you, well... problem solved, he's going to lose a lot of followers and his reshares won't matter.

Bad citizen number two shares direct links to the original author, but never gives any "via" credit. Sure, maybe they stumbled across every single article on their own. More likely, they're leeching off other resharers, aggregating other, interesting people's work and pretending they did it. Make no mistake: finding and distributing interesting content is work, and these leeches are not doing anyone any favors.

A big giveaway is if more than 2/3 of the posts they make are links with no real added commentary. If someone links to a news article and says "I think this is probably a sign that France might be about to raise interest rates 0.1%", that's probably okay. If someone just posts a link to the news article, sans comment, they may be resharing without giving credit to the resharer they originally got the link from.

I don't know what to do in these situations, aside from keeping in mind that the guy probably doesn't consider a resharer's work to be of any value. Funny, considering they are a resharer themselves.

EDIT: There are some people who reshare privately. Maybe Maggie doesn't want her parents to know she's gay, or whatever. If someone has reshared privately, use your best judgement as to whether to include them in your credits or not. If you're thinking this deeply, you're probably not a type 2 bad citizen, no worries.

Questionable citizen 3 makes derivatives and post them without links to the original. For example, creating an animated gif but not linking to the video you ripped it from.

In these situations, I recommend simply linking to the video, if you can find it. Done simply, it should be okay. For example, "ha ha, I loved that bit. Here's the full video->"

Remember that the questionable citizen in question actually did a fair amount of work. They're not really leeches, just clumsy.


Following these guidelines will hopefully result in a culture of clear link love. Sort of a dawning of the age of Aquarius sort of thing, except geeky. Do your part for the internet: LINK!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fictional Religions

This post discusses the creation and use of fictional religions for video games/fictional worlds. Please do not view it as an attack on your real-world religions or religious beliefs.

I've played a lot of fantasy games, read a lot of fantasy stories. They tend to have a lot of gods in them.

Normally, these in-world religions fall into two camps. 1) Religions that are funhouse mirrors of real-world religions (AKA the "crystal dragon space jesus"). 2) Religions whose pantheons exist to cover the facets of the game world that the players will care about. IE, simplifying your pantheon into "goddess of healing", "god of thunder", "goddess of trade", "god of evil", etc.

I don't really have a problem with the first approach, if you're doing it on purpose. However, the second approach is really pretty boring. So let's talk about how you might create some fictional religions that have some real heft.


Religions are not gods. This is a critical point to make. You can have gods without religions, and religions without gods. You can also have religions which have betrayed their god, or their god was killed, or whatever.

Religions serve a purpose to a group of individuals (not necessarily people). A god is just a super-powerful entity. The only time the two are very tightly linked are if you are assuming prayer-powered gods, a concept which was briefly popular in the late 90s and early 2000s. Nothing wrong with that idea, has some fun meat to it, but let's not limit ourselves to it.

So lets deal with religions and gods separately.


Here's my thoughts on gods!

Most of the time, our stories do not need gods that are extensions of religions, or religions that are extensions of gods. Instead, we need to think about A) what a god is and B) what purpose the religion serves.

In many fantasy settings, the gods are basically just big people. Big, immortal people. If that's the case, that's fine. However, if that is the case then it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for a god to have a single, specific domain.

Sure, Thor was the god of thunder. And he liked being the god of thunder. But he also had a hand in storms, oak trees, strength, protection of mankind, hallowing, healing, fertility, and drunken binges.

In the real-world religion, these were added to Thor as he merged with various predecessors and cult gods, in the same way that Tyr was demoted from highest god to "that guy that guards the bridge". Unless your fantasy religion's god pops down to say "hey, actually, I don't do that kind of thing you just prayed for, try the temple down the road", people will keep attaching new domains to their favorite god. Eventually, a favorite god can be promoted to "the high god" or "the only god".

In a fantasy religion, Thor could be an actual person running around doing things, and it's easy to see that his domain might end up much the same. It's the sort of eclectic mix you might get by looking at a real person's interests. So the two (worshipping a human-like god and letting a religion grow over time) can have very similar results if you like.

On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for gods that aren't human-like. Or maybe some gods that are and some gods that aren't.

Some of the most compelling gods in games have been gods of ancient religions that have a very alien tint to them. Not all the details can be teased out. Was Xikobaz the goddess of darkness? Well, the translation isn't so simple, and parts of the tablets have been broken, but that thing coming out of the well is on fire, so maybe not?

When you're thinking of a god in a fantasy game, you need to decide what sort of manifestations the players/audience is likely to find.

If you've got human-like gods, you may actually run into them out in the world, maybe even fight them. That can be fun.

But as you start stepping away from human-like, you start getting gods whose powers are more subtle. Maybe you'll meet Cmirkl, ancient sleeping god of shell and bone. But even before you meet him, you'll see the creatures his power creates, the landscapes his existence twists, the temples built to him by people long forgotten by time... or perhaps by people who failed to exist at all, in the end.

Generally, I rank gods on a "queasiness scale".

1) Just a big, superpowered humanoid. Or animal, whatever. Probably has an eclectic mix of powers. Example: Thor, Superman.

2) Seems like a big, superpowered humanoid, but has some crazy powers hidden underneath, such as time travel or infinite polymorphing or dream walking. Example: Loki, Odin.

3) May appear in a humanoid form, but only to interact with humans. Powers leak and bleed enough that being in their presence is probably not wise. Still, recognizably a god. Example: Crystal Space Dragon Jesus, Gaia, Dream.

4) Does not exist primarily in our universe, and doesn't really understand much about humans. Often called "sleeping", because "ignoring us" really doesn't sound so good. Bleeds power like a sieve, can be seen as either a god or a force of nature, depending on how you squint. Example: Cthulhu (sometimes).

5) Largely incomprehensible. Maybe dead, or doesn't exist yet? Anyway, treat it like a bizarre force of nature, not a god. Example: Cthulhu (sometimes), King in Yellow.

Now, what purpose does the religion serve?

1) Cargo cult bullshit. Try to deal with the chaos by worshipping. Has no real effect.

2) Contains the god. Or wards them off. Or sates them. The religion keeps the god from going ballistic on you.

3) Curries favor. The god gently exerts pressure in favor of their worshippers. This is a small but noticeable actual advantage. Otherwise it's just cargo cult stuff.

4) Explicit favors. The god grants magic, miracles, personal appearances, sends angels, whatever. The power of this religion is absolutely undeniable.

5) Respect. The religion doesn't offer up much in the way of powers, but exists out of respect for the deity. Functionally, this usually means the religion is a storehouse of best practices for a given domain, or for emergency responses when something takes a supernatural nose-dive.


Religions are fundamentally about the people doing the worshipping. You can say that a religion is a set of beliefs, rituals, and general practices. However, those don't exist separately from the practitioners. As time passes, the religion evolves in tandem with the civilization it is part of, and some of the older beliefs, rituals, and practices are downplayed or forgotten while new ones come around.

Since this is a fantasy setting, there may be some magical enforcement. For example, it could be that you worship this idol because if you don't, it will kill you. Really - if you miss a day, it will come awake at night, hunt you down, and stab you with a mystic spork.

However, in the absence of such pressures (and even with such pressures), religions still exist in a cultural setting, and serve a cultural purpose. To that end, we can split our religions into a few basic types, all of which can be monotheistic, polytheistic, deistic, etc.

1) Stable state religions. These are religions where, in theory, everyone is part of the same religion. These are typically very old, and are often the source of stability in societies more than 100 (fictional) generations old. These are typically extremely stagnant. The top is usually rife with corruption unless you're doing an idyllic view of things, but at the level of an individual town's church it can be as oppressive or friendly as your story demands. Keep in mind that really oppressive religions tend to get in trouble and become...

2) Unstable state religions. This is where there is a state religion, but it is losing its grip. This leads to much scrabbling in the form of witch-hunts, oppression, and other nastiness. This is often caused by the rise of other religions (often because of mass immigration), but can also be caused by severe trouble, such as a sudden spike in the number of dragons roaming the land. Either way, this religion is burning all its goodwill very fast, and it is unlikely it will ever recover. Eventually it may become...

3) Fractured religions. This is where the religions have the same core beliefs and share most or all of the same holy books/relic/magic. However, they have some rift between them which causes some of the population to belong to one, and some to belong to the other. How bitter this feud is depends on the age of the split: the older, the milder, assuming the religions continued to occupy the same lands the whole time. The split usually happens for tribal reasons, not liturgical ones - that is, you side with your kin against their kin. The differences are usually a list of very minor issues, plus one side tending to be more strict than the other.

3) Minority religions. When a small but significant number of the population belongs to a given religion. While the majority may not be completely happy about it, a minority religion is not an outlaw religion, and they are more or less left to worship in peace, aside from as much racism as you care to plug into your setting. Keep in mind that what is a minority religion here is often a more pervasive religion in someone's homeland, but the main religion and the branch are often under very different pressures, and their beliefs, rituals, and practices may change in different directions in only a year or two.

4) Outlaw religions. Whuh-oh, don't tell anyone you worship Xegelbaz, or you'll find yourself in the gaol for sure. Maybe the witch-hunt is ongoing. Maybe the practitioners have been rounded up into "work camps". Maybe it's just a standing order to report practitioners, but nobody really expects to find one. In the real world, this often happens due to a conquering religion, but in the fantasy world it may be because the magic resulting from this worship is sinister.

5) Conquering religions. This is a religion which is or was a state religion, but has decided that the world needs to be conquered. Conquering religions will use overwhelming force against other religions and the nations that believe them - the tools of the sword, the economy, and the proselytizer. The way this works is that the old religion is outlawed, while a branch of the conquering religion is created which incorporates some of the conquered religion's practices (a spoonful of sugar makes the religion go down). Please note that conquering religions are often rapidly changing themselves, as well: this is not a stagnant religion.

6) Secret religions. How many worshippers are there? Impossible to know. Often a conquered religion, or an inherited-by-bloodline religion. Any way you cut it, nobody admits it, they all worship in secret. If the fantasy world gives out magic for your religious worship, this can be a very powerful secret!

7) Rebellious religions. A minority religion or cult which decides to enter mainstream by fomenting rebellion, or attaching itself to rebellion which is already fomenting. The "us vs them" logic of a rebellion makes it very, very easy to recruit people and turn them into zealots for your church. If your rebellion succeeds, maybe you'll be a state religion in the new nation...

8) Bored-to-action religions. This arises somewhat rarely, but I thought I'd mention it. When society has plenty of people who are interested in changing (themselves or the world), branches of existing religions may pop up organized around that philosophy. Of course, just as likely are secret societies, NGOs, etc.

9) Cults. Everyone loves a good cult! Please keep in mind that a cult has a pretty specific definition. Rather than use it loosely, I'm using it specifically: this is a religion, regardless of size, which uses at least half of these techniques:

A) Assigns a new name or identity when you join/rank up.
B) Isolates practitioners from nonpractitioners.
C) Promises access to secrets if you can rank up enough.
D) Promises experiences not permitted by cultural norms/laws.
E) Has a single, obsessive leader.
F) Follows one core tenet, insists that all problems can be solved by it.
G) Uses physical or emotional stress to make people vulnerable to suggestion.
H) Subverts the hold of the government over its practitioners via secrecy or bribery.

10) Dead religions. Dead religions are a really interesting topic, and also include any religion which is mostly-dead (<20 practitioners). Because this is fantasy, dead religions may still have a lot of power. For example, stumbling into a temple to the ancient goddess of dreams and hallucinations may not be a very comfortable experience...

If you read this far, you're really, really patient. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


I've been stuck on thinking about the flashlight projector. Original post included if you missed it.

I've been thinking about the sort of games and apps you might be able to create. This post will be pretty design-heavy.

The flashlight projects an image onto a surface. Fundamentally, that means you can put virtual things on the surface. These virtual things can be just something on the surface, such as a sticker or a logo. Alternately, they can represent things that aren't on the surface, but are only being displayed there.

Three examples of that are:

1) Displaying the piping and wiring in a wall by painting their image on the wall.

2) Casting a shadow on the wall from a virtual object between the flashlight and the wall. Shadow does not have to be actual dark patches - for example, the virtual object might be a stained glass bauble.

3) Showing what is beyond the wall on the surface of the wall. For example, a security guard could shine his flashlight on a wall and play the camera feeds for the room on the other side.

There is also the option to display simple virtual things on the surface, but use them in an information-dense manner. For example, painting a map on the surface, getting a footprint trail of people who passed through, or average rainfall displayed as inches of "water" splashing along the ground.

These are things which have nothing to do with a reality that currently exists, but are still deeply tied to the location, as opposed to simple virtual tagging.

So... what sort of games could you make out of it?


Let's start with the obvious one: let people paint on surfaces, then let other people see what they have painted.

This offers some unique limits and opportunities. First off, the flashlight is a physical object, and most people aren't going to want to seem weird by hunting around Manhattan with a flashlight during the day. It follows that the majority of tagging will happen in places with some foot traffic, but not too much (the weirdo with the flashlight) or too little (nobody else will see it). An alternative is places with very few people plus some kind of guidance/seeking system, which would be useful if there were few users.

If you're painting on surfaces rather than in space, you can take advantage of the nature of surfaces. Some surfaces are the same day in and day out. However, other surfaces are temporary or recurring. For example, if you paint the side of a parked car, you can only see that image when a car is parked in that same spot. If you paint someone's shirt, you can only see the image when someone is standing in that same place. Perhaps you can see blurry shadows if your light shines through where the surface should be, and then there's the fun of looking for places there were surfaces that people painted on, and temporarily recreating those surfaces.

Painting doesn't have to just be painting. Like, with a finger. There are a variety of things it could be.

I like the idea of "stamping". You have virtual possession of a thing. You then stamp it onto a surface, losing possession of it. Someone who sees it can peel it off and stick it in their inventory.

In some cases, this is probably ad-driven. Through the central "inventory management system", you can manage the unique tags for every stamp, regardless of what it actually is once it is on your computer. So if an online game wants to put up stamps for custom armor and a month of free play time, they can pay the central database a per-item fee to register it, and then go around stamping them out. You could also do coupons for the local stores, or even just flat-out billboard ads.

It's actually less obnoxious than normal ads because you, the player, can rip them down and throw them away (by "taking" them). The central database still gets the ad money.

But it'd be a pretty dull game if it was just about ads. So we have to think about how and what people would want to share.

Let's put it in three categories:

1) I want people to see this cool thing - the display case reason.

2) I want to put out rare and interesting things that make the world a bit more magical - the unicorn reason.

3) I want to share and work together on this thing - the garden reason.

The first category would consist of content you created, or links you've found. Basically, you could slap images and youtube videos and stuff onto various surfaces. The world could get very crowded if they never faded, so I think most of these would fade slightly if someone viewed them and did not "thumbs up" them. So after, say, 20 unique views without a thumbs-up, they vanish entirely. "Peeling" these off would not remove them from the world, but simply keep a local copy (if allowed). Depending on the rules, you may report illegal/inappropriate content, which would be removed/gated in much the same manner as any other kind of hosting service.

The second category is driven by the urge to make hidden things in the world, hidden things that people can find. For example, you might stumble across a red "thread" on a wall, which if you follow it, leads to a real-world grotto and a geotag-style treasure box. Or maybe you simulate how the night sky would look if it were completely dark in this city, and then paint the eves of buildings with it. Or you paint a mural, a little bit every day, so that visitors feel the need to check back frequently.

This kind of sharing is generally not quite as "loud" as the first kind, and is often slightly secret or hard to find. They're half treasure hunt. That's fine, sounds fun. Imagine finding a mural in midair (by the shadows the mural casts), and then spending fifteen minutes using your hand and the flashlight to pan across it and see it.

The third category - the social and cooperative creation of content in this virtual world - is definitely the most interesting to me. Imagine if there was a garden in some downtown nook - a virtual garden. People could come by and plant things, harvest things, and so on. Or there's a cooperative scene, where people can drop their "Mii"s and watch them play around. Or any number of other things.

The problem with this category is trolls. I imagine every site would need an "owner" who could veto, roll back, and ban. That might get logistically irritating. But, on the other hand, it offers another way to monetize: "if you want something that runs and changes over time and isn't, say, a static youtube video, you need to pay $5 per 100m of sim..."