Once in a while we return to our roots: Popehat began as a blog about computer gaming and similar disreputable pastimes. Nowadays it takes a hell of a game to make us admit that.

So, back in the days of VGA graphics cards and pentium processors, "turn-based strategy games" were a thing. A big thing. "Civilization" wasn't the only such game most gamers had heard of. There were competitors in non-historical genres, such as epic fantasy or science fiction space opera. In that field, the king was the still well-regarded Master of Orion and its sequel, Master of Orion 2. MOO and MOO2 allowed the player to take the helm of a galactic empire, to unleash fleets of hundreds of ships on enemies, and in general to boldly go where no silicon-based rock form of life had gone before. They were great. And then the genre sort of … died. A followup sequel, Master of Orion 3, played like a spreadsheet and featured artificial intelligence opponents from which the intelligence had been removed. While there are still occasional gems in 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) space opera gaming, such as Galactic CivilizationsSword of the Stars or Distant Worlds, it's strictly a niche genre, for devoted fans only.

Master of Orion diplomacy in action.

Master of Orion diplomacy in action.

The newest player on the scene, Stellaris, by Swedish games company Paradox Development Studios, probably won't change that, but it should.

Stellaris is not a turn-based game. It runs in real time (which can be sped up, slowed down, or paused by the player), but it definitely hearkens back to the glory that was Master of Orion. The game is big. It's complex. And it's glorious, made by people who clearly love space opera sci-fi and all its tropes.  A game begins with the player custom-designing a species (humans, avians, reptilians, and much stranger things are allowed) by look, ethos (anything from benevolent peacekeepers like Star Trek's Federation to xenophobic militarists such as Doctor Who's Daleks is on the table), and exploring from one planet in a galaxy of up to a thousand stars (yes, I know) to build a star empire. Technology will be researched. Aliens will be met, traded with, federated with, and / or conquered. And much else will happen, in scripted or triggered events. Pretty much anything from science fiction can appear depending on the player's actions, such as rogue A.I. attempting to exterminate all life, "uplift" of pre-sentient animals to sapience and starfaring, or the tearing of gaping holes in reality caused by science meddling in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, leading to galactic invasion by Lovecraftian horrors from another dimension. If there's a trope you can think of, chances are it can appear in a game of Stellaris.

"Diplomacy by other means," from Stellaris

"Diplomacy by other means," from Stellaris

I say "a game," because Stellaris is long. Though the game was released on Monday and I've been playing it in pretty much every moment of free time, I'm nowhere close to finishing a game. As with Civilization on a huge map with lots of opponents, it's possible for a Stellaris scenario, in a thousand star galaxy with numerous A.I. opponents, to take dozens of hours to complete. In the game I'm playing, after a couple of false starts (Stellaris' tutorial, while good, can't really teach you everything you need to know about a game that's quite deep), I've come to dominate the northern spiral arm of the galaxy, violated the Prime Directive to lift pre-spacefaring civilizations to the stars, exterminated one species entirely (because I could tell they'd eventually be trouble for my benevolent vision of multicultural galactic harmony), and had my ass (well, my waste disposal oriented anatomy) handed to me by a decadent race of godlike aliens who were upset that I didn't take their warnings about not exterminating species seriously. And I'm nowhere close to finishing.

Combat is a big thing in Stellaris, but this isn't a tactical game. It's grand strategy. Battles are resolved, graphically, by the computer rather than the player based on number of ships, officers commanding, technology and equipment (Shields work wonderfully against railgun projectiles, but anti-matter missiles slide right through. Should have invested in point defense lasers!). The player can gain an edge in battle with good ship design, or that can be delegated to the computer.

Diplomacy, on the other hand, is lacking. Choices on how to influence cooperating and opposing factions, such as trade, war, and peace, seem rather vanilla compared to what's available in other games by Paradox, such as its World War II simulation Hearts of Iron or its medieval empire simulator Crusader Kings. And the A.I. can be rather passive even in war. And espionage against rival empires is entirely lacking.

That said, Paradox has a good record of supporting and expanding games over time. Europa Universalis IV, released in 2013, still receives regular content additions and brand new features three years after its release. This is not a "fire and forget" game. I expect Stellaris to grow and to improve vastly over time, with expansions to diplomacy, to trade, addition of espionage, and more events such as the A.I. apocalypse.  The game is highly moddable by players. If you want to play in the Star Trek universe, or the hellish future of Warhammer 40,000, I'm quite sure such mods will be available in the not distant future.

I've only scratched the surface of what's available in Stellaris. If you enjoy grand, sweeping strategic games, and have a desire for something deeper than Civilization, in an entirely different setting, I recommend Stellaris highly. This is a game that can keep you entertained for hundreds of hours.

That Time I Accidentally Played Dungeons & Dragons With White Nationalists

We geeks are just better at being good people.

We're better than the jocks, the cheerleaders, the socs, the hierarchically and socially mundane. We transcend bigotry. If you like dwarves — who, after all, are clearly Scottish or something — and Minbari and so forth, how could we be preoccupied with silly pigmentation issues? How could we, who cheer when Éowyn slew the Witch-King of Angmar, doubt that women can do anything?

Or so the legend goes.

Years ago there was a game shop called The Last Grenadier in Burbank. north of Los Angeles. It was old-school gaming: dingy, cavernous, overpriced, a favored hangout for gamers of all sorts. I shopped there as a kid when the game Twilight 2000 referred to a dark future, not to an increasingly dim past.

On the brighter side, team, nobody can say we didn't find WMDs.

On the brighter side, team, nobody can say we didn't find WMDs.

The summer of 1991 I was back from college, waiting for law school to start, and working. Most of my high school friends were gone. Evenings and weekends loomed empty. I was more self-confident and independent than I was in high school, but let's face it: I wouldn't be hitting the bar scene. So I decided to go to some at the events at the Grenadier that got people together to form gaming groups. What better way to meet people and get back into a favorite hobby?

After a couple of events I fell in with a small group of other young adults who lived not far from me. We were similar in age — very early 20s — and similar in hobbies — video games and tabletop games and geek culture — so what could other differences matter? We started a group playing Dungeons & Dragons (second edition, introduced in 1989, still somewhat old-school) — young men, a couple of women occasionally, with free evenings and weekends. That led to more hanging out — meals, rented VHS tapes1, and so forth.

I had been parts of gaming groups growing up, and those groups were like many staffed by teen boys — raucous, overcaffeinated, cheerfully profane, immature in a polite-to-grown-ups sort of way. This was — different.

I'm a little slow on the uptake. So it took me a while to notice. I noticed that a couple of the guys would mutter and curse at the screen on the Star Trek movies we watched when a black character appeared. I noticed "Jew" used as a verb or adjective. I noticed jokes about Orks being on welfare and robbing liquor stores. I noticed that the D&D campaign seemed portrayed rather explicitly as a struggle of white humans and elves against a dark horde of black people and their inhuman allies. I noticed that the DM and players liked to talk about rape a lot — and in a sort of triumphalist "these are the spoils of war" type of way and not in a sort of real-war-is-ugly-not-heroic sort of way, either. One of the women joked along. Another stayed silent. That one dropped out eventually.

What did I do? Not much. I told myself that if I didn't like it I was just being politically correct. I told myself that I was being a snob — I lived in an expensive neighborhood and was about to go to Harvard and these guys were mostly in blue-collar jobs with some community college in a more working-class neighborhood. In an effort not to be classist, I persuaded myself that working class people must just talk that way about Jews and blacks and Asians and rape and so forth and I'm prejudiced if I'm not down with it. (Going to college in the late 1980s was excellent preparation for thinking about people that way, as was growing up in a neighborhood with no working-class people.)

I'd like to say that I noped right out of there with reasonable speed. But I didn't. I just ghosted them. I went off to law school at the end of the summer and never talked to any of them ever again. I didn't see any of them again until the late 1990s, when one was a peripheral witness in a civil rights cased I prosecuted involving some tweaker skinhead wannabees harassing a multi-racial family.

I cut off contact because they creeped me out — because some of them were starting to get an edge when they asked why I didn't laugh at a joke (I still remember some of those jokes, and no, I won't repeat them) or when they incorporated more and more racial imagery into gameplay, or when they became comfortable enough with me (or, more likely indifferent enough to my presence) that they started to talk about how Hispanics destroyed the neighborhood and Armenians couldn't be trusted and Asians were all cheaters and there should be neighborhoods just for white people, decent people, or maybe an entire state or region or something, and about how they were looking into groups of white people who felt the same way. I didn't say anything when they made one of the women in the group increasingly, visibly uncomfortable until she left, or when they made passive-aggressive increasingly open comments about race to the one Latino in the group until he left, or when they talked shit about people I knew and liked. Why not? Part of it was I was still growing out of shyness and geekery into self-confidence. Part of it was that I didn't have so many friends that it was easy to give up some. Part of it was that I accepted geek social fallacies, among them "there's no such thing as bad ideas" and "it's wrong to shun a group" and "don't be judgmental" or "there's something wrong with you if you can't get along with everyone." People take advantage of those fallacies to an incoherent and internally inconsistent extent, which is how folks convince themselves that it's judgmental and therefore morally blameworthy to think less of someone just because that person thinks that non-whites are inherently inferior.

Maybe these guys are still playing D&D, still making jokes about blacks and Orks having the same game stats, still making tables to roll for how many rapeable women are captured in the siege of a village. Or maybe not. I don't begrudge them entry into my hobby. I believe, adamantly, that the government should not punish them for their speech or beliefs. I don't dream about tracking them down and getting them fired from their jobs or shunned from their social circles. I remember some of their names but I wouldn't dream of naming them. I don't even wish that I had told them off: that would have been about me, not about them, and wouldn't have changed them.2 I do, however, genuinely wish that I'd gotten the hell out of that group much sooner. I wish I hadn't tried to convince myself that you can't expect any better from people who don't work in an office — Christ, what an asshole. I wish that I'd contacted the people who left the group and told them that they were cool and I enjoyed gaming with them and I hoped they found a group that wasn't full of racist creeper dipshits.

That's my experience. So, when people tell stories about encountering bigots and creepers and gropers and various other elements in the gaming community, my reaction isn't to assume they are lying.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Threaten Lawsuits

I like computer games, and I like defamation law, but when the two collide the result is never your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter goodness. Whether it's flailing developers or consumer movements apparently schooled in jurisprudence via a distracting hand gesture and a shovel, game culture makes bad legal culture.

This story is not a departure from that trend.

Star Citizen is an ambitious crowdfunded space sim under (lengthy) development. Like many highly anticipated games, it has fanatical devotees and critics. Recently it drew the unwanted attention of Derek Smart, a name familiar to old gamers like me.

Who is Derek Smart? He's the Orly Taitz of computer gaming. He's a game developer — technically — and a career lawsuit-threatening troll. His team of lawyers is like a fundamentalist preacher's God: they're frequently invoked to terrify, but their existence mostly taken on faith. He's a multi-millionaire, apparently, but then so are Carrot Top and that awful TV woman with the eight cute kids. It's been a long time in American culture since self-made wealth signified someone to be taken seriously.

Anyway, hearing of crowdfunder complaints about the awaited Star Citizen, Smart criticized it. He invoked his vast experience in having produced the Howard The Duck, the Edsel, the New Coke of space sims, a monstrosity called Battlecruiser 3000AD, which is distinguishable from a computer virus in that it was promoted more douchilly. When Star Citizens' developers failed to respond with the adulation to which he is entitled under natural law, Smart characteristically waded in with extravagant and self-promoting lawsuit threats. Smart styled himself a crusading consumer advocate, which would be an apt label if Ralph Nader had appeared before Congress and said "Mr. Chairman, these vehicles are unsafe at any speed. And now, I invite Congress to admire my balls. RELEASE THE LAWYERS."

Controversy and flamboyant figures mean clicks, and gaming-website The Escapist wanted some of that action. They published a hit piece portraying Cloud Imperium Games (developers of Star Citizen) as awful employers driving a doomed project, and sourced it to both unnamed and anonymous sources.

Chris Roberts, CEO of Cloud Imperium, responded by posting a five-page legal threat from his "Co-Founder, Vice-President, and General Counsel" Ortwin Freyermuth, a California lawyer. Mr. Feyermuth argues rather convincingly that Escapist has become the tool of some unnamed evil (Smart, one assumes) and has seriously wronged the company by (for instance) not grasping that more than one person can tell the same lie at once, and by taking a blacked-out ID card as proof that a "source" works for a company that does not, technically, use ID cards.

If he had stuck with the factual refutation, Mr. Freyermuth would have done well. But he had to go and (sort of) act like a lawyer. His letter is full of quasi-legal references, has a closing threat to file suit in both America and the United Kingdom, and includes a cc: to two lawyers. And so Mr. Freyermuth stepped in it.

Freyermuth is a founder, Vice-President, and in-house lawyer. He's a fact witness to what's going on at Cloud Imperium. When he writes a five-page semi-legal rant, he's just creating cross-examination fodder. Moreover, "look, I am referencing lawyers, and even cc'd them" doesn't convince anyone who knows how litigation works. If competent outside litigators are substantively involved, they write the threat letter, not the personally-involved fact-witness client. "Do what I want or I'll bring in our outside counsel" and "look at me cc'ing lawyers" is the "my brother will beat you up" of the business world. Freyermuth cc'd the head of the Litigation Department in the Los Angeles office of Cooley LLP, an 800-lawyer firm. Dropping his name signifies that (a) he's citing a big scary lawyer to seem serious even though the lawyer is not substantively involved, so he should not be taken seriously, or (b) the head of LA litigation for Cooley is involved, but has no client control whatsoever because his client is writing five-page rants, which means the client is not to be taken seriously, plus (c) if Cooley is actually involved it signifies that Cloud Imperium is going to spend a truly stupid amount of money to pursue a defamation case against a hit piece that doesn't actually impact its core function, right at the time that it's fighting rumors that it is in financial trouble. So: some messaging issues.

If you know what you're doing, you bring in the litigators before you start running your mouth. The litigator is there to tell you, in the most supportive and affirming way possible, to shut the fuck up. That way your CEO and key fact witness isn't writing long, angry emails about the facts of the situation, probably getting some of them wrong and probably saying things the legal significance of which he doesn't know. It's not easy to tell the CEO to shut up and stop writing things if you're his underling. Some people get to be CEO by having a Trumpian level of self-regard that makes Derek Smart look like Dobby the House Elf. If you're a sensible GC, you use your outside litigator as the bad cop to control your difficult executive. That way your executive doesn't do don't-take-me-seriously things like post angry messages referring to written statements as "slanderous."

Plus, while Freyermuth makes a fairly convincing case that the Escapist was gullible, that's not the relevant standard. The company, and Chris Roberts, are almost certainly public figures, or at least limited-purpose public figures in the gaming world. That means they'd have to prove actual malice to win a defamation case. Constitutional "actual malice" doesn't mean ill-will, as Freyermuth's letter seems to imply. It means knowledge that the statement is false, or reckless disregard for the truth — that is, publishing despite serious doubts about its truth. Cloud Imperium isn't going to satisfy that standard.

Finally, the threat to sue in the United Kingdom is an empty one unless the Escapist has assets there. It's much easier to get a defamation judgment in the UK, but fortunately under the SPEECH Act such judgments aren't enforceable in America unless the plaintiff's case satisfies the requirements of American law — which it won't.

Look, Cloud Imperium, here's some free advice: leave the next-I-call-my-lawyers routine for Derek Smart. Stick to factual refutations without legal bluster, or else shut up and get your scary lawyer to write the letter. The middle ground makes you look foolish.

Gamer Gate vs Anti Gamer Gate A Civil Discussion on Inclusiveness

Consider this post a teaser trailer. Randi Harper, author of a Gamer Gate block bot and I will be debating discussing the thesis

"are the virtues of an open society / inclusiveness / debate best served by excluding those who are not in favor of full inclusiveness?"

(I think the answer is "no").

Randi's busy for a week or two (and so am I), but hopefully next week she and I will have the email discussion, which will then be tidied up for formating and posted here.

In Randi's words:

this is going to be fun. ;)

Roosh V's "Reaxxian" Website Kicks Off Exciting Era Of Gaming Ethics And Innovation

[PR NEWSWIRE: IRC CHANNEL "CHATEAU ROISSY"] The worldwide computer gaming community reacted with excitement this week at news that gender relations expert Daryush Valizadeh has launched "Reaxxian," a bold new online platform for game journalism.

Valizadeh, best known by his scholarly pen name  "Roosh V.", built a global publishing empire with philosophical works including the best-selling "Bang Estonia: How To Sleep With Estonian Women In Estonia." He is both the financial backer and editor-in-chief of Reaxxian, which aims to combine the gender-equity social-ethical ontological-literary activism that made his name with his devotion to cutting-edge games such as "Starcraft," "Oregon Trail," and "SimPlaymate." "I see this project as a way to overcome inequities and barriers to traditionally excluded groups," said Roosh. "I want to create a safe space for heterosexual males who play video games."

Roosh V. says he's prepared to invest substantial amounts of his Bang earnings to achieve that goal. "I have hired some of the most cogent and disciplined minds of, and they're coding like mad," Roosh explained. "This is a team of the iron-willed. Blue-pillers need not apply." Planned innovations include a commenting system codenamed TOGTFO, which promotes comments supporting masculinity by bombarding Twitter and Facebook with their content, and sends messages of affirmation, acceptance, and brotherhood to their authors. TOGTFO identifies preferred comments through a complex algorithm that assesses spelling, grammar, capitalization, and frequency of use of common dialetical terms including "cunt" and "panties." TOGTFO's media uploading application will make it easy for female readers to comply with Reaxxian's commenting policy.

Reaxxian also promises to be an innovator in trigger warnings. "As part of our safe space policy, we'll have customizable pop-ups that warn readers of potentially upsetting game content, like flat-chested female avatars, implied universal suffrage, pepper spray, or creepshaming," said Roosh. "When you think about it, the entire concept of 'wandering monsters' in computer role playing games is a form of creepshaming."

Reaxxian emphasizes that this project is not intended to denigrate women, the traditional consumers of video game content, but to promote acceptance of men. In the words of Reaxxian team leader "DieFagsDie," "Isn't it time we had a safe gaming space of our own, without outdated and judgmental socio-gender concepts such as 'stalking?'"

But Reaxxian's lofty goals are not limited to merely reviewing games. "We're going to crowdfund male-positive and heterosexual-affirming games too," confirmed a Reaxxian administrator who goes by the handle "StoP3nis3nvy." At launch Reaxxian unveiled an early version of "Alphas of Gor," a massively multiplayer online role-playing game set in the universe created by noted philosopher John Norman. Reaxxian's readers have eagerly stepped in as game-testers, and Reaxxian forums are busy with constructive criticism of the game's intricacies like "OMG who nerfed negging" and "lolconsent spell cool-down is too long" and "fm merchant npcs standoffish."

Concept art from early build of "Alpha Males of Gor" by Reaxxian Game Studios.

Concept art from early build of "Alphas of Gor" by Reaexxian Game Studios.

Roosh promises that Reaxxian will feature regular strategy guides for its promoted games. "Theodore Beale — Vox Day himself — is working on a newbie guide to selecting the best race during character creation," an enthused Roosh revealed. "Alpha Males of Gor" is not the only game Reaxxian is promoting; there is also talk of Kickstarting a first-person-shooter to be titled "Divorce Court," a remake of "Custer's Revenge," and a children's game under the working title, "Strawberry Shortcake Gets What She Deserves."

The timing of Reaxxian's launch is no coincidence; it will draw traffic from the game-industry controversy referred to as "GamerGate." Roosh joins other prominent thinkers like Adam Baldwin, Milo Yiannoppouos, and Pat Robertson who have recognized GamerGate as an opportunity to explore the important social and political issues raised by modern gaming.

"We're just very excited that another powerful voice has joined our call for ethics in journalism," said ardent GamerGate supporter and Reaxxian fan Kajira Lisa, speaking with the permission of her master, Chad of the Free City of Bakersfield.

Ken White and Patrick Non-White contributed to this article.

"Digital Homicide Studio" Abuses DMCA To Lash Out At Reviewer Jim Sterling, Gets Fair Use Wrong

Frivolous abuse of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is nothing new. We've seen fake poets, manufacturers,purveyors of anatomically impossible boobs, sociopathic revenge-pornsters, and legbreakers for totalitarian governments make false claims of copyright violations in an effort to censor online criticism.

So why should we be surprised that a computer game designer would abuse a DMCA takedown request to silence a negative review?

[Read more…]

Ten Short Rants About #GamerGate

If you know what #GamerGate is, I don't have to tell you. If you don't know what #GamerGate is, any description I give you will be attacked by hordes of partisans saying that I have described it unfairly and that the sources I have linked are biased. So I'm going to treat you, dear readers, as if you know what it is. Clark wrote a post about it last week. My take is different. I'm not going to offer you a timeline or an attempt at a definitive "what happened" or "who is right." Instead I'm going to rant about ten ways that this controversy illuminates how we're screwed up.

[Read more…]

Gridiron Solitaire is live!

On 16 November, I told you about Gridiron Solitaire, an indie game developed by Friend-of-the-'Hat and all-around nice guy Bill Harris of Dubious Quality. At that time, Bill had submitted the game to Steam for possible greenlighting and I asked for votes in support of that effort. Alongside some Popehatters, friends of Bill from all around the 'verse joined in, and pretty soon afterward the game was approved.

Well, Gridiron Solitaire is now officially available on Steam! I'll bet it's a great way to spend a snowy evening….

Taffer Style

This is a relatively self-indulgent post, but hey– blog!

This is fundamentally a gaming site, founded and sustained by gamers, and I was once, and remain, a rabid fan of the gaming franchise that began with Thief: The Dark Project, continued with Thief II: The Metal Age and Thief: Deadly Shadows, and will soon resume with 2014's Thief. These are the high water mark in first-person, hybrid, potentially non-violent, stealth-based, story-rich games.

A recent discussion of satire, parody, and pastiche in the comment section of another thread here reminded me that I wrote a handful of Thief-themed pastiches back in the early aughties. To share them with others who might like them, to store them in our database, and to revisit them with wistful nostalgia, I reproduce them below. Each is set to the theme of a pop song. Note well: these are only meaningful if you've played the games, and they're best read with the corresponding tunes playing in the background. :) The songs are Barbie Girl, All Star, Mickey, We Didn't Start The Fire, Uptown Girl, Cheers, and U Can't Touch This.

In one sense, the message of this post in a nutshell is "Ain't I a clever chap!" But if you, too, love the Thief games, then in joining the nostalgia perhaps you'll revisit some fond memories of your own. Continue reading….

Open Gaming Thread

So what are you paying right now? What do you recommend?

I've recently been playing the latest Civ V expansion — Brave New World — and worked towards a culture victory to test of some of its new elements (like tourism and archeology) — but started to lose interest in the late game. I also pre-ordered the Beta of Age of Decadence but find it very challenging to stay alive.

I'd love to find a good-old-fashioned party-based crpg, something like Helherron. On the other hand, I'm tempted by Patrick's glowing reviews of Europa Universalis IV.