Tuesday, 24 September 2013

GTA V, Cycling and Ethics.

As an avid gamer, I went out and bought GTA V the day it appeared on game store shelves. In my opinion, this is the best of the series so far - and it features cycling (yay!), so I have an excuse to do a blog post about it. So let's get the cycling bit out of the way before moving on to the more juicy stuff.

For those of us who might want to see how far the game can be pushed into being a cycling simulation, the game suffers from the same major problem that the game's cars suffer from - twitchy steering. It takes a while to get used to. Also, there are no gears, but it's not really a problem - going up hills is just slower. Riding itself, which involves pressing a single button over and over again like a maniac (to simulate pedaling) can get tiring.

In terms of bikes, you get the choice of a couple of variations on mountain bikes, a few racing bikes, or a cruiser. So far I haven't seen a touring bike (shame!) or a BMX. Oh well, you can't have everything.

In terms of places to ride, only a few of the game's side missions involve cycling. But there are lots of places to cycle. The game takes place in 'Los Santos' - GTA's version of Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside, so you get cityscapes, mountains and rural areas to cycle in. The mountain biking potential would seem to be a good chance to enjoy cycling in the game - there are a lot of areas that would be fun for the mountain bike enthusiast. The problem is, I'm not sure that there are bikes available at the top of good mountain bike routes - you'd probably have to cycle out to the good places.

One area of the game that really does focus on cycling is the triathlon side missions. These are fun and have good replay value - but there are not all that many of them.

All-in-all, the game gives us cycling that's just a bit more than an afterthought (and given the fact that there's no other cycling game out there I guess that's pretty good). Cycling can be done in the game, but it's a bit tedious and not all that rewarding. But it can be fun for a while, and hey, at least it's there.

I've also been interested to see how the usual videogame blame game develops after the game's release. It is, after all, the latest iteration of the series that is considered by anti-gaming activists 'Public Enemy #1'. So far, the standard straw man arguments are appearing - boiled down, they amount to "The ability to murder virtual prostitutes is WROWWWWNNNNGG and will turn 10 year-olds into violent psychopaths". The fact that the game's prostitutes are game code and not real, the fact that the game is rated 'M', meaning that parents are warned that it might not be appropriate for kids, and the fact that real life crime statistics have dropped like a stone since videogaming became a popular form of entertainment, apparently count for nothing.

Contrary to the way videogame detractors see these games, I have a bit of a different perspective, in that I've actually played every GTA game since GTA II: Vice City. So I know all about how the game approaches ethical questions, and it's a bit more complex than the critics seem willing to admit.

For instance, I think GTA V does a great job of allowing players to experiment with how they would handle certain ethical situations. Sure, players 'can' engage in all sorts of virtual immoral acts, up to and including mass murder. But do they? In my experience seeing people play the answer is most often "No". In my case, what I notice is that even given the ability to kill without consequence in a game where nothing is real, I choose NOT to do so unless severely provoked. I'm NOT going around killing lots of people for fun. In fact, I try to avoid doing so unless someone does me harm. I may drive way too fast, but I'm not purposefully ploughing down pedestrians on the sidewalk. I think many players do the same - acting in ways that would be seen as dangerous in the real world, but not actively trying to do harm to the game's innocent civilians.

So I think maybe the game's detractors are looking at this the wrong way - instead of looking at what's possible and criticizing it, they should be looking at what's really happening with players in the game - I think they might be surprised at how often we bring our real life ethics into these games, and at how invincible our personal ethics are when assailed by a virtual world filled with the potential for mayhem in a consequence-free environment.

And when we are forced to participate in scenes where our characters do bad things - GTA V's infamous torture scene, for example - the game makes it pretty clear that being unethical is stupid. Even Trevor, the game's complete psycho, understands this and explains at length to the corrupt FIB (FBI) officer who is forcing him to perform the torture. Far from being a game that plumbs the vicious depths of an amoral virtual reality, GTA V has a strong moral core. While you 'can' and sometimes 'must' make your characters do things that are not nice, the game helps players to understand WHY unethical behavior is counter-productive.

I have now reached the end of the game. The major characters go through some moral turmoil and the game's finale involves an interesting ethical choice. I'm not going to spoil the ending in case anyone reading this is a gamer, but I was happy to see a game present the player with a lot more than the usual "These are obviously really bad people, now kill them". While the GTA series is often accused of 'Mother Night' syndrome - i.e. blurring the line between satirizing bigotry and engaging in it, the latest version gives players a lot more to think about than the average shooter.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Should Cyclists Be Licensed?

As a cycling advocate, I often see the argument made by motorists that cyclists should be licensed, taxed, forced to buy insurance, etc. I try to take this in my stride - motorists see a cyclist using the road and they assume that because motorists are licensed, taxed and insured, fairness demands that cyclists should be too, despite the fact that cyclists rarely kill or cause serious damage to other road users, and despite the fact that cyclists rarely damage other people's property or the road surface.

But it kinda irks me when many of my fellow cycling advocates respond with the argument "But most cyclists ARE licensed", as if the whole idea that cyclists should be licensed is a valid argument.

I have never owned a driver's license. Should I stay off the road? In arguing that most cyclists have a driver's license, cycling advocates are in effect conceding the point that cyclists should be licensed before they use the road. This is nonsense - everyone has the right to use the road, whether they are licensed, taxed, insured, or not! Roads are a public facility, built for all, not just for an elite few (or even an elite many).

People who meet certain requirements have merely the privilege - not the right - of using a motor vehicle on the road. Motorists are licensed and insured because, while operating their vehicles, they have proven over the last century to be routinely deadly to other road users. Motorists cause a million deaths per year worldwide and when there is a collision, a motor vehicle can do lots of damage to property. Mandatory licensing for motorists came into effect in the early 20th Century, not due to a general push to license road users, but due to the mass carnage that motorists - motorists specifically - caused on the road: it was an attempt to prevent deaths by forcing motorists to achieve a very basic level of competence. Clearly, considering that the death toll on the roads has continued to increase decade by decade, it did not work (not that I'd advocate removing the requirement - I'm sure it does some good).

Motorists are taxed because their vehicles weigh 2 tons or more and they do an enormous amount of attrition damage to the road surface, resulting in high maintenance costs. Cyclists do very little damage to road surfaces, and the damage they do is covered by their contributions to the general tax fund.

If ever cyclists cause even a hundredth of the deaths and damage on the road that motorists cause, maybe that might be the time to discuss licensing, insurance and a higher tax burden. Until then, I believe we cyclists should not concede an inch on this issue while we occupy the moral high ground.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

German National Cycling Plan

Carlton Reid, of Roads Were Not Built for Cars fame, has posted the German National Cycling plan.

Interesting read. I've skimmed it so far. Mostly it's a lot of vague promises of improvements. Two things stood out for me:

1. As far as I could see, there was no mention whatsoever of the inherent danger of segregated bicycle facilities.

2. It seems there are no plans to phase out the mandatory use laws regarding segregated facilities - at least, the document doesn't mention any.

So German cyclists are still mired in their government's outdated segregationist thinking, despite the fact that Germans have been well aware of the problems inherent to segregated bicycle facilities for over 25 years.

The German rules of the road are laid out in English at the US Army Schweinfurt's Installation Safety Office website. I find it interesting that they state quite clearly the problems of segregated facilities:
"The mandatory-use requirement is troubling, because it is generally more dangerous to ride on side lanes than in the streets. This is especially true of side lanes on the left side of the street, where the crash risk is nearly twelve times as high."
Maybe the US Army could pass that bit of wisdom along to transportation officials in the US. Maybe they could also do a bit of Deutsche-Amerikanische Freundschaft and pass it along to German transportation officials too, because obviously they don't seem to be listening to German cycling groups.

In short, same old story: transportation officials clueless or incompetent, and cyclists (usually the novice and fearful ones) pay the price in injuries and deaths.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The New American Dream

The American Dream, 20th Century style:

The American Dream, 21st Century style:

Well, okay, maybe the house doesn't have to be quite that small, but you get the picture.

My point is, despite the economic issues that declining energy resources may bring, the future is looking pretty good.


...is coming to your town, and maybe sooner than you might think.

And one thing is certain: it looks, smells, sounds, feels and IS a heck of a lot more attractive than this: