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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 15, 2024

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Like many people, in the summer of 2016 I signed up for "Pokemon Go." I'd previously spent a couple of months playing Niantic's "Ingess" and though it got me out walking a bit, I lost interest in less than a year. I hoped Pokemon Go might help me re-gamify my preferred approach to light cardio. However, the game servers were apparently potatoes so after the first day, I never played again.

When the COVID pandemic hit, I took up walking again, and decided to give Pokemon Go another try. I was far from alone; the game's revenue went from $650 million in 2019 to over $900 million in 2020, only to drop off just as steeply in 2022. It did tend to keep me out walking longer than I otherwise might; I've now been playing the game for 30-60 minutes daily for a couple of years, in conjunction with my exercise regimen.

The game itself is aggressively mid. I've only played through one mainline Pokemon game (Diamond, if you care)--because I felt like I ought to have played through at least one Pokemon game, given their popularity. But I gather that if you're a real Pokemon afficionado, Pokemon Go ("PoGo") is borderline offensive in its implementation. The Pokemon formula is catch-and-brawl, but while the "catch" portion of PoGo is basically adequate, the "brawl" portion is genuinely terrible.

The explanation is, essentially, "Niantic." Ingress, the game on which PoGo was built, seems to have existed primarily to gamify pedestrian data collection for Google Maps. Niantic spun off of Google in 2015, but has kept its "data collection" DNA; one thing PoGo players can do to advance in the game is scan locations with their phone cameras and submit the info to Niantic. Publicly, Niantic is always talking about finding ways to improve the "get outside and gather with others" aspects of the game. Some changes made during the pandemic allowed players to gather more virtually, and these were hugely popular; when Niantic rolled these changes back, the playerbase revolted and Niantic partially restored the functions (while making them more expensive to use).

Well, this is all pretty boring corporate stupidity, so far. Not many serious culture war angles; it's a game targeted at Millennials and their kids, and it's barely playable outside of fairly densely-populated cities, and beyond that the company behind it had more "big data" DNA than "makes fun games" DNA. PoGo is successful, truly, in spite of itself. None of Niantic's other offerings have ever really taken off as they'd like.

And then today, everyone got new avatars.

Previously, the game had two base avatars--a male and a female. These had slightly different, but mostly overlapping, clothing options. Beyond that you could set hair, skin, and eye colors. You could freely switch between male and female.

There are several things I noticed immediately about the new avatar system. First, there is no longer any distinction between sexes. Rather, the system offers a number of body "presets" as well as a custom body slider. All of the bodies are monstrous; 75% are noticeably obese. The sliders do nothing to address this. All settings are vaguely androgynous; a slender female waist or strong male chest are simply out of the question. Many new faces and hairstyles are available (albeit none with facial hair), and all are creepy and doll-like.

Skin and hair color options have also changed. Most of the options are weird and strictly inferior to past options (avatars can no longer have striking red hair; a dull auburn is as close as it now gets). "White" skin comes in "pasty" or "jaundiced" only. But especially weird--the selection palettes appear to just be randomized. They do not cluster dark skin with other dark shades, or light skin with other light shades--it's just a mess of brown tones, in no particular order.

The clothing--most of which players must purchase using premium in-game currency--hangs oddly; every pair of pants looks like someone is wearing an overloaded diaper. Every shirt hangs like drapes. Previously "sexy" clothing now just looks ill-fitting; muscular male outfits are now vaguely flabby, curvy female outfits are flat or distended.

Discussion has raised a variety of points about Niantic possibly recycling assets to cut costs, or relying on AI conversions, or seeking to tap the Fortnite crowd with more Fortnite-esque physiques. Memes are dropping. Complaints are dropping. Waistlines are dropping. And dropping. And dropping.

Theories, too.

I don't know what will happen next. It doesn't matter very much to me, except insofar as I have a distinct preference against the new avatar system. But the culture war angle just seems so glaring. Perhaps because of the target demographic, though, I don't see a lot of discussion of it. I kind of assume that Niantic is ready to deploy the "racists and transphobes hate the PoGo update" press releases, though I haven't seen one yet. But basically everyone hates the body updates, even if they are glad to have more hair options. I think my favorite comment on reddit was here:

"As a nonbinary player I always wished they'd remove genderlocked customization"

One finger on my monkey's paw curls inward

It would also be interesting to know more about what's happening internally at Niantic--like if the work here was done by AI, or by diversity hires, or what. I've heard completely unverifiable rumors that Niantic management is outrageously out of touch with reality but also petrified to kill their golden goose, so it is hard for me to imagine them green-lighting these changes without culture war blinders on. But maybe they really are just terrible at their jobs?

Well, there's your tempest in today's teapot. Such a small thing! And yet so clearly intended to make the game less pleasant to the San Francisco outgroup. Perhaps I will rethink my position on the possible existence of microaggressions.

From a redditor:

When you try and make the hips bigger, it makes the hands massive.

More just dumb than clearly some ideology. Unless the ideology is merely that ugliness is desirable.

Unless the ideology is merely that ugliness is desirable.

This has been a conspiracy theory on the right for a while. “They” are trying to demoralize you by insisting that ugly things (architecture, art, music, people) are beautiful. Very common /pol/ thread topic. Also comes up whenever female video game protagonists are mid. I don’t quite understand the objective or mechanism here but this is a very mainstream claim among that crowd.

From Bauhaus: A Graphic Novel, pg 50-54

"I saw them all, their faces as they crossed the threshold, their hands gilding over the textiles searching for the weave, their eyes reflected in the chrome plating as they let their certainties fall away....their certainties about what a house is, or an object...what a human being is, when there is no gender. In the 'Triadic Ballet' I want to show people move in space. The geometric forms represent the rationality that humanizes and merely stages physicality....and I wondered if, when they left the last room and went back out into the world, they would be able to look at it with the same revolution in their eyes.

The exhibition didn't convince the Landtag, which decided to shut me down: too expensive they said...but I was uncomfortable politically: the right-wing parties won the elections and we were bizarre and revolutionary creatures with socialist leanings. The masters' contracts were not renewed, and the Weimar experience ended on the first of April 1925. I was only six years old! Isn't it the same for everyone? You can still become anything but they tell you you're wrong....that you need to color within the lines, that geometry offers only a limited series of shapes, that words are to be written on the lines of a page. The control exerted by the outside world forces you to define your identity, while all you want is to experience yourself in the world. Your freedom is frightening for them.

This a very common sentiment in extremist left circles. Anarchists in particular. Shifting aesthetics first in order to subvert the current social order and show people that another world is possible. It's not intended to be demoralization, no one actually sits down and goes bwahaha now I will make the world ugly to demoralize my enemies. It's exaltation. Revolution. Religious ferver. It's the sincere conviction that they are breaking people out of Plato's cave and liberating them.

Destroy 2000 Years of Culture is a prayer, not a conspiracy.

I want to be clear though. This doesn't mean the average person making this kind of art is thinking in these terms. That's an entirely separate issue. It's more like how the average conservative might say 'washington is holding back Americans with too much red tape' and then when you keep digging at where that phrase came from you eventually find a Mises Libertarian arguing with a Ancap. Or how a normal left leaning person might say "Healthcare is a human right. We have to help everyone" and then when you keep digging at their phrase you find a Kropotkin-poster arguing with a Noam Chomsky fan about whether the point is to liberate humanity from all Social Exploitation or if it's about liberation from all Material Inequality which Generates Social Exploitation. The tails tug at the core.