Archive for the ‘Social Behavior’ Category

You see them every time you direct your web browser to any generic news or business website — Yahoo!, Fox News, CNN/FN, and the like.  They’ve proliferated like spawning salmon since the recession hit and people started losing their homes to foreclosure.  You know the kinds of articles I mean:  the author uses himself or some other person as an example of how you can save hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a month by “trimming unnecessary costs.”  Each and every time I have read these articles, I’ve found them entirely inapplicable to my own situation. And in fact, I don’t know very many people who could save the amounts offered by the articles.

There are generally two reasons why these articles are almost always useless.  First, the people in them are usually wasting obscene amounts of money on things that not only I, but everyone I know would consider a waste, like subscribing to a “fruit of the month club” (that’s an “Everybody Loves Raymond” joke I threw in there).  Second, most of the suggestions are inapplicable to my own personal situation — like ways to save on mortgage, which are useless to me because I pay rent.

To see what I mean, let’s dissect the most recent installment of this inane breed of articles, from Yahoo! finance.  The couple being described in this article saved $500. Let’s see how much of that $500 would be applicable to me, if I were to copy them. (more…)


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Emotions vs. Analysis

I belong to, and post at, a private forum where some friends and I originally began discussing the game City of Heroes, but now we discuss just about any topic that comes up. One of the individuals at this website is a member of a minority group (I won’t name the group, since it doesn’t really matter), and seems to see things in terms of racial, ethnic, religions, and sexual orientation bias quite regularly. At any rate, this person, whom I shall refer to as “K” just to avoid having to make clumsy references, made the assertion that the television show Heroes was “racist” and “sexist” because most of the characters who have died so far on the show have been either female, or non-white. K insisted that a character who is not a white male is more likely to die on the show.

When several of us expressed our incredulity at this, K presented as evidence a list of 12 names of the characters who have so far died on the show, pointing out that only two of the 12 were white males. The others were not white males. Clearly, this shows the institutionalized bias of the TV world, or so K believed.

This is, of course, an emotional reaction to numbers drawn from a very small sample size. When I pointed this out, K insisted that the pattern was real, and that the bias was real.

Well, I am a scientist. I have been trained to recognize that the human brain is very good at detecting pattern — so good that it will find patterns even when none are really there. The whole reason we have statistical methods is to help us sort out when our brain is, as it were, mis-firing its pattern recognition software, and showing us a pattern that is not really there. So, I went to work doing some statistical analysis.

Before I explain the analysis I want to define what I mean by a pattern being “really there.” Ultimately there has to be some subjectivity to the definition, but I use the one that statisticians use. Anything that can be explained by mere random chance, is not a pattern. For example, you toss a coin and get 6 heads and 4 tails. Now, your expected distribution is 5 to 5, but is the two “off” of your toss due to a pattern (in this case, a “fixed” or unfair coin), or was it just random chance — sheer luck as it were? Well there is no way to be absolutely sure without subjecting the coin to some sort of expert analysis, but we can look at the results and test the probability that such a distribution (6:4)  could appear just due to random chance. And it turns out the probability that a 6:4 ratio could appear on a fair (non-fixed) coin is quite high. We would have to reject the hypothesis that the coin is biased, and accept the simpler answer, which is that it’s random noise, and the “pattern” or bias we think we see is just our brain creating a tiny illusion for us.

Now let’s turn back to the show. I didn’t do any checking on the “2 out of 12” number, taking K’s word for it that K had named all 12 dead characters and correctly identified their gender, race, and so on. The question here is not “did fewer white males die on this show than other character types?” — at least not if you want to know whether there is bias. If you want to know if there is a pattern that cannot be explained by just random, non racist/sexist, effects, you have to ask a different question, namely, “Is the proportion of white male deaths different from what you would expect on a random draw of the population given the proportion of white males in the population?”

It turns out, you see, that the proportion of white male characters on the show is rather lower than the proportion of characters of any other classification: 10 white male characters are still living, and 25 characters (15 living, 10 dead) who are either female, or non-white. If we add in the dead characters, than over the course of the show (1.5 seasons) 12 of 37 characters were white males, and 25 were not.  So if you want to know if there is any statistical evidence of bias, it’s these numbers you have to test.

And so I did… I did a Fisher Exact Test on the numbers, and the results quite clearly indicated that the most probable explanation for the distribution of dead character race/gender was random chance. In other words, if you put 12 white and 25 red beans into a bag, closed your eyes, and randomly drew 12 beans, about one out of 5 draws would have 2 white, and 10 red beans. All without you biasing your choice in any way. Since such a draw can happen 20% (or more) of the time, no statistician would consider it biased.

When I presented this information though, instead of calming K down, instead of her being relieved that her brain saw this ugly, racist/sexist pattern, but that it really wasn’t there (as I would expect — isn’t it nice when you find out the world isn’t necessarily as ugly as you thought?), K only became more angry, accusing me of “using math” as if math is somehow a dirty word. At this point it became clear to me that K was intent on believing whatever K’s emotions wanted to believe, and statistics or facts be damned.

A few days later I was listening to a podcast by some scientists, one of whom is a neurologist, and they mentioned that there is a personality type that is prone to believing in things like conspiracies, and that when you try to confront people who are conspiracy-theory or fantasy prone with dry facts, not only won’t you convince them of anything, but they will get angry and become even more entrenched in their beliefs.  And this does seem to be exactly what happened. Apparently when people are emotional about something, presenting them with calm, factual evidence just makes them more upset rather than calming them down.

I’ve seen this happen other times, but never really noticed a pattern (there’s that word again).  But when I heard them say this on the podcast and thought about the argument I’d had with K, I realized that this was exactly what was going on. And it has in other instances too, I had just never realized it.

In the past I have often tried to confront overly emotional people who are convinced of something that is clearly flawed and inaccurate, with data and statistics, and now I realize that I don’t think it has ever worked. People who are emotional about something don’t want to be convinced otherwise. They just want you to agree with them and be equally emotional about it… and when you aren’t, they become even more agitated.

Well, I’m sorry to K and anyone else, but I’m not going to get upset about random events. Randomness cannot be controlled, by definition. When someone claims a pattern is there my training is to test it with statistics and see if it is real — because I know that most of the time our brains perceive false patterns. However, in the future I think I’ll keep my analysis to myself, rather than trying to convince an emotional person that he or she is emotional over a mistaken perception. Oh, I’ll still think it privately to myself, but I just won’t say it out loud (or write it) anymore. I can see now that it doesn’t work, and that all the analysis will do is make them more convinced and more angry.

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That was quick…

Most of the time in graduate school, I did not have cable TV. I used to get a taste of it at my mother’s house for the holidays, but that was it. As a post-doc, I was still not being paid that much, so I avoided cable… I figured if I was going to spend money each month, I’d rather spend it on DSL access than on cable. After all computers aren’t as likely to rot one’s mind as TV is. When you add in the fact that there is very little of quality on TV, I figured I wasn’t missing much. Although I did miss being able to watch the early round action of tennis tournaments like the US Open (I used to be a tennis buff, back in the day, and played some too).

Finally though, I had to cave in here in North Carolina. Unlike my homes in SC and WA, in my current apartment, whether it’s location or insulated walls or something else, I can get hardly any signal on my old “rabbit ear” antenna. So I gave up and contacted Time Warner and had them hook up cable. I work all day 4 days a week teaching and being in my office for students, but Tuesdays is a “free” day for me. Note, this isn’t a day off (at least not usually), but is set aside for me to accomplish some research in the lab. However, I don’t have a lab or the equipment for a lab yet, and I have to still finish moving, so yesterday (Tuesday) I was sitting at home waiting for the “cable guy.” He came at around noon, and hooked me up to digital cable and gave me a “DVR” (digital video recorder) box.

Things worked great last night. And by coincidence the US Open just started. I was able to “DVR” the night matches with the plan of watching some later today or what have you. But it didn’t last long. Tonight as I was making dinner I was re-playing the DVRed matches, when suddenly the sound went out. I looked up, and saw that the screen was blank and I had a “DVR Access Denied” message. I thought that was odd, but maybe I ran out of DVR memory space? Hard to imagine on just a few hours but you never know.

I tried turning off the DVR and returning to regular cable TV. I got “access denied” on all 75+ channels from 01 through whatever the top channel was. I had seen something like this happen with my mother’s set-top box, so I tried turning the box off, waiting a bit, and turning it back on, but no dice. I called the cable company, and was on hold listening to their inane promotional material for twenty minutes. When I finally got someone, she said I should unplug the box completely and she would reset it. She did so, then told me to turn it on and wait 3-5 minutes for it to boot. When that was done, she told me to turn on the TV and I should see certain screens she was describing.

Only I didn’t see those screens. I saw channel 1, again saying “access denied.” She tried to reset it a couple more times from her end, and finally said, “I’m going to have to send a technician out to you.” I work of course, so I can only do a night visit, and the next shot for that is Friday (2 nights from now). And so, I am once again, as I have been for most of the last 15 years, without cable… after just one day with it. That was quick, eh?

When this happened to my mother, they had to give her a totally new box. The guy at the time (I was at her house and chatted with him as he swapped the boxes) said they have about a 1 in 20 failure rate (different cable company, but same brand of set boxes — Scientific Atlanta), and it’s easier to just swap out the box than fight with it.

So here is the fun question: is the tech on Friday night going to have a box with him? Or is he going to spend two hours fighting with it, find out there is nothing he can do, and then set me up with an appointment in a week or three to get a new box installed? And an even better question — are they going to refund me the cost of the days I can’t access their service? Bet not.

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Southern Hospitality

I grew up in New Jersey. And no, we don’t call it “Joisey” (at least, no one I knew back there did). I spent the first 24 years of my life there, mostly in the northeast part of the state, near New York City and Newark. I lived in the suburbs there, and the way of life seemed “normal” to me.

Every year, my family would go on a two-week vacation. Now for this vacation, whereas our relatives and friends were going to “Jersey Shore” destinations like Seaside Heights or Wildwood, my family, by contrast, usually went south. We varied between going to Virginia Beach (Va), Mrytle Beach (SC), and various destinations in Florida like Disney World, St. Augustine (we have relatives there), and Miami.  To me, growing up, “going south” meant going on vacation. The sunny south, therefore, quickly became a place I loved to go — because it led to many of the best times of my young life.

Years later, all grown up, I ended up being accepted into two graduate programs in ecology — one near my home, in Long Island, at SUNY-Stonybrook, and one in South Carolina, at the University of South Carolina (or as people there call it, the “real” USC).  There were a lot of factors that went into my consideration of which school to choose, but one of them was my deep-seated love of the south from my childhood. I had nothing but good memories of South Carolina, and in the end these along with the fact that the low cost of living made surviving on a paltry grad student salary at least possible, figured strongly into my decision.

Thus, from 1994 until I graduated with my Ph.D. in 2000, I lived in the deep south. Outside of the biology graduate program itself (which consisted mostly of “yankees” or foreign exchange students), everyone around me was a southerner. The students were mostly South Carolinians (with a few from places like Georgia, Virginia, and Tennessee sprinkled in). Nearly everyone around me spoke with a southern accent. People used southern figures of speech.  I found out something very quickly during my time in South Carolina: it wasn’t just the vacations. I genuinely liked the South.

I like the south for three major reasons.

First, I love the weather — I’m a sun and summer lover, and the south gets longer and more intense doses of summer than just about anywhere else in the country. Oh yes, it can be stiflingly hot and humid in July and August, but the South makes up for it with gorgeous springs and autumns, and mild winters. I will gladly take that over the rain of Seattle (which I have had to endure since 2000 right up until today), or the shorter summers/longer winters of New Jersey.

Second, I love the people. The Southerners pride themselves on being warm and hospitable. There really is such a thing as “southern hospitality” and I witnessed it myself over and over again from 1994 through 2000. I’ve never lived amongst a more agreeable or pleasant group of people in my life than the population of Columbia, SC, and that is why it is my favorite of all the places I have ever lived. Contrast this with New Jersey, which despite being my native state is, in my opinion, populated by thousands of the most obnoxious and disagreeable human beings on the face of the planet. How I didn’t turn out to be like them is one of the great mysteries of my life (most likely, because my mother is not like them, but this only shifts the question back another generation to ask why she didn’t turn out to be a rude New Jerseyan like the rest of them).

Finally, I love the “feel” of the South. The population is relatively sparse. Towns are small. Highways tend not to be very busy. The pace of life is slower. People aren’t in so much of a rush. In short, it’s a relaxing place to live — at least in my opinion.

Unfortunately in 2000, after I graduated, I ended up getting a job in the Seattle area, and I have lived there ever since. For seven years I tried to get used to it, but I have never been happy here. The weather is too gloomy and rainy for me. The people are not unpleasant like they tend to be in New Jersey but they certainly aren’t hospitable like southerners. The population is packed to the gills here, and the traffic is just unbearable. Everyone is in a rush. Nobody takes the time to say hello and you can forget about anyone holding the door for you. For the last five years I have been struggling to find a job somewhere else — literally anywhere else in the country. Heck, I’d even take New Jersey over Seattle at this point — and that’s saying something.

Finally, last month, one of my job search attempts panned out, and I was offered a faculty position at a small college in North Carolina. You can imagine my elation — not only was it just the sort of job I was looking for, but it was back in the South!

However, I was a bit nervous at first. I had not been back to the South at all, really, since 2000.  Were my memories of my time in South Carolina really accurate, or was I just romanticizing it because of how much I disliked Seattle?

This past week, I found out. For the last 4 days (up until last night), I was in North Carolina hunting for an apartment. I am pleased to say, that my memories were absolutely dead on. Southern Hospitality is still alive and well in the Carolinas, and I spent most of the last 4 days with a huge smile on my face. People around me speaking with their Carolina Southern Accent were creating music, to my ears.  I was called “sugar” more than once by a total stranger. Many of the people I passed on the street or in a shopping center or mall smiled and said hello. The weather was hot and summery. The area was lovely. It all had the same “feel” that I remembered so well from my South Carolina days. Even though I spent only 6 years in South Carolina, and spent far longer New Jersey (24 years) and a bit longer in Seattle (7 years), when I was in North Carolina, it felt like home.

There is no question about it, at this point. I may have been raised in New Jersey, but I am a southern boy at heart.  And in a few weeks, I will be going home to the South, hopefully for good this time.

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Reviews, or rants?

As I said in my previous post, I am in the process of moving. This week, in fact, I will be flying to North Carolina (my future home) and looking for an apartment for an August move-in. Before doing that, I have been doing some homework, going onto the online Apartment Guides and looking into apartments ahead of time. Also, a friend of mine, who lives in the area, gave me some ideas of places he thought were nice.

In the process of all this searching, I found a site that has reviews of apartments. These are usually anonymous reviews from current or recent residents. At first, what I saw shocked me. Nearly every single apartment complex I looked into in NC had an abysmal rating, and in any case where more than 2 or 3 people had rated a place, the “would you recommend?” rating was below 50% (meaning that less than 50% of current/past residents would recommend the place to another). This included, by the way, a couple of the places my friend recommended.

I sat there somewhat baffled. How could it be that nearly every apartment complex in the area was so terrible? Was I in for a long and disappointing week coming up in NC looking at one dive after another? Was it even going to be possible to find a nice place, given all this negativity?

Then I started to read the comments.

Within a few minutes, I realized that what I was reading was not honest reviews, in most cases, but rants. What seems to be happening here is that people who are ticked off at their manager for some particular reason, go onto this review site and gripe. This obviously skews the “reviews” into the negative for just about every complex, which is of course why almost all of them have a less than 50% (and often near 0%) “recommendation” rating. To demonstrate what I mean, I will give a few examples of reasons people gave apartments a “1 out of 5” rating (worst possible) and a “no” for would you recommend it to a friend:

  1. A couple with a new baby went out onto their balcony to smoke at night (after maintenance hours), leaving the newborn inside. These imbeciles apparently did not realize that their balcony door was locked from the inside, so when they shut the door to keep their smoke outside the apartment, they locked themselves out. Realizing this after some period of smoking/talking, they called emergency maintenance (on their cell phone, I guess). The maintenance guy was out on another call, but the couple decided it was too important to get to their newborn to wait any longer, so they called the police, and had them kick in the door. When maintenance finally did show up, he saw the damage to the door and told them they’d be charged for it. They thought this was unreasonable. My take on this is that they should have been smart enough to check the door before they both went outside for a smoke. Or maybe, they could’ve been smart enough not to smoke in the first place and this problem would’ve been averted. I fail to see how this is the apartment complex’s fault.
  2. A single guy was renting a 1 BR apartment for a year. Halfway through his 1-year lease, a cousin moved into the area and they decided to share a 2 BR in the same complex. The manager let the guy out of his remaining 6 months of lease (which he was under no obligation to do, by the way), but charged a $500 “processing fee” for the move between the two units. Again this resident was so incensed that he had to pay $500 that he posted a very negative review — even though he liked the place enough to pay the $500 and stay there in the 2 BR apartment!
  3. One review was posted by someone who didn’t even live at the place. He was “kept waiting for 10 minutes” when he went to look at the place, and they asked him for his pay stub. He claims he had “never” had to provide a pay stub before (I have rented in 3 apartment complexes and I always have had to do so, which makes me wonder if he is just a “newbie” to renting), and he refused to do it. When he would not they asked to talk to his employer, and he refused this as well. That’s his prerogative; however, he then demanded his application fee back! I don’t know what this guy is used to (again, I think he must be a newbie renter), but every time I have ever done this, I have been told that my application fee is non-refundable once paid. Apparently they said they wouldn’t cash the check but then did so — which is his only valid complaint in the entire page-long rant — but I don’t even know why they agreed to refund it. Once you sign the application and pay the check, that money is gone — this is common understanding to people doing apartment hunting. And every place I’ve applied with has explained this to me before I hand them the check.

In all 3 cases, I would say that, although the managers and staff of these places certainly did not go out of their way to provide stellar or “gold star” performance, not one of these residents (or non-resident in one case) has a valid beef. In all three cases, the manager could have let things go, but was under no obligation to do so. The first couple locked themselves out of the apartment because of their own stupidity… and then broke into their own apartment. I’m not saying, given their newborn being locked inside, they made a bad call at that point, but having made it, you live with it and pay for the repairs. Similarly, the single renter who “upgraded” to a 2 BR within the same complex was, by signing the lease, on the hook for as much as 6 months in his 1 BR place. They could have taken him for all 6 months of rent, legally — that they did not, and he still complained, shows me he does not understand his lease. And again the last guy, being shocked that they wanted proof of employment/salary and upset that when he changed his mind, they wanted to keep his application fee, just seems like he doesn’t know what he is doing. I do not see how these apartments deserve a “1 out of 5” for these incidents. I will agree they don’t deserve a “5 out of 5” because they didn’t do anything particularly nice for their residents… but they did about what the average place would probably do. I read these and other comments and thought, “And these people are surprised? And complaining?”

It turns out most of the reviews are like this — rants by someone angry, frequently over a single incident. In many cases they are angry because the manager wouldn’t give them what amounts to “special treatment” — that the rules weren’t bent just for them; that the complex does not revolve around them. Then there are the people who complain because they have loud neighbors. Here is a news flash for them — it happens everywhere. The only way to avoid annoying neighbors is to either not to have any neighbors, or (rarely) to get very, very lucky (it has happened about 3 or 4 years’ worth of the nearly 15 years I have been renting). My only solution for these folks is: go live on a desert island. Their main gripe seems to be “other people annoy me — and it’s the manager’s fault!”

Finally, I went to the reviews for my own home complex, where I have lived without any real problems for seven years. That one is rated at 31% — that means,14 out of 20 people who reviewed it say they would not recommend it, and 6 out of 20 do. I read the complaints and was just baffled. The things people say about the complex — poor maintenance, incompetent staff, unsafe — I couldn’t disagree with more strongly. I have certainly had an issue or two over seven years of living here, but not anything so serious that I would rate it a 1 out of 5 or refuse to recommend it. In fact I gave it a 3.5 or so out of 5, which I think is entirely fair. As apartment complexes go, it is slightly better than average… nothing really special, but nothing to complain about either.

I think two things are going on here, with these reviews.

First, clearly some people do not have experience with apartment living and with apartment complexes in particular (complexes differ from large building apartments in certain ways). I conclude this because about half of the reviews I read complained about things that are just “how things are” when you live an a complex. Yes, the walls are thin, and the you can hear the neighbors, and there are parking issues, and cars get broken into, and the place is constructed of mediocre materials. The complex is not custom-designed for you… it’s a complex, not a house. In short, all complexes (except maybe really exclusive ones) have similar issues, so you’d get the same anywhere you went.

Second, it seems like many of the “reviews” are no such thing, but instead, are rants. This reminds me an awful lot of reviews by gamers about video games. If you looked only at gamer reviews (not reviews by gaming magazines or other professional reviewers, but gamers themselves) you’d conclude that almost every game is lousy. I think that in this age of the internet, where anyone can hop onto a site and write a review, the “bad review” has become a way to vent. In the old days, people would write a letter to the company expressing dissatisfaction. Today, although they might do that too, it seems like the first thing they do is run to the internet to trash whatever they’re upset at. In the case of apartments, this amounts to ignoring 2 years of happy living in a place, just to rant about how your toilet wasn’t fixed fast enough this week.

After seeing what people said about my current, and my last 2, complexes — almost all negative, all complaining, all saying things that I do not think are true of those places — I can only conclude that most of these reviews are basically useless. Since people who like the place don’t seem to bother posting, all you get are the angry people who want to rant about their special case, rather than genuine, insightful information about the complex and what it’s like to live there. At this point I am going to go back to what I have always done in the past… look the places over myself, and go with my gut. It’s not failed me yet.

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The “I” word…

My mother and I, over the years, have developed a little bit of a code. Every so often while conversing, one of us will refer to a mysterious concept we call the “I” word. I suspect anyone listening to our conversation would be somewhat confused. And yet, if you are anything like me, you are confronted with the “I” word every day.

Have you ever been told by someone that something is in the mail… and it never arrives? And then when you called you found out that it had never actually been mailed in the first place? That would be a case of the “I” word.

My mother often has to deal with doctor’s offices, and she sees a lot of it there. When her doctor orders a test, and after the test is run, his office never gets the results, and my mother has to personally call the testing office over and over to get them to send her results… only to have them mail the results to her instead of her physician, we have once again encountered the “I” word.

When I get repeated mailings from the very company that holds my (long ago consolidated) college loans, telling me that “It’s time to consolidate,” but when I respond to these mailings, they tell me, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to you,” we have another case of the “I” word.

Have you figured out what the “I” word is yet? No, it’s not “idiot” or “imbecile,” though you’d be entirely justified for thinking of those. I’ll try one more.

When my current place of work was bulging at the seams with employees, they ordered a new “double wide, double tall” trailer to house more office space. Within days of it being occupied, this new trailer was discovered to have such extensive levels of mold that it was condemned. That’s right, a brand new trailer was condemned. Apparently it had been stored improperly by the company while awaiting sale, and had been infested with very toxic mold. The whole thing had to be torn down within days of being put up. This is yet another case of the “I” word.

Have you figured it out yet? Give up? All right, I’ll tell you what our little code word means.


It seems a fundamental reality of life that many, many of the people you deal with are simply incompetent at what they do. I don’t know if it’s people being lazy, or if people are badly trained, or if they are overworked, or what. But the sad truth is that one ends up dealing with incompetent people day in, and day out, all through life. What really frosts me is when I think about all the time these people have wasted for me. How many hours have I spent on the phone trying to undo something that was done by an incompetent person? How many hours have I spent trying to untangle red tape generated by incompetence? I can hardly guess, but I’d wager it’s many weeks or even months of my life — all totally gone, all time I can never get back, all wasted by incompetence.

And so, the next time you’re dealing with a thick-headed bureaucrat, or completely oblivious sales person, just do what I do. Think about the “I” word, and maybe give yourself a bit of a smile at sharing our little secret.

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Misplaced Gamer Loyalty

If you spend any time reading online forums or bulletin boards that relate to gaming, you will quickly notice that most games have some fairly rabid fans (called “fanbois”) and detractors (often called “hatebois”).  Now, it’s easy to understand that people who love a game will defend it to the hilt, and people who hate a game will attack it viciously… this just seems to be human nature. However, it seems to me that more and more often I am encountering gamers who are not merely blindly faithful and loyal to their favorite game, but also seem to expect the same blind loyalty of other people. They seem to become incensed when people are not willing to make the same (sometimes rather large) financial, temporal, or other sacrifices on behalf of the game.Most of the arguments I have seen in this regard, have come from a misplaced sense of loyalty by gamers to their favorite game(s), and a fundamental misunderstanding about why the rest of us — who are not irrationally and unreasoningly loyal to a particular product — are actually playing these games. Strangely enough, these fanboi arguments seem to suck in many more rational players, causing thousands of people to keep playing games they don’t really enjoy — to the detriment, in my opinion, of the game industry as a whole. Since I view this as damaging gaming in general, I want to explore this subject for a little bit.

First, as I have said elsewhere in this blog, we need to remember that, with very few exceptions, people play games for fun, and usually play them as a diversion, or a recreational activity. Additionally — and this is actually a very important point — all MMORPGs other than Guild Wars require a monthly fee (and even Guild Wars still requires you to purchase it and puts out regular expansions that cost almost as much as it would cost to pay monthly and get updates for free). In short, this means that those of us who play online video games are paying companies for the opportunity to have fun playing the game. For the vast, vast majority of gamers, this describes the entirety of their online gaming experience — paying for the purpose of having fun.

This may seem obvious, but it’s this simple point is entirely missed by the fanbois (and strangely enough, it seems to be missed by a lot of the rest of us too). This can be seen in the entirely vacuous arguments they make, all of which (usually unbeknownst to the people making the argument) implicitly assume that “paying for the purpose of having fun” is not why people are involved in a particular game. To see this, it is perhaps easiest to look at some of the more common arguments put forward to defend a game by the fanbois.

Bogus argument #1: “Instead of criticizing the game over things you don’t like, you should be working to help fix them.”

This argument misapprehends why people play games. Although there are certainly exceptions, people mostly play games for the reason I said above — to have fun. They do not play them as a job. They are not being paid to play them. If the gamers were being paid to “help improve” the game, then this argument would have teeth. As it is, gamers are paying for the privilege of having fun, not for the job of “helping fix” the game. Fixing the game is the job of the developers, not the paying customers.

Bogus argument #2: “All games have bugs. Just give it time and these problems will be sorted out.”

This argument ignores the fact that “giving it time” means “keep paying money.” If the player voicing the complaint is not having fun as a result of bugs or problems in the game, and if most players are, as I said above, paying for the privilege of having fun, then it makes no sense for an unhappy player who is not having fun, to keep paying. In a subscription service, “give it time” equates to “give them money even though you are not satisfied.” Such “advice” is utterly ridiculous. If a player is not having fun playing a game, he’s a fool to keep subscribing to it. Yes, it may be that in 6 months or a year the company will sort these problems out and the game will be more fun, but in that case it makes far more sense to cancel until the problems are fixed, and then return, rather than to keep paying for something you don’t like.

Bogus argument #3: “You can’t fix the game by canceling your account.”

This is similar to the arguments above, and again misapprehends the point that as players, it is not our job to “fix” the game. In fact, we have no “job” whatsoever relative to the game. We have one purpose, and that is to pay for the privilege of having fun. I added this as a separate category though, because additionally it ignores the fact that most development groups don’t seem to pay the slightest attention to what players want, until thousands of them all cancel at once in response to something the developers did. Then, all of a sudden, you see them talking about “communicating” and taking player concerns to heart in the future. In other words, this argument misses the fact that money talks. Indeed the most effective way to make your opinion known about a game is to speak with your wallet — by not subscribing to it unless you are fully satisfied each and every month. In other words, sometimes not only can you fix the game (indirectly) by canceling your account, but in some cases it is the only way, because the developers won’t listen to any other form of feedback.

I could go on, but I think that’s enough of a sampling. I think you see where this is going.

The fundamental concept that the “fanboi” types do not seem to apprehend, is that improving the game or making things better is not the responsibility of the players. Now, I’m not saying that online worlds don’t create communities, and I’m not saying that players shouldn’t try to be constructive within those communities. But, if a player is not enjoying a particular game, it is not his responsibility to fix that game.

Indeed, given all that I have said above, when someone gets onto a game’s forum before taking that final step of hitting “cancel”, and airs his grievances in the apparent (and almost always vain) hope that someone on the development team is listening, this needs to be seen as the act of charity that it really can be. It would be infinitely easier for that player to simply hit “cancel” and walk away. But he is trying to give the game a chance, and give the developers a chance, by voicing his problems and hoping they will be addressed. To shout this player down as a “hateboi” (which is what almost always happens) entirely misses the salient point — that we have a dis-satisfied customer here, and if something isn’t done he’ll become a former customer. (This leads to the weakest fanboi argument of all, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” which almost always is a flat out admission that the person airing the complaint is basically correct.)

What those who vehemently defend a flawed game forget is that age-old rule of commerce: The customer is always right. Now, we have to be very careful here, because it’s possible to become confused about this. By “the customer is always right,” it is not meant that the customer gets to do things like set product prices. If I walk into JC Penny and say I want their best pair of jeans for a nickel, they’re not going to say, “The customer is always right” and give them to me for that price — nor should they. But that’s not what “the customer is always right” means. Rather, what it means is that the customer gets to decide what to buy and pay for, and if he doesn’t want what you’re selling, then you shouldn’t force him to buy something he doesn’t want. Bringing this back to MMORPGs, if someone says he wants instanced missions and the game doesn’t have it, that doesn’t necessarily mean the designers should implement them, but it does mean he has every right to take his business elsewhere. (And he should.)

In the end, most of us play games to have fun. If we are not having fun, then we don’t play the game — which means we don’t subscribe to it. It’s that simple. I think a lot of people forget this, including developers. And some of us help them forget, by continuing to subscribe to games we fundamentally dislike, in the “hope that they will improve” over time. This, in my opinion, is a bad thing — it disconnects the reward (our money) from the reason for the reward (we enjoy the product).

Personally, I would like to see gamers grow much itchier cancel fingers. Rather than fighting incessantly on the forums with the fanbois, just cancel your account and go somewhere else. This sends an unambiguous message to the designers, and forces them to produce what the majority of their players like. If we instead defer cancellation and keep funding their failed projects, we allow them to avoid responsibility for their mistakes. This kind of misplaced loyalty — coupled with the rabid fanboism on most game forums — ends up leaving us with bad products, and has seriously hamstrung the game development cycle. Only when quality is rewarded and junk is not rewarded, can we expect high quality games to be produced.

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