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Undermining Democracy

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Last Thursday, Rudy Giuliani, a Trump campaign lawyer, alleged a widespread voting conspiracy involving Venezuela, Cuba, and China. Another lawyer, Sidney Powell, argued that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, the entire election in swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for the president.

The Republican National Committee swung in to support her false claim that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, while Michigan election officials have tried to stop the certification of the vote.

It is wildly unlikely that their efforts can block Joe Biden from becoming president. But they may still do lasting damage to American democracy for a shocking reason: the moves have come from trusted insiders.

American democracy’s vulnerability to disinformation has been very much in the news since the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016. The fear is that outsiders, whether they be foreign or domestic actors, will undermine our system by swaying popular opinion and election results.

This is half right. American democracy is an information system, in which the information isn’t bits and bytes but citizens’ beliefs. When peoples’ faith in the democratic system is undermined, democracy stops working. But as information security specialists know, outsider attacks are hard. Russian trolls, who don’t really understand how American politics works, have actually had a difficult time subverting it.

When you really need to worry is when insiders go bad. And that is precisely what is happening in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. In traditional information systems, the insiders are the people who have both detailed knowledge and high level access, allowing them to bypass security measures and more effectively subvert systems. In democracy, the insiders aren’t just the officials who manage voting but also the politicians who shape what people believe about politics. For four years, Donald Trump has been trying to dismantle our shared beliefs about democracy. And now, his fellow Republicans are helping him.

Democracy works when we all expect that votes will be fairly counted, and defeated candidates leave office. As the democratic theorist Adam Przeworski puts it, democracy is “a system in which parties lose elections.” These beliefs can break down when political insiders make bogus claims about general fraud, trying to cling to power when the election has gone against them.

It’s obvious how these kinds of claims damage Republican voters’ commitment to democracy. They will think that elections are rigged by the other side and will not accept the judgment of voters when it goes against their preferred candidate. Their belief that the Biden administration is illegitimate will justify all sorts of measures to prevent it from functioning.

It’s less obvious that these strategies affect Democratic voters’ faith in democracy, too. Democrats are paying attention to Republicans’ efforts to stop the votes of Democratic voters ­- and especially Black Democratic voters -­ from being counted. They, too, are likely to have less trust in elections going forward, and with good reason. They will expect that Republicans will try to rig the system against them. Mr. Trump is having a hard time winning unfairly, because he has lost in several states. But what if Mr. Biden’s margin of victory depended only on one state? What if something like that happens in the next election?

The real fear is that this will lead to a spiral of distrust and destruction. Republicans ­ who are increasingly committed to the notion that the Democrats are committing pervasive fraud -­ will do everything that they can to win power and to cling to power when they can get it. Democrats ­- seeing what Republicans are doing ­ will try to entrench themselves in turn. They suspect that if the Republicans really win power, they will not ever give it back. The claims of Republicans like Senator Mike Lee of Utah that America is not really a democracy might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More likely, this spiral will not directly lead to the death of American democracy. The U.S. federal system of government is complex and hard for any one actor or coalition to dominate completely. But it may turn American democracy into an unworkable confrontation between two hostile camps, each unwilling to make any concession to its adversary.

We know how to make voting itself more open and more secure; the literature is filled with vital and important suggestions. The more difficult problem is this. How do you shift the collective belief among Republicans that elections are rigged?

Political science suggests that partisans are more likely to be persuaded by fellow partisans, like Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, who said that election fraud wasn’t a big problem. But this would only be effective if other well-known Republicans supported him.

Public outrage, alternatively, can sometimes force officials to back down, as when people crowded in to denounce the Michigan Republican election officials who were trying to deny certification of their votes.

The fundamental problem, however, is Republican insiders who have convinced themselves that to keep and hold power, they need to trash the shared beliefs that hold American democracy together.

They may have long-term worries about the consequences, but they’re unlikely to do anything about those worries in the near-term unless voters, wealthy donors or others whom they depend on make them pay short-term costs.

This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared in the New York Times.

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4 days ago
Ugh, unfortunately I’m inclined to agree.
Astoria NY
4 days ago
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
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2 public comments
2 days ago
> ...they’re unlikely to do anything about those worries in the near-term unless voters, wealthy donors or others whom they depend on make them pay short-term costs.

I wholly agree with this. For now, the destruction of democracy is a short-term win, and screw the long term. If it does hurt long term, the players will change the game before then.

People need to make it hurt short term, not reward this behavior. But that hurt can't come from outside, it must come from within.

For American democracy, this latest election shows us that means Republicans. How can we convince them that this was the wrong choice?
Phoenix, AZ
4 days ago
Good read and so true.
Durham, NC

A Contested 2020 Election Would Be Way Worse Than Bush v. Gore

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It’s Wednesday, Nov. 4, and the vote count is too close to call. Neither President Trump nor former Vice President Joe Biden is conceding defeat, recounts are being conducted, disputes over recounts are being lodged, and a court case will soon be making its way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Trump has voiced his belief that there is widespread ballot fraud and as a result there’s already some degree of civil unrest.

This is the nightmare scenario for 2020, one in which a disputed election drives the country further apart. It’s also one that’s vaguely familiar. In 2000, there was no clear winner in the contest between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. That triggered a recount and a controversial Supreme Court decision that ultimately determined the presidency for Bush. Yet even in the direct aftermath of Bush v. Gore, Americans still kept the faith in democratic institutions and the process. I went looking for lessons from that period of disruption. But all I found were the first cancer cells that have metastasized in our political system over the past 20 years.

It’s not that Americans didn’t think something had gone wrong in 2000 — in a CBS News poll conducted after the Supreme Court’s decision in mid-December, 60 percent of people said there had not been a fair and accurate count of votes. Still, 59 percent of people in an ABC News/Washington Post poll from the same time said their opinion of the court remained unchanged. The same poll asked what people would think if there were an unofficial recount and Gore were declared the winner. Would they consider Bush legitimately elected? Eighty-four percent answered, “Yes.”

It’s difficult to imagine similar sentiments in December 2020 if the Supreme Court intervened. Already, Americans say they are worried about something going wrong. In a late September Monmouth University poll, 39 percent of people said they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the 2020 election would be conducted “fairly and accurately.” A FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll from about the same time found that while 60 percent of people surveyed said the election would be fair, 39 percent said it wouldn’t be. The open seat on the Supreme Court has only complicated matters.

Journalists’ recitation of engrained partisanship is now somewhat rote, but the scale of our almost-religious alienation from one another is sort of breathtaking; we were not this divided a nation in 2000. Pew Research tracked partisanship trends in America from 1994 to 2017 by measuring responses to the same questions about things like views on gay marriage and immigration. In 1999, there was a 15-point difference between Democrats and Republicans on these questions. In 2017, the difference was 36 points.

But man, did we think we had it bad back in the 15-point difference world.

The history of the 2000 election recount generally tells about the partisan spin that polluted the airwaves during the counting of the ballots. (If you are too young to know what a “hanging chad” is, please Google; it was important in American life for a few weeks, but I just don’t have the strength to get into it here.) Gore’s team wanted officials to recount ballots by hand in four heavily Democratic counties where the vote was quite close, while Bush’s team wanted to stop the recount entirely.

James Baker was Bush’s point-man in Florida, having served as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, and was quick to realize that the campaign would need to wage a war for public opinion. “We’re getting killed on ‘count all the votes.’ Who the hell could be against that?” Jeffrey Toobin quoted Baker as saying in his book about the recount, “Too Close to Call.” Gore’s team thought it had the “moral authority to make his case,” according to a New York Times report from two days after Election Day. It allowed “Democrats to suggest that the Republicans are trying to subvert the will of the people.”

As the drama unfolded, many Americans thought more votes needed to be tallied, but they also thought Gore should concede defeat. In a Fox News survey from late November, the plurality of people, 47 percent, thought that not all the votes in Florida had been counted. But the same survey also found that 56 percent of people thought Gore should concede.

This psychology is fascinating when seen through 2020’s rearview mirror. It speaks to a certain satisfaction some people had with the general political state of things: Either Bush or Gore would do just fine. It’s the sort of laissez-faire attitude toward election outcomes that 15-point partisan differences buy you. In the 36-point era, we’re discussing all-out civil war if things are too close to call on election night.

We have accelerated the formation of our separate partisan worlds over the past four years. These worlds accept different realities. Democrats generally accept fact-based conclusions (alongside their partisan, subjective beliefs), and Republicans — or at least the Republican Party — generally eschew the conclusions of experts on things like climate change and COVID-19 (alongside their partisan, subjective beliefs). Given all this, doesn’t it necessarily follow that we would continue down this garden path of separate realities when it comes to an initially indeterminate election outcome? One version of reality accepts a President Biden while the other accepts a President Trump, each with baroque arguments — about the eligibility of certain ballots or the legitimacy of the Electoral College — nicely retrofitted to match a predetermined conclusion.

In a piece in the 2010 collection “The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment,” David Greenberg, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, traced this inability to accept a common reality to the 2000 election and the postmodern brilliance of Baker and company: “The Bush team didn’t just contend that a recount would fail to identify the true winner more accurately; more radically, they argued that any accurate tally was unattainable — that the truth was unknowable.”

Greenberg points to a famous quote given to the New York Times Magazine by a Bush aide for further proof of the roots of this kind of thinking:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Professionally, I’m a member of the reality-based community. I try to think empirically about America, her culture, people and oh-so-screwy politics. That’s been a challenge as Trump and the Republican Party have perfected the creation of one’s own reality and the belittling of the reality-based community. During the first debate, the president waffled on whether he would concede defeat, falling back on his go-to line about the fraudulent — and unfounded — dangers of mail voting. If he actually does this post-Election Day, media organizations will be forced to grapple with reporting on the news of the day — the president’s words — and battling misinformation and mistrust. It’s more than the press had to contend with in 2000, and it’s an unwinnable scenario. But it’s the reality of our 36-point world.

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53 days ago
Astoria NY
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Hamstrung by Ideology

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Americans generally believe that business and government are somehow in opposition; that government can only “interfere” in the workings of business and markets, and that “the economy” is something totally separate and distinct from the rest of society, including from political decisions and social cohesion.

The reason they think this is because of the pervasive libertarian ideology promoted by conventional neoclassical economics. And by libertarian, I’m referring to the systemic bias that pervades all conventional capitalist economics, not just the radical extremist ideology that goes under that name. Neoclassical and classical economics fosters the belief that “economics” must be kept wholly separate from every other aspect of society.

The Chinese, coming from a Marxist—and Confucianist (although in this case, Legalism is probably the better fit)—perspective, believe no such thing. They know that business and government are really the same thing, and always have been, and they make no bones about it. They are free from the Western delusion that there is some sort of “pure” capitalism, free from the taint of government intervention, or the delusion that such a thing is even possible. They do not have the ideological commitment to the”invisible hand,” or the blind faith that anarchic markets will automatically lead to beneficial social outcomes.

I had that thought reading the following paragraph by Adam Tooze:

As Trump’s trade warriors point out, the range of instruments that China deploys in industrial competition makes a nonsense of trade policy as defined by the WTO. Complexity and opacity are key to the success of China Inc. As Blustein shows in an illuminating cameo about tractor tyres, the network of state support for Chinese industry extends from central and local government grants and tax exemptions to subsidised land deals, cheap electric power and a raft of subsidised low interest loans, from the government as well as public and private banks. When rubber prices surged in the early 2000s Beijing devised a scheme to supply it at a reduced price and gave a set of inducements to rubber producers. The arrangements are all-encompassing yet almost entirely deniable, as the American lawyers retained by Chinese firms demonstrate when they face unpleasant questions from the US Department of Commerce.

Whose Century? (London Review of Books)

“Trump’s trade warriors,” as Adam Tooze calls, them, represent that standard American perspective that government should “butt out”, i.e. “not pick winners and losers.” That markets should be free to run themselves and that government should not “interfere.” This comes from a blind commitment to libertarian ideology.

The Chinese know that this is nonsense. They know that production and governance are inseparable. True, it’s no longer centrally planned as in the old days. But the myopic faith in an anarchic market to achieve ideal outcomes is a flaw that the Chinese do not posses. It’s an advantage of coming from a non-Western perspective free from the blinders imposed by neoclassical economic thinking as developed in the West. Of course the government manages the commanding heights of business and trade. What else would you expect?

The Chinese view is the more historically accurate one. In the West, the fairy tale is told of plucky businessmen succeeding despite being frustrated at every turn by petty government bureaucrats. This tale was further enhanced by fabulists like Ayn Rand, who peddled this nonsense for ideological reasons while having no knowledge of economic history, or even any experience in the actual business world.

Marxists, by contrast, have always been fully aware of how the state creates and sustains the capitalist economy, and has always done so. From the passing of laws, to issuing and regulating the supply of currency, to the establishment of limited liability corporations, to the building of infrastructure, to the selling off of formerly public lands to private interests, to the implicit assumption of risk, to the issuing of bonds, to intellectual property laws, to publicly-funded research, to numerous subsidies, to a basic social safety net, to K-12 mass schooling, to the provisioning of police and military to enforce contracts and property rights—the list of how government and business interests are intertwined—not opposed—goes on endlessly. There is no “great wall” dividing a self-contained intellectual abstraction called “the economy” from all the other aspects of human life in this world.

It seems the ideological blinders conferred to us by libertarian classical and neoclassical economists are—ironically—causing the West to fall behind at the game it supposedly invented, especially the U.S.

And, speaking of ideology, it was also ideology that has made globalism such a problem in the U.S., specifically the frontier ideology of  self-reliant “rugged individualism,” where honest, hard-working people never require outside help or “handouts.” This ideology insists that, rather than letting “the government” take of you, you should just bootstrap your way out of your circumstances through grit and pluck.

This, of course, is absolute nonsense, but it’s the dominant ideology of the Republican Party and conservative philosophy more generally. In the U.S., it manifests itself in the idea that “welfare” is inherently a bad thing, and that anything the government does to help its citizens is “communism”. This is the reason why the “China Shock” was so uniquely bad in the U.S. compared with other countries that were just as exposed to the neoliberal globalism. The reason you didn’t see the same backlash to “free trade” in other countries as compared to the U.S. is because those countries decided to care of their citizens instead of just throwing them under a bus:

Every advanced economy in the world – Japan, South Korea, European countries (Italy in particular) – felt the ‘China shock’. But only in the US has it led to the kind of political crisis we have witnessed since 2016. It is this that requires explanation. …Given the resources of American government, a shock on this scale could have been cushioned through spending on welfare, education, reinvestment and relocation. But that would have required creative politics, which is precisely what has been obstructed by the Republicans. Instead the problem wasn’t addressed, unleashing a pervasive status anxiety among lower-middle-class and working-class white Americans, especially men. It was in the counties where the highest number of jobs were lost because of the China shock that Trump scored best in the 2016 election.

Since the Clinton era, the Democratic establishment has held up its side of the bargain, deflecting opposition to globalisation from trade unions. What it did not reckon with was the ruthless cynicism of the Republican Party in opening its doors to xenophobic, know-nothing white nationalism, inciting talk of a nation betrayed and swinging over to protectionism. The Democrats also didn’t take into account the dogged refusal of the Republicans to co-operate in their efforts to patch together America’s welfare state, even, or especially, when it came to fundamentals such as unemployment insurance and health coverage…

In other words, if we hadn’t been so wedded to the “government bad” and “society owes you nothing,” attitudes, and if the elites had been even a little less rapacious, we would not have seen entire swaths of the country reduced to sub-third-world status, and hence the rise of authoritarian right-wing populism. In the U.S., for example, even health care is tied to a having a job, and instead of dealing with that problem, the politicians of both parties chose a politics of distraction and misinformation that has led us to where we are now.

Due to an ideological distaste for “big government solutions” and “government handouts,” inherited from libertarianism, the only other avenue for aspiring populist politicians was to promise to somehow “bring the jobs back,” so that workers could head back into the factories and “earn” the basics of life like health care and the money to pay for food and shelter. But, of course, this will not work. U.S. manufacturing continues to expand output, even while shedding workers. It was China’s low wages that made them predominant—low wages that would not work with the high fixed costs of food, education and housing in the U.S. High-wage manufacturing jobs were replaced with the “service economy”, and the ideological conception that what we earn is entirely down to our own personal “marginal productivity” (again promoted by neoclassical economists) led to opposition to any efforts to raise the bar for wages.

In both of these cases, we can see where hidebound ideological blindness prevented the U.S. from taking the steps that other countries have effectively taken, which has led to the creation of much more successful 21st century societies outside the U.S.—whether it it’s Europe’s social democracy or China’s state-managed capitalist/communist hybrid. Since both of these options are effectively off the table due to our ideological commitments, all Americans can do cry to the heavens that the imaginary libertarian world that “should” exist is nowhere to be found as we continue to circle the drain of history.

“China under the control of the CCP is, indeed, involved in a gigantic and novel social and political experiment enrolling one-sixth of humanity, a historic project that dwarfs that of democratic capitalism in the North Atlantic.”

It’s a long piece, worth reading in full: Whose century? (London Review of Books)

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127 days ago
Very well explained and argued.
Astoria NY
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Astoria Digital on Computerworld

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At the outset of the pandemic, a local group of hackers in our neighborhood came together to offer technical solutions for our neighborhood mutual aid organization, Astoria Mutual Aid Network.

Our main project to serve that group is Volunteer Dispatch, a Slack and Airtable bot to help dispatchers smartly match volunteers to requests for aid in the community.

It was exciting to see this project get covered by Computerworld last week.

As the article mentions, the code is open source and available on GitHub. Anyone is welcome to use it to support their own local groups, and if you're interested in contributing code or design, we'd love that.

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132 days ago
Our local hacker group got written up by computer world. My co-volunteer made a small write up.
Astoria NY
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On the Twitter Hack

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Twitter was hacked this week. Not a few people's Twitter accounts, but all of Twitter. Someone compromised the entire Twitter network, probably by stealing the log-in credentials of one of Twitter's system administrators. Those are the people trusted to ensure that Twitter functions smoothly.

The hacker used that access to send tweets from a variety of popular and trusted accounts, including those of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as part of a mundane scam -- stealing bitcoin -- but it's easy to envision more nefarious scenarios. Imagine a government using this sort of attack against another government, coordinating a series of fake tweets from hundreds of politicians and other public figures the day before a major election, to affect the outcome. Or to escalate an international dispute. Done well, it would be devastating.

Whether the hackers had access to Twitter direct messages is not known. These DMs are not end-to-end encrypted, meaning that they are unencrypted inside Twitter's network and could have been available to the hackers. Those messages -- between world leaders, industry CEOs, reporters and their sources, heath organizations -- are much more valuable than bitcoin. (If I were a national-intelligence agency, I might even use a bitcoin scam to mask my real intelligence-gathering purpose.) Back in 2018, Twitter said it was exploring encrypting those messages, but it hasn't yet.

Internet communications platforms -- such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube -- are crucial in today's society. They're how we communicate with one another. They're how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up.

In the Twitter case this week, the hacker's tactics weren't particularly sophisticated. We will almost certainly learn about security lapses at Twitter that enabled the hack, possibly including a SIM-swapping attack that targeted an employee's cellular service provider, or maybe even a bribed insider. The FBI is investigating.

This kind of attack is known as a "class break." Class breaks are endemic to computerized systems, and they're not something that we as users can defend against with better personal security. It didn't matter whether individual accounts had a complicated and hard-to-remember password, or two-factor authentication. It didn't matter whether the accounts were normally accessed via a Mac or a PC. There was literally nothing any user could do to protect against it.

Class breaks are security vulnerabilities that break not just one system, but an entire class of systems. They might exploit a vulnerability in a particular operating system that allows an attacker to take remote control of every computer that runs on that system's software. Or a vulnerability in internet-enabled digital video recorders and webcams that allows an attacker to recruit those devices into a massive botnet. Or a single vulnerability in the Twitter network that allows an attacker to take over every account.

For Twitter users, this attack was a double whammy. Many people rely on Twitter's authentication systems to know that someone who purports to be a certain celebrity, politician, or journalist is really that person. When those accounts were hijacked, trust in that system took a beating. And then, after the attack was discovered and Twitter temporarily shut down all verified accounts, the public lost a vital source of information.

There are many security technologies companies like Twitter can implement to better protect themselves and their users; that's not the issue. The problem is economic, and fixing it requires doing two things. One is regulating these companies, and requiring them to spend more money on security. The second is reducing their monopoly power.

The security regulations for banks are complex and detailed. If a low-level banking employee were caught messing around with people's accounts, or if she mistakenly gave her log-in credentials to someone else, the bank would be severely fined. Depending on the details of the incident, senior banking executives could be held personally liable. The threat of these actions helps keep our money safe. Yes, it costs banks money; sometimes it severely cuts into their profits. But the banks have no choice.

The opposite is true for these tech giants. They get to decide what level of security you have on your accounts, and you have no say in the matter. If you are offered security and privacy options, it's because they decided you can have them. There is no regulation. There is no accountability. There isn't even any transparency. Do you know how secure your data is on Facebook, or in Apple's iCloud, or anywhere? You don't. No one except those companies do. Yet they're crucial to the country's national security. And they're the rare consumer product or service allowed to operate without significant government oversight.

For example, President Donald Trump's Twitter account wasn't hacked as Joe Biden's was, because that account has "special protections," the details of which we don't know. We also don't know what other world leaders have those protections, or the decision process surrounding who gets them. Are they manual? Can they scale? Can all verified accounts have them? Your guess is as good as mine.

In addition to security measures, the other solution is to break up the tech monopolies. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have so much power because they are so large, and they face no real competition. This is a national-security risk as well as a personal-security risk. Were there 100 different Twitter-like companies, and enough compatibility so that all their feeds could merge into one interface, this attack wouldn't have been such a big deal. More important, the risk of a similar but more politically targeted attack wouldn't be so great. If there were competition, different platforms would offer different security options, as well as different posting rules, different authentication guidelines -- different everything. Competition is how our economy works; it's how we spur innovation. Monopolies have more power to do what they want in the quest for profits, even if it harms people along the way.

This wasn't Twitter's first security problem involving trusted insiders. In 2017, on his last day of work, an employee shut down President Donald Trump's account. In 2019, two people were charged with spying for the Saudi government while they were Twitter employees.

Maybe this hack will serve as a wake-up call. But if past incidents involving Twitter and other companies are any indication, it won't. Underspending on security, and letting society pay the eventual price, is far more profitable. I don't blame the tech companies. Their corporate mandate is to make as much money as is legally possible. Fixing this requires changes in the law, not changes in the hearts of the company's leaders.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

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134 days ago
Astoria NY
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Introducing PCG: Or, How I'm Spending the Pandemic

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This post originally appeared on Chris DeLuca's blog

A lot has changed in the world since I last posted.

I have been extremely lucky during this pandemic. I am still employed, I can work from home, and I have my wife to shelter with. I do not take these things for granted.

And yet.

While my work life has not changed as drastically, my personal life has. Most of the things I did outside work before the pandemic were in person. Can’t do that right now. So, it gave me some time to work on home-bound projects that I pushed back on the shelf.

To that end, I’m very excited to introduce PCG, or Point and Click Game engine, an adventure game creation utility for the open web.

I did a talk about it three years ago (ouch), so this project has certainly been a long time coming.

PCG is very much in active development, but I think I’ve made encouraging progress, which I’ll explore in detail later.

But first, what am I talking about?

What is an adventure game?

If this is old hat to you, skip ahead to the next section.

For those not familiar, a point and click adventure game is a style of narrative, story-based games where progress is made primarily through puzzle solving, rather than violence or reflexes, something I appreciate more and more as I age.

Day of the Tentacle screenshot

Day of the Tentacle, a classic comedic point and click adventure game.

While their popularity peaked in the early 90s for mainstream gaming cultural, they have thrived in the indie space over the past decade or so.

Mechanically, many games in the genre use a system of verbs to interact with the world. You click a verb from a menu, for example “push”, and then the person or object in the game you want to apply it to, such as “crate”. Perhaps there would be a trap door below the crate, and a new area is unlocked.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis screenshot

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is a game that used a list of verbs.

Another method some games employ is to do away with the specific list of verbs, having pre-determined actions when interacting, or relying on the player manipulating “mini-game” style set pieces, such as a series of levers that must be switched in the right order.

Myst screenshot

Myst did away with set verbs, and instead utilized bespoke mini-puzzles to progress.

Almost all have you collecting various esoteric items, having the player apply those items to people or objects in the game, or combining them with each other.

A relatively simple system, from a game mechanics perspective, but one that hides a lot of depth, story-telling potential, and that particular player satisfaction from figuring out a puzzle.

Why a web-based adventure engine?

Most innovation in the web game space is around the <canvas> element and Web Assembly, which allows developers to “start from scratch” and create entirely custom rendering divorced from any of the preconceptions of the web.

Angry bots screenshot

AngryBots is an example of a web game rendered via web assembly and the canvas tag.

This works well for action games or games with pixel-pushing graphics. However, the goal here is always to emulate a native application, and since games written for the browser cannot by definition ever be native, the best they can be is a close approximation.

While close might be good enough, this always felt like a missed opportunity to me. We spend all these resources trying to get the web to be more like native applications, but hardly any on what new and interesting experiences we can create that are unique to the web. As Marshal McLuhan wrote, an author I’m proud to say I got a few pages into, the medium is the message.

I started thinking about what kind of games would work well inside the traditional web context - aka, HTML, CSS and JavaScript (and SVG) rendered into a DOM tree.

After some thought, I settled on point-and-click adventure games.

My reasons being:

  1. They are not real-time games—Having game play that relies on any kind of precise timing are going to need a more controllable rendering model than the traditional web.
  2. They rely on text/audio—Text is a first class citizen of the web, and new web audio APIs make that aspect possible.
  3. They are narrative-driven—The web is a powerful method of communication, and I’m excited by new methods of leveraging that.
  4. I like them 😄—This is important, because without it I wouldn’t be able to finish a big project like this.

In short, I thought I could re-create many of the different point and click adventure paradigms on the web, while taking full advantage of the things that make the web the web.

Some of the unique things that are attractive about the web are:

  1. It’s universal—Many more people have access to a web browser than those with access to a machine that can play a triple A game.
  2. It’s accessible by default (with a rich API for extensions)—This enables access by those with visual, auditory, motor, or other disabilities. Accessibility is sadly an afterthought in a lot of digital design, and seems entirely absent in the gaming space. Treating accessibility as a first class citizen makes the experience better for everyone.
  3. It’s sharable—An oft taken for granted killer feature of the web is URLs. The power of sharing a permanent link that will work in every browser and can be posted to any platform is one I cannot understate.

Design goals

The ultimate goal of PCG is to foster a open, welcoming, and creative community around making point and click adventure games on the web.

In game engine terms, the goal is to create a flexible, modular, and pluggable system of components that can be combined to create most if not all the point and click varieties mentioned above (and many that were not), as well as opening up the possibility for new and unique games only possible in the web format.

After a lot more thought, writing, re-writing, trial and error, and leveraging embarrassingly earned career experience, I settled on some design principles for PCG.

The thought of even having design principles was something hard earned, but one I strongly believe in: a north star for how you go about making something out of nothing.

  1. Leverage core web tech (HTML/CSS/JS)—Rely on core web technologies and patterns over writing new systems. While new systems may offer benefits, building off existing ones usually means a more familiar, fast, and pleasant player experience.
  2. Player experience over developer experience—While developers are important, the end result that players consume takes precedence over the experience of the developers creating the game. These first two principles are why PCG is built without a framework in vanilla HTML/CSS/JS.
  3. Through documentation—A well documented system is an understood system, and an understood system is a powerful tool.
  4. Newbie friendly—As the web has professionalized, many exciting capabilities have opened up. It has also raised the barrier to entry. Creating something fun and expressive that can be used at a basic level to good results, while still offering a much larger world of possibility for those interested in learning, I think strikes the right balance.
  5. Open source—This is essential to creating a community, which is critical to the success of a tiny project like this. I also believe in it.

Next steps

This is a very high level introduction to the ideas surrounding the PCG project. I plan on writing posts going in-depth on each component of the system as they’re built and as updates are made. These posts will hopefully serve as a living progress report.

While I’ve spent a lot of time on PCG already, it is still in the beginning stages. It is very much a leap of faith.

I can’t predict what kind of community it will attract, if any, or what this project may or may not evolve into.

But I am excited to find out.

You can check out the Github repository or the documentation site for PCG, both very much in progress. If you have any feedback or would like to contribute, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

If you’d like to see what PCG is capable of currently (as much as I cringe to reveal the multitude of missing features) my friend made a tiny, rough demo game, and I made a little demo showcasing the text box component.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end, hope you and yours are safe and healthy, and I’ll catch you on the next adventure.

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201 days ago
A post I wrote on the web based point and click engine I'm making.
Astoria NY
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