22 December, 2015

Gauntlet: A Whimper Indeed

When I was very young, games were all about high scores. I can remember my uncle taking me to the arcade in the mall, where we'd play shooters and beat-em-ups, pinball and pac-man. At home, on the Atari, we'd compete in tank warfare, swing on vines across canyons, and box against one another for hours. But in the end, the focus was always on the high score.

That changed when I received the Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas one year. Suddenly, the high score was an afterthought. In Super Mario Bros., what mattered was saving the princess, not gaining points. In the Legend of Zelda, the main goal was adventuring, not stockpiling numbers.

So when my friends and I first started playing Gauntlet II, we had a warped mindset.

Back then, you couldn't look online to learn more about games because there was no internet we could access. All we knew about Gauntlet was that all four of us could play together, and we would dive into that dungeon as deeply as we were capable, trying our best to beat the game. It quickly became a fan favorite among my friends, mostly because it allowed four player simultaneous play, a rarity among games back then. I have many memories of needing food badly only to find my supposed teammates shooting that much needed food before I could pick it up. Those were great times, and I look back on them fondly.

Yet the strongest memory I have is when one of my friends had a sleepover for their birthday, and we all vowed to finally beat Gauntlet II. We got started early on, and although we did many other things that night, there was always at least two players on the NES, working together to keep the party alive and progress further and further into that dungeon. Once we reached 50 levels deep, we were further than we had ever been, yet the game showed no signs of nearing the end. A friend said it can't be more than twice as many levels than Super Mario Bros., which had 8 worlds of 4 levels each, so we eagerly looked forward to level 65. Once it came and went, we all came back to the tv at level 99, only to find that level 100 was just another level of this impossibly deep dungeon.

But we persevered. While most of us played other games late into the night, we always had a rotation of two players on the NES, continually playing through each stage. Eventually, it became not just methodical but hollow; this was not hard, like TMNT or Battletoads, but it tried our patience nonetheless.

As the hours wore on, we got more and more tired. Still, we would all group up in front of the tv at level 150, level 200, level 250.... But it seemingly never ended. What if it had no end? What if this game was a throwback to the older games before the NES; what if it was like Pac-man, where no matter how long you played, you could never really beat it? But there were rumors even then that Pac-man could be beat, if you lasted long enough. We had no way of knowing whether this was true back then, but now the kill screen on level 256 of Pac-man is better known -- could the same be true of Gauntlet II?

Eventually we were "shape without form, shade without colour; paralysed force, gesture without motion". We were dead on our feet, and all other games came to an end. We pulled our sleeping bags close to the tv and took turns trying to stay awake past level 300, 350, 400. Some of us fell that night, not just in the game, but to the sandman himself. Those of us who remained were sure -- so absolutely sure -- that the final level must be 500. It's such a round number, and no dungeon can be deeper, surely. Surely.

But alas, 500 came and went, and we lost all hope. It was late. We were tired. Every second in the game our characters lost a portion of their life, and no amount of health would keep us alive throughout the night without someone adventuring for additional food. If we slept, it would be game over. One of us had to be sacrificed. So I offered to take the first watch.

One by one, the rest of my friends fell fast asleep while I half-played, half rested-my-eyes. I wasn't progressing through levels, exactly, but I was keeping the game session alive, so that in the morning we could push to what would surely be the true ending level: 999. I felt so certain that 999 would be the final level, because there was only room for three digits in the UI. I started daydreaming about what it might be like. What reward might the game designers have cooked up for whomever could make it to that final stage? Would there be some fearsome boss? Would there be a princess to save? Would we finally get out of this abominable dungeon? I imagined an ending like that of Dragon Warrior, as Dragon Quest I was known in the US at the time. Something with music, and a congratulatory screen, saying that we had saved the kingdom by making it to the very last level.

But then, abruptly, I was shaken awake. Before me were my friends, and, behind them, the Gauntlet title screen.

Breakfast that morning was not very fun.

Edit (November 2018): A reader pointed out a truth that I'd never even considered: there isn't a final level. After level 998, there's a treasure level, and then you get kicked back to level 1 again. The video below shows the loop back to level 1.

12 December, 2015

Charitable Contributions

For most of my life, I've been fairly selfish, at least when it comes to charity. For my first 21 years of life or so, I'm not sure if I ever gave to charity. Had I been asked about it, I might have said that it was a nice thing to do, akin to helping someone cross the street, but to give any substantial amount would be something only a sucker would do.

Thankfully, my undergrad really woke me up to ideas about fairness, equality, charity, and many other concepts that previously weren't fully formed in my mind. Thinking back, I was stunted in my philosophical growth before college, even though I was a fairly successful autodidact when it came to mathematics. I owe a lot to Spring Hill College, not because they taught me math or science, but because they taught me to grow as a person. (Interestingly, my reason for going to them was the math/science stuff -- I had no interest in philosophical growth before attending.)

One way in which I grew was to realize the importance of charity and to better understand my place in the world economy. It wasn't long before my career path switched to the non-profit industry in 2008. By 2011, I joined the then-burgeoning effective altruism movement. In 2013, I started working directly for effective altruism organizations. Today, in 2015, I split my time between charitable work for EA orgs and earning to give.

But cognitive dissonance is a thing, and I've always been a bit slow at keeping up with my ideals. For example, I can remember thinking that eating meat was wrong for years before I made the switch to vegetarianism. And despite the above timeline, I think it may have been 2010 before I made my first $100+ donation to charity. It was 2012 before I gave above 1% of income. I didn't take the Giving What We Can pledge until the very end of 2014.

So my actual donations have lagged 2-3 years behind my thoughts about what I should be giving to charity. I don't feel too bad about this; progression is powerful, even when it is slow, because it can build upon itself. I'd much rather slowly grow than to burn out quickly. I learned this lesson firsthand when I tried working 60-80 hour weeks for months on end. Some people can do it, but I got so tired of it after two years that at this point I'm completely unwilling to work over 45 hours, almost regardless of circumstance -- and my norm is closer to a 30 hour workweek.

So I really didn't want to make the same mistake when it came to charitable contributions. In 2012, I made a plan to work up to 10% of income, try it out for a while, then ramp up to 15%. I made a public commitment on Twitter that I'd donate 10% by 2014 and 15% by 2016.

But the more I worked and interacted around effective altruists, the more I thought I was moving too slowly. In 2013, I went ahead and just tried to hit what was then my end goal of 15%. I ended up donating 14.6% that year, and I honestly couldn't feel the loss at all. So in 2014, when I took the GWWC pledge, I set my sights higher and pledged 25%, ultimately giving 25.7% that year. Amazingly, I still couldn't feel it. So at the beginning of 2015, I decided to just give more and see what happens.

It's now the end of 2015 and I'm on track to hit 35% of income in donations -- but this time, I can feel it. There have been multiple times throughout the year when I've had to restrict my buying choices because of money I'd donated. To be fair, this probably happened at lower giving levels, too, but it was never something promoted to conscious thought. Previously, I'd just acted as though my income was lower than it actually was, and I never felt any pain from the donations I gave. But this year, I could feel it.

So, as I move into 2016, I have a decision to make. Somewhere between 25% and 35% is a level of donations where I can give easily with no harm to myself. Should I attempt to find that level and stay there indefinitely? Or should I challenge myself and actually try to give more, even if it causes me some pain? Some people might claim that it isn't even 'real' charity unless it harms me to give it. Others might claim that the small amount of discomfort I feel when I give 35% is worth the help that money brings to poorer persons. But I am ever cognizant of the time I once burnt out on working too much, and I really don't want to do that with my donations. I think that, given my akrasia, I should aim to do as much as I can without feeling discomfort consciously, but to not pass that threshold. Maybe this means I am not as good at being an effective altruist as others in the community, but given my past life experience I honestly feel that this is the best I'll be able to do in terms of earning-to-give for the near future.

So, for the first time since becoming an effective altruist, I plan on reducing my donations in 2016 to somewhere between 25% and 28% of income. I'll reevaluate in December 2016 to see how this plan turns out.