Monday, November 26, 2012

Consumers Are Getting Smarter?

I've heard it said a lot that consumers are getting smarter and that traditional advertising doesn't work any more. It needs to be more sophisticated to match its audience. I call bullshit on this. In some ways advertising absolutely has gotten more sophisticated, but only in the ways it manipulates consumers, not in any real way that respects their intelligence.

A lot of research has been done over the last 50 years or so on human psychology in general, and advertising in particular. A lot more is known today about how our brains work, and what their shortcomings and blindspots are. Advertisers have learned how to tap into this to some degree, and use our weaknesses against us.

Since this same information is available to us, the consumers (books like Buying In and the book/TV show The Gruen Transfer are a good place to start), the logic is that there is some kind of Red Queen Effect occurring that makes advertisers have to keep one step ahead of the consumers so that their tricks will keep working.

The problem with this, though, is that it assumes that if consumers are aware of a psychological trick, they will be immune to it. Unfortunately, this is not at all true. Sometimes it works, but quite often we are fooled by a trick even when we're aware of it because it works on a subconscious level in our brains, so unless we engage our conscious brain to recognize the trick, it will slip past our defenses.

Daniel Kahneman talks about this in his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, where he separates thinking into two levels, which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is a fast, pattern recognizing, snap judgement level of thinking, and is generally in control when we're not paying conscious attention to things, or when we're getting an initial impression of something. System 2 is deeper, conscious thought, which takes time and effort, and so we tend to only engage it if we think we need to (and often not even then!).

Just because you know an optical illusion is an illusion, it does not mean you can see through it, and just because you know that a picture of a juicy hamburger on a billboard is trying to manipulate your base urges, it does not mean that it won't make you hungry.

I look at the television ad for the iPad Mini. What does this ad actually show us? Someone playing a tune on a virtual piano on a regular iPad, and then switching to an iPad Mini. That's it. The information content of the ad is basically, "you can now play a virtual piano in a slightly smaller format!". It's really just showing a cool gadget and suggesting, "Hey! Isn't this gadget AWESOME?!", and linking that to a familiar tune. That's the information content of this ad. Does that really seem like an ad that is responding to consumers getting smarter?

Or take the latest iPod ads (yes, I know I'm picking on Apple here, but it's a brand where the people who buy it tend to think they're smarter and more sophisticated than 'the masses', so I think it's the perfect brand to examine). Once again, a catchy tune, and this time just iPod Shuffles and Nanos bouncing around on the screen (it's slightly more complex than that, but that's the essence of it). No information content other than, "Hey, don't these gadgets look cool?".

Yet these ads work. Damn, do they work. Apple's sales of iPads and iPods are testimony to that. But this isn't a response to consumers getting smarter. This isn't in any way respecting the intelligence of the people buying the products. If anything it's downright condescending, the advertising equivalent of dangling car keys in front of a baby and cooing, "Oooh! Look at the shiny!"

So why do we keep hearing that consumers are getting smarter? I think that there are two main reasons for this, and they're both due to the fact that the advertising space is getting more crowded, and advertising has to work harder to be effective as people are bombarded with more ads and they have less impact as a result:
  1. Some companies/advertising firms have decided to make a niche in the space where they treat their customers as smart and savvy, and market to that. Whether they actually treat their customers that way or just say they do to manipulate those customers is a separate matter, and I'd say that both occur in practice, depending on the case in question.
  2. Advertising companies promote the idea of the smart consumer to their customers, the companies that buy their services, as a way to justify their costs. If a company thinks that the consumer is getting smarter, then they're going to feel more justified in spending large amounts commissioning advertising and marketing companies to create sophisticated ads for them. It's hard to justify massive consulting fees to create an advertising campaign if you think the target audience is dumb!
So there you have it. I could be totally wrong about all of this, of course. But next time you see an ad that appears to be treating you as a sophisticated, discerning consumer, try to remember to stop and ask yourself, "Do they really think I'm a smart consumer, or do they just think that I see myself that way, and so they're trying to tap into that conceit to lower my defenses?"

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Assassin's Creed III

Assassin's Creed III is a great game that expands on the series in new and fresh ways while keeping enough of the trademark gameplay to make the game still feel familiar. However, it could have been an excellent game if a few aspects of the gameplay were improved, and more importantly, if various bugs had been fixed. It feels to me as though they needed about 3 more months of bug fixing before shipping. This is a real shame, since these issues are not showstoppers, but some are definitely frustrating and make you want to punch your character through the screen!


After three games in the old setting (renaissance  Italy), it was time for something new. At first I didn't think the American Revolutionary War would work, but I was quite pleasantly surprised. They found a good origin story for your character, Connor, and having him with both an assassin background and a Native American background gave some depth to the character, while also helping to explain some of the additional skills in this game, such as hunting and tree parkour.

Connor's background is tied in to the larger events happening during the period, although it does sometimes feel like he is shoehorned into certain events for no good reason except to be able to tie that event in to the game. We do get to see the conflict of the time between the British, Americans, and Native Americans done fairly tastefully, though the British tended to be a bit more faceless and generically evil to suit the plot's purposes.


Overall I wasn't a huge fan of Connor. After having the older, wiser Ezio of Revelations, it felt like a step back to play another young, impatient character who makes poor decisions. I did like playing Connor at several different ages, and the fact that it takes quite a bit of game time before you finally get to adult aged Connor didn't bother me, and was actually a nice change.

You start off the game playing as Connor's father, Haytham, and I quite enjoyed this character. Although his skills were more limited, you get to play through an interesting arc with him, probably made more interesting by not knowing where it was leading (at least for me, since I didn't know the connection between him and Connor when I first played).

The rest of the characters are servicable enough, with some needlessly over the top bad guys who never seem to shy away from reminding you of how evil they are. The inclusion again of famous historical characters is fun, but I suppose as a non-American it didn't really do anything for me.

World Navigation

These games are all about navigating the world in a cool way, and in this aspect, I felt that navigation regressed compared to previous titles. I found myself doing the wrong thing more often than I remember in past games, and getting frustrated by it. The fact that running and freerunning are done by the same button seemed to catch me out a lot when I would be trying to run from place to place and end up running up a doorway at my destination or jumping onto something that I ran too close to on my way past. Maybe this was more noticeable because fast travel points were very scarce in some maps and tedious to unlock in others, so I ended up having to travel on foot a lot more.

I found navigating on the Frontier map particularly annoying due to the ridiculously small number of fast travel points, combined with the fact that it's not obvious where they are unless you find them by luck or using an online reference. There were also bugs which meant that you would have to run around the two general stores that two of the points were located at, trying to make them unlock. And in one case, I unlocked one, only to travel away and find that it had disappeared again! I had to travel back manually, unlock it again, and have it disappear again!

The horse also seemed fairly useless unless you travelled on paths. Going overland, it would keep slowing down at obstacles, and the irregular nature of the terrain meant you would frequently find a cliff or river where you'd have to ditch the horse and go on foot anyway.

Tree navigation worked fairly well, but I found that I rarely used it to get from place to place since it was usually hard to tell where a particular tree path would get you. Unlike rooftop navigation where you can usually head in any desired direction, the trees would tend to have a more or less single path to follow, and it usually ended up being quicker and less frustrating to just run. And sometimes, you will go ahead and jump off a tree into empty space and kill yourself. Good times.


Melee combat was definitely improved in this game, with timing reactions to enemy attacks and doing counters being much more important. It frustrated me a bit at first until I got to understand it and gave up my preconceptions from the previous games, but eventually I got into it.

Other weapons were much less useful, specifically bow and arrow, and guns. There are a lot of glitches related to guns which make them next to useless, such as the reload button frequently not working, and the second gun (once you go through all the effort to get a second holster) seems to be ignored. But the biggest problem with the ranged weapons is that you can only aim and fire them when an enemy is close enough, and due to the slow charge up time before you can fire, I found them rarely useful in any open combat. Same was true when trying to fight animals such as wolves. You would see them coming, but by the time the game would allow you to start aiming, you would end up getting into the close range quick time events that typically happen with wild animals, making the ranged weapon useless. Oh, and in one mission with some scripted wolf attacks, the quick time events wouldn't work for some reason, so I was left having to run up a tree and try to pick them off from up there.

I also found it very hard to pick up weapons on the ground in combat if I had enemies close by. I could never get the 'pick up weapon' option to appear for long enough before getting struck. And since there was another bug that seemed to make my sword sometimes vanish when I travelled, this left me falling back to the tomahawk to deal with a mob of enemies far too often.

Side Missions

There are a whole set of naval side missions that were all very fun. The handling of the ship was easy and intuitive, and naval battles were exciting and the right level of challenge. You can upgrade your ship, but this tends to be very expensive, and since money can generally only be gained by doing other side quests, is not really worth doing unless you've got plenty of time to kill.

The assassin recruit feature is back, though you're limited to a maximum of 6, and the whole minigame of sending them off on quests is not as much fun as before. It used to be a fun strategy of picking missions with different levels of risk and reward, but there is very little difference between mission rewards this time, and the trick of sending a rookie with a veteran on a mission to level up faster no longer works. This means that levelling up your assassins is much more of a grind, and I found I rarely had them available to help me in my missions because I always had them sent off on their own ones.

All the minigames were fun, being recreations of real world games. Diana and I both found ourselves playing checkers or nine man morris, something we would probably never bother to do normally, so it felt good to actually practice a real world game.

The whole crafting and trading system was interesting but felt a bit pointless. You go to a lot of effort to unlock different craftsmen, which lets you use new recipes for items, but other than crafting specific items for your own character like bigger ammo pouches, I couldn't see much value in it. I still found myself generally just purchasing animal skins and selling those. Maybe more valuable items can be crafted later on? Also, trading tended to just be tedious, where you would just repeat the same action numerous times to fill a caravan to send off to trade. You can easily make a lot of money if you invest the time in this, but it feels like such a pointless grind.


Like all Assassin's Creed games, this one is very pretty. The amount of detail in the world is great, with your view always feeling full of lots of objects. City streets are appropriately cluttered, while the countryside is full of vegetation, tree stumps and so on. I never noticed any repeating textures on terrain, which is typical in open world games.

Water is gorgeous, and the naval missions really allow you to appreciate it. One mission in particular has you navigating giant rogue waves which were excellently implemented. Other effects like rain and snow are well done, and the fact that you get to visit each location in both summer and winter (as well as with a dynamic day/night cycle) is very cool.

Final Thoughts

I would definitely recommend Assassin's Creed III despite the bugs, though I would suggest waiting until a major bugfix patch gets released. This will definitely happen since many of the bugs are quite irritating but look like they will not be major issues to fix.

If this were the first or second game in a series you would cut them a lot more slack with these bugs, but as the fifth game in the series there is simply no excuse for it. It's good that they tried to innovate with this game, but that's not a good enough excuse for the quality level to regress. If we're going to be forced to have so many sequels these days rather than original content, we should at least demand that quality improves each time.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Reality Check

Many atheists say that religion is harmful, dangerous, and the cause of a lot of suffering in the world. Religious people tend to reject this classification, pointing out all of the other things that cause problems in the world, and will often claim that if religion didn't exist we would still find plenty of ways to make our fellow man suffer. While I absolutely agree with religious people on this point, I want to discuss in this post a particular missing attribute of religious belief that makes it uniquely dangerous and deserving of being singled out: the reality check.


We all have countless beliefs in things. It's a necessary part of making sense of the world. Whether it's the belief in gravity, in the equality of men and women, or that unicorns exist. Beliefs can be founded on two things: evidence or faith. In practice, since no belief can be 100% proven based on evidence, we tailor the strength of different beliefs based on the strength of evidence. There are many things we may believe that we haven't explicitly gone out and searched for evidence for, and it might be tempting to call this faith, but it really isn't, and always has a basis in facts and evidence.

For example, you might say that I have faith that Italy exists, since I have never been there and I'm trusting the word of others who say it exists. Is this faith? Not at all. There is a wealth of different types of data, such as books, movies, documentaries, conversations with people, that are on the whole consistent in their claims to Italy's existence. But what is more important, there are plenty of ways I could go out and gather further evidence on whether Italy exists or not if I so choose. No one is forcing me to just take their word on the issue.


The key factor that makes religion dangerous is faith. Faith, far from being a virtue, is what makes people cling to bad ideas despite lack of evidence, or even worse, despite direct evidence that the belief is false. You can't reason with faith. You can't present evidence to shake it. People with strong beliefs based on faith are often proud of the fact that they do not require evidence for their belief, and religions sometimes even tap into this and promote it as virtuous.

Faith isn't unique to religions, though. It is a typical part of many types of ideology. When you get a set of beliefs that must be accepted without proof, you start getting into dangerous territory. And when you suppress debate, discussion and contrary viewpoints to that ideology, that's when evil things tend to happen. This is the cause of a lot of the large scale suffering that does not stem from religion, e.g. Soviet Communism, pure unregulated capitalism.

The Reality Check

Evidence-based beliefs naturally are subjected to reality checks on a regular basis. Every piece of evidence is a test of whether a belief is consistent with reality. It can sometimes take a long time for the truth to be determined, but at least a mechanism exists for this to happen, and so we can be confident that bad beliefs will eventually be revealed as more evidence is gathered. (Note that this confidence is not faith, since it is based on a strong provable history of this mechanism working, and without a solid reason to expect this to change, the most defensible position is to expect the future to follow the same pattern as the past).

Faith-based beliefs don't typically rely on evidence and so don't have reality checks built in, but as long as a belief makes claims about the real world, evidence can be used to strengthen or weaken it. So, for example, if a person believes on faith that the world is 6000 years old, there is plenty of evidence that can be raised against this belief. The believer may choose to ignore the evidence and keep believing anyway, but the burden of cognitive dissonance will grow stronger as the evidence piles up, and there is at least a chance that eventually the believer will be forced to deal with it.

But what about beliefs that don't make claims about the real world? What if you believe that your suffering in this world will be rewarded after you die? What if you believe that killing a bunch of innocent people is what God wants you to do, and he will give you virgins in the afterlife if you do it? What if you believe that a person must not end their suffering from a horrible terminal illness by taking their own life, or having another person assist with this, because there will be worse punishment after death for it? What if you believe that people reincarnate and disabled/deformed people did something wrong in their previous life, and so deserve their suffering in this life rather than our support and kindness?

The danger with these sorts of beliefs is that they can never be disproved. There is no possible evidence, even in theory, that can prove the beliefs to be false. There can never be a reality check. When religions make claims about the physical world, such as the age of the universe, or that a piece of wafer gets converted into the flesh of a dead man, these claims can be made to smash hard against the rocky shore of reality. But when claims are made that fall beyond the realms of the physical universe, such as the nature of god and his decree of what is right and wrong, these beliefs float, untouchable, above the messy battlefields of reality where beliefs survive or die based on evidence.

Final Thoughts

Religion deserves to be singled out as a uniquely dangerous faith-based belief system, unlike other faith-based ideologies such as political, social, and economic systems, or straight ignorant beliefs that simply ignore evidence, such as sexism and racism, because it makes claims that can never be checked against reality, not even in principle. When these claims are used by believers to justify behaviours in the real world that negatively affect other living beings, it is very hard to bring about voluntary change from believers, because there is no way to prove to them that their core beliefs are wrong. Only by demanding intellectual honesty and getting believers to admit that their beliefs have no proof, and that believing something simply because you want it to be true is not good enough, can you bring about change, and this is far from a trivial task.

Acknowledgements: This post was inspired by chapter 3 of the book Why Are You Atheists So Angry? by Greta Christina, a very good book based on the atheist writings in her blog. I highly recommend the audio version of the book, enthusiastically read by the author herself.