Saturday, September 27, 2014

Thinking with History in Wargame Design


(Trigger Warning- discusses the My Lai massacre and contains some graphic imagery.)

One of things that interests me most about board games, and war games in particular, is how online forums become places where designer intent and player expectation meet and often clash over how particular mechanics or design choices are correlative to the actual event or perceived operation of how war works. (A good example being rules for lines of supply, or handling morale checks for units)

Recently I've been very caught up with playing GMT's newest entry into their Counterinsurgency (COIN) series, Fire in the Lake, which is about the Vietnam conflict. As with any game that holds as its central focus a controversial war, there will always be points of friction between popular perceptions of that conflict and the ways in which the designer (or in this case, designers) uses mechanics and rules to highlight themes they believe to be inherent within that conflict. Vietnam is still a relatively recent conflict in American memory, and this proximity in memory allows design abstractions to take on heightened forms. As a counterpoint consider the Second World War, one of the most (if not the most) gamed conflicts in short history of commercial wargaming. Time has dulled the controversy over playing the Axis powers, and while some may cringe at the thought of what moving a SS counter means in the meta-narrative of reflection that occurs outside of gaming, few actively protest the presence or option of commanding these forces. This is even more true for conflicts like the American Civil War, or the famed battles of Napoleon's era.

In a presentation I gave at Connections 2012, a conference that seeks to blend together the worlds of professional and commercial wargaming, I discussed how abstraction in design does a marvelous job of compressing time but that it is a mistake to assume that design also compresses what cultural historian Carl Schorske called 'thinking with history'. The rules for supply or the efficiency rating of a particular unit are loaded with meanings that speak to a lot more than what simply occurs on a game map.

To bring it back to 'Fire in the Lake', here is an event card depicting the infamous My Lai massacre.

All of the COIN games are driven by the play of these event cards. They contain a faction order, represented here by the colored circles at the top of the card, and usually, but not always, a shaded and non-shaded event effect. Depending on what order a particular player's faction holds when it's their turn, they can choose to conduct 'Operations' on the board or opt to have a card's event text take effect. It's entirely possible, and often occurs, that players can choose to never utilize a card's particular event text and, instead, focus on using their 'operations' to improve board position. Yet because COIN games utilize these event cards for both driving the action on the board and injecting a sense of 'periodization' tied to the conflict depicted, they become exemplars of the complicated nexus intersecting abstracted design and 'thinking with history'.

Putting this altogether raises an interesting question: what does it mean to have a My Lai card in a game about Vietnam? This was a question raised in a 'Fire in the Lake' forum post on BoardGameGeek (hereafter BGG) titled, "Card 119: My Lay Downplaying the Truth?" The original poster, Darren Kerr, took offense that the card, and the larger description of that card in the accompanying playbook, was intentionally misleading.
The notes in the play book describe the My Lai massacre as a platoon led by Calley killing 22 civilians. However, this is a grossly misleading description of the actual scale of the massacre that occurred on March 16, 1968 where over 300 civilians were murdered. 
I am not trying to make a political point, because for every one Calley the US Army has many more individuals like Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, but I would be interested in knowing why the designers went with a description that would appear to be deliberately misleading. 
I appreciate that the card relates to Calley's court-martial for which he was found guilty of murdering at least 22 people, however, using that as the justification for apparently downplaying the extent of the My Lai massacre does an injustice to those who were murdered. 
Games are games, but the truth is usually the truth. In this case, the truth is clear and should be told as a salutary lesson for current and future generations.
For clarity's sake, here is the 'My Lai' entry found in the playbook for Fire in the Lake.

Reaction to the forum post on BGG was swift and vociferous. Mark Herman, noted game designer and one of the two minds behind the creation of Fire in the Lake (Volko Ruhnke, who created the COIN series, being the other), asserted that it was never his intention to mislead anyone and that the card text was meant to focus on the historical conviction of Lt. Calley. "We chose to include the event, our choice, to highlight this type of horror." Others contested Herman's response. "This card does not do a sufficient job of highlighting the horror," wrote Jonathan Harrison, concluding that, "[it] rather presents a much diminished and consequently misleading view on [the massacre]."

If we return to Kerr's original qualm, that the My Lai card purports a reality that is disingenuous to the 'truth' of the event, the nexus of design and 'thinking with history' becomes more clear. Kerr believed the abstraction of the card betrayed the gravity of the historical event. In a later response to the forum thread, Herman brought forth a rationale expressed in game terms for why the card accurately reflects the scope and magnitude of the event.
Just to be clear, the Playbook description is as I described it, but the card itself is quite powerful… to quote… 
"Massacre: Set a Province with US Troops to Active Opposition. VC place a Base and a Guerrilla there. AID -6" 
This card could represent an 8 point swing in the game as it allows the insurgents to take a 2 value province with Active Support across the entire spectrum to Active Opposition. In addition the base is worth another point to the VC with a guerrilla defender that can then be rallied into three more for a total of 4. Essentially the play of this event can create appropriately huge issues for the US at least that is what we were going for.
Rhetoric in a wargame, as shown by Herman above, draws not only upon the perceived reality depicted but also how that reality can be abstracted into game mechanics. The event text of the My Lai card becomes a type of shorthand for what actually occurred, although the space between the card, its ludic effect, and intended purpose is such that while these purposes are joined in the card's function they do so in a loose manner that allows interpretation and debate to take place. The card becomes a secondary and primary source on the role My Lai held in popular and scholarly assessments of the Vietnam War. The forum posts sampled above demonstrates this fact. This notion is further reinforced by the appearance of another forum post, "Card 119: My Lai NOT Downplaying the Truth", that formed on BGG not long after the Kerr thread came into existence.

I find this sort of debate, of exploring the space afforded by abstracted design being tied to 'thinking with history', to be a fascinating potential for historians and cultural observers alike. While many games come under scrutiny for how their mechanics are tied to historical occurrences, with the example of Puerto Rico coming to mind, the wargame's long standing link to the idea of truth through play (giving these games a quantifiable value of being an 'epistemic reservoir') gives these debates a much more pointed focus. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Gated Conversions

Shankly Gates at Anfield, Liverpool via Andy Nugent
I took a break from Twitter recently, partly because several family members shuffled in and out of my house over the last week and partly because I tried to focus my efforts towards completing a long overdue dissertation chapter.  But the allure of the infinite timeline proved difficult to resist and I decided to scan my Twitter lists the other day to see if anything interesting occurred during my absence.

Two words, sandwiched into one, kept appearing: GamerGate.

If you have any interest in video game culture, then you probably already know what I’m talking about.  In case you don’t know, here are some more detailed posts for your perusal:

On 'Gamers' and Identity

A Conversation about Concerns in Videogame Journalism

#gamergate as reaction

If pressed to summarize GamerGate in a sentence or two, here is what I would say: GamerGate is a belief, held by an indeterminate number, that collusion exists between games journalists and games developers and that this nexus is corrupting games, or at least moving them towards a trajectory abhorrent to self-defined ‘gamers’.  Yet to put the GamerGate controversy in such succinct terms suggests the movement possesses cohesion, which it certainly does not.  One has only to survey #GamerGate to see the variety of opinions expressed.  But a couple of developments caught my eye and seemed worthy of further exploration.  The first was the start, and subsequent termination, of an Indiegogo campaign to create a legal fund for exploring the potential abuses between Games journalists and developers.  The second was the posting of a Gamer Manifesto, anonymously written but edited by ‘Gamers’.  What these examples demonstrate is that there is a desire, on behalf of some, to begin formalizing and structuring relationships within so-called Gamer Culture.  It is, as Geertz would call it, an effort at ‘internal conversion’, an attempt to utilize rationalization as a defense against the intrusion of modern and post-modern critiques and ideals.

Last year, spurred by what is now a periodic outbreak of sexism/racism/transphobia from so-called ‘gamers’, Daniel Joseph wrote a post titled “Videogames are the gardens of the bourgeoisie" in which he argued that bourgeois values necessitated the creation of ‘spheres’ of activity separated from ‘real life’.  “Mass produced hobbies, mediated through gatekeepers like trade and enthusiast press is one reason why “games” became a private sphere,” Joseph concludes, later adding that this private nature conjures within individuals the need to protect games from the pressures of capitalism.  Using Joseph’s theme, I explored in my own post, “Games, Truth, and Defense of the Private”, the idea that the rise of bourgeois values correlated with the belief that games could become an arbiter of truth.

But now, a year later and with the rise of GamerGate, I wonder if we are witnessing something new, something that goes beyond the need to wall off games from the public.  Videogames may be the gardens of the bourgeoisie, but what GamerGate reveals is that some feel compelled to venture out of their gardens and establish, in the public sphere, a nascent, rationalized belief in what games should be and how relationships around those games should be structured.

Clifford Geertz
Geertz observed what he termed ‘internal conversion’ in Balinese religious ideals during the 1950’s, that is the process by which the traditional Balinese faith sought to take on elements of the Weberian ‘rationalization’ inherent in the established religions of Christianity or Islam and begin codifying their own belief as a defense against the intrusion of said established religions.  In doing so they introduced a ‘distance’ that demanded greater and more concrete articulation of the sustaining links between belief and practitioner.  Problems of meaning, which before addressed issues in a fragmentary manner, become “conceptualized as universal and inherent qualities of human existence.”  What is good?  What is evil?  Geertz suggests that these broad questions subsume narrower concerns inherent to the pre-rational conversion (such as ‘How do I uncover a witch?) and in doing so bring forth the “radically disquieting suggestions” of the broad questions to the fore.  This, in turn, demands that answers be brought forth in a form equal to the “sweeping, universal, and conclusive manner” the broad questions introduced.

Of course, there are inherent issues for any culture engaging in such an ‘internal conversion’, or ‘rationalization’, of their beliefs.  A brief selection from a larger article on Mari peasants in 19th century Russia highlights these issues:

From "Big Candles and 'Internal Conversion': The Mari Animist Reformation and Its Russian Appropriations" by Paul Werth in Of Religion and Empire: Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia
What interests me here is the idea that in borrowing the “idiom of religion employed by official Russia” the Mari both utilized a colonizing discourse inherent within that religion and fell victim to its conceptual modes.  In trying to assert their unique belief they ended up assuming viewpoints that integrated them into the colonizing discourse they tried to fight.

GamerGate appears to be following the same path, at least with regards to the two examples, that of the Indiegogo campaign and the Gamers Manifesto, mentioned above.  By utilizing the colonizing discourse inherent in games to provide a Weberian rationalized view of what Gaming culture should be, a culture which is replete with contributions by misogynistic and paternalistic forces, the advocates of GamerGate can’t help but fall into the same conceptual modes that underlie such a discourse.  These modes no longer address fragmentary concerns, like those that prompted Daniel and myself to write blog posts last year, but rather attempt to bring together universal and inherent qualities of Games into focus so that the problems those qualities bring to light can be addressed.

The rallying cry for supporters of GamerGate is that of ‘corruption’ brought about by the perceived collusion between games journalists and developers.  Corruption is a handy conceptual mode to base the rationalization of Gamer culture, at least from the view of GamerGate supporters, because it does away with all the messy fragmentation of previous complaints (Feminism is ruining games!  Transgendered people are ruining games!  Fake Gamer Girls are ruining games!) and, instead, suggests that the larger problem stems from a collected erosion of Gaming ethics.


This is, essentially, what the Indiegogo campaign to establish a ‘Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption’ legal fund for investigatory purposes holds as central to its existence.  By asserting a juridicial solution to the corruption issue, the ‘Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption’ wish to utilize one of the most pervasive patriarchal institutions available to find and perhaps punish the ‘true’ offenders.  In an example that could have been taken straight from Girard, ‘Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption’ offered GamerGate supporters a rationalized process for finding the scapegoat that will absolve them all from the corruptive influence of gaming today and restore the supposed community to its more pristine state.  Instead of having to answer critiques leveled at gaming culture as a whole, the ‘Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption’ offer a way to funnel anxieties prompted by these critiques into the far more defensible position of identifying and fighting corruption.

This logic becomes especially insidious when the corrupting forces are linked to those who raised the critiques in the first place, thus making attacks on female writers, for example, both a natural extension of the corruption ideal and capitulation to the patriarchal conceptional modes built into the colonizing discourse surrounding games.  In trying to defend gamer culture from critiques of patriarchy or misogyny under the larger guise of corruption, the creators and supporters of ‘Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption are utilizing the very same justifications patriarchy and misogyny embody.

This becomes even more noticeable upon examination of the Gamer Manifesto, posted to Pastebin on 2 September 2014.  Even though it purports to extol virtues of harmony and inclusion, the manifesto nonetheless offers up a tiered, almost caste like structuring of Gaming culture:
“There are three parts to this industry that we feel must be addressed for the general health of video games as a whole: the role of the consumer, the developer and the supplier. This trifecta makes up the core of the industry and thus each piece must be improved for games to continue to evolve.”
At the core of this conceptualization, however, is one ‘truth’; that games “should be about the enjoyment of the player.”

The Manifesto states that gamers should add to the future of gaming, not demonize its past.  That Developers, while recognizing that misrepresentation and under-representation of certain populations is a real problem, should not be required to change their own game’s vision and idea.  That Suppliers, which is an unusual term for journalists or critics, should not be pressured by outside influences to “change their opinion to fit an overarching agenda.”  In short, the Gamer Manifesto outlines a structural basis for how gamer culture as a whole should proceed and operate, all while articulating the need to avoid outside pressures that, as the Manifesto explains, are related to the corrupting influences in gaming today:
“It has been said that gamer culture is in the throes of death. This isn’t true. It has merely grown impatient as a wall of both divisiveness and radical ideologies have kept it from progressing further. 
This article, this gamer manifesto has been made with the desire to break down that wall. It is both our branch of peace to those who believe we mean only harm and a battering ram to those who think we will simply comply with how corrupted video game culture has become.”
For the writers and editors of the Gamer Manifesto, seclusion in their walled off, bourgeois gardens no longer provides adequate protection from what were once fragmentary issues now brought together under the aegis of corruption.  Instead they must enter the public sphere and begin the process of 'internal conversion', of providing rationalized interpretations of gamer culture that both promotes distance between gamers and their games while also allowing structural links to surmount the distance, such as the concept of ethics or corruption above, so that the relationship between games and gamers can be harmonious and free from 'divisiveness and radical ideologies."

One important feature for Geertz and his notion of 'internal conversion' is that it is not a totalizing event, nor does it necessarily involve all the members of the cultural group in question.  Therefore we can look at the disparate nature of GamerGate yet still understand some of the larger forces feeding the movement and its expressions.  That the 'Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption' and the Gamer Manifesto are not representative of the whole of gaming culture is obvious.  Yet the fact that these two examples not only put forth a sophisticated response but also attempted to outline and address what is perceived to be the larger illness of gaming is worth noting.  What will happen from here on out is anybody's guess, but it is entirely possible that we are witnessing a decided shift in the evolving articulation of gaming culture.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Kansas

Photo via Dain Nielsen
This past winter, during a three-week long trip to my hometown in Lawrence, Kansas, I carved out some time to meet and have coffee with my advisor.  Only a few weeks previous I passed my qualifying exam to become ABD in History, and she wanted to go over a few of the finer points related to actually writing a dissertation, the task that loomed large with my oral trial by fire now quickly fading.  We spoke on chapter writing, on motivation, on the need to stay focused- and after these topics were exhausted our talk moved on to the more mundane aspects of life; daily chores, grading, and, most importantly, the grind of dealing with a Board of Regents in Kansas that has proved, time and time again, to possess antipathy, if not outright animosity, towards teachers and staff at the various institutions of higher learning under their purview.

I should add this last jab at the Board of Regents are both my words and my interpretation, not hers, and the reason for such a clarification is thus; it is now possible for any employee at an institution governed by the Kansas Board of Regents to be fired if their use of social media is deemed "contrary to the best interests of the university."

Let that sink in for a second- "contrary to the best interests of the university."

It would not be a gross mischaracterization to call this the most draconian social media policy ever adopted by a governing institution of higher education.  Its bureaucratic vagueness is a prime example of the adjectival descriptor 'byzantine', and the simplicity of the statement belies the vast range of interpretations allowed.  What exactly constitutes the best interests of the university?  Who decides what this best interest entails?  Perhaps most importantly, is it possible to reconcile hallowed notions of 'academic freedom' with such an interest?  The Board of Regents would have you believe the two can coexist, but anyone with such a Sword of Damocles hanging over their head would beg to differ.

Bob Dylan famously remarked in his song, 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)', that "if my thought dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in the guillotine."  With the adoption of this policy the Kansas Board of Regents moved one step closer towards actualizing Dylan's eloquently articulated fear.  Their reasoning, I suppose, is that if you can't actually see the thought-dreams of staff and teachers alike then the next best thing is to sharply punish those dreams when they take form in social media.  A public execution would send as subtle a message as this policy, but given that the Board of Regents does not yet possess the power of capital punishment such measures, to them no doubt, seem reasonable and entirely appropriate.

I wonder what else seems reasonable and entirely appropriate?  It seems reasonable and entirely appropriate to assume that anyone with academic talent, even in this harsh employment climate, will think twice about accepting a position at an institution of higher learning in Kansas.  It seems reasonable and entirely appropriate that such a policy flies in the face of pedagogical literature suggesting that professors embrace social media as a way to better connect with their students.  It seems reasonable and entirely appropriate to recognize that this policy is just another step towards nullifying tenure.

It also seems reasonable and entirely appropriate to recognize that this policy makes Kansas the laughingstock of the nation.  Again.  As if this state that was once the focal point of progressivism really needed another reminder that those days are long gone.

All is not lost, however.  Philip Nel, at his blog 'Nine Kinds of Pie', articulates measured responses those working at such institutions can take to fight this policy.  Several other incensed academics across the spectrum of institutions affected are banding together to express their dismay at such a policy.  It is comforting to know that people will stand up and assert what is right, no matter the consequences.

I wish I could be like Antony in Shakespeare's Life and Death of Julius Caesar, able to slyly claim that I come to bury Kansas, not to praise it.  Sadly, there is little to praise and the only thing being buried is any hope that the Board of Regents can meaningfully care for the staff and teachers at the institutions under their charge.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Mimetic Acts Across Cultural Mediums

Palm Tree Reflection via Scott Kinmartin
Because I refuse to let myself get too wrapped up in this subject, I want to briefly talk three things I came across today that have a central theme- mimesis.

Those three things were:

1. The White Album project
2. Daniel Joseph's reaction to Leigh Alexander's post on clones of Threes
3. 1966 New York Times Article on Old Believers

Rutherford Chang collects copies of The White Album; original pressings to be exact, though the condition can be of any quality.  He delights in the variance of the same, seeing within every aged copy a different story or set of circumstances behind its appearance.  His collection, now numbering 944 as of writing, is the embodiment of mimesis and some of the deep delights- but also insecurities-  mimetic objects given form present for modern society.  For Chang, the idea of the White Album collection is to document the collected experience of each individual pressing from 1968, and the variance between the copies, raw differences creating mimetic fuzz around the original form of the copy, complete for him the experience of that mimetic object in total.

Daniel Joseph's piece, reacting to Leigh Alexander's post about Threes and game 'cloning', hint at the insecurity mimesis produces for the cultural medium of games.  Using Marx's concept of the 'general intellect'', Joseph suggests that the ease of cloning casual games, like Threes, is becoming more apparent simply because this form of the larger game medium is no longer resistant to such causal cloning via the traditional safeguards of "sophisticated platforms, rigorous copyright laws, and a high capital investment."  He concludes, "As it happens games belong to everyone while so many still are scrambling for the scraps of this knowledge to survive."

Threes, as a mimetic object on multiple levels (not only as a source of inspiration for clones, but also  considering its digital distribution method via the Apple app store), reveals how the perceived notion of the copy, in this case the games 2048 and 1024, highlights what Plato articulated long ago as the flaw of the mimetic act.  Here I'm quoting Marcus Boon from his work, "In Praise of Copying":
"…Plato's mistrust of mimesis, and of the artist- the mirrored image, and event the craftsman's object, [was because he believed these forms] confuse the ignorant as to what is essential.  At the same time, it is the Platonic belief that the outward appearance of something indicates its essence which continues to generate much of our confusion about what a copy is.  When we say 'an original,' we usually mean something in which the idea and the outward appearance correspond to each other.  There is no distortion in the relation of appearance to essence, to "what a thing is."  Copies, then, for Plato and for us, most of the time are distortions of this relationship.  The mirror produces the sun, yet it is not the sun.  Basicreplica.com produces a Louis Vuitton bag, yet the article is not a real Louis Vuitton bag." (20)
The mimetic potential available to casual games reveals not only the unsettling distortion between idea and outward appearance (found in the example of Threes and its 'clones'), but also that the essence of the casual game, by the very fact that it is *so* open to the mimetic act, allows it to escape arbitrary and imposed restrictions on its form and enter what Joseph calls the 'general intellect.'

With Chang we see the delight mimesis summons; yet with Joseph, and by extension Alexander, we also see the insecurities mimesis brings into cultural forms.  For the final example under consideration, we will see how the emergence of Old Belief into American culture combined both the delight and insecurity of mimesis as exemplified in the question of assimilation.



What strikes me about this two-paneled, front page photograph is that it manages to create a visualized tableau capable of being interpreted though the lens of mimesis.  On the left, we have an Old Believer family set against the backdrop of what appears to be a modest, middle-class house.  The caption juxtaposes the 'traditional beard' of the man with the fact that he currently works in an assumed modern soft-drink factory.  On the right, we have a photo of Old Believers, clad in flannel shirts and mesh-style baseball hats, assembling furniture for the Excelwood Products Company.  Again, their beards mark them as conspicuous even though their boss, unseen but heard in the caption underneath, praises their behavior.  

While the scene would indicate the success of the Old Believers in assimilating into their new American culture, the headline and subsequent sub-title hint at 'distortions' between the assumed original, a bona fide American citizen, and the copy, an Old Believer immigrant from Turkey.  In particular the phrase 'leaning to new ways' suggests that some residual dissonance still exists between the traditional composition of Old Believer lives and the values/mores of the modern as grounded in the space of domestic and factory settings.  There is delight in the copy act itself, as American culture via the house and factory appear to be converting the Old Believers, yet there is also insecurity about what these 'copies' will bring into American culture and whether or not the Old Believers will allow the mimetic act to so completely remake their lives.

Obviously these are loosely connected threads of thought, but it appears to me that viewing the interaction and transformation of a cultural space through the lens of mimesis provides deeper insight into the fundamental nature of said cultural space.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thirty Pieces of Silver


Quick post today, as I have only a few rambling thoughts regarding Malcolm Harris' recent opinion over at Al Jazeera on "Why Nate Silver Can't Explain It All".

First off, it's a terrific read (let's be honest- I don't usually post about something unless I think it's terrific) so take some time to peruse his prose now.

Second, while I wholeheartedly agree with Harris there are parts of his argument that could definitely be expanded.  I realize opinion pieces can't tackle every subject or point of proof under the sun, but the underlying angst regarding Silver and his new venture, FiveThirtyEight, is really nothing new.  It's part of a much longer history in which rationality claims an objective presence in the face of subjective metaphysics.

Harris calls the work of Silver and his associates 'Actually Journalism', hinting at the larger issues involved; namely, the view that numbers are key to an objective view of reality.  He ties this to the late 20th century epistemological shift against privileged knowledge- but this is a much, much older trend than just the late 20th century.

Numbers being equated to truth, or at least a way to uncover a buried truth, is nothing new.  To use a recent example, look at Vietnam and how McNamara, together with his 'Whiz Kids', used 'objective' data to plot out bombing missions and take measured 'body counts' as proof of progress.  Go back further and look at Sergei Bulgakov's essay in 1905 on 'Basic Problems on the Theory of Progress' in which the Russian intellectual lambasts the, then, current fascination with positivism and a grand 'Theory of Progress'.  Go back even further and you see the debates between followers of Aristotle and Pythagorus on the role of numbers to act as objectifiable observations.

Leaning on the thoughts of Bulgakov, mentioned above, we see direct parallels between Harris' argument and the concerns of the long-dead member of the Russian intelligentsia:
"The theory of progress argues, consequently, for a final identity between casual necessity and rational purposiveness, in which sense it is, as we have already said, a theodicy.  Its goal is thus the discovery of a higher reason that is simultaneously transcendent to and immanent in history, the discovery of the plan of history, its goal, movement towards this goal, and the forms of this movement." (Emphasis is mine)
Calling the 'theory of progress' a theodicy certainly rings true with the work being carried out at FiveThiryEight.  Silver may never calculate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but that doesn't stop him, or his enlisted cadre of number crunching 'Whiz Kids', from acting like the monks who did with their own observations on sports or the minimum wage.

To me, there is no coincidence that Silver's rise is deeply tied to the more recent emergence of 'money ball' and the quantified self.  Baseball became the new proving ground for the classic debate between rationality and metaphysics; managers and scouts preferring to 'go with their gut' or the 'eye test' over cold, objective, and quantifiable numbers.  For many Baseball fans the stadium was a sort of cathedral, so it was all the more shocking to some when believers in the objective heresy of 'Sabermetrics' began posting their expanded theses on clubhouse doors- even more difficult to accept that they might be right or have insight far beyond the accepted, traditional methods.  

However the numbers tossed around weren't definite truths- they were only probable outcomes.  They provided insight, yes, but they were far from the objective pillars of truth that some claimed in their presence.  Yet the idea that a constellation of statistics could reveal a deeper insight into reality proved irresistible, especially for cash-strapped ball clubs, and this most recent affirmation on the power of 'objective' reasoning, in part, allows Silver and his colleagues a 'privileged' position in the realm of journalistic inquiry.

(Case in point: when FiveThirtyEight launched, it did so with a piece on the odds related to March Madness.  The indebtedness Silver owes to sports vis a vis his rise in popularity can be clearly seen.)

The implications of this kerfuffle in Baseball (which is still being played out today) resonate even more now that FiveThiryEight purports to use its 'objective' insight to cover a variety of fields.  Harris is right to call this phenomena 'Actually Journalism', but the only thing we can actually be certain of is that this trend is far from recent and draws upon a much longer tradition.