Meritocracy

by Ronynn ʕ •ᴥ•ʔ

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2023

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1-8 of 8


- Cerfeuil (Happy 2024!), January 9, 2024

- E.K., January 6, 2024

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Philosophy 101, January 4, 2024
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review

Man did this work intersect some weird slices of my life. I minored in Philosophy years ago. A good chunk of my worklife was spent in a corporate environment where “Meritocracy” was a near-religious tenet, with all the orthodoxy injustice that implies. And my gaming history with choice-select dialogue is lukewarm at best. When I encounter it, my knee-jerk reaction is ‘This game is either going to prevent me saying what I want to say, or garble and twist it unaccountably.’ Oddly, that last attitude was cultivated mainly through commercial gaming, where my IF experience has often been better. In any case, it remains my first impulse.

This is a work about a career student engaging some philosophy questions on return to the classroom. I have to say with one sentence it INSTANTLY put me on its side: “Most discussions or debates generally orient towards the loudmouthed people leaving others confused while going home with some sort of a win.” What a great observation to make at the top of a game about verbal fencing.

The game then almost instantly forfeited those gains with several stumbles. I think most impactful to me (and most fixable!), were the very frequent instances of typos, spelling errors and off grammar. The premise of the piece is intellectual sparring with deeply erudite NPCs in a place of higher education. Sloppy prose undermines that premise more deeply here than say a story about Bikini-girls fighting space jellies.

Secondly, you are told “You play as an individual who has so far struggled to make a living juggling between jobs in an attempt keep their education going…” (Arts majors, amirite?) But the wide-eyed intellectual thirst of the protagonist seems much more appropriate for a new student, not a battle-tested veteran of academia and the cold job market. There are long passages about their intellectual engagement that just ring hopelessly naive and at odds with their purported background. (This will be mirrored by what I might call ‘unnuanced analyses’ later in the game.) I guess maybe credit where due, if they can actually keep their enthusiasm after those bruising life experiences, more power to them? But simply making the protag a new college freshman eases so many of these dissonances.

There is also a pacing problem. The details of the protagonist’s morning (including an extended ‘whoops I’m in the wrong class’ scene) are lengthy and ultimately don’t really serve the meaty dialogues that are the center of the piece. Particularly up front I found myself snarking in my head waiting for the game to ‘start.’

It did start, eventually. We enter some dialogues with a professor (and one kind of with ourselves?) about argumentation fallacies and aspects of meritocracy. Here is where the choice-select dialogue concerns cropped up, and it gives me no joy to report here my knee jerk was exactly correct. When they were presented, dialogue choices uniformly lacked what I wanted to say, and the options available railroaded me into statements I didn’t fully agree with.

Philosophy is tough, man, as evidenced by my academic transcript (sick burn, past me!) Nuance is everywhere and precision is super important! Choice-select paradigm may be the only practical way to deal with this, but requires a LOT more nuance of crafting. The protagonist, as defined in text and especially player choices was not equipped to deal with this. Even the Authority NPC, the professor, came up short often as not. In the first discussion, the prof goes on at length about ‘evaluating arguments on merits’ but dismisses a colleague with the same lack of engagement they display to him! Eventually, the prof does lead into a more nuanced discussion of this, but this initial glitch is never acknowledged.

Later, when the concept of meritocracy is introduced, the protagonist immediately imagines a debate where each side adamantly maintains the concept is ONLY composed of the aspects dearest to their own viewpoints and just keeps repeating them. I mean, not a bad simulation of current political debate, but...

Then the player is asked to choose which side of two Reductio Ad Absurdum positions they align with! I mean, it seems obvious that any real discussion has to honestly engage the merits of BOTH positions instead of just bashing them into each other over and over. The Prof does agree, eventually, but boy does the work take its time catching up to the player there.

An unconvincing setting, incomplete arguments, long stretches of </click to continue/> being the predominant interaction, and infrequent restrictive/deceptive/limited choices are all a recipe for a Mechanical exercise. The gameplay was seamless, but the typos and grammar Notably intruded, given the academic setting of the piece.

And yet.

Notwithstanding the conclusions available and unconvincing plot steps, this thing had breadth and depth. Its foundational explications were pretty good. What it had to say about Meritocracy (on both sides!) were pretty on point and NEED to be part of the discussion. Not sure I agreed with the application of the Trolley Problem (a crucial part of the classic ethical dilemma focuses on the act of throwing the switch, which this resource allocation formula sidesteps), but certainly the questions the prof raises about APPLICATION of meritocracy are vital to consider for any champion of it. The deep dive into ad hominem and source reliability is similarly particularly vital and interesting in today’s world. I really dug encountering these things playing IF, even as I was constrained by gameplay and narrative. For a dormant Philosophy minor, these were undeniable Sparks.

Played: 10/29/23
Playtime: 50min, finished
Artistic/Technical ratings: Sparks of Joy, Notable cracks in prose and academic rigor
Would Play After Comp?: No, now ready for Graduate Thesis

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Wordy and muddled, December 20, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

The major part of Meritocracy depicts a philosophy class where you’re the only student, framing this as an opportunity for free-ranging discussion that sparks creativity and learning – but let me tell you, I’ve lived something close to this experience and the reality is very different. One trimester when I was in college, I took a Philosophy of Mind class on a lark, only to discover that at my small, science-focused school, not many other folks shared that lark – there was only one other student enrolled in the course, and he was pretty flaky in his attendance. Making matters worse, the professor had the most droning voice I’ve ever heard, the class was held immediately after lunch, and the rest of my course load that trimester included some very hard classes so I was regularly pulling two or three all-nighters a week to keep up with the problem sets. As a result, I’ve retained only three things from the class: 1) I can use the word “qualia” correctly a solid 30% of the time; 2) I’ve got an anecdote I can dine out on about the time I walked into the classroom only to see a dozen Secret Service agents staring unblinkingly at me (then-President Clinton was giving a speech and they’d commandeered the room as a command post); and 3) I determined that philosophy is 95% defining reasonably-intuitive terms in excruciating detail, 4% saying completely obvious things with those terms, and 1% thought-provoking new ideas.

When I was 20, I meant this as a burn – take that, Western canon! – but with a bit more perspective, I think there’s actually a lot to respect about this approach. For one thing, having gone to law school helped me recognize that it’s often incredibly hard to come up with air-tight definitions for things that seem to be simple common sense, so while the labor of pinning language down to the mat might not be especially glamorous, it’s useful work, allowing seemingly-obvious propositions to be tested and setting the needed conditions for clear, productive disagreement and discussion. This is where Meritocracy founders: while it takes on a debate that’s recently generated a reasonable amount of energy, I found the writing throughout to be muddled and confusing, such that I’m not sure I ever got a clear sense of what the various ideas, arguments, and counterarguments here on offer actually add up to.

Structurally, the game is relatively simple – using a choice-based interface, you navigate your first day going back to school, visiting first a mechanical engineering lecture (turns out you were in the wrong classroom), then go to the aforementioned solo philosophy class where you discuss the ad hominem fallacy, before you wander into an open-air debate between students about the titular philosophy; the game then wraps up with a final visit back to the philosophy prof, where you can reflect back your take on what you heard and then hear some counterarguments. You have a few incidental choices in each vignette, but save for the one at the end where you give meritocracy a yea or nay, I didn’t get the sense that there was significant branching – which is OK, this is a game that’s trying to walk the player through an argument.

Again, though, the problem is that this argument doesn’t quite land. The general prose style is a major culprit in the lack of clarity I experienced; it’s quite wordy, and often repeats the same idea multiple times after only slight reformulation. This is rather stultifying to read, as in a mid-game sequence where you walk through the campus that feels like it loops back on itself over and over without saying anything of note. Forgive me for quoting at length:

"You are observing everything, the buildings, the gardens, the fountains. Observing them with curiosity and admiration. Observing them with reverence and gratitude. Observing them with wonder and awe. You are walking around the campus, thinking about everything. Thinking about what you are doing here. Thinking about why you are here. Thinking about how you came here. Thinking about what you will do here.

"You are here, because you want to be here. Because you chose to be here. Because you have a purpose. A purpose that is noble and lofty, that is worthy of your efforts and sacrifices, that is dear to your heart and soul. A purpose that is to study. To study not only for yourself, but for others. To study not only for today, but for tomorrow. To study not only for knowledge, but for wisdom. To study not only for pleasure, but for duty.

"But you are also here, because you have to be here. Because you were compelled to be here. Because you have a destiny. A destiny that is mysterious and inevitable, that is beyond your control and understanding, that is shaped by forces greater than yourself. A destiny that is to learn. To learn not only from books and teachers, but from life and experience. To learn not only from success and happiness, but from failure and sorrow. To learn not only from joy and love, but from pain and loss.

"You are here, on this campus, where you will study and learn, where you will grow and change, where you will meet and part, where you will love and suffer. You are here, on this campus, where you will face challenges and opportunities, where you will make choices and consequences, where you will find friends and enemies, where you will discover yourself and others."

When it comes to the philosophical aspects of the story, the stylistic issues become even more challenging. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange about meritocracy that kicks off the second half of the game:

"[First character:] You are wrong about the effects of meritocracy, my friend. The effects are not positive and beneficial, but negative and harmful. The effects are not empowering and liberating, but oppressive and alienating. The effects are not inclusive and democratic, but exclusive and elitist.

"[Second character]: You are wrong about the alternatives to meritocracy, my friend. The alternatives are not better and fairer, but worse and unjust. The alternatives are not more humane and compassionate, but more cruel and indifferent. The alternatives are not more progressive and innovative, but more regressive and stagnant."

This isn’t a debate, it’s a staged reading of the thesaurus.

What’s worse, when the writing isn’t being repetitive, it’s often being confusing. Like, the major choice about how you feel about meritocracy prompts you for your feelings on “this idea”, but there’s no immediate antecedent in the rest of the sentence or paragraph to clue you in on the fact that “this idea” here means the arguments against meritocracy that you just heard, rather than meritocracy itself, which was how I initially interpreted the clause.

The muddle extends beyond the writing into the ideas themselves, too. For one thing, the extended treatment of the ad hominem fallacy – itself somewhat confused, in that it invokes the execution of Marie Antoinette as an example of the fallacy – doesn’t have anything to do with the conversation about meritocracy as far as I could tell; the debaters are barely characterized, so they don’t go after each other on that basis. And then in the final sequence, at least in the branch I chose the professor went off on a bizarre tangent about the trolley problem, arguing that it can be “seen as a metaphor for the competition for limited resources in society” to justify its relevance. But this is pretty unconvincing – the trolley problem is obviously about ethics, not distributional justice (also, can IF please just stop it with the trolley problem? Thanks).

Perhaps as a result of the fact that comparatively little of the game is spent on the idea that’s centered in the title, I likewise found the treatment of meritocracy underbaked. There are lots of arguments and ideas thrown around, but there isn’t any kind of analytic framework provided to make sense of what positions different characters might advance, or which you might want to agree or disagree with. Like, in the farrago of verbiage, nowhere is it acknowledged that arguing that meritocracy has been tried and found wanting – because it devalues the innate dignity of human beings, for example – should take you to a completely different place than arguing that it has been found difficult and not tried – by pointing out that rich people get unfair advantages that have nothing to do with merit; all these critiques are simply lumped together. Similarly, I found the game persistently conflated meritocracy as an ideology and meritocracy as a system of concrete policies and practices. There’s just a lot of words being thrown around, and then the game ends.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the game needed to situate the conversation about meritocracy in the broader context of political philosophy, or give a potted summary of Rawls or anything like that, in order to be successful (though honestly, some of this kind of thing might not have been a bad idea…) But I do think it needed a lot more discipline, in both its conception and its writing, to convey any idea beyond “meritocracy: people sure have feelings about it, seems complicated!” I suppose that requiring the player to sharpen up their linguistic tools so they can make more refined assessments could well turn out deadly dull, but that, alas, is often the price of philosophy.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Mary Sue-ing our way through philosophy, December 12, 2023
by manonamora
Related reviews: ifcomp

Meritocracy is a fairly linear story, where you play as a first-year university student taking their first class in a Philosophy course, whose subject is based on the topic of Argumentations and the concept of merit. You also come across a strangely relevant debate outside of class…

From the premise, you'd expect an epic discussion about merit - the good, the bad, and the eh - throwing arguments back at your professor, doing the absolute most to get your points across, and coming on top (or failing miserably, because you're just a student). You may even expect a wide-branching path, with choice at each corner, to counter your professor's points... where one wrong choice could lead to your embarrassing defeat...

What you get, however, is a more... muddled and railroad-y approach on that promise. More of a philosophy lecture packaged into a simple interactive form than an player agency-driven gameplay. The promised "battle of wits" is nowhere to be found - as the professor mainly lectures and you listen, or you answer his prompted question before he just leaves the room. The closest thing to an argumented debate I found in the game happened between two unnamed NPC, neither of which require the MC's help - even then, it is more framed as an example of the lecture*. Finally, as you have little space to convince anyone of your idea(s), you end up just trying to convince yourself of your "choices".
*the MC even points out they could interject at the start and question the orator, but doesn't which :/ is a shame! It would have made for a fun debate gameplay!

When it even comes to discussing the concept of meritocracy, which is sandwiched between a lecture on ad hominem fallacy and a weird tangent about the Trolley Problem, I found myself wandering where the depth of the philosophical thoughts were. The topic is approached on a very surface level (ooh meritocracy bad because too much expectations and it's unfair, oooh actually it's good because more creative drive and the alternative is unfair) without much discussing the intricacies of it all (e.g. muddled by a person's status/education/wealth/identity/etc...). Which is a shame, as one could question whether meritocracy truly exists considering certain class advantages some have over others OR whether it can truly be fair (how is merit defined? who defines it?).

Granted, the topic itself is quite complex to begin with (and also somewhat ironic considering the IFComp is sometimes framed as a meritocratic competition), but the point does not manage to quite land either, which ever side you take on the debate. And often, the debate is not won with rational arguments...

One potential cause for this may be found in the writing of the game.
The pacing is not quite there, dragging a bit too much at time - with the fairly long and superfluous introduction taking precious time/attention from the reader, or the fixation on the surrounding, which does not really amount to anything - and glossing over moments which should probably have been pushed further - the whole debate between you and the professor essentially.
Though the writing wants to be somewhat humorous (it felt at time it was trying to make fun of it all?), the frequent repetitions and sloppy prose both undermines this element, the setting of the game (university) and the MC's characteristics (you are a student of higher learning with intellectual capabilities*).
*but also... I've graded prose like this from uni students so... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Speaking of the MC, it is made abundantly clear it is a distinct person with drive and wants and needs*... but also very much of a Mary Sue. The MC is just so good at debate, they can take on the professor on the first class BUT they are so bad at finding their class. They seem like those pretentious high school students who think they know everything, even better than experts. It's exhausting...
*I don't really get the point at the start about the MC not being customisable? It feels a bit off-putting and unrelated to the topic itself?

The concept of meritocracy isn't the easiest topic to grapple with, and the thought of turning it into a debate-like gameplay to explore its definition(s) or philosophical schools of thoughts was a good framing for it. It's a shame it could not quite deliver to what it had promised...

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- Edo, November 6, 2023

- jaclynhyde, November 1, 2023

- Zape, October 5, 2023


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