The Nintendo Power Generation

I've been feeling a bit nostalgic about some old video games lately.  This is thanks in part to some recent articles on Kotaku about struggling to fit video games into adult life, the joy of discovering JRPGs, and the fascinating phenomenon of Twitch Plays Pokemon. I'll get into Twitch Plays Pokemon in more detail later,  but for now I wanted to start with something a little closer to home.  Although I played Pokemon while growing up, I tend to associate the game-play with that of Dragon Warrior.  This probably says something about my age, which is an interesting on its own, but the connection I'm going to focus on here is "metagaming".

I'm fortunate to have grown up with video games from an early age.  My parents owned an Intellivision, and I would often beg them to play BurgerTime.   I was really young at this point and there weren't many other games on the Intellivision that I could enjoy without being able to read.   When the Nintendo Entertainment System came out, this opened the floodgates of exciting new games.  The NES quickly became a family bonding experience.  Between Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Track and Field, and The Legend of Zelda, there was something for everyone in the house!

At this point, video games were still very much a question of motor skills and hand-eye coordination for me.  As I grew older and started learning to read, my parents had the brilliant idea of buying me a subscription to Nintendo Power.  This was a perfect move on their part!  What better way to encourage a young video gamer to read than by giving him a magazine about video games?  As an added bonus, the Nintendo Power subscription came with a free copy of Dragon Warrior.  Dragon Warrior itself was a very reading intensive game, which was probably good for me, but it was also notably different from the games I had played in the past.  It was more about strategy than reflexes.  More about thinking than reacting.  The game was so complex that they even so far as to include a 64-page "Explorer's Handbook", which was far more in-depth than your typical instruction manual.  This simple walk-through would forever change how I looked at video games.

This is the earliest example that I can recall of metagaming.  Metagaming, in its simplest terms, is the use of resources outside of a game to improve the outcome within the game.  In the case of Dragon Warrior, the "Explorer's Handbook" contained a variety of information about the game that otherwise might have only been discovered through trial and error.  It included maps of the entire game and information about the strengths and weaknesses of the foes within each area.  The maps in particular were exceptionally useful for two reasons.  First, visibility within the dungeons was limited to a small area provided by use of a torch item.  Using a map made it possible to make it through the dungeon without using a torch, and also making sure to collect all of the important treasures.  Secondly, the overworld map was divided into areas with radically different monsters.  Wandering into an area at too low of a level would mean certain death.  I probably wouldn't have even been able to complete the game if it wasn't for the "Explorer's Handbook".

The metagaming didn't end with Dragon Warrior.  In fact, it was only the beginning.  The monthly subscription soon turned into an addiction that almost paralleled the video games themselves ("almost" being the operative word).   I must have read through the Nintendo Power Final Fantasy Strategy Guide at least a dozen times before even playing the game.  I was always reading up on the latest releases during the week, and would rent the game that interested me most over a weekend for a marathon gaming session.  It got to the point where the store I rented from was asking me about what up-coming titles they should order!  

Over time, my passion for metagaming started to influence my choice of games.  Games like Marble Madness and Bubble Bobble that were once my favorites, started to lose their appeal.  My reflexes on titles like these had actually improved with extensive practice, but there was always a brick wall where those reflexes weren't fast enough.  Even if I knew what was coming, lacking of coordination required to pull it off became a point of frustration.    I gradually started to lean towards games where having an outside knowledge was an advantage.  JRPGs like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy started to become my favorite genre.   That's not to say I shied away from "twitch" games.  I just focused on "twitch" games where strategy and knowledge could influence the outcome.   I was particularly fond of fighting games like Street Fighter II, since knowing the move-set of each character was a distinct advantage in arcades where my quarter was on the line.

I've come to accept that I enjoy metagaming, sometimes as much as playing the game itself.  However, there are places where it's not always acceptable.  Metagaming is also often used as a negative term in pen and paper role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons where it breaks the sense of immersion when a player uses knowledge that his/her character would not know.  I'm definitely one of those players that devours the entire rule-book before creating a D&D character to ensure that I'm developing it in an optimal way.  I can't help it.  For me, learning about the game is an integral part of the gaming experience.  I don't necessarily do it out of a desire to win.  I just enjoy the process of researching the rules, developing a theory about how best to play, and then putting it into practice to see if it works.  There's a real science to gaming for those who are willing to look for it.

The reason I wanted to share this story is that I've been in a number of conversations with individuals in older generations who have a negative opinion on video games.  "Kids these days just play video games all the time and don't understand what it's like in the real world," they often say.  I wanted to present a different perspective here.  For the metagamers of the world, the line between the game and real world is fuzzy.   There's a generation of gamers who've learned important real world knowledge and skills to help them improve their game-play.  For members of my age cohort, Nintendo Power provided an outlet for us to grow and excel as individuals.  I, for one, am glad to have been able to experience the joy of metagaming and will continue to metagame my way to the future.

What I've discovered, learned or shared by using #mathchat

This was a #mathchat topic in July of 2012 that I really wanted to write about but didn't quite get around to at the time.  This happened partly because I was busy juggling work and graduate school, but also because I felt a bit overwhelmed by the topic.   I've learned so many things through my involvement in #mathchat that the idea of collecting them all was daunting.   It also kind of bothered me that my first attempt at a response to this prompt turned into a lengthy list of tips, books, and links.  This type of content makes sense on Twitter.  It's actually the perfect medium for it.  However, to turn this into a blog post I needed some coherency.  I felt like there was a pattern to all of these things that #mathchat has taught me but I just couldn't quite put my finger on it.

A year and a half has passed since this topic came up.  It's now been 6 months since the last official #mathchat.  Despite this, Tweeps from all over the world continue using the hashtag to share their lesson ideas and thoughts about math education.  It's inspiring.  The weekly chats might have stopped, but the community continues to flourish.  Looking back on how things have changed on #mathchat helped put perspective on how #mathchat changed me.  I think I'm finally ready to answer this prompt.

What I learned by using #mathchat was that learning requires taking risks.

On the surface, it seems like this assertion might be obvious.  Whenever we attempt something new, we run the risk of making a mistake.  By making mistakes we have an opportunity to learn from them.  The issue is that we go through this routine so many times that it becomes habitual.   When learning becomes automatic, it's easy to lose sight of the risks and how central they are to the learning process.

Consider the act of reading a book.  For many, like myself, this is the routine method of learning new information.   In fact, it's so routine that the risks aren't readily apparent.  That doesn't mean they aren't there.  Have you ever read a book and found yourself struggling to understand the vocabulary?  For me, Roger Penrose's Road to Reality is still sitting on my bookshelf, taunting me, because I can't go more than a couple pages without having to look things up elsewhere.   Attempting to read a book like this entails a risk of making myself feel inadequate.  It's much easier to read a book that's within one's existing realm of knowledge.  By taking the risk out of reading, it becomes a recreational activity.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- we could all use some relaxation time now and then -- but it's not until we step out of that comfort zone that the real learning begins.  Have you ever read a book that made you question your own assumptions about the world?  It's not often that this happens because we're naturally drawn to books that reaffirm our own beliefs.  When it does happen, the impact can be quite profound.  The further a book is from your existing world model the greater the risk of that model being challenged by reading it, but the potential for learning scales in proportion.

I was rather fortunate to have discovered #mathchat when I did.  I had signed up for Twitter at approximately the same time I started teaching math.  Anyone that's ever been a teacher knows that learning a subject and teaching that subject are two entirely different beasts.   I'd been doing math for so long that most of it was automatic.  It wasn't until I started teaching that I realized I had forgotten what it was like to learn math.   As a result, I was struggling to see things from the perspective of my students.  I needed to step out of my own comfort zone and remember what it was like to learn something new.  It's through complete coincidence that my wife stumbled upon Twitter at this time and said, "Hey, I found this new website that you might find interesting".

I didn't join Twitter looking for professional development.  In fact, for a while at the start I didn't even know what "PD" stood for.  I joined Twitter purely out curiosity.  I was never really comfortable interacting socially with new people, and it seemed that this was an opportunity for me to work on this skill.  I called it "my experiment".   I didn't even use my full name on Twitter for the longest time because I was afraid of "my experiment" going wrong.    I started simply by looking for topics I was interested in, following people that sounded interesting, and speaking up when I felt I had something to say.  One of my saved searches was "#math" and I started trying to answer questions that people were asking on Twitter.  This lead to making some of my first friends on Twitter.   I noticed that some of those people that regularly tweeted on #math also frequently tweeted with the hashtag #edchat.  I started to observe these people would often post multiple #edchat Tweets within a short period of time and had inadvertently stumbled upon my first real time Twitter chat.  Once  I started participating in #edchat my network grew rapidly.  From there, it was only a matter of time before I discovered #mathchat.

My social anxiety was still quite strong at this time.  With each Tweet, I was afraid that I would say something stupid and wake up the next day to find that all my followers had vanished.  However, #mathchat provided a welcoming atmosphere and discussion topics that were relevant to my work environment.  This provided me with an opportunity to engage in discussion while mitigating  some of the risks.  I knew that each topic would be close to my area of expertise and the community was composed of people who were also there to learn.  There was a certain comfort in seeing how people interacted on #mathchat.  People would respond critically to the content of Tweets, but always treated each participant with dignity and respect.   I was experiencing first hand what a real learning community could be like.

A frequent motif in these #mathchat discussions was Lev Vygotski's model of learning.  With my background in psychology, I was already familiar with the concepts and vocabulary.  However, #mathchat helped me link this theory with practice.   I became more and more comfortable with a social perspective on learning because I was learning through my social interactions.  While I had known the definition of terms like "zone of proximal development", I wasn't quite to the point where I could see the line separating what I could learn on my own and what I could learn with assistance.  I had always been a self-driven learner, but in order to be successful in learning I needed to limit myself to areas that were close to my existing skills and knowledge.  I needed to minimize the risks when learning on my own.  Learning in a social environment was different.  I needed to become comfortable taking larger risks with the reassurance that the people I was learning with would help me pick myself up when I fell.

The #mathchat discussions themselves were not without risks of their own.  Colin took a risk himself by creating #mathchat.  It was entirely possible that he could have set this chat up only to have no one show up to participate.  Indeed, many a #mathchat started with an awkward period of silence where people seemed hesitant to make the first move.  There's much lower risk in joining a discussion in progress than starting one from scratch. The risk is lower still by simply "lurking" and only reading what others have said.  As time went on, there was a growing risk that #mathchat would run out of topics for discussion.  This risk has since manifested itself and #mathchat has entered a state of hiatus.

I'm aware of these risks only in hindsight.  At the time, I wasn't really conscious of the shift occurring in my own model of learning.  What started to make me realize this change was the adoption of my two cats.  This provided my another opportunity to put learning theory into practice by training them (although it's arguable that they're the ones training me instead).  The smaller one, an orange tabby named Edward, responded quickly to classical and operant conditioning with cat treats.  The larger one, a brown tabby named Alphonse, didn't seem to care about treats.  It quickly became obvious that I was using the wrong reinforcer for him.  With his larger body mass and regular feeding schedule, there was no motivation for him to consume any additional food.  It's easy to forget that in the experiments that these concepts developed from, the animals involved were bordering on starvation.  The risk of not eating is a powerful motivator for these animals to learn in the experimental setting.  My cat Alphonse was under no such risk.  He was going to be fed whether he played along with my games or not.  I've since learned that Alphonse responds much better to training when there's catnip involved.

The key to successful training is very much dependent on being able to  identify a suitable reinforcer.  What functions as a reinforcer varies widely from subject to subject.   With animal studies, survival makes for an universal reinforcer as the reward of living to procreate is (almost) always worth the risk.  However, humans follow a slightly different set of rules because our survival is seldom in question.  We're also unique in the animal kingdom because we can communicate and learn from others' experiences.   In a typical classroom situation, the ratio between the risk and reward takes on greater significance.  We're faced with such an overabundance of information about the world that we can't possibly learn it all.  Instead of maximizing performance on a test, the desired outcome, a common alternative is for students to minimize the risk of disappointment.   It's often much easier for a student to declare "I'm bad at math" than to go through the effort of actually trying to learn a new skill.  Rather than taking the high-risk choice of studying for the test with only a moderate payoff (a grade), these students opt for a low-risk low-payoff option by simply choosing not to care about the exam.  When looked at from a risk/reward perspective, maybe these students are better at math than they're willing to admit.

The solution, as I discovered through #mathchat, is to lower the risks and adjust the rewards.  I've started working on making my courses more forgiving to mistakes and acknowledging them as an integral part of the learning process.  I've started working on increasing the amount of social interaction I have with students and trying to be a better coach during the learning process.  There's no denying that I still have much to learn as a teacher, but thanks to #mathchat I have a clearer idea of how to move forward.  For me to progress as a teacher, I need to more comfortable taking risks.  It's far too easy to fall into habit teaching the same class the same way, over and over.  I need to do a better job of adapting to different audiences and trying new things in my classes.  Fortunately, there's a never ending stream of new ideas on Twitter that I'm exposed to on a regular basis thanks to my "Personal Learning Network".

I feel it's a crucial time for me to be sharing this perspective on the role of risk in learning.  There seems to be a rapidly growing gap between teachers and politicians on the direction of educational policies.  There's a political culture in the US that is obsessed with assessment. Policies like Race-to-the-Top and No Child Left Behind emphasize standardized testing and value-added measures over the quality of interpersonal relations.  The problem with these assessment methods is that they don't take the inherent risks of learning into consideration.  Risk is notoriously difficult to measure and it doesn't fit nicely into the kinds of equations being used to distribute funding to schools.

There was recently a backlash of (Badass) teachers on Twitter using the #EvaluateThat to post stories of how our assessment methods fail to capture the impact teachers make in the lives of their students.   Teachers are the ones that witness the risks faced by students up close.   It's our job as teachers to identify those risks and take steps to manage them so that the student can learn in a safe environment.  As the stories on #EvaluateThat show, many teachers go above and beyond expectations to help at-risk students.

While teachers struggle to reduce risks, policy makers continue to increase them through more high-stakes exams.  At times it almost seems like politicians are deliberately trying to undermine teachers.  Maybe what we need in education policy is a shift in the vocabulary. Lets stop worrying so much about "increasing performance outcomes" and instead focus on "decreasing risk factors".  Doing so would encourage a more comprehensive approach to empowering students.  For example, there's strong statistical evidence that poverty severely hinders student success.  By addressing the risks outside of the classroom, we can enable students to take more risks inside the classroom.

An unexpected political journey.

Prior to this year, I had never really thought about getting involved in politics.  Don't get me wrong.  I've always had strong opinions about political issues.  It's just that I placed higher priority on other topics.  My major areas of interest were mathematics, video games, education and the intersection thereof, so that's where I focused my time and effort.  I held the belief that if I could address the problems in education, that the political issues I cared about would eventually be addressed by having a more informed electorate.  However, a recent turn of events has forced me to reevaluate my strategy.  I'm no longer sure if the problems in education can be fixed without political action.

In the spring of 2013, I was working two part time jobs while finishing up my Masters in Education.  I was teaching math as an adjunct faculty member, while also serving as a lab manager for one of the campus tutoring centers.  I loved both positions thoroughly and found great fulfillment in watching students overcome obstacles to succeed in their educational goals.  Between these two positions and finishing up my thesis, I perhaps wasn't paying enough attention to the political wheels that were already set in motion.  The Virginia state budget for 2013 included a provision in response to the Affordable Care Act which limited the hours of wage employees to "29 hours per week on average per month".  At first, I didn't even think this would affect me.  My hours as a wage employee were already limited.  I didn't consider my work as an adjunct to count towards this limit, because the position was under contract per credit hour and not a wage position.  Little did I know that the Virginia Community College System was coming up with a formula to convert "credit hours" to "average hours per week" as a precautionary measure against being forced into providing healthcare for adjuncts.  Since both of my positions were for the same employer, this meant that sum of the "equivalent hours" worked in each position could not exceed 29 per week.  Essentially, my two part time positions had been rolled into one and my income was sliced in half.

Now, I don't blame my employer for what happened.  They were simply doing what any rational person or organization would do: control for risk in the face of uncertainty.  What frustrated me were the political games that lead to this situation.   There's a disconnect between the language used in the Affordable Care Act and that of the Virginia 2013 budget.  I'm no fan of the ACA, instead supporting a single-payer system, but at least it provided a "way out" by means of a fine.  The Virginia budget language does not.  The most plausible explanation of this, at least in my opinion, is a political game of "Red vs Blue".  The Republican controlled Virginia legislature seemed to be making an active effort to make the ACA as difficult to implement as possible.  After all, they stand to benefit from "Obamacare" developing a negative public image and what better way to make it look bad than by putting teachers out of work?  The Federal Government says one thing.  The State Government says another.  Employers then need to interpret this mess and don't even have a full picture to convey to their employees.  It's like a game of "telephone" gone horribly wrong.  The irony in all of this is that I already had health insurance to begin with.

As an underemployed recent graduate with staggering amounts of debt, I began searching feverishly for job in the midsts of an economic recession.  In between resume submissions, I started paying more and more attention to the Virginia Green Party's listserv.  I'd been following the listserv since I moved to the state 5 years ago, but never really had the time to participate actively.  With the lack of success in my job search, I found myself with the time to speak up about my political views.  Perhaps to the neglect of this blog, I wrote at great length about the issues I felt the party was facing.  In particular, I was very vocal about the need for better outreach to younger voters.

Last week I tweeted about attending my first meeting with the Green Party of Virginia (GPVA).  To say this meeting would "be interesting" might have been an understatement.  I found myself being nominated for, and elected to, the office of Press Secretary.  This came as something of a surprise to me because I don't really have any experience dealing with the press.  Normally a "Press Secretary" is someone with a background in journalism or communication, while my background is in education.  After further consideration, I started to wonder if my experience might be relevant than I had thought.  Maybe what the Green Party needs right now is education.  The party needs to educate voters about how they differ from the existing two major parties to establish name recognition among voters.  I feel like I'm stepping out of my comfort zone in this new position, but also recognize that the act of stepping out of one's comfort zone is precisely how we learn and grow as a human beings.

I look forward to this new position and am excited about the prospects of improving the Green Party's public outreach.  With 42% of Americans now identifying themselves as Independents, I think the timing is right for a 3rd party to stand up for common sense government policies that we can all agree on.  People just need to know that there are viable electoral options outside the false choice of "Red vs Blue".  There is a tremendous opportunity for the Green Party to make its name as a organization that places the people's interests above party politics, and I hope this is a message I'll be able to convey as the new GPVA Press Secretary.

I don't expect the content of my blog or twitter feed to change much during this time.  This has always been a collection of my thoughts on math, video games and education, with the occasional bit of politics thrown in.  Nothing said on this blog should be interpreted as being representative of the Green Party.  Official press releases will be published on the GPVA Website.

Fun side note to this story: the GPVA's new co-chair is also a math professor.  It's about time for more math teachers to step into the political arena and make a difference!

In Memory of "Doc"

Recently I went to write an essay and found myself focusing on an influential professor that I met during my undergraduate studies.  While writing it, I discovered some very heart-wrenching news.   What follows is an excerpt from that essay, and I hope you'll spare a few minutes to hear my story of this inspiring teacher.

When I went through my undergraduate study in mathematics, I faced something of an identity crisis in my sophomore year.  I had just spent the summer participating in a research program where we were exploring the application of topology to macromolecular protein folding.  Chemistry was hardly my forte, but seeing how these abstract mathematical concepts manifested in a practical application was an incredibly eye-opening experience.  I came back to taking pure mathematics courses in fall and it felt like something was missing.  I could follow the mathematics, but it seemed like I was missing the “big picture”.   I wasn’t satisfied with simply learning the mathematics anymore and wanted to understand how that mathematics fit in the broader human experience.

Around the same, I was enrolled in an intro psychology course as part of my general education requirement.  The professor, who answered only to “Doc”, had a very eccentric teaching style.  Intro courses at this school typically ran large, around 300 students per course, and you could go through most lectures without being noticed.  Not in Doc’s class.  His classes were part lecture and part Comedy Central Roast.  Doc would observe some small unconscious behavior by a student and proceed to make fun of them for engaging in it -- almost like a stand-up comedian going off on someone who answers their cell phone.  Then, without skipping a beat, he’d turn the subject around and tie the whole incident back to the course material.  Something as subtle as a girl tossing a wink to the boy three seats over would turn into an hour long discussion about the role of classical conditioning in human courtship behavior.  At first some students seems slightly offended by this approach, but Doc insisted that he wasn’t singling anybody out and promised to offend everyone in the class equally at one point or another.  Every lecture was brilliantly connected and it was impossible to tell whether he was improvising or meticulously planned the whole thing out in advance.

In addition to his razor sharp wit, Doc also had a gift for storytelling.  These stories were easy to identify since they seemed to always begin with Doc’s favorite pastime: drinking Budweiser.   He’d start with “So I was drinking a Bud on the porch and...” then proceed to talk about some seemingly ordinary occurrence like a bird visiting his bird feeder or a naive remark made by his 4 year old daughter.  To an unaccustomed observer these stories might have the appearance of small talk, but every single one of them had a hidden purpose that related to the previously assigned reading.  Every story had a basis in some behavior and every behavior had an evolutionary basis for its development.  The bird might be use an example of territorial behavior.  His daughter’s comment might characterize a particular stage in childhood development.  As a student in the course, there was a chance of being called out to identify this link.  Those that didn’t read up were subject to further roasting, so there was significant negative reinforcement to keep up with the reading.  One thing remained consistent though, and that’s that every story was eventually revealed to be an application of natural selection.

One of the most influential moment in my college experience was visiting his office hour.  Doc’s previous lecture had started getting into game theory, but his charismatic style had allowed him to make his point without getting into the mathematical details. This gave me the exactly motivation I needed to visit Doc during his office hour -- a visit I’ll never forget.  We started talking about mathematics, psychology and the interrelation between the two subjects.  I could tell that I had stumbled upon an area that Doc as he smiled with youthful enthusiasm. We discussed everything from the role of mathematics in human development, to artificial intelligence and the abstract notion of consciousness.  Not only did Doc have a deep knowledge in a broad array of subjects, but he had an incredible passion for learning that was quite contagious.  He had this sense of awe and wonder about the world combined with an insatiable drive to make sense of it all.  It was impossible to leave his office hour without feeling inspired.

Before parting ways, Doc recommend that I read a book by Douglas Hofstadter called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.  Never before had someone made a book recommendation that was so appropriate for that exact moment in my personal development.  It was as if Doc knew me better than I knew myself after only a brief meeting.  GEB managed to connect a diverse range of my interests through a common mathematical thread, and gave me the perspective I needed to make sense of the mathematics that I was previously struggling with.  Not only did Doc give me the motivation I needed to continue my mathematical studies, but he also shed light on how that knowledge could be applied in other subjects.  My interest in psychology continued to grow, and I would eventually graduate with dual degrees in mathematics and psychology.

One of the central themes to GEB is the concept of self-reference and tangled hierarchies of abstraction.  In the namesake example of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Gödel managed to use mathematics as a tool for analyzing mathematics itself.  The resulting “meta-mathematics” revealed a deep insight into formal logic and its limitations.  Doc’s unconventional lectures shared many of the same qualities.  He wasn’t just teaching psychology, he was actively using psychology to teach psychology more effectively.  Once I understood this about Doc, his lectures took on a whole new level of depth.  Class was an enlightening display of “meta-psychology” with new twists at every turn.  Doc had this zen-like understanding of himself, and set a model for students to embark on journey of self-discovery of their own.

During the last week of my senior year, I made sure to visit Doc’s office hour before graduating.  This time I made sure to bring a 6-pack of Budweiser along with me to properly say thank you.   He laughed and said “well I usually only drink Bud Lite, but I think I can make an exception”.  We talked about my plan to apply what I had learned mathematics and psychology to making video games.  He gave me some final words of encouragement then I went off to enter the working world. A few years later, I ended up changing careers and began teaching mathematics courses at a community college.  I tried to look Doc up, but the college directory showed him as having retired and didn’t list any contact information.

Recently I was saddened to learn that Doctor Dennis Mitchell passed away in August 2012 after a 5 year battle with brain cancer.  He was an exemplary teacher and I feel honored having known him.  Doc helped me along my way to becoming a lifelong learner.

Actually, it’s more than that.

Doc helped me become a lifelong meta-learner.

 

What can we learn from the Sci-Fi classroom?

We live in an interesting time where new technologies are radically reforming how humans interact with machines and with each other. The field of education is no exception. Tech savvy teachers are likely to be familiar with new educational paradigms like BYOD, MOOC, and flipped classrooms. There's more to this movement than just fancy buzzwords. Teachers are forging ahead into new territory by bringing technology into the classroom and looking for ways to make the most of it. As these technologies continue to improve, these hi-tech classrooms are starting to look like something out of a science fiction story.

Many scientific advances have had their roots in science fiction. It seems pertinent then to examine how science fiction authors have depicted the future of education as a source of inspiration for the hi-tech classroom. In this post, we'll take a look at some Sci-Fi classrooms and see what lessons we can learn from them.

The sources

The following are a collection of Sci-Fi classrooms from sources that I'm familiar with. I'm sure this list is not exhaustive, so please feel free to contribute others in the comments. Also, please note that some of these source materials are intended for mature audiences. I'll try avoid any major spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with them.

Starship Troopers

Based on a novel by Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers takes place in a future where democracy has crumbled and replaced with a militarist establishment. Humanity is engaged in an interstellar war against alien species, and enlisting in the military is the most efficient path to "citizenship".

The beginning of the film depicts the protagonist, Rico, in a high school history class. Despite the futuristic setting, the classroom largely fits the "traditional lecture" paradigm. Rico's history teacher is a retired officer who is missing an arm. The course is arguably equal parts history and propaganda.startshiptroopers3

While there isn't much use of technology in the classroom, each desk seems to have a touch sensitive computer embedding in it.  For Rico, this seems to be more of a distraction from the class than a learning aid.

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The high school experience ends with high stakes testing.  A low math score ultimately places Rico into the infantry while his close friends are placed in flight school and military intelligence.  For added pressure, students seem to check their test scores on a public computer terminal.

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We also get a glimpse of a futuristic biology lab, in which students dissect alien lifeforms.

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While the lectures, labs, and high stakes testing are all too familiar, the film does raise interesting questions about the purpose of education. The school is structured like a factory to produce potential soldiers. It's easy to see why this militaristic society would structure education in such a way that cultivates students that efficiently follow orders. I tend to view this as a cautionary tale of what education might become in the hands of a powerful military bureaucracy.

WALL-E

WALL-E follows the adventures of a trash compacting robot in a world where Earth's natural resources have been extinguished by rampant consumerism. With the Earth no longer capable of supporting life, the remaining population leaves the planet in large intergalactic cruise ships. In the film, we observe a brief scene depicting a futuristic pre-school.

In this scene, a number of small children are watching a video with a computerized narrator describing the letters of the alphabet. No adults are present in the room and the instruction is fully provided by a robot. This picture of education fits with the overall premise of the film, in that humans have essentially automated themselves into irrelevance.

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Like Starship Troopers, the educational system is designed to perpetuate the existing authority. Even in this pre-school setting, students are conditioned by messages such as "B is for Buy-N-Large, your very best friend". It's implied later in the film that the residents of this spaceship are taught very little about life on the planet that their ancestors fled. The system is programmed to keep the residents living happily on the ship, and inhibiting any curiosity about to the circumstances that put them there. The residents are fat, happy and ignorant, and the fully automated educational system is designed to keep them that way.

Serenity

Based on the Firefly TV series, Serenity treats us to a brief glimpse of River Tam's childhood. The young River has been identified as intellectually gifted and is sent to "The Academy".

In this scene, River is taking part in a history course. It begins with the teacher narrating in front of a holographic projection that displays a visual depiction of the events. The lesson describes the "Unification War", in which a number of planets rebelled against the Alliance's expansion. The teacher explains that the Alliance engaged in this war to spread peace throughout the galaxy and asks why the rebels would resist. River seems to suspect that there's more to the story and points out that "people don't like to be meddled with".

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While this looks like a typical lecture classroom, each of the students appears to have touch sensitive computer screen embedded in the desks. Students seem to be interacting with the computer during the lecture using a stylus, but also are engaged in note taking with a traditional pen and paper.

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We later find out that the Academy is actually a front for a program to turn these students in super-soldiers through a series of cruel medical and psychological experiments. River's skepticism of the Alliance's meddling turns out to be quite prescient.

Star Trek

In the 2009 film Star Trek, we find one of the more visually striking Sci-Fi classrooms. A young Spock is depicted in a school for Vulcans, a race known for their strong devotion to logical reasoning.  The scene shows students in semi-spherical pods, where the students interact with a projected display.  Several adults can be seen walking between these learning pods, but the main source of instruction appears to be with the computer.

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The computer asks the students various questions, particularly involving science and mathematics, and the student responds verbally with the answers.

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As the young Spock completes his interactive instruction, he is met by several other students who proceed to bully him about his human mother.

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The young Spock fights back out of anger, a course of action which is looked down upon in a society that values emotional restraint.

 

Star Trek: Voyager

Within the Star Trek universe, the TV series Star Trek: Voyager provides another perspective on education. The star-ship Voyager gets lost in space after travelling through a worm hole and spends many years heading back home. In this time, one of the crew-members gives birth on board the ship. The child, Naomi Wildman, grows up aboard the star-ship and is essentially home-schooled by the crew.

The details on Naomi's education are limited, but she takes a liking to the Borg crew-member Seven of Nine who serves as a mentor. On occasion, Seven will assign her various instructional materials or ask her to carry out small tasks on the ship.  Several other crewmembers serve as teachers as well.  Naomi works diligently on these tasks and aspires to become the Captain's Assistant.

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We also know that Naoimi spends a good deal of time on board the ship's holodeck. It's implied that some of Naomi's education comes from interactive holographic children's tales like "The Adventures of Flotter". This colorful interactive fairy tale is designed to teach children deductive reasoning skills, and Naomi needs to solve several puzzle to help the storyline progress.

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In a later episode, the crew picks up several Borg children and the educational offering on Voyager are expanded to meet their needs. This results in the First Annual Voyager Science Fair. Naomi presents a model of planet, while the Borg children present a clone potato, an ant colony and a gravimetric sensor.

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Accel World

Accel World is a manga and anime by Reki Kawahara set in a future where humans can interface with computers via a "Neuro-Linker". This hardware allows individuals to interact in a virtual environment using thoughts to control their personal computer. The opening episode of Accel World depicts what looks like a typical classroom: a teacher at the front of the class lectures while the students are busy taking notes. The difference is that the teacher isn't actually writing on the board, but rather the hand movements of the teacher are transcribed to a digital blackboard which the students can see through the neural-interfaced computer.

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We also see that all of the students are busy using hand gestures to control these computers throughout the class.

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Like Star Trek, the synchronous nature of the classroom causes problems for the protagonist. Haru is short fat kid with low self-esteem who is regularly bullied by students that are bigger than him.

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To Haru, the virtual reality system provided by the Neuro-Linker is his only escape from the hostile environment of reality. When a classmate offers him a strange program that will "destroy his reality", he eagerly seizes the opportunity.

Ready Player One

Ernest Cline's novel Ready Player One takes place largely within an interactive simulation called OASIS. In a world that has been ravaged by climate change and a crumbling democracy, the brick and mortar schools are a potentially hostile environment and the protagonist, Wade, volunteered to pilot an educational program in this virtual environment. Users access the OASIS using a combination of a virtual reality visor, haptic gloves (and other accessories) and voice control. Wade's school is one of many in OASIS and he describes some of the advantages of a virtual school:

There were hundreds of school campuses here on Ludus, spread out evenly across the planet’s surface. The schools were all identical, because the same construction code was copied and pasted into a different location whenever a new school was needed. And since the buildings were just pieces of software, their design wasn't limited by monetary constraints, or even by the laws of physics. So every school was a grand palace of learning, with polished marble hallways, cathedral-like classrooms, zero-g gymnasiums, and virtual libraries containing every (school board–approved) book ever written.

On my first day at OPS #1873, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Now, instead of running a gauntlet of bullies and drug addicts on my walk to school each morning, I went straight to my hideout and stayed there all day. Best of all, in the OASIS, no one could tell that I was fat, that I had acne, or that I wore the same shabby clothes every week. Bullies couldn’t pelt me with spitballs, give me atomic wedgies, or pummel me by the bike rack after school. No one could even touch me. In here, I was safe.

When I arrived in my World History classroom, several students were already seated at their desks. Their avatars all sat motionless, with their eyes closed. This was a signal that they were “engaged,” meaning they were currently on phone calls, browsing the Web, or logged into chat rooms. It was poor OASIS etiquette to try to talk to an engaged avatar.They usually just ignored you, and you’d get an automated message telling you to piss off.

I took a seat at my desk and tapped the Engage icon at the edge of my display. My own avatar’s eyes slid shut, but I could still see my surroundings. I tapped another icon, and a large two-dimensional Web browser window appeared, suspended in space directly in front of me. Windows like this one were visible to only my avatar, so no one could read over my shoulder (unless I selected the option to allow it).

School in OASIS bears a marked a resemblance to the traditional classroom. Students attend classes synchronously in the virtual environment. A teacher leads the class in something like a lecture format, but this lecture can be supplemented by virtual materials that would be impossible in a traditional class. For example, students can take a virtual tour of the human body on board a microscopic submarine in Biology. Students have opportunities to interact with each other as well and a "mute user" option makes it possible to avoid virtual bullying.

I think it's also worth mention that this type of virtual school is quite possible with today's technology. For example, virtual schools already exist in Second Life.

Common Themes

While this is a small sample of Sci-Fi classrooms, I think there are some patterns here that are worth noting.

Education is an institution of great power

First and foremost, these Sci-Fi stories depict education as a very powerful force in human development. This is something of a double-edged sword. Education can be used as a tool to enlighten individuals or it can be used to preserve a system of authority.

There's an old maxim stating that "knowledge is power". Sci-Fi takes this maxim one step further by showing us worlds where restricting access to knowledge can make individuals powerless. As a society, we need to take steps to ensure that information is open and available to avoid falling into a trap of historical revisionism.

Lectures are here to stay

Most of these Sci-Fi classrooms seem to fit the template of the "traditional lecture". A teacher stands in front of the class and delivers information to the students. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that the "lecture" is so pervasive in our culture that we wouldn't recognize these as classrooms if they were structured otherwise. Our familiarity with the format means that we quickly recognize the scene as a "school". This format allows the Sci-Fi plot to make its point and move on in a short amount of time.

Despite the dated classroom format, the technology in the classroom opens up new methods of presenting information. The chalkboards have gone electronic and the Power Point slides have been replaced by holographic projections. The interesting part is that despite all this technology, these Sci-Fi classrooms often still have a human teacher. Computers might be used to disseminate information, but learning is guided by a "real teacher". This suggests that the role model that teachers provides is an important part of the educational process. The teacher is trusted to make an appropriate use of the technology to engage students in the practice of critical thinking.

School is a social experience

Another related trend in these Sci-Fi classrooms, is that the students gather in the same place at the same time. This suggests that students interacting with each other is an important part of the school experience.

This is particularly curious in the case of Star Trek and makes for an interesting comparison with present day hybrid courses. In a typical hybrid course, students have both asynchronous "homework" time (typically done over the Internet) and synchronous "classroom" time. What's interesting to me about the Vulcan classroom is that it a synchronous environment with primarily asynchronous instruction. During the instructional time, students interact primarily with the computer rather than each other. It might be comparable with an online class that you were required to take in person.

It may be that the concurrency of having students gathered in a single location is to support the development of social skills, but in the case of several protagonists this has the negative side effect of bullying. Ready Player One solves this bullying issue by transitioning to a fully virtual classroom. Students can simply block electronic messages from others if they choose.

Conclusion

While we obviously don't want to base educational practices on anecdotes from science fiction, I think that these Sci-Fi stories mirror the struggles of today's teachers.  On one hand, teachers want to adhere to practices that have worked in the past.  One the other hand, teachers can see the value in exposing students to new technology.   What we see in these Sci-Fi classrooms is the result of both of these influences.  They look like present day classrooms, only the tools have been replaced with the latest hi-tech gadgets.  In effect, the Sci-Fi classroom is generally just a superficial make-over of our existing cultural expectations of school.

Of these Sci-Fi classrooms, the one that gives me the most hope for the future is Voyager.  Naomi's education is a balanced mixed of numerous sources.  She spends a lot of time learning from holographic children's programs, but also electronic textbooks, human role models, and hands-on science experiments.   The important point to be made here, is that the new technology adds to the educational experience rather than just replacing existing tools.   The presence of pen and paper note-taking in the Serenity classroom is another telling indicator that good teaching doesn't necessarily require advanced technology.

As far as the educational technology goes, some of these Sci-Fi devices might not be too far off.   The difficulty is going to be integrating them into the classroom effectively.  It needs to be used in a way that contributes to the learning experience or it runs the risk of becoming a distraction.  In some ways, this is already a issue.  How much lost classroom time do teachers owe to fiddling with projectors, doc cams, and Power Point?  Perhaps the focus of educational technology developers should be on streamlining the existing tools into a seamless classroom experience.  Creating voice controlled lecture tools might provide a nice stepping stone between the classrooms of today and the ones we see in science fiction.   Any technology that frees up a teacher's time to focus on students' learning is likely to be a welcome addition to the classroom.

One thing's for certain, it sure is an exciting time to be a teacher!

Mesmer WvW Guide

I've seen a lot of new mesmers on SoR and occasionally I get questions about gear, traits and general WvW tactics. In an effort to help some of aspiring SoR mesmers out, I decided to put together this mini-guide with some general information about playing a mesmer in WvW. This is not a "here's Flash's build, just copy it and pwn face" thread, but rather a look at some of the options you have available to you as a mesmer and how to use your tools most effectively.

I. Weapons

Early on in your Mesmer career, you should be experimenting with the different weapons available to you. Each weapon has different strengths and weaknesses, and the weapons you choose use will have a large impact on how your Mesmer plays. Scepter, Staff and Torch tend to complement a condition damage build. Sword and Greatsword tend to complement a power build. However, any weapon can be used in either if you trait and gear appropriately.

My personal opinion is that Sword and Focus is the way to go for WvW. The focus is clutch in WvW for providing group swiftness, pulling people off of walls and ledges, and negating projectiles. The main reason for using sword is the two seconds of invulnerability with Blurred Frenzy. This can be a real life saver in a pinch. Scepter and Focus can be a decent while leveling up since it allows you to stay out of melee range, but the block on the 2 skill is sub-par in comparison. I use greatsword on my weapon swap for the AoE cripple in open field fights, but switch to a staff in siege situations to AoE up walls. You can run both Greatsword and Staff if you like, but you'll probably want to use a rune set for swiftness to get around faster.

II. Traits

Your first 5 trait points for any build should go into Illusions. This minor trait is pretty much mandatory for any mesmer, because it reduces the cool-down of all illusion summoning skills by 20%. Since most of your DPS comes from illusions, either directly through phantasms or indirectly through shatters, this is a very effective DPS increase across the board. This trait is arguably too good to pass up considering how few trait points are needed to acquire it. As you continue leveling up to 40, your next points should go into Dueling and Domination for the stat increases because you don't really have many options for condition damage at that level.

At level 40 the whole game changes because you gain access to the 2nd tier of traits. Putting 20 points into Dueling is almost mandatory. Choose II and X as the Majors. Together, these traits give you vigor on crit, fury on phantasms, bleeding on illusion crits, and clones on dodge. The reason I say that these are almost mandatory is the "clone on dodge" trait. This is both an offensive tool and a defensive tool that will significantly alter how you play. For the first time, you'll actually generate illusions at a fast enough rate to make full use of your shatter skills.

A lot of PvE mesmers avoiding using shatter skills because keeping up 3 phantasms can output a significant amount of damage. In WvW, this doesn't work because your phantasms simply will not live long enough. Instead, you should allow your phantasm to execute its first attack and then shatter it to add AoE damage on top of it. You can also use your shatters defensively. A dodge or two followed by Diversion or Distortion can buy you a few seconds to escape, which can mean the difference between life and death in WvW. The vigor on crit trait makes sure you have a steady supply of endurance to keep dodging with.

In addition to Deceptive Evasion, the 15pt minor makes your illusions inflict bleeding on critical. This trait is essential because it makes your previously damage-less clones actually put pressure on the opponent. This trait is a solid 10%-20% DPS increase even if you don't spec for condition damage. If you are speccing for condition damage, this trait is essential for stacking bleeds on your opponent with weapons that otherwise would not have condition damage on them.

Once you've filled out the essential 0/20/0/0/5 traits, the rest of your traits are really up to you. Take a look at the major traits in tiers 2 and 3 and see what interests you. I'll cover some of the more common variants that you'll see in WvW.

20 in Domination: The notable major here is Shattered Concentration which makes your shatter skills strip boons. This is a highly valuable thing to in the current meta where zergs stack and buff up before charging into fights. The minor traits adding vulnerability are a nice bonus. Condition builds might also like Confusing Enchantments which causes confusion to foes that enter or exit glamours. This works well because people have a natural tendency to move out of red circles.

30 in Dueling: Empowering Mantras can provide a nice passive damage bonus for each prepped mantras. I'm not a big fan of the mantra play style, but it's a common variant that's worth mentioning.

20 in Chaos: Going 20 points into Chaos can give you "Descent into Madness" and "Mirror of Anguish". The former reduces fall damage by 50% while the latter will apply crowd control effects to the person that used it on you. Both of these traits together give you a big advantage on high terrain.

20 in Inspiration: The notable WvW trait in the Inspiration is Warden's Feedback. This makes your focus skills reflect projectiles. A very significant amount of the damage in WvW is projectile based and this trait turns Temporal Curtain into a valuable tool for both offense and defense.

30 in Illusions: The big trait in this tree is Illusionary Persona. This trait adds a shatter effect on you in addition to your illusions. This adds extra punch to your shatters when in melee range, but the big bonus is that it allows you to use your shatter skills without any illusions at all! Being able to use Distortion with no illusions for 1 second of invulnerability can save your life if you get hit by a backstab thief or bull rush warrior. Add Illusionary Invigoration and you get two extra lives. Fair warning: once you try IP it's hard to go back to life without it. Another common variation for condition builds is to take both Dazzling Glamours and Blinding Befuddlement, which make glamours cause blind and confusion. The 15pt minor adding confusion to all shatters is also a must for condition builds.

Remember that you can always change major skills when out of combat. Keep this in mind when creating your build so that you can adapt to different situations. For example, I like to switch between Mender's Purity and Glamour Mastery in Inspiration depending on whether or not I have Null Field equipped so that I always have some form on condition removal.

III. Stats and Gearing

First and foremost, you goal with gearing should be to stay alive. This means you should be stacking toughness and vitality until you stop dying, and then start focusing on increasing your DPS. For a power build, I'd suggest about a 50/50 mix of Soldier's gear (Power/Toughness/Vitality) and Berserker (Power/Precision/Crit Damage). For a condition build, Rabid (Condition Damage/Precision/Toughness) is the way to go, perhaps with a bit of Carrion (Power/Vitality/Condition Damage) to increase your HP and help against siege. While the options are limited, gear with "+ to all stats" can be effective in either case.

My personal preference is with the power oriented gear. Condition mesmers can be quite deadly in WvW against players, but conditions do not effect siege weapons and taking down siege weapons quickly is very important in WvW. If you want go the condition route you might want to lean more towards a hybrid spec using Rampager's (Precision/Power/Condition Damage).
There's something of a sweet spot with vitality and toughness that will maximize your "effective health". Take your total armor (base+toughness) and multiply it by 10. If the result is less than your total HP, then you need more toughness. If the result is greater than your total HP, then you need more vitality. At your discretion, you can run healing power instead of vitality but I wouldn't really recommend it outside of some very specific support builds.

Keep in mind that your illusions only benefit from Power, Precision, Critical Damage, Condition Damage, and Toughness. Your illusions have fixed health regardless of your Vitality and the boons and conditions they apply will not be extended by boon or condition duration bonuses. If you find your illusions are dying before they reach their targets, you might want to add more Toughness.

IV. Sigils

If you've followed my advice so far, then you probably have a high enough critical rate to open up a variety of options for Sigils. In particular, Sigil of Earth allows you apply bleeds with weapons that ordinarily would not apply conditions (i.e. Sword) and is essential if you plan on going with a condition/hybrid spec. Sigil of Earth is still good in a power build, but Strength, Blood, Air, Fire, Force and Accuracy are all good options as well. Obviously you'd want Bloodlust or Corruption on at least one of your weapons as well, and you can always switch weapons later and keep the stacks. Sigil of Energy is another common option, as the extra endurance will help keep you alive and can also be used offensively to create more clones.

V. Runes

There are a number of viable options for Runes as well, depending on what you need to complement your build. Air and Centaur runes are commonly used for the swiftness on heal effect because mobility is very important in WvW. Scholar runes are probably the best option for increasing your damage, but Ruby orbs can be a cost efficient alternative. Divinity runes would probably work well regardless of your spec, as you benefit from all the stats provided, but are pretty expensive also. Infiltrator runes are nice and affordable option because the stealth effect at 10% health will cause your opponent to lose target on you and have to pick you out from your clones again. Undead is a nice option for condition builds as it complements the 25pt Chaos trait nicely. Melandru runes could be helpful if you find yourself struggling against crowd control effects. Remember that you can always experiment with various other options in sPvP without spending any gold.

VI. Food Buffs

My personal favorite food buff is the Omnomberry Pie. Regardless of whether you're a power or condition build, you benefit from the bonus to precision. The life steal on crit will contribute to both damage and healing at the same time. Foods that reduce stun or condition duration are also a good choice. You can also use generic Power or Condition Damage food depending on your spec.

At some point you should make a trip to Wayfarer Foothills to buy the animal spirit offerings from the heart venders. Head to the Iron Marshes and pick up the Scale Venom from the escort event in the south eastern part of the map (Edit: Scale Venom is slated to be removed from WvW in the next patch). These bonuses are very small, but you might as well take advantage of them while they still can be used in WvW.

Edit: Kaska drew my attention to Orrian Truffle and Meat Stew, which gives Might on Dodge and +40% Endurance Regen. This is another nice alternative that will add to both your damage (more dodges = more clones) and survival.

V. Skills

Healing Skills
You've got three options for healing. Ether Feast is the simplest to use, but often times you'll need your heal the most when you don't have any illusions up and will miss out on the bonus healing. Mantra of Recovery is actually the best healing-per-second Mesmer skill (even untraited), but takes some getting used to because you need to prep it in advance. MoR is also unique in that it can be used while stunned or knocked down. Mirror is my personal favorite, but in order to get the most of it you need to be proactive about reflecting projectiles. MoR and Mirror both synergize nicely with "on heal" effects from runes or traits because of the low cool-downs. I'd recommend that you start out using Ether Feast and transition to Mirror or MoR later depending on your play-style.

Utility Skills
The utility skills are where mesmer really shines. Here are some of the more important WvW ones ordered by tier:

Tier 1
Blink - This one never leaves my bar. It breaks stuns and teleports you to the target location.
Decoy - Breaks stun, summons a clone and provides 3s of stealth. It's an all-around great skill.
Null Field - Removes boons from foes, conditions from allies, and provides an ethereal combo field. It seems to affects 5 enemies and 5 allies with each pulse (though not necessarily the same ones).

Tier 2
Feedback - Creates a bubble that reflects projectiles. Centered on target if you have one, or ground targeted otherwise. Use it on your gate while defending and watch the damage numbers fly. It counts as an ethereal field and reflected projectiles count as a finisher, so they have a chance to apply confusion also. It doesn't appear to have a target cap.
Mirror Images - Breaks stun and summons 2 clones. Use this between two quick shatters for some nice spike damage.

Tier 3
Portal Entre/Exeunt - Used to move groups of people from one location to another, particularly golems. Note that it is limited to about radar range and provides no indicator if you exceed the max. Learn to judge the distance well so that it doesn't fizzle. I cover more on portal tactics later. The portal is limited to 20 uses.
Veil - Provides allies crossing it with 4s of stealth. Use it to hide your group's initial melee rush or to make an escape from combat. It doesn't appear to have a target cap. The tool tip for this skill incorrectly lists it as a light field, when in fact it functions as an ethereal field.
Mimic - A pretty sub-par skill compared to Feedback, but it's worth mentioning here because it can absorb ballista shots. You'll only use this skill in situations where you're trying to protect siege from ballista fire.
Mantra of Concentration - Again, not a great skill overall, but it's a mesmer's only source of stability and there might be situations where you need it.

Elite Skills
Time Warp - Easily the best mesmer elite. Use this on melee during a rush or on golems. Has a 5 target cap.
Moa Morph - Not worth it in WvW at all because 1 on 1 situations are so rare. Only unlock it to move to next tier.
Mass Invisibility - It's worth unlocking, but very situational. Equip it when you're solo (either roaming or hiding) so that you can avoid unnecessary confrontations. Note that this skill is limited to 10 targets.

VI. General Game-play

Mesmer is kind of a unique class. None of the skills do exceptionally high damage on their own like a Warrior's Killshot or Thief's Backstab. Instead, the mesmer's specialty is dealing moderate damage from multiple sources simultaneously. Your goal is stack as many skills as you can into as small of time frame as you can. You can potentially hit with a phantasm, a direct damage skill, a shatter skill, and a utility skill all at the same time. This can add up to large "spikes" of damage, but requires that you do a lot of planning in advance to set it up. However, the end result can be quite deadly when you pull it off.

Since my preferred weapon combination is sword/focus, I'll use that as an example to illustrate the concept. Here, we'll use Mirror Images as a utility skill and Deceptive Evasion/Illusionary Persona as traits. I open with Illusionary Leap, which spawns a clone that leaps to the foe and cripples them. I follow this with iWarden, and immediately after it finishes casting hit Swap. This immobilizes the foe next to the Warden and teleports me into melee range. While the Warden is wailing on them, I supplement this with Blurred Frenzy. Once the Blurred Frenzy finishes, I dodge forward to generate my third clone, shatter with Mind Wrack, follow with Mirror Images and a dodge back for 3 more clones, and finally shatter with Cry of Frustration. This is more than enough to down glass cannons in about 3 seconds, and any opponents that do survive are left with 12 stacks of confusion and about 4-5 stacks of bleeding.

With a condition mesmer, the same concepts still apply but the set-up is a little more complicated. The basic idea is to continually spawn clones to apply bleeding (and burning in the case of staff) to your opponent to gradually work their health down over time. While doing this, you want to pay close attention to that opponent's behavior. You want to be able to predict when they're about to attack and hit them with Cry of Frustration. The goal here is to create a "damned if you do, damned if you don't situation". The opponent can try to kill you and eat the confusion damage, or they can stop attacking and sit there while the bleeds tick away at their health. Most of your damage as a condition mesmer is going to come from confusion, so you want to time your skills to put as many stacks of it on them while they are attacking. If you combine shatters, phantasms, direct skills, and utilize your ethereal fields creatively, it's quite possible to put up to 25 stacks of confusion on an opponent by yourself for a short period of time. Another good tactic to use is to stun or daze your opponent before you start stacking confusion. People have a natural tendency to use skills immediately after their skills become available again.

VII. Fun with Portals

Mesmers are uniquely valuable in WvW for their ability to teleport groups across large distances very quickly using Portal Entre/Exeunt. Here are some situations where you might use portals to great benefit:

Supply Runs - Running supply is a good place to practice judging the portal placement range because it's a very low risk situation. Place your portal outside the supply camp, run in to pick up supply, then portal back to your original location. One very special situation to use this is at the north-west tower in the borderlands. If you place a Portal Entre at the very back of the lord's room and place the Exeunt near the base of the cliff at the supply camp, you can teleport all the way back into the tower! Because of the large elevation difference between the tower and supply camp, this can save a substantial amount of travel time and allows you to avoid the front entrance if it's under attack.

Escape Portals - Having a Portal Entre placed before engaging enemies can provide you with a nice safety net if things go bad. This is especially useful when defending keeps or towers because it allows you to safely stand on the wall without fear of being pulled off. If you're on teamspeak, as you should be, call out "escape portal" so that they know it will take them to safety as well.

Retreat Portals - Sometimes it's helpful for you to support a group retreat by placing your Entre near your commander, running away from the enemy forces, and then dropping the Exeunt. Try to give your allies a few seconds notice before dropping the Exeunt so that they can start heading towards the Entre before it opens. If your commander wants to reengage afterwards, drop a Veil to stealth your group to make it look like you've ported out.

Feigned Retreat Portals - The basic idea behind this portal is that you place the Entre in an inconspicuous location and retreat as a group. When the enemy forces chase your retreating group past the portal, you open the Exeunt and teleport your group behind them to hit the backline. This tactic is a high risk maneuver because if the enemy spots your Entre on the group they may focus AoEs on your group when it becomes active. Try to use the terrain to place your Entre out of sight to avoid this situation. If you think your portal has been spotted, warn your group not to take it and open the portal anyway. This may cause the enemy to blow their cool-downs on the portal and give your group an opportunity to push from the front.

Offensive Portals - The offensive portal is often the hardest to pull off but also the most useful. A well placed offensive portal can allow you to flank enemy forces or take out hard to reach siege weapons. I'd highly recommend that you break command before attempting this tactic so you can adjust your skill set. I typically use Mirror, Blink, Decoy or Veil, Portal, and Mass Invisibility for this situation. Open with Temporal Curtain to give yourself swiftness and follow with Mass Invisibility for 5 seconds of stealth. Pay close attention to the red circles on the ground and blink past or dodge roll through them. When your stealth fades, you can use Decoy or Veil to provide you with a few more seconds. Keep in mind that your blink is most effective when used to teleport to higher ground. In particular, you can teleport to the ramp leading to the 3rd floor of Garrison in borderlands by targeting the underside of the geometry. If you're spotted, use Mirror to reflect incoming projects for an extra second of protection because the last thing you want in this situation is to be crippled, chilled or immobilized!

Ninja Portals - This type of portal is used to take groups past the wall of a keep or tower that you previously had access to, allowing your group to recap it later. Spend a few minutes in each tower and keep to look for hiding spots. Follow around a more experienced player on a mesmer sweep to learn some of the common locations. Equip your stealth skills to buy you some extra camouflage. If the enemy is thorough with their sweeps, you're probably going to get found regardless of where you hide. If this happens, ask if there are any thieves in the tower/keep before releasing as you might be able to get a res. Learn the safe spots where you can jump down form each keep/tower so that you don't die from fall damage.

Portal Chains - The last type of portal requires multiple mesmers. This is mainly used to transport golems over large distances. It helps to form an all-mesmer group to pull this off. First decide on an order. Alt click the minimap in the direction you'd like to travel to place a personal waypoint. This serves as a marker for where the next mesmer should start. Once all your waypoints are placed, call "drop and go" in TS. Place the first portal and run toward your waypoint. You need to stagger your portals by a few seconds to give the golems time to move into position, and call "1st", "2nd", etc. so that the other mesmer know when to drop their exits. It's important that you do not overlap portals either, as it makes it difficult to get the interaction prompt. Typically its easiest if you Time Warp the golems in the same order as you ported them. It also helps if the mesmer who drops the first portal is spec'd for Glamour Mastery so that it comes off cool-down in time to provide an escape portal if necessary.

Hi! My name is Ryan Ruff and this my blog!

I know it doesn't seem like a big deal, but it took a long time for me to feel comfortable with those words.

When I started this blog three years ago, I wasn't really sure where I was going with it. I started it in conjunction with my "experiment" of joining Twitter, as a place for me to expand on ideas beyond the 140 character limit. However, I was hesitant to reveal my real identity on either.

The reason for this is because I'm a teacher. I teach developmental mathematics at a local community college. Considering the substance of my Twitter feed, this probably isn't a huge surprise. However, I've heard horror stories of teachers getting in trouble for things they've said on social media sites. Since I had know idea what I would be saying, I did the sensible thing and adopted a pseudonym.

Operating under pseudo-anonymity gave me a sense of freedom. I felt comfortable talking about topics like religion and politics that are considered a classroom taboo. I knew that anyone who really wanted to find out my identity could; it just probably wouldn't have been worth the effort. I could always fall back to the disclaimer on the right that "the comments on this blog are my own and may not reflect the opinions of my employer", but the lines regarding such publicly made comments are fuzzy at best. Nonetheless, I have opinions and I don't feel like I should need to hide them. I consider most of them to be well thought out and all of them are subject to change with sufficient evidence.

So why the sudden change of heart?

Well, it wasn't really so sudden...

When I first started this experiment, developed something of a persona for Suburban Lion. Whereas I was fairly introverted and hesitant, Suburban Lion was extroverted and impulsive. While the real me would bite my tongue to avoid hurting someone's feelings, Suburban Lion would speak his mind openly and publicly. This internal struggle is well captured by the symbolism of my chosen alias. I was like a house cat who fashioned himself king of the jungle.

As my social media endeavor progressed, a couple things happened.

First, it's become increasingly difficult to keep my real identity a "secret". I knew from the start that my online interactions would never be completely anonymous, but the more information I posted online the more I realized how futile the effort was. Not to mention the fact that I've been signing all my code with my real name this whole time for copyright reasons.

Second, I feel like I have a better idea of the direction this blog is going. At a glance, it might seem to be an eclectic mix of politics, video games, and education. It's the mathematics tying these remote topics together that's piques my interest, and provides the common thread of this blog. I've also come to the realization that it's the act of blogging that I enjoy. I will continue to blog on things that I find interesting. If people enjoy reading those thoughts, that's great! If not, that's fine also. The learning experience that I've gained from communicating with others through this blog has been rewarding enough on its own.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, I feel like the distance between my real identity and my online persona is narrowing. Suburban Lion has become a little more reserved and a little less argumentative. On the other hand, the "real me" has become a little more sociable and assertive. It's gotten to the point where the differences between Ryan and Lion have almost disappeared. "Almost" being the operative word.

Where do we go from here?

My goal with this is primarily for personal growth. By tearing down the wall separating my online identity and my real identity, I feel more motivated to live up the ideals that "Suburban Lion" personifies to me. At the same time, I hope that this move breathes new life into "Suburban Lion" by putting a name to the face behind the screen.

It's not just about the name either, but an identity. There are a lot of Ryan Ruffs out there, but only one Suburban Lion. Well, it turns out that there are actual suburban lions, but that's beside the point. I've been interacting online since I was a teenager. It's time that I started to connect these interactions to a central point. It probably won't happen overnight, but I've got to start somewhere.

Special Thanks

I'd like to thank the community on Twitter for making this possible. Thank you for setting a good example of how to develop my "Personal Learning Network". Thank you for never holding my pseudo-anonymity against me and judging me primarily on the contents of my tweets.

I'm sorry it took this long for me to come clean, but maybe something good will come out of it. I'm sure that there are many others on Twitter going through the same anonymity dilemma as I did. Perhaps this post will provide them with some digital courage.

Thanks for reading!

Profile of an "undecided" voter: Nader, Arrow, Nolan, Flux, Aikido and Metagaming the Vote in 2012

Hello! My name's Ryan and I'm an "undecided" voter.

No, it's not what you think.

I'm not undecided between these guys:

Obama Romney

There's no way in hell I'm voting for Romney.

I'm not an idiot as Bill Maher not-so-subtly suggested last week. (It's okay Bill, I can take a joke)

I'm undecided between these guys (and gal):

Obama Johnson Stein

Mathematician and author John Allen Paulos described the situation a little more elegantly:

I'd like to believe that I fall into the "unusually thoughtful" category and wanted to share my perspective.

FULL DISCLOSURE: This is my personal blog and obviously biased by my opinions. I'm a member of the Green Party and have made a "small value" donation to the Stein campaign. Despite my party membership, I try to vote based on the issues and not the party. I voted for Obama in 2008 and voted for Ron Paul in the 2012 GOP primary. While I'm not technically an "independent" due to my affiliation with the Greens, I'm probably about as close to one as it gets.

Let's start with a little historical background and work our way forward from there.

The Nader Effect

My first voting experience was in the 2000 election. I didn't like either Gore or Bush, and ended up gravitating towards the Nader campaign. His positions on the issues most closely aligned with my own, so I did what seemed like the most rational thing to do at the time. I voted for him.

After the election, Nader (and the Green Party in general) received a large amount of criticism from Democrats for "spoiling" the election. The Democrats argued that votes cast for Nader in key states like Florida, would have been otherwise been cast for Gore. The counter argument is that Bush v. Gore was decided by the Supreme Court, but I won't get into that.

From my perspective, my vote for Nader in this election could not be counted as a "spoiler". I was living in California at the time, and the odds of California's votes in the Electoral College going to Bush in the 2000 were negligible. My vote for Nader was completely "safe" and allowed me to voice my opinion about the issues I cared about. However, this notion of a "spoiler vote" forever changed how I thought about my voting strategy.

Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives

In the 1950s, economist Kenneth Arrow conducted a mathematical analysis of several voting systems. The result, now known as Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, proved that there was not ranked voting system that could satisfy the following conditions for a "fair" election system:

  1. It accounts for the preferences of multiple voters, rather than a single individual
  2. It accounts for all preferences among all voters
  3. Adding additional choices should not affect the outcome
  4. An individual should never hurt the chances of an outcome by rating it higher
  5. Every possible societal preference should be achievable by some combination of individual votes
  6. If every individual prefers a certain option, the overall result should reflect this

Arrow was largely concerned with ranked voting systems, such as Instant Run-off Voting, and proved that no such ranking system could ever satisfy all of these conditions. There are non-ranked voting systems that meet most of these conditions, such as score voting, but one of these conditions of interest that our present system doesn't meet is number 3. This condition goes by the technical name of Independence of irrelevant alternatives. The idea is that the outcome of a vote should not be affected by the inclusion of additional candidates. In other words, there should never be a "spoiler effect".

What I find interesting here is that the very mechanics of our voting system lead to a situation where the outcome of elections is controlled by a two party system. It forces citizen to vote tactically for the "lesser of two evils", while from my perspective both of those "evils" have gotten progressively worse. George Washington warned of this outcome in his farewell address:

However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Until we can address the issues inherent in our voting system itself, I'm left with no choice but to vote strategically in the election. My policy for voting is a tactic of minimaxing: minimizing the potential harm while maximizing the potential gain. It's with this strategy in mind that I turn to the options of the 2012 presidential race.

Quantifying Politics

In order to apply a mathematical analysis to voting, it is first necessary to have some way of quantifying political preferences. As a method of during so, I'll turn to the so called Nolan Chart. An easy way to find out where you stand on the Nolan Chart is the World's Smallest Political Quiz. Here's where it places me:

Here's where I'd place the 2012 candidates:

Note that this is my subjective opinion and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of the candidates themselves. It's also important to note that this is a simplified model of political disposition. There are other models, such as the Vosem (восемь) Chart that include more than two axes. If you were, for example, include "ecology" as a third axis, this would place me closer to Stein than Obama and closer to Obama than Johnson. The resulting distances to each are going to vary depending on what axes you choose, so I'm just going to stick with the more familiar Nolan Chart.

Since I'm politically equidistant from each of the candidates, my minimax voting strategy would suggest that I vote for the candidate that has the highest chance of winning: Obama. However, there are many more variables to consider that might result in a different outcome. One of those variables is something I call "political flux".

Political Flux

People change. It's a well known fact of life. Changes in political opinions are no exception. If you look at the stances that Obama and Romney have made during this campaign, and compare those to their previous positions, I think you'll see a trend that looks something like this:

Obama campaigned hard left in 2008, but during his term in office his policies have shifted more towards the center. Romney campaigned in the center while he was running for governor of Massachusetts, but has shifted more towards the right during his presidential campaign. These changes are highly concerning to me, because both candidates are shifting away from my position. Thus, while Obama is closer to me on the political spectrum, the fact that he is moving away from my position makes the long term pay-offs lower than they would be if he had "stuck to his guns". In turn, this makes the 3rd party candidates a more appealing option.

I might even go so far as to suggest that this "political flux" is the reason why these 3rd party candidates are running. Statistically, their odds of winning are too low to change the outcome of the election. However, they can influence the direction of the political discourse. The more people that vote for those candidates, the more likely that future candidates venture in those respective directions. This vote comes at a "risk" though, as those 3rd party candidates run the risk of "spoiling" the election for a less undesirable candidate. The level of this this risk varies from state to state due to the electoral college system.

The Electoral College

A popular vote is not enough to win the election. The president is selected by an Electoral College that gets a number of votes based on a (mostly) population proportional system. For some of these states, the polls predict a pretty solid winner and loser for the presidential race. For others, the state has a tendency to lean right or left. According to The New York Times, the following states are considered a "toss-up" in the upcoming election:

  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Iowa
  • North Carolina
  • New Hampshire
  • Nevada
  • Ohio
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

If you are living in one of these states, the risks of voting for a third party are greater because your vote will have a higher chance of "spoiling" the election for one of the candidates. I happen to live in Virginia — one of the 2012 "battleground" states. I foresee a large number of attack ads in my near future. The big question is, is the pay-off worth the risk?

Aikido Interlude

For the past couple months, I've been studying Aikido — a martial art that might be best described as "the way of combining forces". The idea is to blend ones movements with those of the attacker to redirect the motion of the combined system in a way that neither individual is harmed by the result. As a lowly gokyu, I still have a lot to learn about this art, but I find some of the core principals behind it rather insightful from a physical and mathematical perspective.

The basic idea is a matter of physics. If an object has a significant amount of momentum, then it takes an equal amount of momentum to stop it. However, if you apply a force that is orthogonal (perpendicular) to the direction of motion, then its relatively easy to change the direction of motion. You don't block the attack in aikido. You redirect the attack in a way that's advantageous to your situation. You can see the basic idea in my crude drawing below:

The result of this is that many aikido techniques end up having a "circular" sort of appearance. In reality, it's the combination of the attacker's momentum and the orthogonal force applied by the defender that cause this. See if you can spot this in the following video of Yamada sensei:

So what does this have to do with voting?

Well consider my position on the Nolan Chart and the direction that the two major candidates are moving in. As much as I would like to shift the debate to the left, it would require a significant amount of political force and time to negate this momentum towards the right and even longer to push it in the opposite direction. It would be much more efficient to push "north" and allow the momentum to carry the political culture towards my general position.

In other words, voting for Gary Johnson might actually be the path of least resistance to my desired policies.

Metagaming the Election

Here you can start to see my predicament. Part of me wants to vote for Gary Johnson, because I think that doing so would be mostly likely to shift the debate in the direction I want it to go. Part of me wants to vote for Jill Stein, as doing so would help strengthen the political party that I belong to. Part of me wants to vote for Barack Obama, but only because doing so would have the greatest chance of preventing a Romney presidency. According to the latest polling data, the odds of Obama being re-elected are 4:1. Those are pretty good odds, but this is a high stakes game. It sure would be nice if there was a way to "have my cake and eat it too".

It turns out that there is.

I can metagame the election.

The idea of metagaming, is that it's possible to apply knowledge from "outside the game" to alter one's strategy in a way that increases the chance of success. In this case, I've decided to employ a strategy of vote pairing.

You see, I live in the same state as my in-laws who traditionally vote Republican. However, despite a history of voting GOP, they're both very rational people. Romney keeps shooting himself in the foot by saying things that are downright stupid. Screen windows are airplanes? Free health care at the emergency room? The more Romney talks, the easier it becomes to convince rational people that he's unfit to be president.

After many nights of debate, we've come to the realization that we're only voting for one of the two major parties because the other party is "worse". From there, a solution presents itself: "I'll agree to not vote for Barack Obama if you agree to not vote for Mitt Romney". This agreement is mutually beneficial to both parties involved. Without this agreement, our votes just cancel each other out. With the agreement, the net benefit to each candidate is still zero but now those votes are free to be spent elsewhere. The end result is that we each have a larger impact on the presidential election without altering the outcome.

With the vote pairing secured, I'm free to vote for Stein or Johnson at my own discretion. Both of these candidates agree on what I think is the most important issue: ending our "wars" (of which there are too many to list). They differ on a number of issues, particularly on economics and the environment. Personally, I think that the Greens and Libertarians need to meet half-way on the issues for an Eco-libertarian ticket. Jill Stein needs to recognize that the US Tax Code is a mess and needs reform. Doing so can help eliminate corporate handouts, many of which go to industries that adversely affect public health. Gary Johnson needs to recognize that laissez-faire economic policies alone will not fix our broken health care system or halt the impending climate change. I'm going to be looking forward to seeing debates between Stein and Johnson which I think will highlight the complexities of these issues and hopefully identify some possible solutions.

That's great, but what can I do?

You can enter a vote pairing agreement with someone of the opposite party. If you would ordinarily vote for the Democrats, you can click here to find out which of your Facebook friends "like" Mitt Romney. If you would ordinarily vote for the Republicans, you can click here to find out which of your Facebook friends "like" Barack Obama. Talk about the issues that are important to you in the race, discuss your objections to the other candidate, and if things go well, agree to both vote for a third party. If everyone did this, one of those 3rd parties might actually win. Even if it doesn't change the outcome, you'll know that your vote didn't "spoil" the election for your second choice.

If you want to go one step further, you can Occupy the CPD. Sign the petition to tell the Commission on Presidential Debates that you think we should hear from all qualified candidates and not just the two that they think we should hear from.

Finally, research the alternative parties and join one that matches your personal beliefs. Even you end up voting for one of the two major parties, joining a 3rd party and supporting that movement can have a significant effect on future campaigns. Here's a few links to get you started:

GW2: Scepter Guide for New Mesmers

When I first played the original Guild Wars beta, over 7 years ago, the mesmer came with a disclaimer on the character creator stating that the profession required advanced tactics and may not be suitable for new players. I was hooked on the mesmer from there on. In Guild Wars 2, this iconic class has undergone a substancial overhaul and is much more self-sufficient than in the original. However, the GW2 mesmer still has a somewhat steeper learning curve relative to some other professions. I posted a version of the following on the official forums during BWE3 to help new players more effectively use the mesmer's starting weapon: the scepter. My hope is that this guide will help make the first 10 levels of the game as painless as possible, at which point you can really start to customize the mesmer to your preferred playstyle.

Every new character in GW2 starts in a story mode instance based on the selected race. If this is your first time playing GW2, you should use this opportunity to check out the game options, display settings and key bindings before heading off towards the opening quest objective. Soon enough you'll encounter your first enemy or "mob". You only have one attack unlocked, Ether Bolt, so use it. The basic auto-attack on the scepter has a 3 step chain. On every third attack, it creates a clone that looks like you and attacks your mob but doesn't really do any damage. Now that you have a clone, let's use F1 or F2 to shatter him for some extra damage. If the mob is attacking your clone or not attacking at all, hit F1 for Mind Wrack which deals direct damage to the mob. If the mob is attacking you or an ally, use F2 for Cry of Frustration which causes a condition called confusion that causes damage when that mob uses a skill. Try both of them out and get a feel for how much damage they do with a single clone. When you unlock your second skill, Illusionary Counter, you can use it to block an attack and generate a clone or tap it twice to blind your foe instead. Test out both of your shatters with two clones and see how they've improved. If you find yourself taking too much damage, use skill #6 to heal yourself. You may even unlock your third weapon skill which is a hard hitting channelled attack that applies several stacks of confusion.

Eventually you'll get to an epic cinematic and huge boss mob. Look out for red circles or big attack animations and dodge out of the way. If you happen to get hit, don't panic -- you're not dead yet. Start to use the #1 attack in the downed state on one of the low level mobs in the area. You can also use the #2 skill to create a decoy, the #3 skill to summon a phantasm to lay some extra hurt your target, or the #4 skill to heal yourself if you're close to bleeding out. Keep it up until you score a kill and rally. Go back to working on the boss mob until you finish it off and save the day!

After killing the boss, you get another nice cut scene and a quest reward. This includes a bag, some XP, some coin, and your choice of two off-hand weapons. I’d highly recommend choosing the focus from the first quest reward. Not only is Temporal Curtain great for travelling, but it’s also great for snaring melee attackers so you avoid getting hit and acts as a light field. The Illusionary Warden gives you some AoE damage -- which the scepter is lacking, provides defense against projectiles and doubles as a whirl finisher. This means that once you've unlocked both of the focus skills you can do your own skill combos! Start with using Illusionary Warden on a mob then place a Temporal Curtain on top of him. The resulting combo shoots Cleansing Bolts in different directions and remove conditions from allies that they hit. While testing this out, you may observe that the Illusionary Warden is a stationary phantasm, and won’t move until you use a shatter skill. I’d also recommend that you have at least one clone up before summoning the Warden so he doesn’t get killed right away.

Against melee attackers, you want to open with the scepter auto attack and use Temporal Curtain to cripple them. Your goal is to get at least two clones up before the mob gets close to you. When the mob starts to get close, use Confusion Images. While channeling, use Cry of Frustration. Depending on how many clones you had up, the mob should have 8-9 stacks of confusion. and should be just about to swing at you. Use Illusionary Counter to block the attack, and watch the mob take massive confusion damage while you get away scratch free! If that didn’t kill it, go back to auto-attacking, use the dodge roll to avoid the next two attacks, then use Mind Wrack when you get enough clones.

In dynamic events with lots of people, don’t be stingy with your shatters. The odds of you getting 3 illusions up in such a situation are pretty slim unless you're fighting a champion, so don't hestitate to do a single illusion shatter if that's all you can get off before the mob dies. If possible, try to summon your Warden on a target in the middle of a group with high health, let him do his attack once, then shatter him. He’s going to die when your target dies anyways, so you may as well get the most out of it.

Once you've reached level 5, you'll unlock your first utility skill. There's a lot of really great skills to choose from here, but the one I would recommend picking up first is Blink. This is a ground targeted skill that teleports you to the selected location while breaking stuns. The reason I suggest this skill first is that it will help you get around the map a little bit faster when out of combat, while also helping you keep your distance from melee mobs. Look for skill challenges on the map, marked with the blue chevron, and complete them to unlock some other utility skills of your choice. My personal favorites on the 1st tier are Null Field and Signet of Domination. If you're unsure of how a particular skill works, you can always use the PvP menu to go to the Mists and test it out on the target dummies there.

Eventually you'll start to encounter some ranged attackers. Against these mobs you can open with Confusing Images and Illusionary Counter since they’ll generally start attacking right away. Since you get a clone on counter, this will give you a distraction to summon an Illusionary Warden on them and block their projectiles. Once you get a few more skill points, you can combine confusion with the Feedback utility skill to quickly take down ranged attackers.

I’d recommend sticking with scepter/focus until at least level 7 when you unlock weapon swapping. Weapon swapping really opens up a lot of play-style options for the mesmer. It’s much easier to survive as sword mesmer when you can weapon swap to a staff for Phase Retreat after blowing your defensive cool-downs. Likewise, the greatsword benefits from a weapon swap once enemies get close. You may want to keep the scepter/focus on a weapon swap until you unlock all the skills on your weapon of choice. These are just my opinions of course, so if there’s a weapon combination you really want to play with go right ahead! Regardless of what you choose, you should always keep a focus in your bag so that you can switch to it when you're not in combat for the swiftness buff.

I just hope that these tips help some newcomers who might be turned off by the scepter after hearing horror stories from the first two BWEs. The scepter was vastly improved in BWE3 and I expect it to be even more polished by release. Overall, I think that using the scepter/focus will help you learn how to effectively utilize the core mesmer mechanics. There’s a lot to learn about playing a mesmer, but the class has a nice rhythm once you get used to it. Stick it out for a while and you might be pleasantly surprised!

Guild Wars 2: Mesmer Sharper Images Analysis

This weekend marks the 3rd Beta World Event for Guild Wars 2. I wrote a little bit about my general experiences in the first BWE, but this time I'm focusing on a very specific area of the game. In the first BWE, I was just playing the game and having fun with it. In the second BWE, I started to do a lot more "testing". In particular, one of the things I was testing was the "Sharper Images" trait.

Sharper Images (SI) is a Dueling trait that causes critical hits from Illusions to inflict bleeding for 5 seconds. This trait was bugged in the first BW1 and didn't work at all. In the second BWE1, it worked as described but a second phantasm trait called "Phantasmal Haste" was bugged resulting in some crazy damage output. This means that I didn't get a very good perspective on how these two traits would work together, but that's okay because I can do the math! In addition to seeing how the phantasm related traits would interact together, I also wanted to find out which stats to gear for in order to maximize my damage. In order to do this, we first need some information about how damage is calculated in GW2. Assuming a level 80 character:

  • Pandara_RA! at Team Legacy worked out the following formula for the base damage of an attack:  Base Damage = \frac{(Power) \cdot (Weapon Damage) \cdot (Skill Coefficient)}{Target Armor}
  • The chance of getting a critical attack is determined by the Precision above the base:  CritRate= \frac{4 + (Precision - Base)/21}{100}
  • When an attack criticals, it hits for 50% more damage plus any bonus to critical damage (Prowess). With this, we can find out the average damage of an attack using:  Direct Damage = (Base Damage) \cdot (1+(Crit Rate) \cdot (0.5+\frac{Prowess}{100}))
  • The last piece of information we need is the bleeding damage, which is dependent on condition damage (Malice). According to the GW2 wiki this is determined by  \frac{damage}{second} = 40+0.05 \cdot (Malice) . The bleed duration of 5 seconds can be improved through stats, but only pulses once per second. This means that we can round the duration down to find the number of pulses and find the total bleed damage:  \frac{damage}{second} \cdot \lfloor duration \rfloor

To get a rough estimate of Phantasm DPS, I put these formulas together with some various equipment set-ups and trait choices. You can download this spreadsheet here. To make things simplier, I focused entirely on "Illusionary Duelist" with SI because I knew it hits 8 times every 10 seconds. I also had to make several assumptions about how certain traits would stack, and all of this is subject to change when the game is released anyway. Despite these shortcomings, I found several interesting results:

  • Without any bonus condition damage, SI can add about 10%-20% damage depending on the target's armor (best against higher armor foes) when used in conjunction with Phantasmal Fury. This puts it on par with most damage traits at the adept level.
  • With a skill coefficient of about 0.5 (a total guess BTW), the direct damage builds and condition damage builds I tried seem to even out in terms of potential damage. A lower skill coefficient tends to favor condition damage and a higher one favors direct damage.
  • Chaotic Transference bonus seems lack-luster relative to the heavy investment.
  • Phantasmal Strength and Empowered Illusions complement each other well in a power Build, but the investment for Phantasmal Strength doesn't seem worth it in a condition damage build.
  • Phantasmal Haste tends to work better with a condition damage build than a power build. You don't need to hit hard with SI, you just need to hit often.
  • Investing 20 points into Domination can have a big effect on condition damage builds because it extends bleeds for an extra tick. This makes Lyssa's Runes a potentially interesting choice with SI because of the +10% condition duration, allowing you to spend 10 of those points from Domination elsewhere with minimal DPS loss.
  • The Rampager jewelry seems to be a better choice than Rabid for a condition damage build with SI. There's no point to having strong bleeds if you aren't applying them frequently enough.

There's still a lot more analysis to be done here and some empirical data to collect in BWE3 to verify these findings, but the results look promising. As it stands, you can make SI work in either a direct damage phantasm build or condition damage build with the appropriate gear. Small tweaks to the skill coefficient can keep the two builds competitive if necessary. This fits with Arena.Net's philosophy of having multiple play-styles be equally viable.

I'd encourage you to try out the spreadsheet with other gear and build combinations that I didn't try. If you're feeling adventurous, you might even extend it to include skills other than iDuelist or other traits I may have overlooked. If you find out any more information about how phantasm damage is calculated I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Happy theory-crafting!

Update: BWE3

I did a little testing during BWE3, regarding the attack rates and skill coefficients of the different phantasms. This information should help give an idea of how much each phantasm benefits from stacking Power vs stacking crit/condition damage for Sharper Images. Please note that my recharge times were approximated, and Sanek over at GW2Guru came up with somewhat different numbers. I'm including both my attack rates and his for comparison:

illusion Hits Recharge Attack Rate (hits/sec) Sanek's Recharge Sanek's Rate (Hit/sec) Approx. Skill Coef. DPS Coef. (Mine) DPS Coef. (Sanek)
iDuelist 8 10 0.8 7.5 1.066666667 0.228956229 0.183164983 0.244219978
iSwordsman 1 3 0.333333333 5.5 0.181818182 0.734006734 0.244668911 0.13345577
iWarlock 1 5 0.2 6 0.166666667 0.080808081 0.016161616 0.013468013
iBerserker 1 5 0.2 6 0.166666667 0.281144781 0.056228956 0.046857464
iMage 1 5 0.2 6.7 0.149253731 0.397306397 0.079461279 0.059299462
iDefender 1 3 0.333333333 4.5 0.222222222 0.131313131 0.043771044 0.029180696
iDisenchanter 1 3 0.333333333 4.5 0.222222222 0.131313131 0.043771044 0.029180696
iWarden 12 10 1.2 14 0.857142857 0.033670034 0.04040404 0.028860029
swordClone 3 3 1
staffClone 1 1 1
scepterClone 2 3 0.666666667
gsClone 3 2 1.5

Knowing that the skill coefficient for iDuelist is only 0.23, stacking for condition damage seems to be the best method to maximize damage over time with Sharper Images given a high enough crit rate to apply it consistently. As a general rule of thumb, if your crit rate is less than 50% then you should be gearing for power and if your crit rate is greater than 50% then you should be gearing for condition damage.

A few other interesting things to note:

  • iSwordsman has one of the best skill coefficients of any phantasm. If you're not using Sharper Images and have Power oriented spec, you may want to try out the off-hand sword.
  • iWarlock's DPS is pretty pitiful without conditions. I'm not sure what the bonus per condition is, but I'd recommend having two staff clones up with iWarlock since they have a much faster attack rate. Edit: 10% bonus per condition
  • iWarden has quick attack rate and is has an AoE attack, but remember that this Phantasm is stationary. You're very unlikely to get all 12 hits against a real player.
  • iBerserker has slow recharge AoE attack that moves down a line. It might be possible to hit an opponent twice with this if they're running in the same direction, but I can't be sure about it.
  • The Greatsword clones have the fastest attack rate of any illusion according to my tests. It seems kind of odd that the best clone for Sharper Images would be on a weapon with no innate condition damage.
  • iMage has a high skill coefficient but low attack rate. At first glance, this looks like it would be better for a power build than condition build, but you should remember that he also applies Confusion on attack.
  • iMage and iDisenchanter have bouncing attacks that hit three targets: 1 enemy and 2 allies. I couldn't seem to get it to hit the same enemy twice, but this is something to check for on release.
  • Keep in mind that my original spreadsheet assumes that you leave your Phantasms out all the time. As of BWE3, this is no longer the optimal play-style. If you decide to go with a Power build, you'll probably get the best burst damage by using Mind Wrack right after your phanstasm's first attack cylce. Likewise, Cry of Frustration can now dish out some major hurt if you're built for condition damage.