Thursday, October 17, 2013

3.37. The Illusion of Truth

Early art for one of several patent applications for
a moving staircase, a.k.a. the "Escalator"

Committing Genericide

Convenience is a dastardly foe. In 1950, it fooled a company (as it had the rest of humanity) into changing the perception of its own greatest invention, a blindside which ultimately cost them one of the most important trademarks of the 21st century.

An inventor named Charles Seeberger began working for the Otis Elevator Company at the turn of the century. Thanks to his careful purchase of several unrealized patents bearing a similarity to his newest invention, Charles was able to not only provide his employer with a world-changing machine, Otis itself would retain any and all legal control of the trademarked named. Charles consulted a Latin lexicon and devised a term which loosely described a thing as "a means of traversing from" -- it was to be pronounced "es-CAL-a-tor", much like He-Man's arch nemesis. Thus, the diagonally moving staircase was born, and the Otis-brand Escalator would stand to represent the very best quality in all diagonally moving staircases.

Capitalism being what it was, a number of competitors soon arose from the woodwork, providing their own diagonally moving staircases. But since Otis held a tight trademark on the brand name "Escalator", none of those competitors could legally call their inventions by the same name. They were forced to use impressive terms like "motorstairs", "electric stairways" and what is quite possibly the most exciting of the bunch, "moving stairs". But over the course of the next several decades, the psychology of man produced a very interesting behavior -- one that would eventually cause Otis to defend itself before a judge.

Motor-driven stairs grew to become a luxury that the entire world enjoyed, yet another mark of humankind advancing towards a technological future. They appeared everywhere, in shopping centers, office complexes, the lobbies of high-class apartments -- any place a person wanted a little extra convenience in their life when getting to point B, if it were several floors higher than point A. And Otis gladly met that demand, servicing any and all who required traversal-by-mechanical-means. It wasn't long before the Escalator-brand moving staircase appeared at every turn. Or did they?

There really was no way for the layman to point to a diagonally moving staircase and say, "Ah, an Otis-Brand Escalator! I'd recognize that name anywhere!" They all looked the same and performed the same function. There were no tell-tale clues that gave it away, no identifying logo or unique look that distinguished it from any other. Humankind was in bliss, enjoying their Coke or Pepsi while riding a -- oh, what's that thing called again? The diagonally moving motorized staircase? Ah, right, an escalator! By contrast, people knew which beverage they were drinking, which flavor they were emotionally attached to. They harbored no similar emotional attachment to a mechanized set of stairs. To them, all motorized stairs were escalators. The word itself was as convenient as the invention! The use of the Otis's brand-name became so ingrained into everyday life that by the same time the Pepsi-Cola company was trying to sell itself to the Coca-Cola company, the word "escalate" had become a part of everyday speech. Even the word itself had morphed, taking on a new pronunciation, "ES-ca-lay-tor", something much closer to the word we recognize and use today.

Midway through the 20th century, the Haughton Elevator Company had had enough. Having grown tired of their irreverent pseudonyms for what was clearly now a generic term, Haughton took Otis to court in an attempt to reverse the "Escalator" trademark. By freeing the term from Otis' legal stranglehold, any and all motorized staircase manufacturers could use the word "escalator" much as the public had being doing for years. The courtroom was heated as legal counsel produced pages of trademark copy written by Seeberger decades before his death. Yet upon scrutiny, inconsistencies emerged. Much of the text focused on "Otis-brand" this, and "Otis-brand" that, and Seeberger's own writing mixed the use of 'Escalator' and 'escalator' in various passages, skewing the brand name's validity as a proper noun. The defense pounced. In the March 1946 issue of Architectural Forum, inconsistencies in how the company referred to its brand continued bleed onto the page. Defense pointed to an advertisement, paid for by Otis and written by Otis, which contained the following fate-sealing verbiage:

"To thousands of building owners and managers, the Otis trademark means the utmost in safe, efficient economical elevator and escalator operation."

The last nail of the coffin was hammered in. The presiding judge had no choice but to rule in favor of Haughton, citing that Otis had not only been unable to defend the use of the word as a brand-specific name, they were guilty themselves of genercizing the word. Their brand had grown so convenient, so common to everyday life that its total lack of identifiable traits led humanity to unanimously agree upon their own false expertise. The hive mind collectively agreed on a term that was convenient, made sense, and was them. The convenience of the word was so overwhelming, it even fooled the company that trademarked it in the beginning, as they unconsciously referred to their own invention in err. And in the aftermath of the fateful court case, the term 'escalator' fell into the public domain, but humankind was none the wiser. They continued to use the word as they always had. Or at least, it seemed to us we always had.

The "Raid Difficulty" option, added in Patch 3.2, allows
raids of both 10- and 25-Man sizes to toggle between the
easy and difficult modes on a per-boss basis.

Calling a Raid a "Raid"

When a brand name falls into generic everyday use, it is referred to as genericide. You don't cover your cuts with a medicated adhesive strip, you use a Band-Aid®. You don't make an 8 1/2" x 11" photocopy of that TPS report, you Xerox® it. Do you clean your ear out with a high-quality cotton swab? Or do you use a Q-Tip®? You don't mean to degrade these brands on purpose, it's a part of who we are, looking for convenience and shortcuts in what we do and how we speak. If done with enough frequency, the product we use takes on the meaning of that which we choose to call it. We do this when external identifying factors are diminished, blending into a cloud of indistinguishables. A Pepsi® may taste similar to a Coke® but the logos painted across the aluminum cans are completely dissimilar. Ask any Apple fan boy why you should choose an iPod® over a Zune®, and you'll be blasted with a checklist of significant differences in functionality, display, and even the "feel" of the device in your hands. If these easily identifiable traits aren't available to us, our minds turn to what we deem relevant, focusing instead on the obvious or what moves us: a color, a logo, a taste that we enjoy, a raid boss that caused our adrenaline to pump. When we focus on that repeatedly, it becomes familiar, and deep within the mind familiarity breeds "truthiness". Psychologists refer to this effect as The Illusion of Truth, and it's what makes bullied employees feel useless and complacent, and what compels the entire world to carry on believing a set of motorized stairs is an escalator, never realizing nor caring that they are using the wrong terminology.

At the release of Patch 3.2 - Call of the Crusade, World of Warcraft underwent a number of improvements and refinements, as patches typically do. Among the many new features that landed on our plate was a function that raiders of all shapes and sizes would come to use on a regular basis. Nestled deep within the user interface hid a new option that allowed the raid leader to toggle the difficulty of the next boss. Right-clicking a user frame produced a pop-up dialog, with four menu options: Raid Difficulty: 10-Man, 25-Man, 10-Man (Heroic), and 25-Man (Heroic). Switching the difficulty was as simple as the touch of a button. No longer would raiders have to suffer the indignance of working their way towards a invisible benchmark, say...having the DPS necessary to destroy XT-002's heart or defeating Hodir before he destroyed his cache at the three minute mark. There were no more qualifiers, no more vetting a raid's capacity to do quality work. With a single click, a raid could begin the process of smashing their head against a wall in heroic mode. Many raiders that weren't capable of handling difficult content did as such. And the more players who failed miserably at this difficult content, the more players there were to complain on the Blizzard forums about how life wasn't fair.

It gets better.

In order to make room for this new UI option in our raid frames, terminology needed to be adjusted. Up until this point, the word "heroic" was already in-use: a prefix that differentiated raid achievements by the size of the group involved. A 10-Man effort into "Arachnophobia" was very different than that of a 25-Man effort. To the untrained eye, the obvious physical attributes were the most noticeable: trash was more severe in a 25-Man, more health on bosses, and mechanics were less forgiving. Nerds being what we are, math is often the first go-to, so it made logical sense that beating a twenty-minute timer in a 10-Man raid appeared less challenging than in a 25-Man. But not everyone loves math as much as a nerd, so more convenient physical attributes were honed in on. The "heroic" label prefixed on each golden banner satisfied this requirement. In 3.2, however, this would no longer fly. The "heroic" label was now being used to indicate the difficulty setting of a boss, regardless of raid size. The term could no longer exist in both contexts without creating confusion, since 10s had the option of a "heroic" mode, just like the 25s. What to do?

To clear up this confusion, Blizzard stripped the "heroic" label off of the 25-Man achievements, and suffixed each achievement with its appropriate raid size instead. What was once "Heroic: Arachnophobia" was now "Arachnophobia (25-Man)", sitting parallel to "Arachnophobia (10-Man)". A perfectly logical, simple change that very clearly conveyed to WoW players exactly which achievement was which.

And thus began the slow growth of convenience tentacles into our subconscious, injecting us with their seed of genericization.

Both images are of the 25-Man version of One Light in the Darkness, one executed prior to 3.2, the other was done post 3.2. They are exactly the same in terms of difficulty. Only the labels on the achievements changed.
Quick! Which one of these achievements was the more
difficult of the two? (hover over image for the answer)


Try to think of something "heroic". Perhaps you read the word and instantly think of firefighters rescuing children from a burning building, soldiers storming a beach, or Russel Crowe fighting off a handful of combatants in a sandy arena. The word invokes an emotional response in our brain because we associate it with great prestige, an accomplishment of noteworthy effort. We can point to Batman knocking out a villain and very easily identify which is the "heroic" of the two comic book characters. Well, the layperson might. But corner a comic book nerd and you'll produce an hour long discussion about the varying definitions of good and evil, darkness and light, and when Batman may even make unheroic decisions, making you wish you'd never brought the subject up. The nerdy comic book experts, it would seem, possess a sort of unhealthy obsession to the specifics...but they are no different than a machinist who happens to know the finely tuned differences between an Otis-brand escalator, and those of a competitor.

Hardcore World of Warcraft players share this tendency.

To many of us, labels on bright golden achievement bars that flash up on a screen are fluff; extraneous information that we don't pay a lot of attention to. What matters the most to us are the numbers, and our own experiences. And, as long as we had been raiding content in World of Warcraft, the size ultimately played a huge factor in gauging how difficult the content was. During Vanilla, 40s (near the end) were exceptionally challenging, and in The Burning Crusade, the few 10s weren't nearly as tough as the main stretch of 25-Man content. As we carried on into Wrath, we continued to see the very same things...from our perspective. The toughest content we reserved for the end of the week, but during the rest of the week, we cleared 10-Man content with ease. We did so simply because it was there, and we could supplement our gear with its lesser rewards. Each week, we would measure our performance against other 25-Man guilds to see how far along we were. And like clockwork, we would also see that each week, the 10-Man achievements were consistently completed long before the 25-Man ones -- just one more piece of evidence that painted the 10s as inconsequential.

But, that's not what the masses saw.

Thanks to the growing ubiquity of raiding in Wrath, a much larger group of players had entered the picture. Many of these players didn't share our unhealthy obsession with the fine details of raiding differences, nor did they care to. They were a different breed of player, focused primarily on what was convenient and familiar to them. Black Temple, Ahn'Qiraj, raids of great challenge still fresh in our minds bore no great burden to this next generation of raiders; they entered WoW raiding with no baggage. There was no "before" to the "after" to compare to; for them, the size of the raid was merely a reflection of their personal choice, something they clung to as fiercely as their most cherished class. They believed it. So by the time 3.2 had changed the way raids were labelled, the masses were already well on their way to considering both sizes of raids as equal, not as normal and heroic -- easy and difficult -- as they once were. What was truly bizarre to us was that amid these claims, Blizzard not only didn't clarify the differences in difficulty when called upon, they joined the masses in their shared assessment. Yes, raids are equal in difficulty! The size is merely a reflection of personal preference, not one of challenge! Even in the face of the data that said otherwise, the company that had (re)invented raiding spoke as though they were caught up in their own illusion.

It remained to be seen whether or not the illusion would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


"How was your trip to BlizzCon?" I shot an IM over to Cheeseus, "was it a blast or what?"

"Yeah, it was a good time," he replied, "I assume you saw the announcement about the next legendary?"

"No, what is it?"

"Shadowmourne. You're gonna wanna have a look."

Upon seeing the name in front of me, I did what any WoW player would do: I Googled® it.


Dalans said...

I'm sure this is relevant:

Shawn Holmes said...


LOL! And so true...

Fred said...

After all these years, I am still terrified to click any link that Dalans posts........

Dalans said...

@Fred, I think your beard can handle it.

Anonymous said...

This was a bold, but highly entertaining and informative, post. It makes me ponder...

Sayachan said...

Wow, I can't believe I made it here. So far I read all your posts in a river of information, fortunate enough to not reach the end of your bag. The moment I dreaded has come, I have to wait for next week :S to find out another tiny bit of the life of people I grew fond of.

Starting out as one of the many blogs about anything and everything, I grew fond of your writing and I more that often find myself wishing our guild master and officers were more like you and your friends.

Somehow, across the ocean, you made me feel closer to your guild than to the one I am part of and I hope that more people, more guild masters, more leaders in this endeavor that should be, more than anything, fun, will read your blog and put as much dedication in their guild as they put in all other real-life activities.

You have a dedicated fan (yay, another one) and I will be looking forward to your posts.

PS: I would have imagined a scary DK like you would drive something more menacing, like a Hummer or something.

Shawn Holmes said...


Thank for reading along! I'm very happy to hear we've found another new fan. I'm always excited to hear about a new reader marathoning their way through the blog -- I hate to have to make you wait, but I assure you that more is on the way.

Hopefully you've picked up from the story that, as with guild leadership, I've tried to be practical -- and the Hummer is far from that. :)

Anonymous said...

To play devil's advocate on the 10 v 25 thing...

Trash was harder because 25 man's had more than twice the manpower.

Mechanics were less forgiving because see above.

Bosses had more health because see above.

It was also harder to get all raid buffs with 10 players.

And lastly, the 10 man achievements were completed quickly by 25 man raiders with 25 man ilevel gear. This was a well known thing that 10 man's complained about.