Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It's 4/20 Somewhere

A few months back, I went to MIT's GameLab symposium, ran into old friends and new acquaintances. The content was interesting, of course, but aside from finding myself suddenly in the same room with Peter Molyneux--and becoming very self-conscious of all the smack I've talked about him all these years--I mostly remember the breaks, and the reception, and the repeated catch-ups and introductions. I was exhausted, having been up late reminiscing with an old Tori room friend until the wee small hours of the morning, and found that I lacked the enthusiasm to be embarrassed about how things were going. So when people asked how I was, I didn't find a way to change the subject, or inflate pipe dreams into viable projects. I simply answered, in as friendly and earnest a manner as I could manage, "I'm terrible. How're you?"

The feeling is strangely liberating. Doris Rusch, of Akrasia and Elude fame, advised me to write a novel. It's a tall order, but I suppose she does have credibility on the topic. Tell you what, Doris. You make a game about writer's block, I'll throw 60,000 words into something from the Goofy Vampire Shit file. Who knows, if housewives can masturbate to it, I could finally be writing for a living.

If you'll bear with me, you'll find that you've been bearing with me for the last two paragraphs, because I haven't bothered to introduce the topic of this post, which is the Newtown shooting. I begin with the symposium to bring some context to my initial reaction: shock and disbelief. Specifically, shock and disbelief that people were rending their garments over a rampage shooting in America. The fault here is clearly mine; my capacities for shock and grief have been stretched a bit thin recently. To put it succinctly, I feel badly.

The thing is, even had I not been operating from a place of sullen amorality, I think I still would have been surprised at the extent of the teeth-gnashing and garment-rending. Because, honestly, if I reacted to every rampage shooting with the pity and anger and incomprehension of Columbine, I'd have either moved out of the U.S. or stopped reading the news years ago.

I promised to post exactly two things about this, because, as noted here, I gave at the office, and don't have a whole lot to say on the subject that's either original or interesting. The first was this, because it's the logical starting point for what interests me about the current cultural moment. There are a lot of issues in play right now in American politics, but gun control really isn't one of them. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it hasn't been in play for the decade or two; we'll have to see how the current kerfuffle plays out. If I'm not mistaken, the most significant changes wrought by the Columbine shooting, aside from the ongoing militarization of our schools, was a change in Wal-Mart's inventory. Since then, the most notable gun-related policy shift has been the expiration of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, commonly (and oddly) referred to as the Assault Weapons Ban. This is not the brutal, gunless dystopia we were promised, and like his failure to crash the stock market and cripple American capital, reflects badly on Obama's willingness or ability to destroy America as he promised.

This has not stopped gun control opponents from making impassioned, heartfelt, deontological arguments, but I admit that I'm not entirely certain who they're hoping to reach, because gun rights are under no real threat. Congress can barely pass popular legislation, let alone "culture war" shit. Not only are "guns"--the entire broad category of ballistic weaponry, apparently, from the flamelock onward--not going to be banned, but no congressman is going to even introduce legislation to that effect. The most that's going to happen, barring a massive sea-change in Congress' perception of the electorate, is a ban on certain high-capacity magazines, and possibly the return of the PS&RFUPA. (That law is a lot of fun to type.)

I am, as a rule, deeply suspicious of principle, so when I see people making wide, generalized deontological arguments about present-day politics, I start asking whether the application of said principle can be defended on any grounds other than the authority of the principle itself. There are plenty of reasons one might prefer to live in a society that has few restrictions on private ownership of weapons. Hunting and home-defense remain perennial rhetorical favorites. Less commonly asserted is the value of corpse-free recreational shooting itself, which is to say, pleasure. A lot of people think guns are fun. Pleasure is a legitimate social good to be considered and weighed alongside others. This is an issue that can be dealt with through standard, boring democratic means.

What I find more concerning is the obfuscatory argument-by-invocation, the assertion that the second amendment takes democratic processes off the table. We can live in a society of freely available weaponry if we want to, but the second amendment does not obligate us to. At least, nobody claimed that it did until the 1960s. Regardless, it would be disingenuous to say that this ties our hands. The 18th amendment made alcohol illegal, but we didn't throw up our hands and say that the Constitution prevented us from drinking. We repealed that motherfucker. Ok, first, we continued drinking alcohol in huge quantities, helped subsidize aggressive organized crime syndicates that would then proceed to infiltrate our law enforcement operations, and started wearing really wonderfully fashionable clothing. But then we repealed that motherfucker. We, collectively, can do what we want. Some of those things might require more than a simple majority vote, but nothing is forever off the table. That is ok. That is how republics do things. The Bill of Rights is not the Decalogue. God will not wither our souls if we make bad policy choices. We will simply have to live with bad policy choices until we decide to change them. The argument from authority is not sufficient. If the Founders are worth listening to, we can discern that fact that the policy merits of their ideas, not the fact of their capitalized mythic identity.

This is not to say that we should take constitutional restrictions lightly, nor do I mean to suggest that more restrictive gun control policies would have uniformly positive, predictable outcomes. Conversely, that is not to say that trendy nihilism is the appropriate response. Yes, it is true that we cannot prevent all violence, all evil, everywhere. It is true, it is obvious, and employed effectively, it can add a meaningful rhetorical flourish. It seems to have every quality but that of being useful. We also can't prevent death, not indefinitely. But I still take the trouble to eat every day, and I take care when I make left turns. That utopia is unavailable is not, in itself, an argument that the status quo is the best for which we may hope. Chalking it up to original sin is not a policy prescription. Despair, like hope, is not a strategy.

Related, arguing that it's in poor taste to discuss policy, that it's "too soon" and sensitivity to the victims demands that we stammer awkwardly and change the subject, is a classic small-c conservative move, the first and most beloved argument to obstruct the democratic process. Yes, the media coverage is sure to be traumatic to many. This can be mitigated somewhat by consideration on the part of individual journalists, but in wake of a tragedy of this magnitude, I sincerely doubt that our contribution to the survivors' misery is more than negligible, in terms of total abject horror. If you're interested, you can test it out yourself. Find a parent who lost a child to accident, suicide, or murder, and tell them how lucky they are that they didn't have to see references to their pain in the media. I'm sure they'll agree that they have much to be thankful for.

As nice as it would be to bend the entire culture to sympathy for the victims, there are many, many children who haven't been shot yet, and they matter too. It would be nice if we could collectively and unobtrusively sit shiva with the victims' families, but we do have stuff to do. The supplication for sensitive silence is a specific application of the more general use of "politics" as a dirty word, denoting arguments over outcomes that are meaningless to all but the players directly involved. Politics, says the meme, is for politicians, a species of humanoid insect in flesh masks. It's despicable the way people keep trying to polticize the ongoing threat of random violence, as if the means by which we make collaborative decisions about how best to ensure our well-being could possibly have anything to do with preventing violent crime.

Thankfully, we are having that discussion. Sadly, in the main, it's not going terribly well. The gut reactions seem to mostly involve "banning" things that are already illegal, a matter not helped by the bizarre insistence that a problem that is partially technological be dealt with at any level of technical specificity. Semi-automatic and automatic are not synonymous; fully automatic weapons are already illegal, and have been for some time; the term "assault weapon" is a vague term describing semi-automatics that look like assault rifles. We've been playing first-person shooters for twenty fucking years now. It's not unreasonable to expect people to know a bit about guns.

On the other side of the aisle, Prohibition and the drug war are not the only times the government has attempted to ban things. As far as similarities go between alcohol, marijuana, and semi-automatic rifles chambered for .556 rounds, the fact that people have wanted to ban them is pretty much it. The risk factors, means of production, and moral economy differ entirely. Similarly, the argument that "criminals can always get guns" is somewhat specious, in that the availability of illegal guns is a function of the availability of legal guns. I rather doubt that criminals have set up underground factories into which they import raw materials and produce illicit weapons. It seems like that sort of operation would be much easier to find than, say, a grow house. (It is worth noting that, yes, 3D printing might make this reality in a few years. The meme might be more true by then.) The trade in illegal guns does raise some concerns about the efficacy of state laws in a country with 48 easily-transgressable internal borders. It also suggests that, if such a policy were enacted carelessly, we do run the risk of disarming the criminals last.

Ah, but here we hit another vocabulary roadblock. It's not insightful to point out that only criminals use guns to commit murder; it's tautological. Unless we legalize murder, it is not possible for non-criminals to commit murder. But people do commit murder, without first conducting a syllogism to see if it's ok. It seems that our definition of "criminal" errs heavily on the identity of the "career criminal," an odious symbolic individual who, for all his faults, isn't usually interested in getting himself killed for no particular reason. Criminals--those ruthless, rational, career criminals we're concerned about--tend to want to live. If they didn't, the money wouldn't matter very much, and they could just find inexpensive ways to kill themselves, like being insufficiently deferent to police.

Right, the police. The state's instruments of democratically authorized violence, a vitally important job that we've decided should be treated as a low-skilled, low-paying position. Conservatives and anarchists alike espouse the importance of being able to shoot it out with the police; curiously, the conservatives also eagerly argue that police should have no checks on their power whatsoever. The anarchists have the edge on this one, ideologically, but it's not a solution to the problem of a culture that too frequently allows bullies, vigilantes, and psychopaths to wield coercive power. I'll head off my mother-in-law's objection early, by noting that, yes, fewer than 100% of police officers are perjurers, rapists, murderers, etc. In fact, I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I'm willing to bet that it's much, much less than 100%. The problem is that anything north of 0% is way the fuck too much. A state-authorized criminal is extraordinarily well protected, and their existence undermines public safety much more dramatically than comparably violent free agents. Furthermore, systemic problems in our legal system perpetuate rape culture, and poorly conceived, poorly implemented laws have created an underclass in which sex workers, immigrants, the homeless, etc. can expect no police protection whatsoever, putting them at an extraordinary risk for abuse both public and private. There seems to be no lobbying offensive aimed at making it easier for these folks to arm themselves, to defend themselves from violence at the hands of police, just as the shooting of Trayvon Martin did not lead to an NRA statement urging black teenagers to carry firearms to avoid street harassment. This absolute right to self-defense seems oddly haphazard in its application. But making it easier for people to shoot cops, or to shoot cops and get away with it, is not actually a solution in any reasonable sense

That the most egregious, unthinkable acts of violence cannot be entirely prevented is not a reason to give up on addressing the more prolific, ubiquitous acts of violence in American life. I think, should we actually do the work, we will likely find that the two are not entirely unrelated. I see no reason we couldn't have a sane, reasonably safe society and relatively unencumbered access to firearms for those that want them--there are fewer examples in the world than there used to be, perhaps, but, as Chesterton said, society is a human invention. "Could" is a very, very wide word. The question is what types and qualities of risk we're willing to tolerate, by binding or loosing. We can deal with this at the level of actual trade-offs, goods to be weighed against one another.

Finally--I swear--the emphasis on the more grandiose episodes conceal as much as they reveal, and aren't likely to lead to good policy. Rampage killers are, by definition, the most difficult to deter. They can be made less deadly, which would certainly be a worthwhile goal. But preventing rampage shootings is going to involve a hell of a lot more than vague generalities about mental health. It will involve dealing with the general patterns of violence in our culture, the role of privilege, and an awareness of the amount of psychopathy we're willing to let slide as long as you're a white guy from a decent neighborhood. It will involve economic justice, improved law enforcement, and a reduction of a hundred different risk factors. It will not happen overnight, and we'll need to make adjustments as we go. Fortunately, we have a technology for doing exactly that, and it works pretty well when we don't live down to our representatives' suspicions of us. It is the work of politics.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Lazy writer's block post that does not involve Black Claire

You know what videogames don't often deal with? Abortion.

Actually, videogames don't often deal with rape, labor rights, or tax law, but abortion's in my feed right now, because abortion's in the national feed right now. It has been for most of a century now, but we have to make room in our public discourse for wars and sporting events and Kardashians, so it drops out now and then.

Most notably, we're talking about a handful of big-name sound-bites on the issue, most notably Todd Akin's assertion that women's bodies will eject eggs fertilized during rape--I'm paraphrasing, because his actual words were so stupid it would hurt my fingers to type them--and Richard Mourdock's complementary assertion that pregnancies resulting from rape are part of God's plan.

These are stupid comments, and I'm not interested in spending much time arguing about their factual merits. They weren't meant for pro-choicers, liberals, feminists, or other sane and/or decent people. They were meant for a particular audience, to address a particular issue. Let's go around the back and see what's going on.

But first, some ground rules. Abortion is one of those issues where well-intentioned people can find themselves supporting barbarism, and it's helpful to keep an eye on our ideas about the basic functions of laws. To wit, for this post to make sense--for any political discussion to make sense, in my opinion--we have to remind ourselves that laws are not a psychic signifier of our culture's collective morals. There're lots of bad things we don't have laws against, because a law is not a stern talking-to. Breaking the law is about more than earning the collective disappointment of society. A law is an authorization of the state to use physical violence in particular situations, in order to prevent or retaliate against a particular course of action on the part of its citizens.

This is a useful metric for abortion. Forget how we feel imagining a stranger getting an abortion under circumstances X, Y, and Z. Think instead about how we feel about our employees, the police, a) extorting money from her under threat of kidnapping and imprisonment, b) kidnapping and imprisoning her under the threat of physical violence, or c) killing her should she resist b) with sufficient vigor.

So, in what circumstances should having an abortion result in a woman being extorted out of her property or beaten into submission before being forcibly placed in prison and forbidden to leave? If abortion is murder, as the placards say, all of them. Nobody ever seems to support this plan, though; even people who claim to oppose abortion rarely go on the record wanting to execute the women who get them. The doctors tend to bear the brunt of the imagined punishment, which is usually a fine of some sort: pretty light treatment for a hired assassin.

Regardless, if abortion is bad, it ought to be punished. Violence ought to be used against women who pay to have the procedure performed, medically or surgically. If abortion isn't bad, violence ought not to be used against women who have abortions. These two positions, though not equal, to my reckoning, are equally comprehensible. What's more problematic is what political scientists refer to as the Stupid Fucking Middle-Ground Horseshit.

The Stupid Fucking Middle-Ground Horseshit is where we get unambiguously awful ideas like the idea that abortion should be illegal (i.e. punishable by violence) except in cases or rape, incest, or endangerment. Because the law-as-psychic-projection idea comes into play here as well. We could treat abortions as homicides, I suppose, and acknowledge that certain kinds would be justifiable. But how would we actually know which ones those are? The law doesn't exist without a concordant punishment, and we can't punish people if we don't know who they are.

Given that rape is, y'know, a crime, it is rarely done in public. It is rarely particularly well-hidden, either, but we make a lot of excuses to help that process along. So let us now imagine that a woman is seeking an abortion, saying that she was raped. Does the state take her word for it? If so, the restriction is meaningless, and will have all the force and efficacy of the "Click here if you're 18" box. If not, what documentation would be required?

Would it be sufficient for the woman to report having been raped? Because we tend to work really hard not to believe women who say that.

Would it be necessary for criminal charges to be filed against an accused rapist? Because that's quite difficult to do. Prosecutors don't like cases they can't win, and cops don't like arrests that can't be prosecuted.

Would it be necessary for the accused rapist to be found guilty? Because a) that's almost fucking impossible, b) the goddamn kid will have been born by then.

There is simply no way to implement such a ridiculous restriction in a consistent manner. Criminalizing abortion would be immoral, but criminalizing abortion except under the aforementioned legal quagmire is both immoral and insane.

Which brings us back to Akin and Mourdock, whose comments, ridiculous as they may be, make some sense in this context. They were, in fact, arguing a point similar to the one I've put down here: that saying abortion is ok for rape survivors and murder for anyone else is really fucking stupid. It doesn't serve the interests of anybody, even the rapists and slavers of the right-wing id.

If there is anyone who ought to be allowed to get an abortion, under any circumstances, then there is no just reason to deny everyone that option under any every circumstance.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Evacuate the Dance Floor.

I've noticed that traffic to this site is noticeably up since I joined Google+. Relatively speaking. A 65% increase over "I think my mom reads it" is a substantive increase.

I feel a bit piqued, however, that it happened shortly before the least productive chunk of my life. There are lots of big, blank spaces over there on the Archives tab, but even when nothing ended up here, I scratched out my share of academic publications, journal entries, emails, grocery lists, death threats, slash fiction, and rock operas.

Lately, there has been nothing.

When there is no writing, unsurprisingly, there is little to no gaming. Casual games, so I've read, are ideal for this sort of situation, when time and attention are limited resources, but casual games suffer a peculiar weakness that is little remarked upon: when played in a state of severe depression, a hardcore game is still something like a game. Even if you know every beat, and are playing it entirely from the autonomic portion of your skillset, it still moves at your pace, and responds to your whims. Not a story per se, but more like a satisfying walk taken many times before, as Espen Aarseth once suggested to me. Genre conventions, sufficiently codified, can allow this experience even in "new" texts. Casual games, on the other hand, when played under sufficient duress, cease to feel like anything at all.

The more-than-casual stuff usually holds up. Which is why I found it quite surprising, shortly after helping Kratos to pull--not cut, but pull--the head of Phoebus from his body, that I found myself too depressed to continue playing God of War III. It became clear, at this point, that I had no choice but to dance.

As Jane McGonigal wrote in Reality is Broken, dancing is a) a reliable source of happiness, b) an extraordinary display of vulnerability, which is why our brains so often refuse to consider a) sufficient reason to do it. Personally, I am overweight, uncoordinated, and self-conscious about both my appearance and my taste in music. So naturally I try to find opportunities to dance in public when they present themselves. Same reason scared-to-death undergrad me joined a theater group that would soon have me (diegetically) jerking off onstage. Eventually you just run out of shame. If you're going to feel afraid anyway, it feels better to act in such a way that being afraid is more reasonable.

Which is the confusing part about Dance Central, for me: the utter shamelessness involved in playing it takes the experience far out of the realm of game-playing as I usually experience it. I suppose, by Jesper Juul's criteria, the mimetic interface would classify it as a casual game; perhaps I don't think of it as such only because playing it requires preparation (moving furniture out of the way, tranq'ing the cat) that I recognize as the precise opposite of "casual." As a vocal proponent of non-stupid theory, I ought to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Simple, intuitive interface, pleasant fiction, short time commitment, juicy...it's a convincing case. But it's a bit more than that, as the activity required/depicted isn't changed significantly by the game's feedback. In fact, what Dance Central actually does is apply the tools of fixation--game-like apparatuses--to a fundamental expression of the joy of being embodied.

God of War is many things, but at a narrative level, it's compelling because of bodies. Impossible, inexhaustible, superhuman bodies, and the ways to break them. At one level, it's fun because it's fun to be Kratos. (At another level, it's fun because the game constantly reminds you that you're not Kratos, which is the post I was trying to write when I opened up blogger.) Without emotion, there is no meaning, and without narrative, there is no goal. What is admirable, what is exciting, what is interesting about Kratos is about the experience of being embodied.

When you don't want to be in your body, or any body, it's difficult to enjoy...anything. It shouldn't be surprising that this includes action/adventure games. I find that Dance Central helps me circumvent this problem by making enjoyment of the body the game itself.

I can't wait to see what happens when Harmonix decides to do a game about fucking.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Naked Snake and the Philosopher's Stone

Like the rest of the series, MGS3 begins with a fucklot of cutscenes. My first mistake, it seems, was paying attention to the dialogue.

Not because the dialogue is bad, mind you--it isn't--but because the MGS series uses the dialogue both to describe the diegetic world and to poke holes in the plastic film of the fourth wall. The map is not the terrain, and the narrative is not the game. The diegetic gameworld has little concept of Continue, of course, and we all accept that any sentence that ends with "...or you'll die horribly" should be read to mean "...or you'll have to restart from the next checkpoint." Stealth games carry their own suspension of disbelief, that searches for an intruder will eventually be called off, as opposed to escalating into the kind of concentric search-and-destroy operation for which security forces are trained. The consequences of getting caught have to be severe enough to be interesting, but forgiving enough to be fun. But Major Zero really lays it on thick with the stealth stuff, exclaiming that you musn't engage the enemy at all, must leave no ammo casings, blood spatter, or any evidence at all that you were ever there. It's a lot to ask, even from a Metal Gear standpoint. Even with the (interesting, but not all that different) non-lethal options available in MGS2, nobody would look at an area Solid Snake had passed through and have any question that a heavy armed and highly trained special forces operative had been in to visit.

Still, I found myself wanting to do a full-on stealth thing, to actually avoid foes entirely, and the new camouflage functionality, combined with my old tricks from the previous games, seemed like it would fit the bill. (It didn't.) So I got seen, a lot. I tranq'd (tranqued?) a lot of people, and felt vaguely guilty for doing so. I broke necks and slit throats when I got annoyed. And I got seen. A lot. To the point that, fifty years later, there ought to be folk legends in Russia about the clumsy CIA agent who kept bumping into guards by accident.

You can imagine how gratified I felt, having tried to hard to be inconspicuous and play to Zero's specifications, when Volgin fired a nuke into the valley. Unlike the knife, the garrotte, and the needle, the Davy Crockett portable nuclear missile has never really been considered a "stealth" weapon.

Perhaps the story was playing a joke on the unrealities of the Tactical Espionage Action genre. Perhaps Zero was merely alerting the player, in a roundabout manner, of the types of things the NPCs would notice that they hadn't in previous games. Perhaps he was underscoring the diegetic point that it's 1964, FOX-HOUND doesn't exist yet, and the entire concept of Low-Intensity Conflict is still finding its legs. Intelligence and counterintelligence are older than dirt, of course, so at times it's difficult to remember that the shadow wars that made up American military operations through the latter half of the 20th century were breaking a lot of new ground. JFK might have been James Bond's biggest fan, but "James Bond" was hardly something that could be made into Standard Operating Procedure.

At any rate, at the commencement of Operation Snake Eater, I'd remind myself that this was still a Metal Gear game, and Zero could go fuck himself, because I'd be engaging the enemy violently and often. Which brings us to the second major point of confusion: the alarm system. More accurately, the lack thereof.

1 and 2 have a pretty simple, standardized, game-like approach to alarms. They go off, you break the line of sight and hide until it goes away. MGS2 added a few things like radio check-ins for dead/unconscious guards, but basically the pattern held. Worse came to worst, you could always just leave the area for a clean slate.

Most of MGS3 is outdoors, and there are very few alarms to pull. Reinforcements are handled by radio and person-to-person contact. So if somebody sees you, even if the Alert is blaring in the upper-right of your HUD, it goes away as soon as your observer does. There is no "general alarm" to worry about, just the guy who saw you, and anyone in range of his voice. The guy with the radio has a very long voice, but the principle holds, and logic compels you to disable him first. The logic of stealth in MGS3 is in this way more brutal than its predecessors: when you've been seen, hiding is useless. You survive by eliminating witnesses, and making sure you don't leave any living bodies, corpses, bloodstains or bullet-casings lying out where people might stumble onto them and get suspicious. (This last point leads to the more hilarious and/or horrifying moments of MGS3 when you're panicked and killing too quickly to hide the evidence, eventually leading to a badly injured Snake standing atop a pile of corpses like Frank Castle in Born.)

I was nearly finished with the game by the time I "got" this at any intuitive level, and consequently I missed a lot of weapons and items along the way. I'm replaying it now, and it's both thrilling and dull to move smoothly through a game that confounded me at every turn for so long. I stumble upon an AK-47, and wonder, why? Knowing for a fact that I can complete the game with a tranq pistol and my bare fists, why would I bother with this clumsy, unpredictable, score-killing death machine?

Which brings me to the third point that confused me for so long: not only are there redundant solutions to every conceivable problem in MGS3, but the solutions learned from the previous games are almost invariably impractical. The heavier weaponry is almost always more fun than it is practical, and I suppose that's a substantive achievement for the genre. Confusing as hell, but substantive.

In summary, 1) genre conventions override narrative conceits, 2) fight, not flight, and 3) prioritize the new shit. One could easily make the argument that these lessons, and my failure to learn them, comprise a neat allegory of my professional malaise. One would not be me, because me has one last to add: the most important red flag, when dealing with depression, is inability to enjoy things that usually bring pleasure. If I've learned one useful thing from the past five years, it'd probably be that it's harder to notice that flag when the things you do for fun are so closely linked with the things you do professionally. When you think of yourself primarily as someone who writes, games, and writes about games, it's not an occupational hazard when you find yourself unable to muster the interest to do any of those things for pleasure. It's a yawning chasm, a bright black void.

I've fucked up. A lot.

And thus, I Continue.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Because it is bitter, and because it is my heart.

Last week, I finished Metal Gear Solid 3. It was bittersweet. We have a history, MGS3 and I. Fortunately, unlike the women I met in undergrad, MGS3 cannot be annoyed or offended by my writing it up here, and it can't file a restraining order should I attempt to play it again.

I'm old enough to remember the end of the Cold War, but not old enough to understand what it meant or why it mattered until years later. Which is to say that I am also too young to remember Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2, or Snake's Revenge. I played Metal Gear once on the NES, and spent my time being confused why I was in a combat zone with a pack of cigarettes and no weapons. That was Metal Gear for me: unarmed, with addictive, carcinogenic drugs, and no clear idea what to do.

I got older, the wall came down, and Metal Gear Solid came out. I was seventeen, living in the phantom world between middle school and college, and I finished it in two sittings. Which is not to say I was particularly good at the game, just persistent. I learned the rules slowly, in the face of constant failure, but the Game is good, and the Game is kind, and I learned. Stay under the cameras. Break the neck if you're unarmed. Shoot from behind with a silenced pistol if you're not. The FAMAS for close- and medium-range firefights, the PSG-1 for long-range combat, the stinger for hard targets. Chaff grenades to make their attacks less accurate. Cigarettes and valium to make my own more accurate. MGS is a marvel of parsimony; a place for everything, and everything in its place.

I grew up a bit. "Watashi no senkoo wa seijigaku desu," is how the kids would describe it. MGS is a good thing to love if you're studying poli-sci, it turns out. The limits of deterrence theory, the ins and outs of modern weapons systems, the challenges posed by actor proliferation: all good stuff to have a handle on before you step into the classroom, especially if you haven't been there in a while. MGS stuck to me deeply in adolescence, and I suppose it sticks there still.

At 20, I acquired Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and played it manically, usually with an audience. The sheer craziness of the narrative was well-paired with the brutal sanity of the gameplay, and I died and died and died until I won. I didn't go for a lot of the secrets--I shot birds, sure, but I was never good at robbing guards, and I didn't think to look up the hostage's skirt--but I played it to death, and when I started working on my undergrad thesis, armed with a novice's knowledge of postmodern literature, I played it again. MGS2, and its progenitor, ended up being the centerpiece of my first significant academic work, my writing sample for grad school. Columbine taught me about CMS, but MGS2 got me there.

But that hadn't happened yet, so when I met Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, I was living surreptitiously in my girlfriend's college housing. Like the Democratic party at the time, I was disorganized, weak-willed, and completely without direction. So when MGS3 didn't "grab" me right out of the gate, it might have been my own lack of focus that presented the problem, rather than that of the designers. We cannot blame the snow, after all, for being soiled by the earth. (We can also infer from Ms. Edison an alternate explanation.)

I'd return to MGS3 periodically over the years, sometimes with high hopes for figuring out what I was missing, sometimes out of dull determination to get it over with. I bought a DualShock 3 controller, in the hope that it would make the AP sensor more useful. I ignored entreaties to buy the enhanced re-release Subsistence. I'd pick it up, get confused, and put it back down. The rest of my life was working out much the same way. Looking back with the smallest amount of distance, I can see the sundry errors, near-misses and general-purpose fuck-ups of the last eight years mirrored in my relationship with, and my approach to, MGS3.

Next post will pick up the thread from there: how I learned to stop worrying and eat the snake, and how frustrating it is to have already used that joke on an entirely unrelated post title.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Detritus

This is a really shitty essay on ethics and evolution, and I felt compelled to respond. Then I read it again and found the prospect of responding too dull. Then my partner got a phone call and I needed something to do for a few minutes.

At its heart, it seems--along with the usual anti-materialist concerns about "how dare you use our idiotic prejudices about bodies and physicality against us"--is a complete failure to distinguish between descriptive and normative ethics. That some scientists study how moral decisions are made seems, to the author, to lead inexorably to the conclusion that he must be an insect or a computer or something. Because after all, if ethics really did involve conscious decision-making at any level, surely it would be impossible to study how various animal species behave!

So, I'm going to skip largely over what the author is saying, because what the author is saying is stupid, stupid bullshit. But it's worth spending some time on what the author is implying, that the very idea of descriptive ethics is not only pointless, but actually offensive to the legitimate field of normative ethics. I'm not sure what the antipathy is, exactly, although it probably doesn't help that advances in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have led to white-coated scientists empirically verifying things that Enlightenment philosophers pointed out three-hundred years ago, to wide cultural acclaim. We like scientists. Scientists make things. We are not, culturally, as enamored of fancypants professors. Nobody is more pissed off about this than I am; fancypants professor would be a good career path for me, whereas my science education is woefully inadequate, and my technical skill has so far served me to write some papers and code a text-based game about Kant's murderer-at-the-door scenario in C++.

The decisions made by ants are, in some ways, similar to decisions made by humans. They are also, in other ways, very different. They're primarily interpreted and executed via written/spoken language, an evolutionary technology so bizarre that only primates could come up with it. They are also orders of magnitude more complex, as our species has nested our fundamental concerns behind so many layers of interpersonal bureaucracy that we often lose sight of them entirely. But if ethics is to be merely a study of what we ought to do, it's worth pointing out that nearly every ethical philosophy already agrees on what any given person ought to do on a day to day basis, and argument tends to arise over issues that are either extraordinarily complex or hilariously rare. Still a worthwhile use of one's time, but there's beauty, and useful data, looking at it from the other end once in a while.

We can shake our fists at the blind, pitiless unvierse and bellow "I am human!" if we like, until Sheldon Cooper asks us why we're yelling tautologies at the sky. Of course we're human. This is not something in dispute. But we are also primates, and every part of us has some similarity to chimpanzees and bonobos, and we have a little less similarity to the gorillas and orangutans, etc. We didn't pop into the universe from nothing. What we did was develop a technology that radically accelerated our differentiation from the non-hominids. We walked into this movie in the middle, to paraphrase Stephen King. So we have a lot of work to do to get up to speed.

And it turns out there's a lot to learn from ants, and primates, and computers, because every metaphor we can develop for how humans function gives us new data to work with. And while "cooperative animal behavior" might not precisely equal "human virtue," it is worth noting that humans are animals, and all of our virtues (as well as many of our vices) involve cooperating with someone. More to the point, the cooperative animal behavior of ants isn't human virtue in much the same way that a cell isn't a person. They're different things. Still, get a few billion (?) cells together and weird things happen. Things you wouldn't have predicted. One of the things that can happen is a person, with awareness of moral law: an awareness just as certain as the fear of pain.

Big things are made of small things, to quote Gaius Secondus, and if you want to understand the big things, it helps to look at the small things. Free will is only a useful concept is we assume there are a) decisions to be made, and b) criteria for choosing one thing over another. While the gene theory of evolution, or theories of kin selection or group selection in general, might not be descriptive (human) ethics per se, they do suggest some fine candidates for where b) come from, and why they matters.

In Alien, the malevolent AI--who may or may not have any sense of "ought" in his synthetic brain--expresses admiration precisely for the titular xenomorph's lack of said "ought": "I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded my conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." And perhaps he's right. Primarily what the alien does to the crew of the Nostromo is kill and eat. Eating, as being part of that whole "urge to not die" thing, might be considered to be somewhere on our moral radar, but it might not. And besides, if we consider Alien to be a closed universe, unencumbered by the stories developed in sequels, the alien might not need to eat. It might be outside our rules of thermodynamics, or it might feed on starlight. Who the hell knows.

I bring it up because, if we do include the sequels, we see aliens working in groups to ensure the survival of their group. In particular, we see them making extraordinary sacrifices to ensure the protection of the queen and the survival of her eggs. What we see, in Aliens, and again in Alien Resurrection, is family. They likely don't "know" that's what they are, and they have no way to justify their actions as morally significant. I would question whether this is an entirely black-and-white distinction between cooperation and ethics. Animals don't have to "know" that fucking will prolong their species, but this ignorance doesn't make it any less effective. Perhaps a better question would be, can actions that reliably produce what we would determine to be moral outcomes be definitely said not to be moral actions?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The X-Men Theory of Human Relations

It's hard to imagine how homo sapiens managed to do “myth” without the benefit of cross-media promotional tie-ins, but they managed. We have our modern myths, we are told—big, sprawling projects by fat, bearded white dudes. We have films people want to live in, and worlds people want to play in, and behave like jerks. Myth is four letters long and a mile wide, and it's one of the things we're pretty great at. Give yourselves a hand, people.

My metaphysical ideas are confusing, but if I were to settle on a particular myth or mythic structure for our present day—not so much a religious pantheon as a collection of symbols we all agreed to behave as if our anscestors used as a religious pantheon—it would be the X-Men. Not so much for the inherent cleverness of the concept, or the writers who've ably employed it over the decades, but because it's flexible, renewable, and strong. In the sense that, with a cast that big, it has to hold an awful lot of fuckin' weight.

In the most famous of the various stories that circle through the various media of the franchise, such as the Mutant Registration Act, the Weapon Plus project, the Cure, the rise of the sentinels, etc., there's invariably one particular villain who anchors the action, and a bigger, vaguer villain painting the scenery. The government, the army, men in black. Frightened teenagers all over the world, many of them with hilariously silly names and fashion choices, cowering in fear that some unstoppable entity is going to take them out of their homes and away from their families, to be put in a cage where...

...where what, exactly? What exactly is the concern with any large-scale investigation into these loveable superbeings? Why does Sanctuary need to operate in secret? Why do the diamond-realdoll vampires of Twilight give a shit if people find out they exist? Why all the hiding?

Sure, people want to kill them. But that's not the fear. Plenty of our supernatural heroes face the prospect of violent death every day; so do plenty of people here in the really real world, and the supernatural heroes are a hell of a lot better equipped to deal with that fact. Cassandra Nova's inspirations aside, the sentinels aren't interested in genocide. There's no profit in it. Whereas there's quite a bit of profit in a prison full of properly licensed, corporate-owned mutants? Now that's something special. Not in the sense of being interesting to read about, as it ends the story. But there's money to be made.

The common element of all of our fabled supernatural warriors--the reason we like reading about them, dress up as them for Halloween, etc.--is that they're unique and useful. They can do things we wish we could do. Which means they can do things we wish we could have done for us. Often, there are things we'd like to do to/with them. Many of the people in their diegetic worlds feel the same way. People want them. And when people want something, there's an awful lot of money to be made in procuring it for them.

At risk of going in way over my head, things aren't valuable because of inherent qualities, or because they're useful, or because they're rare. Market theory holds that things are valuable because someone's willing to pay for them, i.e. make a sacrifice proportional to the assigned value. I need not have an opinion on the theory, which is fortunate, because I am untrained and it wouldn't matter anyway. For my purposes here, however, I will amend it to say that what ultimately makes things valuable is want. People sacrifice for things they want, and you can make a very nice helping to assuage that want.

There was another plagiarism scandal today, so I'm going to have to link to the generally execrable article I'm going to be quoting:

Go look outside. See those cars driving by? Every car being driven by a man was designed and built and bought and sold with you in mind. The only reason why small, fuel-efficient or electric cars don't dominate the roads is because we want to look cool in our cars, to impress you. [...]


All those wars we fight? Sure, at the upper levels, in the halls of political power, they have some complicated reasons for wanting some piece of land or access to some resource. But on the ground? Well, let me ask you this -- historically, when an army takes over a city, what happens to the women there?
It's all about you. All of it. All of civilization.
How one gets from the first paragraph to the second without noticing a rather disturbing analogy, I can only presume. Suffice to say, the car isn't about women. It wasn't designed to impress women. It was designed to be sold at a profit. In this case, sold to men, who tend to have more money. And who tend to want women.


The second paragraph demonstrates a purer form. Property comes from a prior agreement to honor the concept of property with violence. In its absence, it amounts to whatever you can seize, whatever you can hold. Whatever you can carry off. The word in Latin is raptus. Historically, the opportunity for mass rape is part of how mercenaries are paid. The prospect of owning a woman motivates car-buying and mercenary warfare, in these examples, but neither of these things is about women, unless you've already accepted the idea that the defining characteristic of women is that men want them.


It applies for basically any group that can be seized, carried off, exploited, enslaved, or generally exploited by another, but X-Men seems to dramatize it in a way we're all comfortable with, so that's the label I go with. The X-Men theory of human relations is this: if your value as a thing that is wanted exceeds your value as a thing that acts--if what you are is seen as more important than what you can think or do--you're fucked.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Batman Will Have Had Begun

People often ask me how I got into this line of work. There's lots of answers that'll answer them satisfactorily, in the process parting with only a portion of the truth; I skipped high school and learned this shit instead; the Columbine shootings had a profound impact on my understanding of media and society; I had a lot of money and no real sense of how to prepare for adulthood. But the real answer is simpler, and more painful. One night, when my parents had extended my bedtime for a showing of The Mask of Zorro, it all began. On the way back to our car, they were murdered by an unexamined bit of media theory. My destiny became clear to me at once.

So, there's a new Batman out, and I'm giving myself permission to completely ignore the Colorado shooting, because I gave at the office. I have done my part for interpreting the lessons of Colorado-based rampage shootings, and will withdraw from the topic at the end of this sentence.

Batman, however, deserves a few words. The peculiar skill of Nolan's Batman films has always been finding ways to incorporate comic storylines and characters in a way that didn't make them completely fucking ridiculous. The line between awe-inspiring dramatic scale and completely fucking ridiculous is difficult to walk in any medium, but excruciatingly tricky in live-action performance, especially live-action performance that isn't comfortably insulated by the respectability shield of period drama. Nolan's ability to walk this line is at its most impressive in The Dark Knight, which seems destined to be everybody's favorite portion of the series. Obviously Heath Ledger deserves enormous credit for having apparently based his performance on my imagination, but whenever we laud actors, we do so at the risk of ignoring the writing and world-building that gives them the opportunity to act.

In Crooked Little Vein, Warren Ellis' thought-provoking novel on the inextricable connections between democracy, civil rights, and internet pornography, an author stand-in makes a highly instructive point about the nature of media. Osama bin Laden, mass-murdering fuckhead though he may have been, was fundamentally in the business of making videos. The collective damage of the Al-Qaeda ops under his tenure is dwarfed by the global impact of terrorism as potential threat, and the impossibility of satisfactorily dealing with entirely passive-aggressive forms of warfare. Similarly, the Joker kills a whole lot of people, but his ambitions always tend toward making Gotham's citizens kill each other. The bombs advertise the videos; the videos nudge the public toward chaos. Bin Laden, having had the disadvantage of being a real person, was ultimately participating in power politics, but the Joker is more of a Platonic ideal of terrorism: a one-man cell with a few strategic partnerships and no actual wants or goals beyond terror itself. He comes from nothing, and is exceptional for no reason except that he always, always, has the element of surprise, and as such is immune to game theory or any other method of prediction. As Wayne notes that anyone could be behind the cowl, the Joker insists that he's only ahead of the curve. Not only can anyone be the Joker, everyone can be the Joker. He plays his Killing Joke experiment with Dent, and appears to be triumphant. Batman's decision to conceal the Joker's victory to preserve the propaganda value of the heroic Harvey Dent is presented in The Dark Knight as a victory of sorts, although on reflection is feels more like a stalemate. The Dark Knight Rises is more or less a two-hour reflection on the previous film's ending.

Which is why I started with The Dark Knight here, because Nolan's Batman trilogy is difficult to parse as a trilogy. The trilogy comprises Batman's battle with the League of Shadows, broken into two iterations: Before and After.

And herein lies on of the weirdest parts of the trilogy: the Joker, the closest thing to a "supervillain" persona in the series, is in some ways the most realistic of the villains. We don't have motiveless ur-terrorists here in the really real world, but we do have terrorists. What we don't have are Bond villains, or vengeful gods dressed up as Japanese ninja clans.

One of the reasons I've never been able to entirely grok the early buzz about Dark Knight Rises as being about class warfare is that it's so difficult to reconcile with the Sodom and Gomorrah vibe that underlies the first (and, it turns out, the third) film(s). The League of Shadows stand as a transcendental judge over sinful Gotham, and Bruce Wayne makes a devil's bargain with the Bat to buy it time. He tries to fight crime with crime, and Gotham survives another day, but it's obvious that it can't hold forever. So Bruce, like Abraham, hopes to find one good man to stay God's hand. He finds such a man in Harvey Dent, but that remember that whole "devil's bargain" bit from before? The Batman symbol--an icon that cannot be bought, intimidated or killed--calls into being an equally uncompromising opponent, and the unintended consequences of Bruce's bargain corrupt the man who was to be Gotham's salvation.

Eight years later, it happens again.

Which brings us to Bane, and the main question I brought into the theater with me: how does Bane relate to the Joker, and al Ghul, and Batman?

Well, he's a terrorist, self-evidently and diegetically. But that's a little vague, isn't it? He's practical and theatrical, but he's sure as hell not running on a shoestring budget. In fact, most of the film's plot hinges in the non-superheroic events that occurred in the eight years separating the second and third films. He lies, almost constantly, which the Joker does from time to time, but I think it's misleading to put too much stock into Bane's similarities with the series' most popular villain, because diegetically, the Joker matters a lot less than Harvey Dent, and Dent holds the crucial key to Bane's plan, and how it differs from al Ghul's. The Joker's machinations are ultimately focused on the fate of one man; Bane and al Ghul want to wipe a city and a cultural identity off the face of the planet.

In short, Bane doesn't give a shit about shadows. He wears a mask, of course, but it's not concealing anything. He has no secret identity to protect. Whereas Batman is somebody who could be anybody, Bane is nobody who could be anybody, or everybody. Bane does everything as publicly as possible, not to provoke a response, but to blind the public. He tells people what they want to hear, and perhaps they know it's not true, but they're used to lies. They're happy with lies. And, as Ozymandias claimed in his day, an awful lot of them seem enthused to see the whole thing end, one way or another. The Joker's offhand prophecy turns out to be the League's final weapon: even in Gotham, lots of people don't want Gotham around anymore. They've cast their votes for fire and brimstone. And whereas al Ghul planned to use Gotham's citizenry to tear the city apart in a cloud of weaponized hallucinogen, Bane just needs the life's work of Bruce Wayne to do it.

This makes it quite appropriate that the series ends/breaks as an ensemble piece. Batman can't do this one alone, and it could be argued (though not without getting into heavier spoilers) that he can't do it at all. Blake does more than his share, as does Catwoman. Even the cops, those loveable target dummies of the genre, get their moment to shine. After eight years of waiting for salvation from on high, the citizens of Gotham, inspired by Batman, stand up and...well, deserve it.

On an unrelated note, glad to see the Venom thing was dropped. The anaesthetic drip makes much more sense, and as someone intimately familiar with chronic pain issues, it's nice to see fibromyalgia presented in such a positive light.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Quidditch: Even Dumber than Hockey

So, in an attempt to catch up with what the cool kids were reading a decade ago, I got around to reading the Harry Potter books recently. I'd read the first iteration, Harry Potter and the Magic Rock, years earlier, and like many of you--assuming you're like 30 Rock's Twofer--I was perplexed by the vagaries of Quidditch. This is apparently a thing now, but at the time, my friends seemed happy enough to gloss over the incomprehensibility of the sport. A former lesbian of mine once explained it to me, but I wasn't convinced. She was a hockey fan, and it's hard to take those people seriously.

For the uninitiated, the Chasers try to hurl the Quaffle (pronounced "basil") through any of the opponents' three goal hoops, for 10 points per goal. The Bludgers attack the Chasers, and the Beaters use bats to beat them off. Finally, the Seeker must catch the Golden Snitch, which grants 150 points and ends the game. Crucially, this is the only way a game can be ended.

So, unless one team is behind by more than 150 points, the Seeker is the only relevant player, and the Snitch the only relevant goal object.  In theory, you could try to delay the opposing Seeker from ending the game to give your team time to catch up, but since the scores are rarely so disparate, it doesn't really matter.

At the time of my first reading, I chalked it up to a poorly thought-out sport and left it at that. It takes real sports quite a while to get the rules situated in such a way as to avoid boredom or chaos, and fictional sports lack the de facto beta testing we have here in the really real world. But, somewhere around Goblet of Fire, in which Viktor Krum defeats his own team by catching the Snitch as part of a complex, long-term plan to bang Hermione Granger senseless, it started to make sense.

I shall digress briefly here to note that, at Hogwarts, the scores are carried over and applied to the House totals, so there's an incentive to both maximize wins and minimize losses. There is no slaughter rule in Quidditch, so every goal counts, even though most of them don't. What this suggests to me, first and foremost, is that if Quidditch is as important to Hogwarts culture as it seems to be, they really ought to have some kind of post-season. The pros have the World Cup--which, like the American World Series, excludes the rather extensive Muggle world, who could kick the Chudley Cannons' asses with drone aircraft--so it's unclear why the scoring system would make any sense for them.

The answer is provided by the dual Weasleys: betting. Quidditch essentially has two independent scoring systems that rarely overlap. The first, managed by the Seekers, determines who wins the game. The second, managed by the rest of the team, manages the point spread.

As a contest of agon, or a spectator sport, it sucks. But for gambling, Quidditch is probably the greatest sport ever devised. Six out of seven players are exclusively focused on manipulating the point spread.

Which, in turns, points toward a different mystery. Ere Harry's arrival, Slytherin has been dominating Quidditch for some time. After his arrival, Gryffindor becomes undefeatable. One would think that this would chafe at the two other houses, who are already annoyed that the attributes associated with their houses are best exemplified by two of the Gryffindor kids. Well, it's hard to imagine the Hufflepuffs mind. They're probably just so pleased to have made the other team happy that they celebrate defeat with the same enthusiastic group hug with which they meet victory. But Ravenclaws are the smart chicks, right? Symbolized by the wise and agile eagle, whose deadly precision is augmented by having a raven claw, in addition to their own?

The answer is as brilliant as it is subtle: the Ravenclaws don't care. Winning would just draw attention to themselves, and that's the last thing you'd want when you're running a numbers game. I expect they require their third-years to spend their summers studying combinatorics and game theory in secret. And what's the long-term plan for the money? Where do the Ravenclaws' loyalties ultimately lie?

This is the one mystery Rowling's tale does not answer for us. Clearly, the whole Voldemort vs. Potter dust-up is a little too provincial for them. I assume the money is managed by a different source, such as the Rothschilds, or the Illuminati. There has to be some level of Muggle cooperation involved in maintaining the Secrecy pact. It has to take a lot of work to prevent the wizards from realizing that their magical technology is, empirically, quite primitive. Even Harry can't protect Hogwarts from the works of Donna Harraway forever.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

When Forks is ashes, you have my permission to die: The Twilight Post Concludes

Writers kill a lot of women. I'm not an exception.

Well, I've killed fictional women. Actually, I've killed a lot more men. My women have a tendency to survive whatever nightmares I throw at them. Regardless, the traumas I've inflicted on my fictional women strike me as more memorable, because, hey, it turns out I didn't come out of the womb having a perfect understanding of culture and privilege and stuff.

Superhero comics, in which the line between death and not-death is more permeable, also follow the trend, and women are statistically a lot more likely to be burned up for drama than their male counterparts. People will occasionally refer to these doomed women as "disposable," which I think misses the point. Put on your Dworkin decoder glasses. Our stories don't kill women because they don't matter, because they serve no purpose. They kill women because their purpose is to be killed. We scream in cathedrals, and it ain't gonna be beautiful without a sacrifice.

Which is about what I knew about Breaking Dawn when I started the series, and the prospect was kind of exciting. Not because I'm a misogynistic sadist, although that is also almost certainly true. No, I was excited because Twilight had thus presented me with a world that could be easily enough enacted by Willingham's wooden soldiers. When Bella talks of Edward's beauty, she speaks first of light, but second of hardness. Bella and Edward kiss, and there's talk of breath, but there's no saliva. Edward is cold, Jacob is hot, but there are few references of sweat. And, lest we forget, Bella twists every which way to avoid thinking or saying the word "sex" if she can possibly avoid it. (Other words Bella avoids: cowgirl, blowjob, teabag, synecdoche, butch cock.)

There's also a fair deal of violence in the first three books, but those diamond-skinned vampires? They don't bleed. They break apart like goddamned statues. Werewolves theoretically break apart like the good ol' mammals they are, but we only see the post-triage form. Bella, of course, bleeds like a clumsy human, but she also tends to pass out whenever anything violent happens around her. Her main contribution in the big superhero battle royale that concludes Eclipse is to stab herself in the gut, leaving both of the male leads to kick themselves for not seeing it coming, because the chick is seriously a danger to herself. But that's just not a lot of moisture, really.

So, going into Breaking Dawn, I knew that a) Bella and Edward were going to fuck, despite the nominal chance that he might get excited and vibrate so fast Bella might explode like the bad guy in Death and Return of Superman, and b) Bella was going to get pregnant, and enjoy a birth that would sever her spine. It seemed impossible that either of these would be able to happen with the same plastic-action-figure detachment. Life, it turns out, is wet, gooey, and gross, and what fun is reading about vampire-fucking if we avoid that?

The sex, unsurprisingly, is glossed over. I suppose we, as readers, should be grateful our narrator doesn't simply pass out, considering the panic attack she has at the prospect of her husband--not boyfriend, not fiance, husband--seeing her in a bathing suit.

So, I invite you now to imagine a montage of trains going into tunnels and slow zooms into fireplaces. When you get back, briefly acknowledge a broken bedframe, piles of feathers, an ashamed Edward, and an ecstatic Bella who is surprised to find herself covered in bruises.

Read Holly Black's take here.

This is a point worth considering. There is no avoiding the abuse imagery here. Even Edward, I think, is a bit disturbed by it. (This is not the only incident of self-awareness on the part of the Twilight cast. Rosalie, for example, seems to be embarrassed to be in these books at all. I suspect, when Bella's not around, she re-reads John Steakley's Vampire$ and sighs wistfully.)

And it's ok to like this stuff. It's ok to want to perform it from time to time, with one or more consenting and informed partners. You need not compromise your politics if scary or dangerous things turn you on.

We make extraordinary excuses for individual rapists, but evince a disgust for rapists in the abstract that is entirely disproportionate to any other human sins or crimes. I'll not speculate on the whys and hows here, suffice to mumble idly about feedback loops and performative overcompensation. But rape in our culture is less an aberrant incident than it is a psi-field. Words and ideas replicate in minds, material patterns in material entities. And nothing appears ex nihilio, but has to be jury-rigged from what came before.

Our religious and military iconographies have not yet shed their feudal origins, so it shouldn't be so surprising that our sex iconography has also yet to catch up to factories, gunpowder, and individual rights. This idea of sex as consensual unless otherwise stated is not only unprecedented, it would appear as abject nonsense to the world from which many of our most enduring romantic images originate. Most of our romantic imagery is drenched in rape connotation. Low-level rape play is probably present in nearly all human sexual endeavors.

To quote another group of well-meaning crazy people, This is Who We Are.

So that's Twilight, folks. It's a whirlwind tour of the very worst parts of ourselves that we can't quite bring ourselves to get rid of. We rejigger the code with every new generation, every glowing fuck, every neatly formatted sentence. Dworkin, being crazy, saw the horror a bit more clearly than most of us do. Most of us have to strain a bit to see the nightmare she describes. It gets fainter over time. Hell, it's gotten fainter since Dworkin stopped writing about it.

Other highlights: the first mention of menstruation, when Bella experiences a classic teen drama late-period panic. (Spoiler alert: too late. No more periods for Bella, ever. Do her eggs turn shiny and diamond-like?)

The first (and only) mention of homosexuality, when one of Jacob's pals is teasing him. Said pal has imprinted on a child, which means he'll fall in love with her as soon as the creepiness of this concept drops below a certain level--and the girl, object of said imprinting, will obviously be in love with the (adult) man who's been her most persistent company since she was in kindergarten, from the sheer crushing weight of her gratitude and familial affection. Certainly the shared and unquestioned expectations of this among her entire community won't do her any harm.

The second mention of menstruation, when Leah--who, by the way, is the only female werewolf in the history of ever, not that this is a detail anyone is concerned about--notes that her cycle stopped when she started, erm, cycling. Her telepathic link to the boys in the pack grosses everyone out, and I assume she had to go sit in the hut for a week. There's something terribly amusing about werewolves blanching at the thought of a little blood.

A brief novelette in which Jacob gets to take over narrating duties for a while, and wastes our time with a bunch of bullshit. Like, wastes our time even by the standard of people who've read over a thousand pages of Twilight.

And finally, the big vampire battle royale, with a cast so big it requires a chart in the back of the book, culminating in the greatest anti-climax since that time I failed to climax. Think X-Men: The Last Stand meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Numerous media scholars have noted the great favor Rob Thomas did for Veronica Mars fans by easing the community into the show's inevitable cancellation by slowly making the show suck over the course of a season. Twilight finishes much the same way, unravelling its limited coherence strand by strand. It leaves us in the really real world to marvel at the mad journey we've finished, like the pursuit of Sunday.

As from a Nightmare, we awake.

And we promise to write something substantive about videogames soon. Seriously.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Utterances

And now for a completely dated point that I've always felt deserved some attention. During my Exile on Netflix, I caught up on Sarah Connor Chronicles, a middling sci-fi show created for the purpose of hurting Joss Whedon by making Summer Glau unavailable for S1 of Dollhouse.

With no particular summary of the larger plot, lobotomized T-800 unit John Henry, wired into a large mainframe, has killed an employee while diverting power to his own system during a power outage. His keeper, played by the delightful Shirley Manson, has asked our favorite badass FBI agent to consult on creating a moral code for the pleasantly amoral ex-Terminator.

"You want to give it commands," he says. "Start with ten."

As a viewer, I always thought the decalogue was a strange place to go with this. FBI agent is, presumably, a Christian, and Jesus' One Commandment would frankly make a lot more sense here. But instead, he suggests ten. To interpret, I've gone to the KJV, because it seems likely enough to be the source he's thinking of:

1) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Who is "me"? In this scenario? The corporation? Shirley Manson? It's unclear why a machine would benefit from an allegiance to the God of Israel, or how he'd be able to infer such an obligation.

2) Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, etc.

Humans, frankly, haven't been entirely consistent with this one. I'm not sure what we should be worried John Henry might do. Does anyone else have nightmarish sci-fi plotlines about robots making graven images?

3) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

Humans have interpreted this one quite oddly, but again, I'm very unclear how John Henry COULD break it, or what might happen if he did.

4) Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee.

If this is interpreted the way Orthodox Judaism did, it could present a real problem when John Henry has to commit suicide on Friday evening.

5) Honor thy father and thy mother.

John Henry has neither of these. He'd probably find the idea confusing.

6) Thou shalt not kill.

This is the only one anyone's actually worried about. Good call to include it.

7) Neither shalt thou commit adultery.

Scratch that, this is also a major concern.

8) Neither shalt thou steal.
I suppose this represents a concern, to the extent that John Henry is more or less impossible to intimidate with violence, and therefore largely immune to human law enforcement efforts. It's just unclear what we might worry about him stealing. He's attached to a building, for fuck's sake.

9) Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.
No neighbors. Well, maybe Shirley Manson, but come on. Her own kid doesn't trust her.

10) Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour's.

I'm not sure John Henry can even do this. It requires a fairly complex grasp of human psychology to understand how we can do this.

In conclusion, we have two, maybe three commandments that matter, and a lot of filler. Not a good program there, Mr. Decalogue.

Still, at least we don't have to worry about the robot killing machines cheating on their wives. That's a load off my mind.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Shibuya

Wow, two months since the last post. It's embarrassing, what with my readership having exploded into the mid-single digits. But it happens. There've been posts in the works, and writing on other fora, but mostly I think I just couldn't bear for my first post of 2012 to be about Twilight.

On the social media, a lot of my friends are game designers on one side of the academic divide or the other. I get a lot of posts about the process of development, upcoming projects, relevant press, etc. From the academics, I get a lot of links to things I should read, things I have read and should write about, etc. It's always a bit disarming, as I become aware to what extent I've fallen out of the loop on gaming culture.

I still game, of course, and often do so obsessively. But between the mono crisis and the fibro crisis, there's been a definite bias towards games I can play with the sound off while keeping one eye on Netflix on Demand. My long, futile war against multitasking has taken some ignominious defeats, and I can't imagine that my attention span--never quite as strong as that of my book-readin' counterparts--has entirely avoided the attrition. Depression makes it hard to do new things, and my late preference for comfort-food gaming is probably a manifestation of that as well.

Still, I am more fortunate than most. There are worse unhealthy preoccupations than the Nintendo DS, to my mind the most perfect game console yet devised. Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes.. . Professor Layton, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, Dawn of Discovery...not a bad deal for a perpetually novice strategy gamer with an affinity for narrative and extensive replay.

The World Ends With You, a game that stands in the very narrow group of games whose titles refer to profound philosophical assertions (cf. Little Red Riding Hood's Zombie BBQ), is a game I've spent years trying to find something significant to write about. Don't get me wrong: I love WEWY. Not in the way I love, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Lady Gaga. It's the kind of love one can only acquire from a Blockbuster Video employee ten minutes before midnight.

The trouble with writing about WEWY is that anything meaningful I could think of to say about the game would be read, heard, and felt by a player more beautifully than any mediated translation I could throw together. The plot, if you go in fresh, is thick with twists, and spoilers would abound in even the most perfunctory summary. Think Pokemon meets Job.

The best I can do, in terms of commentary, is to note that I am terrified of a sequel, not merely for fear of fucking up a really great story, but because I really can't imagine the game working on any apparatus without two vertically stacked screens. The conceit that there is no such thing as a shared reality ought to be challenged, at least for the player, by battles that ask her to control (and therefore, "be") two characters at once. Happens all the time in strategy games, after all. But usually the controls themselves are optimized for this purpose. In WEWY, you play Neku with the stylus and a guest with the d-pad, and like so many things in this game, it should be an unplayable mess, but somehow, it works. Even though it's not strictly possible to actively watch both screens at once, you learn to slip from one to the other as needed, and gradually, your attention becomes more fluid, the slippage less binary. You're not playing as both characters simultaneously, and you're not exactly playing as each in sequence; you're a thing between the screens, between the characters, responding to stimuli and moving on.

The tendency to refer to the character on screen as "me" seems to be endemic as gaming, so it's oddly profound to be reminded that Neku is only Neku, and Shiki is only Shiki, and I...I am only me, chronically unemployed, dangerously unhealthy, and still capable of enjoying the moment.

If you like beans, buy a coffee shop. If you like ideas, I suppose blogging have to do.