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,'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.