Sunday, November 17, 2013

The 21st Century Will Be Defined By Essays About Games

I could really go for a nice, juicy manifesto! It would be nice to wake up and raison-d'etre to go with your morning coffee, wouldn't you say? I have to pee.
- Gaston, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"

Putting in an early bid to be games studies' first Bond villain, designer and author Eric Zimmerman emerged from his volcano lair in September to issue a proclamation unto the world: the Manifesto for a Ludic Century. 
"The future, Conan?"
It's available here, along with Heather Chaplin's take on some of the implications. They're of a highly digestible length, so you might as well go and read 'em. I'll wait here. When you're done, you can check out some of the responses from the usual gang of esteemed scholars and whatnot here.

The Manifesto is a particularly concise summary of some of the more prominent memes to have arisen from games studies and the "applied humanities" in general: videogames are a new mediation of an ancient and peculiarly human activity that has taken on new relevance in an increasingly interconnected media environment. As knowledge is increasingly measured in terms of systems and processes, as opposed to discrete skills, games come to the fore because play is really the only workable method humans have ever devised for learning the interrelations of complex systems. Learning and doing in the 21st century will necessitate thinking like players, and like designers, to figure out what's what.

Delightfully, Zimmerman closes by positing that this isn't why games are important. Games are serious business, ancient learning techniques that might be more vital than ever, and that's great, but games are important because they're games, and beauty is its own imperative. This is refreshing, even in the field, which is still a bit too enthralled with Respectability for its own good.

When I made the probable mistake of becoming aware of academia, the world presented itself to me neatly bifurcated into the sciences and the humanities: the former produced weapons and consumer products, the latter produced liberalism and bisexuality. Sure, there were the so-called social sciences, but those mostly broke down to standard-issue-liberal-arts like statistics, or not-science-but-people-believe-it-is like psychology or economics. I'm really not sure where to put things like "systems theory" and its ilk, vital concepts co-created with modern warfare that turned out to be more useful for understanding politics and ethics. Perhaps consilience will finally pick up a bit of steam in the ludic century.

There isn't a whole lot to disagree with, in terms of its major assertions. I feel compelled to quibble with some of its support, particularly the role of history: while I think the availability of media fundamentally alters what we mean when we say "human consciousness," I'm still very unclear on what "the dominant cultural form" means. It's one of those phrases, like "big government," that's not precisely vague, but could mean any of a wide variety of things. The moving image was certainly highly influential, and possessed of a near-idolatrous importance at times. That said, the mediated voice, in the form of radio and telephone, might have had a wider reach still. Movies were certainly the entertainment medium of note through much of the 20th, but prestige is still primarily derived from theater and literature. As Hayden White helpfully noted, history itself continues to be constructed in the form of the 19th century English novel. Games, as Zimmerman notes early on, seem to be as old as the species, so why the seemingly sudden prominence now?

Zimmerman seems to posit a kind of tech-tree approach: as information becomes both more complex and more accessible, emergence does its thing, and it levels-up to an entity that can best be learned through play:
The ways that we work and communicate, research and learn, socialize and romance, conduct our finances and communicate with our governments, are all intimately intertwined with complex systems of information--in a way that could not have existed a few decades ago. [...] For such a systemic society, games make a natural fit.
This is what I find most compelling, and what I have the most difficulty pinning down: do games "fit" this cultural moment better than fifty, a hundred, or a thousand years ago? Is the predominance of play a constant that's been delineated more clearly? If so, are the games matching the rest of the world, or driving it?

One of the joys of gaming--videogaming, in particular--is that the best of them present worlds that appear to possess "natural" emergent properties, but...don't. Unlike the really real world, we know for a fact that we're walking in a universe that was designed for our benefit. Part of "thinking like a designer" is looking at a world and being able to discern where God failed.
Sometimes, God gets drunk.
Game worlds are fundamentally knowable, because they appear infinite but aren't. They leave us no doubts about their limits, their flaws, or their authorship. They remind us that the incomprehensible whole is reducible to thousands of comprehensible parts. This is largely not true of the really real world, but we do often confuse the labors of the dead for the hands of Gods. Perhaps, at this moment, in this little corner of the grand project of human civilization, we're noticing that the world is a bit more like our simulations than we'd imagined. I think it's going to be an interesting century.

Over at Kill Screen, Abe Stein Britta's the entire thing by reminding us that the first world isn't "the world," that our actual environment is a hell of a lot scarier than our media environment, and that this interesting century is probably going to suck. Enjoy it, as they say, while you can.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Three Things That Suck About Being a Feminist Dude

(Hey, kids. I wrote this a while back, planning to send it to one of those fancy modern websites. It didn't really fit their thing, and rather than trying to recut it for the vague promise of publication somewhere else, I figured I'd put it up here. Mostly as a chance to play with format a bit.)

If you’re a first-worlder in the 21st century, feminism is kind of a no-brainer. It’s not really up to you; over the last couple hundred years, a number of radical, heretical claims have become well-accepted enough that people now think of them as natural, intutitive, and self-evident. Still, the word raises a few hackles, here and there. Those who choose to use it anyway tend to either develop some apologetic patter about not being “that kind of feminist,” to pre-empt the accompanying stereotypes that inevitably follow, or lean into it, accepting that it’s worth dealing with a little extra hostility. We've all heard 'em; feminists are ugly, humorless, sexless, or (in rare cases) Joss Whedon. For guys, the territory is more confusing, the stakes lower, the stereotypes still being focus-grouped. Nonetheless, like a piece of debris stuck in the gonads of an oyster, it can be pretty irritating. Case in point:

1) “You’re just trying to get laid.”

This is both the most common and the most emphatic critique: the argument from insincerity: you’re hoping to ingratiate yourself to women, therefore you don’t really believe what you’re saying, therefore it isn’t worth believing. If it’s true that your primary or exclusive motivation in learning and doing more in the service of social justice is the possibility that it’ll help you get your dick wet, I have some bad news for you. While it’s not going to hurt, it’s very unlikely that your showing up to a meeting will make the difference between not-fuck and fuck. The most potent criticism to be offered of such a plan is that it’s the sexual equivalent of countering Scorpion's spear with a Kano ball.
Niccolo Machiavelli popularized the rhetorical device of “critique, segue, Mortal Kombat reference” in The Prince.

And yet, they seem to take issue with the goal, and not the tactics: “You should just admit it,” says the message board guy. “Then we’d respect you instead of spitting on you.” (This is quoted from memory of an actual Message Board Guy. I am assuming he had been spitting metaphorically, but you never know on Fark.) At some point in this discussion, it became a shameful thing for a straight guy to pursue the possibility of sex with women. Perhaps they think trying to be likeable is cheating, and that the only real way to play--the only noble way to play--is to fuck women who actively despise you.
Double points for nailing a girl who's actually tried to kill you. 5x bonus if you ejaculate during Star Power.

Because if wanting to fuck women were an acceptable pursuit, it’s hard to see why becoming the kind of person women want to fuck wouldn’t be the most obvious and laudable method. It’s not dishonesty that’s being criticized here, but the lack of dishonesty. This is what “game” is about: the artificial imposition of difficulty. Besides, what don’t you do to get laid? Is there anything you like about yourself--any quality you’re proud to possess, and skill that took great effort to acquire--that’s definitively not going to make you more attractive by improving the way people think of you? It turns out that most of the things you’d do to get laid are also worth doing for sundry other reasons, and very few of the things that aren’t worth doing for other reasons are worth doing for a few minutes of sweaty genital antics either. Interesting people are more fuckable than boring ones. Visible people are more fuckable than invisible ones.
And people who can converse knowledgeably about things that interest you--like, say, human rights issues that affect you personally--are more fuckable than people who are just waiting for you to shut up.

2) The vocabulary

The title of this piece bears some scrutiny. The first draft used the term “feminist dude,” which is not something I hear very often, but it has the advantage of not being “male feminist,” which I fucking hate. My antipathy toward the adjectival “male” stems from the popularity of the nominal “male,” which sounds really awkward outside of a nature documentary. Unless you’re Katniss Everdeen and you need an appropriately depersonalized word to describe a tall combatant with long legs and the kind of chest and shoulder muscles you want for melee combat--because it literally hasn’t occurred to you that men’s bodies could be useful, desirable, or fun for any other reason--the adjectival “male” is a strange choice.
For any new readers: if you didn't like The Hunger Games, we're probably not going to be friends.
It’s most commonly employed when discussing other species, and in most places “man” or “men” are better choices than “male” or “males.” (The converse--the use of “females” where “women” would make more sense--seems to employed almost entirely by men’s rights activists and the Ferengi.)
The Ferengi, to their credit, seem to be entirely aware that they're assholes.
At the moment, there isn’t really a consensus on whether men ought to be referred to as feminists at all, or rather the more qualified (albeit more descriptive) “feminist allies,” or simply “allies.” The whole thing can get pretty confusing, and if you don’t believe me, you’ve never spent hours locked in an unwinnable game of Axis and Feminists.

Since drafting this article, incidentally, I'm told that "feminist dude(s)" has also been co-opted by assholes, although not the same assholes who earlier co-opted "male feminist(s)" "Guys who get it" has been suggested, but it's meaningless as a self-descriptor. I cannot, by definition, know whether or not I "get" something outside my own experience; if I didn't get it, I wouldn't know. It is, as they say, an unknown unknown.

So the title kind of sucks, and I might have just argued against the validity of my own writing on the subject. Clearly there’s some awkwardness right out of the gate. When you're writing about this stuff, you’re not always sure, in advance, what’s going to be insightful and what’s just going to piss people off. There’s no way to “solve,” this. It’s not about you.

This is a more jarring thought than it seems. If you’re a guy with internet access and time to waste reading my blog--especially if you also happen to be white, straight, and economically stable--you probably don’t realize the extent to which language and culture are bent to your experience. Yes, there’s a huge chunk of the culture devoted to the unique interests of women; it’s just that its primary purpose is to make sure you want to fuck them, and make sure they want you to want to fuck them. You don’t have to think about it, or even know about it to benefit from it. This phenomenon is known as privilege, and it’s one of those terms ends up being a rallying flag for misogynists. It’s a straw man’s wet dream.
Editor's note: do not google "straw man's wet dream."
Still, even well-meaning people bristle at being accused of ignorance or false consciousness. The joke, of course, is that it’s basically just a reification of the idea that you don’t intuitively understand other people’s perspectives. “You aren’t not-you” isn’t revolutionary; it’s a fucking tautology.

While “privilege” will get you derision, “rape culture” will get you pitchforks and torches. (This is hyperbole. It will actually get you derision, defensiveness, hostility, and, once in a while, rape threats.) As with privilege, it’s a lot more intuitive than it sounds, and as with everything else, it wouldn’t be substantially improved with different vocabulary. These concepts are difficult to see, for sure. For you. Because you don’t have to think about them very often.

3) You won’t like what you learn.

When you do think about them, it can get pretty dark pretty fast. Eventually, you have to turn your Mighty Critical Gaze on yourself, and then you’re kicking at the other side of the problem from #1. Being a better person might make you more interesting, give you an in with a new social circle, or get you laid, but if you’re being a better person for those reasons exclusively, or even primarily, it’s going to end badly. Spend some time reading about white knights and predator theory, and put two and two together: earning someone’s trust is an valuable, laudable thing, and makes the best parts of the human experience possible. It’s also, for most people, a prerequisite for abusing and exploiting people and getting away with it. You learn that unexamined assumptions and self-deception have made your own motives are often murkier than you’d like, and you can’t inherently trust that your heart is in the right place because it’s yours. So, you’re going to learn stuff that isn’t pleasant. And it’s stuff that some people in your life--nice, well-meaning folk by most standards--aren’t going to know about, or care about, or spend much time thinking about. You’re not going to like it very much.
Yeah, there aren't really any jokes in this section.
You’ll find that the lives of women you care about are a bit darker than you’d thought. Fears you’d thought of as transient, when you thought of them at all, turn out to be around all the time. You’ll find that what you’d thought of as idiosyncracies have solid roots in anxiety, embarrassment, and quite often, trauma. As they learn to trust you more, you’ll realize how nervous they’d acted before, when you thought they’d trusted you. You’ll learn about your mistakes. You’ll learn that you’ve marginalized people without realizing it, been demeaning when you thought you were being wry. It’s a difficult feeling, because moral authority is a real thing, and guilt is ultimately a subtype of fear. Especially because you really didn’t think of yourself as being that way. Nobody wants to be the kind of person whose ass they’d want to kick. As for dealing with it, you have some options. You can decide that it couldn’t be true if it makes you feel bad, and blame those dastardly feminists for making up these elaborate hoaxes so you’d let your guard down, allowing witches to steal your penis. You can concoct elaborate conspiracy theories to explain why women run the entire Western world, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

Or, you can let go.

You can stop worrying that a subset of people will think you’re part of a different subset of people that behaves badly, and just focus on not behaving badly. You don’t personally need to be the standard-bearer for Justice, Logic, and Objectivity; you can even admit that you might not recognize them when you see them, because there’s shit you haven’t thought of. You can just listen. Once you make a habit of it, it’s immensely freeing. In that light, even minor annoyances I’ve here described in an overlong fashion are negligible. The only thing that sucks about being a feminist, for anyone, is misogyny. The rest is gravy.
Pictured: feminism.

4) Internet comments.

Seriously. Fuck you, internet commenters.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Prudence, IN

Are there advice columns that aren't terrible? You never seem to hear about them. Perhaps it's because good advice is, in practice, usually pretty obvious, and the tough questions involve choosing between several terrible courses of action.

It's neither here nor there, of course, when a professional advice columnist fucks up one of the really easy ones. Case in point, Dear Prudence's Emily Yoffe's recent piece for Slate, with the impressively on-the-nose title "College Women: Stop Getting Drunk." The article in question splits its time between asserting the title's imperative and apologizing for existing. If you're interested in reading a thoughtful rebuttal, I recommend Erin Gloria Ryan's How To Write About Rape Prevention Without Sounding Like An Asshole.

Yoffe's article is attempting to suss out a tension that seems to be inherent in the prevention model: you can only issue direct advice to people already interested in preventing rape, since they're the ones reading the damn articles, but you can't really do so without engaging in victim-blaming or undergirding complicity narratives. There's also the not-insignificant problem that most rape prevention tips aren't worth the fear they're printed on: beyond proximity, about the only reliable common denominator is that rapists like raping people and don't like going to prison. They tend to target people to whom they have easy social access, and people who aren't likely to call the police, or who the police aren't likely to believe.

So, basically, we're talking about women, children, ethnic minorities, the elderly, the disabled, the homeless, sex workers, and God's own favorites, the poor.

Don't be in any of those groups, and you should be fine.

Even if this the risk-avoidance tactics of the prevention model were reliably successful, a more fundamental question remains: who gives a fuck? Living in fear does not solve the problem. In many ways, living in fear is the problem itself. Take it from #DepressedBane, relentless hatred and defiance will wear you the hell out. Teaching our more vulnerable citizens to be strong in the face of fear is all well and good, but seriously, fuck strength. Mere safety should not require strength. My allegiance, now and always, lies with the weak. There are a hell of a lot more of us, you see, and the strong don't like those odds.

Which brings us to the retaliation model. We tend to think of law and law enforcement as preserving safety, and, when well-designed and implemented, they can do that. Nonetheless, safety is incidental; the immediate function of law enforcement is not to make anyone's lives safer and happier, but to make criminals' lives more frightening and dangerous. Clearly, there are an awful lot of people out there whose lives are not currently dangerous enough, and rather than making victims responsible for deterring the behavior of their attackers, I wonder if it might not be more productive to focus the national conversation on ensuring that every rapist is arrested, charged, and convicted: to focus on breaking the secrecy in which predators necessarily operate, punishing police that scuttle investigations, and making prosecutors do their jobs.

If nothing else, focusing on the retaliation model it might help us cut through some of the bullshit about what a woman might "expect" to happen should she find herself drinking until she's drunk--you know, the way many college students do when they aren't too afraid--by moving to an entirely different expectation: that when someone is raped, drunk or sober, we expect the state to respond with all its fury, on her behalf and our own.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Primitive

One of the great things about office work is that it provides a valuable structure for drinking. Since joining the ranks of the partially employed, I've been taking advantage of this unexpected perk, and every Friday I've walked from said office to one of several Cambridge drinking establishments, where I grab a table, sit in the sun, and drink beer while reading A Game of Thrones. With my usual ear for the lyrical, I have named this ritual beer-and-Game-of-Thrones-Friday.

Like most rituals, it won't last forever. There's a little bit less sun every week--for reasons that have thus far eluded me--and I'm almost out of book. Somehow I doubt beer-and-Alien-Phenomenology-Friday is going to work as well, as ontology wrinkles my brain even when I'm sober. While it lasts, though, it's been a rewarding experience, and if I'm going to be spending hours-upon-hours in the meta-feudal, rape-and-dragon-urine-soaked world of epic fantasy, it seems appropriate to do it while consuming an enormous amount of beer.

I am traditionally alone during these outings. But "alone" isn't what it used to be. The last fifteen years have problematized the act of drinking alone. I have my Britta-phone with me, which theoretically puts me in contact with most of my inner circle, assuming they have nothing better to do. And, of course, there's George, albeit time-shifted by a decade or two. But I don't bring the web with me. Judging from the people I see around here, that's comparatively off-the-grid. If you're reading a book at a bar, and you're not an attractive woman, people will generally leave you the hell alone. I joined the ranks of the smartphoned this week, so I'm wondering what will become of these little rituals.

The Big Bad God of the monotheists is both immanent and transcendent, in our world and out of it. This is generally described as an apparent contradiction--apparent being the key word, due to our endearingly limited human-ness--but the former always struck me as being dependent on the latter. To be here isn't something you can accomplish by being omnipresent. Rather, to be meaningfully here, you must also not be anywhere else. Ergo, to be everywhere--as opposed to be just all over the damn place--you have to be simultaneously nowhere. As I'm dragged kicking and screaming into the late oughts, I'm going to be not be in slightly fewer places, and I'll be within earshot of a few more people. It's how writers do things these days, I'm told. Since I spent my formative years learning to put sentences together, instead of learning network management or shotokan karate, it's probably the responsible thing to do.
Master of karate and friendship for everyone.

Still, I'm going to try not to get so used to the grid that I think of it as part of my central nervous system, because, really, I love y'all, but there are too fucking many of you to keep track of. Sometimes, there's something to be said for being nowhere but where you are.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

I really wish this thing wouldn't auto-generate the URL from the first line of text in the absence of a title.

And anyway, whether I like something or not is beside the point. The real purpose of criticism is to explain what works are, how they do what they do, why they matter, and how they fit into broader contexts. Not to express the critic's coarse vote of approval or disapproval.
Ian Bogost, Distinguished Chair in Media Studies

File photo.
Evil, in practice, is a little dull. In videogames, anyway. Perhaps it’s because games live in the getting, while the benefits of evil have more to do with the having. Despite the adventure genre's inherent biases towards a particular vision of violent, assertive "goodness," the narrative usually bends over backwards to conceal that fact, to focus on what like about it (fearlessness, independence) at the expense of what we dislike (greed, cruelty, sadism). Antihero is one of our more popular, and widely abused, literary terms, and in common parlance it has meant Willy Loman at some times and Satan at others. These days, “antihero” is employed casually to describe heroes who lack the post-heroic niceties, the good guy who’s exactly as violent, sadistic, and immature as we’d like him to be and not even a tiny bit more. It's been suggested that Breaking Bad has effectively broken the antihero trope by inching Walter White up to that line, and then inching over it, and then sprinting so far off into the distance that the line's no longer visible. (I can't comment directly, because I'm an asshole, but you might want to bear it in mind as we approach the final paragraph.)

White is an interesting case, because in any properly moral story of violent conflict, the audience is inherently on the bad guy’s side. The villains begin the story by creating the problem to be solved, and the story ends when they’re killed off, even if we were still enjoying it. We bend over backwards to conceal that we write, read, and play stories about killing specifically because we are interested in killing. Still, there are practical limits. Power is exciting; sadism is dull. Ratchet up the protagonist’s power enough--and make it insufficiently fantastic to conceal itself--and it tends to fall apart rather quickly.

I was impressed by Grand Theft Auto 3, but was more apt to watch my roommates play than pick it up myself. Revelatory as “open-world design” was, the actual mission structure (especially early on) was mostly about driving vehicles from one location to another. Compared to the contemporary State of Emergency, GTA3 felt like a highly detailed simulation of picking up your friend at the airport. I mostly ignored Vice City, and picked up San Andreas primarily for the soundtrack. GTA4 came out at around the time I was falling out of the world, and no, bizarrely effusive GameStop clerk, I did not pre-order GTA5. I have, however, been reading the reviews, critiques, and assorted hubbub, and I find that I’m more interested in the game than I’d have expected, albeit primarily as a paratext to said hubbub.

Almost everything I’ve read about GTA5 has concerned the storyline, the inherently narrative quality of transgressive acts, and the friction between the characters’ personalities and the ludic structures of the genre. You’d barely know GTA3 had a story at all, from the reviews. Vice City and San Andreas had a kind of filmic lineage, but still kept characterization as efficiently archetypal as possible, and people wrote more about genre tropes than character. GTA4 tried for a more ambitious protagonist, which occasionally ran at odds with the anarchic playground when you stepped off the path--the unstable diachronic problem--but I had to hang out a group of game designers and academic wonks to hear anyone explore it in any detail. In GTA5, it seems to be all anyone can talk about.

This is why I wanted to make sure to write about GTA5 before I actually play it: I don’t want my readings of the critiques to be colored by my experiences with the actual game. From my unspoiled vantage point, I can gather that the writing does seem to be qualitatively different in this one, and that might be why, after seven or eight games, the series’ unsubtle misogyny is bothering people in a way it didn’t before. Alternatively, the environment has changed: who’s writing about games, and how they think about them, and what they think is within their purview as critics. We finally have a critical community, in that sense that the people who write about games for a living are finally acting like critics.

Leigh Alexander and Yannick LeJaqc emphasize the increasingly obvious predestination that shadows the genre. I'm inclined to believe this to be an endemic flaw to the genre, as opposed to a particular sin of Rockstar North's; the more freedom you give people, the more restraints they perceive. (See also: white guys.) Then again, since GTA has always seemed to specialize in the pointless and silly. We're talking about a series that was literally--literally literally, not Joe Biden literally--inspired by a glitch. Tom Bissell gets to the heart of it, going aggressively meta in the process:
One of GTA V's characters admits at the end of the game, "I'm getting too old for this nonsense." And you know what? I felt the same thing numerous times while playing GTA V, even though I continue to admire the hell out of much of what it accomplishes. So if I sound ambivalent, Niko, I think it's because I'm part of a generation of gamers who just realized we're no longer the intended audience of modern gaming's most iconic franchise. Three steps past that realization, of course, is anticipation of one's private, desperate hurtle into galactic heat death. I'm left wondering when I, or any of us, express a wish for GTA to grow up, what are we actually saying? What would it even mean for something like GTA to "grow up"? Our most satirically daring, adult-themed game is also our most defiantly puerile game. Maybe the biggest sin of the GTA games is the cheerful, spiteful way they rub our faces in what video games make us willing to do, in what video games are.
I'm excited to check out the game, although I don't expect I'll ever actually finish it. There's a strange tendency, in reviews, to keep fighting the last war; we all got sick of Mortal Kombat's stagnance at the third iteration, when its novelties were more ambitious than its predecessor. Perhaps MK was a narrativist, mystery-driven series after all, or perhaps commercial success rendered the familiar strange and let us see our boredom. I'm seeing a lot of references to the sheer economic might of the GTA brand these days, and it's true, but is it really an order of magnitude bigger than it was in 2008?

Have the games really changed, or have we?

Friday, September 13, 2013

It's not called the Wheel.

Tomorrow--today, technically--is the Boston FIG. I exploited my on-again / off-again / get-a-job-in-the-card-office again relationship with, as well as the festival's willingness to accommodate any asshole who wanders in off the street calling himself a journalist, and will be in attendance tomorrow for low-key gaming, paneling, tweeting, and drinking.

It's also, for me, the social event of the season. Not that I know too many of the people there. I'll recognize a few faces from CMS and WiG, but mostly they'll be strangers, brought there by common experience and common interest. I'm not a designer, and I don't much consider myself an academic anymore. I'm a player, and a writer, and other things, when time permits. I find that I'm excited to be going, and have no obvious reason for feeling so.

So, I sat with that feeling for a little while, O2, CO2. Harpoon and Game of Thrones. Cambridge in the rain. O2, CO2. The despair builds fat, he said; the rage builds muscle. O2, CO2.

When I graduated in ought-seven, I went to work on the writing. In the process, I fell out of the world a bit. I know people now who are doing the kinds of things I'd imagined myself doing in my early 20s. It's a powerful thing, having people to talk shop with. It's especially powerful if you don't know them all that well.

Life's been a bit of a nightmare this past year, but the games have been good to me, and so have the gamers. Love--of knowledge, of craft, of art--has a way of killing loneliness, even when you're alone.

As far as verbs go, you can do a hell of a lot worse.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Everybody calm the fuck down.

Like most of my generation, I don't think I'll ever forget where I was when I heard that Ben Affleck had been cast as Batman. I called my brother to tell him the news; he was in an airport in Vancouver, awaiting a flight that had no doubt been delayed as part of the general chaos that followed the announcement. The airport's inhabitants, by and large, did not seem to have heard the news. I urged my brother not to share this dark knowledge with anyone else waiting at the terminal. After all, we were in all likelihood talking about a huge bomb.

I was impressed with the speed at which the internet agreed upon the most important jokes to be told about this. It must be said, Affleck really was the bomb in Phantoms. It's fun to make fun of Affleck, though; he was cool in the late 90s, then became a pariah, and spent about a decade digging his way back to cool. Which is fine, but maybe, when it comes to cool, Batman isn't an entry level job?

What I find irritating--what interrupts the joy of an old-fashioned internet hate-on for one of the oughts' most irritating celebrities--is this weird belief that Affleck is going to hurt the Batman brand. Presumably that brand, now around seventy-five years old, is vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of a trilogy of critically acclaimed international blockbusters, along with two hugely profitable videogame adaptations and a third on the way. Also, DC still prints comic books, apparently? Nonetheless, a susbtantial portion of the internet seems to believe that, if Warner Bros. doesn't play this just right, then...well, something will happen, presumably. The flipside of this are the people who wearily express their disapproval and disbelief that there'll be more Batman films at all, because the film industry is about making the films we need, not the ones we'll pay to see.

Regardless, Affleck is a solid actor and he'll probably be a perfectly serviceable Batman. It's more likely the film will drag him down than vice versa, because, honestly, before you heard the announcement, how likely did it seem that Batman vs. Superman would be good? It's already something of a miracle that Man of Steel was as good as it was, and it's far from a unanimous opinion that it was. At the Comic-Con announcement, great care was taken to link the new film in fans' minds with act IV of Dark Knight Returns, to the point of having Harry Lennix (for some reason) read aloud Batman's victory monologue. If they're serious about that, I suspect the project is doomed from the start, because I doubt there's any way to get to where act IV of DKR begins in the first hour and a half of a movie with only Man of Steel to rely on for continuity. If it's a feint--or rather, if it's a way to dissuade people from skepticism by appealing to the most respected superhero comic of the past generation--then there's a chance it could work. I certainly wouldn't have believed it was possible to make a great Avengers movie until I saw Joss Whedon make it happen. But then, most writers aren't Joss Whedon, are they?

We nitpick actors' performances as superheroes for the same reason people argue about the best James Bond: not because these roles are particularly challenging, in and of themselves, but because they're understood to be iconic roles that are bigger than any particular actor. What makes Batman a challenging role, when it is, is a competent screenwriter. People seem to forget this very easily. Keaton's Batman was endearing for his wit, his eccentricity, and his less-than-superheroic appearance, but the first two wouldn't have worked if Sam Hamm had written him as the smarmy, catch-phrase-spouting Bruce Wayne we saw three screenwriters (one of them an Oscar winner) bring to life in Batman Forever, or the winking, self-conscious, seemingly embarrassed Bruce Wayne given us by the malevolent djinn who wrote Batman & Robin, presumably as a punishment for the sins of mankind. Similarly, Christian Bale's cynical, obsessive, self-destructive Batman wasn't something Bale improvised on set; David Goyer and the Nolans knew Bale was well-suited to that kind of character, and wrote his Batman accordingly.

So, to reiterate: Batman vs. Superman is probably going to suck, and it's probably not going to be Ben Affleck's fault, any more than Green Lantern was Ryan Reynolds' fault. It's just that the procedural biases of the human brain make that sort of thing difficult to believe while you're actually watching the movie. But seriously, you don't get to be 2013 Ben Affleck without growing a pretty thick skin about being mocked and despised on the internet. Blame him if it makes you happy. He can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a fucking actor, and Batman will do just fine with or without him.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

They did not cover this shit in Cotillion.

A few weeks ago, Alyssa Rosenberg said something thought-provoking:

I spent a while trying to think of an adequately brief response to this, because I find the sentiment intensely familiar. And yet, it's not as simple as "what she said, but with videogames." I poked and prodded at the whats and whys, but nothing fit easily into 140 characters without seeming entirely off-topic. So I settled for a gesture of enthusiastic agreement:
Meaning that I was going to write my own blog entry about the interplay of politics and aesthetics. I would then, in all likelihood, worry about whether or not it would be gauche to mention Rosenberg when I tweet the link to that entry. This is the problem with being in easy shouting distance of people you happen to admire, who incidentally could make you internet-famous for at least a little while. She responded:
So now I feel like I've just told her what to write about, which is a dick move. I consider issuing a correction--"no, no, my writing is what's important here"--but that doesn't seem like a good idea either. So I resolve to just make it the beginning of an irritating blog post.

While racism, sexism, et al. are as annoying in videogames as in any other medium, they're mostly discussed at the fringes. The mainstream discourse, such as it is, is less about whether videogames are supporting (or just failing to critique) deleterious social norms, as it is about whether or not they cause mental illness and/or violent crime by existing. I'd sort of thought we were done with this debate, since even politicians barely pay lip service to media effects these days, but Sandy Hook Changed Everything, and everything old is new again. In the last week, I've seen two new headlines about publications, one on violent media in general and one on violent videogames in particular. Having poked my head in to see if there's anything mind-blowing, I don't have a lot to say.

I'm bothered by infantile power fantasies and gun fetishization because they're dull. I'm bothered by cynical, unambitious, lowest-common-denominator approaches because they result in bad game design. I don't believe bad games are harmful because they encourage people, sane or otherwise, to do bad things; I believe bad games are harmful because they're an enormous waste of human potential.

Next time you finish a AAA game, count how many designers, artists, and coders you see.

Modern videogame development is a long, expensive process, requiring the concerted cooperation of hundreds of people over a period of several years. To have put that much vitality and creativity into something dull, something cynical, is profoundly sad.

Ian Bogost writes that "[t]he debate about newsgames' value as speech turns out not to be a conflict between support and detraction but rather a conflict between the games themselves and the games as cogs in someone's favorite discourse machine." Distinctions between newsgames and any other intra-medium distinctions we might feel compelled to draw up notwithstanding, talking about value precludes talking about content. When we stop arguing about whether or not a game is dangerous, we have the freedom to write about whether or not that game is interesting, and why.

You might not know it from this particular blog, but I assure you, it's a much more interesting conversation.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

How to Crowdsource Assault

Social media platforms live and die in a fiercely attritive Darwinian environment. Platforms gravitate toward their "natural" use, and those that fail to do so quickly disappear. MySpace, in its day, thrived on teen girls who wanted attention and the adult men who wanted to give it to them. Facebook is prized for its ability to passive-aggressively micromanage your interactions with exes, as well as get in fights about political slogans. Also, Candy Crush Saga. (Again, sorry about that, Joey.)

Twitter, surprisingly enough, has shown an impressive aptitude for social activism. 140 characters is short enough that people will actually read most posts all the way through, and the hashtag functionality allows for the building of memes that are more complex than your average bumper sticker, but a hell of a lot more spreadable than a Rachel Maddow monologue. Women Action Media! recently used the #FBrape hashtag to publicly embarrass Facebook (and its advertisers) into revisiting their definitions of "abuse," which is more than anyone else had managed to do. More recently, and more hilariously, right-wing attempts to "expose" Planned Parenthood--by revealing that Planned Parenthood provides health care, including contraception and medical and surgical abortions, to women who want those things and might not otherwise be able to get them or afford them--were hijacked by liberal jackasses like myself. This is how I discovered Jenn "not @jennfrank" Frank, the way all new contacts should be made: drunk, and making puerile jokes. (Frank was not drunk. I'm assuming.) When the dust settled, I had a few more followers, and a few more followees.

The outcome of this episode is that my feed isn't as uniformly gave dev oriented as it had been before, and more of the really real world has been seeping in. Ana Mardoll wrote this helpful editorial over at Shakesville, describing the recent dust-up over Twitter's then-proposed "report abuse" functionality.

The logic of threat is a pretty deep topic, but one should probably start by acknowledging that the threat of violence is inherently coercive, and therefore functions as a form of violence. The harm done to you by an act of violence visited upon a stranger is the dread that grows involuntarily your mind when you hear about it; the same part of your brain that thinks you're having sex when you watch it on TV does that empathic magic for the bad stuff, too. The severity of a threat exerts its dark gravity on a mind regardless of plausibility. Of course, the more plausible a threat, the more seriously it must be taken--even a minor threat demands one's attention if it's particularly likely to be realized.

Of course, there are some places where over-the-top threats are considered entirely normal: sports, general infantry, and, apparently, fighting games. Any place culturally coded as particularly masculine is going to its own flavor of friendly hostility, often with its own specialized vocabulary. It's part of the bonding process, and nobody--the men issuing the threats, or the men receiving them--takes them too seriously. They don't have to. And no matter how many metaphors for rape are employed during a heated round of Halo trash talk, (adult) men generally aren't at a meaningful risk for sexual violence. ("Meaningful" is vague here, but I suspect anyone who isn't trolling gets the denotation.)

Threats directed towards women, in or out of these spaces, are more plausible. Consequently, they provoke a lot more anxiety. Ninety-nine out of a hundred death threats might not be serious, but when you receive two-hundred of them, it's hard to like those odds.

That's the point, of course. The more focused campaigns of abuse on the 'net are launched with the intent of annoying or frightening someone into shutting up, and by definition, we only hear about the campaigns that fail. Because of the acceptance of ritualized hostility in masculine spaces--in this case, the goddamn internet--people can feel perfectly fine saying things they'd be mortified to let loose in person. The anonymity and depersonalization of the medium doesn't just insulate them from criticism, it diffuses responsibility. It's not their fault the target pulled their entire site off the web, because who the fuck takes that kind of thing seriously? It's the internet. And besides, who's to say which particular broadside made the difference? So many to choose from. Every griefer contributes, and when successful, every griefer gets what they want, but none of them are obliged to feel that their particular contribution was meaningful.

When you phone in a fake bomb threat, you're profiting from the terror provoked by people who phone in legitimate bomb threats. When you play psychopath for kicks, you're complicit with the ones who aren't playing.

Because, of course, this phenomenon isn't about masculine spaces or bonding rituals at all. It isn't even about the internet. It's about how anonymity functions in groups of varying sizes, and how the mind buries responsibility where the conscience won't find it. Psychopaths and the people hoping to profit from their actions didn't wait around for the internet to do their thing, and they don't particularly need it now. Case in point, this Pandagon post about a coalition of anti-abortion groups trying to close George Tiller's old clinic on the basis that anti-abortion groups are comprised of violent lunatics who threaten the physical and mental well-being of everyone around them:
What’s happening here is that the anti-choicers spend all their time hanging out with each other and reinforcing the opinion that the clinic doesn’t deserve to exist and that any tactic used to take it down is acceptable, and with that kind of group dynamic, they completely forget how idiotic they sound to come out and say, “This clinic has to go because the temptation to picket it and threaten its workers for violence is more than we can bear.” It’s worth mulling this over, because this attitude—that the harassers are entitled to run someone off the internet for, say, making a series of videos about video games—tends to get blamed on the tech a lot, because forums and and other online gathering spaces create an echo chamber where the idea that you get to force someone out of business (rather than say, simply stop visiting their site/following their Twitter feed if you find them so provocative) stops sounding like the overly entitled idiocy that it is, and starts to seem nearly sensible. But as this example shows, that kind of thinking can kind of sprout up anywhere, and it’s usually less about the “echo chamber” than an outgrowth of their arguments being unable to persuade, forcing them to embrace immoral tactics to win, because they can’t do it fairly. 
I think it's more than a matter of not realizing that people are going to realize that this amounts to an open threat of ongoing violence. I think they sincerely think that their organizations--the ones that they're alleging to be inextricably bound up with acts of domestic terrorism--are fundamentally unconnected to those acts. They couldn't function without the terrorists, of course. It's impossible to deny that the constant threat of violent death doesn't make operating a facility that performs abortions more expensive, dangerous, and generally more difficult. Since 1973, terrorism has served their interests a lot better than lobbying. I think they honestly think that the violence arrives ex nihilio, called into being by the existence of the thing they abhor. After all, Randal Terry's sure as hell not going to spend the rest of his life in prison to kill a handful of his enemies. The fact that the extremists have defined the mainstream discourse to the point that actual threats are indistinguishable from your standard press release has nothing to do with it.

Granted, the internet folk who pledged their honor to defeat Sarkeesian or Jane Austen or whatever aren't nearly as organized as the anti-abortion lobby, and so far they don't have the body count. Still, I wonder if the former might be a more advanced version of the latter. I wonder if we might be seeing another demonstration of emergence, the curious tendency of large groups to spontaneously organize. I wonder if the properties of this medium and this cultural moment have developed a way to delegate not only terror, but guilt.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Empty my God (un)to Thee

The only thing that surprised me about the verdict is that juries work on Saturdays.-@michaelianblack

This weekend started off well enough, with my own personal terror alert system elevated to orange, and a surprise visit from a fellow Tori room kid. When nothing happened on Friday, I assumed we'd hear on Monday, which was fine. So, when a sociology instructor whom I never quite managed to befriend in undergrad posted "fucking florida" to her feed, I didn't immediately identify to what she had referred. There are, after all, a lot of things about Florida that ought to be fucked.

The bestial nature of that metaphor aside, Florida's a strange place, and I doubt I'd have chosen to have been born and raised there had I been consulted beforehand. That said, you could do worse for a tutorial map. For those of you unfamiliar with America's wang, it can be kind of counterintuitive: the further north you go, the further south you are. South Florida is an odd amalgam of New York expatriates, Cuban-American families, tourists, relocated witnesses, snakes, and hideous half-human muttations produced in the labs beneath Disney World. North Florida is, for lack of a technical term, Georgia's muffin top, the southeastern border of Confederacy country. The two are bisected by the I-4 corridor, our perpetually sunny Valley of the Ashes, and where elections are won and lost. Along this winding stretch of demographic confusion lies the city of Sanford.

Like any American city, Sanford is a place where quiet, mild-mannered wonks and loud, racist loons live in such close proximity to one another that you'll occasionally be surprised at who is which. It is, perhaps, easier to see there than in less liminal locales. So when I heard about the shooting of Trayvon Martin, I wasn't entirely surprised by the shooting, and I was even less surprised to hear that the police had essentially taken a pass on investigating it as a crime. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains it all for you:
For some reason there's this notion out there that Trayvon was killed on Monday, Al Sharpton showed up on Tuesday, and there were marches on Wednesday. There's an entire contingent of critics who are much more comfortable attacking Sharpton, or wondering why "black on black" crime doesn't attract any protests. 
As I have written, the contention is, itself, false. But more importantly the protests aren't merely about Trayvon Martin's killing, they are about the failure of a police department to rigorously investigate a crime. [...] At its root, Trayvon Martin's killing is a law and order case, and you would think conservatives would latch on to that. Instead, with few exceptions, we are being told that the true calamity here is the presence of Al Sharpton. 
I didn't have any predictions of which I was confident, largely because I hadn't bothered to follow the trial. I knew a conviction was hardly a fait accompli, but it struck me as immediately and obviously important that there be a trial. As it went on, I'd pick up little bits from arguments in FB threads and blog posts about the broader political issues at work. Consequently, I don't have a whole lot to say about the trial itself. The state's burden of proof necessitated that they essentially prove a negative, since the victim was conveniently dead, and the more distant witnesses ignored or persuaded in the hours after the shooting. And while Zimmerman is rather obviously a paranoid lunatic with a history of impulsive violence--and his explanation of events is so wildly improbable that it ought to have been accompanied by a laugh track--unless he was actively engaged in a crime before he pulled the trigger, Florida says there's no crime.

What I find most disconcerting about this scenario is that, applied fairly, both Zimmerman and Martin would have been within their legal rights to kill the other. Assault requires that the fear apprehended by the victim be well-founded; deadly force in self-defense only requires that the fear be legitimately felt. (Furthermore, immediately prior to the gunshot, neither party would have had the responsibility or the ability to retreat; running away from a man with a gun is a great way to get shot in the back, especially if he's a complete stranger who was threatening you, in the dark, for no apparent reason.) Knowing that being legitimately afraid entitles you to kill the object of your fear, one party can be plausibly afraid for their life simply because they believe the other party might be afraid for their life. In political theory, this is known as the Hobbesian trap, and it's the problem the Leviathan is designed to solve. The state takes sides. If it doesn't--if the state hedges its bets and says "whoever dies first is the criminal"--then it has abdicated its primary function. Wyrre, the late Old English word from which modern English's "war" derives, means "to bring into confusion." The state is, first and foremost, an epistemological construct.

Of course, the "war of all against all" scenario isn't actually going to happen, because laws like Florida's self-defense+ aren't intended to be applied fairly. This is what "empowering citizens" to do the job of law enforcement means. This is what it's for: creating a definition of self-defense so wide that it's impossible to convict anyone unless you have an a priori reason for wanting to imprison or kill them. It's jury nullification in reverse. The police's power to enforce laws encompasses not only the ability to deploy violence against citizens, but to choose not to deploy violence against some citizens. Legitimization of vigilantism makes the police more powerful, not less.

George Zimmerman stood trial for the death of Trayvon Martin, and that's a good thing. We almost didn't get that.

George Zimmerman is, for the moment, not going to face any legitimate penalty for having shot and killed Trayvon Martin. That sucks.

It sucks differently for different people, obviously, but for the people whose sons he hasn't shot, the most important is this: there's no legal disincentive for Zimmerman, or any of his adoring fans, to keep doing this sort of thing. Martin isn't the first, nor the hundredth, person to be killed in an extremely sketchy "defensive" shooting; Zimmerman's justification is far from the most ridiculous. And while there's some irony in noting that Zimmerman is now essentially an anthropomorphized security dilemma, I sincerely hope this is the last we hear of him, either as an aggressor or as a victim, because vigilantism is inherently a threat to all of us. Because the people for whom Zimmerman is a hero will avenge him a hundredfold. And because the outcome of this case doesn't actually mean that people are now legally allowed to hunt and kill each other in Florida. It only means that people are legally allowed to hunt and kill people whose deaths the police don't feel to be worthy of an investigation.

The police are a weapon. The legislature decides at whom it's pointed.

Now get out there and make them do their fucking job.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Albert, Somme

Roger Ebert is dead, and were I to be called upon to spend another minute talking about whether or not videogames will ever be "art," I'd prefer to join him. A few weeks back, I made a mental note to reread John Walker's recent RockPaperShotgun editorial on the relationship between games and stories, so I could explore some of its unexamined conceits. Not a rebuttal, exactly, or even a critique--Walker seems to have handled that responsibility himself--but a vague thought on vocabulary, and what imprecision can conceal.

Story is a revered word among gamers, even if some critics aren't so enthusiastic. We're used to that. If you've spent any time reading games criticism, you're as bored with the yes/no of games and story, and have hopefully moved onto the how. What I find interesting, though, is not the idea that story is a desirable thing for a game to "have," but the assumption that story is the essential aspect of other narrative media.
[w]hat exactly is it we’re holding aloft as an example of storytelling done right? There are games whose stories I’ve enjoyed a great deal. I immediately reach for The Longest Journey, Deus Ex, Planescape Torment… um… and then I start to struggle. And the most recent of those was 2000 – thirteen years ago. [...] But of these, which do I hold up as great examples of literature? Honestly? None. That’s not to demean the best of them – stories from games have genuinely changed my life, moved me enormously, altered my thinking in significant ways. But if gaming’s ultimate goal, from both technology and development, is this spurious notion of “storytelling”, then it’s doing a pretty poor job.
 "Literature" is an interesting place to go here. The written word remains our most highbrow massively reproducible medium; as Supernatural has reminded us recently, men of letters are not to be trifled with. And as Eagleton reminds us in Literary Theory: An Introduction, "literature" is far from a stable subject. "Literature" is often employed as a synonym for "classic," or "art," or "good." People who study literature do not employ it this way, because for litnerds, literature is a descriptive term, not an evaluative one. It's a thing, not an admiring way to describe that thing. Ceci n'est pas un stick, after all.

Description is an important concept to keep in mind, given the next two uses of "literature":
My thought is whether this matters at all. Perhaps it’s time for us all to just accept that games aren’t ever going to be home to classic works of literature – it’s not what they’re for, and it’s not what they’re ever going to achieve.
For years I’ve lamented this, decried the failure of this medium to mature to a point where it can match literature and cinema in terms of intelligence in design. (And to be clearly, yes, most books and movies are terrible – we’re talking about comparing the very best.) When is gaming, I would ask, going to find its great stories? I believe I was wrong to ask.
Here we see references to "classic works of literature" (emphasis mine, obvs.) and "literature and cinema," which rules out such pedestrian fare as books and movies, or even novels and film. I don't know exactly what Walker means by these terms, beyond entities in particular media that are better than most others. But I wonder how he would describe some of these works. When people talk about "story" in videogames--especially when they talk about it derisively--they go to examples, and something gets tricksy. Yes, a prose summary of a game's plot, even one of the best plots, is going to sound pretty silly, but plots invariably sound silly when you alienate content from form. As children, we're taught to use "plot" and "story" interchangeably, primarily in an evaluative sense: "story" is what movies with a lot of CGI must necessarily lack; "plot" is why grown-up movies about mediocre people fucking are better than kids' movies about exceptional people killing. I'll not dwell on the technical definitions, because the comprehensive definition is one of the most beloved lies we tell to schoolchildren. Suffice to say that a description of a story is not that story, a plot summary is not a plot. If games are not a narrative medium, then "story" is an element extricable from the rest of the experience, identical to its own summary. If games are a narrative medium, the story isn't a thing that the player is drawn into, nor is it a thing the player creates by interpreting the text, but the experience itself. The decisions you made, and the ones you were forced to make, and the ones they pretended to let you make, and the way you felt about the experience. Granted, those distinctions might still be useful to make, as they are in other media, and that's a conversation I'd be quite interested in having. But we have to start with the text, the thing. If you want a story that's easily communicable in text, you're going to have the experience and then write about it afterwords.

That's right; videogames are just as depressing as real life.

Oh, bee tee dubs, if you opened up the first Walker article, I advise you to break the first rule of the internet and read the comments.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Talkin' X-COM Blues

About a week ago, I got bored with being scared and angry all the time, and I said to myself, "Self," I said, "#FuckEverything. Let's play X-COM for an entire week." I've had better weeks, to be sure. But I've had worse weeks as well, many of them recent.

I'm on the periphery of gamerness at the moment--amusingly, now that I'm the industry news guy at SFP--and I can barely be arsed to keep track of the new console news. Something feels very after about everything these days, and I can't remember ever being as indifferent to new developments as I am now.

Sometimes, dear reader, there are simply no more fucks to give. This is time for comfort food gaming. These days, I try to avoid the really obvious candidates: your Final Fantasy Tactics, your PS2-era actioners. Basically anything I've already played on the DS. When people ask what I've been doing all these years--or how I deal with the constant inflow of uncertainty and terror--I resist the urge to answer in list form. The block of my time from somewhere in 2008 to somewhere in 2012, I remember mostly as a series of DS games: Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, Dawn of Discovery, Populous. Final Fantasy Tactics is a gimme. Clash of Heroes, I could play for-fucking-ever. Ditto Dawn of Heroes, because apparently brilliant, genre-breaking puzzle-strategy games are wedded to the "of Heroes" concept. The World Ends With You, I restarted several times, going a little bit farther into the postgame collection each time. I avoid it now mostly out of concern for the health of my screen. (Seriously, "Scratch"?) The most recent was Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, the 3D-but-not-really tactical strategy game from X-COM creator Julian Gollop. There's a lot to love about Shadow Wars, from the flexible level design, to the elevation of bodies-in-motion over of point-and-shoot, to a story so stupid you'd think Tom Clancy had written it himself. I avoid it these days because, at 98% completion, my options are to attack the 2% of the game that's so ridiculously difficult that even the FAQs have no real clues, or starting from scratch. Replaying an old game isn't quite like rereading a favorite novel or walking a beloved path, but even if there's authentic novelty to be had, it feels like an indulgence I can ill afford.

So I'm glad to have X-COM: Enemy Unknown. The Firaxis remake, not the 2K Australia FPS that's apparently never fucking coming out. (Also, there might not be any chicks in it.) Glad not only because I've wanted a viable way to play X-COM for years, but because comfort food gaming benefits dramatically from games that are old and new. The stuff that got lost along the way is minor, and the new tricks are, for the most part, improvements. But this is less about the game, and more about the way the game makes me feel, assuming they can be separated for the convenience of that sentence. We might not have to write so much stupid shit about "story" if we went full reader response and said that the way the game made us feel was the game, but then, there's something inherently repugnant in reader response theory, in the idea that we make the text in our own closed worlds. Primarily, I suspect, because it denies us the chance to bend our knee to Authority, and consequently exploit His power for our own purposes, but also because it raises the possibility that our understandings of a text only agree by coincidence: that two people use one word to describe two concepts, and mistakenly think that they've shared something.

The world ends with you, after all.

I have another one of those irritating "story" posts coming, and I shan't dwell there tonight. But tonight, we are not rational, and tonight, we are not light, and as I watch those brave little scientists and engineers and soldiers--the sheer moral weight of not only their mission, but of the mere scale of their cooperation--and I think, where am I in this bleak-but-meaningful world? Whither the humanities?

You know. Because I'm an asshole. (I also use hashtags in my internal monologue.)

But seriously. Whither cultural studies? Whither ethics, if you've already accepted that the descriptive and the normative differ only in the sound of one hand clapping? Whither history? Whither incest, water reclamation, a messy abortion read over a caesar salad?

I have some very convincing daylight answers for each one of these, of course: that the function of the liberal arts education is to help a republic maintain itself through educated citizenry; that the model was derived from methods for educating clerisy; that critical theory is born by accident, an unanticipated mutation of an attempt by English capitalists to ensure the allegiance of the middle class amid the waning power of the Anglican church. But at 3:25 AM, I throw in my lot with Crick: the fact of the question's existence answers it. "Why?" demands history. "What" demands semantics. "How" demands ethics.

How ought we live? (What was she fighting for?)

What ought we do? (What am I fighting for?)

What am I willing to do to survive? (What are you fighting for?)

What constitutes the lower limit of "survive"? (If we get through this, I'll tell you.)

Because I settled on a truth today, that's always going to be true. I would do anything for my friends. Which I think is how everyone in the world feels. Which finally makes me understand new games journalism.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Whips, chains, whistles, dildos, and a book.

So, I was on Twitter the other night. building my brand, developing relationships with fans ("influencers"), and talking about the problems of "correspondence" epistemology with @DoritosOntario. A number of my feedlings, notably the loudly thoughtful @HULKGAMECRIT, were discussing some scandalous doings over at Destructoid, with which I'm only barely familiar. But I followed the breadcrumbs to this essay by one Ryan Perez. It gave me pause. Afterwards, it gave me quit, and soon after that it gave me watch Arrested Development.

You see, dear reader, this essay is a piece of shit. It's that uniquely gamerly combination of defensive, self-pitying, and self-congratulatory. It's utterly unremarkable, in that way, but the material it covers was fresh in my mind from something else I'd been working on, and it happened to be in front of me, late one Saturday night. I wanted to make a joke about it, but found too many opportunities. It deserves better than 140 characters of mock. It's so bad that it deserves to be taken seriously.

This is a terrible essay. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

I'll skip the opening paragraph, because fuck you. If you clicked the above link, you already read it anyway. So I'll rejoin the essay already in progress:

What instantly draws my gaze toward these oh-so-common floggings is the most common factor: those carrying the whips.
Wait. It's always the same people? I assumed it would be a general assemblage of garden variety liberals. But if it's the same dozen people who are mounting these vilification campaigns against you and your colleagues, and they're not famous enough for me to have heard of them, it seems like you could probably indemnify yourself by just blocking them so you won't be tempted to respond to their criticism.

Like clockwork, they labeled Allistair “transphobic,” demanded that he be punished, and seemingly dusted their hands off for what they perceived was a good deed. This is not the first time they’ve done so.
Well, he'd done something that was apparently offensive to the trans community and their allies. These individuals were offended because they believed his actions were motivated by, and likely to inspire, antipathy toward transsexuals. "Motivated and/or likely or intended to inspire antipathy towards transsexuals" is the definition of "transphobic." By organizing public sentiment against a perceived injustice, it's entirely sensible that they would think they were engaged in "a good deed." Public sentiment is important; it's less accurate than it used to be, but most humans intuitively think of their popularity and reputation as matters of life and death. This is why people often react very severely to what are, from our pleasantly distant perspective, quite minor. But props on the whole "lurking horror" connotation there.
Ironically, they are the biggest proponents for positive change, yet they seem so consistent with their own negative behavior. Their usual approach is far from persuasive, and is even potentially damaging. An eye for an eye, if you will.
Leaving aside that "positive" and "negative," in this context, are utterly meaningless terms employed to create an illusion of moral distinction: an eye for an eye? Really?

How one gets from "far from persuasive" to "retributive violence" is difficult enough, but "eye for an eye" refers to using exactly the appropriate amount of retaliatory force and no more. In the Hammurabi Code, and later the Law, the principle was employed to prevent feuds from escalating into bloodbaths. It does not gesture towards reconciliation, but it does settle the issue as far as everyone is concerned. So it's not just a matter of hyperbole, it's also fucking stupid. (In all fairness, Perez refers to his "devoutly religious beliefs." Just because his beliefs are devoutly religious, we cannot assume out of hand that he is as well, and it's possible he just knows fuck-all about what the Sermon on the Mount was actually about.)
I can’t really avoid pointing this out here: In the past, I made a stupid mistake on Twitter that cost me my career and a lot of respect.
Considering that the stupid mistake in question was almost a year ago and he's still being published, it's hard to see how it can be said to have cost Perez his career. Perhaps he had a second, unrelated career, and now must fall back on writing about games.
Similarly to Allistair, I had a significant (and somewhat unjustified) amount of hate and criticism hurled my way. I admitted my poor actions, and also accepted much of what resulted from them, but it made me raise a brow toward similar instances of public scrutiny that others have faced. Leaving my own experience out of the equation,
That is not what this paragraph does.
I looked to others whom were “burned at the stake” for their trespasses, both minor and extreme. In the process, I made two inquiries: What is the intended goal of those with torches, and what lesson are the ones aflame supposed to learn? Not enough people ask these questions.
In fact, too few individuals even bother considering every potential result when it comes to their actions, particularly those convinced that they are doing something noble or good. It’s a damn shame, because some of the worst offenses anyone can commit are often perpetuated by God, “justice,” and a personal sense of absolute morality.
Actually, almost all violence is deployed for the purpose of asserting or maintaining social norms. I'm not sure it's really worse than the minority of violent actions inspired by greed, sadism, or simple boredom. I'm even less sure what this sweeping moral claim has to do with being yelled at on the internet. Nevertheless, having established a line of argument popularized by middle-schoolers, we continue:
Nevertheless, those two questions remained, and the answers I found are as follows:
1. Concede, you piece of shit! Disagreement is almost always accompanied by a desire to persuade. The main reason we enter debates, discussions, or arguments is to potentially convince someone to see things from our point of view. Even those who present their case with exposed teeth aspire to have the opposition kneel before their passionate conviction. 
Sometimes, sure. But we don't execute people because we think it'll help them learn a valuable lesson, and we don't respond to embarrassment with rage because rage is an effective rhetorical strategy. Here's a hint: did you and the aggrieved party have your dispute in person, in a room that contained no other people? All the examples provided here happened on the fucking internet, the most public forum in the history of ever. People were watching, and there were more of them than there are of you. Which means that, in terms of influencing opinion, they matter more than you. This is going to be a theme, so I hope you're taking notes: not everything is about you.

When this piece goes up, maybe a dozen people are going to read it. Perez is almost certainly not going to be one of them. The rhetorical "you" situates the preceding paragraph for the people who are reading, for whom it's largely irrelevant whether Perez actually exists at all, or is just someone I made up to represent a point of view.
Many people seem to forget two things: Opinions are only worth the amount of thought that goes into them, and a part of getting others to consider them is a matter of presentation. Yes, the “tonal argument” is indeed a logical fallacy, but let’s be real: People don’t like being spoken to like they are inferior … or evil, in this case.
I'm not sure about the first one. Statesmen, scholars, and clerics have put an enormous amount of thought, over the centuries, into arguments for white supremacy. It takes a lot of thought, because the idea is counterintuitive to a lot of people. Non-whites, for example. Also, lots of whites. Whereas some opinions don't require very much thought at all, but nonetheless remain correct under scrutiny. Epistemology does not have participation trophies; you have to actually be right about shit.

As for the second, I'm somewhat sympathetic. I think the tonal argument is quite appropriate when discussing marketing, public relations, propaganda, or any other persuasive pursuit. When the issue is "how," talk about how. Where the tonal argument becomes irrelevant and/or intellectually dishonest is in discussions of "what." I'm not interested in how our friend the white supremacist makes his argument. I disagree. If I believed that I could be convinced by a better presentation, it would only be because I already agreed, in which case I would need no convincing. Furthermore, I'd much prefer that the people who are amenable to white supremacy reject it. Our friend would have to be very stupid to think I was legitimately interested in helping them improve their sales pitch. A smarter interlocutor would be insulted.
Your argument is your product, and you are its salesperson. No matter how compelling and valuable your commodity may be, if your sales pitch consists of vilifying language and a condemning regard for your hopeful customer, they will not feel inclined to give two steaming shits about what you’re selling.
Your ethical argument has a lot of merit, but I'm not interested in being a better person if you're going to be mean.
When people stumble — myself, Allistair, and even greater authorities like David Jaffe and Jim Sterling — the goal is to make us learn from our mistakes, but what do we learn if the lesson is delivered by a figurative bat to the head? Treating offenders like dirt not only gives them a reason to ignore you, but it can also reaffirm their original position, as well as reinforce any negative preconceptions they had about you and your case.
Who gives a shit? The lesson is for the onlookers. We're the present, they're the future. They matter more. And while humor, derision, and spite might make you like your opponent less, they sure can help get the crowd on your side. Every retweet counts.
2. If you don’t yell, they won’t plug their ears. Do you want to know how to gain a valued, loyal customer?
Dude, you're writing an essay about how you got fired. This is not a time to brag about your salesmanship.
I was raised in Bakersfield, California. For those who don’t know, “Bako” is quite conservative … and a bit of a shithole [...] This, coupled with a Christian upbringing, meant I retained a relatively non-existent knowledge regarding gay people. I don’t hide the fact that, when I first moved to San Francisco nine years ago, I was genuinely homophobic. I hadn’t a single clue about how to feel or behave when it came to gay men and women.
While my Christian upbringing was considerably more liberal than most, I didn't knowingly meet a gay person face-to-face until undergrad. I had no clue how to act around anyone, so if there was any specific awkwardness relating to gay students, it got lost in the general terror. I don't recall ever having a lot of questions for them. I never found it particularly mysterious that some people wanted to fuck different people than I did.
I didn’t hide it then, either. Given my inquisitive nature, I was open and honest with gay people when it came to my devoutly religious beliefs, what I was taught, and my confusion regarding their sexual orientation. Considering my exposed Christian tattoos, I couldn’t hide it, even if I wanted to. All I desired was to gain some perspective, some understanding. An odd thing happened, though. The gays I spoke with weren’t angry. They didn’t despise me for knowing so little about their ordeals. They didn’t lambaste me for being raised to believe that their way of life was wrong or immoral.
That Perez feels it worth pointing out that these things didn't happen  implies that he had reason to suspect that they might. He didn't. People you've just met have not spent their lives thinking about how you feel about them. Their emotions are tied up in people and things that they care about.
They heard my case, considered my misinformation, and carefully answered with some of the most valuable and level-headed responses that I’ve ever been given in my life. Due to their kindness and patience, I was sold. I had absolutely no excuse to be repelled by homosexuality or the issues it faces in this country, and I never will.
Though I’m no longer religious, I can’t help but feel a sense of amazement that people could go through such trauma, yet never bother to use my past faith and upbringing against me.
This is a really weird thing to say. It's like bragging about being petty.
So many of them (particularly gay women) were incredibly grateful that a straight, white male would actively desire to learn what it meant to be a gay American, and I was equally thankful that they didn’t scold me for not knowing in the first place. For several years now, the gay community has had one more supporter because of it.
Great that it worked out that way for you, but it's not incumbent upon them to convince you to be a decent human being. That's your responsibility. It sounds like they felt your heart was in the right place, and were willing to be patient with you on your behalf, but I suspect your account leaves out a great deal of eye-rolling and condescension.
The paradox of shelling a munitions factory. It’s not difficult to understand how some can feel so hurt that they resort to armed retaliation.
Dude, that's aggravated assault. Call the fucking cops.
But to fire back at the “bad guys” is to equalize the battlefield. In that instance, villains and victims become grayed. Treating anyone like they are subhuman is equally as deplorable as whatever behavior may have instigated it.
Forget the cops, call the UN. When you insult Felicia Day, the internet strikes back with motherfucking genocide.
This industry certainly has its issues, and I dare not deny that its transgendered, gay, and female members have and will face an unfair amount of problems. But their target demographic — those who do not fall under the three aforementioned categories — will rarely provide their patronage if the service being offered is laden with glass shards and caltrops.
We all desire for others to understand us. In the process, though, we so often become the new embroiderers of scarlet letters (“M” for misogyny). We claim to have the high ground, yet voluntarily remain in the piss-soaked dirt of the struggle below.
Who is this "we" of which you speak? The ones who are mistreated, or the ones who aren't sufficiently insulated from criticism when they mistreat the first group?
That provides nothing substantial or positive to the games industry we claim to serve, and it perpetuates an even greater disconnect between social groups.
I'm glad Perez is looking toward a broader understanding of ethics in a complex and interdependent society. I was beginning to worry this was just self-serving whining justified by false equivalencies.
“Goodness” and “kindness” are not subject for debate, nor are they anyone’s to redefine.
Three thousand years of moral philosophy would like to have a word with you.
If you still feel that fighting fire with fire is a reasonable and justifiable strategy for extinguishing a societal blaze, then perhaps you should spend more time off to the side, watching the flames burn everything to the ground.
As of press time, the internet is still here. Destructoid is still here. Perez is still here. Pinsof is still here. Aside from no longer maintaining writing gigs at one particular website--and apparently having sewn large, garish Ms into their clothing, for some reason--Perez and Pinsof seem to be doing ok. They aren't in jail, they haven't been doxxed, and they aren't regularly threatened with rape and murder. They embarrassed their employers, and will try harder not to embarrass future employers.

I, personally, think Perez and Pinsof were thoughtless and stupid, and are unaccustomed to being called on it when they had done thoughtless, stupid things. That said, when you do stuff in public, you will be criticized. Some of it will inevitably be unjustified.

This is ok.

Total strangers--the ones who might be convinced by things they read about you on the internet--aren't ever going to have an entirely accurate picture of what kind of person you are. Hell, an entirely accurate picture might not even be possible. But your friends and loved ones won't care. Your fans, if you have them, aren't going to be easily swayed either. When someone accuses you of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other recently discovered sins, you are not actually facing imminent violence. If you find yourself on the privileged side of any of those -isms or -obias, you're still basically protected. You really do have the option of just saying, "Yeah, that was inappropriate. I'll try to be a better person" and letting it go. You can think it over on your own time, decide whether or not you feel it was valid, and make changes accordingly. Talk about it with your friends. In private. Don't worry about being unfairly maligned, worry about being hurtful and deserving to be maligned, irrespective of whether or not you get called on it.

Remember those gay folk that so impressed Perez? Want your own heroic narrative? Then show a small fraction of their fortitude that you claim to admire, and endure. Don't let your pride get in the way of what you believe is right. Your feelings are not more important than social justice, and you are not so fragile that you need to be kept in the dark about your fuck-ups. Own it. If you have a soapbox, stop justifying your behavior and work on preventing other people from making the same mistakes.

Who knows? If you do it right, if you're influential enough, the people now lionizing you for standing up to the forces of political correctness will be sending you death threats. And then you can talk to us about moral fucking authority.

What a bunch of assholes.

Oh, and while we're on the subject: Osama bin Laden had ten daughters to David Jaffe's two. Just sayin'.