Archive for the ‘gaming’ Category

An audience’s response has two sources: what is actually said, and what the audience brings to the hearing. In the case of Anita Sarkeesian’s analyses of popular culture, I can only conclude that only a fraction of the hostility comes from what she says, and most of it from those opposing her.

Sarkeesian’s critiques are easily identified as being grounded in mainstream feminism. Her perspective is nothing new, nothing bizarrely novel. She says nothing that has not been said constantly for the past three decades. So far as theory goes, her main contribution has been the relatively minor one of naming tropes, which is useful, but hardly revolutionary. In fact, although I might have missed something – the anti-Sarkeesian responses being far too numerous for anyone to be familiar with all of them – even her opponents adopt her coinings without objecting to them. Her opponents may refer ironically to Damsels in the Refrigerator or Ms Male, but they use the terms all the same, helping them to become part of the accepted terminology for talking about women in popular culture. Nor should that be surprising, because most of the names she gives tropes are colorful and instantly identifiable.

However, essentially, Sarkeesian is a popularist. She is less notable for adding to feminist theory than for taking academic discourse and translating it for a general audience. This is a difficult accomplishment, and should not be under-estimated, especially since few people are capable of it. Except in some of her conclusions, Sarkeesian generally minimizes jargon, and, when she does use an academic term, she is careful to explain and illustrate it before developing her argument.

Personally, as a former writer of software documentation, I find the ability to explain important, yet it seems, in itself, an unlikely source of controversy. After all, she is only giving a specific examples of a critique whose general outline is familiar in contemporary culture.

Ordinarily, the responses you would expect from work like Sarkeesian’s are queries about her interpretations, and the pointing out of omissions and inaccuracies in her analysis. For instance, her Straw Feminists video can be criticized for its characterization of the third season of the cult TV show Veronica Mars, which mistakes the depiction of feminist activists as flawed and opportunistic – a perfectly appropriate depiction for the show’s noir world where everybody is untrustworthy – as anti-feminism.

Yet this is rarely the kind of criticism she receives. More often, reactions to Sarkeesian are intense and hostile out of all proportion to anything she says.
Perhaps, part of this reaction is due to her critics feeling that something important to them is under scrutiny. This uneasiness is probably all the stronger because Sarkeesian is hardly a participant observer in the best sociological fashion. Even though she is a popularizer, the fact that she speaks from an academic background tends to cast her as an outsider, noisily entering the scene and dispersing judgment from a superior position.

But, whatever the reason, the responses to Sarkeesian are almost never examples of valid arguments. Much of the time, they are personal attacks, accusing her of being a front for a behind-the-scenes lover, or the public figure for some unfolding conspiracy, and at times accompanied by threats and personal, even sexual insults. She is faulted for having a Kickstarter campaigner that resulted in twenty-five times what she asked (as though success was proof of dishonesty), for not being a “real gamer” (as though only a member of the gaming sub-culture can observe it), for turning off comments on her postings (as though the Internet doesn’t have plenty of room elsewhere for responses), and for turning her harassment to some advantage (as though she should simply endure it). Less specifically, she is accused of lying or being evasive. Yet even if some or all of these accusations could be proved, none of them have anything to do with the validity of her arguments. The accusations express hostility, and nothing more.

In fact, attempts to address Sarkeesian’s observations are rare. When they are made, they generally fall short of logic. For example, while she is often accused of cherry-picking her evidence, her attackers fail to explain what else someone with as narrow a topic as Women in Video games is supposed to do. Similarly, complaints that she does not mention the broader context – for example, that only a minority of a popular game’s missions take place in a strip club – fail to address Sarkessian’s basic point of why such missions are included at all.

At other times, efforts to address Sarkeesian’s argument can only be described as willfully blind. One critic, for instance, faults Sarkeesian for mentioning a scene in which players can kill strippers and hide their bodies on the grounds that the game penalizes players for doing so. Yet how many gamers do not carefully save so that they go back and explore the paths not taken? Although the scene is not part of the main storyline, it is still part of the game.

The critics do have one point: Sarkeesian can be careless about citing sources. In response, Sarkeesian cites fair use, and I would add that popular and informal works (including this one) are more casual about sources than equivalent academic works. However, even the validity of this accusation is soon overshadowed by the quickness with which it is inflated to proofs of duplicity. Someone without a grudge would be more likely to attribute careless citing to nothing more sinister than inexperience.

What is troubling about such responses is not that they attack Sarkeesian. She is not, and should not be immune from criticism. However, when the responses attack Sarkeesian as often as her arguments, and employ such tormented logic the few times that they do discuss her arguments, they can hardly be called responses in good faith. They are not interested in discussing her argument to get closer to the truth, and would probably not concede that she was valid on any point whatsoever. Their goal is to deny or silence by any means at hand, no matter how irrelevant or illogical.

Add a sneering tone, and overt sexism, and they can hardly be called responses to Sarkeesian at all. Instead, they seem more projections of what the commenters bring to viewing Sarkeesian’s work.

Fear of feminism or women? Denial and doubts about what effects video games may have? Not being telepathic, I cannot presume to say. But, to all appearances, if Sarkeesian did not exist, at least some of her attackers would need to invent her.

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In the last year, my life-long habit of playing games has diminished greatly. I am vaguely disturbed by this turn of events, because I can’t decide whether it is a mark of maturity or of having lost something.

So far as I can remember, the habit began with playing chequers with my maternal grandfather. He was never condescending enough to let me win, but held back enough that I always hoped I could win next time. Early in elementary school, I started chess, usually winning although I never systematically learned opening moves or defenses – in fact, I felt that doing so was next to cheating.

Then, some time around the age of ten, I discovered Avalon Hill Games. Nowadays, the imprint seems given over largely to variations of Axis and Allies, but, at the time, they had games based on everything from the Battle of Jutland and The Battle of Britain to the American attack on Guadacanal and the street-fighting during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, all on such an abstract level that I could forget about the implied bloodshed and concentrate on the strategy, as well as ignoring the implied American jingoism I sensed in some of the games

An Avalon Hill Game could take hours to set up, hunting for the right units. It could take hours to play, too, which made it perfect for a long afternoon under a tree with whatever friend I could convince to try the game. But ending the game wasn’t the point to me. What mattered was learning the lay of the land, and the names on the little squares and rectangles. To this day, I can still remember many of the names of the unit leaders on both sides at Gettysburg, and the names of Caesar’s commanders during the siege of Alesia (although I now wonder if some of those were false). In some ways, they were as good as reading.

I never could find many who would play with me, so I often played against myself, taking each side in turn, a practice that may have helped me to write impartially about complex issues. Often, I played against myself when I should have been doing homework, or my own writing.

When the first arcades came out, they were very nearly my downfall – especially the closest one to where I was living. I spent far more quarters than I should have, totally fascinated at the same time I was aware of the banality of most of the games.

Computer games were safe, although in the early days I was inevitably disappointed in the graphics. The best, like the various releases of Civilization, were like extended versions of the Avalon Hill games – ones that I didn’t need to set up. For a couple of years, I kept a Windows partition largely to play games, although I practically danced through the living room when Loki started releasing Linux versions of popular games.

Fortunately for my time management, when I switched entirely to Linux, few games were still available, although I occasionally wasted time on Battle of Wesnoth. Even more fortunately, I never quite got started on online roleplaying; from the couple of times I wrote about them, I’m guessing I would have had serious problem.

But in the two and a half years since I was widowed, I haven’t had time for more than few games of solitaire or backgammon each day to get myself thinking in terms of possibility. Increasingly, I’ve had no time at all, and I’m not sure what to make of the fact.

On the one hand, I worry that this change of habits might be a suppression of the imagination. Like any other faculty of the human brain, the imagination seems something that needs to be exercised. Am I growing dull? I wonder. Letting my imagination and perception stagnate for lack of stimulus?

Or is moving away from games a sign that I am overdue for ending my preparation for life, and getting on with the real thing? Maybe, as as I get on with practical things, I don’t need to prepare so much. I might be too busy getting on with my own business.

I suppose a third alternative is that I’ve been running on the enhanced emotions of grief, until no mental stimulus is effective. But I’m being cautious about finding out, because none of the alternatives appeal to me much.

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For the last couple of years of my bachelor’s degree and a few years after that, I was an avid Dungeons and Dragons player. Or, rather, I was an avid Dungeon Master – I was never an actual player more than once or twice. Somehow, with me ever thinking about why, I seemed naturally to fall into the role. Maybe anyone with ambitions to be a story-teller falls into that role, because the game is basically group story-telling, and the DM is the lead story-teller. But, at any rate, the experience taught me a thing or two I didn’t know about human nature – and that I still partly wish that I had never learned.

The regular group of players numbered six to a dozen, equally divided between men and women. All of them were people I knew from the Society for Creative Anachronism. Several were in the same SCA household, and three were sharing a townhouse in real life.

The result, to say the least, was scary. More than any of the adventures I sent them on (and I had them scampering across the wilderness between two cities, with a side trip to the nether world), what I recall best was how the usual Friday night sessions began to resemble a group therapy session, with me caught in the middle, trying to ignore the unpleasant undertones, smooth things over, and keep the game moving for everyone else.

At times, though, I might have saved myself the effort. When two of the room mates who were arguing in real life started trying to attack each other in the game, I knew that their housing arrangements couldn’t last. And, sure enough, one of the two moved out a couple of weeks later.

I was proud of my efforts to invent entertaining scenarios, and spent time that I should have used for study developing elaborate scenarios and maps. When many of the players decided that their characters were related, I came up with a plausible family tree. If someone wanted to bring a guest, I would develop a plausible scenario to explain how the guest joined the group and eventually left it. If someone missed a session, I would hold special sessions for them to catch up, so they wouldn’t be far behind in points. I was proud of my efforts, and prouder still of my efforts to weave an entertaining story.

Then I discovered that the group was holding another D & D session on another night – one to which neither Trish nor I were invited. Apparently, some of the players wanted a game where they could simply kill things. When confronted, they said that I was too intense to be invited along, and that they wanted a game without me.

Not so intense, apparently, that they weren’t willing to let me work to entertain them, I thought. Or eat our food and drink our juice and wine. Angrily, I told them that they could find another Dungeon Master for their Friday night game. They seemed honestly hurt and bewildered, which made me damn them as hypocrites and freeloaders, and cut off contact with them, even drifting away from the SCA.

The few times I’ve seen them since, they seemed genuinely unsure of what had happened – a reaction that only makes me think that I was sensible to stop hanging out with them.

A year or two later, we started another role-playing session with some friends who had moved down from the Sunshine Coast. This time, it was a post-holocaust setting, and I was Dungeon Master again. But that game died when our friends’ marriage started breaking up, and I haven’t played since.

Every now and again, I do wonder what it would be like to be just a player. But I don’t suppose I’ll ever find out now.

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I’ve always jumped around from job to job, but this time I’ve topped myself. I’ve taken the job of Galactic Emperor, six millenniums from now.

Or, to be exact, I’m playing the role of the Emperor Simonides in the Imperial Realms game for which I did some writing last year. Steve Bougerolle, whose project it is, offered those who have contributed to the game the chance to be immortalized in this way, so I agreed.

I did think of standing in for Basileus III, the emperor notorious for enobling his pet cats (and demoting one to Baroness when she scratched him), but, I thought Simonides a better match. After all, for all my eccentricity, I’m not likely to give titles to animals. But Simonides, who helped revigorate the empire by mobilizing against the Nano threat sounds like a steady, personally austere type of organizer I might at least hope to emulate.

I’m especially pleased because Simonides is one of the emperors whose accomplishments I specified while I was writing about the aliens and human clans in the game (the history is Steve’s).

One small problem with Steve’s idea is that I don’t look very Imperial. But a studious type like Simonides – whom I imagined while writing about him probably had an office right behind the throne room where he spent most of his time – I might just be able to pull off (in the dark, with a group of near-sighted people who had forgotten their glasses). A warlike emperor would be harder for me to pull off with even marginal conviction.

Still, the thought of someone as solidly working class in origin as I am playing an emperor of any sort amuses me more than I can say, so I’m making sure that everybody knows of my elevation. If you’re a friend, and you haven’t received an invitation to the coronation all I can say is that, next time, you’ll know better than to slight me, won’t you?

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I sold my first article at 14 to Wargamer’s Digest, and I’ve been selling odd bits of my writing ever since. In the last few years, I’ve written a couple of hundred articles each year, and the thrill of publication has been almost lost in more practical concerns (Any typos? Do any of the comments reveal that I’ve overlooked something? Where’s the cheque?). I’ve even learned to take wry humor in being called a moron or a paid flunky of a company or cause. But one experience I never had until a few weeks ago was seeing my words illustrated by someone else.

Well, that’s not quite true. Years ago, I did have a cover for Witches of the Mind, my book about Fritz Leiber, but that was an impressionistic cover about the variety of Fritz’s stories, rather than anything inspired by what I had written.

Now, helping with the back story of the Imperial Realms online game, I’ve seen four illustrations so far of my work by Avi Pinhas and Ken Henderson. In coming months, I expect to see more.

I have mixed reactions to these illustrations. Some I admire, while some plainly contradict what I wrote. But, in all cases, my main reaction has little to do with whether I like or dislike the rendering. Instead, I’m overwhelmed by how unsettling I find seeing someone else’s interpretation of my words.

As a writer of fiction (or, in this case, pseudo-fact), I am very visually oriented. When I finish writing, the words that remain seem the best reflection of the images in my mind that I can achieve in the circumstances.

What is humbling, frustrating, and exciting all at the same time is the realization that, as much as the words seem accurate to me, they’re self-evidently open to interpretations I hadn’t considered. And some of these interpretations are at least as valid as the ones I had in mind.

The fact that these differences in interpretation can exist has me questioning traditional notions of creativity, and the degree of control anyone can have over what they produce. If others can draw things out of my words that I didn’t intend but can’t reject as incorrect (at least not without insisting that only my vision is valid), then I have to wonder how much control I have over what I write.

Clearly, I have some; from the start, Ken Henderson’s depiction of the alien race called the Tsihor, for example, is very close to the image in my mind of a species that might form a biker gang with Cthulhu. Yet, equally clearly, the degree of control is limited, and party determined by what others bring to the work.

That suggests the auteur theories of art, in which the creator molds every aspect of the impression that others receive is not only misleading, but threatens to lure the creative into an impossible effort to control everything about the audience’s experience.

But does that mean that all that the creative should do is throw out vague impressions and hope that some of them resonate in the audience? To accept that alternative seems equally extreme.

I can’t help wondering, too, what the third generation reaction will be, when players react to the combination of pictures and words. Perhaps if some of them are inspired to their own artwork, I’ll find out. But I wonder how much of the third generation reaction will be from my work. And should I care, when I can’t control it anyway?

Another line of thought is that the translation of my words into pictures somehow validates them. Of course, this is partly an illusion, since all of us are doing work for hire, not necessarily work that we would choose on our own, but it’s a remarkably persistent one. Regardless of whether the images do or don’t correspond to the ones in my mind, I’d be lying if I pretended not to get a kick from seeing my words shaping other people’s creations.

So far, I’ve only had the smallest taste of this experience. However, it’s enough for me to imagine what directors and producers must feel when their finished production appears on film. It must be an exhilarating experience. I wonder, though: does their first experience of the process affect their subsequent work? Does it make them more or less careful? Affect their work in any other way? It would be interesting to find out.

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