Gamers, Pure and Special Just the Way They Are

There’s a persistent thread in children’s entertainments that goes, in various forms, “you’re beautiful just the way you are.” It’s a sentiment meant to guard against bullying, especially on the basis of factors beyond one’s control: appearance, family background, etc. But I wonder if some folks, exemplified by recent hate movements like GamerGate, have taken this message to heart with respect to things that are under one’s control.

“I’m special just the way I am,” if taken at face value, can be used as an out from any need to change or moderate one’s behavior. In fact, calls to behave differently or better are seen as part of a system of shame and bullying. If one’s personality is just the way you are, part of an immutable identity, then criticism of one’s behavior is inherently pointless and unjustified. “I’m perfect just the way I am! How dare you ask me to change?” So, for instance, the stereotypical image of the gamer, with its crude, obsessive, poorly groomed basement dweller, insofar as it is an accurate picture of an individual, is a thing to be embraced. Discarding personal hygiene in favor of more gameplaying time is the way I roll! Anyone who thinks I should change my ways is just a bully.

You can see this belief surface in other ways, too. For instance, there is a tendency to drag up many-years-old comments by an individual that have some hateful component to them, and hold them up as representative of that person’s true self. After all, if someone acted in a certain way at one point in time, and personality or behavior is a fixed part of one’s identity, then any change should be treated as suspect. Apologies for such past behavior are disingenuous, capitulation to outside pressure at best. Jim Sterling and Ian Miles Cheong have received a great deal of this treatment.

Of course, there are hypocrisy and double standards here too. For instance, if Breitbart columnist Milo rescinds his past disparaging remarks about the gamer community, that’s accepted and praised. Apparently, the hardcore gamer identity is the true one, and movements in its direction can be genuine. So long as it’s unsullied by disagreement with the gamer core, at least: people who don’t toe the party line, such as Anita Sarkeesian, continue to be treated as posers even if they begin to play games in the hardcore fashion. One can always rationalize a belief like “we’re special just the way we are” in a way that stays in harmony with one’s political agenda.

We should thus be on guard against the tendency to absorb messages that reinforce our entrenched sense of self and render us defensive against change. There are plenty of messages in children’s media and elsewhere that teach moral growth and abandonment of problematic behaviors, but if we cherry-pick those messages that say we don’t need to change, the rest fades into the background. I don’t know how to bring a greater self-awareness to those who have chosen this entrenched identity mantra, but I can at least celebrate counterpoints. And I can resist the little cultural memes that reinforce this idea, such as saying “that’s just the way he is” in response to someone’s bad behavior. That’s the way he is, but it’s never just the way he is. People can change for the better. I must always believe that, to have any hope for the world.

Tilt: Conversations with Randos

Trying to change someone’s mind is not the only purpose of engaging in argument. In fact, it’s often the least likely to be successful, especially if the argument in question takes place with a stranger on the Internet. I tend to get into back-and-forth with folks to attempt to grasp where their ideas come from, what basis they have–and if something I say brings about new understanding the other direction, that’s a bonus that gives me hope for the future.

The end point of these conversations, then, isn’t someone saying “you’re right.” Instead it’s a sort of impasse that I wish I had a specific word for (maybe academics among my readers know of a term?), where I discover a piece of thought so axiomatic and/or alien to my viewpoint that no further understanding is likely to occur.

I’ll call this moment a “tilt.” It’s a reference to pinball machines, which have mechanisms to detect when the player has rocked (tilted) the game beyond acceptable bounds, for which the penalty is usually being locked out of play for the rest of that ball. There’s also the expression “hit tilt,” which is to say, had enough or reached one’s breaking point, and “The Tilt” in the tabletop roleplaying game Fiasco, which is a randomized event injecting new chaos into the story so far. All of these things have the sort of connotation I’m after, of getting to a point where things come to a halt and/or get weird.

As an example, the last time I commented on Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik sticking his foot in his mouth, I talked with a friend who was frustrated that people were calling Krahulik out on it. The tilt occurred when I realized that said friend didn’t think Krahulik would ever change his ways: he felt that given the guy’s track record and personal history, criticism would never get through to him. My background in my own personal growth has me taking hope for betterment through hearing opposing views as given, so the fundamental difference in our opinions had been found. I could understand how the rest of his frustration followed from that different starting point, so we’d gotten as far as we could.

This week I posted a couple of Tweets under the #GamerGate hashtag. I’m not entirely sure of my own motives in doing so; they were criticisms of the movement that carries the tag as banner, but I didn’t necessarily intend to start a debate. I underestimated the tendency of folks to monitor a tag looking for fights to pick, though, so I did get some activity. What follows are the tilts that eventually occurred!

Gamer rage: One conversation didn’t last long because I blocked the other party. They were incensed that they’d been labelled misogynist, racist, etc. I’ve gotten past such defensive anger in my own life. If someone called me out as sexist, I’d be appalled, but my next reaction would be to figure out what I’d done wrong, apologize, and try to do better. I couldn’t possibly expect that of this stranger, so seeing that their attitude came from hurt and anger I didn’t share in was as much of a tilt as I could hope for.

Interaction is Corruption: A second brief conversation revolved around the concept of journalistic corruption. This person’s smoking gun was games writers who contributed to developer Patreon campaigns or had been roommates with developers. I wished I had a link to one of the several excellent “how journalism really works” articles opposing this extremely low bar for “corruption,” but hadn’t saved any off.

In any case, I figured out that our standards for games reporting were irreconcilably different. I don’t fetishize objectivity. I want the kinds of insights that come from people having connections, being close to the action, a personal stake. Game reviews where someone plays and shares their impressions in an otherwise featureless context are ubiquitous: I just need to pull up Steam recommendations, YouTube Let’s Play videos, or the like. Close relationships with creators, though, are less common and add value for me. To think that’s “corrupt”… tilt.

Censorship and the Use of Force: A third, more involved thread covered ground around the idea of censorship. I maintain it doesn’t make sense to cry censorship unless someone’s calling for a ban or other restrictive government action, or employing something like litigation, DMCA takedown, or physical aggression to suppress speech. This person, however, believed that “public shaming” constituted a use of force sufficient to qualify, and that changing “artistic vision” in response to criticism was capitulation to same.

Tilt! I don’t hold a creator’s ideas as sacrosanct: if they get critique, and choose to change course due to agreement with the basis for the critique, better business prospects for a tweaked work, etc., then that’s all part of the commerce of ideas, products, and art. Moreover, I don’t see shame as intrinsically problematic. It’s often a necessary emotion to go through in reaching a new, better outlook or habit. But to this gamer, anything causing shame is dirty pool. Therein lay the foundation of our differences!

Fictional Characters are Real. The last and most extensive conversation ranged over a number of topics, but the core of it discussed Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women” video series. This Twitterer professed to support feminism, but believed Sarkeesian’s work to be detrimental to the cause, driving young gamers into the welcoming arms of the radical right wing.

There was a bit of victim blaming (saying Sarkeesian was responsible for riling up 4chan and thus getting harassed), a lot of condescension (he seemed to think that being 37 years old made him an old sage, here to deliver wisdom to his youngers), and an assertion that Sarkeesian’s unwillingness to answer every possible question in real-time debate constituted a dodge of criticism. Delving into this last point hit the tilt. I held that Sarkeesian answers her critics in subsequent videos rather than in Twitter or YouTube exchanges, but this debater felt she’d never addressed her best counterpoints. I sought an example.

His best shot? Damsel in distress tropes aren’t disempowering, because when the hero rescues the damsel, he improves her situation, thus empowering her. Criticizing e.g. the sexualized attire used for many female game character designs amounted to slut shaming of women who have no voice.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Yes, sometimes a tilt is characterized by the “there’s so much wrong with that I don’t even know where to begin” feeling.

Interestingly, this bizarre tactic of acting like fictional characters are real people, and thus one should treat critique of their portrayals as if it were a condemnation levied against a flesh-and-blood woman, came up in the “Censorship and the Use of Force” discussion as well. It’s moon logic I can’t possibly adopt, therefore I hit tilt there, but the rest of it all does come together if you take it as given. Of course, if fictional characters are real people, then critics are being sexist to say they should wear different clothing. Of course if fictional characters are real people, then it makes sense to cry foul when those people’s situations and behaviors are lumped together in a trope analysis. It’s just that outside of Rando Land, people are criticizing choices made by game developers, character designers, marketers, etc., not choices made by the characters. Characters can’t make choices, because they’re fictional inventions, their actions and circumstances dictated by their creators!

Anyway, that’s a lot of gabble about what I was up to at midnight last night. I feel like I’ve learned a few things about the worldviews of folks who take the #GamerGate tag seriously. I still don’t agree with the arguments, because of these premises I can’t possibly grant… but I can at least grok how people arrive at some of the downstream hue and cry, given those starting points.

How #Gamergate Could Be Taken Seriously

EDIT: For context, check out this enormously helpful post from Gamasutra.

When I wrote my prior entry, I bemusedly wondered if I’d get dogpiled by the “hate mobs” I mentioned there. (That I could so idly wonder with nothing but an inward smile is a mark of my privilege as a little-known male gamer.) I didn’t, but somehow I did get a comment from one rando: James Desborough. I followed the guy briefly, early in my usage of Google+, as someone involved in the tabletop RPG scene–until I discovered he’s a raging sexism apologist, of the misogyny-doesn’t-exist variety*. However it was he stumbled across my post, he had this to say:

Wow, that’s a total and utter misrepresentation of what’s going on, buying into a false and deflection-oriented ‘misogyny’ trope that got us here in the first place.

It’s kind of a weird response, given that misogyny qua misogyny wasn’t the focus of the post, but it did get me thinking. I like to think of myself as open-minded; I signal-boost these conversations because I used to hold some ugly regressive views, but from exposure learned better. I’d rejected Desborough’s comment out of hand based on my past experience with the guy, but what would it take for me to listen, to think that he or other #Gamergate proponents had something worthwhile to say?

I don’t speak for other social-justice folks (surprise surprise, we’re not a monolithic conspiracy), but here’s what it’d take for me to hear someone out who professed to the anti-”SJW” side of things.

Unequivocal denunciation of doxxing, “leaking” private photos, and threats of violence. I realize that might sound unfair, like demanding of religious folks that they constantly profess their non-allegiance to terrorist groups. So yeah, it’s not fair, but I’d need to hear it. No exceptions, hedges, or dodges. If you believe that anybody deserves that kind of treatment, you’re part of the problem, and I’m not going to engage with you. If that’s a no-brainer, good; take it as a freebie.

Articulation of the “nightmare scenario.” As posed here by Scott Madin. So you’re up in arms; something is rotten in the state of Denmark; something must be done. How so? Why? If whatever it is you think Zoe Quinn did wrong went unnoticed, if Anita Sarkeesian got to make her video series without getting attacked for it, what’s the terrible thing that would have happened? If the people you’re crying “corruption” against got to keep doing their thing unhindered, what would go wrong? The answer would need to A. actually be bad, and B. be plausible, to fit the bill. So for instance “forced diversity in games” doesn’t work, because wider positive representation of gaming’s actual demographics would be awesome, and the idea that some government censor is going to mandate specific representations is laughable and not something anyone is calling for anyway.

Demonstrated understanding of how games journalism actually works. One of the major disconnects between the #Gamergate hue and cry and its targets is the nature of the games industry. There seems to be some belief that there’s an objective reality to game quality, misrepresented when someone reviews a game they have a personal connection to. But there is no such objective measure; different people like different things. Some people find Depression Quest a powerful work of interactive fiction; others find it boring and a poor representation of its titular illness; neither of these things is demonstrably true or false. The games press is by and large a marketing machine, with review sites in the unenviable position of reporting on games sold by the same companies that pay to keep the review sites up and running. If your best argument hinges on the idea that some games “deserve” good reviews and some don’t, or that the “bias” introduced by developers and games reporters being personally acquainted is aberrant, you won’t get far with me.

Acknowledgment of the ironies. Okay, this one isn’t a requirement, but it’d impress me! #Gamergate to date has been rife with irony. People harassing and attacking women (and people who speak up in defense of women) to demonstrate that gaming doesn’t have a sexism problem. People engaging in coordinated silencing campaigns because they think there’s a conspiracy to quash free speech. People campaigning for advertisers to exert control over content, because the content isn’t unbiased. Gamers, once adamant against the Jack Thompsons of the world in holding that they could distinguish fantasy from reality, buying into gonzo conspiracy theories. Gamers finding allies in the same neocon right wing that birthed Jack Thompson. And so on! If somebody from the #Gamergate crowd can grok how bizarre all that is, and try to address it, I’d listen.

*I was willing to excuse some old sexist publications of his (passed off as satire, a prime example of Sarkeesian’s recent point that mere reproduction is not satire) as the mistakes of someone who now knew better. But then he decided that the conversation about problematic depictions of rape in games needed an article “In Defense of Rape,” and went on about how the fighting game circuit isn’t sexist because it heaps abuse on dudes too. Uh huh.

Overactive Imaginations: “Gamergate” as ARG

I remember my let’s-pretend games more fondly and vividly than almost anything else in my childhood. When a game began, the world took on a new layer of meaning: a swing set became a fighter jet cockpit, a concrete slab a temple in the clouds, a tennis ball a blast of magic fire. You could say my current interests in role-playing and collaborative storytelling games attempt to recapture those freewheeling imaginative jaunts in a form palatable to adulthood.

One aspect I find remarkable, looking back, is how readily I was able to recruit others into these imagined worlds. My younger brother and my best neighborhood friend participated most frequently, but I also remember some occasions when playground acquaintances, nowhere near as close of friends as that core trio, joined in the fun. At one point, I declared that a schoolmate named Billy was the sage Amos, who had revealed to me that the basement of my house was a monster-infested dungeon.

I don’t remember how I convinced Billy to play along–did I pitch the idea, or simply walk up and address him as Amos, expecting him to figure it out as we went?–but as you might expect, my interest lasted longer than his. Eventually, I greeted him in character and he rejected the scene, exasperated that I was still on about that Amos thing. I remember, too, the very last such let’s-pretend game I ever played. High school was not far off, and the scenario was a science-fiction adventure with Super Soakers representing our blasters; I played an anthro-cat named Tai. Those of us playing pew-pewed from positions of cover on my parents’ front porch when a group of kids passed by on the sidewalk. They reacted with scorn to our immature play, sending some mockery our way as they went. My playmates shrugged it off, but for me that was the end. Their jeers punctured the dreamspace, and I could no longer repair or sustain it.

The past couple of weeks witnessed a series of ugly events oddly dubbed “Gamergate.” Gamers organizing on 4chan and Reddit took up an ex-boyfriend’s angry rants as ammunition to attack indie game developer Zoe Quinn. They harassed her, published personal details about her, and circulated discrediting rumors (mostly false and at best misguided), painting her as an example of “corruption” and missing “journalistic integrity” in the games industry. As the hate fed upon itself, the accusations got more and more bizarre; Quinn was not just one dev who’d supposedly done something sketchy to get ahead, but a conspiratorial mastermind manipulating the whole of the Internet to promote her preferences in games and crush dissent.

I can’t help but see this twisted vision of the world as analogous to those old games of let’s-pretend. Ordinary things gain superordinate meaning assigned by the reality being imagined. Videos like Anita Sarkeesian’s spectacular “Tropes vs. Women” aren’t just literary criticism of art; they’re attacks meant to censor and destroy the video gaming hobby. Games journalists aren’t just folks with diverse opinions scraping by in an unforgiving industry; they’re a global conspiracy out to promulgate an artificial social justice agenda. Instead of the muddy and nuanced world we live in, with real people’s lives and emotions in ordinary crises, it’s a game, with bad guys that must be destroyed to prevent an apocalyptic end to the world. And why not? The perpetrators of these hate campaigns identify as “gamers” first and foremost: it’s no surprise that when they feel uncomfortable or threatened, they turn things into a game to cope and respond.

So I wonder: what will be gamers’ Amos or Tai moment? At what point will the imagined world deflate? I have to hope that at last, someone (or many someones) in those mobs will wake up and say, “You know, this isn’t fun anymore. We’re hurting real people for no reason. There is no conspiracy. It felt good to think so and get angry about it, but it was just a game. It’s time to grow up.”

That sort of epiphany is the only way out of this shared hallucination. And unlike my growing out of Super Soakers and swing sets, I hope those who awaken from the Gamergate dream will look back not with nostalgia, but with horror and remorse.

Useful links:
Depression Quest, Zoe Quinn’s interactive fiction about life with mental illness
Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian’s games critique platform
Ars Technica chronicle of the Gamergate fiasco
Devin Faraci’s incisive from-within look at the gamer mindset

Opiates of the Masses

Recently I read an article talking about how the eight hour work day is somewhat unnecessary, an artifact of outdated notions about employment. Despite various evidence that people tend not to be productive for more than three hours in a day, workplaces will settle for no less than a 40-hour week. The ensuing tiredness that your average worker feels upon returning home from one of these workdays then bolsters our consumer culture, because who wants to do anything besides sit and watch television and eat some easy-to-prepare food after such a long day?

I’ve also heard it said that our millennial generation is the generation of apathy. That the prevailing attitude about the great problems of our times is that there’s nothing you can do about it, so the best approach to take towards these topics is one of stoic acceptance. Putting these two things together, I began to wonder what else might be combining to reduce our culture’s ability to innovate, to create, to break free of its stale assumptions. I’ve written recently on my bad habits that keep me from being the creative and productive person I’d like to be, and I’m sure my experiences are not terribly unique. Recently I crested 80 hours of gameplay in the digital collectible card game Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, and I have to ask myself: if I’d spent those hours on my creative projects, how far along would I be by this point?

So many influences upon us in our daily environments are sedative in nature. We eat a diet high in carbohydrates that makes us sedentary and listless. Moreover, that diet is high in the psychoactive proteins found in modern dwarf wheat, putting us into a cycle of greater consumption and sluggishness of mind. Alcohol is cheap, widely available, and widely felt to be necessary to a good time or useful in escaping stress and other unpleasant feelings. Entertainment available at all hours spits out harsh blue light that diminishes our abilityto sleep, piling ever further on to the daily feeling of drowsiness and lack of ambition.

I’m no tinfoil hat wearer, but if there were some conspiracy to keep, say, the American public docile and compliant, it could hardly have come up with a better cocktail of influences. Sure, we can imbibe caffeine to give us back a bit of our lost energy and alertness, but it’s been my experience that this doesn’t entirely restore the cognitive faculties buried under the rest of this. Individually, one of these ingrained habits would be difficult enough to overcome, but in aggregate, they are overwhelming. Personal energy is crucial for fighting through frustrations and overcoming hurdles of motivation; our environments are all but tailored to afford us as little of that precious resource as possible.

I must marvel at the thought of what apotheosis we could attain if people the world over could break free of these things. If we weren’t narcotized by our food and our entertainment, how many more brilliant creative works would appear? How much easier would it be to enact political change, fight against kyriarchal systems, or pursue our “unrealistic” dreams? For those people who do manage to get out from under these widespread dulling factors and create something amazing, what is the secret sauce that enables them?

I can hope to make some dents in these things in my own life via the Zen Habits or other little insights I’ve picked up along the way, but it isn’t easy. When I get home from my standard eight hour shift, I feel a malaise that reminds me of the anhedonia of depression. I don’t want to so much as wash the dishes, much less write a novel or attend a rally. And so I play my computer games, and my life slowly ebbs away. Can I break free somehow, or will I be musing upon these same observations 20 years from now?

Put Off

Procrastination is a curse of the gifted.

That may not always be the case, but it was for me. I’ve always been one of those infuriating people who could turn in a paper late and still get an A- or B+ on it, or omit a project entirely and still comfortably pass the class. I can remember procrastinating as early as the first grade. There was an assignment to write a story about a picture of a castle and to color that picture. I fretted so much over the fact that my stories about castles (of which I certainly had many) were too full of violence to include in a first grade Catholic school assignment that I didn’t leave myself enough time to actually color the picture. A few years later, I dawdled over a book report to the point where I ended up writing my assignment against just the first few chapters. In neither of these cases did I end up suffering much repercussion for my heel-dragging.

High school and college were no different. In Psychology 101 I even facetiously wrote a paper about procrastination at the last minute, in which I describe the phenomenon as a kind of conditioned emotional response. The thought was that anticipating critique on one’s assignments created a kind of performance anxiety that would lead a person to seek distractions instead of the work itself. There may be some truth to that, but in my case it’s a bit disingenuous; bad marks were seldom a concern.

In addition, my natural flow of work was described in a personality test I once took as “bursts of energy powered by enthusiasm.” I can be extremely prolific with effort on a project at its outset, when interest is high and its newness makes it novel. But in the hard dull work of the later phases of a project, or if the project was never terribly intellectually stimulating to begin with, motivation is hard to find. That applies whether it’s a work assignment, an area of responsibility, or a game design.

In the adult world this sort of nonsense won’t be tolerated forever. Bosses ask for explanations when deadlines are missed, even if the work is top-notch (besides, if done last-minute, there’s no guarantee it will be; some things have a lower limit on time to complete). And the procrastination mindset begins to seep into other areas of life, too: debt spirals can be thought of as “deal with it later” on money matters, and waking up realizing that you’ve put off your dreams until your deathbed is the very picture of end-of-life regret.

Slackerdom is so at odds with my self-image that I beat myself up every time I get into a put-it-off slump. My bookshelves commemorate every wake-up moment of the cycle: Eat That Frog!, The Now Habit, focus, etc. But habits this old are exceedingly hard to break free of. Will I manage to turn the ship around?

Maybe tomorrow.

Archive and Simplify

One of the hallmarks of 21st century culture, particularly here in the States, is deep commercialism. And I say commercialism in what’s almost a religious sense. We are taught, from every angle, that buying things will improve our lives. Everywhere you turn, there’s a new book, gadget, or service purported to make us happier, more organized, healthier.

Not only does this have the tendency to put us into a spending and debt spiral, but when combined with the natural human tendency to fear loss, we end up with the “hoarding” phenomenon. Our commercial education does not include instruction on how to get rid of things. We leave books on our shelves as status symbols or reminders of our education, despite having no intention of ever reading them again. Obsolete or highly specialized gadgets sit unused for years. Sentimental tokens of our youth and mementos of long forgotten events pile up in boxes seldom opened. We laugh at the people on the reality shows, but almost everyone participates in the phenomenon to one degree or another.

The digital age affords us some tools to get out of at least some of this, however. Storage of photos, videos, and text is so cheap that archiving the whole of a life’s accumulated paper junk could fit on a device costing $100 or less. (I’m not unaware of the irony in that, but bear with me.) Imagine you have a box full of miscellaneous stuff: letters, birthday cards, programs from special occasions and theater events. It takes up two or three cubic feet of space in a closet somewhere. It’s moved from one home to another over the years, never opened except to peek inside to get the general idea of its contents. It would take time, but not much difficulty, to scan those articles into digital format and dispose of the old paper.

These techniques can apply to some more bulky objects then paper miscellany, too. For example, I still hold on to little crafted gifts that an ex-girlfriend gave me back in college. It’s awkward whenever I stumble across them: they’re reminders of bittersweet memories of old hurts, and for my life partner, they’re reminders of a part of my life she wasn’t present for. I cling to them for the sake of those bittersweet memories and out of appreciation for the hard work that went into making them. But I don’t need them. Why not, then, photograph these objects, write down my thoughts about them, and then gently dispose of them?

To take the ideas still further, I picture a 21st-century memoir, in the form of a wiki. Memorable events from one’s life live on pages, linked to one another in a network of hyperlinks not unlike the odd connections already present between our memories. When hooked up with the archives of documents and objects described above, it would become a library of a life, enduring as long as the Internet does. Attics worth of detritus reduced to electrons? The idea appeals to me.

I might give it a try, in fact. Probably starting with those crafty gifts…

(This, too, was transcribed: first spoken into a digital voice recorder, then uploaded and automagically translated to text. Cool, huh?)