How #Gamergate Could Be Taken Seriously

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?)

Somnolence

The school year from 2004 to 2005 was perhaps the most stressful year of my life. I was in a volunteer teaching job that I was not by any stretch of the imagination good at, I wasn’t getting along with my roommate, and my romantic relationships were rocky at best. It was in this environment that I first experienced sleep paralysis. I woke up in the bright morning unable to move, with a sound like rushing water filling my ears and the strange sensation of my homunculus being stretched and compressed beyond the normal confines of my body. To complete the eerie experience, I had the auditory hallucination of the words, “the world is coming to an end.”

Thus began my now long history of grappling with sleep disorders. The next symptom to appear was a kind of panic attack that occurred when I was first falling asleep. Just as I was drifting off and beginning to lose a sense of time, my mind would fill with the existential fear of death, and I would wake up with a gasp or a scream. This happened only a few times in that first year, but as the years went by, it became a much more common occurrence. When at last I sought treatment, it was happening nearly every night.

As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that I have always suffered from at least a mild case of restless legs syndrome. When confined to a space with little legroom, I would feel a sort of muscle twinge, like a little inch long wedge burrowing into the back of my thigh. To relieve it, I would need to find some space, stretch my leg out, walk around a bit. I always thought that this was a common complaint of anyone with long legs, but as I researched my other conditions, I found out that this was a syndrome of its own. Moreover, when my fiancée moved in with me, she reported that I would kick my legs up in the air while sleeping in a repetitive, rhythmic motion.

I approached my doctor, first about the panic attacks. We tried clonazepam first, then zaleplon, and finally paroxetine. That cleared up the panic attacks almost entirely. Unfortunately, it also exacerbated the restless legs. So I went on clonazepam in addition to that medication. That blunted the condition for a while, but eventually I had to increase it to the maximum prescribed dose, and even then I would have episodes of kicking in the evenings.

It all began to pile up. I would start a given day off all right, but by mid day I would crash, feeling groggy and unable to focus. If I indulged the feeling and took a nap, I might go under for three or four or five hours. I read up on polyphasic sleep, and attempted a siesta schedule for a while. It helped, but as soon as my schedule was disrupted by a trip or an ill-timed meeting, I would be right back where I started. I went back to my doctor one more time. My case had escaped his expertise; he referred me to a sleep specialist.

That brings us to today. At the specialist’s direction, I’ve stopped taking the clonazepam, stopped donating blood since that can cause an iron deficiency that exacerbates restless legs, started taking iron supplements, and started doing my darnedest to get to bed and get up at reasonable times. It’s not an easy road. Discontinuing the clonazepam has led to the restless leg feeling spreading out, no longer a localized twinge but a tingling that surrounds both of my thighs and sometimes proceeds into the day. I grapple with bouts of insomnia, and need to pursue odd remedies like lying on the floor to relieve the tingling.

But I have hope that it’s getting better. It’s getting easier to get out of bed in the morning. My head feels less foggy during the day. And I’m beginning to beat back the tide of lost productivity that this whole lengthy episode has occasioned in my work life.

I’m not sure what point I have been putting this into a blog post; perhaps I mean only to warn my readers to appreciate their restful sleep. We live in an always on society, where entertainment can be had to every hour of the night or morning, and it’s easy for even a morning person (like me) to stay up late surfing the Internet or playing games. But the impact this has on our quality of life cannot be underestimated. While I’ve been suffering from these symptoms, I’ve been less creative, less ambitious, less patient. At times it could be said to border on depression. Don’t do that to yourself. Choose a lights out hour and turn off the electronics then. Take a refreshing nap when you can. Ease up on the caffeine. Your body will thank you for it.

(As an aside, I dictated this post using voice recognition software. It’s fun! I highly recommend giving it a try if you have a few bucks to drop on something like Dragon.)

Social Network Unplug

This past week, I engaged in a counterculture experiment: I disconnected from the major social networks (Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter). I didn’t deactivate my accounts, but I did uninstall the apps from my tablet, and implemented DNS blocking to make the sites impossible to access from my desktop PC.

I wanted to try this for several reasons. A favorite blogger of mine, Leo Babauta, recommended disengaging from these sites as a way to reduce distraction and make room for more fulfilling activities. Recent uproar about the strange psychological engineering Facebook engages in has made me wonder: is the obligation I feel to keep up with the feed, too, artificial, engineered by advertisers rather than necessary to my most important relationships? I’ve long steered clear of discussion forums, because of how easily conversations in message threads can become toxic; the same is often true on social networks. Not only do such acrimonious dialogues frustrate me and torpedo my mood, but they tend to bring out the worst in me: sarcasm, uncharitableness, and so on.

How did it go, then?

My capacity for self-distraction goes beyond any specific site or activity. It was nice not to indulge the urge to go check networks, but I only made good use of a fraction of the reclaimed time. Instead I got hooked on “Epic Rap Battles of History,” played entirely too much “Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014,” and went on a Wikipedia spree reading articles about quantum physics. If I want to improve my motivation and productivity, social network disconnection is likely to be part of the picture, but not the whole.

The networks are insidious in their methods. Google and Facebook want to be indispensable parts of our lives, and they employ some sly tactics to achieve that goal. I found that I couldn’t use “Google Hangouts” to meet with people, because it employs the plus.google.com domain. Viewing YouTube videos put me back in the G+ sphere as well, because the comments system there is intertwined with the G+ post infrastructure. Tch!

I am indeed better off without (most) online discussion. Even a brief foray back to G+, occasioned by the Hangouts issue mentioned above, exposed me to some nasty Internet name-calling from people I know. There are more than a few folks I get along with great in meatspace, but as soon as we converse online, my interactions with them sour. And that goes both ways–my own online persona is harder to live with than my flesh-and-blood identity. Keeping things face-to-face whenever possible is likely to help preserve the peace.

Important news travels by word of mouth. Sure, I didn’t hear about the latest as fast as before, but I didn’t miss anything entirely. Conversations tend to start with “hey, did you hear about X?”, and if I say “no”, folks go on to fill me in. If I explain why I didn’t hear already, I may get a funny look, but that’s all. It’s seldom necessary, in any case; people already know that social-network news feeds are unreliable in delivering what you really want to see.

There are a few things I do miss out on. I’m involved in a handful of G+ communities, particularly some used for organizing local game get-togethers, and one for development on and support of HabitRPG. The conversations there don’t take place anywhere else, or if they do, it’s fragmentary and incomplete. Because I care about these projects, I noticed this particular absence quite a bit.

What’s next, then? Do I intend to stay unplugged? In part, at least, yes. I’m going to make a few tweaks and extend the experiment from a week to a month. I’ll use email and this blog for the majority of my online conversation-space needs, with broadcasts on Twitter to direct people here. I’m also considering how I might reclaim access to Hangouts and those few Communities without activating the whole G+ fire hose. If I can pull that off, I feel I might manage a good equilibrium, getting the principal benefits of social-network avoidance while mitigating the notable downsides.