Review: WTF Is Wrong With Video Games?

A couple of entries back I mentioned having my brain tickled by an excerpt from WTF Is Wrong With Video Games: How a multi-billion-dollar creative industry refuses to grow up, by Phil Owen. Curious how much further the author’s premise developed in the book, I went ahead and bought it for my Kindle.

The book’s been brigaded with 1-star reviews, because the excerpt drew the attention and ire of the Internet’s gamer manbaby population. Sigh. There’s enough worthy thought in there that it doesn’t deserve that treatment, but it doesn’t shine as a stellar example of games criticism, either. I rated it three stars of five.

WTF has nine chapters, but divides conceptually into three parts:

  1. That exasperated grumble about AAA video games’ failures as art;
  2. A mini-memoir of Owen’s time working as a games journalist, serving as a light exposé of the games industry as a whole;
  3. A retrospective on the Mass Effect trilogy, the closest anything has come to satisfying Owen’s AAA-art-game itch.

It’s a shame that part 1 has gotten so much attention via that excerpt, because part 2 is the strongest stretch of the book, with some eye-opening anecdotes about games development and the gaming press. I’ll go further to say that if I’d been Owen’s editor (did he have one?), I’d have urged him to scrap parts 1 and 3 and unfold part 2 as the whole of the work. It could have come together really well, interweaving stories of Owen’s life and career with the arc of a few case-study games from initial concept to critical reception. Owen appears to know enough about the development of Uncharted 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, to have spent much more time and word count on them. The book would still have been brigaded by Gators, because Owen rightly bears no love for GamerGate and that factors in his life story, but it would have made the book a better catch for those of us who don’t venerate hate mobs.

Part 3, a sort of extended Mass Effect 1-3 review occupying the longest chapter of the book, serves to show that Owen doesn’t hate video gaming universally. He praises the games’ storytelling and replayability, while continuing to highlight the design and writing choices he found incongruous, such as the seeming irrelevance of Mass Effect 2‘s plot to the trilogy’s overall arc. The chapter illustrates that Owen’s skillset remains in critique of individual works, and would have made a fine article on any of today’s big-name games writing sites.

That first part, though!

Owen’s premise, that AAA games don’t cohere as works of art, is a head-scratcher in that it’s trivially true. Of course they aren’t great art; they’re mass-market entertainment. You could as easily say that summer blockbuster popcorn action movies aren’t very good art–and in fact Owen goes there in one chapter, discussing the goofy disaster film San Andreas as a parallel example to his gripes about AAA gaming. Owen comes perilously close to recognizing that he’s barking up the wrong tree, mentioning in a couple of places that perhaps AAA games are designed to maximize addictive fun factor rather than to make thematic statements. If he’d recognized the merit of that and focused his attention there instead of on the art angle, he’d still have a strong critique to make: AAA games often suck at being fun, too! But he waves that away, taking the AAA industry’s occasional lip service to artistic aspiration at face value.

The paragraph that disappoints me the most with Owen’s approach, though, is this bit about indie games, from the introduction:

I’m also not going to delve too deeply into the realm of indies because there’s far too much variety there to make the sort of grand, sweeping statements I’ll be throwing down here. I can, however, confidently assert that the indie space has many of the same fundamental issues as the bigger budget projects (AAA), as that sphere is largely made up of the same kinds of people.

Owen’s dismissal of indie development makes me sad, because it’s in the avant garde of video gaming that he’s most likely to find what he’s looking for. Design the from top down, start to finish, with the purpose of delivering an artistic theme is exactly the sort of thing that altgames go for. Perhaps Owen’s experience with “indies” is limited to the likes of Braid, whose convoluted puzzles and collect-every-widget victory condition do no service whatsoever to its aim of deconstructing “save the damsel” storylines. In that case I can understand how his frustrations would be the same as with AAA games. It’s not a sufficient pool of experience to “confidently assert” anything, though, in that case, and assuming low-budget games have “the same fundamental issues” shakes out to be pretty nonsensical once he gets into discussion of AAA corporate structure and marketing.

I’d thus exhort Phil Owen: come over to the altgames side, we have what you’re looking for! Play some Twine games designed to enlighten cishet white dudes about the lived experiences of the marginalized, like Bloom or 12 Hours. Wade into some of the weird, political, artsy stuff that comes out of game jams. Widen your narrow focus, currently fixated on the $60+ shelf. You’ll wonder why you ever went looking for love in AAA places.

CDA 230, Feminism, and Provoking Thought

Earlier this week, freelance social justice writer Arthur Chu penned a piece for TechCrunch calling for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. For those who aren’t tech law wonks, Section 230 establishes that platforms hosting user-created content are not liable for the things their users create. In other words, if somebody defames you on Facebook, you can sue the person who wrote whatever ugliness it was, but you can’t go after Facebook itself. According to Chu’s observations, the combination of Section 230’s protections plus the overall engagement economy of the Internet has created a cycle of perverse incentive for these platforms to turn a blind eye to abuse. They have no obligation to moderate their content, thanks to Section 230, and because hateful content generates clicks, shares, and ad revenue like any other kind of user content, they would cut into their own profits if they voluntarily shut such things down. So they let it all slide, making the Internet’s best-known content platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc.) staging grounds for hate campaigns that ruin lives.

The piece was pretty widely panned. Ken Levine of Popehat argued that far from protecting the targets of abuse Chu intended this measure to help, it would put lots of fresh ammunition in the hands of their attackers. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick pointed out that the civil redress Chu enshrines in his post tends to be abused to shut down marginalized voices far more often than it allows them to score victories over the establishment. Both of those articles spell out several other sound arguments about the problems Section 230 repeal would bring on; hit the links for the full blow-by-blow.

What I find interesting, though, is Chu’s response to the claim that without CDA 230, the Internet as we know it would not exist. The massive surge in liability would make any user-content-hosting platform untenable as a business. To this Chu has said: good! Let those things burn. Chu pictures, it seems, a much quieter Internet: no Twitter, no comments sections, no user-submitted product reviews. Everyone who wanted to publish material would need to do so using their own resources, assuming all responsibility and risk for whatever they put forth. WordPress, for example, could not host people’s blogs for them; you could download and use their blog-creation software, perhaps, but on your own server only. Alternatively, content platforms might exist, but their pace of output and growth would be a crawl: every piece of user-added material would need exhaustive top-down review, to the point of paranoia, before seeing the light of day.

Would that be better for marginalized people than what we have now?

I’m not convinced it would be. Certainly, abominations like GamerGate wouldn’t take off, without liability-shielded havens from which to launch their bile. SWATting and doxing would take a great deal more effort and secrecy to accomplish. Those would be good things! But without Twitter, we also wouldn’t have Black Twitter. There would be no YouTube to host Feminist Frequency‘s videos. Activist groups couldn’t organize rallies using events on Facebook or Google Plus. Overall, the rapidity with which good ideas spread today would hit a brick wall. I for one would not have come around to my current progressive views on abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. at anywhere near the speed I did, were I not constantly exposed to content currently possible under CDA 230.

I do give Chu credit, though, for putting this bit of tech orthodoxy to the test. I have techno-libertarian leanings on a few topics myself, as my thoughts on copyright evince, but I rank my feminism as a greater ideal than those. If it could be more convincingly shown that the structure of the Internet today is more destructive to the marginalized than it is helpful, then I would reconcile the dissonance of my past pro-Internet stances by abandoning them. If copyright really does help the little guy against the big, rather than the other way around as I’m currently convinced it does, then by golly I will be a copyright goon. Chu’s thoughts as I’ve seen them articulated so far don’t come anywhere close to prompting such a paradigm shift, but props to him for getting me to consider the possibility!

Blood Isn’t Good to the Last Drop

I respect feminist games criticism because it shows us how much better we could do with our designs. Many of the tropes dissected aren’t behind the times only in social awareness, but in the state of the art in gameplay. Where you find a lazy portrayal of gender, race, or violence, lazy design choices often follow, and we can improve both by amending or eliminating our use of trite patterns.

This excerpt from Phil Owen’s WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? and this tongue-in-cheek list of in-game activities that would count as war crimes in real life primed me to think about these topics in my current gaming. (Both articles have their problems, but I can appreciate and recommend them for getting those thoughts rolling.) In particular, Cracked‘s critique of “giving no quarter” resonates with gameplay irritations I’ve run into in both video games and tabletop RPGs. Why is it still so often necessary to kill every opponent on a map before concluding a mission?

Feeling the itch for some turn-based squad tactics (perhaps in anticipation of XCOM 2?), I’ve recently restarted playing the WWII skirmish game Silent Storm, originally published in the early 2000s. It does one thing well with respect to the No Quarter trope: mission objectives almost always require that you obtain information, not kill everyone. Your goal on a given map is to procure documents, film reels, prototype technologies, etc., or to subdue and capture personnel with crucial intelligence. I find that quite refreshing! Real-world military objectives–at least for forces we see as admirable or heroic–rarely focus on annihilation, and it’s great to see that in a game.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s design undercuts that commendable concept. Level layouts, enemy AI, and the fact that you can’t leave the mission zone with visible enemies even if you’ve accomplished all objectives, mean that most of the time you must wipe out all opposition to advance anyway. The intelligence targets you must capture don’t surrender; you have to fill them with lead to “knock them unconscious” and carry their limp bodies away. (There are a few nonlethal weapons in the game, but their game statistics are terrible, heavily disincentivizing their use.) Enemy units sometimes flee, but they can’t actually leave the level, so they reach the black expanse of nothingness at the map’s edge, then turn around to start shooting again.

We see this trope time and again, and invariably it makes for a worse game. I love the XCOM series, but especially in the earliest versions, hunting down the last alien on the board to complete a map was an exercise in tedium. It comes up in tabletop play, too. A common complaint against the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was that battles took too long to complete, and often at least part of the problem came down to playing things out until every monster in the encounter was dead. We’ve got No Quarter burnt into our heads by long exposure, but it’s a bad pattern.

We have the technology to do these things differently. The XCOM games already have morale algorithms, where enemies panic in the face of impending defeat, dropping their weapons and fleeing–but for some reason, the games haven’t taken the logical next step: have said enemies surrender, removing the necessity of blasting them to end the level. (Yes, you can knock them out with nonlethal weaponry in XCOM, which is a nice touch, but it’s still a waste of time and verisimilitude that you’ve got to hunt down and shoot routed enemies at all.) I appreciate the design patterns in Dungeon World, in many ways a superior set of tabletop play tech than D&D, whose principles of fictional flow and “bring every monster to life” lead naturally to combatants fleeing, laying down arms, or otherwise changing the nature of the conflict before they’re all dead.

These are more humane, progressive, feminist, etc. approaches to violence and victory than the tired No Quarter trope, and they make for better games too!

White Shame

A recent post by Chuck Dunning making the rounds on Facebook had this to say:

If I say, “White privilege is real and it means White people have some unearned social advantages just because they’re White,”

and you think I mean, “White privilege is real and it means White people should be ashamed of themselves just because they’re White,”

we’re having a misunderstanding.

That’s a fine enough bit of insight. But as I think about it, I wonder.

Shouldn’t we white folks be ashamed?

Shame has taken a beating in the public consciousness in recent years, and for good reason. At least here in the States, shame does quite a bit of harm. Due to social pressure and messaging, people feel ashamed for being gay, for weighing more than a sack of flour, and indeed, for having dark skin. These are terrible failings of our society, and we are right to say, “you shouldn’t be ashamed of that.” By the same token, it’s not simply being born with pale skin that anyone should feel ashamed of, that being something we have no say in or control over–so as far as that goes, Mr. Dunning’s implications in his post are on point.

There’s real value in shame, though, and we lose out on it (baby, bathwater, etc.) if we reject shame entirely. Shame motivates change. When we screw up, that squirming, burning discomfort urges us to do better in the future. When someone we’re close to, or identify with, or admire, screws up, the shame mixed in with our anger and disappointment prods us to consider: ought I to call this person to task, or distance myself from them? And that very calling-out, especially when seen at a community or societal level, aiming to make the offending individual feel shame in turn, is how our social norms advance.

As a white person, I should feel ashamed when police, paid for with my taxes and ostensibly defending my safety, brutalize and kill people of color.

As a white person, I should feel ashamed when politicians, representing me in our government, make public remarks indifferent to Black suffering and enact policies targeting Black people for disenfranchisement and incarceration.

As a white person, I should feel ashamed when I take advantage of my privilege to keep my social circles empty of people of color, to sit at home instead of protesting injustice, to earn and spend without furthering any causes beyond my own comfort.

It’s useless if it remains at shame, of course. That’s why “white guilt” has a bad connotation: it’s white folks squirming over how bad people of color have it, making public shows of sorryness without ever doing anything of concrete worth. But as a first step, an impetus? Perhaps it’s better that we acknowledge and understand our shame, rather than deny and defend against it. Only then can we put it to work erasing the prejudices and inequalities worth feeling ashamed of in the first place.

Pentra: “By Any Other Name” game recap

Last night, I played a game of Pentra, the anthro-animal collaborative storytelling project I’ve been working on. It was possibly the best story I’ve seen it turn out yet! Here I’ll recap the story, and provide some mechanics and playtest commentary in the endnotes.

The scenario, called “By Any Other Name” (written in commemoration of Habitica‘s name change from “HabitRPG”!), starts as follows:

In the region of Habityr, it is customary for a child coming of age to have a “second name day,” where they choose whether to formally join the family of their sire, dam, or midwife. The upcoming second name day of the gifted [Child] is a topic of much speculation and gossip. But when the day arrives, the teen proudly declares for a fourth house no one has ever heard of, and disappears! Will the three snubbed houses be able to put off their recriminations long enough to track down the wayward youth?

We fleshed out the starting characters1 as follows:

The Child: Bella, a female rabbit. Each of the houses wanted her so badly because she was a seer. Never mind that the visions were unreliable, something of a source of torment for her.

The Dam: Ilona, a female elephant, a historian, the community’s keeper of legend and storyteller. Her story-collecting habits made her something of a gossip.

The Sire: St. Oddart, a male lion2. He was a church patriarch, beloved as a pillar of the community despite his self-centeredness.

The Midwife: Arque, a female Nubian goat. Skilled in medicine and possessed of “ninja-like agility.”

The Hero: Kel, a male wolf. His tracking sense made him ideal for finding the Child, but he was a compulsive liar, given to tall tales.

The story began at the moment of Bella’s disappearance, the elders huffing about in indignation and demanding that she be found and brought back. Kel of course stepped up to volunteer, but he and his boasts of having “rescued hundreds of children!” were swept aside as Quarran, the General, came forward3 with his regiment of African wild dog theri to accomplish the task. They set out into the woods, and Kel, piqued at having been upstaged, took off at a different course.

It didn’t take long for the General’s men to find Bella, cornering her up a tree4. She protested that she had seen visions of their deaths in open battle, resulting from her remaining snared in this community. If they let her go, the fate could be averted! Stoic Quarran was undeterred–it is a soldier’s lot in life to die fighting. Dismayed, but trusting in another vision that a dashing hero would save her, Bella consented to be led back.

Indeed, Kel had tracked her by another route, and came upon the scene as the warriors surrounded her and began to march her away. Thinking quickly, he ducked into the brush and fired an arrow toward the group of soldiers, then changed position and fired again, faking an attack by a larger force. The soldiers went into phalanx formation, and Bella nearly slipped away in the shuffle–but tripped and fell headlong, allowing her easy recapture5. One of the soldiers threw her over his shoulder, and Kel, cursing his ill luck, left off pursuit for now.

Bella pleaded with her captor to at least let her walk on her own with some dignity, laying on some charm. It worked, to a degree. Yoquel, the Soldier, found himself uncomfortably attracted to his captive6. Too loyal to his commander to risk another escape attempt, but wanting to accommodate her request, he let her down, clamping an arm around her waist to keep her restrained.

Meanwhile, Quarran studied the arrows of the mysterious attacker from the woods. He recognized their wielder’s scent: he and Kel had been close, once. The wolf had been a member of his company, but deserted. Why was he back now?

They made it back to the town square without further incident. The squabbling between the three houses had died down, and with Bella returned, the elders sent for Therothe Judge, an ancient turtle whose impartiality the community relied upon in times of dispute like this. Before Bella could even make her case, the judge unilaterally declared that she would join St. Oddard’s house, no more dithering! Bella sputtered about the terrible visions she’d seen of what would come of this, but it was done. She went to her sire’s household, head low.

A week later, in an atrium of her father’s house, St. Oddard pressured Bella to use her oracular powers in service to his upcoming campaign against the heathen warriors of the Red Lands. She protested that her visions were not specific enough to tell him of troop movements, and what she had seen foretold disaster for him in any case, but he would not accept any of it. Eventually, in weary exasperation, she told him what he wanted to hear. In that moment she heard a whispering in her mind: “Do you wish to be free of the tyrant?”

Bella begged some time in private “to pray,” and in the quiet replied to the voice: “Yes.”

“Then meet me at the blighted tree under the light of the moon,” the voice replied, and said no more.

The seer attended the appointed place and time, and there encountered Beatricethe Sorceress, a hyena theri of impossibly tall stature. She offered to take Bella away to join the Sisterhood, where the sisters would teach her how to control her powers. It would not be freedom, she cautioned, for Bella and her powers would be at the service of the community. Arque, however, had followed her there, and cautioned her that the Sisters, too, would use her to their own ends. In times past, Arque had attempted to become a Sister, but had been rejected.

“So I am in another tug-of-war,” muttered Bella, and asked for a chance to think before giving Beatrice her decision. She never had the chance; while on the road back to her father’s household, she was set upon by Kel and Yoquel, who dragged her away from the town. Kel revealed that he was in fact a great general of the Red Lands, and if she would accompany him there, she could live as she pleased among those theri. Too exhausted to fight further, and seeing this as the best chance yet for disentangling herself from the politics of her community, she went along.

The three of them were not long on the road when they encountered a raiding party of warriors of the Red Lands, the Cat People, lying in ambush. There was confusion and a scuffle; Yoquel, looking every bit one of Quarran’s warriors, was cut down where he stood7. But for once it turned out that Kel was telling the truth: the Red Landers did recognize him as their general! Unfortunately for Bella, he wasn’t sure about his promise to let her go free; her powers and her value as a hostage would be too useful in the battle to come.

Just before dawn, as the army led by Quarran and St. Oddard prepared to march, a trio of she-elephant theri approached Kel’s camp. These were Cielia, Murra, and Ilsa, the Aunts, blood kin to Bella’s dam. They asked that the child be returned to her family–she had no part in this battle. Kel stood firm: he was not the instigator of this bloodshed. If Oddard called off his crusade, the girl would go free. The Aunts relayed this demand back to Ilona, who as historian was to accompany Oddard to the battlefront. Torn between loyalty to her community (cool though her affections for Oddard were, anymore) and the safety of her daughter, she sided with the latter: she begged Oddard to call off the attack. As usual, though, he would take no other path but his own, and so he marched leaving the historian behind.

Heart softened by the Aunts’ plea, though, Kel changed his plans. The Red Landers would flee their position, evading Quarran’s army, and once they successfully disengaged, he would let Bella go free. Back in Oddard’s camp, Ilona treated with Arque on Bella’s behalf, and the ninja goat crept into the supply train and put Quarran’s supplies to the torch. The General attempted to call off the attack, to fall back and resupply, but St. Oddard still would not be deterred. He put the warriors into a forced march in pursuit of the escaping Red Landers.

Unburdened of their supplies, they were able to close the distance, though their fighting condition suffered from exhaustion and lack of food. The Red Landers would be more than a match despite their fewer numbers and weaker equipment. A bloody battle commenced, theri falling in droves on both sides–and around it all, hyena sorcerer-sisters linked hands, drinking in power from the departing souls.

Quarran and Kel met on the field. Quarran demanded an explanation: why had Kel deserted, so long ago? Why fight his old brother in arms? Kel snarled back: “I left in disgust once you threw in with Oddard, that zealous monster! The least of these Red Land warriors are twice the theri you now are!” They exchanged fatal blows and died together there, locked in a mortal embrace.

Despite her every attempt to avert it, the doom Bella had foreseen was come to pass. She cried out in despair, and a sorcerous power rolled forth from her. Lightning from the heavens raked the battlefield, striking down all survivors save Bella herself: Oddard, Beatrice and her assembled Sisters, everyone. Alone now, Bella walked away to the east, her mind at last free from portents8.

  1. Each scenario comes with a set of characters, typically five of them, interrelated and in varying degrees of conflict with one another. Each has an epithet (like “the Midwife”), a Drive describing their impetus for action, and an Others list describing their thoughts on the other characters. At the beginning of the game, players fill in the characters’ names, genders, species, Qualities and Complications, to make them unique to that group’s game. The process could use a bit of speeding up; there’s a lot of staring at blank spaces on the page, in the first few minutes of play. Moreover, people didn’t use the Others list much. I might drop Others and provide some suggested Qualities and Complications to pick from for each character.
  2. The setting of Pentra is left loosely defined, but there are a few things established as part of the rules of the game. One is that via common hedge-magics, it’s possible for any two consenting adult theri to mate and produce offspring, but the outcomes can be unpredictable. So we’re encouraged to make characters members of whatever species we think fit them, regardless of blood or family relations.
  3. After the story begins, players can add named characters to the mix as needed. This game, my wife Misha wrote up four sheets, one of them representing a triumvirate of three characters. I also added one and Clyde added another, for a total of six blank sheets filled out during game–the most I’ve seen happen to date.
  4. This is one of the little things I like about Pentra‘s collaborative storytelling style, as opposed to traditional RPGs with lots of dice rolls for skill checks and whatnot. If this had been a game of Dungeons & Dragons, no doubt tracking down Bella would have been a protracted affair involving Stealth and Perception and Survival and who knows what else. Here, we get straight to the interesting parts!
  5. Here Misha played a Twist card (I may need a better name for these), “Pratfall,” declaring that a theri’s efforts come to embarrassing failure. Cards overrule pretty much anything else, so by this point Bella was well and truly defeated!
  6. At present, there are five love-related cards in the deck, based on the Five Loves in this post. The distinctions are pretty often cast aside, though, so the frequency with which standard sexual-romantic attractions spring into the narrative may be too much. I suspect I’ll at least trim out “Love in Fertility.”
  7. It’s become traditional that when a character dies, you tear their character page in two. I think that’ll go into the rules!
  8. This was a lovely climactic one-two of twist cards: “Ohz, Strength, Might-in-Adversity” where a character reveals a hidden power, and “Ilan, Freedom, Hope-of-Prisoners” which frees a character from literal or figurative restraints. Perfect. Of the many character pages written up, only five remained untorn: Bella of course, and those who had remained behind when the armies marched (Arque, Ilona, Thero, and the Aunts).


Gender of Choice

Some years back, I heard an NPR segment about students defying gender norms, including such odd approaches as insisting that one’s gender was “truck” and should thus be referred to with pronouns like “it.” I made a few faltering starts at writing a blog post about my thoughts on it, but never quite finished. The topic came back to mind with March 31st’s Transgender Visibility day and this delightful little comic by @papayakitty on Twitter.

What’s my gender?

I mean, I’m a guy, sure; biologically male, wear masculine clothing more often than gender-neutral clothing, and feminine clothing only when cosplaying, etc. But I do rather delight in “crossplay” when the (uncommon) opportunity comes up. I’ve roleplayed female characters with increasing frequency since I was maybe seven or eight years old, and while it’s been a more or less novel thing as time’s gone on, it’s never felt awkward or wrong. When the Internet came into flower and I established online identities on services like AOL, IRC, GameSpy Arcade, and later Furcadia, I frequently presented myself as a girl. People tended not to realize I was playing cross-gender unless the point was specifically mentioned out of character. (I even wrote a poem about the ugly reactions people had to the disconnect when revealed; it reads pretty clearly as an adolescent transgender lament.) I went to an all-boys high school, but I tended to disdain the connotations thereof, amending statements of my gender identity with such qualifiers as “male, low testosterone.” I still feel that having Ranma Saotome’s curse would be pretty awesome. I’ve had people ask me if I’m gay due to my love of romance themes in my entertainment. My all-time favorite movies (The Princess Bride, Magnolia, and 500 Days of Summer) might be called “chick flicks”… I could go on.

Thing is, I don’t think it makes sense to consider me “transgender” in the sense most commonly meant by that. I don’t experience gender dysphoria when looking at myself or presenting as male. I have enjoyed every privilege inherent in cis white maleness, and feel it would be disrespectful to those less privileged to insist otherwise. “Thinking it would be cool to be a woman” is a far cry from even what little I’ve glimpsed into the life experiences of my transgendered friends.

Then again. What even is gender?

Wracking my brain for anything that would qualify as essential to the genders or even the biological sexes, I don’t come up with a lot. It sort of makes sense to have some outward signifiers of “bearing male gametes,” in a world where that’s both of practical concern on a day-to-day basis, and the level of scientific understanding and interpersonal communication is weak enough that you couldn’t just have the conversation, “Can you have children with me, and do you want to?” But we don’t live in such a backward world by now, thank the Primes, and for someone like me who isn’t interested in children in the first place, it’s all rather unnecessary. Everything else we associate with the genders or sexes is contingent, mere statistical truth at best. We can say “as a species, homo sapiens features sexual dimorphism, with such-and-so genital structures and secondary sexual characteristics,” but individuals’ physical characteristics can and do diverge wildly from those baselines. And the various personality traits and aesthetic choices associated with either gender are even fuzzier, ranging from laughably arbitrary (pink used to be a masculine color and blue feminine) to equal parts harmful, offensive, and untrue (“men tend to be physically violent”).

People operate under schemes of categorization for cognitive ease, though, so it’s psychologically practical to think of someone as based on a template with variations. “He’s very much a bro,” “she’s a tomboy,” “he’s a guy but likes sewing,” or whatever. They also help with personal identity; group membership is a powerful human need, and resonance or solidarity with fellow “men” and “women” is of great use and comfort. These labels become problematic, though, when they influence our behavior in discriminatory ways, lead us to jump to unfounded conclusions, or perpetuate stereotypes that shore up unjust systems of power. And when it comes to gender, it’s difficult to use the categories without falling into any of those traps.

Labels like “agender,” “demigirl” etc., as mentioned in the abovelinked comic, then serve a dual purpose: they defy standard assumptions about gender while still providing the psychic value of a group identity to belong to. They seem pretty darn cool to me! Of the ones I’ve poked at, “demiboy” (or “demiguy,” which doesn’t have as nice a sound to it) feels most in tune with my own experiences. If I were to embrace that label, what would it suggest? A greater freedom of choice in fashion and affect, I suppose… I have often envied women their lovely options in clothing.

And/or I could develop a female tulpa to the point where I could switch her into the dominant consciousness… hah!

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.