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.

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