We Got Undertold

Following close on the heels of Steven UniverseToby Fox’s Undertale snared the part of my brain given to fannish obsession. Not surprisingly, bloggable thoughts followed! While I don’t intend to discuss any of the game’s specific plot points, I will talk about its themes and structures in some depth. So if you’re a deep purist for experiencing media “blind,” I suggest you go play the game first!

Undertale comments on video game violence via a focus on the player’s decisions to kill or spare the characters they face in fight scenes. The game only ends in an unmitigated success for the protagonist if they refrained from killing anyone for the duration. What’s more, the ending obtained by killing everything in sight has repercussions that sour even future playthroughs, no-kill or otherwise. The more violent the protagonist, the clearer it becomes that they are the villain, not the hero, of the piece; the other characters react with believable shock, grief, and anger to the deaths the main character causes. In other words, though the NPCs are “monsters,” Undertale declares that they are people, and holds unflinchingly to that assertion.

After playing through the game once, I read through a lengthy discussion thread about it, and noted with interest the criticisms of those who didn’t share in its nearly universal praise. Setting aside dislikes of a merely aesthetic nature, some of the more thought-provoking objections included (deeply paraphrased):

  • The game is too emotionally manipulative, trying to force the player to feel a certain way
  • If its goal was to demonstrate it’s possible to make a nonviolent video game RPG, it shouldn’t have included violent options at all
  • The implication that there’s something messed up about RPGs that reward you for massive killing is an insult to those games and the people who enjoy them1
  • The ethos depicted is too black-and-white; they should have included more situations where it was justified to fight back or kill

Others in the thread pointed out how most of these complaints miss the point of the game. If it’d been made in such a way as to satisfy those critiques, it would lack most of its uniqueness and artistic worth. What interests me, though, is the common ground upon which all those criticisms rest: people are deeply averse to being confronted with the idea that their choices of entertainment, or their choices within that entertainment, might bear an ugly moral character.

On its face, why shouldn’t people resist that? The implication that violent video gaming is something perverse sounds like the cultural warfare of Tipper Gore and Jack Thompson. From a justice- or consequence-based moral framework, choosing to “kill” a video game character is a morally neutral act: some non-sapient bits and bytes get reconfigured from one basically indistinguishable state to another.

But sometimes, the interesting part isn’t the moral calculus of the act itself. Rather, the decision raises the question, “What does this say about me?” What kind of person does this sort of thing?

Undertale employs every possible device to try to get us to ask that question of ourselves, playing to our empathy with means nothing short of brilliant. Our tendency to anthropomorphize unthinking, unfeeling entities like video game characters is a curious side effect of human compassion, but it provides a safe barometer for someone’s habits of mind (virtues, if you will) in consideration for others. The range of Undertale characters’ visible emotions, the depth of their characterization, and the complexity of their reactions to events in their world make it very easy to think of them as people rather than blocks of code.

I’m no psychologist, but knowing what I do about habit formation, aren’t all these things practice of sorts for the real world? As children, we ascribe thoughts and feelings and motivations to our cherished toys. When they’re lost or damaged, the ensuing heartache is a mix of “poor me, I have lost a thing I liked” and “poor Teddy, how he must suffer!” As our minds mature, those attitudes move outward from the the playroom microcosm to the broader circles of our family, friends, and the world. Our degree of success in that transition translates into adult life as a compassionate person or a detached and uncaring one, and everything in between.

So if we accept the phenomenon with an open heart, carefully avoiding any violence against the emotive blobs of pixels in front of us, that says something about our character. Likewise, if we pack those warm feelings away, maintaining emotional distance and the conviction that these digital entities aren’t real, so that we can freely indulge in their wholesale slaughter–that says something, too. And Undertale makes sure we know as much: it periodically breaks the fourth wall to address the player with exactly that challenge.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying everyone who plays the genocidal-maniac route in Undertale is a sociopath.2 Nor am I saying that doing so, or playing a bunch of other games featuring similar mass murder, makes someone into a sociopath. Heck, I don’t even think Fox would venture one of those theses. The game richly rewards you with exclusive gameplay, writing, and music on the murder path even as it deconstructs your actions, which would be a strange design decision if utter disapproval were the point. What the game does do, however, is force us to take a hard look at our emotional skill set. Those synaptic paths that help us shut down our empathy for digital characters also enable us to do the same for real people. “It’s just a game” and “I want to see all the content,” in another context, become “I don’t care what they think” and “It’s cold, but this is best for both of us.” That’s an important skill to have, but how readily do we reach for it, when a response with more heart might still be possible and praiseworthy?

That kind of introspection can make a body squirm, and I suspect that discomfort drives some of the missing-the-point critiques aforementioned. It’s the same well of resistance that powers backlash against cultural commentary like Feminist Frequency, and that leads white people to think being called “racist” is somehow worse than racism itself. But self-examination is not an enemy. The best works of art get us to take a hard look at ourselves, to think about whether our habits of thought and action express the kind of person we want to be. Undertale reaches that level of incisive meaning, making it a rare gem among computer games.

1 From what sense I can make of the word soup in his news post, this is basically Jerry Holkins’ gripe over on Penny Arcade, if you’ve seen or heard of their comic strip about it. If you haven’t, never mind. Not going to link, because fuck those guys.

2 That would be silly of me, considering I’m playing a “No Mercy” run myself as of this writing.

Money Matters

There’s a hard truth I need to face: I am not good with money.

I did fine when I was on my own. I paid off my student loans and the car I had at the time; I started paying into a 401(k); I kept my bills modest. But whatever modicum of financial literacy I had that kept me going back then, it has not proven sufficient to the task of supporting not only myself, but a house, significant other, and pets. The 401(k) is gone; the wife’s much heftier student loans stare us down over the arm’s length of deferment; the fraction of my monthly income not consumed by bills has become a sad sliver.

The stigma of that has held me back. Mention “credit card debt” in passing on social media or in the company of successful people, and observe how quickly words like “irresponsible,” “stupid,” and “greedy” come up. It makes it hard to admit struggle, even to oneself, because that way lies the dissolution of one’s self-image as responsible, intelligent, and content.

At one layer of cynicism, it’s clear how the systems in place encourage slow-burning disaster. The declining purchase power of the dollar has made grocery trips more and more expensive despite little change in actual buying habits. The promises of prosperity from colleges, politicians, and futurists encourage optimism despite evidence for the opposite. Why bother teaching us how to stay cashflow-positive when we’re all little Zuckerbergs, each and every one on the verge of winning the American Dream lottery as reward for how smart we are? You need that house to live how you deserve, that game console to stay current with the cultural conversation. Lenders congratulate us on our payment history and raise our limits, providing more rope to hang ourselves with, and suggest zero-interest balance transfers to “get out of debt faster” when in fact it’s all a shell game to distract us from how we’re digging deeper. After all, it’s not exactly to a realtor’s benefit to say, “You know, this mortgage payment could be 30-50% higher in a few years, and that’s not even counting maintenance or improvements. Can your income handle that?”

At the next layer of cynicism, I call all that a social critic’s excuse list, when the real problems are my irresponsibility, stupidity, and greed.

I’m still privileged beyond question. While I’m one of those on the shrinking iceberg of the United States’ middle class, I’m still there, with a roof over my head and a cushy mid-five-figure job and a credit score that even now manages to hover above average. My constant low-grade anxiety about debt and its impact on my future in no way compares to the kind of daily struggle that people of fewer means must contend with.

But I still have to figure out what the hell to do about it, before it’s too late.

I recently made a pledge to write daily, and to tackle this year’s NaNoWriMo. But maybe the imminent death of my savings account should be a call to action to pursue better habits of a financial nature instead, for my own sake and that of my family.

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!

The Patriarchy and Other Conspiracies

Kali Ranya:

When I made it to high school English and thus graduated from analysis of story structure like exposition, climax, and resolution to the exegesis properly called “literary criticism,” I found it a wondrous experience. Here were these stories I already enjoyed reading made into a whole new sort of game, going between the lines to guess at the author’s hidden meanings! It was like playing at spies with Shakespeare across the centuries, he penning his poetry with a wink, I winking back as I set to the task of decoding it.

In college I was in turn introduced to feminism, and the lens of feminist criticism. Here I encountered discussion of the patriarchy: how so many cultural mores, laws, and artistic themes were instruments of oppression, means to keep women “in their place” and men in positions of power over them. I got the idea well enough to score good grades via the approach, but the rhetoric of it always struck me as rather strange. It wasn’t like a bunch of villainous dudes sat down in a boardroom discussing how best to put one over on the wimminz, and came to the conclusion that images of underwear-clad female bodies with the heads cropped out of the picture would be an excellent stratagem. But that was the conspiratorial scenario that the instruments-of-oppression discussion seemed to convey.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized how these two things are related.

The author is dead. It is a truth of human existence, a fact of human nature that we can never truly know another person’s intentions. We can only see the effects of what they do, and if we are so inclined, guess at what thoughts led to those actions. Perhaps the person speaks up about what they meant, saying or doing what they did, but we can only take what they say as fact insofar as we trust them. Shakespeare is a beloved icon of Western culture, and I dearly wanted the sort of intellect and refinement associated with being conversant with him; so it was simple to believe that the Bard had with skill and intent buried themes in his work for generations to unravel and discuss. I can only imagine that peers of mine who thought Freshman English a waste of time likely believed the unpacking of deep textual meanings to be so much teacherly sleight of hand. I, being in a place of privilege myself, found it a stretch to ascribe malice to men simply looking to make a buck or raise a family in the same traditions as they grew up. If I were marginalized and frustrated by constant belittling of my gender, race, or orientation, I would not have the energy or inclination to give the benefit of the doubt to those perpetuating the system.

This is, I think, the deep source of many conflicts: religious, political, geek-tribal, etc. Or if not the source itself, then at least a cause of the constant talking past another we do, the bizarre and frustrating sense that the folks on the other side of whatever divide are speaking a different language. A devout Catholic believer, feeling well loved by the Church, having a rapport with its representatives, remembering many occasions of support and comfort from it, might be shocked and dismayed to hear of clerical abuses; but in the end will accept the clergy’s remorse and reassurances at face value. Someone with less deep-seated an investment in the Church’s authority, someone who perhaps feels disconnected from their fellows there, or who has had experiences of their worries and complaints falling on deaf ears within the hierarchy, or someone not a believer at all, will be much more inclined to see cover-up, hypocrisy, and emptiness in the same ostensibly reassuring words. (This is not to deny or make light of the possibility that such a startling event could break even the deepest-held trust; I’m talking about trends and tendencies here.) Whose interpretation is more correct? It’s hard if not impossible to know, because we cannot look behind the mask of the sermonizing priest’s face to lay bare his thoughts.

I’m not sure where to go with any of that, really, save to recognize it when I see it, especially in myself. There are conspiracies in the world, and there is malice, but the places we see them often say as much about us as they do about the people we perceive to bear those ill intents.