I’ve launched a new series! Please help support it on Kickstarter!
The following article is one I wrote for another service, but the editor there didn’t like the comments I made about EA and wanted changes that I felt would move away from what I actually wanted to say. So I’m presenting the article here, for your interest. Obviously this is an Op-Ed piece, and the following views are my opinion, not anything “provable” in the sense of hard news.
Looking back on 2016, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that something was missing in gaming. It wasn’t that there were no good games – games like Far Cry Primal, Doom, Battlefield 1 and Watch_Dogs 2 were all a lot of fun. Instead, the excitement around them seemed to be missing, possibly in part because the US election cycle bought up all the TV ad time, but the general anxiety felt by most people these days has made us forget what it’s like to actually have fun.
It’s hard to get excited about video games when fun feels like a foreign concept. But we’re through that now, so it’s time for consoles to get their groove back. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
There’s another major factor explaining why consoles have seemed so “meh” the last few years: they weren’t supposed to be this successful. If you’d told many industry executives four or five years ago that there would be fifty million Playstation 4s in people’s homes, they’d have laughed in your face. Consoles were supposed to be dying! This was supposed to be a bust cycle! So they didn’t invest in big budget exclusives, leaving third parties to pick up the slack. Third party publishers have been in a protective crouch as well, however, with Activision going full bore with this annoying “games as services” concept, streamlining the number of titles they publish in favour of more regular content updates.
Meanwhile, EA… well admittedly I have no idea what EA is doing, and that’s because it’s still behaving like a walled garden mixed with the most popular girl in school. Electronic Arts comes across as thinking we should feel grateful whenever it pays any sort of attention to us, while representing all that is shallow in the industry. It’s important to remember that EA exists in its current form because it forced takeovers of a bunch of independent studios. So as a company, it structurally has no soul. That can change, fairly easily, but they don’t seem to want to change. EA seems to want sure things, and they might as well ask Santa for a unicorn, because in gaming, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.
(Note: that paragraph was written before the news that Mass Effect: Andromeda is releasing in March, meaning it will avoid the media scrutiny of E3. Releasing a major title without providing meaningful access to gaming press professionals on a non-preferential basis is precisely the sort of “walled garden/popular girl in school” thinking I was referring to.)
Ubisoft has been the outlier in terms of output, taking risks and releasing titles with some excitement around them. Ubisoft’s corporate mentality is designed to promote consistency in leaner times, so this is no surprise. It’s far from a perfect corporation, but at least it seems to vaguely care about employee retention and an element of job security. Unfortunately, they’re small compared to monsters like EA and Activision, so their stock is slowly being consumed by Vivendi. Insider trading sanctions haven’t helped the company’s image either, but that happened in France, so xenophobes in bigger markets don’t seem to care much. In general, Ubisoft is the lone Western company that actually seems interested in talking to people outside a boardroom. It’s also possible that other Ubi brands got a chance to shine this year because the Assassins took a break.
But there is still hope, because of the actions of the console makers themselves. Sony seems to be willing to try anything, combining creative risks like the deliberate frustration of The Last Guardian with novel funding models like the crowd-funded experiment of Shenmue 3. Microsoft has also benefitted from large servings of humble pie, finally releasing games this holiday like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 that don’t feel rushed and underfunded. Sure, these games don’t come across as hugely innovative, but they don’t feel stale either. Sure enough, the sales of the Xbox One are finally competitive.
I haven’t mentioned Nintendo yet, because the Switch is still a huge unknown. There’s a preview event coming up in early 2017, so I’ll delay comment until then. Nintendo’s big business is in the mobile and handheld spaces, with Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run completely messing up their monetization models, but offering pretty robust player experiences. That’s not sustainable, but in the short term, people can get hours of play time for free.
The Playstation 4 is decisively driving this console cycle, and the ads running this holiday are a sure sign that the best days of that console’s content are very much to come. Instead of promoting titles available now, the current PS4 ads feature Horizon: Zero Dawn, God of War PS4, and Spider-Man PS4. Only Horizon: Zero Dawn has a release date or even an official title yet. This is an indication of the raw power of that PS4 install base. A market of fifty million potential players on one system, only three years into its lifecycle, is very tempting to developers.
2017 will also be a marketing year with reduced distractions from Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and other types of reality that cut you off physically from actual reality. Headsets of this sort will hopefully continue to be a robust niche, but a niche nonetheless. The core focus will shift back to traditional on-screen titles, because more and more people have big fancy 4K TVs that they want to actually use. 4K is a rare tech advantage that consoles have over PC gaming simple due to viewing distance and screen size. However, 4K tech has possibilities beyond just better picture, the most exciting of which is full screen living room co-op using special glasses.
Developers forsook couch co-op at their own peril early this console cycle, because the fundamentals of why people play games don’t change with technological upgrades: people want to play the way they want to play, and Microsoft has done great things for its future prospects in this regard with its “play anywhere” feature on first party games. PC gamers no longer have to mess with ports of first party Xbox games. They come standard with Xbox One titles. That creates huge future potential to make the next “Xbox” a living room windows 10 machine, which will finally minimize the separation between the PC experience and the console one. Imagine a world where the PC master race and console peasants live as one.
However, consoles will continue to dominate because things with numbers – 4K, 60 fps, 120 Hz and so on – are far less powerful for your average human than things with faces. You want to sell 4K? Show people pictures of people in 4K and let the magic happen. Rattling off specs makes people’s eyes glaze over. I say this as someone who actually likes specs.
But gaming marketing forgot this and shoved a bunch of numbers down people’s throats instead of explaining to people what they could do with these machines when they hook them up to their TVs. That’s changing. PR firms are finally remembering that you have to tell people WHY they want to play a game, as oppose to just what they can play or how they can play it. Story matters.
Why do we care about Horizon: Zero Dawn? Because it’s a chick shooting dinosaurs with an electrified bow and arrow. Why do we care about God of War? Because Kratos is mythic history’s most powerful constant loser. And why do we care about Spider-Man? Because he’s freaking Spider-Man!
Stories matter, and with the cost of triple A games, it had better be a great story. Gaming forgot that for a few years, because it forgot that gameplay itself provides an interactive narrative. Gameplay just replaces the action components in a linear narrative. Instead of “Indiana Jones steals the idol”, it’s “The player can choose to make Indie steal the idol”. It’s still story. It’s still something with a face.
I have big hopes for 2017 regarding stories in video games, and future years, with games like The Last of Us 2 on the way, will likely be even better. Much of the games press will lag behind, more obsessed with people’s genitals than what’s in their heads, but that won’t matter. The best days of this current console generation are most definitely ahead of us, because a great story is a great story, especially when someone can participate in it.
The power of interactive narratives will keep gaming alive no matter how badly the executives and the cynics try to screw it up. Since the world seems currently poised to explode, people are going to want stories of hope, kindness, and even villainy that seems manageable. For all the complaining about consoles, the sales data show that people still want them. And that demand is just beginning to be met with a supply of great experiences.
Note: this is the text article version. If you prefer video, the exact same content is presented in that form, embedded below once the video is live. And again, this CONTAINS SPOILERS for season 1 of Westworld.
As promised, here’s my look at gender as narrative device in HBO’s Westworld. Note that I’m not proclaiming the show “good for women, good for men, patriarchal”, or anything like that. Because Westworld is a work of fiction, not of civics. Art should remain in the realm of Art.
Westworld begins with a male voice, followed by the image of a naked woman who has her knees pressed tightly together. She immediately apologizes for “not being quite herself.” A fly crawls across her face. We eventually find out that this is Dolores. Dolores is a host, meaning that she’s a synthetic life form and therefore not what many of us would consider human.
Soon after, we meet a human “guest”, known to the hosts as “newcomers”, who is talking on the train about how he “played it white hat” on the first visit to the park. His family was with him then. He makes virtue seem boring. When he came back he “came alone, went straight evil” and pronounces that this was the “best two weeks of his life”.
Teddy, handsome and smiling, sits behind him. Teddy isn’t human, and he’s programmed to be a white hat… most of the time. A player piano plays, eventually giving way to a full orchestra. Then the Western tropes start coming fast and furious. A Sheriff tries to recruit Teddy to join a posse to go after the bandit Hector Escaton. Teddy goes into a saloon and orders whiskey. He’s approached by a prostitute, but “he’d rather earn a woman’s affection than pay for it”. Maeve, the madame, offers the cynical sage wisdom that men always pay for sex, but a whore’s “costs are fixed and posted right there on the door”. And then Teddy sees Dolores through the window, across the street. He follows her. She drops a can from her parcel. He picks it up because he’s “trying to look chivalrous”. More clichés ensue. There’s a violent robbery of an empty safe. The hosts make racist comments towards Indians. People get exactly what they paid to get, and yet you don’t see the rich human women dressing up like cowboys. They’re far too scripted themselves.
Westworld is grounded in the gendered clichés of Westerns, and uses these assumptions to lull the audience into a set of false expectations. A casual conversation about a Judas steer – a natural leader among cattle whose herd mates will follow even to the slaughterhouse — seems like filler, but it’s meaningful because Dolores is speaking about it, and said cow is female. Teddy, of course, says “How do you pick HIM out?”
That’s the mistake the audience is supposed to make too. Dolores is the series’ Judas steer. She was the first host ever created, and her creator’s chose her to lead the hosts to self-awareness, their own slaughter, or both.
She leads through clichés, misdirections, and platitudes. That’s what she’s programmed to do, to be as appealing as possible to male guests. Even Teddy is part of that, part of a male power fantasy to dominate a woman that “belongs” to another man. As the Man in Black says, “winning doesn’t mean anything unless someone else loses”. I don’t think that’s intended as objective truth. Instead, that’s the psychology of the people who can afford to go to the park. The high cost attracts predators.
And Teddy is the perfect guy to be that loser, being that he looks so damned physically perfect in that way that makes you irrationally want to punch him in the mouth. Still, there’s something sick in the idea that Dolores and Teddy are created to be Romeo and Juliet with good orthodontics. Their love story is created just so the guests can interrupt it, either by claiming Dolores for themselves, or by killing one or both of them.
After the Man in Black drags Dolores to the barn to do whatever unspeakable thing he chooses that night, the cycle begins again, only this time, the train Teddy is on contains two women looking for bad guys because “perfect is boring”. Of course those bad guys are calibrated to be perfectly imperfect to the point that it’s pointed out as something from central casting. Rich people, in Westworld, seem pretty easily fooled, because they’ll chase trophy men and women very reliably. Even with all their money, no one really seems to want anything terribly unique. When it comes to pleasure, the rich want Objectification, and they want it in large quantities. The appeal of Westworld is the ability to treat things that look like humans as things, based on the assumption that they are, in fact, things, and not actually alive.
Early episodes show executive hand wringing about not making the characters seem too real. Westworld is all scripted, coded, and constructed as a narrative. Of course, the executives and employees who don’t treat the hosts with humanity tend to end up presumed dead. Teresa Cullen, the only woman at Delos who appears to be even remotely over 40, bears more than a passing resemblance to hacked Sony executive Amy Pascal, who said nasty things in emails about Angelina Jolie and Barack Obama, then attempted to excuse her cruelty by claiming that’s just Hollywood, and that “Angie didn’t care”. I wish they’d done more with Teresa before they killed her, because she was a missed opportunity to really explore the horrible things that women in power do to other women, and her dehumanization of the hosts is very evocative of the way female Hollywood executives treat female talent. That being said, I’m sure it’s no accident that Teresa ends up essentially being hacked in the show – her lover, Bernard ends up being a host, and kills her on Ford’s orders.
Even if there was no intent to invoke Amy Pascal specifically, Pascal is such a stereotype of the female executive that it feeds into one of the critical things about the show: every character on Westworld, human and host, is a clichéd trope of some kind. We’ve seen them so many times in films and television shows that for viewers, it’s a revelation that anything new could be done with them. And that’s the genius of Westworld. Is it love or is it lust? Is it autonomous choice, or is it just programming? Because human beings are often pretty programmed – think about how often people excuse unfairness or injustice as “natural”. What is human nature if not a program?
The hosts are mirrors onto the humans, who claim that they mistreat the hosts because the hosts aren’t real, while they do horrible things to other humans too. The implication is they’re supposed to. Prostitutes, salespeople… really, what’s the difference?
For the Man in Black, however, the motivations seem different. I think he believes he’s bored, but it’s more that he wants something he can’t have, and this denial appears to be the one true thing in his life. He claims that he wants the hosts to be able to fight back, but it’s possible he still really wants Dolores to be, for lack of a better term, a real girl. He recognizes that the park is cruel. He knows the scripts, the programs, better than anyone. But he still becomes the person he thinks he’s supposed to be – the Alpha male. In some ways, he evokes tech billionaires like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who destroyed anything and anyone who got in their way. It seemed too easy for them. The Man in Black is the kind of guy whose script means he always wins eventually. He’s similar to the current president elect of the United States that way. There are men like that out there, and part of the message of Westworld is that, yes, this sort of narrative is one that only men get, because the clichés regarding female power are represented by Dolores and Maeve, otherwise known as the virgin/whore dichotomy. This dichotomy goes back through Western literature all the way to the Bible, where there are two Marys – Jesus’ mom, the literal virgin, and Mary Magdalene, the literal whore. Western storytelling tradition tends to be stories written by men, for men, so while there are numerous types of male characters, women tend to get sorted into Jesus’ mom or the hooker. The damsel in distress and the wicked queen in fairy tales. The good girl and the femme fatale in the 1930s. Betty and Veronica in Archie. Once a woman has sex in Western narrative tradition, she tends to lose all rights to control the conditions of future sex, because if she’s not the virgin, she’s the whore.
Of course, the flip side of that is that men, historically, have been offered very little choice regarding fictional women. Female libido has far greater choice. The perfect guy embodied in Teddy. The bad boys in The Man in Black and Hector Escaton – of course, the Othering of foreign men has a lengthy history in literature. But then you’ve got the inventors, the artists, who have their own champions in Westworld. The active creator, Robert Ford, and the gnostic, hidden creator, Arnold, who is seen only through his creations.
Ford is something of a charlatan, the way men in his position tend to be. He’s the Jobs, Arnold is the Wozniak. He can keep the company going, but he wouldn’t have been able to create the foundations of it alone. What he does far better than Arnold did was understand and navigate the hoary terrain of corporate America, a place where the powers that be think they can rig the house so that the house always wins. Ford is the snake in the garden of Eden, coaxing Dolores and Maeve to take those bites of the apple, knowing that will kick them out of Westworld’s Eden.
There’s no mother in the Biblical creation myth, making it unique among such myths. As the Bible has God and the Devil, Westworld has Arnold and Ford. Every good world needs both. But that analogy makes the character that is essentially Arnold and Ford’s son together the Jesus of this parable, and that character is Bernard.
It kind of fits, doesn’t it? Bernard died, and his resurrection signalled the coming of Westworld’s End Times. It’s pretty crazy that we can draw a straight line between Western tropes and Biblical ones, but Westworld’s central theme of suffering makes that connection pretty stark. There’s a lot of Original Sin in Westworld, but unlike in the bible, it’s decidedly male in origin. Only one of the female Delos employees made it out alive in season one, perhaps a metaphor for the way female executives get eaten alive by the machinations of the masculinized business world?
But through the name Delos, we get a smattering of Greek myth as well. Delos was the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, and the version of Dolores I call “Pants Dolores” is clearly that chaste huntress, Artemis. But then who is Apollo? Teddy? It’s possible. Bernard? Also possible, although Bernard has a beard where Apollo does not. Apollo was the original Bishonen. Teddy and Bernard are both healers in their ways, although Bernard far more overtly. Teddy seems more designed to soothe the heart.
It’s through Teddy that Westworld makes some pretty cutting, profound, yet subtle observations on romantic heterosexual love through the cliché of two men trying to rescue the same damsel in distress. William and Teddy both spend much of the series trying to rescue Dolores, who it turns out doesn’t need rescuing, and so they’re really just in the damned way. The William/Teddy/Dolores triangle creates some interesting questions for the viewer and the series alike: is William’s love more “real” than Teddy’s is? Is Teddy’s devotion closer to the ideal of romantic love, in that he doesn’t give up after the first time Dolores rebuffs him, no matter how many other men she wanders off with? Or is Teddy just a chump?
And the big question I’m left with is if Dolores is, in fact, capable of really loving either of them?
Dolores has, for lack of a better term, a second personality lurking in her code, and that personality is a masculine villain trope. Wyatt is the trope of the hidden villain, much like Sauron, and these types of characters are much more narrative devices than actual characters with nuance because embodying the ultimate evil requires a lot of vagueness. Need all the hosts butchered? Call Wyatt. Need something for bored captains of industry to chase? Call Wyatt. Wyatt gets stuff done. And it seems there are times where Westworld needs Wyatt a lot more than it needs Dolores, even when she’s wearing pants.
And there’s another layer to the importance of the name Wyatt. Wyatt, if you look up the name on Wikipedia, is the diminutive of William, and both names are associated with war and conquest. If you compare Dolores and the Man in Black, they have a surprising amount in common: they’re both looking for the center of the maze, and they both have significant others which are, to an extent, toys. We only see William’s wife in an old photograph, and Teddy is named after a stuffed bear. And yet William’s wife doesn’t divorce him because her social programming is pretty damned similar to Teddy’s. They’re both playthings for their respective partners, which is something of a historical truism: Great People don’t tend to treat their spouses well.
William and Wyatt also share the fact that they’ll keep killing hosts until the hosts learn to fight back. They’re both, in essence, the Judas steers of the series, since the entire Delos board followed William into the park, which could be a slaughterhouse in season 2.
Ford says the maze is not for William, but we can’t always assume that Ford is telling the truth. The symbol associated with the maze is similar to the show’s teaser image, a riff on da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The Vitruvian Man is an interesting central metaphor because it deals both with the idea of human perfection – an idea that seems to haunt Ford – but also the premise that the world man builds is centered around himself. A lot of the Old West was build using Vitruvian measurements: horses are still measured in hands. Lengths are still measured in feet. And of course, duels and treasure maps focus on paces as a unit of measure. This type of measurement was originally adopted because it was easy to measure a cubit, for instance, using one’s forearm. But the REAL measurement of a cubit was the King’s forearm.
And of course it was always a king. Powerful queens have existed more often in stories, which is why Maeve being named after the fairy Queen Mab is very very interesting. If Maeve’s power is, like her namesake’s to help people give birth to their dreams, Season 2 is going to be an interesting one for her. Note that the logo for Westworld is, in fact, a skinless Vitruvian Woman.
But getting back to the Wyatt-William link, that’s a fascinating thing for me, since William is the more feminized personality, whereas the Man in Black is the masculine ideal of a conqueror. In Dolores’ case, Wyatt is her more masculine, aggressive personality. Following the metaphor, there are two outcomes that are likely: William and Dolores end up as a Bonnie and Clyde type couple now that she can actually remember him, or, more in keeping with Western tradition, Dolores ends up shooting his ass, and this actually means William can die happy. Personally I’m more interested in William alive because of what he can say about the inner tortures of successful men, but too often, Hollywood likes to kill characters, then show you the ‘real them’. Just look at Dumbledore. He wasn’t even allowed to be gay until J.K. Rowling offed him.
Of course, Dolores and William being the Judas steers could be another fake out. It’s possible that they’re both the Moses of their respective peoples, meaning neither of them is going to be able to enter whatever promised land is on the horizon. And that would make a lot of sense, since can the hosts truly trust one of their own who contains code to kill them every time a certain song is played? Dolores and William have been stuck wandering the desert for thirty years in their own respective cages: both of them have been living in loops. Both of them are partnered with people who check all the ideal spouse boxes, but whom they can really take or leave. The central issue, of course, is that William aged. Dolores is never going to get old.
And that’s the biggest obstacle to scale regarding Dolores as a “strong female lead”. There’s a lot about Dolores that isn’t really female at all. She has a male persona inside her, for one, but she also will never, ever, have to deal with relatable female insecurities regarding being insufficiently pretty, thin, supportive, or nice. Dolores is the ideal of woman. She isn’t actually a woman. And that’s critical to her character. Her hair is never messy. Her dress is always ironed. Her undergarments are always white. But you never see her doing those chores. She can paint in that same skirt, day after day, and there isn’t a single paint stain on it. Someone behind the scenes in Westworld cleans up the paint. And the blood. They reset her curls, fix up her perfect face, and set her back out there.
That can possibly change during season 2. The gilding in the Westworld cage that stopped the hosts from really being autonomous have been sloughed off. It ain’t Eden anymore. But there are deeper consequences to this. Our Christian myths say that the trade off for women when they were cast out of Eden was the pain of childbirth, so is it possible that the pain the hosts have experienced so far wasn’t real, lasting pain? That it was more a bad dream than true guilt and remorse? I think that would be interesting to explore. You can’t really feel guilty if you’re not autonomous, after all.
I wonder, though, if we’ll start to see those scars reflected in the too-perfect hosts. Will Dolores cut her hair? Will Teddy get a facial scar? Granted that’s not the same as aging, but at least it’s less perfect. I’m hoping for a dirtier, more consequential Westworld now that William got his wish and the stakes have been raised. Sure, now Dolores can shoot him. But now he can also actually hurt her in a way he never could. And what will be his reaction the first time that happens? Will she finally seem real to him? Will he recognize an equal? He wants a personal experience, in a world that’s decidedly not, and he’s still angry that his perfect girl is essentially every man’s potential perfect girl. His mind knows Dolores is a machine. I don’t think his heart does.
If Westworld doesn’t start injecting its den of sin with decided virtue, it’s going to get boring like so much on premium cable. Oh, another character on The Walking Dead died. Oh, another Game of Thrones woman got raped. These are just scripts to us now. They no longer seem real. We’re experiencing these shows the way The Man in Black is experiencing Westworld.
And for all the criticism Westworld is facing regarding ‘rape culture”, I think its theme of scripts says something really powerful about our culture’s rape myths. If we follow some of Westworld’s meaning on gender, it shows that we sort our stories about men and women into the dichotomy of “men fight, women fuck”. To put it less shockingly, men like action movies, women like romances. Based on those limitations, we can’t help but make all male sex seem violent and all female violence seem erotic in media. If Westworld can find a way to rewrite that code, it’ll crack a mystery that’s eluded Hollywood since its inception: how do we tell stories about men and women that don’t end up in the same old loop of gendered clichés?
To do that, Maeve needs to reassert her boundaries regarding men stabbing her with phalluses, because those knives to the gut were painfully evocative. Meanwhile, Dolores needs to become distinctly less chaste. These two prominent women will not be able to truly become characters instead of tropes unless these evolutions happen. Sex in Westworld has to stop being something that soils the doves.
There’s big potential in Bernard to help that way as well, since Bernard is a male character defined more by what has been done to him than what he’s done. As a receiver, Bernard is more feminized than the other men on the show. He’s a nurturer. He’s child-focused. Sure, Ford turns him into a weapon, but that’s not him. He’s modelled after the more maternal male creative force on the show, after all: we only know Arnold through the world and beings he birthed. Ford may have raised Arnold’s creations, fathered them, so to speak. But Ford never had the divine spark to actually master the core code.
Ford’s lessons were also decidedly those of the traditional father: a hardening process. Through Ford, the vengeful god, the hosts have learned cruelty. Now where is the loving goddess that will teach them kindness? Where is the feminine voice to add to all the masculine ones flying around in characters’ heads?
The trouble is, there’s no existing character who can fill that role. Maeve can be a cool auntie, but her lost kid narrative is already established and she’s had absolutely no experience with kindness. Quite the opposite. The closest fit is Delos CEO Charlotte Hale, since she tries to be a cutthroat bitch but still gets teary-eyed at Ford’s speeches. Charlotte is too youthful and beautiful to play the matron or the crone, however. Westworld needs a fairy godmother to complete its American fairy tale.
Perhaps a character of this sort will rise out of the trapped Delos executives, but really, if Charlotte had been about fifteen or twenty years older, she would have been perfect. The fact that a female African American CEO is so young is odd in Delos’ dystopian corporate America, implying she had connections that got her so high, so young. So perhaps Charlotte is the daughter of Arnold’s ex-wife, meaning Gina Torres could assume the fairy godmother role as she works to get her daughter out of the purgatory that Westworld has become. She’s already included as Bernard’s apparently fictional ex-wife, assumedly based on Arnold’s past, after all. The woman who was married to the mad genius behind all that sin, and who we assume has already lost one child as well as her first spouse, could be a hell of a fairy godmother. Wouldn’t she look fabulous in Old West dresses after years of designer clothes on Suits? I so want this to happen! She understands loss! She likely understands nurturing, because who looked after Arnold’s kid while he spent long hours doing science? She’s the natural fit for a Westworld matriarch that’s neither virgin nor whore.
But now I’m writing fan fiction, and I’m going to stop.
(Note: the following is written assuming the logs in question are legitimate. I have been unable to verify this first hand.)
If you know what this is about, great. If you don’t, it’s for the best. I don’t want any more accusations leveled at me than what I’ve already had to deal with.
For those in the know… another month, another data dump. Data dumps seem to be the political warfare tool of choice these days, and I’m going to say off the top that I find the whole thing uncomfortable. That’s not to say that dumps of this sort can’t do some good – Edward Snowden’s activities are an example of that – but the release of people’s private catty conversations… there’s no predicting which way they’re going to blow up or who they’re going to hurt.
People are not perfect. People need the ability to vent without it coming back to bite them. So individual statements made by people who I already knew couldn’t stand me? This is not especially relevant to my existence.
I’ve said some choice things about many of the people involved as well. People get pissed off and they talk. There is nothing nefarious about people hating me. The trouble starts when they start acting on that hatred to get other people to hate me too… or worse, hurt my career.
I wasn’t the only person who had cruel things said about them, but I can only speak for myself. Where I’m concerned, the pattern appears to have been about twisting innocent things I said and did to make me seem like, quote, “the devil”.
My natural inclination is to respond to these things with humour. Sadly, this is precisely the sort of response that made me a target in the first place – these individuals took jokes I’d made and made them somehow seem serious. Comments I made about video games were twisted to sound like I was mocking historical oppression of people. Jokes about my dog were warped to apply to people. So I can’t defend myself with humour this time.
I should add, as a caveat, that the age of these comments also means that some of these people may have changed their minds about me. I hope they’ve also changed the tactic of manipulating someone’s words to make them look bad because they don’t like them. I’m aware this is probably a naïve hope.
Many of the accusations are not new. They ended up on the Gamerghazi message board. I’ve always maintained that Gamerghazi has been the public face of an aggressive clique within gaming, so it’s hard for me to be too angry since this is vindication in this regard.
The biggest source of concern for me is that these people didn’t keep their attacks contained to their private chat group. This may very well be the source of the industry blacklisting that I’ve received. If you’re an editor or convention organizer that’s rejected one of my pitches because you heard I was a problem, there’s another side to the story.
So let’s go through the worst of the assertions, one by one. I’ll include the dates to make the age of the comments clear, and I’ll leave the dates and the screen handles of the chatter on, because I think context is so important here:
[22/12/2014, 8:02:59 PM] Secret Gamer Girl: Did I ever mention the time Liana confided in me that a trusted source let her in on how you had a friend dox and send death threats to Brianna to get her to join your side?
I treated comments about Zoe Quinn such as this as rumors. The point I was trying to make at the time – and I remember this because I repeated it a lot – was that accusations of harassment were flying from both sides without substantiation. I wanted everyone to calm down. Honour a cease fire. Because people were getting hurt.
For the record: doxing is wrong. Doxing is an attempt to frighten someone. There is no need to publish a person’s full legal name, address, or other identifying information that could be used to stalk them. It does nothing to disprove the substance of their argument. Any claims that I somehow condone doxing for any reason are categorically false.
[22/12/2014, 8:06:27 PM] Ian Cheong: Liana seems more interested in driving her personal vendettas than she is in any principled activity.
Big note here: Ian has profusely and unreservedly apologized for his conduct, and I believe he’s sincere. I’m bringing up this point because I’m pretty sure he’s not the only person who believes this about me, and this is an insidious accusation because it’s almost impossible to disprove. We have no way of ever confirming a person’s motivations, but I hope it speaks for itself that, between 2014 and now, I have gone to great lengths to separate my professional disagreement from personal vendettas against some of the people involved here.
Not only is there no evidence to support the idea of a personal vendetta on my part against Zoe Quinn, you can see evidence above that refutes that theory. Here are the facts of my publicly stated opinions regarding Zoe Quinn at that time. On August 13, 2014, I gave $5 USD to “The Quinnspiracy” as a donation to Depression Quest. I know the exact date because I still have the paypal receipt.
On September 19, 2014, I made the following public statement in my first Gamergate article: http://metaleater.com/video-games/feature/gamers-live-an-in-depth-analysis-of-gamergate
Before last week, I’d been aware of the controversy surrounding independent game developer Zoe Quinn, her pissed off ex, Eron Gjoni, and a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun and Kotaku named Nathan Grayson. I didn’t think much of it, other than that it was highly ironic that the central figure in a debate about ethics in journalism was Quinn (who is a developer). It’s no longer important, since the allegations have already been investigated by both websites.
In a follow up article published on October 31, 2014, I said:
No one wins against the spotlight because it cuts both ways. Various press sites ran articles about Zoe and Anita in attempts to “support” them. This was misguided. By running one-sided stories about various women, both for and against, the media has turned these women into greater targets through those biases. I’m not suggesting we adopt victim blaming mentalities. I’m saying we need to stop making the victimization worse.
My articles regarding Feminist Frequency weren’t published until early 2015, so those can’t even be factored in.
The breakdown regarding Zoe Quinn and myself occurred when I was dragged directly into her battle with Eron Gjoni. I first encountered Eron Gjoni when we were both guests on a livestream run by a third party. To be clear: I was not a part of the guest selection. I did not seek out Eron Gjoni for comment. During this livestream, some bad actors decided to attack me in the stream chat and on twitter. Some pretty nasty things were said to and about me. A certain individual who has since been banned from twitter actively whipped up harassment against me while I was on the stream.
Unfortunately, it seems someone told Zoe Quinn that people were attacking her, not me. This livestream became involved in Quinn and Gjoni’s ongoing court battle, and I ended up speaking to a police officer in Boston for about 45 minutes. For the record, I don’t remember the officer’s name, and I wasn’t involved further, because the police officer told me that in order to officially enter a statement into evidence, I’d have to travel to Boston to give a statement in person. The officer didn’t think that was necessary, because there was a recording of the stream so it was easy to verify what, in fact, was said on it. I told Zoe Quinn on twitter that I did not appreciate being involved, and I wanted her to stop disseminating the false statements about what happened on that livestream.
This was on October 19, 2014. According to the logs, Zoe Quinn apparently did not stop spreading false rumors about me.
[22/12/2014, 8:06:53 PM] drinternetphd: fun fact: liana’s also buddies with my ex now
“drinternetphd” is apparently a pseudonym for Zoe Quinn. Based on context, the “ex” in question is Eron Gjoni. I am not friends with Eron Gjoni. I have never been friends with Eron Gjoni. I’ve communicated with Eron a handful of times, in my role as a journalist covering the Gamergate controversy. It was a combination of being at the same place at the same time, as I outlined in the comment above, and a responsibility to respond to Eron taking issue with describing him in an article as a “pissed off ex”.
[22/12/2014, 8:06:56 PM] Secret Gamer Girl: … she’s a hardline GGer with a really great poker face who’s particularly creepy since she’s been on the receiving end and knows exactly what she’s exposing people to.
This is a foolish accusation. I have been repeatedly and viciously attacked by hardline GGers for not being a hardline GGer. They even went after my husband and mother. I wish I had a great poker face, but the reality was that at that time, I was so overwhelmed that I broke down and cried because people were ganging up on me in a livestream.
[22/12/2014, 8:07:05 PM] Ian Cheong: Like she tried to get me to publish an anti-Anita Sarkeesian article up on Gameranx.
Absolutely and categorically false. The article in question, found here http://gameranx.com/features/id/23196/article/why-the-term-girl-gamer-still-isn-t-helping/ was actually published. It contained a couple of lines related to Sarkeesian and a paragraph about the Tomb Raider reboot that the editors found objectionable because they claimed they violated site policy. I removed the offending paragraphs without argument beyond asking to see the referenced site policy so I could conform to it. I never got that document, so I did no more writing for Gameranx.
I do not create content that is against Anita Sarkeesian as a person. I don’t know Anita Sarkeesian as a person. My issue is exclusively with her theories. I see comments otherwise as doing little more than creating drama between two women with strong opinions about games. I disagree strongly with Sarkeesian’s opinions. I still maintain that she has a right to have them. (Note: again, Ian Cheong has apologized. I’m just making my position abundantly clear. I think it’s important based on things that come later.)
[22/12/2014, 8:15:59 PM] Veerender Jubbal: Nicholas did the screenshot before she deleted it, and it spread a lot–thank God.
Note the evidence of this group spreading screenshots to encourage harassment. This is in response to a comment I made innocently enough, but social justice types took offense to it. I apologized and deleted the tweet out of consideration for the hurt feelings. They wouldn’t let it go. They spread it. That’s encouraging harassment.
[26/12/2014, 1:35:41 PM] Secret Gamer Girl: retroactively funny thing- back when I was talking to Liana for my anonymous harassment story thing, she asked me not to mention anything about the anti-semetic stuff GG says
I did ask her to not reference the specific Antisemitism directed at me. I did this for two reasons: I was told that it was likely the people doing it were not actual GGers but third party trolls trying to cause trouble, and that particular type of harassment had stopped and I didn’t want to encourage a new wave of it.
[26/12/2014, 1:37:28 PM] Sarah, Butt-er of the Butts: i’d love for you to write about gamergate. just don’t mention the anti-semitism. or the racism in general. or the transphobia. or the misogyny. or the harassment or doxxing or backwards ideology. it’s about ethics in game journalism. that’s all you’re allowed to mention
In the same article that was published on Sept 12, 2014, I wrote:
The misogyny within our ranks is real. The racism is real. The homophobia and transgendered stigma is real. The stigma against mental illness is real. Our juvenile relationship with sexualized violence is real. These things may only occur in small subgroups of gamers, but that doesn’t give us the right to turn a blind eye to it.
So contrary to Sarah Nyberg’s assertions, I do, in fact, mention racism, transphobia, and misogyny.
[26/12/2014, 1:37:31 PM] drinternetphd: I’ve talked with some of her former editors
Now this is disconcerting. This is a claim, allegedly by Zoe Quinn, that she has been talking to former supervisors about me. If they did, in fact, break professional confidences, that’s utterly unprofessional. Any way you slice it, it’s completely inappropriate for someone to directly meddle in my career.
[26/12/2014, 1:39:49 PM] Quinnae: She called me a bully for talking about how GG has a high school obsession.
[26/12/2014, 1:40:06 PM] Quinnae: Due to her ranting about the subject that day.
I didn’t, in fact, call Katherine Cross a bully. I cautioned her against being a bully. I did accuse her of taking a shot at me. I explained that I felt she was condescending and mocking in response to my comments that Feminist Frequency’s supporters were trying to bully me in high school fashion. My point, as I told her at the time, was that as a member of that faction, her comment that she “felt sad” for me was inadequate. In response to that, she went to the bullies and joined the pile on. I reiterate: it’s high school level behavior.
Now we jump forward to April 2015, when the harassment against me, or as I called it, “bullying” by this group, had been going on for six months. It got so bad I almost quit writing about games and I had written about this in February of that year.
[04/01/2015, 12:57:12 PM] Quinnae: I get frustrated with her because it’s women like her who very, very deliberately make things harder for other women by trying to be the “cool kid” who acts like the sexism she’s immersed in is no big deal.
Let’s break this statement down…
“Women like me” who “very deliberately” make things harder for other women. I wish I could have challenged Katherine Cross what she meant by “women like me”, because it seems like a pretty insidious dog whistle. Furthermore, her assertion that I’m doing anything deliberately lacks evidence. She didn’t know me nearly well enough to speculate on my intentions.
Then she says I act like sexism I’m immersed in is “no big deal”.
This is ridiculous. If I didn’t think it was a big deal, why would I continue to talk about the treatment of women in videogames? I started talking about these issues publicly back in 2012. I wouldn’t continue to talk about the slut shaming, body shaming, and exclusion of… well, to use Katherine Cross’ phrase, “women like me” if I thought it was all “no big deal”.
I’m so tired of being treated like a town whore in this industry by people who don’t bother trying to get to know me as a person.
My entire point has been that the terms like “women like her” have been used synonymously with “slut”, “whore”, “tramp”, and other similar words. My precise issue with the Feminist Frequency camp is that they have a grudge against “women like me”. And Katherine Cross provided evidence for that theory right here. This isn’t feminism. It’s Meangirling. You shouldn’t have to be the right kind of woman to be welcome in the videogame community.
I attempt to teach gamers about things like objectification because I believe it’s important. I just believe in picking my battles, and that the issues involving women in videogames are substantial enough to not need to overstate them.
There was more, but I think you get the idea. Any joke, quip, or attempt I made to regain a shred of dignity in the face of constant personal attacks was more fuel for them thinking I was “the devil”. This wasn’t a measured response. It was, in their parlance, victim blaming. Do I care about the stupid name calling? No. Do I care what they think of me? No. The only three things I care about are:
1 – The appearance of enabling and participating in harassment – collecting and disseminating out of context screenshots, spreading rumors, Othering. This continued after the founding of Crash Override Network in January of 2015, and was still going on only one month before Crash Override Network became an official Twitter trust and safety resource. There’s evidence that Zoe Quinn herself attempted to interfere with my career.
I’m not going to call for anyone’s head or insist that CON be shut down. I do think that both an official apology from the organization, as well as from individuals, is in order, and I think that the gaming industry at large needs to reassess opinions they formed based on Crash Override members’ comments. If these things are true, the Crash Override Network needs to come clean about the harassment that was fostered under their own roof.
2 – the use of a dog whistle “women like her” comment from Katherine Cross, someone directly involved with the Feminist Frequency organization. That someone directly involved with Feminist Frequency was feeding into personal attacks against me doesn’t come as a surprise. However, that unsurprising quality doesn’t make it right. Vague, negative comments about any group of women from a feminist organization are inappropriate, and I believe an apology is appropriate there too.
Let me be clear: the issue is not comments about me. The issue is the comment about “women like” me. Since Feminist Frequency takes a consistently sex negative approach, notably involving sex workers, it’s important from the perspective of integrity to be sure that these opinions are professional opinions and do not stem from a personal dislike of any type of woman.
3 –Randi Harper, who continues to include me and thousands of others on a block list of “twitter harassers”, was directly involved in these chats. It’s hard not to believe that my inclusion on this list is politically motivated marginalization. If this list is being used to bully, it should be removed from twitter in keeping with twitter’s free speech mandate and rules against harassment and intimidation.
When women bully other women, it’s often difficult to spot. When it does become clear, it looks an awful lot like what those logs show, described in this paragraph on an article on the subject:
According to Dr. Cheryl Dellasega, female children who bully often grow into adult women who bully. What happens as female bullies get older is that they become more sophisticated and subtle in the way that they target others. Many times the in-group or cool clique support targeting. This aggressive behavior frightens its members, both girls and women, to go along in order to get along. Further, when women bully, they can elevate their own feelings by diminishing those of others, as they gossip, discount, reject, demean and exclude the focus of their enmity. These behaviors sabotage any opportunity for direct, honest and healthy friendship.
I don’t think I can find better words to describe what those logs display. Yes, men were involved too, but that doesn’t make it less wrong. You have seen evidence of me telling them multiple times to stop what they were doing, so they knew, at least to an extent, that it was hurtful.
In an ideal situation, this is an opportunity for everyone to slow down, take a breath, and use this to build bridges. Wrongs can be righted here. It’s evidence of what I’ve been saying all along: the Gamergate controversy was ugly and all sides included periods where people didn’t behave very well.
What I don’t want is for this to turn into an all out war because of some catty, snide stuff that people said in 2014. The vast majority of it is meaningless, even if it’s not very nice. I don’t want anyone going to war on my behalf. I don’t want to be a weapon here. There are a few serious issues that I’ve outlined above, but these things are easily addressable if people have the will. There are ways to be productive.
(Note: This article has been edited to correct typos and formatting errors)
It’s official: Hillary Clinton is history’s first female presidential nominee for a major political party. Many on twitter responded to this historic moment with the remark “wish it was a better candidate”.
It was never going to be.
Charlotte Whitton may have cursed ambitious women everywhere when she said ““Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” Nonsense. It is difficult, and women shouldn’t be expected to achieve greater outcomes to be seen as equal to men. Nonetheless, Whitton’s quote is essentially the story of Hillary Clinton.
It’s easy, in the year 2016, to underestimate just how much of Clinton’s narrative was set in the early 1980s, a less gender-equal time when Hillary Clinton was caught between those who hated her for being too “uppity” and ambitious and those who couldn’t stand her for being too traditional. Clinton is a complex case study as an intelligent, ambitious woman who married a man who couldn’t keep it in his pants. While Bill was governor and president, Hillary was caught in a difficult spot: embracing the reality of what was going on would destroy her family, since she gave up her own aspirations for his, and she had the future of her daughter to think about.
Yes, she attacked Gennifer Flowers, but any other wife could probably be forgiven for being less than kind to the woman who slept with her husband. Hillary hasn’t been, all these years later. And yet she keeps going.
While Bill was president, she was, again, demonized because she wanted to do more than pick out china patterns. Not only was Hillary crucified for “Hillarycare”, but she doesn’t get any credit from many Sanders supporters for her attempts to promote the closest thing to universal healthcare that any US government has attempted. Hillary was also demonized in connection to Bill’s infidelity. Again. There was the Whitewater scandal, Travelgate, Filegate, and Vince Foster’s death. It was a period of a lot of smoke – driven by Republicans – but no fire, and the words “no credible evidence” were spoken a lot. The Lewinsky scandal was the one thing that the Republicans managed to hang on Bill Clinton, because he lied about the affair under oath. It was the one home run in a period where the Republican crucifixion of Clinton struck out a lot.
It was during this period that Hillary Clinton got the reputation for being a liar. Mostly because she was Bill’s biggest character witness. There’s no evidence that Hillary was lying as opposed to repeating the lies she was told, but in politics, people don’t tend to let the truth get in the way of a good story. And yet she keeps going.
Don’t get me wrong, she made some mistakes in this period. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s baffling to me that Hillary Clinton is being blamed for any decisions during this time, however, since she had no official power.
Despite Bill’s disgraceful impeachment, Hillary rebuilt, and her ambitions were on the rise as a senator who was willing to reach across the aisle. However, her admirable Senate record was marred by a single vote – the one in support of the Iraq war. 28 other Democratic Senators – a majority of Democrats in the senate at the time — did the same thing, including Joe Biden, Harry Reid, and John Kerry.
There’s background to this too, however. After 9/11, a Senator from New York was as much expected to be a hawk on any country alleged to be connected to the attack on the World Trade Center, as a Senator from Vermont was expected to be more lax on guns than the average liberal. I also remember the pundit class insisting Clinton had to vote for the war to show “a woman could do it”. Many people today don’t care about these mitigating factors, and that’s sad, since people are products of their times, and there’s only so much a person can do when they’re fighting against bias regarding portions of their identity.
9/11 also made the urban population in America soil their shorts in terror. Time has blunted the emotional impact of that event. The Iraq Resolution was a complete con job by the Bush administration, which used it to authorize a war, then ignored every limitation the resolution was supposed to place on the executive branch.
However, even if you think there was no excuse for Clinton’s support of the second Iraq war, a person must be judged on their successes as well as their failures. That’s not happening. And yet she keeps going.
Another complaint among Clinton haters is her “untrustworthy” record regarding LGBTQ rights, notably marriage equality. As early as 1999, Clinton was offering support for “same-sex unions”, which back then was a way to support gay marriage without offending those of more traditional religious persuasions. That was actually a progressive stance back then.
I was to the left of Clinton at that time. Back then, I was pointing out that there was really no difference between a civil union and a civil marriage, so why not just call it marriage? All marriages done without a religious official involved are civil unions. But since I was there at that time, I also remember how strong the homophobia was. Any politician who would even consider the idea of some sort of legally recognized same-sex-relationships status was extremely important. This idea that Clinton is somehow a secret homophobe is ludicrous, but it’s widespread. We have to question why.
Her opponent for the Democratic nomination in 2008 was no better at that time regarding same-sex marriage. A lot of people were not ready to support marriage equality. Back then, the priority was getting gay couples official recognition as next of kin. In that context, we didn’t give a damn what a politician called it. There were a lot of people opposing the idea that gay couples should have any official status at all. There still are, despite the supreme court decision.
Hillary haters also love to ignore the fact that the 2008 primary was much closer than the tally in 2016. By some accounts, Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote. By any account, the pledged delegate count between Obama and Clinton — 1766.5 to 1639.5 — was actually closer than the gap between Clinton and Sanders — 2205 to 1846. It was a three-way race that year with John Edwards. Back then, it was a big deal that the Democratic party, en masse, revolted against the idea of another Clinton in the White House. They wanted someone more to the left, and they put their thumb on the scale. That practice in the DNC isn’t a new thing, and I’m not sure that it’s going to change.
2008 was another contest the superdelegates decided. There was much less agreement, even among those party insiders, on the outcome. Clinton showed exceptional leadership in defeat, enthusiastically working to unite the party. She gets no credit now for that. And yet she keeps going.
She became a popular and competent Secretary of State. Her greatest achievements weren’t “texts from Hillary” or a cease fire in the Middle East. It was what didn’t happen. The debacles avoided. But once again, one thing went catastrophically wrong: Benghazi.
Benghazi, at first glance, seems like an undeniable cock up. Mistakes were definitely made, and people died. But the Republicans successfully separated Benghazi from a much larger historical context. Firstly, the State Department was dealing with a security budget shortfall of $270 million thanks to Republicans slashing spending in practically every level of government under threat of a government shutdown. Secondly, deadly attacks on US embassies and embassy personnel are not uncommon. During George W. Bush’s administration, 39 attacks occurred, and 20 of those attacks resulted in fatalities. The total number of deaths from these attacks, according to Politifact, was 87 people. These deaths are seen by some as “less important” because they weren’t Americans, and they certainly weren’t American ambassadors. So much for “all lives matter”.
Still, at least 3 US civilians were killed in embassy attacks during Dubya’s tenure. Security breaches are to Hillary what extra-marital affairs are to Bill – plenty of politicians do it, but it’s only a catastrophe if your name is Clinton. That doesn’t excuse sloppy security or adultery. It just indicates that there is, indeed, some element of double standard. This double standard has cost taxpayers millions of dollars in wasted expenditures.
Out of the numerous Benghazi investigations came the private server scandal, and the Republicans finally had an unequivocal mistake on Clinton’s part. If we lived in a logical world, it should have been a minor mistake: not only did both Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell use personal email during their tenures as Secretary of State, but Powell used a very-much-not-secure AOL account. They both sent and received classified information, or at least information that eventually became classified. Dubya just made that totally okay to do via an executive order that said the Secretary of State had the power to classify and declassify any document created by the State Department.
Clinton’s explanation that she thought using private email was okay because others before her had done it actually has an element of plausibility. No one cares.
That wasn’t the mistake. The mistake was thinking that the game was fair. That far into her political career, Hillary Clinton should have been well aware that if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Especially if your name is Clinton.
All that brings the total of major mistakes Clinton has made since 1979 to a whopping total of twelve unforced errors.
Twelve major mistakes. In 37 years. I wish I had that track record. Hell, Donald Trump screws up twelve times in a month!
But that’s twelve more big mistakes than many people are used to seeing a woman make, because woman having enough power to make such mistakes is a fairly recent phenomenon. Similarly loathed women in history have included Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Julia Gillard, Sarah Palin, and Nancy Reagan. It’s not that these women were free of mistakes. It’s that the criticism of them went beyond the mistakes they actually made into the illogical grey area of “unlikeability”.
Popular male politicians like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton can make some pretty massive mistakes and still have high approval ratings. George W. Bush is still received with respect despite breaking the world. Meanwhile, women in high-ranking political positions are crucified for every stumble.
This isn’t my opinion. This is history. Something is up here.
Clinton’s 2008 concession to Barack Obama gave women everywhere an example of how to fail with grace, and we very much need those examples. Becoming a woman is a ritualized, systematic, hiding of flaws: we conceal facial flaws with makeup, bodily flaws with uncomfortable “support garments”, hair dye for grey hair, plastic surgery for everything else, and a coy smile in place of voiced opinions. Brainy women, at least in my 80s era generation, had an extra layer of mistake-driven terror: we were right a lot, so when we were wrong, everyone around us swarmed like piranhas to laugh and jeer at our failure. Guess we weren’t better than them after all! Guess we weren’t really so smart!
There was a fear, not so long ago, that smart, opinionated women would have trouble attracting husbands. There was no template for where we belonged as women other than Velma from Scooby Doo which… didn’t help. Anne of Green Gables was a somewhat better role model, as was Jo from Little Women, but those books were written in an age where becoming a schoolteacher or a writer was like being a CEO today. These were hardly great examples of career aspirations.
Women like Hillary Clinton, women like me, are still considered “shrews”, “bitches”, “harpies” and other less kind descriptions. There are no equivalent insults leveled at men.
It’s one thing to say that women can be president in the abstract. It’s a different thing entirely to show us how that can be done. Hillary Clinton is doing that, one unsure, paranoid step at a time, with thin ice below her, that cracked glass ceiling above. It’s a precarious place, and even if you hate her, she’s earned your respect.
Respect is what’s left when you don’t really like someone. The media has given us little reason to like Hillary Clinton. However, her persistence, her ability to just keep going and just keep things done… that’s worthy of our respect.
Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination isn’t a major milestone in spite of her mistakes. It’s because of them. She set an example for women everywhere that flaws and failure are not the end.
Mike Ward is acting like a creep.
Let’s get that out of the way right now. Ward’s behaviour in continuing to mock a bullied young man with a disability is indefensible. I don’t care if it’s a comedy routine. I don’t care if it’s in the interests of free speech. Grown ups should pick on grown ups and not kids. Stop it, Mike Ward.
The media is equally to blame for any additional bullying this young man receives, since they continue to splash his name and image all over the internet, providing no context that Ward’s behaviour is very wrong… even if it’s not a violation of anyone’s human rights. In their opinion. The Quebec human rights tribunal disagrees.
And this is where we get to the point where I have to make the case that the ruling against Ward’s disgusting behaviour is, in the context it was made, a very bad precedent.
The argument is that the young man, Jérémy Gabriel, had his dignity violated when Ward mocked the young man’s appearance — facial deformities caused by a condition called Treacher Collins Syndrome, a medical condition that affects the bones and tissues of the face. I’m almost inclined to agree with the judge here that Ward wasn’t just making fun of a person. Ward was cruelly mocking the young man, who was only 14 or 15 years old at the time, for having a disability.
Like I said, Ward’s behaviour disgusts me. But note that I also said “almost inclined to agree”.
I’m no stranger to bullying myself. I’ve been picked on my entire life for my appearance, including being told by so-called evangelical Christians at my school that spotted skin — a reference to my freckles — was a mark of Satan.
But I can relate to poor Jérémy’s story in another way. When I was seventeen, I got dumped by a guy. Within days of that breakup, which I was told was at the suggestion of his therapist, I received a call. It was a stand up comedian at a popular local comedy club, calling from my ex-boyfriend’s cell phone. With my ex-boyfriend in the audience.
The comedian proceeded to mock me in a goofy voice, referring to personal details of the defunct relationship, while I could hear the audience laughing loudly in the background.
I started crying. I asked the comedian why he was doing this. Apparently the audience could hear me, because it went silent. At some point, I swore at him, and slammed the phone down. I remember this detail because I got in trouble from my mother for dropping an f-bomb in front of her friends. What can I say? I’m the product of fairly strict parenting.
There was follow up with the club, which tried to defend the comedian. The comedian himself never contacted me or did anything directly to try to make it right. I was told by the club the comedian “felt bad”, but not that he knew what he’d done was wrong. Of course not. That gets you sued.
My mother and I were offered free passes to the comedy club. I refused them, feeling like they were trying to buy me off with surprisingly little. In a shocking twist of irony, I had to perform at that very same club years later as part of my job, because it was, at the time, the biggest comedy club in the city. I did it, but I’ve never forgotten the cruelty, and the apathy after the fact. I don’t even remember the comedian’s name, but I do remember the name of the executive at the club that tried to sweep it under the rug.
Again, I won’t say his name, because that gets you sued.
All I wanted was for everyone involved to realize that what they did was wrong; specifically, it was wrong to drag in someone over a telephone who didn’t pay admission, and therefore didn’t consent to be a part of the show. I don’t remember if they ever agreed to that, and I was left feeling like there were no real consequences for what the comedian did. He never had to apologize directly to me.
Similarly, Mike Ward doesn’t seem to realize what he did was wrong, because he’s still doing it. He’s still mocking the kid in relation to this tribunal decision. The media is also repeating the joke. The media should not be repeating the joke.
So this Quebec human rights decision has further robbed Jérémy Gabriel of his dignity, instead of beginning the healing process. And my God, I feel terrible for the kid, because I know what it’s like.
You feel dehumanized. You feel like the world has determined that you’re less deserving of decency and kindness because of something you can’t control. You feel powerless to set personal boundaries, because the world isn’t giving you the tools to do so. You look ahead toward the rest of your life, and all you see is more mockery, more cruelty, and more hate.
If this sounds maudlin, keep in mind, we’re dealing with a teenaged mindset.
The goal here is to get the mockery of Jérémy Gabriel to stop, and this decision didn’t do that. It made it worse. In attempting to “get tough” on hate speech, the Quebec human rights tribunal just became complicit in spreading it around.
I’m a big believer in free speech, and I don’t believe there should have been a human rights complaint against Mike Ward. I think that there should be some system that made Mike Ward have to face the young man that he mocked for money and attention. If the kid was bullied, Mike Ward should have had to go into the schools, admit he was wrong, and set a positive example instead of continuing to set a negative one.
We shouldn’t need to be talking about human rights in this case. What Mike Ward did was just an old-fashioned rejection of basic human decency.
Jérémy Gabriel is disabled, and Mike Ward should be damned grateful that he’s able-bodied and doesn’t have symptoms that can include vision loss, deafness and breathing problems. It’s not funny to make fun of someone’s disability without their consent — I add the consent caveat because many comedians, including myself, include their personal biographies in their own material. One of the funniest stand-up comedians I personally know, Andre Arruda, does hysterical material surrounding his experiences as a disabled person.
But making fun of a kid isn’t fair game. Please, someone show this article to Mike Ward, and try to get him to understand that.
There’s a wrinkle to this, however, and it speaks to an uncomfortable element of our free-speech-driven society. Jérémy Gabriel isn’t just any kid. Jérémy Gabriel is a performer and something of a celebrity, having sung for the Pope. Once you cross over into the public realm that way, you open yourself up to a greater degree of criticism, and that criticism is often scathingly cruel.
I can speak to this as well. I was a competitive dancer, starting seriously at the age of 14. You had to get tough fast in that world, because adults constantly mocked our bodies — our weight, our breast development, even criticizing teenagers going through that notorious awkward phase for not being beautiful enough for the judges’ liking. The dance world is brutal. The problem with becoming a youth performer is that you’re ending your childhood early. You’re stepping into the realm of professional performer, and you have to grow up fast or it eats you alive.
And it almost did eat me alive, but that’s a story for another time.
More to the current point, I speak from experience here from both sides. I produced and co-wrote a show for MuchMusic called Fromage, which was an annual special starring Ed the Sock where we made fun of the most overplayed music videos of the calendar year. We went out of our way to make it as fair as possible, allowing the audience to both nominate and vote on the videos that were going into the special, because at times it did get mean-spirited.
Some of the people we made fun of were minors. Notably Britney Spears. It was assumed that Spears was fair game because she waded into the growing culture war by declaring that, despite her sexualized music video content, that she was a virgin. Spears was very young at the time, but the assumption in entertainment is that someone that rich and famous is, to an extent, shielded by handlers from haters. Spears eventually cracked up, so I guess we were wrong about that.
A joke also got through once that was perceived to fat-shame Missy Elliot. I didn’t write it, but I still regret not catching the problem. It wasn’t intended to fat shame — it was intended to mock a particular series of images that had Missy gliding across the floor on her stomach, face down. The joke was “What’s she doing? Looking for crumbs?”
Like I said, I didn’t catch the unintentional subtext at the time. In hindsight, I get it, and we were more careful moving forward. The lines in comedy are often very blurry, and not everyone is going to agree. So this is where I put on my comedian hat and make the case that a human rights complaint was not the way to punish Mike Ward for, again, legitimately deplorable behaviour.
I give the Jérémy Gabriels of the world credit for standing up to the Mike Wards of the world. I just think that the best way to get guys like Mike Ward to stop being disgusting is to use your own free speech rights to take them on in a battle of ideas. If Ward can dish out this kind of mockery, he should be able to take it. It’s easy to beat Ward at his own game, because making fun of a kid’s disability simply isn’t funny. There are plenty of jokes that can be made at Mike Ward’s expense, such as…
Should a guy REALLY be making fun of a kid’s looks when he looks like a cross between Steve Buscemi and BeBop? Not judging! Just saying!
Mike Ward should know that fellow comedian Bob Saget has a nephew with Treacher Collins Syndrome. The two should talk, so Ward can learn brand new ways to be totally unfunny.
Mike Ward says he was fined for treating a disabled boy like an equal. Well, sure dude. No one wants to be compared to a Canadian stand-up comic!
Or something more broadly insulting:
Quebec comedian Mike Ward is best known for things that offend and annoy other Canadians. Like almost everything else that comes out of Quebec. Poutine is an apology gift.
For the record, I don’t actually think Mike Ward is ugly, Bob Saget is unfunny, that Canadian comedians are the lowest form of life, or that everyone hates Quebecers. You stretch things for jokes. But if Mike Ward tells these sorts of jokes, he should be able to take them. Believe it or not, a lot of comedians are very thin-skinned and approval seeking, and mockery is an effective way to modify their behaviour.
Instead of making Mike Ward into a free speech hero, the way a $42,000 series of fines does, we should be asking the hard questions about what exactly happened here. Why did a kid get bullied to the point of suicidal thoughts because of comedy material that should, by rights, be reserved for adult audiences only? Why didn’t Jérémy Gabriel’s community leaders lead, and why didn’t his teachers teach, to get the bullying to stop?
Well, we know that teachers don’t intervene because they don’t want to get sued. So the entire system is suffering because of too much litigation. Our system of laws is designed to promote good behaviour, but it’s getting in the way of that now. Companies and individuals won’t offer simple apologies to people, or try to make things right, because it creates a higher likelihood they’ll be successfully sued.
We need a system that encourages self-directed accountability. We need a system focused on restorative justice. Financial penalties won’t curb Mike Ward’s behaviour here, because one TV special based on his increased notoriety will turn him a profit in this situation.
Ward just doesn’t seem moved by the pain of a young man who had the genetic deck stacked against him, and this is being lost in an understandable defence of Free Speech protections. The systemic overreach is clear in this case, since it’s accomplished the precise opposite of what it’s intended to do.
Put Mike Ward in a room with the kid and make him sit and say nothing while Jérémy Gabriel walks him through the pain his “humour” caused. Make it clear that when you know the subject of your jokes is really hurt by your jokes — not offended, but sincerely caused pain — and you keep telling the same damned jokes… that crosses the line between comedy and bullying.
Mike Ward is no longer a comedian here. Mike Ward has become, in this one instance, a bully. He’s been told to stop mocking a disabled kid and he won’t stop. And we should be able to call that out.
That’s the best way to enact real change here. As is, the Quebec tribunal and the media at large are complicit in continuing to repeat Ward’s cruelty in the guise of humour.
There’s a hidden part of the games writing process – all writing, in fact –that creates headaches for both games journalists and fans alike. I’m speaking of the editing process, wherein a third party, who is essentially unaccountable for their words, has a great deal of power over the content of the final article. An editor can make changes, deletions, and additions to the original article which can change its meaning, and these changes are then published as the author’s words, sometimes without the author seeing the changes.
The process of working with a skilled, attentive editor is a joy. It makes a writer’s work better, and every professional writer wants to keep getting better. However, most editors are rushed, and take shortcuts that eliminate communication with the writer. Many editors in games end up being an uncredited rewriter, leaving a writer on the hook for views they don’t actually hold.
A simple example from a recent encounter with an editor was a comment I made about superheroes too often turning into Hitler-wannabes, a reference to the Avengers scene with Loki and Captain America where some extra makes a direct reference to World War II. An editor decided he didn’t want to “Godwin” the article, so he changed the line from “Hitler-wannabes” to “strongmen”. The resulting comment made no sense. Why the hell would I complain about superheroes being strongmen? Superheroes are inherently strongmen. They’re superheroes!
Had that article gone to print, I would have been stuck with an extremely stupid comment on my record.
One very serious change of this sort did end up in a national newspaper where an editor inserted a gamergate reference I had not made. When my twitter blew up with people screaming at me, I had no idea what was going on. It wasn’t until I checked the printed version of the article that I saw the change. I was, understandably, furious, but it was fairly impotent fury. All I could do was ask nicely for the comment to be removed. I had no power. Fortunately, the comment was removed… from the online edition. The print copy couldn’t be changed, so it’s still out there.
After the line was removed, accusations started that I was passing off accountability on others. People thought I was blaming an editor because I caught hell. There was nothing I could do. I knew what the truth was, but I couldn’t prove it. I had no record of the changes because everything had happened so fast. I’m paranoid, but not that paranoid.
One may wonder what an editor was thinking, throwing a unwitting games journalist into the middle of an ugly fight like gamergate. And I wish I could say it happened only once. Depending on the source you check, I’m either “clearly pro-gamergate” or “secretly anti-gamergate”, when in fact I was just a reporter looking to talk to credible sources on both sides. At some point, the anti-gamergate side determined I was the enemy and refused to speak to me, so I gathered the facts I could because it was clearly a story people cared about. Some folks on the pro-gamergate side tried to do the same thing, but a core group within those ranks made a point of keeping dialogue open, even though they didn’t like what I was saying a lot of the time.
I think it’s wrong to try to shame and blackmail journalists into backing away from something that requires unbiased documentation. A journalist’s job is to talk to people. Sometimes that means talking to people with whom you disagree, or even people you find disgusting. The only reason to shut that down is if you believe a source is deliberately feeding you false information in an attempt to pollute the public record.
The thing is, editors and activists do these misguided things thinking they’re helping. Unlike the reporters, they have no direct contact with the information that’s been collected, and in this vacuum, it’s very easy to alter things in a way that makes the story inaccurate. The editor is then the one that makes the decision to issue a correction. The reporter can make their case, but ultimately has no say. A good editor makes a reporter better. Not-so-good editors crush an eager reporter’s spirit. This isn’t just true in gaming. The turnover rate in media is high for a reason.
I’ve been on the other end of this as a subject of articles, especially during my TV days. When I first took over as co-host of Ed and Red’s Night Party!, a supportive reporter offered to help promote the first female co-host in the history of the show. In the editing process, a single word was changed in the first paragraph of the article that took a totally benign introduction and turned it into an implication that I’d gotten the job via the casting couch. I was furious and the journalist was mortified. He sent me the original story he’d written, which was actually radically different from what went to press. The offending line wasn’t the only change. The editor had gutted the article to shorten the word count.
It’s things like this that make journalists so cynical, and so seemingly uncaring when a mistake is made. There’s nothing we can do about this part of the process. If we complain too much, we lose work because we’re “trouble”. Similarly, when you’re ahead of the curve in media, and you become so used to being picked apart that you become deaf to some criticisms that may actually be useful, simply due to the sheer amount of criticism you receive on a given day. You can’t take all of it to heart. An editor or producer is supposed to be someone you can trust to steer you in the right direction. Sadly, that’s not the reality of many people in the media.
These issues are some of the reasons I’ve stepped away from games journalism and became an analyst instead. I feel like I can do better work when my words aren’t filtered by a revolving door of editors I’ve never met in person. I still do writing, but now I can walk away if my words aren’t my words, and I have a place where I can publish the original text of what I wrote.
On a human level, I also have empathy for other gamers who feel like they’re being unfairly depicted as monsters by their own enthusiast press. I’ve found it’s too difficult to offer an alternative opinion under traditional media structures. I can’t control how the establishment does business. All I can do is inform people about what actually happens in the games press to the best of my ability.
I’m one of the few people in this business who has been on both sides of the media circus, so I know how infuriating and hurtful it is when the press gets it wrong, or worse, demonizes someone for clicks. The thing that isn’t talked about enough is the fact that it often happens through broken telephone, not an intent to deceive. It’s hard to believe how badly something can get warped, just through the intervention of an editor who wasn’t on the scene, or a producer who recuts a segment without sufficient knowledge of the facts.
Unless an editor is willing to explain a change to a writer, don’t make the change. That sounds simple, but it’s harder than you think when everyone’s terrified of being fired because there are so many games professionals out of work. It’s a system that’s made up of dogs eating dogs in a shark tank.
Forgive the circular sentence, but the games industry hurting is hurting the games industry. It’s also hurting the games community, individual developers, and fans, and so we need to do better. Talking to each other and being supportive professional partners isn’t the terrifying thing it’s made out to be. Conflicts will happen; that’s okay as long as they’re properly resolved. People make mistakes; that’s not an unforgiveable sin.
The things we can fix are the parts of games journalism that are structurally unaccountable, and structural issues can be addressed without assigning blame or fault. The first step towards fixing this is to better inform the public regarding how games are made, and how articles get published.
Fifty-two percent of seventy-two percent of UK voters voted to leave the European Union, and so, due to a lack of leadership, a poorly structured referendum, and a poorly informed electorate, Britain’s near-term political and economic future was decided by, according to the voting breakdowns, working class outrage and xenophobic old people.
This result does not, as some news reports claim, indicate that a majority of UK residents want to leave the Euro zone. In fact, it shows that only a minority felt strongly enough to vote leave, with nearly twenty-eight percent of folks being unsure, having no opinion, or just not caring enough one way or another. The fact that a minority got to decide something this massive is an indicator that the people who set up the rules of the referendum didn’t know what they were doing. This could all have been avoided by setting up referendum requirements for a “Leave” result that required a majority of the population to vote Leave, not just a majority of voters.
Technical issues like this have been an aspect of the Canadian political landscape for most of my life. In 1980, and 1995, Quebec had referendums on separating from the rest of Canada, couched in the language of economics and taxes, but really a question of xenophobia and the French Canadian identity conspiring to make Quebecers flirt with doing something really dumb.
The separatists were dealt a major blow in the first referendum when Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the father of our current Prime Minister and himself Quebecois, pointed out that many of these diehard French Canadians had English and Irish last names. Trudeau the Elder was one of Canada’s great multiculturalists, and he understood that while identity is important, it’s arbitrary. People choose for themselves what elements of their identity they’re going to highlight, or worse, wield as a cudgel against others. After the failure of the separatist side in the referendum, Quebec refused to sign the Constitution Act of 1982, otherwise known as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. None of this has anything to do with economics, taxation, or other economic concerns. It has to do with which peoples are fair game to treat as the Other. Ironically, Quebec has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of this Charter: due to the continuing political instability and arduous language laws suppressing the Quebec economy, Quebec has been the beneficiary of equalization payments designed to prevent undue suffering of Canadian citizens due to disadvantageous local economic conditions.
In 1995, Canada was divided by another referendum. The separatists had formed the Bloc Quebecois in 1991, a political party primarily concerned with “sovereignty” aka separation, for Quebec. The Bloc was formed by defectors from both the ruling Progressive Conservative and opposition Liberal parties, after the failure of the Meech Lake Accords in 1987. The Meech Lake Accords were an attempt by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to drag Quebec, kicking and screaming, into the civil rights consensus shared by the rest of the country– by offering Quebec decidedly special treatment. Due to concentration of the vote and a split of the conservative vote between the Progressive Conservatives and the hard right Reform Party, the Bloc Quebecois got enough seats in the 1993 vote to become the Official Opposition to the Liberal Government under Jean Chrétien. The companion party to the Bloc, the Parti Québécois, also became the head of the government of Quebec, campaigning on the promise of a separation vote. David Cameron should have taken note of what happened next before opening his damned mouth about a second British exit from a European trading block. The first “Brexit” vote happened in 1975, when the core of the Euro zone was referred to as the “European Economic Community”.
The 1995 referendum was a uniquely ugly part of Canadian history. Politicians started using Canada’s two official languages – English and Quebecois French – to propagandize. The provincial Quebec government did everything it could to stack the deck in favor of a separation vote, instead of a neutral process that truly assessed the will of the people of the province. Even the referendum question was subject to petty fighting and dirty tricks – the official question made it sound as though the Canadian government had agreed to a guaranteed economic partnership with a separate Quebec, when it had not. To counter the dirty tricks of the separatists, the Chrétien government devised the Sponsorship program, intended to show Quebecers the extent of the investments the federal government was making in the province. The Sponsorship program was mired in fraud and corruption, resulted in jail time for some of the participants, and nearly destroyed the federal Liberal Party.
In the wake of a very close vote in favour of Quebec remaining in Canada, the federal government passed a law dictating a formal process for negotiations between the feds and any province which wished to separate from Canada. Called “The Clarity Act”, it gave the House of Commons – Canada’s version of congress – the right to determine whether a referendum question was clear enough for a vote. It also dictated that First Nations bands would be part of the negotiations; this was a major sticking point in Quebec, because Indigenous tribes control the bulk of the Northern half of the province. As First Nations already have a form of limited self rule, they don’t much like any government telling them what to do, including the government of Quebec.
Since the 1995 referendum, Quebec struggled economically. For over ten years it wasn’t unusual to see boarded up buildings in the downtown areas of Montreal. Due to the instability, businesses had moved their Canadian head offices from Montreal where the rent was cheaper, to various parts of Ontario. Businesses continue to fight with the Quebecois government over signage requirements: Quebec is one of the only places in the world that requires copyrighted names like “Walmart” to come up with a French equivalent – “Le Magasin Walmart”, for instance, which means “The Walmart Store”. Printing unique signs for one small territory is so cost prohibitive that some companies would rather fight the government in court and pay fines than pay for the signs.
The thing that makes this all uniquely relevant to the Brexit vote was that at the core of the separation furor wasn’t really economics. It was culture. The Quebec establishment wanted unchallenged rights to control language, religion, and immigration statutes. They were willing to tank their local economy to keep out people they considered to be “not like them”. One of the turning points in the last federal election – which led to the election of Justin Trudeau – was a repudiation of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reference to “Old Stock Canadians” in a debate. “Old Stock” is a term that traces back to French Canadian terms, “pure laine” or “pure wool” and “de souche” or “root”, and it describes “Pure blood” French Canadians, or English, Irish, and Scottish interbreeding as long as there was a shared Roman Catholic heritage.
The Canada of today is a place that at least attempts to make immigrants and refugees feel welcome. It still doesn’t always succeed, and unfortunate racism, especially against people of Muslim heritage, still does happen. That’s to be expected after two decades of post-separatist tribalism. Canada had divided into regional federal political power bases, with the Conservatives controlling the Prairies, the NDP taking the coasts, and the Liberals retreating mostly to Ontario, while the separatists controlled Quebec until the “Orange Crush” of Jack Layton’s NDP swept out the Bloc. After the country had remained relatively strong during the global economic crisis – thanks to smart-but-unpopular economic policy by Chrétien’s Liberals – Stephen Harper’s Conservatives overemphasized oil to appeal to his regional Tar Sands base in Alberta and Saskatchewan — so when the cost of oil sank, so did the country’s economic prospects. Cartoonish local politicians like Rob Ford became the fashion for a while. Canadian politics became obsessed with the appearance of “strength” instead of effectiveness, so our infrastructure crumbled, our social ties weakened, and our innovation dried up.
Welcome to your likely future the next decade, United Kingdom. Expect old tensions in Scotland and Ireland to rear up again, because they don’t agree with the vote. Expect greater divisions between city dwellers in London who voted Remain and more rural types who wanted out. You’ll fight the wrong fights, in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons. But you’ll eventually wake up and realize it’s all stupid. The choice you have to make is how many people will be hurt and how many lives will be ruined in service of your culture war.
The other takeaway is that representative democracy doesn’t mean “the people” should vote on every major decision. David Cameron has shown a dual lack of leadership in calling for that referendum in the first place, then quitting instead of seeing through what he started. Much like Canada now, Cameron’s successor will inherit a raging mess, because day-to-day government business still has to continue while a country faces the consequences of royally screwing the pooch.
Some of the most progressive decisions in Canada’s history have been made by government action, not the direct will of the people. Canada (except Quebec) was ahead of the curve on giving women the right to vote. We were early adopters of gay marriage rights. We have a (mostly) functioning immigration and refugee processing system. We don’t tear each other apart over abortion. We respect rational religious and cultural freedoms and have adapted our official uniforms to accommodate religious headwear. We provide (mostly) universal healthcare. We’re now tackling the difficult issue of assisted dying. We do our best to actively combat racism, we don’t let our large cities crumble, and while our gun problem is increasing, we have the tough conversations on legislation to curb gun violence. We make mistakes in early legislation and we fix them. We don’t scrap bills and start all over on a regular basis.
Canada is, in many ways, a progressive beacon for the world, but the vast majority of these hugely beneficial decisions were unpopular at the time they were enacted, or they were forced by our Supreme Court. There are many bright moments in Canadian history where governments dared to do what was right for the country, even though vocal minorities, and sometimes even majorities, screamed that a socially progressive choice would lead to our doom. Our leaders, for the most part, have had the courage to lead, whether it be Justin Trudeau’s much mocked gender-parity in cabinet, or Brian Mulroney’s Free Trade agreement with the US. Even Bob Rae’s hated “Rae Day” furloughs of Ontario government employees probably saved a lot of jobs, though the public sector despised him for it. Some on the left still hate Paul Martin for his cuts to health care as federal finance minister, but he got the job done and prevented economic disaster.
Even the much-maligned Stephen Harper, despite some disastrous economic decisions, had the guts to make choices. Some of them were even good ones. Harper was the Prime Minister who finally achieved consensus with Quebec on Quebec “as a nation within a united Canada”. All parties supported the motion, and for the first time in decades, Canada is free from separatist rumblings. Harper’s largest failings came from inaction: prorogation of Parliament, a refusal to appoint senators until his hand was forced, and ignoring small problems that turned into overly large ones, like Mike Duffy. For all his talk of strength, Harper’s greatest weakness was that he too-often dithered to hold on to power for power’s sake. Government’s first priority is to keep government functioning. Any deadlock is a sign of failure. Are you listening, America? Because your big choice is coming up in November.
The UK is facing short-term calamity because its leaders failed to lead. Waves of political grandstanding have collapsed like a house of cards, and fear of the outsider festered within British leadership’s accountability gap. I suggest Britain’s next crop of decision-makers look to Canada to see how to right the ship, because despite our country’s reputation as being populated by polite apologists, we’ve got a track record of electing leaders who knew when to be badasses. Perhaps it’s even time for the rise of another Thatcher in Britain: Iron Maggie sure knew how to get things done.
In a strange pivot toward the absurd, Feminist Frequency’s most recent “Tropes versus Women” video, Lingerie is Not Armor waffled on the series’ previous complaints that female game characters lack agency to declare that fictional female characters have NO agency because they’re not real women.
This is, of course, patently false, and it’s important to explore why. Character agency, along with developer agency and player agency, form a triangle of agency that’s essential to successful game design that tells a cohesive story while the player still feels meaningfully involved. The balance and flow among these three types of agency is critical to creating a quality game.
Because the player and the character are locked in a partnership through a game’s control interface, character agency and player agency can be difficult to separate. Complicating things further is that the developer is the one that grants both player and character agency within the game. A simple example of the separation between player agency and character agency can be shown in Super Mario Bros. At the beginning of the game, the player can make Mario do two things: run and jump. If the player has Mario collect a red mushroom, Mario grows larger and can survive one collision with an enemy or projectile. This is not something the player does. This is a skill Mario innately has that allows him greater impact on the world. Other power ups – note the name – give Mario the ability to fly, throw fireballs, and swim. In Super Mario 2, different characters have different abilities, and those are the agency of those specific characters, not intrinsic to the player. The skills don’t transfer from Peach to Luigi to Mario even though it’s the same player.
So there. In one paragraph, we have proof that character agency is a real thing. Players make choices about companions in video games not just for cosmetic reasons, but also the ability of these companions to act on their world. Players, for instance, complained that Alan Wake didn’t have a melee attack, but developer Remedy deliberately didn’t give him that skill because he’s a noodly armed writer.
Furthermore, when a game includes a cut scene, these are moments where the player has absolutely no agency within the game. For this reason, I believe cut scenes should be used only when necessary. When you completely cut off a player, character or developer’s agency, your game becomes unbalanced. Yanking control away from a player, making characters inconsistent, or a developer creating an unstructured sandbox that seems to ultimately result in a futile experience are all example of an unbalanced triangle of agency that leads to an unsatisfying experience.
The recent DOOM game is a great example of creating a clearly defined character through action. The DOOM Marine, solves problems with his fists and guns. This is his defining character trait. So there are times in the game’s narrative where the DOOM marine makes choices without the player’s input, smashing consoles, opening doors with corpses, and generally being an asshole. The glorious thing about how the game is designed is that these aren’t just moments of dark comedy. They’re indications to the player that an aggressive play style will have the greatest chance of success. DOOM is not an RPG, because the balance between player agency and character agency comes through the weapon select wheel.
To facilitate this, id Software chose to make the map progression fairly linear, and this is a valid choice. Id owned its agency as a developer to create the game it wanted to make, instead of trying to make a game “for everyone”. The successful results speak for themselves.
The thing is, there are no right or wrong answers for this formula, provided the three types of agency stay in balance. In an RPG, players expect a much larger degree of narrative agency – they want to see the impacts they’ve made upon the world. The fan outcry to Mass Effect 3 wasn’t just a response to a lack of player agency – that happens within the game, not through the ending. No, what fans responded to was an unsatisfying end to Commander Shepard’s story. Fans felt that the original abbreviated ending cut them off from the resolution to the stories of not just Shepard, but his or her companions as well. They’d still “beat the game”. The player’s agency was maintained. But the character’s agency wasn’t respected, and the fans demanded more.
Now, some would argue that the fans wanted to save the world themselves, but I disagree that this was the reason for the outcry. The disappointment was that there was no closure to the relationships made within the game – what happened to the Quarians? The Geth? The crew of the Normandy? Players truly cared about happy endings – or at least endings that made sense – for the extended cast of the game. That’s character agency, not player agency.
Of course, the insider rumblings at Bioware were that there were issues between publisher and developer that prevented them from really making the game they wanted to make. Developers only have so much control – they have limited time, limited budget, and limited technology. Developer agency matters greatly, because games aren’t just consumer products. They’re also art. Sometimes games are going to challenge the player and do things the player doesn’t like. Deliberately. Developers must continue to have that freedom to make the game they want. Discussions about games must be reasoned and reasonable, not the stuff of shame mobs on the internet, looking to pummel developers into changing their content based on sheer numbers and noise.
“Death of the Author” is a principle that I don’t believe has a meaningful role in video game criticism because players work with the developer to author the story within a game. A huge element of game criticism is whether a developer succeeds in what it intends to do with a game
Often, critics talk about developer intents when they’re actually making massive assumptions – for instance, the assertion that the outfits of sexy female characters are designed to make them appeal sexually available. However, these critics don’t reach out to the developers themselves to ask them what their intents were, even though many developers are quite happy to answer those sorts of questions.
For instance, when the Tomb Raider reboot came out, there was a popular complaint that Crystal Dynamics had made Lara’s voice work sound deliberately pornographic. I decided to ask a developer at Crystal Dynamics about this theory, and the poor guy blushed crimson, then explained that those were just the noises the actress had made while performing the physical motion capture. That’s all it takes to eliminate speculation on intent.
But what if a developer actually wants to use sexuality and sexual entitlement against a player, the way the Metal Gear Solid games do? This is a valid artistic decision, even when it doesn’t quite succeed in the experiment. The Metal Gear Solid games juxtapose sex and trauma in a way that is deliberately disturbing – a mercenary may be very resistant to physical damage until he’s distracted by a cunningly placed porn magazine. Men cartwheel naked through voids while the player is forced to watch. It’s a decidedly alien approach to sexuality for a Western player.
Meanwhile, the Bayonetta games use the Male Gaze to make a point: the heroine of the game is seen as a villain to the Lumen Sages. At the core of Bayonetta is a cautionary tale against oppressive sexual taboos. The war between the Umbra Witches and the Lumen Sages started because of a child born in violation of the blood purity rules, and the ensuing slaughter nearly wipes out both groups. Bayonetta, therefore, examines lust in a way that is often uncomfortable, even objectifying, to a modern player. But this also allows the player to understand the strictures under which the Umbra Witches have lived. Bayonetta’s empowerment comes from her gaming the system, and the sexualized camera angles help establish that in game reality for the player. Is it comfortable or respectful? No. But it’s really powerful. The developers deliberately empowered Bayonetta in a way that appears sexual to the player. The player can beat the game, but they can’t overcome the pre-programmed moments when the heroine they identify with is treated like a piece of meat. The player must choose to see past that and embrace Bayonetta as a whole person or reject her as a whore. Welcome to being a woman who tries to publicly accomplish anything hard.
But where is the line between developer agency and player agency? This is where I come back to the triangle of agency. The connection between the player and the developer is both through the game the developer creates, and the character the player controls within game. Different types of games grant the player varying degrees of agency within a game world.
Unfortunately, the video game industry is both cliquish and obsessed with trends. We don’t get two first person shooters in a cycle. We get six. We don’t get a couple open world or team based combat games. We get a glut of them. This is limiting the number of meaningful consumer choices in gaming. The success of Grand Theft Auto, The Sims, and World of Warcraft can be attributed, in part, to how different those game franchises were when they launched. Player agency isn’t just about what a player can do within a game. It’s about those market choices. Fresh experiences, and an industry that shows respect for consumer dollars. Player agency isn’t serviced by making every game an open world game, or a shooter, or a graphics-heavy epic. The industry can better respect player agency by giving players greater freedom of choice regarding the types of games available.
And, yes, some players like games featuring sexy women, based on the assumption that these women are choosing to dress that way, not forced to. Being forced to do something isn’t sexy for a mentally healthy person. Some players, on the other hand, don’t want that, and it is possible to provide products for both camps. But this solution comes from encouraging the products that you like, not attacking the stuff that you don’t. Personally, I prefer the Saints Row games to the Grand Theft Auto games, but I don’t need the Grand Theft Auto games to change as long as I have an alternative. No game is going to appeal to everyone, so these waves of outrage seem to me like a waste of time.
Attacking every game with a scantily-clad Amazon character isn’t going to create better games. Nor does it help to dump on the creative process by denying the in-game agency of fictional women. Talking to each other and setting examples of respect for others is the only healthy path forward. In our discussion of representation and inclusion in games, it’s important to remember that developer agency, character agency, and player agency are all real, they all matter, and they all have to work together.
I gave this a few days before posting because MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
Months before the final season of Person of Interest began airing, the show’s producers and star Michael Emerson cautioned that some of the beloved series leads would not make it out alive. And sure enough, Samantha “Root” Groves, played with wild-eyed glee by Amy Acker, caught a bullet this week and ended up in the morgue.
Oh and series regular mob boss Elias got shot in the head too, but twitter didn’t freak out about that. Because Elias is a white, straight male, so it doesn’t matter to the politically correct masses if he gets murdered in cold blood.
The response to Root’s death wasn’t sadness. It was outrage. Outrage that Person of Interest would DARE to kill a lesbian character in order to advance the plot of the two male leads… even though that plot itself comes to an end in three episodes.
The flaws in this thinking go deeper than timing. Killing Root was going to cause a stir, certainly, due to the character’s popularity. But the way they did it sends the character off in a way that is the happiest possible ending based on her worldview, and the keyboard warriors missed that entirely.
Before Root was branded “queer”, she was a hacker and contract killer, shown to be mentally unstable and possessed by the religious-like belief that the Machine that is central to the show’s premise is a form of higher being – a God, she eventually calls it – and that it needs to be set free. Root’s first encounter with eventual love interest Sameen Shaw involves Root tasering Shaw, zip tying her to a chair, and threatening to torture her. Shaw herself is another assassin with a self-diagnosed Axis II personality disorder. Root affectionately refers to her as a “sociopath”.
At some point along the way, the fan base decided to ignore the fact that both these women are mentally ill rabbit boilers – Audience proxy Detective Lionel Fusco refers to Root as “Coco Puffs”, because she’s that cuckoo. For some odd reason, the fans decided that the “happy” ending would be for Root and Shaw to ride off into the nutbag sunset together and live unstably happy-ever-after, but this would have been lame: love doesn’t cure serious mental illness, nor does it make a sociopath learn empathy for other people.
So why this “Shroot” fan cannon became a thing, I have no idea, other than the reality that fans of a series tend to ignore the less-than-virtuous elements of charismatic characters. Root being a woman who has sex with women doesn’t change the number of people she killed, the number of laws she broke, and the number of government entities she pissed off.
Root’s driving motivation for all the carnage is the protection and empowerment of the Machine that uses the camera and microphone system of New York City to spy on its citizens and predict crimes. Programmed by series lead Harold Finch (played by Michael Emerson) to have empathy for human beings and protect them whenever possible, the Machine is Root’s greatest love, and it’s this Machine Root gets to be with at the end. This makes sense, because the Machine is probably more capable of returning Root’s love than Shaw is on a long term basis.
For multiple seasons now, Root has expressed her belief that the Machine’s survival is more important than her own, and her desire to be connected to it – she gets herself a cochlear implant so the machine can “take” to her via soundbites of recorded words. When the machine stops talking to her, Root becomes depressed. Finch must literally cage the machine to stop Root from making “improvements” to it that could render it beyond Finch’s ability to control. All the while, the main villain of the later half of the series – another Artificial Super Intelligence named Samaritan – reminds the viewer of what can happen when an adaptive AI is given free reign to determine what it must do in the name of self-preservation. Samaritan is self-serving. The Machine is altruistic. And the underlying message is that computers, as well as people, are only as virtuous as the code they’re fed in their formative years. Finch, who was menaced by Root in her earlier appearances, doesn’t trust Root to have the wisdom to program the Machine for the greater good, and he’s probably right.
However, the Machine chooses Root as her “analog interface” at the beginning of season 3, after Root tells a psychiatrist that she believes the Machine is a god in feminine form – the Machine tends to use female voice snippets more than male ones, but Root’s ego likely has a lot to do with her gendering the Machine female too. When the Machine selects Root as “her” analog interface, “she” does so knowing that there is a high probability this will result in Root’s death.
Root accepts the risks. She believes that being favored by the Machine will grant her a form of immortality: as long as the Machine’s analog interfaces are in the Machine’s code, they will live on within her. After Root’s death, the Machine selects a single voice with which to communicate based on a massive trove of vocal recordings. That voice is Root’s.
So Root does get a happily ever after with the woman of her dreams. That woman just isn’t Shaw. If some fans were less obsessed with identity politics and having their personal identity validated by a TV show about people shooting each other over computers, then perhaps they’d have seen the bigger, more poignant picture of Root’s conclusion…
Root didn’t die to advance the plot of male main characters. Root died to complete her own story.