The problem with the godless worship of fantasy traditions in Game of Thrones

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(Note: this article references sexual assault.)

(Another note: the reference to The Lord of The Rings in this article are about the BOOK, not the films.  The films portray characters radically differently.)

I just read an article about why Game of Thrones is now nearly unwatchable.  I never found the plots or writing terribly compelling.  The show hauled along based on fantastic acting and really great sets and wardrobe.  It’s nihilistic eye-candy masquerading as “smart” television.  Misery is too often substituted for good storytelling.

The thing is, fantasy stories tend to get hauled down into that muck, because they all loop back to a desire to keep replicating J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic dark medievalist fantasy setting in The Lord of the Rings.  The only “innovations” in this template are how many characters get killed, and now that women are involved, how many of them get raped.

The Lord of the Rings is far from a perfect book.  It’s slow, overly reliant on exposition, and a host to flat, wooden characters and a lot of ponderous Christian metaphor… that is to say that Christian metaphor is not inherently ponderous, but Aragorn prattling on about Kingsfoil is unnecessarily long.

The problem is that The Lord of the Rings is revered among fantasy writers, so few dare to disrupt its various core formulas to tell a better story.  Video games are much better at reassembling the component parts of Tolkien, but that’s thanks to Ed Greenwood’s detour through the Forgotten Realms.  Greenwood infused humour, colour, and a pantheon of gods into Tolkien’s staunchly monotheistic fantasy, and it was made more human in the process.

The Forgotten Realms also supported a gamified system that forced narrative cohesion.  In other words, because the entire idea is for a group of players to fight monsters together, it sidestepped the other major narrative pitfall that’s rooted in The Lord of the Rings — The “Shattering of the Fellowship” device.

The Fellowship of the Ring ends up splitting into two main groups: the group that stands with Aragorn to fight the war, and the smaller group that goes with Frodo to destroy the ring.  Tolkien’s status as the child of a Catholic convert is critical to understanding some of the content of The Lord of the Rings, because of the way Catholicism treats femininity as a passive, hidden power which is often treated as a vessel sacrificed to a male deity.

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There are no female members of the Fellowship, and the bearer of the feminine ring symbol is Frodo.  The Lord of the Rings is a story of a war won through the resurrection of a masculine symbol — the sword Narsil/Anduril — and the destruction of the feminine symbol, the One Ring.  The One Ring’s powers mimic the Western monotheistic view of the sacred feminine: a mysterious negative space which gains the ring bearer hidden knowledge at the expense of his rational faculties.  Exposure to the One Ring makes a person more emotional and dependent, which were both qualities associated with femininity in Tolkien’s time.  The One Ring is even associated with a hidden member of the Fellowship — Gollum — Gollum is the one who actually destroys the One Ring, sacrificing himself in the process, because Frodo can’t do it himself.  Frodo is a biblical passive hero in the tradition of Isaac and Moses.  These passive males transfer divinity through them to the people, but they don’t take active steps themselves.  Isaac is bound.  Moses is given the tablets with the Ten Commandments.  But Isaac is such a passive figure that his father’s slave needed to find him a wife, and Moses was such a poor speaker that his brother Aaron did his talking for him.  This is symbolized in The Lord of the Rings by Sam and Gollum doing the heavy lifting for Frodo, who, like Moses and Isaac, were weakened by the burden of inherent divinity, just as mothers are said to be.

The actual women of The Lord of The Rings are similarly passive figures gifted with innate power or wisdom… with the exception of one woman, Eowyn, who assumes the role of a man to fight in the war.  While many of us see Eowyn as pretty badass, Tolkien himself described Eowyn’s transformation as a tragedy.  In fact, he saw it as an inherent tragedy of war that women had to assume male roles.

So how does this impact Game of Thrones, but NOT the Forgotten Realms branch of fantasy that inspired video game RPGs?  While Ed Greenwood took the step of making the sacred feminine of Toril an active voice, George R. R. Martin stuck with the theme of war and the destruction of the feminine.  Accordingly, there’s a lot less rape in Faerun than there is in Westeros.

In both The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, Fire is associated with the masculine — men “run hot”, women are a cooler force.  The other name for Aragorn’s sword “Anduril” is “The Flame of the West”.  This is likely because the Seraphim and the Rider on the White Horse who leads the armies of God in the Bible are flame bearers.

There is no definitive ice queen in The Lord of the Rings, in part because the book is inherently sexless.  But in the Game of Thrones, we of course have the icy Cersei Lannister, who is also sexually dysfunctional and cunning — emotionally more “like a man” than the “purer” female characters.   She is, of course, eventually subject to her own “slut walk of shame” as a form of politicized “atonement theatre” for her sexual misdeeds.

That sort of thing isn’t normalized in Faerun, because Greenwood and Gary Gygax hard wired gender equality into the game system and game world.  Essentially, in Dungeon and Dragons, women are equal participants, not some embodiment of the sacred or profane feminine.  In The Lord of the Rings, there is no profane feminine, and in Game of Thrones, nothing is sacred and no woman is inviolate; women are rendered impure even by their own periods.  Both of these omissions are weaknesses that The Forgotten Realms do not share.

tyrionBecause relegating women to passive or perverse forces in fantasy creates weak points, Game of Thrones has fractured now that its characters are scattered.  Martin and the show’s writers fractured a Fellowship that never existed.  Without the Christian symbolism allowing the narrative to thin out without shattering, Game of Thrones has scattered into a collection of parts with little significance.  The Frodo of the show, Tyrion Lannister, isn’t feminized.  He’s a “half man”, but still a man — bearded, sexual, and capable of violence.  The feminine in Game of Thrones is symbolized by menstruation, manipulations, and rapes, not rings, leaves, light and shadow.

These are legitimate artistic choices on HBO’s part, but it’s left Game of Thrones without symbolism tying the narrative together the way Frodo’s ring and Aragorn’s sword stopped Tolkien’s epic from flying apart.  The lack of a yin and yang in Game of Thrones implies that George Martin borrowed the R. R. from J. R. R. Tolkien without really understanding what pulled the masterpiece out of Tolkien’s flaws.  Game of Thrones lacks the spark of the divine that allowed The Lord of the Rings to become greater than the sum of its parts.

Don’t freak out, atheists, I’m referring to divinity as a narrative device here, not a literal god.  Divinity in fiction is the theme or narrative glue that makes the plot points resonate, and Game of Thrones says little beyond “people, when given power, are terrible to each other”.  It’s fictionalized historical treatise, not an allegory of an idea.

Where The Forgotten Realms took Tolkien and added girls and jokes, A Song of Ice and Fire took Tolkien and removed the mythic and sacred.  Therefore, there’s nothing left when innocence and people die, because Game of Thrones fails its saving throw against fatalism.

(EDIT: I removed the marijuana joke because it offended some people and I determined it was an unnecessary distraction that had nothing to do with the main point.  Typos also corrected.)

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The sorry state of gender in gaming in one photo from Destructoid

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Imagine if four female cosplayers were photographed in costumes that were essentially underwear at PAX East.  Jessica Nigri was wearing more when she was the subject of a scandal.

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Not only is Jessica more covered in both these images than the men in question, but she’s obviously put more time, more care, and more conscious thought into her costumes.  They fit better, and she’s better groomed.  But she’s considered lewd, while the guys are considered “fun” or “silly”.

This double standard — that men are allowed to be “harmlessly” nearly naked — and women aren’t?  THAT IS SEXISM IN THE VIDEO GAME INDUSTRY.

Note that the dude on the right is dangerously close to a testicular wardrobe malfunction.

I have no issue with the top photo on its own.  But I am bothered by the fact that female gamers can’t have this sort of fun without risking the wrath of the internet descending on them.

We need the same standards for men and women in all things in gaming.  Period.  PAX East just failed the He-Man and She-Ra test.

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Weekly YouTube Recap!

This week’s YouTube videos, all in one place!

Monday: dealing with online bullies.  We DO KNOW what works, but it’s not what’s popular.

Tuesday: What the Feminine Mystique teaches us about campus rape myth.  I’m pretty sure there’s a HUGE “operation ignore” going on regarding this video because Outrage Warriors can’t argue it.  What does it say when the biggest bullies on the internet are afraid of me?

Wednesday and Thursday: An absolutely wonderful interview with Nelson Blake II, the artist on the upcoming comic book Romulus:

And Feedback Friday, the recap of some comments from the week, and a head’s up on what’s coming up.

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The Toxic Practice of “Gatedropping”

There’s a continuing practice in some articles about “harassment in gaming” that is… I’m gonna go there… Toxic.  I’m referring to the practice of “Gatedropping” — referencing Gamergate in an otherwise unrelated article because it’s a “current event” in “current year”.

Gamergate, is, of course, a hashtag everyone likes to claim is about something else.  For some it’s about ethics in games journalism.  For others it’s about a culture war. For still others it’s about combating harassment.  And yes, for some, it’s about perfect conditions to troll for massive lulz.

There was also a cadre of political opportunists that raised the temperature on Gamergate much higher than it had to be.  Games journalists were an easy target for some e-celebs’ unwitting personal armies.  Other untrained “anti-harassment advocates” seem most skilled at advocating for media attention for themselves instead of their issue.  In the end, the gaming industry was temporarily left a less hospitable place for women, not because some gamers got angry, but because anyone who attempted to take a proactive stance got targeted by some special interest group.

Gaming is still nursing the wounds from the Jack Thompson era in the 1990s.  When I tried to ask Ed Boon about violence in video games, a Warner Bros publicist shut me down.  When I pitch alternate viewpoints to  the established narrative in services like the New York Times, I’m met with deafening silence.  When I try to point to scientific consensus and free speech rights, activists have some outlier study or biased poll ready to be brandished like Oppo Research.

Freelancing as a game journalist is less lucrative these days than unpaid internships.  Freelancing is frequently a pay to work paradigm where the measly bits of money you get paid never really cover your costs.  The reality is that, except in a minority of circumstances, games journalism isn’t seen as valuable enough to really pay for.  It’s satisfactory for monetized websites to get by on a churn of content via regurgitated press releases.

Gamergate had some positive impacts in that regard — the Society for Professional Journalists has taken an interest in games journalism, founding the Kunkel Award.  The SPJ has probably been the fairest handler of the Gamergate controversy, because it believes in reporting the story before offering an opinion on that story.

As an analyst, however, it’s my job to offer my informed opinion, and my opinion at present is that continuing to mention Gamergate in any article about a woman in video games is dehumanizing that woman by turning her into a statistic instead of telling her story.  But worse, it’s turning gamers into gremlins, instead of remembering that gamers are not trolls.  Gamers are people.

The latest round of Gatedropping has been the Alison Rapp/Nintendo scandal, and the brouhaha over an anti-bullying initiative called Social Autopsy.  I haven’t written about Social Autopsy here because I have not been able to get a response from its organizers.  Apparently they’ve been so deluged on social media that they’re unable to get back to people.  Though they did an interview with, of all things, a website with a direct connection to a troll group, I’ll take Social Autopsy at its word that it’s missing requests, including my own request for further details on their methodology, as well as their decision to agree to an interview by a known bully.  I’m not naming that bully here because this particular bully thrives on attention, and I won’t give them that.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have to comment on Social Autopsy: the service isn’t live yet, I have no informed access, and it has nothing to do with gaming, gamers, or Gamergate.  The link has been made between Social Autopsy and Gamergate because special interests wished that to be so, including a competing initiative that claims to fight online harassment..  Competing services are not neutral third parties, for obvious reasons.

I get why a lot of people are worried that Social Autopsy is too close to a dox site or a blackmail site for comfort.  I don’t have an fully formed opinion on this, however, because to quote Sherlock Holmes, “Data!  I can’t make bricks without clay.”

What I do know based on their blog posts is that Social Autopsy’s creators are not informed or even aware of the details of video game community scandals.  Nor should they be.  Gaming doesn’t own the cyberbullying issue, despite all the politicized attempts to make “gamer” synonymous with “harasser”.  It seems like Social Autopsy is most concerned with people who know each other in real life who decide to go Jekyll and Hyde on the internet.  They’ve said they’re not connecting real life names and information shared on social media with online pseudonyms, and until I’m given reason to believe otherwise, I’ll take them at their word.

Naming and shaming hasn’t been an especially effective tactic regarding bullying in the video game community, since it tends to become a tool of bullies who falsify “evidence” and twist words.  According to these name and shame tactics, I’m a bully.  But according to these name and shame tactics, it’s also okay to publish unflattering photos and nasty comments about my mother and husband and claim these photos were used under”fair use” internet principles, ignoring a private person’s rights of publicity.

In other applications, however, outing bullies has had some success has a harm reduction strategy, but tougher laws based on this principle have run afoul of free speech protections.  Free speech, however, applies to services like Social Autopsy having the right to make their attempt, provided they stay within the bounds of what is legal.  So-called “pro-Gamergate” advocates have this same right.

I’ve had practically every nasty thing under the sun said about me on the internet, and I’m still here, albeit as something of a pariah in the games industry.  Bullying works, because bullying makes people who are “minding their own business” afraid to be around a “controversial” figure.  Most of what was said and done to and about me has been 100% legal, because the media is a bloodsport.  Some of it wasn’t legal, and got taken down.  Some things were legal simply because the defamer had more money than I did, and it’s a sad reality that you can buy justice in a legal system driven by lawyers’ fees.

But the point is that I’m still here.  I’m still trying.  And I’m still talking.  And I won’t give up my right to express my views as long as I’m willing to accept the consequences of those views.  I’ll also defend to the death the right of any other person to express their views, even if I disagree with them.  This goes for services like Social Autopsy whom I disagree with, and this goes for people on both sides of the video game culture war with whom I have profound disagreements.

Only one side, however, has become synonymous with evil, and I have a problem with that.  It’s regressive politics at its worst.  Therefore, Gatedropping helps no one, and writers and editors should stop doing it.

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Ratchet and Clank – The review, based on the game, based on the movie, based on the game

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It’s hard to believe it’s been 14 years since we first met a Lombax named Ratchet and his tiny warbot buddy Clank. But now not only are they finally back in a full game, but they’ve got a movie coming out on April 29th too! (That release date may be different if you’re outside of North America.)

Movie schmoovie, we care about the game, right? Right! Well, I’m happy to report that it’s fantastic! For those new to the series, Ratchet and Clank is about a Lombax spaceship mechanic with dreams of joining the buffoonish Captain Quark’s Galactic Rangers. Ratchet the Lombax meets Clank, a polite-but-powerful little robot, and together they defeat enemies, win races, fight in space battles, and generally save the universe.

While the latest game and the companion film follow the same general idea of the original Ratchet and Clank, there are a lot of extras added, very different framing, and a much more epic ending. Dr. Nefarious takes his rightful place as arch villain, and not surprisingly, some supporting female characters have been added… fortunately they don’t seem shoehorned in. The result is more of a combination of the best elements of all the Ratchet and Clank games as opposed to a reboot of the original, though Secret Agent Clank is replaced by some clever puzzle levels that make Clank’s small size an asset. The game looks gorgeous, especially the cut scenes which are actually movie footage. It features great comedic voice acting, and has lots of replay value. It’s funny in an all-ages, farcical way, and the dialogue is sharp and full of references to the foolishness of social media.

But the reason to play Ratchet and Clank is the gameplay. It’s classic all-ages run and gun at its finest, with tons of weapons you can combo together, upgrade, and enhance at weapons stations. You can start a dance party with the Groovitron, then shock enemies with a Proton Drum, and finish ’em off with a weapon of your choice. If you want, you can even get the small but murderous robot Mr. Zurkon, or kamikaze Agents of Doom robots to assist you. It’s fun, it’s funny, and at the right difficulty setting for your skill, it’s pretty challenging. The best way to play is to level up as many weapons as you can as you go. It’ll help a lot in the final fight.

Once you finish that fight, you get access to the Insomniac Museum from the garage on Veldin, a stunningly crafted series of vaults that memorialize elements of the history of the franchise. The extra work that went into these unlockables is a true labour of love, and it creates a definite incentive for collecting those infamous gold bolts.

There’s also a collectible card system that gives you buffs to weapons and loot drops. It’s pretty fun to go hunting for the cards and the gold bolts, but my favourite collection quest was the hunt for telepathopus brains using a jetpack. Exploring side missions on various levels rewards super useful gadgets, and the optional rail grinding areas are just a ton of fun as well. Also fun? Challenge mode, where you do it for the loot, and the sheer joy of using awesomely powerful and totally ridiculous weapons. I’m using the word fun a lot, aren’t I? Well it’s FUN!

It’s also a game with very few flaws, other than some minor lag when too much stuff blows up at once. The Doom Blades caused the most noticeable slowdown because they cause a lot of damage once you get that weapon levelled up, as does the Sheepinator… but the Sheepinator is just worth it sometimes because it’s the Sheepinator. Load times, on the other hand, were consistently lightning fast.

The only other quibble I had is that sometimes the background audio got drowned out by the music and sound effects, which was a shame because I think I missed some good stuff. Otherwise, Ratchet and Clank is all-ages gaming at its absolute finest, and if the movie is anywhere near as good as the game, I’m very much looking forward to it.

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Why is it so easy to stigmatize gamers?

Both left wing and right wing operatives find it far too easy to take cheap shots at gamers whenever it pleases them. Opportunistic attention seekers use video games as a punching bag when they want a motherhood cause to beat on. And of course, the mainstream media treats gaming as a horrible thing until there’s a major celebrity from a game to interview. But why? Why is this accepted? Why isn’t it seen as bigotry? Here are some factors at play:

It’s competition

A few years back, the console companies started an initiative to “own the living room”, offering distribution services that are alternatives to cable. Of course, now they’re also making their own content, with stuff like Halo: Nightfall and Powers on the Playstation Network. This is creating more competition not just for eyeballs, but for market influence. With video game IPs giving comic books a run for their money in the superhero space, and game properties also competing with Sci-Fi stalwarts, a lot of media conglomerate companies – Warner Bros, Paramount, Universal, and Disney, for instance – are rattled. Some of these companies have attempted video game distribution themselves to varying degrees of success, but the top-down model of TV development is going to catch up to them because gaming’s collaborative structure allows innovation at a faster pace than TV can manage. And old media always tries to beat down a competitor before it tries to half-heartedly embrace them, so the mainstream media has been pretty nasty to video games.

It’s something enjoyed by young men

Like rock music, rap, and extreme sports, anything that young men like is somehow seen to warp the minds of young men. In the West, this bias goes all the way back to the fact that the Bible, and before it, the Torah, were designed to codify correct behaviour for men, who would then control their wives. Note that the commandment against coveting only mentions the neighbour’s wife?  The focus on curbing male behaviours, while beating women into submission on the grounds of innate “purity” has continuing repercussions that strongly affect the dialogue around video games. But it goes deeper than that.

For a lengthy period, the most desirable advertising demographic was 18-34 male, because advertisers believe that’s the demographic that is most effectively swayed by advertising. However, with the rise of digital media, the 18-34 male demographic fragmented to the point that advertising to young men became much less lucrative. The most cohesive advertising demographic is now 25-54 male/female, because those are the people who still primarily consume entertainment through television. Women have an edge in this regard, however, in that their influence regarding household purchases, and their multiplier effect as primary caregivers of kids, make them a more desirable demographic for advertisers. And now, women make up the majority of the workforce as well.  This sudden boom in media feminism isn’t anchored in some desire to make the world a better place. It’s all about money. So if you’re wondering why gaming is desperately trying to attract more women? This is a huge part of the reason why.

New technology is always demonized

Whether it’s radios in cars, cell phones, or video games, any new tech will have some doomsayer figuring out a way it will somehow kill you. Men are more likely to be early adopters of technology, so this ties into the last point some, but taking gender out of the equation, people still fear things that are new. I’m old enough to remember when it was TV that was going to rot a kid’s brain. Now it’s video games. It’s just whatever the newest form of technology is that children like. This is connected to the fact that kids are usually more tech savvy than their parents, so adopting tech gives them an element of freedom and autonomy in a society that likes to swing into the realm of helicopter parenting every ten years. Seriously, you can set your watch to it: the 1950s, 1970s, 1990s, and this decade are all marked by upswings in interest in attachment parenting, spending quality time with kids, and other behaviours that just flat out smother a kid’s independence. Notably, these decades were also tied to economic conditions that put entire groups of people out of work. Isn’t it great that adults are still taking out their baggage on their children?

It’s now considered “common sense”

The best bumper sticker I’ve never seen read was “common sense is neither”. Latte liberals have rebranded common sense “lived experience”, but it’s all the same thing “blaming the Other for your own damned problems”. Common sense once told us that going out in the rain would cause you to “catch a cold”, even though colds are caused by viruses. Common sense tells us to judge people based on likeability instead of skill, because it’s centered on like staying with like.  Common sense is grounded in the idea that you should keep doing what you’ve always done instead of trying new things, or keeping an open mind to different ways of doing things. Advertisers love appealing to common sense, by the way, because it’s as much like real sense as Kraft Singles are like real cheese.

How does this effect gaming? Well, you’re not going to get much progress with people who subscribe to the idea that “I know what I know”, and right now you’ve got two extremist echo chambers in video games who refuse to talk to each other and live to make the “other side” look bad. There’s no political stripe to the idiocies of “common sense”, so one side is screaming “well everyone knows men are just better at tech”, even though that pearl of wisdom has been proven to be nonsense.  The other side, however, revels in proclaiming random things racist, sexist, and transphobic, while breaking their own definition of these things as systems of oppression as opposed to offensive statements by an individual… which is how these very same crusaders claim that racism against white people doesn’t exist. Outrage warriors have metastasized common sense to the point that they demand trigger warnings for any scary idea.

Now, common sense outside of gaming tells non-gamers that listening to people who want to do nothing but fight is a waste of time. The benefit to this type of common sense is that it’s also reasoned sense. So the extremists in gaming are making discussions of gaming so unpleasant that people avoid them at all costs if they have anything better to do. But this is a recent phenomenon. There’s been a factor that predates all of these things.

Gaming is for “nerds”

Gaming is not a physical activity, and gimmicks like the Kinect and e-sports are striving to make gaming more like sports, so it will appeal to the “cool kids”. The lifestyle associated with video games isn’t sexy, because it’s solitary and sedentary. Gaming hasn’t helped itself in this regard by making the traditional gamer dress code less stylish than the clothes of some homeless people. I think it’s fine that gaming has its own look, but this trend of tech nerds showing up to board meetings in hoodies as made technology seem unserious and slacker to the outside world. It’s also attracted a crop of humorless, insecure moral purists who want women to stop being visibly recognizable as women. Advertisers don’t want to associate with these whopping amounts of boring and lame. No one is going to want to buy a product to be more like the biggest names in gaming right now… except for maybe Pewdiepie.

This isn’t about being a geek. Being a geek is cool now. There’s bank in being a geek. But a geek is a nerd with healthy self esteem, and there’s a real self esteem deficit in video game discussions these days due to years of bending over and taking it for whatever special interest group wants to beat the piss out of video games this month. For every moment of real leadership, like EA telling homophobes where to go and Blizzard trolling the crap out of complaints about Overwatch characters, there are five examples of the video game industry begging outsiders to tell us all the reasons we’re horrible pieces of crap. No one wants to identify with that much masochism, and it’s blood in the water that attracts sharks.

There’s so much bullying in video games today because the video game industry invites bullying. Fortunately, this is an addressable problem. Unfortunately, video games have forgotten the art of constructive criticism, because its collective self esteem was so low from the outset.

An organization truly based on respect will not tolerate the constant negativity that infects discussions of gaming. An organization with pride in its products doesn’t bend over backward to please its haters. This is something that Grand Theft Auto and The Sims have in common: these games are polarizing. As many people love them as hate them. They cater to very different types of gamer, but they completely embrace the type of gamer they attract. They don’t agree that enjoying a certain type of fantasy makes you a horrible person.

There’s nothing special about the content in these games. They’re just as limited and flawed as anything else on the market. But I think that the key to the success of these IPs, and franchises like Call of Duty, Destiny and Fallout, is that they have clear confidence in what they do well, and they’ll change to make their fans happier, but they don’t bend to the haters. This is something the rest of the industry needs to learn. No one wants to identify with a brand that doesn’t even seem to like itself.

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Here we go again with video games and sexism…

Time magazine online published some sensational coverage of a study they claim “found that boys who played the games containing sexism and violence were more likely to identify with the character they were playing. They also reported less empathy toward the images of female victims.”

The study itself, however, came to notably different conclusions.  Their wording was “Our results supported the prediction that playing violent-sexist video games increases masculine beliefs, which occurred for male (but not female) participants who were highly identified with the game character. Masculine beliefs, in turn, negatively predicted empathic feelings for female violence victims. Overall, our study shows who is most affected by the exposure to sexist-violent video games, and why the effects occur.”

So it’s not that identifying with asshole video game characters causes a lack of empathy.  It’s that some games play to stereotypes, especially in critical times of adolescent development.  These stereotypes are what cause the harm in younger minds, not the act of playing a video game.

Which is precisely why Grand Theft Auto, one of the games used in the study, is rated M-Mature, and is not intended to be given to the 15 year olds that participated in this Italian study.

That’s right.  The study participants ranged in age from 15-20 years old, and only included 154 Italian students.  There was no control group to test whether games induced the lack of empathy found in the participants, and I think this is because the video game wasn’t what they were testing.  The video games were a red herring.  What the scientists were interested in was the identification with masculine traits.

The fact that this study took place in Italy is relevant.  Italy has a unique and stubborn sexism problem that goes well beyond offensive movies, TV shows, or video games.  Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio “bunga bunga” Berlusconi handed political careers to some of his multiple mistresses.  Furthermore, the Grand Theft Auto series is a stinging satire of American masculinity.  That sort of thing is filtered through a very different lens outside its intended audience.  Now, it’s undeniable that Grand Theft Auto is deliberately grotesque in many ways, which is why it’s unhelpful to do studies that expose youth below the recommended age to themes that they might not yet be ready for.

However, the great thing about the ESRB is that it’s a voluntary ratings guideline, so a parent of an exceptional kid can give that kid exceptional content.  My nephew was way ahead of the curve in many ways, so he started playing the M-rated Dragon Age series at thirteen.  I took no shortage of crap for that from extended family, but they complained about the gay sex in the game, not the violence or straight relationships, so I stand by my decision to encourage the kid to broaden his horizons.  If I can divert a kid away from bigotry of that sort, I’m damned well going to.  Buying armor from Wade and Herren isn’t going to hurt a kid, because guess what?  He lives in the Toronto area.  Chances are he’s already bought goods from a real world, living, breathing, gay person!

SHOCKER!

My nephew had an unusually high degree of empathy for a young man his age, and that’s why I determined he wouldn’t suffer unhealthy effects from adult video games.  This isn’t the case for the majority of boys: solid research indicates that boys are more likely to display a delay in developing cognitive empathy compared to girls, and they display a temporary decline in affective empathy between the ages of 13 and 16.  Cognitive empathy is the ability to see other people’s point of view, and it starts rising in girls at around 13.  Boys don’t see the increases until 15.  Affective empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to recognize and respond to other people’s feelings.  This is the type of empathy that drops in boys during adolescence, and scientists think this may have a biological component.

Scientists are still trying to figure out why this is so.  Some researchers claim it’s linked to the development of the prefrontal cortex, which plays host to cognitive empathy.  Others point to the limbic system, which houses affective emapthy.  But it gets even more complicated when you factor in that early childhood nurturing has been found to alter children on a physiological level.  Since we know that boys are socialized notably differently than girls, starting at a very young age, it’s impossible to completely separate nature from nurture on this issue.

Now this doesn’t mean that teenaged girls are inherently nicer than teenaged boys.  They’re just more aware they’re doing something hurtful when they’re mean.  Adolescent girls are capable of vicious, complex cruelty that leverages their increased awareness of other people’s emotions.  Why do you think teenaged girls gossip so bloody much?

Furthermore, that adolescent dip in affective empathy does go away in healthy male adults.  Interestingly, it’s this form of empathy that’s most impacted by early-life nurturing.  So it may not be that boys are “naturally” more monstrous than girls.  It could be that parents need to cuddle their baby boys and emotionally reassure them just as much as they do girls, then pay more attention to what their little princesses are doing as they get older instead of assuming they’re incapable of not being nice.

Any experiment that involves adults directly questioning a young person will result in the young person telling the adult what they think they want them to say. Therefore, boys will play to masculine stereotypes, while girls will play to feminine stereotypes.  In this experiment, the girls weren’t exposed to any stereotypical female protagonists.  I’d love to see how these girls would react after watching Legally Blonde, which is a satire of sorority femininity.  Hell, watching anything involving Lena Dunham makes me want to commit violence, but that doesn’t mean other people can’t watch and enjoy her work.

Either way, any experiment that gives fifteen year-olds access to Grand Theft Auto has to expect that will aggravate a pre-existing reduction in a male youth’s ability to recognize and respond to other people’s feelings.  I think that’s precisely why the researchers selected those games: they needed something that was a charismatic depiction of masculinity with very few redeeming characteristics that a teenager would find interesting.  It’s actually pretty hard to find that sort of thing in media.  But there was a fundamental flaw in the experiment in that regard that a game dev twitter friend of mine pointed out.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Vice City were the only games given to youth where the playable characters were visible on screen.  The Half-Life games feature a first person, silent protagonist.  And Dream Pinball 3D is a simulator with no main character at all.  So what characters could a kid relate to in any game BUT Grand Theft Auto?

A properly controlled experiment would have made sure all the games were third-person action games, if the element tested was, indeed, sexist game content.  It would have been more useful to see what happened when the students played Grand Theft Auto versus, say, Tomb Raider, or American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns.  Alice: Madness Returns would have been especially interesting to test, since the game features an abuse survivor as a protagonist.

As is, however, this study is comparing apples and oranges, unless the test is about exposure to masculine stereotypes, with no commentary on video games as a medium.

Either way, nothing is really learned about the unique impact video games have on sexist attitudes by giving young people content that isn’t age appropriate.  If anything, the study strengthens the evidence in favor of a voluntary ratings system like the ESRB, since girls under the age of 18 played these games with no apparent ill effects.  Why should they be barred from this content because many boys can’t handle it?

More importantly, child development experts stress that individuality trumps gender in determining the personality and sensitivities of a given kid.  Plenty of young men play Grand Theft Auto before they turn 18 and turn out okay.

It’s very frustrating that the entire video game catalogue is tarred in association with the Grand Theft Auto franchise.  It shows an ignorance of medium, and exposing kids below the recommended age to these games is more ignorant still.

The argument for more female protagonists in video games shouldn’t sprout from scare tactics and “think of the children” pearl clutching.  More female protagonists in video games are artistically and socially beneficial, just because increased variety is always good.  Furthermore, no amount of science will change the belief held by narrow-minded publishers that games with female protagonists won’t sell.  That’s the myth that needs to be dislodged for game developers to be able to tell more stories about women.

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On the Alison Rapp/Nintendo Scandal

This scandal has made it all the way up to the Washington Post, and shows no sign of abating. For those not in the know, a PR rep from Nintendo got fired for moonlighting, blamed Gamergate, and everyone went nuts. In the ensuing fight, information became public that Rapp may or may not have worked as a prostitute.

People getting fired for technicalities is not new in any wing of the entertainment industry. Contracts are written to protect the employer, and no matter how much negotiation you do, these gigs are usually “at will”, meaning the employer can fire you whenever they want, with or without cause.

What’s unique here is the war that ensued because of the Gamergate accusation. As far as I can tell, the nastiest stuff came from a splinter of Gamergate known as GG Revolt, who spread some dox – personal information or documentation – on a service known as kiwifarms. I’ve never heard of kiwifarms before in association to Gamergate, so I think I understand why people got upset: the dox didn’t originate with the core Gamergate participants.  However, the people who claim the dox was spread by a “pro-Gamergate” faction aren’t wrong… they’re just not aware of how complex the divisions are within the ranks of these online crusaders against so-called “social justice warriors”.

Before we get into what I think about this whole mess, I want to outline my unique perspective. I was also subject to one of these supposedly “life ruining” data dig operations at the hands of Gamergate. In fact, certain people did it twice. They found some tweets that, taken out of context, looked worse than they were. People yelled at me about it. I apologized more than a few times, and most people moved on. Yeah, it was an unpleasant few months, but I’d hardly call it life ruining.

Some gamergate-related websites published some nonsense about me being a former stripper. They published photos of my husband and mother to call them ugly. That made me furious, but again, it was not life ruining. It was just underhanded and low.  Others active in Gamergate accused me of plagiarism. When asked to provide evidence, they didn’t. Because there wasn’t any.

Some of my personal information did get out.  It was handled quietly.  Alerting the world to the fact that you’ve been doxed is a great way to spread dox.  However, I know for a fact that some bad actors tried to release other information, and pro-Gamergate groups didn’t want to have any part of that.  There is some honor there.

The unsubstantiated accusations also flew fast and furious from the opposing, so-called “Anti-Gamergate” side, the side that has stridently backed Rapp in this latest dust up. Anti-Gamergate types called me “transphobic” because of a conversation I had on twitter with a parody account held by a cat.  A user on a subreddit called Gamerghazi described, in detail, the street I lived on, the contents of my house, and the general part of the city I live in.  It was an elegant not-dox that still disclosed personal information, and Gamerghazi didn’t see it for what it was.

They accused me of numerous other forms of bigotry, including the accusation that I abused a person with autism who turned out was lying about having autism. They accused me of fraud, non-payment in business dealings… the only thing that seemed to give some of them pause was when their compatriots started slut shaming me.

But to be fair, there’s just as many Pro-Gamergate types that legitimately oppose slut shaming too. Both sides have their hypocrites. Neither side is a monolith, and neither side has behaved especially heroically… nor consistently.

One side, however, decided to ostracize me. That was the Anti-Gamergate side. They’re very much a “you’re with us or we’re against you” type group. I’m on at least one block list used by people like Alison Rapp for the crime of following the “wrong” people on twitter. Heaven forbid I follow people I disagree with because I’m trying to keep an open mind.

So it’s no secret that I’m no fan of the clique that’s now rushed to Rapp’s defense, generating numerous articles that mention her alleged prostitution that are going to come up whenever any potential employer googles her name. I’m sure they mean well but, speaking from experience, game companies don’t care about things on a moral level. They care whether more people are going to start screaming at them. So this PR campaign, as well-intentioned as it may be, will hurt Rapp in the long run. The best play was to keep this as quiet as possible.

I know this because I wasn’t able to keep my own situation quiet. I was accused of “getting my tits out for a living” early on in the Gamergate controversy, and the ensuing war has made some game companies not just unwilling to hire me, but they won’t even grant permission for me to interview their developers. I’m “too controversial”. So all you have to do in the games industry now is level an accusation of a sexualized nature at a female professional to wreck their professional prospects. It doesn’t even have to be true.

It doesn’t sit right with me that Alison Rapp may have trouble finding work due to allegations that she’s a sex worker. I’ve seen plenty of drugs passed around at or after gaming events, which is also illegal. But it’s not sex, so the industry turns a blind eye. If someone is caught using, say, cocaine, it’s seen as a “medical problem”. If they stop the drugs, they’re hireable again.  At least, they must be, because I’ve seen people do coke who are still working in games.  Illegal activity isn’t enough to make you persona non grata, provided it isn’t illegal activity that involves a vagina.

That being said, I think Nintendo is totally within their rights to hire or fire anyone they want.  The stated grounds for termination was moonlighting, not being a whore.  Yes, it’s very common for some people to play fast and loose with contracts and keep their jobs.  But when you knowingly violate the terms of a signed agreement, you do so at your own peril.

I don’t think, however, that Alison Rapp should be shamed out of the industry, nor do I think that she should be held up as any sort of hero. Neither of these outcomes help her find another job, because sadly, the worst thing you can be in gaming, walking into an interview, is too visible. Game companies want minions right now – little adorable harmless critters who are hard to tell apart. The minute you’re known for something, someone may not like that something, and game companies are so risk averse that they won’t take a chance on anyone with an unpopular viewpoint.

Throughout my career, I’ve had shows cancelled, positions eliminated, and offers withdrawn. A career in any sort of creative field is a house built on thin ice.  But in all this talk about promoting women in gaming, the message has really been “promote women in gaming except for the dirty sluts”. And that’s not promoting women in gaming, because any woman can be labelled a slut at a moment’s notice. I know, because it happened to me.

I’ve deliberately avoided seeing myself as a victim in this whole thing. I firmly believe that these online trolling tactics, these “life ruins”, only work if you let them. This isn’t easy for me to say in days when half the gaming industry doesn’t want to be seen with me for fear they’ll get bullied by the anti-Gamergate mob. Plenty of people like what I do privately, but very few industry types will actively and publicly support me, because they don’t want to be the next target of a pack of influential bullies. It’s cowardice of a sort, but it’s a form of cowardice I totally understand.

The narrative is that I’m supportive of a group that tore into my life. I’m not supportive of those actions. I’m supportive of the people who don’t do that crap, and if you lump everyone with a complaint into the “evil Gamergaters” group, then you empower the bad actors. It’s like a monster that feeds on hate. As someone who came through it with my head held high, and who is forging a business independently because I love gaming even though gaming doesn’t want me right now, I can say with certainty that Gamergate isn’t the big problem in gaming when it comes to women. The Gamergate Controversy is just a symptom of a great many problems that aren’t about women, but they do more noticeably affect women.

We shouldn’t care so much about whether or not someone is a sex worker. I can see a company not wanting to be associated with illegal activity, but this mess has gone beyond that into a condemnation of a woman engaging in sexual activities the collective sees as beneath a “decent” woman. Prostitution is a role that we’re told turns women into “background decoration”. The categorization is dehumanizing. The thing is, media attention is dehumanizing in its own way. The best thing Rapp’s supporters can do is buy her a few drinks – or more than a few – let this calm down, and quietly help her get her career back on track. A headline helps no one but the site that’s getting the click.

Now before you claim I’m hypocritical on that statement because I myself wrote an article, remember that I’m not a Rapp supporter. I can’t be: she uses the blockbot I’m on, so I’m blocked from contacting her even though I’ve interacted with her in person at the Nintendo booth at E3.

One could claim I have the right to feel happy that “now she knows how it feels to be rejected”. I don’t. I’m very worried that the video game community is so divided into factions based on what they oppose. The minute you identify as “anti” something, you’re a destructive force. Your intent is to destroy. And many powerful people in the video game community are successfully causing a lot of pain right now.

(Edit: This article was edited to correct a copy/paste error)

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