Brexit: The UK Should Have Noted Canada’s History of Referendums

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.

 

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On Video Game Player, Character, and Developer Agency

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.

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Why The Identity Politics Freak Outs Over This Week’s Person of Interest Are Totally Wrong

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.

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