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.

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

ratchet

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.

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.

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.

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)

Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear – Single Player Campaign Review

Do you want to pay $20 for decent video game fan fiction? That’s the question potential players will have to ask themselves when purchasing Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear. With some caveats, I think longtime Baldur’s Gate fans will feel satisfied with Beamdog’s latest outing… if perhaps barely.

The game is neither as lofty and “just” as its defenders claim, nor as poorly-written and buggy as its detractors will insist. Instead, it’s a lot of solid work on the back of an inherently flawed concept. Siege of Dragonspear serves as an interquel between Baldur’s Gate’s original Throne of Bhaal expansion and Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Essentially, Beamdog attempts to knit together all the best elements of the two games and tell an original story at the same time. These dual masters create a diluted result, albeit with moments of greatness.

Some improvements to inventory management and navigation were nice to see, especially regarding quickly being able to tell which weapon or armor piece is better, or which characters can use a given item. The increased number of gameplay modes was also nice – experienced players will want to play on Core Rules mode, since normal is a bit too easy if you’re used to Baldur’s Gate.

Yes, Rasaad, Neera, Dorn and Baeloth from the Enhanced Editions are back, as are the base characters from the original Baldur’s Gate, though Imoen isn’t available to use in your party. I stuck with old favorites Minsc, Dynaheir and Jaheira, because as much as I like Rasaad as a character, he still has trouble staying on his feet in fights. Some day I’d love to see a Baldur’s Gate style game designed specifically for the monk character class, because I don’t think monks do well unless a campaign is designed specifically with them in mind. The other reason I stuck to a base roster is that there are some new characters to try out, and at least one is a winner.

My favorite new character is goblin shaman M’Khiin. Not only is she an interesting character from a concept and voicework perspective, but she’s handy in battle, capable of summoning shadow creatures and large numbers of healing and protection spells. Since Siege of Dragonspear doesn’t give characters much room to level up, I found M’Kliin to be a very necessary addition.

The other new characters didn’t thrill me as much. Gnome cleric/thief Glint Gardnersonson is cute. I liked him, but I didn’t find him useful. He’s got a cute side quest though, wrangling other members of his family.

Conversely, lesbian single mom archer Schael Corwin is SO CLOSE to being a great character, but she just misses this status due to some sloppy dialogue. It’s great that Beamdog attempted to include a conflicted, struggling, responsibility-driven single mom. But Corwin also comes across as hypocritical and jealous, wanting space to think one minute, chiding me because Rasaad the monk said something nice to me the next. Being emotionally distant while trying to control what a romantic partner does is a sign of an abusive relationship, and it creeped me out. I chose Corwin as my romance option because I was curious about the lesbian single mom angle, but there were too many shades of the batshit crazy lesbian stereotype for me.

This wouldn’t be an issue if the game hadn’t been marketed on something of a “we’ll give you your social justice and you’ll take it and you’ll like it” paradigm. Despite the staff protests despite giving Jaheira more development, she’s still very much a nag… and that’s okay, because that’s Jaheira.

This brings us to the oddly controversial trans character, Mizhena, who is an extremely minor part of the game, and altogether too big a deal was made of an extremely small part of a fairly large game. The scandal was a ridiculous shitstorm over nothing. But that being said, Mizhena’s writing is uneven to the point that she, too, seems unhinged. Though voiced as a soft-spoken and serene character, she suddenly becomes a trash-talking hardcore in accordance with the god Tempus when you actually need her to do something useful.

Meanwhile, the “female villain”, Caelar Argent, is two-dimensional and cliche. She’s no Irenicus. She’s no Sarevok. She’s another female character in video games that feints at being “strong”, but lacks depth, lacks personality, and even lacks any real evil. We never really get at what makes her tick, and once her story is told, the game takes the player on a very strange epilogue that I would have preferred was a fully-formed fifth act. THAT story interested me.

The most profound “social justice” moment in the whole game for me came about because Beamdog maintained the fact that the world of Faerun is deliberately regressive regarding race. Taking the goblin M’Khiin into your party gives you a 2 point penalty to reputation, and some NPCs will complain that she’s around. But M’Khiin is a stalwart and brave character, as well as an exceptionally free thinker. By showing, not telling, the game makes a fantastic statement against prejudice that isn’t forced down the player’s throat. That’s how you do social commentary in video games.

This strange “best of times, worst of times” mix repeats itself technically and artistically throughout the game. The game music is sometimes just far too loud, drowning out all of the voices. The voice work itself, however, is usually excellent, with the return of Jim Cummings as Minsc being especially stand out. Except for that one “ethics in heroic adventuring” line that made me very sad, Beamdog nailed the depiction of Minsc, which was no small feat. Boo even gets a unique moment to shine talking to a rat to find the source of a plague. Minsc is a definite highlight of Siege of Dragonspear, and there’s lots for Minsc fans to love.

On the other hand… and it breaks my heart to say this, but… shoehorning David Warner into events before Jon Irenicus is an official part of the Baldur’s Gate story doesn’t work. While it’s believable that Irenicus may have done surveillance on the Hero of Baldur’s Gate before capturing his or her adventuring party, the amount of direct interaction that his character, here called “The Hooded Man”, was retconning overkill. Warner’s voice is too delightfully distinct, and Irenicus is too physically unique, for the hero to not immediately recognize him after being captured in Baldur’s Gate II. Worse, we really learn no more about him, his past, or his inner thoughts, through his inclusion in Siege of Dragonspear. Less would have been more regarding “The Hooded Man”.

In another strange turn of events, Jaheira’s new lines are not given a voice actor. My understanding is that this is because Beamdog couldn’t get the original voice actress back, and they didn’t want the new voicework sounding too different, but Jaheira has entire conversations with other party members where only one side is speaking. Perhaps this would have been a good job for Biff the Understudy?

Regarding graphics, I found the game quite dark, and couldn’t for the life of me find a brightness control. I had to turn on the option that revealed transversable portions of the map to be able to see all of the different winding halls in some of the darker dungeons.

And finally, we get to the story itself, which is similarly uneven. There are enough very good side quests to make the game worth its twenty dollar purchase price, especially a brawl with a cult of wizards that seemed impossible until I figured out the strategy for victory. There are also great little class based moments, and I enjoyed being able to talk my way out of some situations in good halfling fashion.

However, the main quest itself is unsatisfying, and in places, it’s a downright hot mess. Some weaknesses in the journal details and some outright broken quests had me extremely frustrated in places. The high point is a series of battles where you get to head up a larger squad of fighters, as well as the fight to take the castle itself… well, at least that would have been great if it hadn’t crashed on me twice, making me redo twenty minutes of fighting each time.

But on the whole, Siege of Dragonspear displays moments of legitimate talent regarding its ability to tell a good Baldur’s Gate story far beyond what Beamdog has shown in the past. It suffers, however, from a lack of play testing, which would have caught many of the bugs and clunkier story moments. Furthermore, it needs to get better at treating characters like characters, instead of soap boxes. Overall, I’m left hopeful that with Bioware alumnus David Gaider joining the Beamdog team, the best of Baldur’s Gate may still lie before us, once Beamdog gets the confidence to start telling its own stories, instead of inserting chapters into pre-existing ones.

As for Dragonspear itself, I think it’s worth a whirl once it’s patched. It feels less fan-fictiony in the side missions, and it was pretty fun to play someone else’s extended D&D campaign.

Some links to stuff referenced in today’s Gamer’s Guide to Feminism

The video is here!

The study on occupational feminization.

A New York Times article on the phenomenon of the pay gap that references the study if you want something that’s less dense.

And since the comments about Roman baking were well received, here’s an in-depth series of articles on the history of bread

Also, Voldo.

Voldo

Additional Thoughts on #Baldursgategate

200px-Minsc

Forgive the hashtag joke.  I’m trying to lighten things with humour.

In the follow up to today’s Youtube video…

Someone linked me to a very salient point made by a trans person with the screen name Jinx, who was upset that every time a game dev puts a clunky “inclusionary” character in a game, real life trans people get caught in the middle of an uproar.

This is a very important thing for developers to consider.

Controversies like this, the Tracer butt thing, the various “tropes” debates… they’re not just about video game characters.  They’re about the real people looking for representation from these characters.

No one wants to be treated like a prized pony.  No one wants to be singled out as different.  What has made Bioware’s best work great is that they seamlessly integrate the “diversity” element of their games into their game worlds.  Instead of speeches, they create magical places where things are possible that can open our minds.

We don’t need lectures on non-binary gender in Mass Effect because we have the Asari, an alien race with only one gender.  In Dragon Age: Origin, there was a brilliant bit of dialogue where Sten determines a female Warden must be male, because she doesn’t fulfill the social role of a woman.  These are subtle fantasy elements that much more effectively present the idea of gender as social construct as opposed to biology.

Meanwhile, over in Deep Silver’s Saint’s Row games, you can give your character a “male” body, but give them a female voice and have them wear dresses. The character customization doesn’t lock you into a gender binary.  The game allows a gender nonconforming person to express themselves in game if they choose.  Other people may have a male character running around in a dress just for fun.

This is the power of video games.  They allow people to try on new concepts at their own pace.  When a game company shoves a concept down a player’s throat through dialogue, it becomes less persuasive.  The player becomes conscious of the “lesson”, and becomes less open to it.

I don’t personally have an issue with the “speech by a trans character” in Beamdog’s Baldur’s Gate expansion Siege of Dragonspear because cheesy “let me tell you who I am” speeches are part of that isometric RPG tradition.  I can, however, see why some trans people are upset by the uproar around it: for the rest of us, it’s a game.  For a trans person, this is their life.  Every person wants the right to define their own experiences, and not be told that they’re somehow “maning” or “womaning” wrong.  It’s hard for me to stay calm when someone tells me that I’m “slutty” or that I’m not “naturally” good at tech or video games because I’m a woman.  I reject both these assertions.  I am an individual.

For trans people, this definition of identity becomes much higher stakes.  Even a transwoman using a public restroom is considered to be a violation of “real women” by TERFs (Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists).  Could you imagine being told you were doing something wrong just because you wanted to pee and perhaps retouch your lipstick?  Then of course, there’s the extremely high likelihood that a trans person will be assaulted or sexually abused during their life.  Trans people live with an awareness of those realities.

But at the end of the day, a trans person is like any person in that they’re an individual, and they deserve stories of transgender characters who are treated like individuals.  Many of the people upset about the character in Siege of Dragonspear don’t have the slightest objection to the inclusion of transgender characters. They’re objecting to the way this one was handled.  Whether you agree or disagree with their analysis, artistic critiques are totally within the realm of fair criticism, and these critics shouldn’t be demonized for their opinions.

Are there some legitimate transphobes hiding in those ranks?  Of course.  But to label any dissent on this issue as automatic transphobia is a knee-jerk response.  It’s precisely this sort of instantaneous, thoughtless reaction that’s at the core of all bigotry.  To adopt a progressive stance is to stand for progress.  It’s not about retreating into a bunker mentality because of some yelling and scary words.