The Upside

Something happened in roleplaying this weekend, what with the misogyny and the internets. I’m not going to go over it again here. Edited highlights can be read on this lovely blog post of Patrick O’Duffy. This contretemp, like most things on the internet, was full of ugliness and stupidity that just made everyone feel awful. So allow me to offer a ray of hope:

Some of the triggers of this event were a few books published about ten years ago. They were pretty stupid and awful books then. They are equally stupid and awful books now. Gamer sexism was godawful then and remains godawful now. We had the internet then, and although we’ve gained a bit more social media and protest sites, not much has changed there either. But there wasn’t a row then, and there was a big row now. So what has changed?

My guess is what changed is gamer women.

There are more of them, and they are better organised and more than anything else, they are sick to the back teeth with it. They are mad as hell and not going to take it any more. They’re sick and tired of the rape threats and the rape culture, of the whore tables and pimp cardgames, of the chainmail bikinis and the porn tracing, of being the ball-and-chain, the victim, or the whore, of the endless equivocating and poor comparisons, of being ignored or diminished by the entire industry, and mocked and denigrated by the entire hobby, and of being told to shut up and get back in the kitchen when they say a single word of complaint about any of this. They are sick to death of it all, and they’ve got a voice, and they intend to use it, and nothing and nobody is going to stop them any more. They are going to call everyone on their bullshit, and demand that it gets better.

And this is excellent goddamn news. For rpgs, for video games, for gaming in general. Not just because the hobby needs it the way the Augean stables needed a hose, but because we need more voices, and we need different voices, being heard and being loud and making things different. Because that’s the only way a medium can progress and evolve and stay interesting.

So. That’s the upside. Maybe it’ll let a little sunshine in if you’ve been facepalming through too many trainwrecks of late.

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A brief shout-out to Vickers

Warning: Prometheus spoilers; although that’s a fairly silly thing to say. Some movies really hurt from spoilers but many are the opposite: the more you read about them before seeing them, the better, and Prometheus is the latter.

Prometheus is, as everyone is already bored of hearing, a deeply flawed film, mostly because of a deeply flawed script. It is poorly structured, poorly communicated and poorly voiced, full of character inconsistencies and plot weaknesses, and generally messy. However, it is a film directed by Ridley Scott, who has a great eye for detail and a great talent for mise-en-scene, and can use those things to craft character very effectively without a word of dialogue. Combine that with some first-class actors and there are a bunch of lovely moments in the film, and almost all of them belong to Charlize Theron’s performance of Meredith Vickers.

If you’ve seen Arrested Development, you know just how incredible Charlize can be, and she doesn’t disappoint. And one of the things that Alien gave us, besides anything else, was an incredible female heroine for SF fans to enjoy. We didn’t really get that in Liz Shaw – although she is a tough survivor, she is flat, childish and bordering on annoying. Looking from a purely “who deserves to be on a t-shirt” perspective, Vickers is worth considering. Yes, she has very few scenes, but given how poorly more dialogue served Ms Rapace, that may be a good thing. And again, because it’s Ridley and because its Charlize, we get a lot out of those scenes. Vickers was my favourite character, and had an incredibly interesting story to tell.

In a very real sense, Shaw is the wrong central character, and the film seems to know that. Apart from David, nobody really gives a damn about Shaw, and she only ends up in the final scenes because nobody can think of a reason she shouldn’t tag along. Meanwhile the central story of the film is actually about a messed up family. A dad who refuses to die, a son who cannot die, and the final leg of the tripod, a girl who gets screwed by both of them.

Yes, Vickers is daubed in cliche and patriarchal ones at that. She’s the forgotten “son”, disinherited for the anointed one, a trope as old as Isaac and Ishmael. She’s also an Ice Queen Bitch with Daddy Issues, who tries to minimise her sexuality in order to be Tough In A Man’s World. But somehow, I find the character and the performance to be more than just the sum of all this. Being a disinherited heir explains all the Daddy Issues and the Ice Queen. Of course she’s trying to be a man, and a robot: those are the two qualities her father looks for in a child. And her nature is used to make a point, to move the story forward.

We start by not liking her – the push-ups are impressive but she has no time for the soft, artistic David we have come to enjoy in the opening scenes. Then she tells the scientists they work for her, and makes David her houseboy. But the latter scene is a triumph because Vickers sits uncomfortably in her surroundings. The girl who did her push-up routine before saying hello orders her vodka straight, unadorned, yet she is surrounded by style and comfort. That is our first big hint that Peter Wayland is alive and well. Her sense of separation from the crew, emphasized by living in an escape pod, is not because, like Gorman, she thinks herself above them, but because the pod is home to her father. Indeed, her whole existence on the ship – the idea that she’s in command, “her” quarters, “her” command, “her” stand-offishness, these are all just proxies for her father. And while David smiles beatifically at the privilege of doing His Master’s Bidding, Vickers bristles and seethes at being his puppet, his shell. And that contrast is key to the family story.

Vickers’ seething is clear when Captain Janek calls her a robot. She chooses emotion instead, because although she craves her father’s love she is fighting against becoming his slave. She gets the same choice again when her father is brought back to life. David, adoringly, bathes his father’s feet, in a deeply intimate fashion. Vickers bends, and in my favourite scene, tries one last time to join that intimacy, to do what David is doing. She reaches out to kiss her father’s hand, and he retracts it and curls it into a harsh fist. Then the script throws that scene away by her shouting out their relationship ham-fistedly, but it’s a hell of a scene. She’s tried everything she can to be as robotic as he wants her to be, to gain her father’s love – but in the end, the robot gets the love, and her sense of humanity, her sense of her true self, of reaching out to her father through emotion, not obedience, is rebuffed.

And she flinches like he struck her with the fist. It’s a scene with so much meaning and no words, and very powerful. It almost justifies the whole film. It almost justifies the stupid scene with the hammereel (as I’m told its called), where previously, someone reached out in kindness and was punished for it with pain. It’s a motif we saw with said scientist at the very start too – reaching out to the geologist and suffering for it.

I don’t know what it means that Vickers is killed. The film is a bit too incoherent – does she fail to choose nobility with Janek and is thus condemned for it? That seems unfair given Shaw is also praised for her survival instinct later. Is there any reason at all she would not be ejected with her own safety pod? I’m sure somebody can think of some but I couldn’t find one in the film at the time. In the end, the story seems to treat Vickers like her father does – cutting her out of the picture so father and son can take centre stage. Which seems very unsatisfactory. She is, for my money, the most interesting person on the ship. She’s not blatantly likeable like Janek, she’s genre-savvy and intelligent enough to set fire to her own men, but she manages to do it without seeming entirely cold and heartless, and she has a fantastic character arc which reveals her humanity under her hard, angry shell – a humanity that gives a greater understanding to her father’s madness, and her brother’s sickness.

In so many ways, Prometheus wasn’t what anyone was expecting. It’s not really an Alien prequel, on its own. It’s not really a film about the originators of life, but – like 2001 – about what the robot does on the way to meet the originators. And Shaw isn’t a new take on Ripley: she’s not a bad-ass SF heroine, she’s neither cool nor poignant, she’s not dramatically interesting.  All those titles go to the lady on the side of the stage: to Meredith Vickers. For the love of God, let’s remember that, and not the stupidity of her death.

Why Count Words

The inestimable, unstoppable, and seriously terrifying Peter M Ball recently blogged about why counting words matters. But as he said therein: “Writing is a weird thing. Idiosyncratic, personal, and utterly without rules.” So his reasons to count words, while in some ways reminiscent of mine, are not the same.

For the record, I hate and fear things like NaNoWriMo and The Rabbit Hole, simply because I react badly to any kind of arbitrary metric set before me like that. I don’t just mean I freeze up, I mean my mental illness spikes and I have to have the sharp objects taken away from me, and that doesn’t help anybody. But I do believe that counting words matters, and not just because I usually get paid by them. Counting words matters because in the end, it’s the only measure we have of doing anything.

It’s art, which means it’s hard, if not impossible to measure. It’s never finished. It’s never good enough. And it’s never bad enough. The only way it is done, in any sense, is by volume. The only way it exists, in any sense, is by volume. Is the Mona Lisa a better or worse painting than the roof of the Sistine Chapel? Impossible to say. But we can say that the latter is definitely a lot bigger. And it took longer, too.

That’s not being facetious. In a capitalist world, brow-sweat equals cash equals food, and if we artists have any chance of surviving in that world, we have to play by those rules, and value our sweat. And volume is sweat. Regardless of how much research or planning or imagining you did before, or rewriting or editing you do after, each word still takes work. It’s something you can hold up and shake at capitalist masters and say “yes, I have worked, so I deserve food and shelter”. You can show it to hand-wringing parents who think you’re doing nothing all day, or foolish acquaintances who think being a writer is easy.

Better still, you can show it to editors, because ultimately, they want words too. When it comes to sales, its all about volume, and when it comes to getting books out, it’s the same. You can’t sell empty space. To an editor, to a reader, hitting your word count is a hundred times better than writing perfectly. Bad writing can be fixed. Empty space can’t. And readers don’t have the expectations you do. You had the perfect sentence in your head, and maybe you never got there, but all they had was empty space.

And destroying empty space is what it’s all about. To quote Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing fame, “I love writing but I hate the empty page. The empty page looks at you and says ‘who the hell do you think you are?'”. The empty page is a mockery, and although I’ve said a million times that starting isn’t the hardest step, it is still a balltearer. And really, the only way to break down that wall at the start is words on a page. And no, it doesn’t matter in the slightest what those words are. They can be a hundred new and ever-more-extemporaneous spellings of ‘horsefelcher’. It doesn’t matter. It’s words. The pattern will emerge eventually.

Think about it this way. If you ask somebody to paint a picture on a blank canvas, they freeze up. But pour paint on a table and slap their hands in it, and they start rubbing it around, moving it back and forth, making colours and patterns, and soon enough, lines and shapes and meaning. We can’t help it; once we start squelching through material we end up squelching towards the inscrutable forms screaming in our soul. And with writing, to get that material under your skin, you need words on the page.

Years ago, while wrestling a Warhammer project, I compared writing to trying to grab eels in a trough full of mud, and half the time everything just slips away through your fingers. My friend, a more experienced writer told me that one day I’d learn that it wasn’t about whether you grabbed eel or mud, it was all the same in the end, and it was the grabbing that mattered. It’s not 100% true – what you can do is make sure there’s more eels than mud in the tank to start with – but yeah in the end, it is the grabbing that matters, and I get that now.

It’s great to seek and find and speak good words. But they’re in the tank already. Start shovelling and they’ll come out when they’re ready. And don’t count them, count the handfuls. Not because it’s the only way to get the eels out, and not even because you can’t see them until they’re out anyway, but because in the scheme of things, it’s the handfuls that matter. Fill the page. Crank the wheel. Count the words. Everything else will take care of itself.

The MESSAGE: Something Like A Plan

Okay, I think I’m going to take this forward, since people seem generally supportive of the idea. The next step is to hammer out something like a plan and a mission statement about what we are trying to achieve, what we’re not trying to achieve, and how to get there. So here are some general principles of those, to get started:

  1. Stay focussed. There are many problems in gaming and computer gaming, sexism is just one of them. Racism is just one of them. There are a myriad of ways to tackle these issues. Trying to find all the ways to tackle all the problems is not going to help anything. A tight focus means we do our thing well and hopefully we connect it to other things that make a larger difference.www.hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com owns this image. It rocks. Don't steal it.
  2. Have a defined goal which we can articulate. Still working on that, but the idea is to build a system to encourage men, through a branded tribalist approach of badges and logos and merchandise, to make a concerted effort to not be dicks in gaming environments and to advertise that fact to others (making them want to join that tribe). Here, being dicks means using racist and sexist slurs, and hitting on people, and making sexual attacks, and being horrifically unpleasant and general. The idea being that those who make such identifications can be relied on not to do that, and eventually be selected by people to play with more often, thus encouraging more people to make the same pledge, and generally creating communities of people dedicated to a minimum level of behaviour. Here’s Wil Wheaton talking about what we want to encourage. 
  3. Don’t Be Dicks About It. We are not the moral police. Nor are we White Knights. We’re not here to save anyone, or accuse anyone. While we want people to encourage others to act the same way, this isn’t about giving anyone the moral high ground or turn them into forum vigilantes. That way leads to madness. And this isn’t about anyone’s sensitive ears, either. This isn’t even about women. It’s about being better simply because it’s what we want and think is appropriate. Also, we’re relaxed enough to occasionally say the word dicks, and that’s going to be okay. At least, that’s where we are now. Happy to here weighing in on lines to be drawn. Not literally
  4. Invite Others. We’re all doing our bit to make things suck less. We work with other groups, not against them. Nobody owns a movement or an idea.
  5. Start Small, Start Slow. I am one man with an enormous amount of personal issues, challenges, and dependents. I also have no money whatsoever. Doing it right without killing myself means moving at a snail’s pace, and results will move equally slowly. Before I can even start a website I will need graphics for it, and before I can get graphics for it, I will need money (because artists don’t work for free). Some kind of stepped plan will be important. There will likely be crowd-sourcing for the cash. Recent evidence, like Feminist Frequency making a hundred and sixty thousand dollars(!!!), proves people want to talk about this stuff, and fund people doing things about it.
  6. Do It Well. As mentioned above, we want to do it right, which means making it look right, which is why I’m going to need money, because no GOOD artist works for free (nor should they). Unless they really like this idea, he said hinting.

And yeah, we’re going with (Getting The) M.E.S.S.A.G.E. – Men Ending Slurs and Sexual Attacks in the Gaming Environment.Hilarious wordplay is possible

Comments useful as always.

Men vs Misogyny

So there’s been a lot of talk lately about misogyny, sexism and sexual harassment in geekdom, such as comics, movies and particularly gaming. Comic commentary I’ll leave to better minds like Kate Beaton but I know gaming, and gaming is also a Big Deal. And sexism in gaming is such a big deal even the BBC  is doing stories on it. And there are lots of people trying to raise the issue of sexism in game design, in the online community and particularly in game environments but it is endemic enough to become a meme and is thankfully well-parodied.

But so far, most of what I’ve seen crying against it has come from the ladies themselves. And a lot of what I’ve seen coming from men is mansplaining, turning a blind eye, or a shrug of the shoulders. Even when women are recognised as having a fair complaint, the sentiment seems to be that “gamers/gaming is like that” and it’s pretty hard to change.

Without trying to be all white-man’s-burden, I’d like to say that I’m sick and tired of the problem, and I’m sick and tired of doing nothing about it. I’m sick and tired of gaming not being a safe space for women. I’m sick to my stomach that my female friends can’t go to gaming stores. I’m tired of reading article after article about the shit that goes down online, of the way that gamers revert instantly to sexual language and sexual attacks, and then excuse it as smack talk.

So all of this leads me to say: maybe it’s time some men started doing something about the problem. Because guys, this is our problem. Members of our gender have made gaming, over and over again, a toxic, hostile and dangerous place for women. And that’s not just bad for women, or bad for us, it’s bad for gaming. And it is sad and disgusting that it took a lot of very loud women pointing this out to us before we noticed or gave a damn. And it is depressing as hell that we either don’t want to do anything about it, or cannot do anything about it.

Right now, I don’t believe the latter. I think we can do something about it, specifically as men. Because for the moment we dominate the gaming industry and the gaming market and because we should. Because it’s about fucking time. (And yes, all of the above applies to homophobia and racism in gaming too. I’m just picking one thing at a time though.) The question then is, what to do.

Just as a start, I’m throwing an idea out there. It might be a stupid idea. Consider this a call for input on it. The idea takes inspiration from the various men’s groups around the world that take a stand against sexism and crimes against women. Those groups are designed to encourage men to recognize that the problems begin in their numbers, in their social groups, in what they will and won’t accept from their mates and their wide circles. I think it could be a good concept to apply specifically to gaming.

I’d like to see a society of men who have taken a pledge to make gaming safe for women – video games, online games, board games, rpgs, all games, for all women. And who will try to do so by not tolerating any sexism, harassment or sexual assault (verbal or otherwise) from the men they game with. Who will kick out, ban, or refuse to group with guys who won’t stop with the misogyny. Who will be able to join an online group and get a little avatar badge that says to women “hey, you can game with me and I won’t be a sexist jackass to you”. Maybe even a t-shirt they could wear at cons. Just to say “I’m a man, and I have GOT THE DAMN MESSAGE.” The message that enough is enough. That this has to stop.

I like the sound of that, actually. It could be Men calling for an End to Sexism and Sexual Assault in the Gaming Environment. Shirts that say: I’ve Gotten The MESSAGE. And those who haven’t got it yet, well, haven’t got the MESSAGE.

Obviously such a system could be abused. Obviously such a system could end up doing nothing to help and just be handing out badges to people for feeling like sanctimonious crusaders. Obviously this could just be an excuse for me to bignote myself and act all quixotic, or just get in the way of other good ideas. Obviously, I don’t want any of that.  Hence, I’m doing my research before I started tilting at windmills. That’s where you come in. Tell me if you think this will make any goddamn difference at all. Tell me, men, if you’d want to support something like this. Tell me, ladies, if you think it would help in any way. Or tell me to go back and try again.

But tell me something because enough IS really enough. Some of us have got the message, but it isn’t getting through, and it’s just not good enough.

NOTE: This post was edited on the 27th of September, 2012, to remove a personal anecdote. Nothing of significance was changed.