In Which I Get All Angry And Feminist

A woman has been raped and murdered. By a stranger on a street at night.

It’s a terrible thing, and a terrible fear.

And we’re reacting in a natural and perfectly acceptable way – grief, shock, trying to understand. Trying to find a way to protect ourselves from it, both individually and collectively.

But it’s a lot like shark attacks. They stick in the mind. There’s a cinematic quality to them, a terror that has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with storytelling. So we freak out when we hear the words. We even consider culls. When in fact, shark attacks are so unlikely to kill you you might as well be wearing hats to protect you from meteors.

The facts are these:

Most women are attacked by people they know. Most women are killed in their homes. The rates of these things are staggeringly, unacceptably high.

The people who are likely to be attacked on the street are men. Their safety rates are appallingly low.

Women are more likely to be attacked the more clothes they wear. The closer they are to home.  Men walking them home puts them at greater risk, not less, because it puts them next to a man.

These are all facts.

The story is that the girl was unaccompanied, alone, in the dark. Made vulnerable by stupid choices. If she had been more sensible, it could have been avoided. False.

It’s like saying “oh, he was in a car crash, he should never have gone on the road.” Yes, street abductions happen on the street. That IS true. If she had never, ever gone on the street, her chances would have gone from infinitesimally small to zero. In much the same way that you can’t get bitten by a shark if you’re 100 miles inland. But your chances are not significantly altered by getting in the water.

I work in health care. I know about significant behaviour modifications.

More importantly, if you are 100km inland on a firing range, you should get in the water. Statistically speaking, it is safer. Likewise, a woman is at much greater risk, overall, at home with her husband than alone on the streets.

Now, if it was just false, if it was just false, that’d be one thing.

But it’s not just false. It’s harmful. It buys into the basic prejudice that women are zebras and men are lions. Wander from the herd and you put yourself at risk because women are prey and men are predators. That isn’t true. And the myth is harmful. It hurts men. It hurts women. It puts women more at risk, because it gives them a false sense of security when they need to be wary, and makes them wary when they are relatively safe. And it tells men that predation is part of a natural cycle. That women are prey.

And it tells women they are weak.

The first time I learned this was when a female flatmate offered to come and pick me up from work at night, because she didn’t want me walking home alone. She was right, the stats made it dangerous. I resisted instinctively. I felt babied and coddled. I felt like I was thought to be weak. I felt insulted. I felt my manhood was questioned. And I said no.

And noone has ever questioned me on it. NOT ONCE. No one has ever called me foolish. No one has ever said I put my principles above my safety. Never. Ever ever ever.

When men are punched on the street, I don’t get emails telling me to stay safe. When there’s violence in the Valley nobody reminds me to get a chaperon to walk me to the station. Nobody ever does this.

Because nobody believes in statistics, and everybody believes in stories.

And the story says “Woman, you are weak. You are a baby. You are dependent. You are to be coddled and protected. By virtue of having a vagina, you are a walking crime waiting to happen. You are ALWAYS AT RISK.”

And worse, you are far more at risk the moment you went outside, had a drink, wore an outfit not deemed 100% appropriate.  The more you expressed yourself, the more you became a victim.

That’s a terrible message to tell anyone – even if it were true. But it’s not.

It is a lie.

Ladies, I need someone to walk me to my car. Because I’ve read the statistics, and I don’t feel safe any more. And always offer to walk your male friends home. They will appreciate it. How could they not?


Genre Eats Design

The more I explore MMOs and video games in general, the more I’m struck by how many huge decisions are determined by genre.

Most significantly: most superhero stories actually start in the 2nd act. Don’t get me wrong origin stories are there but a lot of superhero films do it in flashback. The superhero first act is written: hero has traumatic experience that changes him fundamentally, hero decides to use outcome to fight crime, second act begins. The thing I love about CoH is the first act happens in chargen, and the game starts with the 2nd act. The moment chargen is done, you are out there, busting heads and fighting crime as a fully-fledged, back-story complete hero. Partly by game design, partly by genre assumptions. Superheroes don’t need to level, because that’s not part of their genre (much).

Fantasy, in games and literature, has been hoist on the petard of character arc and the Hero’s Journey. It starts with a boy in a village being sent on a quest. This means most fantasy games begin with an old man telling you a story. A cut scene of a bad guy giving you motivation. Even pulp classics like Conan were given backstories in the films. I get it for stories; it makes a familiar arc, but games don’t work that way. We need a backstory for killing shit the same way we need a backstory for Pacman eating white balls. He is the white ball eater. That’s his thing. He is the best at what he does and what he does is EAT WHITE BALLS AND KILL GHOSTS. And he’s all out of white balls.

(This doesn’t have to be dull. Compare the opening scene of Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2. 1 is a briefing about a promotion. 2 is HOLY SHIT THE SHIP IS ON FIRE GET A GUN AND FIGHT TO LIVE.)

In roleplaying, kickers are one way to jump into the action – giving every character SOMETHING HE NEEDS TO DEAL WITH the moment the game starts, but you can achieve the same effect by actually hard-wiring the first act into chargen, and/or the mission into the game’s assumptions. Warhammer, for example, lets you roll the “career you had before you decided to become a psycho for hire”. The career roll provides you with backstory and stats in one fell swoop. This isn’t quite the same as just have a lifepath, of course – because the lifepath is often random and isn’t about an actual first act, but a biography. Those things are different. A first act ends with “and then we fight crime”. And the games I tend to least enjoy are ones where the question arises of “what do we DO?” – because they don’t have a fight crime.

Nobody ever asks what Batman does. Patrol. One of – if not THE – first superhero RPG, Superhero 44, had tables to roll your Patrolling on, kind of like Random Monster Encounters. I think maybe Marvel might have had something similar (old Marvel I mean)? Seems these days we forget that in our RPGs – to their detriment. Mutants and Masterminds is a great system for making a superhero – but it doesn’t encode patrolling into the text ANYWHERE. And yet its default assumptions are comic-book heroes. It’s not like Aberrant where you could make a campaign about being celebrities singers or wrestlers. So there’s no excuse.

I’ll pause here while 99% of gamers have a rant about the bit in the Aberrant Player’s Guide. If you don’t know what I mean, you don’t want to know.

And indeed, a lot of games aren’t about fighting crime. And that’s okay. I just won’t be playing them. I like games like Leverage and Cthulhu instead, where the entire game is written around eating white balls, and there is literally nothing else the system supports. That doesn’t mean it has to be indie or limited, like just about five guys fighting one witch (Mountain Witch) or dealing with one pirate ship (Poison’d); it just means I like certain genres with strong vectors – heists, mysteries, police procedurals. And I like RPGs that learn from those things.

But be careful you don’t learn too much! To bring us full circle, just because fantasy begins with the first act in literature is no reason it should in all games. Likewise, it could be fun to play a Star Wars game that runs on totally different narrative rules to the movies, and an RPG can support that. Some of the best RPGs have that as their virtue – taking a fenced-in narrative world and asking “what happens if we wander around it like it is real?”. And some of the best stories ever come from telling old narratives in new settings or vice versa.

Best example is of course Blade Runner: a classic noir in an SF setting. And I like the title, because it has a clear vector. What does he do? He runs blades. Well, he hunts androids. He’s Buffy the Android Hunter, and it’s RIGHT IN THE TITLE.  We don’t need to know how he became an android hunter.

Skip the first act: it’s not just a good idea for stories, it’s vital for games. And the day fantasy computer games realise this is the day I will actually play them.

Miguel Cervantes on Male Entitlement Issues

If The MESSAGE was up, I’d post this there but it’s too good to wait. So most of us saw Wil Wheaton’s tumblr link about the girl who was blamed for being pretty and exposed to incredible violence and hatred for it, because how dare she be pretty yet not be responsive to being hit on or looked at. We all know this syndrome. We may even be worried that it is getting worse; that the general entitlement of modern times or the way the internet fosters bad behaviour into cult philosophies has made this problem rise to new heights.

Then again, maybe it’s always been this god-awful. A friend of mine was reading Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote and has just reached Chapter 14.  In this chapter (which you can read in full, along with the whole book, here) we hear Chrysostom’s verses. Chrysostom the poet fell in love with beautiful Marcela, for she was so fair, and soon all the men in the village did the same. Not loving any of them, and not wanting them to pine for her in vain, Marcela left the village and fled into the wilderness to become a shepherdess.

She was however, followed and pined for some more, and when she still rebuffed Chrysostom, he apparently died from the wound (I think he might be faking, I haven’t read it). He left behind poetry to tell of how his great, enduring love had led him to be cruelly slain when it was not returned. Marcela, sad that he should die, comes to the grave to find the other men reading Chrysostom’s verses, and one of them (named Ambroisa) accuses her of being cold and wicked for leading him to die like that.

Marcela, being awesome, is not about to take that shit from these assholes, and decides to tell them so. To tell them they can stick their entitlement jackassery up their asses, because it’s not her fault she was pretty, and not her fault she didn’t love any one of them, and she even left the goddamn village to stop this nonsense, and she’s not about to be blamed for anything she didn’t do. Except Mr Cervantes has her being more poetic, so I’ll hand over to him to show you how the feminist smackdown was done in the 16th Century:

“I come not, Ambrosia for any of the purposes thou hast named,” replied Marcela, “but to defend myself and to prove how unreasonable are all those who blame me for their sorrow and for Chrysostom’s death; and therefore I ask all of you that are here to give me your attention, for will not take much time or many words to bring the truth home to persons of sense. Heaven has made me, so you say, beautiful, and so much so that in spite of yourselves my beauty leads you to love me; and for the love you show me you say, and even urge, that I am bound to love you. By that natural understanding which God has given me I know that everything beautiful attracts love, but I cannot see how, by reason of being loved, that which is loved for its beauty is bound to love that which loves it; besides, it may happen that the lover of that which is beautiful may be ugly, and ugliness being detestable, it is very absurd to say, “I love thee because thou art beautiful, thou must love me though I be ugly.” But supposing the beauty equal on both sides, it does not follow that the inclinations must be therefore alike, for it is not every beauty that excites love, some but pleasing the eye without winning the affection; and if every sort of beauty excited love and won the heart, the will would wander vaguely to and fro unable to make choice of any; for as there is an infinity of beautiful objects there must be an infinity of inclinations, and true love, I have heard it said, is indivisible, and must be voluntary and not compelled. If this be so, as I believe it to be, why do you desire me to bend my will by force, for no other reason but that you say you love me? Nay—tell me—had Heaven made me ugly, as it has made me beautiful, could I with justice complain of you for not loving me? Moreover, you must remember that the beauty I possess was no choice of mine, for, be it what it may, Heaven of its bounty gave it me without my asking or choosing it; and as the viper, though it kills with it, does not deserve to be blamed for the poison it carries, as it is a gift of nature, neither do I deserve reproach for being beautiful; for beauty in a modest woman is like fire at a distance or a sharp sword; the one does not burn, the other does not cut, those who do not come too near. Honour and virtue are the ornaments of the mind, without which the body, though it be so, has no right to pass for beautiful; but if modesty is one of the virtues that specially lend a grace and charm to mind and body, why should she who is loved for her beauty part with it to gratify one who for his pleasure alone strives with all his might and energy to rob her of it? I was born free, and that I might live in freedom I chose the solitude of the fields; in the trees of the mountains I find society, the clear waters of the brooks are my mirrors, and to the trees and waters I make known my thoughts and charms. I am a fire afar off, a sword laid aside. Those whom I have inspired with love by letting them see me, I have by words undeceived, and if their longings live on hope—and I have given none to Chrysostom or to any other—it cannot justly be said that the death of any is my doing, for it was rather his own obstinacy than my cruelty that killed him; and if it be made a charge against me that his wishes were honourable, and that therefore I was bound to yield to them, I answer that when on this very spot where now his grave is made he declared to me his purity of purpose, I told him that mine was to live in perpetual solitude, and that the earth alone should enjoy the fruits of my retirement and the spoils of my beauty; and if, after this open avowal, he chose to persist against hope and steer against the wind, what wonder is it that he should sink in the depths of his infatuation? If I had encouraged him, I should be false; if I had gratified him, I should have acted against my own better resolution and purpose. He was persistent in spite of warning, he despaired without being hated. Bethink you now if it be reasonable that his suffering should be laid to my charge. Let him who has been deceived complain, let him give way to despair whose encouraged hopes have proved vain, let him flatter himself whom I shall entice, let him boast whom I shall receive; but let not him call me cruel or homicide to whom I make no promise, upon whom I practise no deception, whom I neither entice nor receive. It has not been so far the will of Heaven that I should love by fate, and to expect me to love by choice is idle. Let this general declaration serve for each of my suitors on his own account, and let it be understood from this time forth that if anyone dies for me it is not of jealousy or misery he dies, for she who loves no one can give no cause for jealousy to any, and candour is not to be confounded with scorn. Let him who calls me wild beast and basilisk, leave me alone as something noxious and evil; let him who calls me ungrateful, withhold his service; who calls me wayward, seek not my acquaintance; who calls me cruel, pursue me not; for this wild beast, this basilisk, this ungrateful, cruel, wayward being has no kind of desire to seek, serve, know, or follow them. If Chrysostom’s impatience and violent passion killed him, why should my modest behaviour and circumspection be blamed? If I preserve my purity in the society of the trees, why should he who would have me preserve it among men, seek to rob me of it? I have, as you know, wealth of my own, and I covet not that of others; my taste is for freedom, and I have no relish for constraint; I neither love nor hate anyone; I do not deceive this one or court that, or trifle with one or play with another. The modest converse of the shepherd girls of these hamlets and the care of my goats are my recreations; my desires are bounded by these mountains, and if they ever wander hence it is to contemplate the beauty of the heavens, steps by which the soul travels to its primeval abode.”


Roleplaying and The Righteous Mind

For those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you know that besides gaming, the topic of this blog, I’m a political animal. That is of course, why The MESSAGE is coming into existence. But the feedback can, of course, go the other way. What we learn in politics – in anything – is always good fodder for games. GMs and game designers alike should never forget that the whole world is our source book, and everything is a potential mechanic.

In 2008, psychologist Jonathan Haidt did a series of studies to try and identify the moral framework of the human mind. That is, to identify ingrained ethical principles we acquire either genetically at birth or are imprinted with in our very early childhood, and are found universally across all cultures and societies. He reports on these in his book, The Righteous Mind, and summarizes his conclusions in this TED talk. Haidt’s focus is on the growing differences – the seemingly intractable gulf between the left/liberal and right/conservative voices in America, and how these might arise and be analysed from the basis of our universal moral framework.

His research identified five key principles of morality we acquire at a genetic level.  These are:

  • Fairness. A very familiar one. Every child knows when someone gets more than them, and also that the duck at the back hasn’t had any bread crumbs yet.
  • Care. Those who are weaker and smaller need to be cared for and defended by those who are stronger.
  • Purity. There are things which are pure and things which are impure, there are things which are fundamentally right and wrong, and the wrong has a taint to it that is powerful and dangerous.
  • Authority. There are powers or principalities or investitures which deserve respect because they have widsom and keep us safe.
  • Loyalty. The tribe is important, and we should cleave towards it.

What’s important about the list is that although we all have our sense of these moral lines, we value each of them differently, and we use each of them differently. Specifically, Haidt found that those who identify as strongly Liberal, put a lot of value on Fairness and Care, and very little value on Purity and Authority. Whereas those who identify as Conservative do the opposite, and this explains the great gulf mentioned: liberal arguments typically focus on asking conservatives to value things they do not, and to ignore things they value greatly. The liberal knows only that the man was starving (fairness, care), the conservative only that he stole the loaf of bread (authority, purity), and never the twain shall meet.

So what does it all have to do with gaming? I’m sure you’re well ahead of me on this one: this is absolutely perfect for a morality system in an RPG (or even a simulation board game). You can pretty easily see some parallels already in the D&D moral poles – Law and Chaos being Authority/Loyalty, and Good and Evil being Care and Purity. There’s also something like Exalted’s Four Solar Virtues – Compassion (Care), Temperance (Purity), Conviction (Loyalty/Authority), Valor (bit of a mix).  The poles I used in my old Firefly RPG were similar too – I had Self vs Others and Code  vs Chaos, but also some social dividers because of the nature of the setting – I had Core and Border as well.

The point is not so much to use the original five, although you certainly can, but by seeing those five and the moral rules of your RPG of choice (or of design), get a sense of how the world’s morality curve differs from our own. It is not uncommon for example, in D&D, to use a very medieval principle where, as I said, Care and Purity are strongly linked, philosophically,  symbolically and temporally. That tells you a lot about how the world is perceived, and when these moral views have absolutely real magical correspondences, how the world actually works.  The question then is, what would a world look like if that wasn’t true? If Purity was associated with a negation of Care? Or if Goodness (Fairness and Care, say) were strongly associated with a lack of Purity, or a lack of Authority? Indeed, D&Ds monks arise from linking Purity (of Body as it were) with a lack of interest in Care (Monks cannot be Good or Evil).

It doesn’t just stop at religious philosophy of course. You can flick these switches to design entire cultures, races and alien creatures. There are, it is believed, strong evolutionary reasons for us to have the Big Five encoded so deeply. As social creatures, we need Fairness to maintain our numbers. Care keeps us alive in a different way to herd animals, who are usually better at leaving the weak to die, because as  tool users, we know strength is not the only virtue. Purity tells us not to eat the yellow snow or the smelly corpse, and Authority tells us that the elders know what they mean when they teach us those things. And Loyalty is vital for a species who can maintain social groups of enormous size that transcend any family or biological links.

But change those conditions and you change the moral landscape. If a species gave birth like turtles, for example – leaving their young alone to hatch and reach the sea on purely their own strength – they would probably have no use at all for Authority. Or would see all Authority coming only from the self, and centred around survival. They might despise Fairness and have no notion of Care, but have a great sense of Loyalty to those who shared their struggle and lived. On the other hand, in a herd species, there could be Loyalty above all, even without a sense of Authority (something we have little experience with – as humans we are more used to following individuals, although we certainly know mob mentality). Voracious species that need to eat everything and must risk constant experimentation to find edible food might have no concept of purity. So they won’t be freaked out by your gay elf, because amongst the locustmen, everything is permitted – except, of course, going against Fairness. The swarm eats as one or dies as one. But the delicate butterflykin whose fragile biology can be killed by so many things, have a complex series of rituals and rites they will follow unto death…but care nothing for Fairness or Care. Each Pappilorn performs the rites correctly, or he dies and is not wept for.

Five dials, two or three positions each (value, despise, don’t care) is potentially 243 different societies or races to create, explore and compare. Go and move some sliders around, and see what happens. And never forget: the world is your sourcebook. Use it.