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All Bound Up: Art, Pornography, and “Ladykiller in a Bind”

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All Bound Up: Art, Pornography, and “Ladykiller in a Bind”

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Hello, gamers!  In (belated) honor of Valentine’s day I’ve decided to get sexy and talk about porn: specifically the erotic and controversial visual novel Ladykiller In A Bind.  But, before we get started, let’s talk about art, pornogrophy, and what defnines each of them.

It seems that everyone has an opinion as to what does or does not constitute ‘art.’  At the first PAX convention I attended, an audience member asked Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins if he considered video games to be art.  Holkins thought (and I agree) that this was a silly question: how could something that hundreds of artists work on for months possibly be anything but art? This school of thought has been spreading, especially since Anita Sarkeesian has so famously subjected video games to the same thorough analysis that academics have used to look at literature and film for generations.

So, assuming we can agree that video games are art, we still haven’t answered the question of what ‘art’ actually is.  It’s a question I’ve thought about a great deal, especially while I was working on my BA in a creative field.  Novelist and educator John Green describes art as ‘something someone put into the world to make my life more interesting(1).’  My personal definition is similar, though not exactly the same.  I believe that, on the most basic level, art is a form of communication: something created by an individual to inspire a reaction in an audience.

This is why I’ve always thought the dichotomy between ‘art’ and ‘pornography’ to be false.  Many years ago, I found myself interviewed for a ‘man on the street’ segment of some sort, where I was shown a series of pictures and asked I considered them to be art or pornography, and why.  I probably skewed their results, since I classified every single image as ‘art’ (though I recall describing a few of them as ‘art with pornographic subject matter’).  Putting aside ‘I’ll know it when I see it,’ pornography is generally described as media designed to titillate or sexually arouse.  Which, going by my definition of art, doesn’t separate pornography from art at all.  It places it as a category: a form of communication meant to instill a particular response in the audience.

So is a pornographic video game art?  I would unequivocally say ‘yes.’  Mind you, that doesn’t mean it has to be good art.  We can probably all agree that film is an artform, but that doesn’t mean all movies have equal artistic merit.  Some films are thought provoking while others offer little more than base escapism and toilet humor.2906863-ladykiller+in+a+bind+2016-12-17+2_38_02+pm

Ladykiller occupies a nuanced position on this continuum.  It stars a young woman (the Beast) who has been forced to masquerade as her twin brother while his high-school graduating class take a cruise ship across the Atlantic.  If she acts too suspiciously she’ll be thrown into cargo hold, ending the game.  The mechanics revolve around accruing ‘votes’ (for an in-game contest that may or may not be BS), while avoiding ‘suspicion.’  Conversation options appear and disappear as they occur to the player-character.  There are two main romance storylines to chose from or combine, as well as a number of side-stories involving minor characters.  The player gets to chose the names of each character as they appear, either from one of two default options or by entering a custom name.  For the remainder of this article I’ll refer to the characters by the default names we chose in our longest playthrough.

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A Mortal’s Guide to Glimmerdark

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Gather, mortal children, and I will tell you of Glimmerdark, the faerie revel which, like all things fae, is filled with great wonder and beauty, but is dangerous to those who aren’t careful.  Listen closely.  If you heed these words, you just might make it out alive.

The revel takes place in Princeton, NJ, in the Hyatt Regency hotel, in the dead of winter.  Fae (and mortals) from all over the region gather at the hotel filling it with song and dance and food and mead.  The halls and common rooms fill with peddlers selling all manner of wondrous goods.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with the fae is not to take anything for free and not to enter into any bargains unless you are absolutely sure of the terms, lest you find yourself in their debt.  This is why you must not enter the hotel floor without a festival pass.  Nothing in fairie is free, not even lilting notes of music or the graceful sweep of a dancer’s hand caught out of the corner of your eye.  Your pass is your payment for these things, and your permission to enter.  If you attempt to enter the faeries’ temporary realm without permission, you may find yourself spending a year in faerieland for each night you stole.

The second thing you must do is assume that everyone you meet is fae.  Some will have obvious markers, like horns and hooves and pointed ears, but many will look just like you.  Do not be fooled.  There will be other mortals at the festival, surely, but fae glamour is strong and wiley, and most have centuries to perfect their human disguises.  The gap below the pointed ear, the band you see holding the antlers to the head, may just be illusions: clever, efficient little glamours designed to give the appearance of humanity with minimal effort.  Be careful, and don’t let down your guard.  Treat everyone as you would one of the sidhe: be courteous and respectful and don’t take anything for free.  Fae wizards have turned mortals into fish for decades for annoying them, so it’s best to take precautions.  Even the hotel staff could be fairies in disguise, so tip generously if you don’t want everything you eat to taste like toenails for seven years.

Pack carefully, so you don’t need to barter with the fairies for items you’ve forgotten.  Arrive by Friday evening.  Check in to your room and claim your badges.  There will be a table with pens and blank spaces on the badges, on which for you to supposedly write your name.  Do not do so: this is a trap.  Write a false name, a book character or gamer tag, or leave the card blank.  Revealing your true name to fairies gives them power over you and makes it easier for them to ensnare you with their contracts.  Do not give it out unless it is absolutely necessary.

When you are settled in your room, afix your false name-tag about your neck and descend to the lobby floor.  Walk under the cloud of mirrored diamonds suspended from the ceiling, past the pools of koi fish that may or may not have once been human, and make your way to the hotel bar.  There, you will find delectable food and ale and sweet honey mead.  These things aren’t free but, like much of Glimmerdark, they are worth the price.

When you’ve eaten and drunk your fill, wander the festival, seeking out the music and dancers tucked into the Hyatt Regency’s halls and conference rooms.  Browse the vendors, but be wary of trying anything on.  Clothes and jewels of faerie make are exquisite; if you try them on you may have difficulty taking them off again, and if you can’t take them off you will find yourself indebted to the peddlar.  I made the mistake of trying on a jeweled circlet topped with pheasant feathers. If you are willing to pay the price, you can make off with all sorts of beautiful artifacts.

Children are welcome at Glmmerdark and would no doubt be delighted by the sights and sounds.  Bring your children if you wish, but keep them within sight.  Nothing tempts the fae folk more than human children to steal.  To be safe, disguise your little ones as fae creatures to make them less tempting targets.

As with any festival, it is important to stay hydrated.  The wait-staff may offer you water with your meals, claiming it’s free.  Nothing in Faerie ever is, and, for the weekend, the Hyatt Regency Princeton is part of Faerie.  Be sure to offer something in return: a short song or poem or a bit of prestidigitation to delight your server.  You can avoid this entirely by bringing your own water or joining the ‘Endless Tea Party,’ which gives you access to unlimited hot tea.  This may seem too good for its price, but be reassured: the tea is mediocre and the water a bit too hot.  Fortunately, these things hardly matter at a festival in the depths of winter.  Besides, you can always supplement your tea with something from the cash bar.

If you are reading this, you must be fond of games.  You have this in common with the fae.  There is a game room off one of the corridors.  The walls are lined with games and models.  There are tubs and racks of shining dice.  And, of course, there are tables on which to play the games.  Play them with your companions, or with strangers if you dare, but wager at your own risk.

You may see signs for a ‘batfrog habitat.’  This is billed as an art installation but is, in fact, a portal to a tiny pocket of faerieland.  If chosen to enter the portal, make sure your companions know where you have gone.  Once on the other side, breathe in the sights and sounds, let them wash over and through you, but always remember who you are and where you come from.  Consider tying a rope around your waist before you enter so that your companions may pull you back, in case you do not return on your own.

A few words about fae hospitality: they take it very seriously.  As long as you are a guest of Glimmerdark or the Hyatt Regency, no harm will befall you and you may not harm your hosts or another guest.  Doing so will result in expulsion from the festival…or worse.  Bringing steel weapons to the festival is considered a breach of hospitality; it is well known that fae kind are vulnerable to iron.  The rules of hospitality protect you to a degree, but not completely.  The terms of fae bargains supercede hospitality, and, furthermore, faeries can have creative definitions of what constitutes ‘harm’ (the koi in the pond, for example, are perfectly healthy).

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Soliyra at Glimmerdark 2017

Finally, the highlight of Glimmerdark, the fairie circus, is not to be missed.  This is not because missing it will cause you to be cursed in any way.  It is simply a very, very good show.  There are acrobats, dancers, and even a singer.  Just try not to react when the dances poke fun at foolish mortals.  And, since the circus goes above and beyond the rest of the festival, make sure to tip the performers.

If you follow all these rules, you will return home at the end of the festival tired but happy.  Your wallet may be thinner but you will still have your freedom, your human shape, and your first born child.  A fair bargain indeed.

(Soliyra is a mortal human who enjoys normal, human activities while not writing.  She has never even contemplated stealing a human baby. 

Glimmerdark is a Faerie convention held in Princeton, NJ every February.)

How to Fight Nazis

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Gamers love killing Nazis in games like Wolfenstein and Call of Duty, but most of us never thought we’d wind up fighting them for real.  In a recent facebook post, a friend of mine wrote: “I grew up with Nazis being two dimensional movie and video game villains, goddamn it, and that’s where we were supposed to leave them.  But 2016 wants to try and tell me we have to listen to folks who literally cite Nazi propaganda and terminology in their hateful, stupid rhetoric? No thank you.”  No thank you is right.  But what can we do about it?  How do we fight back? Punching them in the head seems to be in vogue right now, but, let’s face it,  that’s not for everyone.  The skills we honed in years of first-person shooters don’t really translate.

So what do we do? We get really active and organized on the local level to reform our electoral system. Call your state-level legislators. Take over the media. Write to editors. Self-publish articles, and propagate the work of journalists who speak the truth at a time when truth is in such short supply.  But, most importantly, we must vigorously work to create a culture in which hatred cannot take hold.   This is something everyone can do, regardless of age, ability, or nationality, and if we all work together, even the smallest actions can have a tremendous effect.

There are several ways we can go about creating a hate-free culture.  I’m going to focus on three: be visible, connect, and don’t compromise.

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Top 10 Geeky Movies For When The World Is Ending And It’s Time To Start The Revolution

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Top 10 Geeky Movies For When The World Is Ending And It’s Time To Start The Revolution

Stories are powerful.

They are some of the most important things there are.  They teach us who we are, who we can be, and how to live our lives.  For many of us in the United States, the end of 2016 has been a time of profound suffering, and when we are suffering, stories can lift us up, bring us comfort, and strengthen us.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve found movies to be particularly helpful.  With that being said, I present “Top 10 Geeky Movies For When The World Is Ending And It’s Time To Start The Revolution.”

Full disclosure: my husband and I mainly watch two types of movies: children’s cartoons and franchise action flicks, so that’s what I’m going to be drawing on for this list (“Franchise action flicks?” said my husband. “That’s a pretty fancy way of saying ‘Marvel.’”  “Ah,” I said, “but we also saw Ghostbusters. That’s not Marvel.”)  And, while we’ve been spending our pre-apocalypse playing a fun game called “Give All Our Money To The Disney Corporation”  – they produced six of the ten movies on this list – Disney didn’t give me anything for writing this post other than sweet, sweet movies and movie-related merchandise.

Anyway, to paraphrase Jillian Holtzman, grown-up movies are for dudes.

10. Inside Out

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Inside Out is an amazing movie to watch at pretty much any time, but at its surface it doesn’t have much to do with the apocalypse or the revolution.  What it is about is processing difficult emotions.  I’ve been having a lot of those lately: anger, sadness, fear.  You probably have too.  Inside Out helps us name them and accept them.  It’s good to watch any time you’re going through something difficult; I must have watched it about a dozen times in 2016.  It helps.

 

 

 

9. The World’s End

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Shaun Of The Dead would have been a great pick, and I’m giving it an honorable mention, but I believe The World’s End is the strongest of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto movies in terms of theme, writing, and overall quality.  Besides: the name kind of says it all.

Spoilers:

The World’s End is about a group of friends who return to their home town to discover that their friends and family are being replaced by alien ‘blanks.’  They spend the rest of the movie fighting ‘blanks’ in some seriously badass action sequences and eventually defeat the aliens through sheer stubbornness.  “It’s no use arguing with you,” says the alien speaker before buggering off and leaving the humans to their own, dubious devices.  Also, the world ends.  But our main characters survive (more or less) and build new lives in the epilogue.  The world’s end is, for some, a new beginning.

8. Captain America: The First Avenger

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There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned Nazi-fighting superhero movie for when your country’s being taken over by neo-Nazis IRL.  Furthermore, Steve’s personal journey is one many of us can relate to.  He starts the film with little going for him other than courage and self-sacrifice, but grows into a true hero.  He stays true to his principles even when he becomes powerful, even when he feels like an impostor.  Captain Steve Rogers is someone we should all aspire to be like.  He reminds us what America’s true values look like, and what they don’t.

Speaking of TFA…

 

7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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No Star Wars movie would be out of place on this list (well, maybe the Ewok movies but they shouldn’t count).  Their themes of resistance and rebellion against fascist autocracy are particularly resonant today.

Spoilers:

I chose TFA in particular for some of the same reasons I chose The World’s End.  Coruscant is destroyed, but it’s not the end of the movie (seriously, what is it with JJ Abrams and blowing up beloved planets?).  Han Solo dies, and it’s not the end of the movie.  Finn and Rey both had horrible childhoods that could have made them callous and bitter, but instead they join a generations-long fight for freedom and justice.  This is especially resonant in Finn’s case, as a former Storm Trooper.  The movie is a reminder that we can survive tragedy and that each of us has the capacity to become a hero.  Plus, I think that all of us have a Kylo Ren somewhere in our friends or family.

6.  Home

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Home got mediocre reviews when it came out, but I still don’t understand why.  It is for sure the best post-apocalyptic kids’ movie since Wall-E, if not even better.  Home is the first movie I watched after I learned the election results.  I watched it with my daughter.  It is the story of a daughter and her mother and the end of the world.

Spoilers:
The end of the world is prologue in Home.  We watch through the eyes of a well-meaning aliens as the humans of Earth are forcibly removed from their homes and transported to ‘Happy Humansville’ (totally not a concentration camp).  The aliens, known as the Boov, have destroyed human civilization without malice or even knowing that what they did was wrong.  As the film progresses, we watch Oh, the Boov voiced by Jim Parsons, befriend Tip, a human girl who has been separated from her mother.  Through knowing her, he slowly begins to realize what effect the Boov invasion has had on her life.  With creativity, empathy, and hope the two change the entire galaxy for the better.

5. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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Much like with Star Wars, all of the Hunger Games movies deserve an honorable mention, but Catching Fire is special to me.  I chose it for this list because it is the beginning of the rebellion.  It is the point in the series where the ‘games’ become more than that: where the players start to look and act beyond the arena in earnest.

Spoilers:

The thing that, for me, makes Catching Fire so powerful right now is the story of people who have been pitted against each other by a system that controls and exploits them coming together to wield their righteous anger against that system.  At the climax, Katniss turns the table on the Panem elite, directing her weapon not at another player, but at the system itself.  In a time when so many of us are focused on levying blame on one another, we need to heed Haymitch’s words and remember who the enemy is.

4. Moana

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Ok, Moana probably seems like a break in the pattern, but bare with me.  The world doesn’t end in Moana (though it comes close), and nobody fights in a revolution.  At its core, though, Moana is a movie about moving beyond one’s comfort zone.  In order to save the world, Moana has to break with tradition and leave the island where her people have resided for a thousand years.  Maui overcomes anxiety and self-doubt, becoming a selfless hero  in the process.  Both characters embody courage, and that type of courage is one thing we desperately need.

The themes and story aren’t the only reasons I chose Moana, though.  Moana is the first movie on this list to come out after the 2016 election rocked our world.  When I saw it for the first time, I was expecting a brief escape from the nightmare around me, but what I got was much more than that.  I got a reminder that, even in the darkness, there is still good in the world.  Moana is the epitome of feminist princess movies; Moana stands on the shoulders of Belle and Jasmine, Mulan and Tiana.  She is both feminine and heroic, and there is no compromise or dichotomy between the two.  There doesn’t need to be.  Moreover, the film features only characters of color, played by actors of color.  That Moana is a major, box office topping motion picture today is evidence that even with everything that’s going on, there are a lot of good people in the world, who can accomplish amazing things when they work together.  It illustrates how far we’ve come as a society.  And that there’s just no telling how far we’ll go (sorry, I had to).

On that note (no pun intended), Moana is also the only musical on this list, and it’s a proven fact that singing makes people feel better(1).  So find the music, learn the lyrics, and rock out.  I sure as hell have and it’s the only thing that keeps me going some days.  Also, since they were composed by the same person, some of the melodies in Moana remind me of Hamilton, which is only not on this list because it is not a movie (yet).

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Without going too deep into spoilers, suffice it to say that for those of us in the USA, this movie has been a little too real as of late.

Spoilers:

…what with the bad guys we thought we got rid of at the end of World War II showing up again, infiltrating the government and messing everything up, not being able to trust anyone, the best friend brainwashed by Russians, leadership acting like nothing’s wrong even though it clearly is, I could go on and on.

Thomas Paine wrote, “THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman,”(2) leading some critics to posit that the true ‘winter soldier’ of the film is not Barnes, but Rogers, who stands steadfastly for his country even when everything is going to hell.  I’ll say it again: we should all aspire to be like Captain Steve Rogers.  It’s going to be a long winter.

2. Rogue One

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…I assume.  I haven’t actually seen it yet, but from what I hear it’s everything we need right now, and might just be the second best movie ever for starting a rebellion and fighting the evil empire when everything seems hopeless.  There’s only one movie that does it better.

 

 

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

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This film is pure perfection.  It’s got everything.  Apocalypse: check.  Revolution: check.  Baddies that are larger than life but seem a little too real in our current political climate: check and check.  The desolate landscapes that are showcased so beautifully are a perfect mirror for the desolation of my soul following the election, and the characters perfectly express the pain and rage I’ve been feeling and continue to feel.

And yet.  And yet it is still a story of heroes. A story of hard choices in desperate situations, of horror and violence, of unspeakable loss, but, ultimately of defiance, rebellion, and justice.  It teaches us that we are stronger than we know, better than we know, that we can find allies in unexpected places, and that, ultimately, even long after the world has ended, we still have the power to build a better society.

References:

  1. http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/singing-happy1.htm
  2. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/175410-these-are-the-times-that-try-men-s-souls-the-summer

Am I Addicted To Video Games?

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I’ve been considering this question a lot over the past month, as I’ve been working on this article.  It started when Crymson posted an article(1) about reSTART, a rehab facility near Seattle that specializes in treating video game addiction.  The article profiled some of the patients, and I saw myself in them.  Guild Wars 2 is a huge part of my life.  I spend hours every day playing, just like the men in the article.  Do I belong in reSTART, too?

Addiction is a complicated disorder with many factors.  The traditional view of addiction is chemical: the brain releases pleasure-neurotransmitters based on a certain stimulus (usually a drug), then person performs the behavior again and again to initiate the pleasure response, while the brain releases less and less of the chemical each time.  The person has to perform the behavior, take the drug, at higher and higher doses to feel the same effect, and isn’t able to stop without experiencing withdrawal.

Newer theories of addiction look deeper.  Scientist Bruce K. Alexander believes that addiction is a social problem.  In a famous 1981 study(2), he looked at how rats’ addictive behaviors changed based on their environments.  Alexander et al found that rats housed in isolation became addicted to morphine easily, whereas rats housed in large enclosures filled with enrichment items and other rats did not.  He believes these findings can carry over to addiction patterns in humans.

The theory goes that people who have difficulty connecting with others socially may instead turn to drugs, ‘connecting’ to the drug when there is nothing else to connect with.  History seems to back up this theory: according to Alexander’s website, “Addiction can be rare in a society for many centuries, but can become nearly universal when circumstances change – for example, when a cohesive tribal culture is crushed or an advanced civilization collapses.”(3)  Maybe the cliche about having an ‘addictive personality’ has less to do with actual personality traits than it does the addiction-prone person’s social and economic circumstances.

Looking at addiction as a result of social isolation puts video game addiction in an interesting position, because many so-called ‘video game addicts’ play social games.  World of Warcraft is famously addicting, and the majority of the patients mentioned in the reSTART article were at the facility because they played WoW, or similarly massive multiplayer online games, so much that it interfered with their other activities and relationships.  Were those men addicted to the games themselves, or to the social connections they formed through those games?  If addiction is a social disorder, is it even possible to be addicted to social connection, regardless of the form it takes?

Dr. Hilarie Cash, reSTART’s co-founder and executive director, has a theory that social connections formed over the internet are lacking compared to in person interactions.  She claims that “limbic resonance,” a brain process related to the warm fuzzy feeling we get when we interact with people, doesn’t occur when the people who are interacting are not face to face.  “We have to be able to see and hear and touch and feel and smell each other for that release to occur,” she told an interviewer. “But what happens is that people seek to satisfy their social needs online.”(4)

I’m not convinced that this is true.  Some of the most important relationships in my life right now are with people I know through online gaming, whom I’ve never met face to face.  Interacting with them feels different from interacting with my “RL” friends, but I can think of plenty of times when I’ve had the warm, fuzzy feeling that Dr. Cash associates with limbic resonance while chatting over text or voice.  I have a different hypothesis for why gaming can become addicting in a way that in-person socialization doesn’t.

Laws against talking on cell-phones while driving have become commonplace.  When they were first being enacted, there was a lot of controversy.  “How is talking on a phone while driving different from talking to the person in the passenger seat?”  It turns out that there’s a big difference.  David Strayer, a leading researcher in the effects of cell-phone usage on driving ability, conducted a study comparing the two types of conversations.  The results revealed conversing with passengers to be much safer than cell-phone conversation.  According to Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times, “There is something uniquely distracting about talking on the phone when you’re behind the wheel; conversations with people inside the car are far less distracting to drivers. Unlike cell phone callers, chatty passengers instinctively stop talking when driving conditions change, and they offer an extra set of eyes to alert drivers to nearly-missed exits or erratic drivers.” (5)

I believe something similar is going on with MMO addiction.  We get the same feelings of connection, the same social benefits, from interacting with each other online and in person.  The difference is that, while our computer screens are windows into other people’s lives, they are narrow ones.  It’s easier to hid things from the people we know online: things like gaming may be negatively impacting our performance at work or our relationships with our families.  You can raid with someone every week, all the while never realizing that their life is spiraling out of control.  Instead of being an extra set of eyes in the passenger seat, we are the cell phone caller: oblivious to danger.  It’s no wonder that so many of our friends and guild-mates crash and burn.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  Over the past several weeks I’ve been working overtime to keep my guild running smoothly, ensure its stability, and maintain its growth.  It’s left me stressed-out, exhausted, and unhappy.  My in-game friends know me well enough to notice, and care enough about my well being to intervene.  In this ‘intervention,’ they insisted I take a break from raiding and offered to take over some of my duties as a guild officer.  It’s given me the chance to recharge and catch up on some RL duties I’d been neglecting (writing this article, for example).  I couldn’t be more grateful.  With American Thanksgiving approaching, the RWoG staff have been asked to submit a short statement about something (preferably gaming related) that we are thankful for, and this is mine: I am so, so thankful that these people, people whose faces I’ve never seen with my own eyes, are looking out for me.

So, am I addicted to playing video games?  I don’t think so, at least not in the classic sense.  And, thanks to the people in my life, both online and off, I don’t think I’m going to be.

If addiction is a social disease, then we, as social gamers, have the power to combat it.  One of my guild’s founding principles is game/life balance.  We have a flexible attendance policy and prioritize members’ wellness over progress and scores.  I hope other guilds will do the same.  If we can stop being ‘callers’ and become ‘passengers’ in each others lives, gaming addiction will never be able to take hold.

References:

  1. NPR staff  20 October 2013.  “When Playing Video Games Means Sitting Along Life’s Sidelines.”   http://www.npr.org/2013/10/20/238095806/when-playing-video-games-means-sitting-on-lifes-sidelines
  2. Alexander, Bruce K. et al 1981.  “Effects of Early and Later Colony Housing on Oral Ingestion of Morphine in Rats.”  Pharmacology Biochemistry & Behavior vol 15, pp 571-576 http://www.brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/rat-park/212-ratparkjournalarticle1981
  3. http://www.brucekalexander.com/
  4. Gravening, Jagger 2014.  “A Day at the First Video Game Rehab Clinic in the US.”  Motherboard, VICE.com http://motherboard.vice.com/read/a-day-at-the-first-video-game-rehab-clinic-in-the-us
  5. Parker-Pope, Tara 2008.  “Chatty Driving: Phones vs Passengers” NYTimes.com.  http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/01/chatty-driving-phones-vs-passengers/?_r=0

“How Much is Enough?” Science, Journalism, and the Way We Think About Video Games.

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There is a habit that has been said to cause damage to the eyes, the brain, and the general nervous system.  Experts have linked it to insanity, sterility, and premature death.  It was thought to damage people’s morals, corrupting them with its addictiveness and inciting them to infidelity and other evils.  Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe once wrote that, “this kind of stimulus, unless counterbalanced by physical exercise, not only wastes time and energies, but undermines the vigor of the nervous system.”(1)

What was this dangerous habit?  Reading novels.

It seems silly now, but in the 17 and 1800s, reading fiction was considered a dangerous vice.  These days, it’s a virtue.  We recognize the power and value of books, and do everything we can to convince our children to read.  Maybe there are books out there that aren’t enriching.  Not all books are appropriate for all people.  Maybe some contain dangerous ideas.  But not all novels are the same, and the condemnation of the entire medium is laughable.  And yet…

And yet, two hundred years later, we’re doing the same thing: condemning an entire medium as dangerous and morally corrupt.  This time, the medium is video games.

A recent Daily Mail article(2) has the Real Women of Gaming in an uproar.  The title practically screams at readers: “Don’t let children play video games for more than TWO HOURS a week or it will damage their social skills” (emphasis theirs).  Now, the Daily Mail is not exactly the first source I, personally, would go to for reputable news, but it is a mainstream media outlet with a huge readership.  If for no other reason, we should take the article seriously because it could influence the attitudes of millions and inform the ways our global culture views video games in general.

The subject of the inflammatory article is a study published in the Annals of Neurology.(3)  Only the abstract of the AoN article is available to the public, but the differences between the study itself and the way it was portrayed in the Daily Mail are apparent, even without the full text.  The abstract states: “The weekly time spent gaming was steadily associated with conduct problems, peer conflicts, and reduced prosocial abilities.”  Fernandez’s wording is a little different: “Playing video games is good for children’s brains – but only if they play no more than two hours a week.  More than this increases the likelihood the child will get into trouble at school with their teachers, fight with their friends and have reduced social abilities.”

It’s important to note that Pujol et al. only found an ‘association.’  This is what science does.  It collects evidence, looks for patterns, and notes when those patterns are similar.  What scientific studies do not do is tell us why patterns are similar, why they are associated.  Pujol et al. conducted an observational study, rather than a randomized controlled trial, so their results tell us even less.  We don’t actually know that playing video games for more than two hours per week causes disciplinary problems and reduced social abilities.  It could be that social and discipline problems cause children to play more video games.  It’s also possible that they’re both caused by the same external factor, something that the study didn’t measure.  The inference that gaming ‘increases the likelihood’ of behavior problems was Fernandez’s alone.

Conclusion-drawing is a problem endemic to scientific reporting in mainstream media outlets, made that much worse by the fact that the public do not have access to primary sources.  Scientific publications are locked behind paywalls.  Often, the only way to access them is be associated with a university or research institution with a subscription to the journal or to pay upwards or $50 per article.  This means that the only science news that many of us have access to has been filtered through media outlets that exist to sell advertisements, and therefore twist scientists’ words, making them more controversial and less truthful.  “Associate with” doesn’t sell ads.  “Increases the likelihood” can.

The significant findings in the study itself were cognitive benefits associated with video gaming.  Children who played for up to two hours had increased reaction time and neuroimaging showed that they had higher levels of neural connectivity: in non-scientific terms, their brains grew.  That ‘brain growth’ wasn’t increased for children who gamed for more than two hours per week, but harmful associations were only present in the children who gamed for 9 or more hours per week. Yet, the headline “Don’t let children play video games for more than TWO HOURS” implies something very different.  Just like the “This common household item may KILL YOUR CHILDREN…more at 11” school of local evening news, it takes advantage of parents’ fears for their children to ensnare eyeballs and increase ad revenue.  It’s not exactly what I’d call ‘ethical.’

There is another reason Fernandez’s article made me and the other RWoG admins so angry, but without access to the full article it’s hard to tell whether the fault is in the original study or simply the Daily Mail’s interpretation of it.  The problem is this: the authors of both articles seem to be drawing generalizations about the risks and benefits of all video games based on the few games that the children in the study happen to already play.

While there was no information in the abstract regarding what games they were playing, Fernandez writes, “The most popular games in the study included Super Mario Brothers, FIFA and Wii Sports.”  They are all games that rely heavily on motor skills, so it’s no wonder that the subjects showed improvement in that area.  But there are games that exercise other parts of the brain.  I’d like to see children who play sports games compared to children who play creative, sandbox games like Minecraft, or puzzle games like Portal.  Many online and multiplayer games are highly social.  The comments associating video games with ‘reduced prosocial abilities’ particularly grate me because I do the majority of my socialization through Guild Wars 2.  The cooperation, teamwork, and, yes, social aptitude that players build raiding in MMOs translate not only to the workplace but to life in general.

The video game is a blossoming medium for storytelling and creativity.  The best games, from the elegant to the complex, contribute as much to our culture as any book or film.  I’m continually astounded by the range of games available for our consumption, and by amazing new titles released every year.  And yet, much of our culture sees games as a monolith, and a dangerous one at that, rather than something to be celebrated.  Fernandez’s article simply perpetuates that kind of thinking.  It’s time we started thinking for ourselves.

 

References:

  1. Golden, Catherine J.  2003.  Images of the Woman Reader in Victoran British and American Fiction.  University Press of Florida.  Gainsville, FL.
  2. Fernandez, Colin.  9 September 2016.  “Don’t let children play video games for more than TWO HOURS a week or it will damage their social skills.” DailyMail.com.  Url: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3781728/Don-t-let-children-play-video-games-TWO-HOURS-week-damage-social-skills.html
  3. Pujol, Jesus et al.  22 August 2016.  “Video gaming in school children: How much is enough?”  Annals of Neurology.  Abstract can be found at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27463843

Do Tabletop Games Reflect the Same Gender Bias as Video Games?

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A playable character from the game Boss Monster

My brother and I have always loved games.  When we were young children, we used to put all of our board games together, forming one mega-board game that stretched across our family room.  When we were older, we discovered Magic: The Gathering, and the Pokemon trading card game.  My brother spent many weeks worth of allowances at the local hobby card shop.  I rarely did.  Even as I kid, I hated to part with money. Every now and then, he would participate in store-run tournaments.  I didn’t.  I didn’t think I was good enough, and interacting with the adult men who often played in them made me uncomfortable.

 

Anita Sarkeesian and the Gamergaters have brought sexism in video games to the forefront of public consciousness.  But what about tabletop games?  Both families of games have been pillars of nerd culture for decades.  They both shape the culture and are shaped by it, and this cross-pollination can make their influences very difficult to separate.  However, while the misogyny that pervades the video game industry often infects the tabletop world, it is less entrenched, and, as I argue, less insidious.

To understand why, we need to first look at the differences between the two media.  Tabletop gaming has been around in some form since before there were tables.  Ancient civilizations played with dice, cards, and boards.  Modern board games like Monopoly date to the early twentieth century.  Conversely, the technology that allows video games to exist has only been around for a few decades.  Video games started out being marketed to a diverse audience, but without thousands of years of history saying otherwise, it was relatively easy for advertisers in the 1980s and 90s to create the narrative that video games were always meant for boys and young men.

Historians now blame the great video game crash of 1983 on the ubiquity of low-quality games in the late 70s and early 80s, which lead to the loss of consumer confidence.  However, regardless of the crash’s actual cause, video game marketers in the 80s scrambled to reinvent their product, to portray it as something they could sell.  Their analytics showed them that more boys than girls were playing games, so the advertisers ran with it: they doubled down on selling video games to that particular demographic, hoping that targeted messaging would lead to better sales.  The strategy worked.  The gaming industry slowly began to recover from the crash, but there was a dark side to the recovery.

When corporations began marketing video games exclusively for boys, it lead developers to design games specifically to appeal to straight, male, and generally white players.  More and more games portrayed male power-fantasies.  Female characters were scarce, and tended not to be playable.  After all, why should developers bother with female playable characters if only males play video games?  Of the few women who did appear in the games of the 80s and 90s, the majority were either damsels to be rescued, background decorations designed for sex appeal, or some combination of both.

The unfortunate result is an entire generation of men who grew up never knowing a world where they weren’t at the center of video gaming.  An entirely new medium for storytelling grew up around them, becoming more and more mainstream, and the only stories being told were about them.  Stories are everything.  They are the basis for our personal and cultural identities.  It’s not surprising that those aggressively gendered games at least perpetuated a deeply misogynistic gaming culture.  We’re still struggling with this culture today.  Game companies created games that catered to male players, who went on to become developers who created more sexist games and hired people like themselves.

While tabletop games exhibit the same sorts of sexist tropes that proliferate across all media, they simply don’t have the same history of ingrained sexism that video games do.  It’s hard to imagine Milton Bradley suddenly deciding that Monopoly is for boys only and covering the game board with scantily clad women.  Board games have existed relatively unchanged for millennia.  Gendered board games do exist, of course, resulting from the same kind of targeted marketing that affected video games.  The difference is that the medium itself is not gendered, despite what The Big Bang Theory has to say about Dungeons and Dragons.

I believe there is another reason that sexism in video games is more pernicious than it is in tabletop games.  Tabletop games can certainly be sexist; in fact, nearly every sexist trope can be found in one MtG card art alone (I’m looking at you ‘evil demon seductress’ and ‘why’s the girl always got to play the cleric?’).  The same tropes can be found everywhere we tell stories, from books to movies to television and beyond.  What is it about video games that makes their sexist tropes so problematic?

The answer is found in the very nature of the medium.  Modern video games, with their high-res graphic and real time decision making are quite possibly the most immersive form of storytelling humanity has invented.  The written word can come close.  Books let readers see through characters’ eyes and experience their thoughts, but they are not interactive.  They don’t allow their audience to step into the characters’ shoes in the same way that games do.

Furthermore, games do something that no other medium can: they incentivize particular behaviors.  Gaming can work a lot like a chemical addiction. Taking an addictive drug or getting an achievement in a game can both cause the brain’s reward pathways to activate.  The brain then reprograms itself to repeat that outcome, resulting in a behavioral shift.  So, when video games incentivize, for example, violence against women, there is a real risk of players’ brains physically changing in ways that could result in violent behavior in the real world.  While all games have mechanics that could incentivize certain behaviors, video games are particularly worrisome because of their immersive nature and the misogynistic history of video game culture.  While paper and pencil RPGs also have mechanics, and are also very immersive, the difference is that when the game is unlinked from graphics and technology, the stories are more open ended, games are more adaptable, and customization options are nearly infinite.  Ultimately, with TTRPGs, the players, not the gaming companies, control the content.  An individual campaign may be sexist, but the medium of tabletop roleplaying does not, itself, encourage sexism.

Both the video- and tabletop-gaming industries have a lot of work to do when it comes to combating sexism.  The in-person nature of tabletop gaming competitions can unintentionally exclude women who would prefer to cloak their identity behind a digital avatar.  Sexist comments can be found in the chat-channels of even the safest of online gaming spaces.  Writers and developers can help by consciously hiring diverse employees and writing three-dimensional characters of all genders and backgrounds.  The rest of us can help by looking critically at the games we play, and inviting our female friends and family members to play with us.  It will be a difficult journey, especially where video games are concerned, but the view from the top will have been worth it.

 

References:

http://www.themarysue.com/sexism-at-magic-tournament/

http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/bossmonster/images/c/c0/BMA006_Seducia.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20130211012442

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1154384/sexism-industry

http://www.polygon.com/features/2013/12/2/5143856/no-girls-allowed

Crash Course Games: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPqR2wOs8WI&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtPTrc_yg73RghJEOdobAplG

Feminist Frequency: https://feministfrequency.com/