Category Archives: Virtual Worlds

In Medias Res

Six months in.

Six months in.

[Author's note: This is a follow-up to my first post on The Border House. There are many ways to transition and not all of them involve hormones.  While I want to share my journey, I don't want my transition to be read as an archetype for others.]

Transitioning legally, hormonally and socially is like playing a classic Japanese role-playing game. At the start, you “gain experience” and “level up” at an exhilarating pace. Last August, I came out to my friends: Level 2! Last October, I came out at work: Level 3!

In November, I reached the bottom of the dungeon (the endocrinology department at the Emory University Hospital), beat the big boss (my long-awaited doctor’s appointment) and obtained some sweet loot: a prescription for spironolactone (a testosterone-blocker) and estradiol (a form of estrogen). This single victory merited a massive experience boost: Level 3 to Level 7 all at once!

As time wore on, however, these monumental moments spread further and further apart. This February, I legally changed my name: Level 8, I suppose. I got an F on my passport last month: Level 8 and a half? I changed the name on my car title. Hooray? How exciting…

It feels like I’m grinding now. About six months into hormone replacement therapy (HRT), physical progress is frustratingly incremental. Everyday, twice a day, I pop that same pair of pills. Everyday, I brush my hair out to see how long it’s gotten, tugging my bangs down over the tip of my nose. Everyday, I examine my body in the mirror hoping that I will be surprised by what I see.

Continue reading

“That girl is kicking our asses!”: Tomb Raider’s (Lack of) Gendered Power Plays

The firefights in Tomb Raider are intense and brutal. There are many scenes where Lara is pinned down behind a splintered barrel or crate, shooting and ducking and shooting again at upwards of ten armed enemies, half of whom are charging with drawn swords, knives and axes. There wasn’t much time to think of anything other than lining up headshots. But even so, there was always a part of me that tensed up when the enemies started talking. “Here it comes,” I thought. “Here come the insults.”

But they didn’t come. When the bad guys talk about Lara, they say things like “That girl is kicking our asses!” Not “That girl is kicking our asses!” It’s a huge difference. These dudes are horrified that someone is killing their buddies and ruining their freaky plans. The fact that it’s a woman doing the killing and plan-ruining doesn’t seem to be their main concern, nor even any sort of blow to their masculinity or pride.

I never once heard Lara called a bitch, or a chick, or any other derogatory term related to sexuality or gender. Not once.

And you know what? I’m glad. Continue reading

TransMovement: Freedom and Constraint in Queer and Open World Games

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman, an ex-Mormon and a PhD student in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on sexual fetishism. She is also an erstwhile singer-songwriter. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.

[Author's Note: The essay that follows was prompted by Cameron Kunzelman's presentation on the queer games renaissance, which he delivered at the Studies in Sexualities Conference at Emory University. Thanks both to Cameron and to Aaron Goldsman and Sarah Stein who co-organized this conference with me. For the articles that Cameron mentioned in his talk, please go to this post on This Cage is Worms.]

A majestic panorama featuring an armoured woman standing at a river, looking out into a limitless pine forest with mountains and an overcast sky in the background.

Skyrim’s limitless vistas.

When Bethesda Games’ Todd Howard previewed the open world role-playing game Skyrim, he famously promised that the player would be able to traverse any visible geography. His breathless assurance of the player’s ultimate freedom has already come and gone as an internet meme: “You see that mountain? You can climb it.” This is a fairly common rhetorical frame for talking about open world games. Whether they’re raving about Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV, the open range in Red Dead Redemption, or the jungles of Far Cry 3, game reviewers effusively report that the player can “go anywhere” and “do anything” in these expansive worlds.

I want to contrast this ultimate freedom of movement with the mechanics of movement in Anna Anthropy’s much-discussed game dys4ia, which she describes as “an autobiographical game about my experiences with hormone replacement therapy.” The opening screen of the game itself presents you with a green shape whose movement can be controlled with the arrow keys. A flashing indicator at the top of the screen prompts the player to move the shape through a gap in a yellow brick wall. Simple enough. But when the player tries to move the green shape through the gap, it becomes apparent that traversing the obstacle is impossible. The green shape gets stuck in the gap and on-screen text informs us that Anna feels “weird about [her] body.”

Lim by Merritt Kopas, which Anna Anthropy describes succinctly as “a game about passing and violence” operates on a similar principle as this opening screen of dys4ia. As the player tries to move a block through various passageways, the block is hindered, even attacked by other blocks unless the player holds a key to “blend in.”

I played dys4ia a month before starting my own hormone replacement therapy and Lim only recently, after seeing Cameron Kunzelman play it at a conference at Emory. These games, perhaps unsurprisingly, hit especially close to home for me. They dramatize my own experience, yes, but they are also compelling interactive tools for educating others about some of the issues I face as a transwoman. Simply put, I can’t “go anywhere” and “do anything.” Bathrooms, airports, locker rooms are all spaces that are either difficult or impossible for me to navigate. Customer service interactions make me feel like I’m taking a final exam, trying to squeak by with a “passing” grade. By constricting the movement and agency of the player, then, dys4ia and Lim reflect my own experience while also giving others a taste of what it might be like to tromp around in my high-heeled boots. Merritt Kopas has demonstrated the educational value of dys4ia in her own classroom, noting that “the game helped them to better understand the process of transition and all of the institutional and societal barriers involved.”

 dys4ia's opening challenge. It shows an odd green shape that the player must maneuver through a gap in a yellow brick wall.

One of the opening challenges in Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia.

I’ll confess that I seem to enjoy the rampant freedom of open world games just as much as anybody. But, for cisgender gamers, the supreme motility of open world games often functions as an exaggeration of a freedom of movement that they may already enjoy in the physical spaces of non-game worlds. I should mention, of course, that cisgender gamers do face social obstacles based on other facets of their identity (race, class, sex, age, disability, etc.), and it’s for this very reason that coalition-based politics are so powerful. As Merritt Kopas notes, “not quite fitting into any one category” is not “limited to genderqueer people” and so games like dys4ia are still “going to be of value to people who will never experience those things.”

For the sake of argument, however, let’s compare my experience playing Skyrim to the experience of an upwardly-mobile, heterosexual-identified white male. This is an easy comparison for me to make because I have played Skyrim both before and after the start of my transition which means that I’ve played it both as as precisely that upwardly-mobile, heterosexual-identified white male I just spoke of and as a nearly broke, queer, (but still white) transwoman. When I played Skyrim before my transition, I enjoyed the unprecedented freedom of navigation and traversal. I had troubles in my life, certainly, but I could also rest assured that, if I were ambitious enough to leave my chair, I would be able to go almost anywhere in the physical world without fear of violence, harassment, or social illegibility. From my current standpoint, however, I feel a twinge of melancholy when I experience Skyrim‘s lack of constraint. I can climb this virtual mountain, yes, but what about my mounting medical expenses? I can enter any polygonal city, yes, but what about the women’s bathroom? The difference between before and after transitioning in Skyrim, then, is the difference between a power fantasy and an almost tragic sort of escapism, the difference between an allegorical representation of my own preexisting freedom to move and a cruel reminder of the social world’s impassable obstacles.

In her 1980 essay, “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality,”[1] feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young thinks through the style of movement typical of women in the United States. Women, in her view, do not “make full use of the body’s spatial and lateral possibilities” unlike men who are able to move freely, with long strides and swinging arms (Young 1980, 142). On the subject of women in sports, Young argues that “a space surrounds [us] in imagination which we are not free to move beyond; the space available to our movement is a constricted space” (143).  The space immediately surrounding a woman, for Young, is not a space of possibility but a space of restraint. In contrast with men who are able to interact with others confidently and with clear intentionality, women “often approach a physical engagement with things with timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy” (143).

This constraint on movement is more than just a stylistic difference; rather, the phenomenology of movement has palpable emotional consequences. In Young’s view, this constrained form of movement contributes directly to women’s “feeling of incapacity, frustration, and self-consciousness” (144). When Anna Anthropy comments, then, that she “can’t think of a form better suited to conveying frustration than the video game,” it’s precisely because video games like dys4ia can allow the player to acutely feel movement constraints, spatial restrictions and the uncertainty, sometimes the impossibility, of success. The basic mechanics of movement are one of the most taken-for-granted but also most powerful communicative elements of video games as a medium. And as such, they’re also one of the best tools that queer game developers can use to allow others to understand our different relationship to motion and public space as queer folks.

To be clear, though,  I’m not arguing that all games should constrain player motion so that the much-stereotyped white, male, cisgender game-playing teenager can understand my experience as a transwoman. I do want to resist, however, game critics’ tendency to think of the open world, “ultimate freedom” genre as the evolutionary endpoint of video games as a medium. Different styles of movement produce different emotional effects and both should be available to us as players and as game-makers. To regard “fun” as the ultimate litmus test for the success of a video game is to sell short the emotive capacity of the medium itself. Games can return us to an innocent state of childlike play but they can also, in the words of Merritt Kopas, teach us that “being an other can be painful and horrible.”

I also want to call attention to the implicit masculinity of the open world genre, not to dismiss it entirely, but rather to point out the ways in which freedom of movement can be experienced differently by people outside the largely white, male cisgender realm of video game preview and review culture. At worst, some of these open world games can appeal to a masculinist entitlement to explore, conquer, control and colonize. Far Cry 3 reportedly makes the masculinist colonialism of exploring-cum-conquering explicit in the narrative by allowing you to play as a wealthy white vacationer who slowly overtakes enemy outposts on a fictional Pacific island. Because I don’t equate fiction with reality, I can’t hold Far Cry 3 accountable for neocolonialism. I can point out, however, that it’s a reflection of an implicit masculinism, the seductiveness of which is facilitated by the mechanics of movement in the open world genre of games. Let’s enjoy our fictional worlds and our innocent-because-virtual power fantasies. But let’s also try to be a little more nuanced and reflexive in our approach to going anywhere and doing anything.

One of dys4ia's final screens. A pink butterfly flies toward the sun with text reading, "It's a small thing but I feel like I've taken the first steps towards something

Anna Anthropy’s measured expression of hope.

dys4ia concludes with the player controlling a butterfly as it floats up toward the sun. Anthropy writes: “It’s a small thing but I feel like I’ve taken the first steps towards something tremendous.” I, too, feel like I’m at the start of something momentously difficult and wonderful. When I climb a mountain in Skyrim and look out over the frozen tundra, I’m imagining all sorts of future days: a day when my hair reaches my shoulders, a day when I have more than $300 in my checking account, a day when my identification cards match my identity. What days do you see from the top of Todd Howard’s mountains?

[1]    Young, Iris Marion. 1980. “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality.” Human Studies 3(2): 137-156.

Seeds: A ‘serious game’ connecting U.S. smartphone users to Kenyan businesswomen

The average U.S. social gamer is a 43 year old woman. And in Kenya 2 million monetary transactions, usually small amounts, are made daily via mobile phone.

These two statistics may seem unrelated, but combined they’re what gave entrepreneur Rachel Cook the idea for Seeds, a mobile game she describes as “FarmVille meets Kiva.”

In the game, players grow a community of Zeople whose civilization has been destroyed in a cataclysm. Rebuilding takes real-world time, but like most social games players can spend real money to rush the process. The difference is, after paying, players choose a microlending ‘bucket’ in which to place the funds, which people in Kenya can draw from to make mobile transactions, and eventually repay their lenders.

Cook’s intention in developing the game is to help Kenyan entrepreneurs, particularly women, who often benefit most from microlending in cultures where access to education and other jobs is restricted. In fact, a 2009 New York Times article on women and microlending, entitled “Saving the World’s Women,” was what drew Cook to the cause in the first place.

This isn’t the first attempt to mix mobile gaming and social good. The 2010 game Raise the Village has users building a virtual village with purchases that go toward building and supporting a real village in Uganda. The game was lauded by many outlets, including the Games for Change organization, but reviewers had difficulty writing about Raise the Village. Suddenly, the word ‘play’ when used with a ‘game’ like this became awkward at best, and imperialistic at worse. “We didn’t want to do a Raise the Village thing,” Cook told me during the interview.

The full version of Seeds isn’t out yet, though there’s a prototype on the iPhone app store that lets you make microloans without any of the FarmVille game trappings; search ‘Microlending’ in iPhone apps and you’ll find it. As to whether Seeds will be a serious game to make Jane McGonigal proud, or another example of gamification to make Ian Bogost weep….we’ll have to wait to play the game before we decide which theorists to throw at it. We’ll update you as soon as the full playable version is released.

You can also check out the Microlending Film Project, Cook’s previous project that aired in NYC last week, at the link.

Top statistics are from Mashable and TheNextWeb, respectively.

What is the social class of an adventurer?

Coins arranged in the shape of a question mark

A while back, Mattie Brice tweeted a very interesting observation about her play style. She said, “For some reason, I really dislike using items. I usually just sell them.”

Adam Flynn then responded with a link to this article, asking “I wonder if this relates to your internal metaphors of value and income”. The article paints different characters of middle class graduates with different metaphors about money, arguing for example that entrepreneurs don’t consider $1m to be an obscene sum of money but instead see it as one year’s running costs for a 6-person startup.

Mattie pointed out that her own background doesn’t match those identified in the article, “I’ve never (on by own) been financially middle class,” she tweeted. She said that it was perhaps significant that she grew up lower middle class, surrounded by upper middle class culture.

Reading this conversation got me thinking: does class affect play style? How might we expect it to make a difference? And is this something neglected by game designers?

Does class affect spending?

Before looking at how class affects item use in games, I tried to find some studies of how people of different economic classes use money in the real world. We all, I think, have a habit of using social class to explain idiosyncracies, so I didn’t want to take Brice’s class-based explanation at face value.

To contradict her statement, it would have been very useful to get evidence of the kind of phenomenon described by this Cracked article on stupid habits you develop when you grow poor – ‘stupid’ here meaning ‘no longer rational if you have money in the bank.’ [Editors Note: The author of this post is not endorsing Cracked's use of the word 'stupid'] I want to be able to confidently point to the situation described by Zygmunt Bauman in Wasted Lives – he argues that consumer culture has created a social need for brand-name clothes among people whose means would suggest that it is more rational to buy the most basic clothes possible.

However, I’ve had trouble finding evidence to back up the anecdotes and opinions. The Consumer Expenditure Survey asks people ‘what do you spend money on?’ but not ‘do you buy the cheapest clothes possible?’ or ‘what do you do with your tax rebate?’ Measuring spending isn’t the same as measuring the attitudes to commodities that Mattie seems to have been referring to.

Fictional economies are different

Eventually I realised that no real-world evidence would really be applicable to virtual worlds and fictional economies, because the models of wealth, production and labour are deliberately constructed around a fantasy of a simpler, more forgiving world. This is something I looked at in a term paper on Final Fantasy games last year – the economic models of video games often reflect the economic changes happening in the real world at the time the games were made, but they are deliberately recalibrated to give players a great deal more agency. Often that agency is a kind of virtual artisanship or mercantilism, with game mechanics that encourage crafting items out of found materials and the exchange of goods for virtual money made relatively frictionless. Selling off your possessions for cash in the real world is not nearly as easy as in video games.

The means by which middle class people generate and hold onto their wealth are not available in most video games. Keeping money in the bank to accrue interest is not an option. There’s no investment, no leveraging of debt, not even the ‘three for two’ shopping deals that John Cheese writing for Cracked identifies as a rational purchasing decision that he fails to take advantage of because of his experience of poverty.

In the majority of video games, there’s just objects, gold values given to those objects, and gold received in exchange for time spent grinding. The economy is simple. You put time in, you get gold back, and you spend the gold on better goods. They are giant virtual shopping malls, and players are effectively made into lower-middle-class consumers by the fictional economics of the game itself – money is earned, rather than grown as wealth.

So do personal money metaphors, or class-based experiences of wealth or poverty, affect play style? In most games, probably not – the question is whether the economic landscape of a given video game world really gives that much freedom for class differentiation. But I think the economic behaviours engendered by the constrained economic structures of video games could tell us a lot about the relationship between social class and gaming. It’s something we should look into more often.

Flatpack: Fix the Future's iconic character; as a "Wrench" your adventure is one where you save the world by rebuilding it. Pictured, a woman drawn in black and white wearing a worksuit and carrying a large wrench as she descends into (or ascends from!) a hole.

The Do It Yourself RPG: An Interview with Game Designer Filamena Young

Flatpack: Fix the Future's iconic character; as a "Wrench" your adventure is one where you save the world by rebuilding it. Pictured, a woman drawn in black and white wearing a worksuit and carrying a large wrench as she descends into (or ascends from!) a hole. Art by Juan Santapau

Filamena Young is a game’s writer with several years of experience in the industry. She’s written for a variety of RPG properties, including White Wolf (she is a co-author of the Vampire the Requiem supplement Strange, Dead Love) Margret Weis Productions, and  EVE Online. I sat down with her- virtually speaking- to talk a bit about the importance of pen and paper roleplaying games and her upcoming RPG project, Flatpack: Fix the Future.

Quinnae Moongazer: So, tell me a bit about your history as a games writer. Do you have a favourite project?

Filamena Young: I got started in tabletop roughly five years ago. I heard about an all-call for new writers through a friend. I’d published a short story or two on microfiction zines, and so I thought I might as well give it a shot. Matt McFarland of White Wolf was looking, and I guess my stuff worked for him, because he took me on to freelance for the project right away. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of pitching myself, chasing leads, and getting the occasional request for my work from all sorts of game publishers. As for a favorite… That’s like which one is my favorite kid. Working on projects we’ve self published tends to be the most rewarding, but also the hardest work. Of work for others, adding romance and sex to Vampire the Requiem in our latest book, Strange Dead Love was strangely fulfilling.

QM: Oh? Can you tell me a bit more about that (the Vampire the Requiem writing) and why it was fulfilling?

FY: Sure! So Russel Bailey, one of their developers has long held that there is plenty of room in the World of Darkness games for romance. He wanted to explore the paranormal romance genre with an eye toward a game supplement that wasn’t the same old straight male gaze. So, he hired me, Jess Hartley, and Monica Valentinelli to do the actual writing. We set out to give players and Storytellers the tools they needed to use these romance elements in their games. Plot ideas, some minor rules hacks, all meant to bring that into a game. It’s got sex, it’s got tragic love stories, and it’s got, I’m hearing, a lot of room for all sorts of gendered approaches to the theme.

QM: That sounds very exciting. I’ll have to look that up. On that subject can you tell me in your own words why you think interventions like this in PnP RPGs are important? Or even why these types of RPGs are important to consider? In my own work I’ve tried to make such games visible as I think they’re very underrated, both in terms of their cultural effects and in terms of their great potential to subvert a lot of hegemonic narratives about gender, etc.

FY: Humans, as animals, play games and tell stories. It’s what we do. A situation where a group of human animals sitting around and playing games as well as telling stories, well, that’s the human experience wrapped up pretty neatly. I love video games, but you can’t beat the magic in the personal interaction around a table. (Or even a video chat.) It’s a social experience for a social animal and we can learn a lot about each other in the process. Like, real, face to face learning. I can read about the African American experience, but sitting across a table form a gamer of color letting me know through her character as well as her personal anecdotes what it’s really like is a big change.

There are a lot of ‘ah hah’ moments around a table as we explore stories together, and bring our own experiences to them. That’s why I think it’s so important that we’re not doing the same Dungeons and Dragons, dungeon crawl adventure over and over. There’s nothing wrong with that style of play, but if that’s all we’re doing, we’re missing out on opportunities to have fun and learn in a new way. We need to use games to try out things we can’t personally experience. Games where violence isn’t the answer. Games where gender means something different, (or nothing at all.)

Games where we are people we can’t be in real life, or games where we see life from someone else’s shoes entirely. Those games, those stories, can help us all shrug off some of our baggage and see the world as a bigger, wider, more wonderful place. (Gee, preachy much?)

QM: No more preachy than I get, at least! *chuckles* I agree entirely, I think one of the biggest failings of all RPGs, whether video game or PnP, is that they tend to redound to normative social arrangements. Which is bizarre considering the whole point is for there to be this fantasy of limitless possibility that transcends the “real world.” On that note, perhaps you can tell me a bit more about how that influenced the creation of your upcoming RPG, Flatpack: Fix the Future. What made you want to make this game?

FY: So there’s the ‘be the change you want to see’ passed around. It’s something a lot of indie game designers really feel, and I find it inspiring. I thought about games I wanted to play, and more importantly, games that I wanted my daughters to play as they got older. I love Fallout, I loved Rifts when I was younger. I love a world AFTER the end when people are struggling, but more importantly, they are rebuilding. There are a lot of post apocalyptic games, but very few of them focus heavily on community and rebuilding. So, I could wait around to see if anyone else did it, or I could do it myself. I wanted a game that focused on traits not seen in more classically male-centric design. I wanted to see cooperation, friendship and compassion, and non violent conflict resolution. I wanted to encourage players to think through problems instead of punching through problems. I don’t see any inherent problem in violent games, I just think we need to do other things too.

QM: Very interesting! Post-apoc always turned me off due to how depressing it can be, so it’s interesting to see explorations of the more positive side of things. You had talked about how your game uses non-violent solutions to problems; while I’m always down for a good dungeon grind now and again, I have been troubled by the fact that most games seem to use violence as the sole metaphor for progress. It’s perhaps the easiest way to design an RPG- kill x, y, and z for experience- but also increasingly boring and uncreative. As you say, we need other things to do too. Can you talk a little bit about how Flatpack subverts that?

Flatpack: Fix the Future! (TM) - in sea green text, letters circumscribing blueprints.

FY: Well, it’s a bit about game currency and what rewards you give to the players. In many classic games, the player kills something, you give them magic beans to make their character better. (Experience points and level ups in many traditional games.) In Flatpack, the character advancement isn’t given for killing things. It’s tied to other things your character does. I give out video game style achievements. So, say, your character has successfully outsmarted a group of scavengers in a really fantastically clever way. The game rewards you by giving you a bonus to outsmarting scavengers in the future. Or, let’s say you failed to hack a really advanced AI, and the results were epic and awesome, you’re character know understands AIs better and will do better next time. I have to health levels. The non player characters don’t roll against the characters. It’s all about problems and obstacle and overcoming them creatively. There are no physical stats on the sheet. The in character text tells the players that their characters are special, exceptional, and too important to the future to risk death. Don’t fight, the text tells the players, because we need you too much.

QM: That’s very intriguing, so the game is built around creative storytelling mostly, with a minimum of statistical advancement?

FY: The core system is about a page long. Super simple, so much that a seven year old could probably grok it. It’s so simple, in fact, it almost begs to be hacked. Which is what character advancement is tied to. In the way that Magic the Gathering as a simple set of rules, and each card hacks those rules and changes the game, Achievements hack the characters in Flatpack. We all love playing the exception to the rule, after all. The core rules say that you only get a magic bean (Spirit points in this game) whenever your character does X or Y. But thanks to your Achievement, you now get those points at X, Y and Z.

QM: Hacking is probably one of my favourite metaphors with regards to RPGs. *grins* I often think of the games themselves as being, potentially, ‘culture hacks.’ So, what are the titular Flatpacks of the game?

FY: Here’s where I show what a geek I am. There’s an episode of Doctor Who with David Tennant where he ends up on a space station on the edge of a black hole. As he’s getting out of the TARDIS, he mentions that the station is one of those ‘flatpack models.’ It’s a sort of passing reference. I do a lot of shopping at Ikea, and a lot of my furniture comes out of flat boxes with that adorable big-nosed guy telling me how to put them together. I got this image of a future where you buy, say, a box that has a whole pet shop in it. Or a whole teaching hospital. Or a whole museum.

Open it up, follow the instructions, and you have a fully functional building. Then, I thought of a future way past that invention where people are rediscovering that technology. “Well, our city has court house, and a mini mall, but we really wish we had a doctor’s office. Or a post office.” You’d end up with these crazy mishmashes of buildings at varying usefulness. It’s pretty quirky, and it’s where a lot of humor in the game comes in.

QM: Hah! That’s delightful. And I imagine part of the fun might come from creatively repurposing some of these buildings, which can be mini adventures in and of themselves. So, you’ve written this modular game which, as you say, begs to be hacked- which raises interesting possibilities. What is the direction you hope to take Flatpack in? Do you see yourself writing supplements? And if so, what will they be about?

FY: I wrote it with room for expansion in mind. I’m hoping, time permitting, that I can release new sets of buildings and new modes of play. Currently, the game assumes that you’re a group of kids or young adults rebuilding one city so that the people of your underground bomb shelter have a place to live and grow. I could see hacking the game so that you’re each looking over the well being of your own city. Or one where trade, import and export, and diplomacy are a big function of the game as other newly established cities and communities vie for limited resources.

I have, down the road, plans to take the core of the game, and twisting it to a game about catching and taming dragons. That one will be a completely separate game geared toward family play. I had a lot of ideas, ways to layer the game to add to complexity, but I decided to leave that out of the core game to keep it affordable and easy to access if you want to play it with preteens or whatever. It’s a YA game, really, and I don’t want to overwhelm new players. Not at first.

QM: That also intrigues me. You say it’s a YA game, and that you also designed it with your daughters in mind. It still seems all too rare that game devs think about women or girls (or queer people, or people of colour) in development. Would you say that that’s still the state of the PnP RPG industry? And have you seen changes in your time working in the industry?

FY: Well, for PnP, it’s really a series of niche hobbies that have enough similarity to them that they crash into each other. I’m among the dirty hippy crowd who make experimental games. There’s a lot of attention to inclusion and reaching out to a wider audience in that crowd. There are also schools of thought that if it was good enough for Gygax, it should be good enough for us. I do a lot of headbutting over character art and ‘you can’t play that, that’s not realistic’ with those sorts. There’s room for a lot of styles of play, and I know a lot of the bigger publishers are reaching out to a wider audience.

Cam Banks of Margret Weis, for example, made damn sure that there’s a lot of welcome room for the young lady gamer is the Smallville RPG, which I can’t recommend enough, on a design level and on a philosophical one. Daniel Solis, working with Fred Hicks and Evil Hat do some AMAZING games with young, all-shades-and-color gamers in mind. Do is, without a doubt, an amazing piece of welcoming gaming.

Elizabeth Sampet, Emily Care Boss, Meguey Baker and Julia Ellingboe explore gender and race in some games that run from very heavy to light and wonderful. And this is all just people off the top of my head trying to change things. Plus, there’s a lot of subversive voices working their way into the big names. Tracy Hurley is very active with Wizards and D&D and she has a lot of amazing things to say. It gets better every day.

QM: Yes, I have to say I’m inclined to agree. One of the things I love about RPGs of this sort is that they’re much cheaper to make and the barrier for creative entry is a ways lower. It can be less daunting to raise, say, 5000 dollars for a PnP game in seed money rather than having to find venture capitalists with 50 million dollars lying around. Another RPG I have a lot of hope for is Eclipse Phase, have you heard of it? You’ll be holding a Kickstarter event for Flatpack this month, yes?

FY: Yeah. The plan is to have it about a month long through the middle of February. Kickstarter is a great equalizer, as it allows a lot of projects to be crowd sourced and brought to life that might never have seen the light of day in the past. It’s changing everything. I hope it helps indie video games the way it’s helping indie PnP games.

QM: Likewise! Any closing thoughts about anything we haven’t covered here?

FY: You really let me talk, *chuckles* I just wanted to say that I hear a lot of ‘but there aren’t women in gaming.’ I want to say that’s straight up not true. We’re here playing, we’re here creating, and the more of us that stand up and reach out, the better it gets for everyone. Minorities of any stripe are a big part of gaming, and instead of ignoring them, we need to be creating for them. Welcoming them, and inviting them to game and design with us. There’s plenty of room for everyone.

A character from EVE online, a woman with light skin, platinum blonde hair, and blue eyeshadow. She is wearing a tan jacket with black stripes on the shoulder and sleeves, and a black graphic tee.

I Don’t Exist in EVE

A character from EVE online, a woman with light skin, platinum blonde hair, and blue eyeshadow. She is wearing a tan jacket with black stripes on the shoulder and sleeves, and a black graphic tee.

A lady who knows just how important internet-spaceships are.

guest post by Tsumei

I have been a gamer since I snuck down the stairs to the basement as a young child to watch my dad play Doom and Return to castle wolfenstein on an old computer. I’m bisexual, I’m transsexual and generally sexual: I’m kind of an intellectual without a cause, I guess feminist is a label that can easily be placed on me, but I generally dislike such labels, my opinions are my own, they need no generalizing. I’m also abundantly interested in discussing and dissecting every part of a game or community because I think it can reveal a lot of interesting topics beyond the obvious..

Let me preface that a bit more…

I am a gamer. I play EVE online, and have been active within the game for… a depressing amount of time. Let’s say if you guessed five years you might be right. Let’s also say I had many a night of alarm-clocking so I could get up, set another skill to train(*1) and get back to bed, because hah! There is no way I would let a few hours of precious skill-training go to waste. So at this point I sound like a massive no-lifer who will have a fight to the death about whether or not WoW is better than EVE right?


You see. The fact is that I am an elitist, a person who attempts to be the best possible at the role adopted and excel in order to advance more easily or simply finds the enjoyment of the game is derived partly from “getting it”. From being good at this because of dedication and experience. But I can’t be this no lifer, or this actually dedicated gamer because when people talk to me they add a “s” before the “he”.

It’s an issue that needs to be addressed. I’ve personally spent great effort in the game putting myself in a space where I am just another player, and it works! I have a group of mostly adult and mature people surrounding me, which leads to a gamingspace where the concept of “Just because I’m a girl” doesn’t exist! And that is awesome. The problem however is that this space is created because I am a leader. I have personally influenced and molded the community that spans a few hundred people with strong opinions and other leadership-members who are passionate about equality and peoples right to just be people. So perhaps my own involvement hasn’t shaped it all, but the case is that either way this is a very rare group of people in this exact game.

Thing is, that allows me to forget I don’t exist. It doesn’t make me exist, it simply hides the truth that if I were to join another group of players in the game, chat to them in chat channels and generally hang out this would all be fine. Until. Until I get on voice-communications with them, Or until I mention in a channel that I prefer “she” to “he” and “dude”. I’m not attempting to say that just because I am a girl, I need special treatment, I simply want to acknowledge the fact that I am myself, and really can there even be anything wrong with correcting someones assumption about you?

The community of EVE is a marvel of MMO creation. It is literally an amazing thing. I have played many MMO games in my time, many of these for extended periods of time, but the one thing that is pervasive within all parts of EVE is that everyone knows somebody who knows somebody else. Heard the theory of Six degrees of separation? That is very true even in EVE, Heck it might even be fewer steps. And this builds a strong community, it allows much more easily for the concept of “eFame”, Friends of friends frequently help people switch corporations (Kind of like guilds.) – and due to the cutthroat nature of the game this is exploited often, and ruthlessly.

So why is it that in a community that is so advanced, there are still these problems?

I think there are many reasons for this. Eve is perhaps the only game that ardently still believes the statement “There are no girls in EVE”. And there is evidence to support this. The demographics of EVE show that a humongous majority of players are infact male, and the roleplay community has many female characters but few female players. It comes down to the age old reasons that have partly diminished in other online spaces.

For one, you are a girl, so in a game where the only actual assets you ever have are material, and none of your character can really “lose” anything but your spaceship, the presumption that you want something is even greater. The fact that men will pretend to be women in order to get things does not help this along. Secondly you -will- be hit on. This may not be the “Romeo and Juliet” style courting the man(in most cases) believes it is, rather it would be ranging all the way from stalker-esque attractions to the guys who genuinely believe they have to insult you for you to start liking them. Yes. That happened.

“Nice guy syndrome” is very prevalent, in fact I know many people I would say suffer from it off the top of my head. And it’s a very strange thing. I feel it’s almost especially strong in EVE, because the nature of the game is so inherently geeky, the concepts and the mechanics attract the typical nerd archetype, and with it you get all kinds of different boys who will claim to just be nice to you whilst “secretly” wanting to fuck you. And if you decline them then clearly you must be a “slutty bitch who only likes douchebags”. Ironic really since it takes such a douchebag to say that.

So do I exist?

No. I do not. I do not exist in EVE online until hearing me in a fleet isn’t going to always provoke the question “Oh wow, was that a girl?” – Don’t take from this that I will pretend to be something other than what I am however, although admittedly I did for two years pretend to be male and not use voicecomms. But this was several years ago, and the stigma of girls in eve was harsh. Really harsh.

I just don’t think we can really say that the gamespace as a whole accepts my existance until I am no longer a surprise. Sure in my community everyone is used to me. But as I previously mentioned, this is extremely rare. There is a channel in the game that I wish to mention, it is called “WGoE” – Women Gamers of EVE. It is a space where women both cis and trans can exist within EVE, and I wholly support it’s existance because it gives you a place to talk to and bitch at people without having to deal with the boys. Should women lock themselves away from men in games and create elite little communities? Certainly not. But do they have the right to create a space where they can just be girls within their gaming, without having to worry about being judged or hassled by men? Definitely.

Men could of course create their own little communities aswell! Why not. But it’s when you start to spawn that idea that you realise the entire gamespace is the mens club. There are literally alliances whom have had their forums copied and posted publically on the internet, and the sheer ammount of relentless misogyny was just frightening.

I hope EVE will grow in a positive way, and that sometime, I too will exist.

*1: Skill training in eve is like “leveling” in other more traditional MMO games, You gain skills by a factor of time passed, and can influence the skillgain per hour through ingame means to some extent. Thus sometimes a skill ends training at 4 in the morning. ( Now you can Queue them, this was not true for many many years )

*This is the first in a line of articles I hope to create specifically on the communities in eve online. I want to explore some of the darker sides of the eve community to get a feeling for how big the problem of inequality in our gaming space may be.

A labor organizer’s review of Cory Doctorow’s For the Win

An alternative cover for <em>For the Win</em>.  A young man in a baseball cap climbs over a fence.  Behind him stands mecha suit.

The cover of For the Win. Three Asian teenagers stand in a line, wearing helmets and riot shields. A tagline reads, "Online or offline. You've got to organize to survive."

The following is a repost of a book review I wrote of Cory Doctorow’s novel For the Win that I posted on the Feminist Science Fiction Blog.  I am sharing my book review here because Border House readers may find Doctorow’s themes of gaming and social justice relevant and engaging.

Just when I think my interests are obscure, blogger, journalist, and author of science fiction Cory Doctorow is there for me. When I wrote my English literature master’s thesis on posthumanism and Disney theme parks and my advisor suggested I talk about, you know, literature in my the thesis for my literature degree, Doctor’s first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was there for me. Now, just when I think my academic interests in virtual economies, my enthusiasm for gaming, and my participation in labor activism will never intersect, I read Doctorow’s latest novel, For the Win. My thoughts on the novel follow, from my perspective as both a labor organizer and gamer.

Before I go on to review For the Win, you can click the above link to download the book. Doctorow, a Creative Commons pioneer, releases all his books online. I don’t have the attention span to read a novel on the computer screen (plus it feels too much like reading fanfic), but I appreciate the accessibility of his literature.

For the Win is a revival of early 20th century labor novels; it’s a story of class struggle in a world where 8 out of the twenty largest economies are in virtual worlds. Gold farmers and other virtual workers organize the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web (or Webblies) to fight back against the bosses stealing their wages. The struggle is chronicled through a diverse cast of mostly teenagers and young people in the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, India, the factory cities of South China, and the red-light district of Singapore. Characters include the 15-year-old Mala, also known as “General Robotwalla,” who commands her own virtual army, and her best friend Yasmin, who stands up to strikebreaking thugs and union bureaucrats alike. Both girls are both formidable in a fight online and off. Then there is Leonard, a rich American teenage Chinaphile who changes his name to Wei-Dong and smuggles himself to China in a shipping container to join his guildmates in the struggle. My favorite of the guildmates is Lu, who stood up for factory girls when they were locked out of their sweatshop. Another hero is Jie, a young woman whose arms are branded with the corporate logos of the sweatshops she’s worked in. Jie runs a popular radio show and tells the millions of factory girl listeners to stand up to their bosses and stand with their sisters. Jie is a catalyst in instigating a general strike amongst the sweatshop workers in solidarity with gold farmers.

I’ve just noted some of the major characters; For the Win has a huge cast. These young workers follow the guidance of Big Sister Nor, an Indonesian labor organizer who has moved from organizing sweatshops towards online workers. She founds the IWWWW, which is a revival of the historic Industrial Workers of the World (or the Wobblies), the radical labor union comprised of anarchists and other socialists that organized as many as 300,000 workers in the United States during its peak years in the 1910s and 1920s. Doctorow briefly explains some of the history of the Wobblies and defines some labor terms like wildcat strike (when workers strike without the support of a union), scabs (workers hired to break strikes) and Pinkertons (thugs hired to beat up strikers, named after the Pinkerton detective agency) for his teenage audience who probably is unfamiliar with labor history thanks to the erasure of labor movements from mainstream textbooks. As Doctorow writes through the perspective of Big Sister Nor:

They called themselves the Webblies, which was an obscure little joke that pleased Big Sister Nor an awful lot. Nearly a century ago, a group of workers had formed a union called the Industrial Workers of the World, the first union that said that all workers needed to stick up for each other, that every worker was welcome no matter the color of his skin, no matter if the worker was a woman, no matter if the worker did “skilled” or “unskilled” work. They called themselves the Wobblies.

I’ll elaborate a little bit on the history of the Wobblies because I find their revival as Webblies in For the Win to be fascinating. The Wobblies intentionally differed from the moderate American Federation of Labor AFL unions that were organized around craftsmen (use of men is intentional) and excluded people based on gender, immigration, race, and skill to protect unionized workers. This exclusion was based on the fear that women, immigrants, people of color, and unskilled workers would work for less money and bring down wages for everyone. The Wobblies had a different perspective, and believed in organizing everyone into one big union. The IWW’s critique of traditional unionism can be found in the preamble of their constitution:

The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

AFL union leaders made backroom, undemocratic deals with bosses that screwed over rank-and-file workers. The Wobblies, on the other hand, organized everyone and believed in one big union. The IWW’s critique of traditional unions is essentially a critique of the classic divide and conquer tactic utilized by oppressors across the ages; make sure that the people with the least (be they workers, women, people of color, and so on) fight amongst themselves. Doctorow imagines how workers in a global economy might resist contemporary manifestations of divide and conquer. Many of the characters in For the Win, who have worked in sweatshops and stood up against unjust working conditions both as individuals or collectively, have seen how bosses and owners utilize this tactic in contemporary transnational business models: a worker resist as an individual, and she is fired and replaced by someone desperate for a job. Workers resist collectively, and their factory is shut down and moved to a country with even worse labor laws. The Webblies, our clever heroes, adapt the Wobbly philosophy for “an injury to one is an injury to all” and organize across borders through the virtual worlds in which they work.

In short, Doctorow captures some of the key philosophies of the Wobblies through his fictional Webblies revival: solidarity across race, and gender. This tactic is an especially smart response to the challenges organizers face in the 2010s–and I’m going to recommend this book to activist friends who know little of virtual worlds because their is fertile ground here for organizing. I also hope that this novel will inspire young people, gamers and virtual workers, to form their own Webbly locals in real life; since the nineteenth century utopian novel Looking Backward science fiction has a tradition of informing real world practices, and For the Win is an awesome candidate to continue this tradition.

An alternative cover for For the Win. A young man in a baseball cap climbs over a fence. Behind him stands mecha suit.

An alternative cover for For the Win. A young man in a baseball cap climbs over a fence. Behind him stands mecha suit. A tagline reads, "In the virtual future, you've got to organize to survive."

(Here on out I vaguely discuss the end of the book, be warned!)

The Webblies miss out on adapting other key elements from the traditional Wobblies, however: direct democracy and the abolition of capitalism. How the Webblies organize themselves is not fully explained in For the Win, but characters seem to defer to Big Sister Nor for leadership. At risk of being spoilery, Big Sister Nor challenges the Webblies dependence on her leadership and declares when she is matyred: “I am nothing more than the switchboard. You all lead yourselves.” Big Sister Nor reminds me of the martyred labor activist and songwriterJoe Hill‘s famous last words in 1915, “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize!” that evolved into the activist slogan, “don’t mourn, organize.”

By the conclusion of For the Win, Big Sister Nor’s last message catches, and on the Webblies by the novel’s conclusion are self-empowered and autonomous–to an extent.

To explain my point, I’d like to include a dialogue from the book. Before Mala joins the Webblies, her army works as Pinkertons and virtually attacks gold farmers. One of Mala’s soldiers, Sushant, considers defecting and joining the Webblies. He confesses to Yasmin, who at this point is already a member of the IWWWW:

“But now I think that there’s no reason that Mrs Dotta’s job is more important than my mother’s job. Ammaji wouldn’t have a job without Mrs Dotta’s factory, but Mrs Dotta wouldn’t have a factory without ammaji’s work, right?” He [Sushant] waggled his chin defiantly.

“That’s right,” Yasmin said. She was nervous about being in public with this boy, but she had to admit that it was exciting to hear this all from him.

“So why should Mrs Dotta have the right to fire my mother, but my mother not have the right to fire Mrs Dotta? If they depend on each other, why should one of them always have the power to demand and the other one always have to ask for favors?”

Yasmin felt his excitement, but she knew that there had to be more to it than this. “Isn’t Mrs Dotta taking all the risk? Doesn’t she have to find the money to start the factory, and doesn’t she lose it if the factory closes?”

“Doesn’t ammaji risk losing her job? Doesn’t Ammaji risk growing sick from the fumes and the chemicals in the dyes? There’s nothing eternal or perfect or natural about it! It’s just something we all agreed to — bosses get to be in charge, instead of just being another kind of worker who contributes a different kind of work!”

“And that’s what you think you’ll get from the Webblies? An end to bosses?”

He looked down, blushing. “No,” he said. “No, I don’t think so. I think that it’s too much to ask for. But maybe the workers can get a better deal. That’s what Big Sister Nor talks about, isn’t it? Good pay, good places to work, fairness? Not being fired just because you disagree with the boss?”

I’ve included the dialogue leading up to the part I’ve bolded to capture some of Doctorow’s didactic writing style (which I’m fond of, in the tradition of labor novels) that reveals his perspectives through the dialogue of characters. Here, Sushant stresses that the Webblies have reasonable demands; they don’t want to disrupt hierarchies, but just make them more equitable. This demand contrasts the demands of the original Wobblies, who famously asserted in their preamble that “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common” and “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system’.”

The Webblies build towards a general strike, a tactic in which all members of an industry, or all industries, shut down in solidarity with striking comrades, practicing the slogan, “an injury to one is an injury all.” In For the Win, the general strike spontaneously breaks out early (struggles for justice are as much spontaneous as they are planned) when the police in China masacre 42 of the Webblies. In solidarity with all workers, hundreds of thousands of workers go on strike in multiple countries, including the women who work in sweatshops thanks to the radio host Jie building connections between their movements.

I was excited to see a general strike implemented in young adult science fiction. I found the conclusion a bit disappointing, however, because Wei-Dong and other Webbly leaders make a deal with bosses that is mutually beneficial to both parties. Ultimately Wei-Dong is unwilling to destroy the games he loves. (Which raises interesting questions about the investment we have in the unjust but pleasurable systems we participate in. Would it have been possible for the Webblies to seize control of the virtual worlds to the point that they ran them? Perhaps that is a question for another novel.) The Webblies become like the AFL of the previous century; they’ve made a deal with the people who oppress them rather than creating a socially just society democratically run by workers. On the other hand, I can appreciate that the Webblies are not attached to a particular ideology or revolutionary vision; their struggle is a fresh and innovative fight against multinational corporations and capitalism.

I also want to note that the Wobblies still exist today and operate on the same principals they organized around during their early decades. I hope young gamers who are inspired by For the Win look into getting involved with an IWW local, and that activists might be inspired by this book to think creatively about how we might utilize virtual spaces to organize.

Why write about For the Win on a feminist blog? Foremost, class struggle has been and still is a feminist concern if our goal is to create a socially just world. Second, I want to give this book props for centering women as the key players in a social movement. This book gave me a lot to cheer for: Jie, who keeps her cool as she fled from safehouse to safehouse to continue broadcasting her subversive radio show; a factory girl who publicly called out sexually abusive boss; Mala, who commands a virtual army and singlehandedly puts a would-be sexual assailant in the hospital; Yasmin, who stood up to old labor leaders who refused to see her work as legitimate labor; Big Sister Nor, who recruited activists across national borders and language barriers; and the hundreds of factory girls who battle cops in the street when the police try to break their strikes. For the Win is indulgent fiction at its best, and gives me plenty to root for.

The Mistress of the Lash Wears Chains

A Drow matron. ((A dark skinned and white haired elf woman in scant red and black leather sitting on a throne))

In a conversation I was having with a date recently I told her when describing my video gaming habits that the “analysis never stops.”  This was largely to explain the cubic litres of geekiness I effervesce whenever I get going in some discussion about gaming and/or social science, and I often remark that I find the line between the two to be quite fuzzy. This is, in short, why I eagerly applied to be a writer at Border House because it provides a well put-together forum for precisely these kinds of musings that would be seen as over serious navel-gazing elsewhere.

This leads me to today’s topic: fantasy matriarchy. The best known example of this would, of course, be the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons. The dark elves who openly subordinate their men, worship a spider goddess, and are lead by a collection of great houses, all ruled by women, building up to the Queen of the Underdark, the Ur-matriarch.  It is worth mentioning in a brief aside that the ubiquitous concept in Western fantasy of dark elves being “the evil ones” is problematic in its own right and continues a long standing and not-coincidental association of whiteness with goodness, and darkness with evilness.

Yet beyond this is the often unregarded issue of this obsession with matriarchy which appears occasionally in fantasy environments, including most recently World of Warcraft. In my return to the game, I’ve levelled my beloved Holy Priest in short order, and as I was driving headlong through the seventies I stumbled onto the Hyldnir of Brunnhildar Village. I won’t spoil anything in this lengthy questline but spoilers are not really required to illustrate the fact that the Hyldnir are an oppressive matriarchal village of frost vrykuls (large humanoid creatures whose culture was given many Norse influences) who enslave men in their mines. As I played through the quests and encountered writing that beat one over the head with the idea that the Hyldnir hated men I began to wonder just what drove the obsession with these matriarchies. I then realised that this was the flip side of ‘male fantasy’- which is ‘male nightmare.’

World of Warcraft's Hyldnir. ((A tall, blue, strongly built woman, wearing dark armour.))

We often speak of various elements and imagery in these games being suited to the gaze of a presumed heterosexual cis male audience and subsume this under the heading of “male fantasy”- fantasy suited to men who fit the hegemonic ideals of what heterosexual men should be interested in. On the same token, however, male nightmare is oriented towards what this mythic man should be duly scared by. This is not to say that women wouldn’t be put off by such a crude matriarchy, but that we are not the ones held in mind when such stories as that of the Hyldnir or Drow are conjured- except inasmuch as we become incidental and often sexualised actors in this fantasy.

The Myth of Female Power

Driving these depictions is a pantomime of female sexual and social power that is readily adapted into a form that exists only at the expense of men, and thus becomes the ‘male-nightmare.’ The often crude portrayal of matriarchy in the mould of the Drow is also a resolutely sexual image. This is somewhat less true of WoW’s Hyldnir, but anyone with a passing familiarity with Dungeons & Dragons knows that the Drow are often very sexualised. Concomitant with fear of female domination is a sort of parody of female sexual liberation.

It is often cast as something to be feared in these worlds, providing a salacious mixture of male-gaze oriented imagery (the infamous chainmail bikini being standard issue among women in fantasy matriarchies) and the male-nightmare of women overthrowing men and oppressing them both socially and sexually, a thoroughgoing inversion of patriarchy that is rendered far less subtle than its counterpart.

It is here that we find ourselves at an intersection of many different kinds of sexual politics and one of the more interesting imbrications is the link to kink. The association of Drow-style matriarchs with dominatrixes is hardly a coincidence, and the figure of the dominatrix- whether in gaming, fantasy stories, or comic books, is often configured as evil. She is interpolated as a ‘bad guy’- a villainess archetype- and thus reifies the kinkster’s own performance of antagonist. It divorces the concept of ‘dominatrix’ from its roots in the BDSM community and all context. Where a real dominatrix might be an empowered woman who can fight injustice in the world (see Clarisse Thorn for quite a potent real world example), those often portrayed in games, films, and comics are reduced to clichéd baddies who are as deep as a puddle.

In playing through the fascinating and downright fun new content just released in World of Warcraft I nevertheless found myself shaking my head at the dominatrix’s latest appearance in this game as a named figure in the form of a demon matron who had, as you might have guessed, enchained three men and was holding them hostage as bait so that she might entrap your character as well. The quest text itself refers to her as a dominatrix! When you oblige her by showing up, she appears on the scene and floating quite prominently above her head is the title <Mistress of Chains>.

Here's the text for the quest that has your character slay the "Mistress of Chains." ((A WoW quest text box with an image of a six armed, green skinned and scantily clad woman beside it, the text beneath her saying "Foul demon dominatrix! Get her heart!"))


The imagery of kink and S&M is often appropriated into clichéd descriptions and representations of sadism and villainy. To use another Dungeons & Dragons example, in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting there is a goddess whose motif is very heavily BDSM-themed: Loviatar. Care to guess her alignment? Lawful Evil.[1] It is more than a little distressing to see that a certain kind of sexuality, when expressed by women, must always be cast as evil and must always be portrayed as expressed at men’s expense.

Zero Sum Minus Ten

From Dragon Age: Origins another demon with sexual overtones. The Desire Demon, and the only one with a feminine gender to boot. Here she is seen groping her breast. Because that's just what us sexual women do totally randomly all the time.

In Star Wars canon we also find the matriarchy trope arising in the form of the Hapan and the Witches of Dathomir. Both are, again, brutal and cruel matriarchies where the outright disenfranchisement of men is commonplace and they are socially conceived of as inferior while women fight and rule. Among the Dathomiri witches, men are explicitly portrayed as breeding devices for the women and little else. It is a blatant caricature and parody of patriarchy and another example of how it seems so difficult for (the very often male) authors of fantasy and science fiction to envision empowered women who aren’t oppressing men.[2]

It is not pure happenstance, I feel, that a male friend of mine told me about WoW’s Hyldnir in the following way: “Hey, Quin, did you see the feminazi village? You’d love it!”


These are the kinds of thoughts that such portrayals are meant to sire, and the connections that are drawn between empowerment, feminism, liberated sexuality, and these matriarchies are clear enough. They are another manifestation of the zero sum fears held by many who are invested in various aspects of our kyriarchical world. The fear that women’s liberation would lead to the oppression of men is as old as the various worldwide movements themselves and this current in society’s collective id bubbles up again and again in these fantasy worlds. But when it comes to the matriarchies of sexualised women there is an odd and compelling intersection between the male-fantasy and the male-nightmare.

It is of note that the women in these settings who are portrayed as ‘good guys’ are very often asexual (at least, outside of fanfic and fan-porn) and that the paragons of virtue- good-aligned priests and paladins- are also modelled on a distinctly Judeo-Christian model of virtue-through-chastity. Not too long ago I talked about how roleplaying offers the individual gamer a myriad of avenues through which one can destabilise these archetypes. One of the issues I dwelled on was that my characters were sexual and sometimes kinky women who were also morally virtuous and fought evil in their world. Their virtue was not contained in a hackneyed notion of sexual purity, embodying the ‘good’ side of the Madonna/whore dichotomy, but through their actions in the world, the meaning thereof, and their love (sometimes expressed sexually).

A World of Warcraft Succubus: I keep asking about coincidences in this piece but is it really by chance that her primary physical weapon is a whip?

The sexually liberated woman is thus tamed through her domestication in the form of these archetypal femmes fatale. She is turned into a mere cardboard cutout, a spectacle for the heterosexual male gaze, a screen onto which he may project his nightmares, and to top it all off a villain in many cases. From the ancient myths of the Amazons and Lysistrata into the present day we find this trope recurring again and again in patriarchal culture. A woman’s sexuality is her downfall, and if it isn’t then she must be evil and using it explicitly against men rather than with (or without) them. The nightmare of privilege is the reversal of one’s power, to be left in the position of those one subordinates and for one’s erstwhile inferiors to become one’s masters. In this day and age this trope is expressed by the common political cliché that holds that civil rights has gone “too far” or that things have gone “too far the other way”- from that wellspring comes all the theatrics concerning ‘reverse racism’ and so forth. It is a vision that represents the ultimate internalisation of systems of domination: an inability to think outside those terms.

We should see more dominatrixes portrayed as heroes, and more women characters who are not alienated from their sexuality; women whose freedom does not come at the expense of men and whose power does not exist solely for the entertainment and titillation of a heterosexual male audience. I would also like to see more societies with gender equality as a central feature, where these strong women share a stage with men and people of other genders in sovereign equality. It does not seem terribly difficult to portray, the ingredients are all there, and fiction that creates interesting female characters whose sexuality isn’t alien to them is not hard to find nor is it especially new either.

Some might now interject and say that I’m nitpicking, that if good-aligned women were shown as being more sexual I’d simply then turn around and accuse the writers/developers of objectification. The response to that critique is simple: the very thing I am arguing against here is that there are two modes for women characters: madonna or whore. There is a way to portray women’s virtue and women’s sexuality (even leatherbound and masochistic sexuality) concurrently in the same person. Sexuality is myriad and need not simply exist in one over-stereotyped mould either. We can make women characters who are noble but not the archetypal madonna, and sexual but not the archetypal whore.

There is a good deal more to be said on the subject of women-as-villains and the fact that we are often very poorly rendered as such. Our only weapons as villains are sexuality and half-baked hyperfeminised madness, and our chief targets always seem to be men. We deserve better villains, and more creative social structures. The next mistress of the lash I see ought to be free.

[1] To be fair to Forgotten Realms and my own D&D theological geekery, however, there are goddesses who are both sexual and virtuous. Descriptions of the goddess Sune and the demigoddess Lastai both readily refer to their sexuality and how their faiths support free love. But it nevertheless remains notable that a BDSM motif is apportioned to the evil sex goddess.

[2] Here we also find some moral complexity. The Hapan are not explicitly evil per se, and one of the guiding principles of most of the Dathomiri witch clans is “Never concede to evil”- nevertheless any cursory analysis of Hapan culture, particularly its aristocracy, finds much that is morally dubious and the Nightsisters of Dathomir- one of the witch clans- is explicitly evil and the fact of their universal domination of men in their cultures again raises the question of why this must necessarily be a feature of a society with powerful women among its leaders.

Two recent gaming related deaths [trigger warnings]

Memorial for Kimberly Proctor, whose murder was plotted online and confessed in World of Warcraft.

Memorial for Kimberly Proctor, whose murder was plotted online and confessed in World of Warcraft.

Every so often, a gaming-related death makes the news and there is a public outcry vs. gamers defending their hobby.  There were two in the news this week.

A 22-year-old woman from Jacksonville, Florida, recently pleaded guilty to killing her baby because its crying interrupted Farmville.  She shook baby Dylan to death.  Read more on Kotaku or  Be warned, the comments are (as you might expect), offensive.  They range from classist jokes suggesting mandatory birth control to blaming the woman, Alexandra Tobias, for being an unwed mother.  On Kotaku, readers know better than to blame the videogame, but they are quick to blame Tobias for failing to confirm to the ideals of middle class white motherhood.  Certainly Tobias ultimately responsible for murdering a baby, but I am sure that being stigmatized for her lifestyle choices did not help manage her stress levels.

What’s worst is that 114,972 people and counting “like” this story on Facebook.  You can share stuff on FB without clicking “like,” so why would people “like” that this woman killed her child?

Then yesterday, CTV reports that two teenage boys in Vancouver, BC, admitted to raping and murdering 18-year-old Kimberly Proctor in March.  Apparently they planned her murder online, and then one of the boys admitted it in World of Warcraft.  CTV reports that “experts say it’s likely the line between fantasy and reality became blurred” and quote University of British Columbia psychology professor Bonnie Leadbeater: “You don’t know which aggressive kid is going to take the fantasies of video games and try them out in reality. You just can’t predict those very rare occurrences.”

My initial reaction is to scoff and say these experts don’t know anything about videogames, but on the other hand, I do believe that fantasy worlds have an impact on reality.  Take the phenomenon of gold farming, for example, which is a multimillion dollar economy, making what happens in a virtual world have a material impact on people’s real lives.  Is it so farfetched that violence enacted in a virtual world would inform real world violence?  The rationale “it’s just a game” doesn’t fly for me.

While I agree with most gamers who know videogames are not to blame for violence, videogames are not innocent toys, either.  Games exist in the same culture that demonizes single moms or treats women as rapable objects.  I’m not going to quit violent games anytime soon because I can’t divorce myself from every problematic piece of media that represents the fucked up values of my culture at large.  But I will continue to game with diligence, denounce offensive portrayals of women and other marginalized people, and confront rape culture online and off.