Tag Archives: feminism

Grand Theft Discourse: Comment Culture and Petty Hatred

GameSpot's logo; each letter of the word "GameSpot" is circumscribed by a circle with a red border, while the 'O" is surrounded by a starburst.

“Still harping on the same subject, you will exclaim—How can I avoid it, when most of the struggle of an eventful life has been occasioned by the oppressed state of my sex: we reason deeply, when we forcibly feel.

— Mary Wollstonecraft, emphasis mine.

When contemplating the locks behind which lay the internet id’s sewage, it always helps to remember what often causes them to swing open and let slip the furious, malodorous torrent of utterly degraded commentary: women who speak their minds.

Adding to the litany of women caught by the deluge of threats and bigotry, GameSpot editor and critic Carolyn Petit has been attacked by online commenters because she gave Grand Theft Auto V a near perfect review. A 9/10 was her verdict; however, some particularly and lamentably vocal fans wanted her to bless the game with a 10/10. Yes: for want of a lone point she has been called everything from a “bitch” to a “tranny” to “a shitty trap” to demanding that GameSpot “never, ever, let a woman review games like this!” to a “mentally ill freak”—the term “self-mutilating” came up far too many times to count.

Some of the more “reasonable” commentary bemoaned such extremes but, of course, sought to reassure us that not all gamers are like this and that, after all, these people are mere individuals (hovering somewhere between the ages of twelve and fifteen) who are solely responsible for their own vulgarity.

To this, I ask what I have always asked: How many individuals does it take before it becomes a social problem?

Time and again we see these cresting tidal waves of hateful spew, in which we can only see the screaming oblivion to which these people would consign democratic discourse. The comments Ms. Petit received display a singular lack of humanity that we must take upon ourselves to heal. To look at the hatred directed at women who speak their minds is to see the wracking death of discourse and, indeed, the source-code of patriarchy itself. Ms. Petit’s crime was to mention— offhandedly, no less, in an eight minute review that was mostly focused on non-political issues—the fact that GTA V relegates its women characters to outmoded and dehumanising archetypes. For this, she was put in the YouTube stocks.

For giving the game a 9/10 instead of a 10/10, it bears repeating. Continue reading

WisCon Panel “Feminism in Gaming 2013”

Stealth elf - a dual blade wielding character from Skylanders

Stealth elf – a dual blade wielding character from Skylanders

At the end of last month, Madison, Wisconsin was home to the annual science fiction feminist convention known as WisCon. Gaming has made its way into some of the panels in recent years and the following will be a summary of some of the points made during the Feminism in Gaming 2013 panel.

Panel description - 2012 was a watershed year for discussion of misogyny in gaming, in many ways: Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter to examine misogyny in gaming, the backlash against it, and the counter-backlash; discussion of art direction in D&D Next; attacks on Felicia Day; the launch of the Gaming as Women blog; and other developments. What has happened so far in 2013? Is the amount of backlash more an indication that misogyny is getting worse, or that we’re finally getting around to the painful but necessary conversations? How much progress have we made, and what still needs to be done? #FeminismInGaming

There was a wonderful handout available at the panel and it is still online for those that would like to see it: Links to websites and interesting articles from 2012/2013

 

Some important moments from the last year

- the interviews during promotion for Tomb Raider that referenced wanting to protect Lara and threats of sexual violence against her character

- the backlash against Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter but also the counter-backlash that quickly funded the project

- the closing of Glitch, the multiplayer game

- #1ReasonWhy, the Twitter hashtag used by women in the video game industry describing some of the misogyny that they have experienced in their careers

- Dungeons and Dragons Next art direction

 

Does buying problematic games mean that we end up supporting their further development and also continue to support the stereotypes that the games portray?

-Having limited funds for games also means you limit your choices – if you can only get one or two new games a year, it can become difficult to decide where to spent your money.

- One possible way to experience a game that you feel may have problematic elements without first purchasing it is to either rent it or borrow the game from a friend and then make the decision if you want to purchase the game itself.

- These decisions are further complicated when games have things that you love and want to support but still have problematic elements. One example mentioned was 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. It is a puzzle/adventure game that is text heavy which is an under represented type of game, but it had sexist representations of female characters. But the game as a whole contains both of these elements.

- One way to deal with problematic elements in games is to spread the word about those issues. Take screenshots, post blogs, talk about it on Twitter, write messages on the game forums,  tell your friends, spread the word however you feel comfortable that you are dissatisfied with different aspects of games and gaming culture. Discuss good aspects of games, but also discuss the things that upset you.

- Some people dislike financially supporting games in which violence and military action are the only solutions to a problem.  There is clearly a call for more creative games or simply more games that go outside the first person shooter genre.

- In the end, we all choose where we draw a personal line when it comes to financially supporting developers that make problematic games. There is no ONE WAY that will work for everyone.

 

Tabletop gaming

- One positive aspect of tabletop gaming is being able to create your own worlds and rules/alternate worlds and rules to circumvent problematic rules sets. While this is possible it also puts an additional burden on the players.

- One problem with tabletop gaming can also be the players themselves, and not just the game world. People bring their own assumptions to the table. One person mentioned a group that would always threaten any female player character with sexual violence at some point during a campaign. Those types of situations can occur even if those threats are not present in the game’s official campaign or storyline.

- Some groups attempt to make sure that everyone is comfortable by first discussing topics that should be kept out of campaigns. Someone mentioned the use of Safe Words and other tells so players could freely express when a campaign was making them feel uncomfortable.

 

Gaming Communities

- At times it can be the gaming community, rather than the game that is not inclusive.

- Audience members mentioned muting players when going online, never speaking up so that people don’t hear a woman’s voice, or only playing with friends when going online. The harassment drives people to cope in a variety of ways.

- Another person mentioned only playing single player games because they found online interactions to be too hostile.

- Yet another person mentioned not finishing Mass Effect 3 after having a traumatic experience with a multiplayer group.

- Communities have the potential be more harmful than games themselves in making players feel unwelcome and diminished.

- Alternately, it is wonderful to see when games attempt to bring community together. You can see that in some cooperative games or in things like Guild Wars 2 where the incentive is there to help other players rather than hamper their progress.

 

Clothing/Art Design

- There are a lot of examples of failure in this specific category! This occurs in terms of artbooks, game design, character design, and miniatures.

- In the family friendly game of Skylanders there is a character called Stealth Elf that is a dual blade user and she wears what is essentially a bra as a top. Even in games aimed at children there are female characters that wear revealing clothing as their default. This type of character design is pervasive in the industry.

- A comment was made about the character design changes of Samus Aran since the start of the Metroid series. The suit has become slimmer over time.

- In terms of art design, let’s not forget the failure of the headless torso figure from Dead Island.

- Another art design failure can be seen in the upcoming Dragon’s Crown game.

- To avoid some of the problematic female character design, some people mention only playing as male characters in games. We’d all rather see a change in character design rather than players feeling forced to do this to avoid problematic art direction.

- BioWare was praised specifically for their art direction with the female Commander Shepard when compared to the male Shepard.

 

Games/things we look forward to in the future (let’s be hopeful for a moment)

- Remember Me

- The next Dragon Age

- Roll 20 : a KickStarter project that focuses on bringing tabletop rollplaying online

- Minecraft mod ScriptCraft

- Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management – a tabletop game guide done by the Gnome Stew blog that has a cover showing a woman of color as a game master.

 

Other points made during the panel

- The solution cannot simply be “Then go make your own games!” when people point out issues in the current batch of games. Yes, it is wonderful that more toolsets are available for general use, but putting the burden solely on the players is unjust. Independent games are wonderful and are part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution to the problems facing the industry.

- As always, there was a call for more diversity in characters and character creation options. Why must the default always be straight, white, and male?

- There is needs to be more of a focus on the discussion of games and the industry. Let’s keep reading good stories, listening to good podcasts, checking out reviews that go beyond “was it fun?” and spread the word about these things.

- We WANT to give the industry our money. Give us something we WANT to support!

 

One final point!

- Don’t let jerks strip us of the gamer title! There have always been, and always will be a diverse group of people that play video games and tabletop games. Let us not let them fool us or others that we don’t exist because we have ALWAYS been here. Don’t surrender that title over to them because it is not, nor was it ever, only their property. Be gamers and be feminists. They are not mutually exclusive!

Game of the Day: How to Speak Atlantean by Porpentine

Porpentine has a new game! This one is about video games and feminism and sex. If you’re reading this, chances are you are into at least one of those things. So play it!

If you have made or played an IF or indie game you would like to see featured on The Border House, send it to us at editors (at) borderhouseblog (dot) com (or @ me on Twitter). You can see our past featured games at this tag.

“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

Watch the First Tropes vs Women in Video Games Video

The first Tropes vs Women in Video Games video is here! It covers the history of the Damsel in Distress trope and the classic games that make use of the trope (over and over and over…). There is a transcript available at the Feminist Frequency blog. You can also see a staggering collection of examples of video game damsels at the Tropes vs Women tumblr.

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 http://www.thesecretknots.com/

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.

thirdisitsexist

When Is It Sexist?: A Chart That Doesn’t Get It Quite Right

A picture chart titled "Is it Sexist?". In the first panel a fully armored man stands next to a statuesque woman posed awkwardly and wearing a very skimpy set of 'armor', next to the panel is a giant "Yes" to denote that this is sexist. In the second panel the fully armored man stands next to a simiarly dressed and posed woman, with a "No" to denote this is not sexist. In the last panel the skimply attired woman from the first panel returns with a man in a loin cloth, next to this panel is written "No" to indicate a lack of sexism.

A picture chart titled "Is it Sexist?". In the first panel a fully armored man stands next to a statuesque woman posed awkwardly and wearing a very skimpy set of 'armor', next to the panel is a giant "Yes" to denote that this is sexist. In the second panel the fully armored man stands next to a simiarly dressed and posed woman, with a "No" to denote this is not sexist. In the last panel the skimply attired woman from the first panel returns with a man in a loin cloth, next to this panel is written "No" to indicate a lack of sexism.

The following is a guest post by Zaewen:

Zaewen is a white, straight, cis woman and avid feminist gamer, with MMOs being her favorite genre. She has a degree in psychology, a Texas accent, and spends most of her free time playing games, reading blogs, and very occasionally doing some blogging herself. Zaewen hopes to one day get a PhD in awesomeness (or sociology) and do her best to help change the culture we live in.

I tweeted about this a little earlier, but there’s really only so much you can articulate in 140 characters or less and I’d really like to address what I find this chart to be lacking. There’s a lot to like about the picture as a handy reference for the inevitable Chainmail Bikini argument that crops up in the gaming community and it’s wittly done. The first and second set of characters are perfectly spot on. The first set is definitely sexist as all get out despite its heavy presence in the gaming industry (I’m looking at you Rift, Terra, WoW, etc.) and the second set is definitely one of the better, non-sexist ways to go about creating armored characters in the more realistic medieval fantasy settings (I <3  you Skyrim for mainly sticking to this path, but don’t think I didn’t see the Forsworn armor *glare*). The third set of characters are supposed to be the non-sexist way to have that high fantasy “we have magic barriers and don’t need no stinking armor, besides nudeliness is godliness” setting that game developers love to delve into. The problem I have with the picture, and with that whole mindset in general, is that the sexual objectification and sexiness aren’t equalized between the genders.

You see, clothing (or lack thereof) is not the end-all-be-all measure of sexual objectification. It’s the easiest, most apparent and tangible part to be sure, and therefor the aspect of objectification that is pointed to the most during these discussions, but there’s dozens of other things, both big and small that contribute to a character’s objectification. In this particular case, there are four distinct things that keep the sexualization unequal (and therefore sexist): pose, type of clothing worn, facial expression, and anatomy.

The third panel from the chart at a larger size. The woman is wearing a bikini outfit with high heeled boots and is posed sexily/awkwardly. The man next to her is wearing a loin cloth and is standing in a more natural position.

Spot the differences! Okay, not *those* differences, yeesh.

Let’s start with the foundation of these characters: their anatomy. There is no doubt about it, the man in this picture is very much idealized. He has a body that would only be attainable by a select few men in the real world through a combination of hard work and lucky genetics. The woman’s body, however, is not an idealized body, but a body that has been distorted out of normal proportions into a sexual object that approximates a hyper-real idea of what a ‘Sexy Woman’ looks like. Her body is not even physically possible for humans outside of some pretty radical surgery: she’s missing parts of her rib cage and her waist is smaller than her head. There is also something to be said for the fact that the woman’s breasts are very exaggerated but the man’s comparable feature (the ‘bulge’) is not. I mean, he’s big, but he’s not got balls that are each the size of his fist like the lady’s got boobs that are each the size of her head.

The next layer of foundation for these characters, their poses, is also unequal. The man is in a passive pose that suggests sexual objectification, but he’s also still standing at the ready. The only thing the woman appears to be ready for is knee pain and toppling over at the slightest breeze.

After we get past the posing, we come to the issue of clothing. Here, again, the man is somewhat objectified in that he’s not wearing much of anything at all, but the woman’s outfit far out strips (ha!) him in objectification. The man’s outfit, what little of it there is, still somewhat looks like actual armor with it’s studded belt, large shoulder guards, and normal boots. The woman’s outfit, on the other hand, has almost nothing approaching real armor outside of the shoulder guards, but does have components that would actively get in her way during combat or any sort of vigorous movement: high heeled boots, long hair that hangs loose in and around her face, and that strappy contraption trying to pass as a bra.

Last, but not least by a longshot, are the differing facial expressions on the man and woman. The man has got some vague bored/nonchalant/neutral expression on his face. The woman is in the middle of having a… really nice time. Mayhaps that’s why there is a face on her crotch. Magical panties indeed.

So in sum, yes, the man in this picture is being sexually objectified what with his lack of clothing, idealized body, and passive stance. However, the woman is far more objectified because her body has been distorted to non-human proportions, she is wearing very little clothing that also restricts her ability to be active, and has an overtly sexualized facial expression. These two characters are not equivalent in their sexual objectification, and so, unlike what the chart says, this pairing is actually sexist as well. Not anywhere near as sexist as the first picture to be sure, but it definitely does still have some lingering sexism in it.

Now this is not because the person who drew this chart is a horrible, wrongity-wrong, sexist person, but because, well, they’re human and living in this same effed up sexist culture we all are stuck in. Depicting a man that has been as sexually objectified as this guy is is a huge subversion of the dictates of the patriarchy. Its such a rare and taboo-ish sight to see sexualized men that we automatically take it as extreme sexualization when in reality, and compared to what is de rigueur for women, its really not. So I can’t really get mad at the artist for making the mistake, especially when all they were doing was attempting to give us a handy illustration of this subtle form of sexism. However, for the last panel of this chart to be true and for it to have greater impact, we would need to see the real equivalent to the sexually objectified woman. We would need to see a man in heels and a skimpy, flimsy loin cloth that lifts and separates his balls, posed  in an odd, unbalanced way that best shows off his impossibly tiny hips and waist and perfectly sculpted pecs while making a face better reserved for the bedroom than the battlefield. And ya know why we probably didn’t get to see that in the last panel? Because it would look freaking ridiculous, just like the woman already does. We’re just so used to ridiculously sexualized images of women that it doesn’t even register as such anymore.

And that, really, is the lesson we should take away from this chart. Not that everyone should be brought down to the low, low standards set by the likes of Terra and Blade & Soul, but that this level of sexual objectification is just absurd. Ludicrous. Outrageous. A bunch of other adjectives that denote “holy crap why do I look like this, this is really weird”. Sexy is fine, sexy is good, nay, great! I love being sexy and seeing sexy characters, but let’s stop with the sexual objectification. Sexy is for people, not objects that are vaguely people-shaped.

One of the sex working women in VtM:B, a light skinned and red haired woman with her arms akimbo wearing a coppery thong and a tight top that barely covers her breasts, surrounded by the game's user interface.

I’m Being So Sincere Right Now: Gaming as Hyperreality

Sisters of Janus: Therese and Jeanette Voerman from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Both blonde haired, pallid women, one wearing a dark grey business suit and black rimmed glasses, the other wearing a stylized schoolgirl's outfit, bra and thong visible, and a blood red choker. She also wears deep makeup.

When I play certain video games I get the strange feeling of wandering through the weird and lurid landscape of a Dali painting; beholding the familiar, albeit distorted in the strangest of ways.

One might expect this. After all, video games are not supposed to be realistic by default. They operate on their own internal logic, their worlds hewn out of something called ‘game design needs’ rather than say billions of years of geology and thousands of years of culture and history, for instance. But I came to realize it was something beyond that point which I could comfortably suspend my disbelief and immerse. What jarred me out of, almost consistently, was the fact that many games have had the pretension of being representations of the real.

A artificially warped landscape is a good and interesting thing so long as one does not purport that it is, in fact, akin to a photograph.

Rated M for Misconception

Whenever one hears the word “gritty” or “grimdark” appended to other adjectives used to describe a video game, you’ve likely stumbled on a game that does what I’m going to discuss in this article: promote a rather cliched perspective as ‘real’. Various other euphemisms for this include ‘adult’, ‘mature’, and the like. Let’s take Kieron Gillen’s review of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines for Eurogamer and allow it to speak for itself:

Bloodlines has the best script I’ve seen in a videogame since… well, since ever. In recent times, Planescape is probably hits the same peaks that Bloodlines does, and has the advantage of mass of words, but in terms of writing a modern, adult videogame, no-one’s come near. No-one’s even tried.

It makes cultural references with the casualness of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about – there’s a particularly memorable off-hand gag about fetish slang which dazzled me with the skill, audacity and comfort it showed. Where most games that try something similar come across as callow posturing, this was done as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It deals with the big adult topics – sex, death, whatever – in truthful and honest ways. It has characters who swear as much as anyone out of Kingpin – but they’re characters who swear rather than an attempt to turn the game into a noir thriller by lobbing a few four-letter words into the mix. Conversely, there are characters who have perfectly civil aspects. Troika has done the writerly thing – that is attempt to write people rather than ciphers. I can only applaud.

So ‘truth and honesty’ are themes in this game, apparently, of a rather dramatic sort. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is a roleplaying game set in a deeply noir Los Angeles, replete with weakly flickering neon, smoky back rooms, and the thrumming bass of rebellious club music set to the jingling chains of the mosh pit dancers. This game is nothing if not deeply possessed of atmosphere. You wander about as a newly initiated vampire in this world, a creature of the night learning the true meaning thereof in a fast-paced auto da fe of supernatural life. Aside from the cool colours of night and the chiaroscuro template of Gothy dusk that define the game’s palette, the other is of course red. A crimson that splatters many a wall.

VtM:B is a passionately violent game complete with murder, dismemberment, exploding bodies, torture, flesh eating, and, of course, rape. For how could one find true verisimilitude without sexual violation?

All of this begins to dissolve into the usual narrative that can be reduced to the following equation: “There will be blood, there will be tits; therefore there is maturity and realism.”

For there are tits. So many tits in this game. Let us revisit Mr. Gillen’s review for an interesting look at that… dimension of the story:

Take the most obviously eyebrow-raising character, Jeanette (The goth-schoolgirl whose top strains with obvious implants). While on the box you may take her as mere wrist-fodder for the strained-testicle-possessing members of the audience, she’s not treated as such. When she speaks, she’s a babble of egocentric nonsense – predictable, as she’s a Malkavian. However, it’s carefully judged egocentric nonsense. She’s essentially a goth LiveJournal with legs, and, in her extreme way, credible. Even the fact she has a ludicrous cleavage ties in tightly to the plot. Rather than many games where every woman thrusts D-cups and upwards in your direction, Vampire chooses. In Santa Monica at least, no-one has a cleavage like Jeanette. Why is she like that? To Troika’s eternal credit, it provides a reason. And if you ever wander into something that plays to what’s cheerfully described as “fan-service”, it’s because you’ve gone out hunting after it yourself.

When I read over this paragraph I felt an indescribable weirdness. I understood what he was getting at and for what it is worth, I agree to a limited extent, but the manner in which he chose to express himself is quite interesting to say the very least.

Before I analyze this further, I’d like to draw your attention to the words of a retrospective panel at Computer and Video Games about this particular title.

The panel’s views:

Steve: “It’s got that one with the big tits who looks like Britney Spears in it!”

Dan: “And the twist with her, which I won’t say out loud, is just ingenious.”

So. Reality. It apparently has big tits.

I find it fascinating that Gillen proclaims himself an expert on spotting implants. He reminds me a bit of the cis men who proudly bleat about their ability to “spot the tranny.” What is interesting to note is that the model of breasts used for Jeanette is in fact quite common throughout the game, to the point where it’s clear that (implants or no) they are simply Troika’s vision of “breasts” en toto. Jeanette is indeed a character, and one that I actually like, along with her unmentioned sister Therese. While embodying certain cliches, the pair of them do present some interesting characterization that transcends them with the power of each woman’s personal history.

Now, note how I could discuss that without speculating about the nature of Jeanette’s bosom? But why does all of this talk of cup sizes and so on become relevant? Well, it’s because of another fact. Gillen says no one in Santa Monica (an area of the game that is relatively self-contained for most of its opening acts) has “a cleavage” like Jeanette’s. Unless he got out a mental measuring stick, I’d have to dispute this.

You see, this game includes sex workers, lots of them.

And this is where pocketwatches begin bending over trees, melting.

One of the sex working women in VtM:B, a light skinned and red haired woman with her arms akimbo wearing a coppery thong and a tight top that barely covers her breasts, surrounded by the game's user interface.

Truest Blood

All over Santa Monica you find scantily clad women mincing about, fitting the perfect stereotype of the ‘streetwalker.’ For 40 dollars, your character can pay them to wander off into some alleyway with them and suck their blood to replenish their essence. Realistic, no? Quite mature. You wouldn’t find that in the Sims. But that’s not all. You see, in VtM:B, whose blood you suckle upon matters. The game makes very explicit that the blood of sex workers and the homeless (yes, they’re there to add ‘maturity’ as well) is inferior. If you play as a vampire of the noble and upper class Ventrue clan, you will actually vomit if you drink the blood of either.

It would act as a commentary on classism if this was shown to be entirely in the heads of Ventrue and other elitist vampires. But it isn’t; it’s instituted as a game mechanic. Even the wild haired anarchist vampire Smiling Jack waxes gleefully about how good the blood of a PhD tastes. This reification, aside from feeling very strange, has the entirely expected knock off effect of imputing an intrinsic inferiority to the homeless and to sex workers.

Each group is interspersed among the other random NPCs mindlessly milling about the darkened cityscape as a little bit of ‘flavour.’ And that’s what the sex workers and homeless are in this game. Flavour. It wouldn’t be mature without them, of course, and so they stand on the game-scape like poorly painted theatre props. But sex workers say naughty things, so this is a mature and honest world.

The invisibility of sex workers in this game is of a rather interesting sort. They, like most truths about women in society, hide in plain sight. They are there in Bloodlines, but they are truly not there. Masquerading as the truth about the ‘dark’ side of society are these nameless, samey, cliched street sex workers who are cast as being objectively inferior human beings.

Ten Guineas

Like most games of this sort, there is a modding community. Indeed, Bloodlines was infamously shipped in poor condition and has been restored to playable vigor by a dedicated community that created their own repair patches. Along with that extensive labour of love came other mods, one of which caught my eye as I was browsing.

Take a look at this. In particular, take a look at some of the comments from Bloodlines players.

Rofl well lets face it if they where gorgeous they would be in the porn industry not Pros. XD

.

I like how you made them graphically better, but still kept the ugly look.

Prostitutes should always be women who are on the verge of being attractive, but have tons of minor flaws. :P

So, what do we have here? What I find intriguing is the way the ‘truth’ is manipulated in games like this. Who are sex workers in a ‘truthful and honest’ game? Is this the sex that Mr. Gillen spoke of that could be described as such? One wonders where these young men in the comments section of ModDB got their ideas about how sex workers ‘should’ look.

Thus at last we stumble onto the real meaning of ‘reality’ here. It is hyperreality. Reality that, in the words of sociologists Laura Desfor Edles and Scott Appelrouth, has always already been reproduced. Put another way it is ‘reality’ that makes no reference to the real world yet purports to do so. While the postmodernists who gave birth to the term would howl at the idea that there is a real world, I contend that for sex workers there most certainly is, and that Bloodlines does not present it. In its place is a different truth written by white, cis, and middle class men based on what they think they know about the gritty realities of sex work and then present it as a courageously told and daring realism.

What is even more interesting is how these male gamers wish to modify that hyperreality further to better fit their stereotype of what a sex worker ‘should’ look like and be. To what are they making reference, precisely? Real women? It does not seem so. Rather, it is the streetwalker from countless movies and television shows, the woman heels up in a dumpster on CSI, or the modern damsel in distress that Richard Gere saves with his expense account. The Bloodlines vision of sex workers is a copy of all the above.

To use another ten guinea word from the often insufferable canon of postmodernism, this is a simulacrum of sex workers. Simulacra are copies with no true original, something that- I would contend- float beyond lived reality while able to pass themselves off as representations of that reality.

To return to Edles and Appelrouth:

As we have seen… hyperreality [refers] to this state when the distinction between “reality” and the model or simulation is completely dissolved. In the condition of hyperreality, simulations stand in for– they are more “real” than– reality; the map of the territory is taken for the territory itself.

And I might add, when the map is deemed insufficiently “accurate” a gamer will make a mod to “remedy” that fact.

The Pearl in my Eye

Dragon Age: Origins is another game released to cavalcades trumpeting fanfare about the grit and realism of their title and another game that presents a hyperreal vision of that reality that cannot be excused by its fantasy setting anymore than Bloodlines could be forgiven due to its supernatural themes.

The City Elf origin’s treatment of rape, for instance, is a lengthy and bloodsplattered caricature of patriarchy that strains mightily to immerse you in the sanguinity of its mature bonafides and yet fails to tell a story that coheres with any kind of reality. Real life rapists are rarely cackling mustache twirlers like Lord Vaughan, the ringleader of his posse of overtly misogynist gang rapist guards. We are presented with a vision of the rapist as a thoroughgoing, unlikable human being walking around with a neon sign saying “Uncouth Misogynist!” over his head.

That’s the hyperreality of sexism in society that too many men still think they see.

The reality is that rapists have included “nice men”, “likeable men”, men who “believe in equality” and so on; that people who claim to adhere to even feminist ideals are still very often sexist in ways overt and covert. The Origin here ‘deals’ with rape in a manner none to dissimilar from how Bloodlines ‘deals’ with sex workers. A distinct vision of reality as a bloody escape from the quotidian is passed off as mature and real.

Finally we come to what is nearest and dearest to me about these critiques: the Pearl. When your character visits this brothel she has the option of asking the madam for a bit of time with one of the sex workers there. Aha, this must be mature realism. I toyed around with the options and settled on asking to be “surprised.” I was then presented with an array of sex workers to “choose from” which included several ‘“Female” Companions.’

A Dragon Age Mage standing next to someone tellingly labelled a ' "Female" Companion' who is relatively scantily dressed/

Could this possibly end well?

I chose one- the auction block or meat market atmosphere of all this ‘simulation’ was not lost on me- and slept with her to see what would happen. In a short cinematic before each session you’re treated to the sex worker lounging on the bed in their underwear making a quip before the scene fades to black. For the trans sex workers, the ones whose gender was called into disrepute by the quotation marks put around ‘female’ in their floating text nameplates, there was often a lot of making light of what is actually a very serious trauma for many trans women: revealing that we are trans in a situation where power is thick in air around us. As she lounges there she is shown talking in a deep and clearly male voice set, the sight of a bulge in her panties, and some quip about how the player ‘shouldn’t act surprised.’ It’s a reiteration of the old ‘deception’ trope about how trans women deceive cis men into bed with them, revealing their genitals as sort of a “gotcha” surprise.

In that moment I realized this was what Bioware thought of me.

Much work has already been done on the nature of ‘lenses’ as held and espied through by the powerful. That is what hyperreality is, fundamentally, a lens through which the lived reality of the less-powerful is warped and distorted. What makes this pernicious is that the distortion is then presented as the real. The ‘easter egg’ style gags with the trans sex workers at the Pearl were clearly meant as ‘mature’ jokes for a ‘mature’ audience that could handle this ‘reality.’ One wonders if Mr. Gillen would also have said we could “do nothing but applaud” this “honest” recounting.

In all of these settings we see a common, bright line of a thread. Rape survivors, trans people, sex workers, the homeless, are not agents. They do not speak with much of a voice except the ventriloquy of the powerful. As I saw that trans woman in Dragon Age sprawled out on the bed in her underwear I saw exactly what cis men want to see when they look at me and my sisters. The forbidden pleasure, the easy fuck, the fantasy. The joke.

And this is “reality.” This is grit, and this is maturity.

Yet where are we?

A man with nothing to lose. -- A photo of Mark Zuckerberg before an unsurprisingly blue Facebook logo.

“I’m Your Biggest Fan, I’ll Follow You Until You Love Me”

A man with nothing to lose. -- A photo of Mark Zuckerberg before an unsurprisingly blue Facebook logo.

Anonymity, Privilege, and the Quest for Personal Truth

This article will be a rather long one so I beg your forgiveness in advance, but it is a piece of great personal importance to me. The debate it touches on is one that imbricates with all of our geek lives, and the lives of those beyond our particular nerdy circles. Indeed, as Blizzard recently proved, it is a debate that will touch on many online video game properties.

Randi Zuckerberg, marketing director for Facebook, caused a bit of a stir recently when she resurrected her brother’s ideological hobby horse and proclaimed that progress requires the death of anonymity on the Internet. It is another effort to impose on Internet users a demand for a particular kind of truth that severely disadvantages people from certain backgrounds; to wit, Ms. Zuckerberg and her brother are both cis. They will never have to confront the difficulties that women like me faced before we came out, when anonymity was a blessing that enabled us to shape our identities with less stress and trauma than might have been otherwise imposed on us. It was this issue and several related ones I alluded to when I took Blizzard to task for its abortive RealID proposals to force all of their players to reveal their real names on the World of Warcraft forums.

An Ideology by Any Other Name

What I find fascinating about our society is the great importance we place on our names. Ms. Zuckerberg sees ‘real’ and ‘legal’ names as the key to ensuring accountability and responsibility on the internet. I will leave aside, for the moment, that my life has been materially harmed by many people whose legal names are widely known and who seem to be accountable to no one but themselves. Let us just treat this very simple issue of ‘what’s in a name?’ The answer is: quite a lot.

Randi Zuckerberg

To speak from my own perspective, I hated my old name with a passion. Its symbolism, meaning and impact on my life were not of my choosing. As I have said in very public interviews changing my name legally was one of the most important and pathbreaking events in my life. To hear me speak about my past and how it was in some ways shaped by my having a name I hated is to hear my voice quiver with passion that only great pain can summon. I hated using my old name, I had less attachment to it than I did to my Social Security number. Any opportunity I could use to shirk it, to go by another name, to adopt the whole-cloth persona that a new name can sometimes lend or buttress, was eagerly seized by me. There was far more truth in the names I would choose for myself than there was in the name my father imposed on me at birth.

The Zuckerbergs seem to disagree. For them, a ‘legal name’ is truth. But who decides what a legal name is? In the United States courts have the final say on that, and for the first eighteen years of your life in most states, your parents have veto power over any self-directed name changes. Is your legal name your ‘real’ name? Or is it a mutually sustained fiction that allows others to better fit you into predetermined categories to which you may not otherwise willingly subscribe yourself. To be sure, my old name sorted me into a category I decidedly did not want. It told people what was ‘true’ according to a cissexist and patriarchal doctrine, but not what was truest to me, in my heart of hearts. If anything, I dissolved between the letters of my old name.

The ability to be myself online without the baggage, gendered and otherwise, that came with my old legal name represented something vitally important about the promise of the Internet: I was able to forge my own truth.

What the Zuckerbergs are promoting, consciously or otherwise, is an ideology that is intimately concerned with promoting one truth over another. A truth that is validated with the full faith and credit of patriarchy, a truth that forcibly outs trans people and places still more controls on our identities (in a realm that had hitherto been a great gust of fresh air in that regard).

For the Zuckerbergs, personal truth is what they’ve declared it to be. It is what’s on Facebook. Their quest to promote this truth as a vision of veracity for the whole of human civilisation is not confined to them and, indeed, has many advocates. But there are many people in this world who have come to realise that personal truth is more variegated, complicated, colourful, and personal. It is multifaceted out of necessity; none of us shares the whole of ourselves at any given moment.   We present different shards of self to others as surely as we change clothes regularly to suit the occasion. Personal truth is a d20 die.

A Blizzard of Paperwork

One thing that cis people often take for granted is the staggering number of places where their gender identity is privileged in its acceptance and duly marked down in some file or database somewhere– whether it’s through their names or through an actual gender marker or both. Trans people become experts in this seemingly arcane bit of bureaucratic errata, a hodgepodge of policies abounding for name and gender changes. In the United States your Department (or Registry) of Motor Vehicles has a different policy for such changes than your local Department of Health than the Department of State (for passports– this doesn’t even begin to get into the rigamarole that expats and immigrants have to endure here) than your school than your place of work than the Social Security Administration and so on and so on. Credit rating agencies are thrown into the mix as well as a host of other organisations great and small that have a powerful and invisible claim to your life history that can only be negotiated with via shoving paperwork in all the right places, hiring lawyers, attending court hearings, making lots of annoying phone calls and so on. (For the interested, here is a rundown of what one has to do to change their name in the American state of New York).

When I changed my name, I had to fight with my bank to ensure that my name was properly changed everywhere that bank kept records. I actually had dealt with a transphobic cis woman who made things all the more difficult when I sat down with her at the bank. I’ll never forget the complete change in her visage when I told her my old name. She went from friendly to very gloomy and quiet. Unsurprisingly I found out later that my request had never been filed and I had to spend hours on the phone with various regional offices all over the world and visit a second branch before I could change everything top to bottom (to the bank’s credit, the woman at the second branch was vastly more helpful, kind, and tolerant).

So, you can imagine trans people would be less than pleased with having to add Facebook and World of Warcraft to the list of organisations we have to haggle with. As I mentioned in my previous article on this subject a trans woman I knew had to actually fax documents to Blizzard Entertainment in order to have her name changed on the newly implemented RealID system.

This is reaching levels of un-satirisable absurdity.

“Baby, You’ll Be Famous”

The contempt for humanity does not end with trans people, of course. Women, particularly those who are being stalked, harassed, dealing with abusive exes, are rape and/or abuse survivors, are current or former sex workers, and those who are simply participating in spaces generally contemptuous of women’s vocal presence, have reason to be quite alarmed at this demand the Zuckerbergs are making. The minority of men who fit into all the above categories, or people of colour with non-European names, also have reason to want to have more control than not over their identities and how they are used online.

The argument used by some white liberal technophiles is that through forcing digital visibility we force tolerance on the prejudiced. After all, if all of these groups claim to be invisible in online spaces, runs the argument, shouldn’t they welcome imposed visibility? Well, no. The term ‘imposed’ explains why, but it is also worth examining “who does what to whom” as Catharine MacKinnon might perspicuously put it. You have here the privileged forcing something risky and dangerous on those with less power.

There is nothing right about that situation.

It is also yet another case of imposed vanguardism, a particularly pernicious expression of privilege popular among those on the left or in ‘progressive circles’ where the greatest sacrifices are expected of those with the least power. This is the operation of power that inheres to cis gender radicals demanding that trans people be obligated to transgress gender norms according to a standard set by them. What Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk are asking here is no different. He himself sacrifices nothing: he is already a public figure, a nerd hero of sorts awash in uncounted millions with a movie about his life already in the canon of film. But to achieve his vision it is we who must sacrifice something and gain… an abstract, intangible benefit of living up to someone else’s principles.

Forgive me if I decide to pass.

But there is still one more necessary and vital argument against that towering fallacy of a ‘vision.’ If visibility is the goal, forcing an end to online anonymity is a terrible and ineffective way of going about it. In the most extreme case: survivors oftentimes only can speak because of the anonymity online spaces affords them. It was for this reason that the radical feminist blogger Fugitivus was utterly furious at Google Buzz when it gave her name to her abuser, rapist ex who proceeded to abuse that information. Forcing an end to anonymity would be the beginning of the end for such writers whose voices would be silenced and who would be forced into a deeper invisibility.

A central reality of ‘free speech’ in an oppressive society is that those with the most privilege will speak the loudest. Forcing people to out themselves as belonging to a group disproportionately targeted for hate will serve only to widen that divide, not narrow it.

Anti-Pseudonymity Bingo, courtesy of the Geek Feminism Blog's Mary (See: http://geekfeminism.org/2011/07/08/anti-pseudonym-bingo/) Text version follows at the end of the article.

“I’ll Chase You Down Until You Love Me”

The observant may be either grinning or groaning at the fact that the title of this piece and several of its subtitles are drawn from a Lady Gaga song. Aside from simply being amusing to me (and because I can) it’s a direct reference to the fact that this song, which is in essence about the intrusiveness of stalking someone, could rather perfectly sum up the views of the anti-anonymity advocates. Stalking and harassment are about power, and particularly the imposition of will. It is precisely this which is not only being facilitated by anti-anonymity advocates but emulated in its patterns and strategies. They know what is best for us, we have to suffer for their pleasure, they’re doing it because they love us, they wish to be our protective guardians and keep us safe from “really bad” people.

I have been very forthright about my identity and quite open about my history online. I love my name, my true name, my new legal name, and I share it with pride and dignity.

But I did this when I was ready to do so. I did it at times and places of my own choosing after making carefully thought out decisions. My name is relatively easy to find for most readers of this blog and I certainly don’t mind that fact. In many ways it’s advantageous for me to have my name out there as I would like some of my writing to be citable in my later years in academia. But these are all circumstances specific to my situation involving a good deal of control that I am exercising after having clawed back a lot of it from the various agencies that attempt to regulate my identity. To impose from without, to say that what I’m doing is what everyone must do, however, is monstrous. There is nothing more inherently moral about the way I am doing things, nothing inherently more loyal to some objective truth. What I am doing is engaging politically in the way that suits me best; it does not work for everyone.

Let me tell you another little story here, a brief one, about little Quinnae in her younger years when she was but a wee, unknowing lass. When I first loaded up a proper RPG I was absolutely awestruck by that box that all of us take for granted to some degree now:

Name: ___________.

At the touch of the ‘OK’ button I could have any name I wished. No paperwork, no phonecalls, no angry people, no violent fathers, no anything except striding out into the bright world of adventuring with only a few gold and crappy armour to my newly changed name. That was a personal joy for me that kept me connected to life during periods of darkness when I’d contemplated ending it. The ability to do this with video games, with the Internet– its online games, its forums– kept me alive. Some might say that the Zuckerbergs are talking only about social networking. Leaving aside how important that discrete property is, what they are saying is not confined to that area alone.

“I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away,” she said during a panel discussion on social media hosted Tuesday evening by Marie Claire magazine. “People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

Clearly she is referring to the whole of the Internet. The vision she shares with her brother is one of an Internet where anonymity does not, indeed cannot exist anywhere. The fact of the matter is that anonymity can and does bring out the worst in some people, but it is not the cause of that terror. The roots of that lie embedded deep within our society. Racism was not invented on the internet. The problem is not that some racists are a bit more belligerent when they aren’t putting their name behind their rantings. It’s that some racists exist. The same can be said of any type of prejudice. The problem is systemic and a blanket ban on privacy and anonymity, in a society where white/cis/het/male power remains dominant and hegemonic, will serve only to perpetuate that power. ______

Footnotes on Common Arguments

(1) What do you have to hide? This is a very common defence of invasions of privacy that we saw writ large during the height of the Bush years. The fallacy behind it is that guilt is always objectively determined and never subjectively assessed. I do not get nervous going through airport security because I hide something nefarious, but because I am desperately afraid of being hurt by people abusing their power. Similarly, people online who wish to protect their identity simply want to protect themselves, if at all possible, from people abusing power. In an ideal world none of us would have to hide anything; but we do not live in an ideal world. Changing anonymity guidelines would not fix that.

(2) Harassment will decrease if people can only speak using their ‘real’ names. Not if the definition of harassment continues to be set by those with the power to harass with impunity. I have watched far too many instances of men looking bewildered and even offended when it was suggested that their behaviour was harassment, sexual or otherwise. It is identical to the incredulity I see in certain whites who’ve been called to the carpet for racism, or palpitating cis folk who cannot believe I ‘accused’ them of transphobia. Yes, harassment is bad, they say, but they aren’t harassing. And when John Smith says this, his buddies will nod soberly in agreement. Part of the problem with harassment is that the worst offenders will never admit that harassment is what they are doing.

(3) Don’t live in fear. We hear this all the time about all sorts of structural bigotry, including rape culture. The problem isn’t that there are rapists, no, it’s our fault for living in fear. If only we could get over that, go our enlightened acquaintances, we’ll realise that all of that is merely in our heads. An invention of prolonged hysteria. Not based on anything real at all. This sort of nonsense and magical thinking hardly constitutes an argument. It is gaslighting in the extreme. Harassment and stalking online are quite real and very common. Secondly, ‘living in fear’ conjures the supine image of the cowering woman fearing the looming shadow of a man. As I wrote the foregoing sentence it took me a few seconds before I could follow it up with something that was not a swear. That image of the weak and frightened woman is another patriarchal imposition and yet more gaslighting. We do not shiver in terror. We live, and we live beautifully, boldly and corageously; but we do so with caution, with accommodation, with different strategies that we should not have to employ. That is not living in fear. It is simply living. ______

Bingo Sheet Text:

Correctly identifying and banning pseudonym use is easy. Sorry, gotta stop spam! All possible uses of multiple accounts are sockpuppeting. What, you don’t want your friends and family to find you on our site? My online culture uses real names exclusively.
No wonder your minority group is invisible here, if none of you use your names. No one will harass/intimidate you using their legal name! Reputation and legal names go together. “It’s harder to find people under their legal names!”—Joe Smith What do you have to hide?
Why can’t you be honest and faithful to who you are? If pseudonyms are used, they should be officially registered. FREE SQUARE: “don’t be evil” People have a right to know who they are dealing with! Sorry, gotta stop sockpuppets!
Online harassment? Never heard of it. Don’t believe you. Only needed by men pretending to be women. What about the children? I asked my friends and none of us have any problem with it. If you don’t want your boss and family to see it, don’t say it online.
They have your IP address, why even bother? Refuse to live in fear. I will never trust anyone using a pseudonym. Widespread use of pseudonyms has never worked anywhere. Harassment is illegal; use of legal names will let you report it to the cops.
Can't read her poker face. What can I say? She's very good at what she does. --- A young light skinned, flaxen haired woman wearing a finely detailed light blue, copper collared robe.

Goddess Save the Queen: Dragon Age’s Queen Anora

When I roleplay I often use some of the better characters I’ve come across in my time playing video games as templates. These are characters I found to be unusually well-textured, motivated, in-depth and interesting and could provide the basis for characters like them in various private RPs I’ve involved myself in. Lately my thoughts turned to someone I remembered very fondly from Dragon Age. Queen Anora Theirin.

Queen Anora is the consummate politician—a woman who is not only aware of the great game of political chess that spreads before her in the palace but who is an unmatched grandmaster. Cunning is a word for her, to be sure; she knows what she is doing and does not hesitate to sacrifice pawns if need be. What vexes the player is what her endgame is. By the time you get to truly know Queen Anora, you are nearing the end of Dragon Age and hurriedly deciding who you wish to support as supreme ruler of Ferelden. Anora is unequivocal and enthusiastic: she believes without a shadow of doubt that she is the best person for the job.

But what does she want to do with that power? (Spoilers Follow: Sorry, it’s just one of those articles!)

Can't read her poker face. What can I say? She's very good at what she does. --- A young light skinned, flaxen haired woman wearing a finely detailed light blue, copper collared robe.

The Maven of Realpolitik

For my own part, from my first playthrough onwards I never stopped adoring Anora. She is not just competent but she is brilliant and skilled. She already has proven herself: she was the real power behind the throne while her late-husband pretended to be some dashing knight. While he sought dragons to slay (who might as well have been windmills) she actually undertook the adult work of administering the country and ensuring it ran as smoothly as possible.

I think more than a few married hetero women can empathise with this particular state of affairs.

She is a hard woman, to be quite sure. But her stoic seriousness and determination is hardly something I’d rate as a weakness. It was precisely a lack of seriousness and maturity that made her husband something less than an inspiring king.

In the endings where I ensured she was made ruler of Ferelden (which was all but one where I wanted to play out a different ending) she never lead the nation astray. Her competence and calculating talents lead the nation into a golden age, in fact, and allowed her to become not only a skilled ruler but a beloved one. What was her motivation? Why did she want power? Because she wanted the ruling of Ferelden to be done right. I can hardly fault her for this, given the competition. Alistair is cuddly and lovable and he does, in some endings, come into his own as a king. But from the perspective of my character who cannot see into the future, Anora comes across as a much safer pair of hands who has the benefit of actually wanting to do the job.

So, Anora is a skilled chess player of a political dark horse, a serious woman who strategises in a cunning, sometimes emotionless way to do what she feels is right. There is a shadow around her, but she is far from being evil. So what do other Dragon Age players think of this forthright woman who says what she means and has the audacity to tout her competence from the highest hilltops? Well…

Lying, conniving, treacherous bitch, it’s true!

 

I hate her soooo much

 

I kept hoping for a way to kill her after she betrayed me to Ser Cauthrien

 

I wanted kill her too.

 

me too and even she betrayed her father because she want to be a queen:/ I rly hate her

 

I wish there was a slap Anora mod. Just so I could save before it and do it over and over again XD
*is definately using*

 

Double crossing bitch!!!! DIE!!!

 

You bitch! Seriously hate her, she couldn’t be more grabby and “I wantz teh crown”

 

I wish I could smack that stupid hair right off her.

 

When she betrayed me I was like “GIVE ME ONE GOOD REASON NOT TO TEAR YOUR HAIR OFF YOUR HEAD BEOTCH!”

(Any spelling errors are in the original)

Well… erm. I see. Interesting.

A Queen, Not a Doormat

All of the above quotes are from one thread on DeviantArt. I came to realise very quickly that Anora was actually rather hated by many in the fan community. In the end I wasn’t surprised. Falling Awkwardly’s Kateri, one of the most intellectual and thoughtful games analysts I’ve read and a Border House guest writer, said it best:

A few words about Anora. Dear Anora. Many players have had words to say about Anora. “Bitch” is one. “Scheming bitch” are others, also “scheming, backstabbing, manipulative, selfish, power-hungry bitch”. Arl Eamon even calls her “…spirited”, in tones that make it very clear what he actually means. “Spirited” belongs in that category of Victorian-novel style words, along with “feisty”, and “lively” that means (to paraphrase Rebecca West) “woman who differentiates herself from a doormat”, which is to say, “bitch”. As far as I can see,  the whole “bitch” thing is because Anora has the temerity to think she’d make a better ruler than Alistair, and says so.

I could not have said it better myself.

Several of the commentors above reference a betrayal that Anora perpetrates on your character. This is a reference to a scene where your character is caught by Teyrn Loghain’s guards after you try to rescue Queen Anora from captivity on an estate. Anora turns you in and claims you kidnapped her.

There are several things to be said about this:

  • She apologises for this later and is clearly not proud of having had to do it.
  • She made a split second decision in the midst of a political climate where her father, abusing his power, would easily have hurt her if he knew she was in league with your character—the much sought after Grey Warden. She was forced to make a painful choice by her father’s despotic behaviour and the fact that he might try to hurt her, as was evidenced by the fact that he sanctioned her kidnapping by a subordinate in the first place.
  • This kind of decisiveness is oft cited as a needed political skill. Had it been demonstrated in a man he would doubtless have been praised for it.

There is also something else to be said about the question of “betrayal” here. Let’s reference another commentor on the subject and plumb the depths of their limitless wisdom:

Yeah she could betray her own father because she want be qeen:/
I hate her but I respects Loghain because he rly fought with Orlais and he tried protected king Maric

What Teyrn Loghain ‘rly’ did was put the entire country in danger so he could off King Cailan at the Battle of Ostagar, condemning legions of soldiers and mages to their deaths and precipitating a crisis that pushed his country to the brink of civil war in the midst of a once in a lifetime epic invasion. “Treason” is almost the least of Loghain’s crimes here. Throughout the game you are also treated to the quasi-tyranny with which Loghain administers the country and to the fundamental fact that while Loghain was a good general, he is a terrible diplomat who is about as graceful and elegant as a sledgehammer.

His daughter, on the other hand, knows more than a thing or two about running a country and she is decidedly not a tyrant, as her endings clearly demonstrate.

Anora made a very difficult decision in turning on her father’s rule, and she did so for reasons that are unshakably just: Loghain was abusing his power. In the endings where your player or Alistair kills Loghain, she is clearly angered and distraught at having had to do so. She never wanted to betray her father to his death the way that he betrayed King Cailan to a rather grisly fate.

But because Teyrn Loghain is a bloke, he’s still respectable. Because Anora is a woman who does not denigrate herself, she is a lying, traitorous, manipulative bitch.

There should be no doubt, however, that Anora is a leader. If you support her elevation to full leadership of the country you are treated to cutscenes of her effecting that leadership. She comes across less as power-mad than eager to take the reins because she knows what needs to be done and how best to do it. As she rallies the soldiers for a great battle against the Darkspawn in Denerim, one sees her fulfilling the true aims of leadership in a time of crisis.

For Queen and Country! -- Queen Anora wearing full battle armour, leading enthusiastic troops complete with oversize maces into battle on a field of war shrouded under a dark orange sky.

 

A brief note should also be spared here. Intrepid searching and reading in the game world can lead the player to rumours that Queen Anora is barren and was unable to bear her husband an heir. A DLC pack also reveals that King Cailan was planning to set her aside for a woman who could bear him a child.

The implications of this are clear: she must also struggle against people who view her less as a leader and more as a womb, including her erstwhile husband. With her talents she believes her first duty to her kingdom is to lead it with maturity and competence, not to make babies for it. That she did not resign herself to being a broodmare for the kingdom may just be another reason why so many gamers seem to despise her.

Anora, it must be said, embodies several nightmares for particular kinds of men (at least, the particular kinds who predominate in gaming communities, whose fears I’ve discussed elsewhere). She is a woman who does not wish to bear children, she is a woman who knows what she wants and knows how to get it, she is a woman who is cable of manipulation and skilful manoeuvring, and thus as a result is a woman who does not prostrate herself before the wills of others, least of all men. She is neither pliable nor biddable, and she is also not in the game as a sex object. Unable to fulfil the masculinist fantasy of a bobbleheaded fawning yes-woman and sex toy, she immediately becomes the target of their rage, and the rage of women eager to impress men and prove to them that they aren’t “like that.”

The Audacity of Pride

I look up to characters like Anora, with her unapologetic tooting of her own horn, because even I still struggle not to self-deprecate. For all I’ve accomplished, I downplay it routinely, undersell myself, speak in qualifiers and half measures. I’ve gotten better at catching myself and being bolder, but it still plagues me. I make myself smaller and less threatening because I intrinsically know strong women rapidly become targets.

It’s not hard to see this in video games. Bastila Shan of Knights of the Old Republic, another forthright woman who speaks her mind and has profound confidence in her abilities, is routinely called a bitch. When men see a woman who is not on her knees begging for his undying love, she rapidly becomes a threat, and it does not take a genius to figure out why that is. I love Anora precisely because she humbles herself to no man. She knows she is brilliant and is unafraid to say so: I won’t make any bones about saying I want to be like that.

Anora is cunning and manipulative but she is no moreso than the men trying to manoeuvre Alistair onto the throne, no moreso than her father who sought to end the reign of a deeply incompetent king. One of these people is not like the other, and of course Anora is the odd man out because she isn’t a man. She does have flaws, yes, there is no question about this. Were she a real person and were I in a political debate with her, I’d have a thing or two to say to her. But her flaws are what make her human. I suspect that another thing that annoys some of her critics of all genders is that she is not a fairy tale queen– neither a perfect villainess nor an alabaster angel. She is a human being. Would I read a novel about Anora struggling with her flaws? Definitely. She is a compelling and thought-provoking character who exists on her own merits.

Queen Anora is, to me, an inspiring figure. She was born a commoner, after all, and rose in society to become (in some possible endings to the game) ruler of Ferelden, and not just any queen but one who could use her great talents to usher in a golden age for the beleaguered country. Her lack of royal blood is used against her by some in the game, and is listed by more than a few as a reason she shouldn’t assume the throne. It’s all the more reason I loved her. In one fell swoop she deals a blow to the concept of a royal line and its inherent classism and proves that this hardworking woman, born a commoner, could not only lead but do so with aplomb.

She is a woman who, from her own father to her royal husband, has been in the shadow of men who granted her boons in the midst of patriarchy.

It was my pleasure to help her seize the opportunity to rule in her own name.

Anora where she belongs. --- A light skinned woman holding a golden goblet, wearing blue and red finery with a white ermine trim. Image Credit: Aimo on DeviantArt