Tag Archives: privilege

All Skulls On: Teaching Intersectionality through Halo

From left to right: Matt, Carl, Samantha (the author), and Cody at the Halo Station.

From left to right: Matt, Carl, Samantha (the author), and Cody at the Halo Station.

“Let me just close the door so the other instructors don’t find out I’m letting you play Halo,” I joked to my Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies 100 class. I knew I was taking a risk on this teaching activity. I was worried that it would come across as a shameless, gimmicky attempt to glam up the difficult topic of intersectional oppression.

My friend and fellow WGSS 100 instructor Lauran planted the seed of the idea for this activity when she, citing my proclivity for video games, recommended that I read John Scalzi’s blog post “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” I liked it. The article was clear, accessible and completely on point. Scalzi’s argument is that being a straight white man is like playing a video game on easy mode: some challenges remain but the player is at an automatic advantage.

As I tried to think about how I would incorporate Scalzi’s article into a lesson on feminist theories of intersectionality, however, I realized that it couldn’t do as much work as I would need it to. Scalzi’s article is a fantastic thought experiment revolving around a brilliant metaphor. While I couldn’t fault it for its simplicity, then, I realized that I would need a more complex metaphor that could capture the way in which systems of oppression interlock and compound each other’s effects.

That’s when Halo came to mind. I wrote an article for First Person Scholar describing how the “skull system” in Halo virtually models the way in which systems of oppression, as Kimberlé Crenshaw observes,  “interact” and “overlap.” In a Halo game, skulls are elective difficulty modifiers that affect particular game systems. For example, activating one skull halves the player’s ammo while activating another removes the on-screen radar. As I wrote on First Person Scholar, “Activating multiple skulls in a Halo game effectively models intersectional forms of oppression. The individual effects of each of these skulls do not simply run in parallel; rather, they intersect, overlap and interlock, just like systems of oppression.” For example, one skull will make enemies throw grenades more frequently while another skull increases the explosion radius of those same grenades.

When we came to our unit on intersectionality, I assigned students to read both Scalzi’s article and my First Person Scholar essay alongside some foundational feminist texts on intersectionality and privilege. And, as they did their reading over the weekend, I was at home devising an elaborate activity with a staggering number of moving parts. Given the complexity of the activity, it’s understandable that I would try to hide the proceedings of my class. It could have gone horribly awry. But did it? Here’s what happened and what we learned from the activity. Continue reading

Decolonize Me

“Why do you act so white?”

Her name was Shanti. I will always remember the exact look on her face, how her head floated in my vision surrounded by the artifacts of a high school classroom. It was the 10th grade, American Sign Language class, and I was clearly not white.

I’ve revisited these three seconds of memory often throughout life, coming back with different answers each time. At first, I thought it was absurd that someone could “act so white,” how could someone act a race? Eventually, I came to associate that question with ‘Why are you so educated?’ since, at the time, I found many non-white people to act rather unrefined.

It wasn’t just me asking this to myself. More people took note of my non-whiteness and proclivity to surround myself with it. It also came in reverse, with white friends glad I didn’t act like those kind of non-white people. I remembered visiting Chicago and seeing an improv theatre show with about 200 other people. For the first time in my life, I noticed I was in a room where I was the only person who wasn’t white. It was startling, considering this pattern I’ve noticed. What is going on with me?

What I’ve come to learn is how the status quo, the marker which we all mediate our lives with, is actually the culture of the hegemonic class. The labels of this group can go on forever, so let’s just settle for white American patriarchy. Which is why there are so many othering stereotypes of people who fall out of this, while whiteness gets assigned traits associated with the general person. Black men are often typecast as uneducated gangsters and white men the honest average joes. We see getting a university education as a standard that everyone should achieve, but politics that disproportionately affect non-white people frequently makes achieving the American Dream, whatever that is now, far out of reach.

There is a similar status quo in the game industry. An expectation for objective, fact-driven games and journalism. When personal experience enters, it is met with distrust. Herein lies the problem- when you leave out the personal, all that’s left is the status quo. Because that ‘standard’ consists of the values of a particular type of culture associated with the hegemonic, privileged class, there is actually something personal and subjective going on all the time. Thus, by leaving out the particular experiences of the silenced and marginalized, it bars anyone from revealing the bias that exists within this supposed stoically neutral discourse. It takes away the vocal chords of a person in a room full of shouting.

Continue reading

Anti-anticitizen One

A picture of Eli Vance, an older African American male with gray hair and vandyke. His left leg is a prosthetic, and he wears cargo pants, a Harvard sweatshirt, and a green vest over that.

A picture of Eli Vance, an older African American male with gray hair and vandyke. His left leg is a prosthetic, and he wears cargo pants, a Harvard sweatshirt, and a green vest over that.

Note: Spoilers for the Half-Life series.

A while ago I started a series examining the various premises surrounding Half-Life 2. When I sat down and reflected (and wrote in my own blog, which will be where the following links redirect), I found that there was a lot I liked about the game from both a technical and narrative standpoint. For instance, looking into the situation surrounding Alyx and Eli Vance, I found not just characters who weren’t the default white NPCs, but also people whose backgrounds gave more narrative power to the situations in which they found themselves: Eli’s role as leader of a previously enslaved alien race seemed the more powerful given his age, the only near-future of the game, and his racial background based off the US.

This then made the narrative surrounding the 1984-esque questions of individuality and how we obtain security by giving in to the system all the more poignant. The figureheads of the kyriarchy, the powers we see, are put front and center through Dr. Breen and G-Man, though it leads to further questions of what is really going on and how the power structures remain even if you can get rid of the figurehead of the organization—oppression cannot be rid of by deposing of the face of your oppression. Power does not exist as an absolute, and its tendrils reach far and wide to help subjugate those it requires to rise itself up and gain its privileges.

However, the part that kept befuddling me is the role of Gordon Freeman. I couldn’t access him as a character, which left me feeling cold much of the time, as someone who enjoys inhabiting roles given him, as I would a character on stage. Often framed as an Everyman, his role is left quite bare in a world that has some rather strong personalities, causing a bit of a clash. I don’t mind extemporaneous acting, but it is a bit odd when you are still following a script, and everyone else is stuck to it. I had a problem, that is, until I started reframing how I looked how I approached Freeman.

As many allies who have certain privileges and have yet to examine them, I was once one of those who was in other spaces and had a disproportionate time spent talking rather than listening. As is often stated to allies in spaces where they may be invited expressly or not, please listen, as what we are sharing is our experience—an experience you do not necessarily have.

Freeman is the silent ally. He is no voice for the resistance. He is a figure. He is a hero. His words are his actions, which by extension are how we interact with the world. We speak against the injustice by progressing the plot, shooting the Combine footsoldiers (which does nothing to help the overall deconstruction of the power structures in place—they are nameless, faceless enemies), and helping Alyx, who helps us progress while giving voice to the story.

Gordon does not have the same experiences as the people he helps. He disappeared for a few decades, and his own background does not necessarily mesh with those whom he helps. While he is a champion whose actions help the resistance, his history and thoughts are not what Valve felt necessary to share with us: he is an ally who can help with action to shape the world, but cannot put voice to the oppression in quite the same way.

Alyx Vance holding the gravity gun. She is a woman in hers 20s, and of mixed heritage, her father black, and her mother Asian. She wears jeans, a Black Mesa shirt, and a brown jacket over it.

Alyx Vance holding the gravity gun. She is a woman in hers 20s, and of mixed heritage, her father black, and her mother Asian. She wears jeans, a Black Mesa shirt, and a brown jacket over it.

Outside of the player/Freeman, the most important player on your side would be Alyx Vance. There has been quite a bit of love for her around these parts, as she is a character who is well-acted, well-drawn, and given a role beyond just superwoman or whimpering sexpot. We called her a character done right. It is on Alyx that much of this hinges.

The world itself is difficult to care about in the same way that I do about the characters. While it is based on our own world, the landscapes are foreign enough that they do not evoke any great sense of attachment. The care and emotions put into the relationships among the Resistance group and then their relationship to Dr. Freeman is what stands out.

To be clear, the politics of the time are largely focused on enslaving humanity as a whole, as well as the Vortigaunts, but as I stated previously, the Vances’ own racial background has that much more effect. The setting of the second game is in 202-, leaving us to believe Eli Vance is somewhere between his 50s and 60s. This means he may not have been alive to see the Civil Rights Movement in the US, but it would certainly had an effect on how he was raised. It is never revealed what manner of scientist Vance is exactly, but he is proven as an inventor, and hinted at as a graduate of Harvard. Not impossible tasks given the time frame, but ones that would color his worldview: he is not someone new to facing daunting odds.

Which is why it is significant that the Vortigaunts stress he was the first to contact them and make peace. The first to champion for their cause. Gordon may be the hero of the game we play, but without Eli, he would be the hero of a vastly different world, and while his oppression by these forces would be present as conflict, the larger oppressions taking place give more context as to what is at stake.

What is also worth noting is that while there exist moments of levity and humor with both Alyx and Eli Vance, they are not so much comedic camp as the other members of Black Mesa East such as Dr. Kleiner. These are characters who have a serious mission, can still remain human, and yet trust Gordon for his previous actions. Yet they are still the leaders of their group. It is Eli who often tells Gordon where to go, or what needs be done. Alyx is often aiding him, and helping him in difficult situations, opening doors for him that he cannot himself.

Which is why the sinister overarching plot of G-Man seems all the more tied to the kyriarchy. In many ways, he is using Gordon to achieve his own aims, whatever they might be. It is not even told for whom G-Man is working. While one could surmise it is against the Combine, there is no certainty of that, as there is none that his loyalties may have shifted. What we know of his purposes is vague, beyond controlling Gordon, and setting up the events that led to the Resonance Cascade. He is the figure we see, but the tendrils that control our life and the world of Half-Life 2 remain unseen, and work at subjugating the human race, as it did the Vortigaunts.

Therefore, the story of Half-Life 2 becomes about resistance against an unseen power. While we play more privileged party in that equation, the human voice and compassion we see, the very essence of what we would likely consider the good in humanity, is embodied in the leader and his daughter: Eli and Alyx. As Gordon Freeman, we the player fight their battle for a world they wish and believe in, and one which we, by the way we enter the story, can easily take for granted as we do not fully understand their experiences or what is at stake until we see and hear their story. We listen, we stay silent, and we help them achieve their goal.

Gordon Freeman, a man in his late 20s, wearing glasses, and sporting a short haircut with a vandyke.

Gordon Freeman, a man in his late 20s, wearing glasses, and sporting a short haircut with a vandyke.

As can often be the case in terms of allies, it is Gordon who receives the lion’s share of the recognition, however. As a tale of resisting kyriarchy, Half-Life 2 gives us a look into how allies are perceived as more of a threat and given more accolades than those fighting the daily struggle, as they are seen to be setting an example for other privileged people. Which is not to say that I believe this was Valve’s intent necessarily. While Freeman is still not a protagonist who greatly breaks the mold of straight white male protagonist who is bland and boring (something rarely afforded a character who is none of these), he can set an example for ally who learns that he can help while not always having to interject his own opinion.

Life Flashes By: A Conversation

One of our staff writers released a game last November. Considering it is a game that features a middle-aged woman as the protagonist, it seems odd that we never actually, you know, provided our readers here with a link. What game would that be? Life Flashes By by Deirdra Kiai.

Charlotte, a middle-aged white woman with short blonde hair, standing next to Trevin, a purple-haired flying male pixie-faery-person.

Charlotte, a middle-aged white woman with short blonde hair, standing next to Trevin, a purple-haired flying male pixie-faery-person.

The game’s premise is one that is familiar to us as consumers of story, but probably less so as people who game: slice of life stories told in a retrospective manner. Charlotte wakes up to find herself in a strange forest, finds out she’s been in a serious car accident, and with the guide of Trevin, a flying man-pixie-faery person, is guided along to explore significant moments in her life, alongside alternate selves that would result from a different decision being made during those scenes. It’s a far cry from the usual amnesic protagonist we see in games.

Deirdra has an interest in seeing her game played by more people, and since we at the Border House like to highlight games that feature non-sexualized, diverse women in lead roles, I asked Deirdra if she wanted to both promote the game and engage in a conversation with me. She agreed. You’ll find the conversation behind that little cut, but it is spoiler-laden, so I would recommend playing the game first, which can be found here (available for PC, Mac, and as an .slg file).


The format results from starting three threads, and then Deirdra and I e-mailing each other back and forth, expanding on thoughts in each thread. The topics start off specific, but also reach into general thoughts on creation, games, and communities.

Charlotte and Trevin watching a scene with a younger Charlotte speaking to her boss, an older woman sitting behind a desk. The office is cluttered with globes.

Charlotte and Trevin watching a scene with a younger Charlotte speaking to her boss, an older woman sitting behind a desk. The office is cluttered with globes.

First Thread

Denis: I recall early on your mentioning that some people were surprised by Charlotte not being incredibly likable. When playing the game, I found myself not liking her, per se, but still felt empathy for her. Particularly as she wasn’t a consumable, market-produced female for an audience. When did her general personality start taking shaper, and how did you decide on how it would shift in her various alternate paths?

Deirdra Kiai: It was always in my head that Charlotte had to be a person who feels real, with a complex personality that includes both positive and negative characteristics. Honestly, it’s such an obvious thing to me that I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. I mean, I see a lot of well-meaning male creators in various media who aim for what we call Strong Female Characters, and while that’s way better than using women as decorative set pieces or not having any women around at all, I keep feeling like there’s too much idealizing going on at least in comparison to the variety we have in sympathetic male protagonists. It’s been my personal experience that I can relate better to a socially awkward nebbish protagonist like Guybrush Threepwood from the Monkey Island games than I can to, say, April Ryan from The Longest Journey — and I say this knowing that April’s still one of the best Strong Female Characters we’ve got in gaming. Something’s got to give.

So, Charlotte emerged with this strong reactionary stance in the back of mind, but I wanted to write about her, simply because I found her interesting. Our culture devalues middle-aged women far too much, which is a shame, because I look to a number of older women for wisdom and sheer biting wit. And with this, I figured she’d possess a mix of outward self-assuredness and inward self-consciousness stemming from awareness of failing to be what society expects of a woman — something I already feel all too well in my mid-twenties. The same, I think, goes for all the alternate Charlottes you meet in the course of the game. It’s just the outward means of self-expression that change, really. The way I personally see the alternate paths is that none of them are really better or worse; they’re just different. And, as you dig a little bit further, you’ll find that none of them are really THAT different after all.

I indeed selected the option of telling Trevin that I saw their lives as no better or worse when it came up at the end. Looking back, I was particularly thrilled at going back to her high school, for instance. I’m not quite middle-aged, but I’ve had many of the same thoughts she was having regarding nostalgia and how the entirety of high school was just… daft (are there people who haven’t?). It was curious how as time progressed, she seemed to be more critical of a particular self (or so it appeared to me), and aware of her own inhibitions that were holding her back. It’s as if her own standards for herself kept being raised.

In fact, it’s rare that we even get games that are merely slice of life dramas, to use a phrase. Particularly since this is a bunch of those little slices. Instead of asking for a changed person though, what we get is a woman who is telling a story at even this junction of her life.

DK: Indeed. I was inspired to do smaller slice of life pieces prior to this one after being exposed to a few interactive fiction games I’ve played in that genre — Photopia, Best of Three, and Rameses are excellent examples of what I’m thinking about, here — and the next logical step was to do several of those pieces all in one, telling a greater overarching story about one person’s life and how it evolves over time. And Charlotte’s story, as I like to say, isn’t even over yet. I don’t mean this in the sense that I’m planning a sequel (in fact, the only sequels I’ll be writing to this story will be of the spiritual variety) so much as it’s left open-ended because this is a story about me (in a highly metaphorical sense, mind you; this isn’t self-insertion fan fiction) and MY life is far from over, and still full of a great deal of uncertainty.

So, in a huge way, the continuation of the story comes from what people take out of it, and how what they’ve just played will affect them going forward. Not to mention the conversations about the game I hope to see more people having as more people play it. This, in turn, will affect who I become in the not-so-distant future, and consequently inform the creation of future games of mine. I’ve always been big on the idea of games being a means of communication between the player and the designer. Some people take this to mean “create a sandbox”, which is totally a valid approach, but I also think it’s valuable to do something that’s deeply personal and author-driven but still understand that this kind of communication exists and is important.

I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but part of what thrills me about games now, that didn’t even occur to me back in the day, is a new process of telling a story. Arguably, we could call what you’ve created very akin to IF, and yet, there’s that hint of something more. Even traversing Charlotte’s memories in any order we choose? While it seems superficial, it all depends on how we discover a person, doesn’t it? Part of what I don’t understand is the thought that we have blank slate characters, which I just can’t ever see being fully achieved–the system itself creates our characters, much as I believe the world’s system shape our own beliefs. Whether we are in tandem or opposition with those systems informs us, as well. The fact that you decided not to force my discovery of Charlotte down a strictly linear format in terms of time, though it might be suggested, seems to hint at such.

DK: That’s exactly why I never really understood the game design philosophy in which one puts as little “character” in a player character as possible so that players can have an easier time projecting themselves into said character. And that’s a valid stance to have in, say, MMOs, where the players actually shape the system itself; however, in single player games, what you really wind up getting is a character who represents either the game designers or whatever marketing believes the largest demographic for the game in question is going to be. There are so many unchecked assumptions in play that it’s a lot harder for someone like me to consider the character a proper representation of myself.

So, as you can imagine, I’m a lot more interested in the idea of a game showing you what it’s like to be someone else, someone who’s probably not like you at all. And to do that, you actually need to go through the work of creating a compelling character, just like you would in any other storytelling medium. But you can’t just leave it at that, or all you’re making is a movie. You have to decide what kinds of gameplay interactions are possible based on things your character would or would not do.

As for the non-linear exploration, that was something I’d had in my mind near the beginning. I’d flirted with the idea of releasing each vignette alone in an episodic format, but then decided I wanted more freedom of movement, to take better advantage of what interactive media has to offer. And I enjoy the idea of working in a medium where you don’t have to tightly control what we’re supposed to feel at each stage of the story. For instance, I like the idea that someone’s first impression of Aaron could change depending whether they first see him in the cute meeting scene or in the breakup scene. Or that people could interpret any part of Charlotte and Trevin’s conversation as either actual argument or sarcastic banter. Things like that fascinate me.

Charlotte and Trevin standing in front of a house party. Two party-goers stand right, smoking--one is an older man, and the other is a woman with red hair (age difficult to discern).

Charlotte and Trevin standing in front of a house party. Two party-goers stand right, smoking--one is an older man, and the other is a woman with red hair (age difficult to discern).

Second Thread

On your blog, you’ve mentioned isolation and exploring feelings of such in your games. This game certainly has it, but often in a questioning manner: during certain creative processes, are we more prone to be shut-off, for instance. It’s certainly a feeling I think many people who become aware of the larger world around them, and how they stick out from mainstream discussions of topics. Yet, as Charlotte learns to break from mainstream expectations from her, largely with age and experience, she does become more isolated in a sense.

DK: This is true. I think as people age and gain more experience living in the world, some mellow out and become more tolerant and accepting of others around them, whereas others go the opposite way and grow sharper and harsher. Charlotte is definitely of the latter category, and it’s a scenario that scares me, because I WANT to live a more open and less lonely life as I get older, but I keep finding myself pulled in the other direction in response to the injustice and oppression I see going on everywhere, and the so-called mainstream’s refusal to do anything constructive about it. The thing that draws me away from complete cynicism and misanthropy — something, I note, that Charlotte lacks — is a sense of community in which those of us of various marginalised groups can come together and make each other aware that we’re not alone in this. I’ve always loved Shakesville’s analogy of trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon; it’s futile if you’re doing it alone, so any reasonable person would just shrug and give up, but if you’ve got a critical mass of people shovelling their teaspoons right there with you, everything feels so much more hopeful.

It does seem as if Charlotte is set up as isolated from the very first. What resonated with me in particular is moving to a completely different country and having your accent being a point for people to ridicule (I was about child Charlotte’s age when that first happened, actually). From the start, it seems she’s set up to isolate herself, and her primary passion, writing (and reading), is one that keeps being mentioned as waning in culture as a whole. On top of being intelligent, she’s female, which obviously even sets her against her first rival in maths–his being picked on, follows him picking on her, which causes her to leave maths behind entirely.Perhaps somewhat more foreshadowing of what this would mean is the high school era (it all comes back to adolescence, doesn’t it?), where she can’t bring herself to just go away with her friend, and then reflects that they never really had anything in common except bucking the normal trends. Which is oddly at ends with her telling her father she just wants to be normal; she gives up a field of study for it, but finds she’s not accepted even when she pursues what’s considered more friendly to women’s interests.

Which always begs the question of when you find that community. It seems like in Charlotte’s mind, as she’s never had it in either a large family or her social circle, she wouldn’t be able to conceive of so many people working together at such a monumental task.

DK: That’s very true, and I think another element at play here is the privilege Charlotte DOES possess in the society in which she lives. For instance, as a white woman, she’s never had to go through some of the things I’ve experienced as a woman of colour. And it kind of echoes a lot of a sentiment I see from similarly privileged people I see entering anti-oppression spaces and being like “I’m straight, white, cis, and middle class; I don’t know anything about oppression!” and instead of doing the understandably difficult work of examining that privilege when it gets called out, they find themselves feeling alienated and pushed away by what’s perceived as hostility.

The solution to that, I want to say, is to just get over yourself, which is what I’m sure a lot of people want to yell to Charlotte sometimes, myself included. But it’s a long, hard process to figure out that it’s not all about you, and that’s something even I have trouble with a lot of the time. I still struggle with feeling like an outsider, even knowing of the importance of community. The things I know from an intellectual standpoint often seem far ahead of what my emotions understand, and I’m not surprised in the least to see that come out in the art I create.

I couldn’t help but wonder about Aaron in that regard. He almost seemed a polar opposite end of the spectrum from Charlotte, even if under that umbrella of creative artist. He also seemed to be a POC (to be honest, I couldn’t at first tell if perhaps he was just slightly more tanned than Charlotte, but the daughter also sharing his skin tone seemed to argue against that–a habit probably culled from cynicism in games), and their ability to communicate was so fundamentally flawed. If anything, it seemed he was a consoling entity that was able to sneak under her normally rigid exterior when her father died–which was further highlighted because she wrote a book about a gnome that came to symbolize both of those men.  After all, Charlotte’s work, from the bits we get, are influenced by the world around her–the very same world in which her privilege allows her to escape a lot of it. What struck me was her ability to recognize some of it, such as her friend in high school coming from a wealthy family, but then losing that ability to scrutinize anything beyond just herself. Her ‘last’ alternate reality, for instance, is having writer’s block from not going on a blind date–a seemingly dull event where she just droned on in a bored manner with a man to whom she had no attraction or connection.

DK: The awkward dinner date seemed pretty pointless in the grand scheme of things, yes, but at the same time, she had to take that chance of putting herself out there to know that for sure. And the alternate reality there was trying to show what might have happened if she’d mentally blocked herself from the outside world TOO much, taking that kind of extreme reclusiveness to its logical condition. If you finally give up completely and shut yourself away so you don’t have to deal with people you hate anymore, then there’s nothing more to really write about, is there? (Well, except yourself, of course, but unless you possess a certain amount of narcissism — which Charlotte doesn’t, aware as she is of her flaws — you get sick of yourself pretty quickly.)

Charlotte and Trevin watch a similarly aged version of Charlotte having a dinner date with a middle-aged white male, the background consists of silhouetted diners.

Charlotte and Trevin watch a similarly aged version of Charlotte having a dinner date with a middle-aged white male, the background consists of silhouetted diners.

Third Thread

I was amused by Trevin, and particularly how he interacted with Charlotte. In many ways, it seemed the two were constantly engaging in duels of wit and word. It was also very endearing how, in my game, certain responses allowed a relationship to strike up–painting Charlotte’s isolation as largely one of her own doing. After all, what we see displayed over the course of the game is a story about a friendship in the making.

DK: You’re absolutely right; that’s exactly the kind of feeling I wanted to convey in their relationship. I think the guided life review in this game is sort of a metaphor for the concept of “letting someone in”; as you get to know a person, you learn their stories, the little vignettes of lived experience that made them who they are today. I think that’s a big reason why when I was growing up, I considered characters in fiction as dear friends, and I think many of us introverted, geeky types can relate. Charlotte, as a fictional character, is like that too, except it’s a little different, because you’re actually playing the part of the person who’s sharing the stories. For many of us, it can be terrifying to open ourselves up in that way, something that Charlotte feels at first — but then, as we learn to trust and be more comfortable with who we’re sharing with, it only feels natural.

Yet Charlotte’s forced to do so, through our very desire for a story, isn’t she? Not in a sinister sense, but we are directing her life–though in a sense, the lack of choice makes it feel less about controlling her, and more about guiding her through these scenes. Something that struck me is that she is very obviously one of those literary types that’s not in the public eye, so there’s not even a sense she has any connection with an audience. She seems to disdain outright any artistic endeavor purely made to cater to an audience, in fact. When it comes down to it, even the lack of agency comes down to authorial control–Charlotte is having a direct influence over it, she won’t let us take those reins.

DK: There’s something very “old school” about Charlotte’s approach to art — I say “old school” in quotes because it’s not really that old at all — in that she considers herself separate from the audience, that what she does is “high art” because she doesn’t need to pay anyone any mind but herself. And that brings me back to the idea of community versus isolation. She’s definitely got a bit of a “lonely at the top” feeling going on, even if, arguably, she’s nowhere near the top. It’s a coping mechanism I see in a lot of highly intelligent people who have difficulties with social interaction; you convince yourself that you’re somehow superior and more evolved than all those plebs, or what have you.

Yet, to pull that into a more abstract view, isn’t that the same discussion we always have around art? I’m not of the belief that games, for instance, are the only interactive method of creating art, or what could be considered art of varying levels. Even in theater (using my own background), there is the question of audience participation and reacting to the audience so that you can take the same package and deliver something completely different depending on who’s there. Yet you’ll always have those plays that have a very strict fourth wall. I often wonder if we’ve falsely constructed this dichotomy where suddenly, now, there are more creators, rather than admitting now we’ve created more tools to make that creation easier and more visible. Even your creation of this game, funded through KickStarter, speaks to more channels to engage in the same arguments–it’s just that the argument is being made more often, and they’re made more available, if that makes sense?In other words, I never see us getting rid of the Charlottes, no matter how much progress we make in interactivity, as the computer programmer Charlotte points out. There will always be an audience for various entertainment. It’s just disheartening to see someone so removed from the audience that they can’t connect with them at all–something I’d argue we’ve also always seen in terms of superstars (again, something I think we’ve always had, but that has become more prevalent). After all, can Charlotte cope with criticism, despite being able to give it in spades?

DK: The superstar thing was what I was trying to get at; it could just be an artifact of growing up and gaining more means to discover niche interests, but I find that as time passes, “superstars” and other aspects of mainstream culture become less and less relevant and visible to me, personally. And yes, niches have indeed existed before this day and age, but it seems to me like the internet has gone a long way in amplifying that, since you have a way to connect people that’s comparatively more agnostic to geographical region and economic class. So, now you have these small-scale “minor internet celebrities” who create works I really enjoy, but still manage to be accessible as real people to me. The end result of this is that I can’t go back to thinking of creators of media I enjoy as god-like, for lack of a better word, and consequently, have very little patience for creators who embody this god-like persona in interacting with their fan bases, if they choose to interact at all.

As for criticism? Of course Charlotte can cope with it (in that it doesn’t destroy her) but does she do so in a healthy way? I imagine her as dismissing most of it as irrelevant; she expresses on many occasions that she has little patience with what she terms “mere critics”. But it is indeed sad that she doesn’t really see a middle ground between this mindset and “pandering”.

At this point, Deirdra and I decided the conversation had grown large enough that we could present it to people. If you enjoy Life Flashes By, you might consider becoming a Facebook fan, or following Charlotte and Trevin’s Twitter accounts.

Facebook games and the privileged people who oppose them

[Trigger warning for fat shaming, ableist slurs, class privilege, also general warning for thought rambling]

An image of a FarmVille farm with cows, tractors, crops, and barns, with a "Play Now" button.


A long article was released yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle about FarmVille game developer Zynga, claiming that the company is one of the largest growing firms in the city.  Like any article in any mainstream publication about social games, the comment section quickly turned into an insult-fest of people throwing around privileged-filled comments about the kind of people who play Facebook games.

Reading through the comments, I saw the following statements:

  • These people are absolutely pathetic to be wasting all of their time playing these mindless games. (Says people who are ‘wasting time’ commenting on news articles)
  • Why don’t these people go outside and plant a REAL garden? (Have you personally planted a garden before?  It’s not exactly easy, and not everyone can do it)
  • These people are all social outcasts who cannot communicate with real people outside of their houses. (Although they have plenty of friends on Facebook to play games with?)
  • These people are just addicted and depressed, they hate their lives and social games have filled a void. (Ah yes, no one could possibly be playing these games because they ENJOY it)
  • People who play games on Facebook are fat and lazy and contribute nothing to society. (Of course you bring out the fatphobia, you can’t possibly forget the fatphobia)
  • You have got to be a “retard” if you spend one minute playing FarmVille. (Ableist slurs make you cool, you know)
  • I’m going to go run my “real business” while these Facebook gamers sit on their asses and collect unemployment checks. (Don’t mind me, I’m just a privileged asshole who owns a business)
  • These games are unhealthy for the people who play them. (Weee-oooo weeee-ooooh, the health police are here!)
  • These people are mindless consumers. (Here, let me make your decisions for you since you are incapable)

I normally ignore these comments, because I’m one of those people who plays these games.  Sure, I’ll completely own up to my personal privilege here – I make these games for a living so I play them for business purposes as well as a personal hobby, and I get more chance to play them than most people probably do.  None of that changes the fact that reading through these comments makes me almost feel like a complete waste of space because I have fun playing Facebook games.

Social games are all about accessibility, which is a huge reason that they have become so popular.  They are free to get started and players can enjoy them without ever spending a dime if they choose not to.  Anyone with an internet connection can enjoy them, compared to a console game that costs $50+ just for the retail box, or a subscription-based MMO that requires a $15/month fee.  These kinds of games open up the world of casual gaming to people who might not be able to afford the luxuries of buying games.  Let’s not fool ourselves, video games are freaking expensive.  If you are lucky enough to afford the latest console, you still have to pay out a lot of money for each individual game.  Not to mention if you want the DLC or additional content, you can be paying an awful lot for your gaming experience.

A wide variety of people play video games, and you know what?  Some of them might not leave the house.  This can be for a huge variety of reasons – they could have social anxieties that prevent them from going outside.  They might have health reasons for staying indoors.  They might not be able to afford to go out and do much.  They might be taking care of their kids all day at home and stopping in to play FarmVille now and then while they’re taking a nap.  Social game players might not be able to plant a garden because they have a disability that prevents them from doing that.  And frankly, who are they to tell someone to go plant a real garden instead of play a game?

The Treasure Isle logo, showing a tropical island with a small female cartoon avatar.

What I do with my personal gaming time is my business, and why do people I don’t even know care about how I can spend that time?  Why is it a “waste” when it is my personal time to spend the way I choose?  Why do they assume that I am a mindless person who is blindly consuming products because I am incapable of making decisions for myself?  People seem completely unable to grasp the idea that social games are fun.  I play these games because I find them enjoyable.  I’m fortunate enough that I could be playing my Xbox 360, or another game on my rather beefy computer system, or the Wii, but I choose to play Facebook games because they fit the kind of short gaming sessions that work with my schedule.

I’m a Community Manager, and I hear from my players all the time that they appreciate our game because it gives them something to do in their wheelchair that connects them with other people.  They make friends through our game and work together on common goals.  I’ve had players thank us for making a game that’s affordable on their disability income, or their retirement income.  I’ve had people tell me that playing our games helps them get their mind off of a recent tragedy in their life.  I’ve known players who play our games together with their kids, and their whole family comes together around the game every night before bed.  The Border House is all about how games are meaningful beyond just mindless drivel and that extends to all categories of gaming – be it hardcore, MMO, casual, social, puzzle, or co-op console shooters.  Social games bring people together in meaningful ways on social networks where players already spend time.  It is easy to play games on Facebook, and that opens up doors that bring new people into our world of gamers.

I am tired of people belittling those who play Facebook games.  So you don’t like them?  So what.  We’ve heard this before about MMOs, about the people who enjoy them being lazy and antisocial.  While it’s absolutely fantastic that these commenters don’t have a disability or other issue that prevents them from going outside and shooting people in paintball instead, it’s complete ignorance and lack of understanding about the concept of privilege that makes them blind to the fact that others might not be in the same boat as them.  It’s great that they can afford to buy expensive games and pay monthly fees, but other people have to make do with less expendable income to spend on hobbies so that they can feed themselves and their families.

I am perfectly fine with people simply not playing Facebook games because they don’t find them fun.  Go ahead and insult their game design and call them spammy clickfests.  But this incessant need to slam and ridicule social game players for doing something they like to do is just privileged bullshit that really has to stop.

Wrex and the Art of the Privilege Check

I’ve written a lot about Mass Effect previously, including a rather long criticism of some of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) gender bias at play in the universe BioWare has created. For my last post, I’d like to take a look at the character of Wrex and how his situation as well as that of the Krogan species is used to teach players about privilege.

Wrex from Mass Effect

Wrex from Mass Effect

Conversations between Wrex and the other members of the crew are clearly meant to mirror conversations about race and racism on Earth, with Wrex delivering withering smack-downs of ignorant privilege. My first example, a conversation between Kaiden (in my game it was Ashley) and Wrex on an elevator, makes this connection obvious, referencing a racist attitude that even those with minimal knowledge of racism can usually recognize:

YouTube (starting around 1:37):

KAIDEN: I haven’t spent much time with Krogan before, Wrex, and I have to say, you’re not what I expected.

WREX: Right. Because you humans have a wide range of cultures and attitudes, but Krogan all think and act exactly alike.

KAIDEN: Well, I–I didn’t mean… forget I said anything.

WREX: Done.

This conversation is an obvious allegory for racism on Earth; most people recognize that treating or talking about an entire race as if they are all the same is racist (at least, I hope so…). However, the game goes deeper than that, exposing a more subtle act of privilege:

YouTube (relevant portion is at the beginning)

WREX: What can I do for you?

SHEPARD: What’s your story, Wrex?

WREX: There’s no story. Go ask the Quarian if you want stories.

SHEPARD: You Krogan live for centuries. Don’t tell me you haven’t had any interesting adventures.

WREX: Well, there was this one time the Turians almost wiped out our entire race. That was fun.

SHEPARD: I heard about that. You know, they almost did the same to us.

WREX: It’s not the same.

SHEPARD: It seems pretty much the same to me.

WREX: So your people were infected with a genetic mutation, an infection that makes only a few in a thousand children survive birth? And I suppose it’s destroying your entire species?

SHEPARD: You’re still here. It can’t be all that bad.

WREX: I don’t expect you to understand. But don’t compare humanity’s fate to the Krogan.

SHEPARD: I was just making conversation. I wasn’t trying to upset you.

WREX: Your ignorance doesn’t upset me, Shepard. …

Some privileged people make the mistake of trying to show non-privileged people that they relate to their struggles by comparing experiences that really aren’t comparable. For example, a white person saying they can understand racism because they experience discrimination for being a nerd, or whatever. This statement may not seem as racist to some white people, but it minimizes the systemic nature of racism and how deeply it affects people of color. (See also Derailing for Dummies’s “But That Happens to Me Too!“.)

Even better, Shepard follows it up by making the intent excuse–don’t get so offended, Wrex, he didn’t mean to upset you! Which is more crap, because intent doesn’t matter: what Shepard said was still offensive and wrong.

A lot of the racism allegories in Mass Effect are anvil-like in their obviousness, things that have been done over and over in fantasy and science fiction–but on occasion the game goes deeper and explores some of the more subtle aspects of systemic racism and privilege. Have you noticed any other examples of this in the game, or in other games? Do you think this is an effective way of subtly teaching players about the nature of privilege?