Vote Shepard

So IGN has been holding a presidential election with videogame characters as the candidates. Each candidate represents a platform – not a party platform, but a gaming platform. For Xbox 360, Commander Shepard (Mass Effect) has just narrowly edged out his competitors. Apparently the Nintendo (Link from Legend of Zelda) and Playstation (Nathan Drake from Uncharted) primary elections did not have the same level of tension. The PC candidate is yet to be determined (you can see Duke Nukem’s campaign commercial here). But, Gameranx reports, as in real elections, there is some controversy surrounding the election of Commander Shepard as the primary winner for Xbox 360.

So what has people upset about Shepard’s primary nomination? A couple of things. First, there is a strong backing for Master Chief (Halo). Second, there is the suggestion that Xbox really doesn’t have that many good potential candidates, since only Xbox exclusive-release characters are eligible. Third, Mass Effect is available on PC, as well, and some argue that “contaminates” Shepard’s candidacy. Fourth, some people were upset that the male Shepard was the candidate put forth, instead of the female avatar (in their defense, male Shepard is on the box). Finally, Shepard is a “blank slate,” to quote Gameranx. In short, Shepard isn’t a set character with specific traits. He (or she) is whatever the player chooses, unlike, say, Master Chief.

The videogame-and-leadership scholar in me is positively giggling with delight and hopping up and down in her chair. I could not have paid IGN to do something more relevant. What’s great about the closeness of Shepard’s primary win is that it demonstrates that gamers become invested in the qualities and ideologies represented by their player-avatars. It demonstrates that how we design our characters and our games in the videogame industry really matters to the players in the gaming community. They are invested in who those characters represent and they understand that, as players, they are partly responsible for shaping them through gameplay.

That last part is, I think, why Shepard won the primary. While every player’s Shepard is a bit different (in appearance, attitude, style, etc.), Master Chief is much more of a tabula rasa, an “empty uniform,” to quote Band of Brothers. Shepard is as much a person as a videogame character can be, precisely because he or she is created by the player to reflect some level of personhood that Master Chief can’t capture – precisely because Master Chief has to be baseline accessible to all players sans customization.

But this election reflects on the way in which games are intertwined with cultural ideology, with politics, and even with our understanding of heroism and war. That the final two candidates were both war heroes (and that war heroes, like Grant or Eisenhower, tend to do well in real US Presidential elections) expresses our desire to be represented by men and women willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and for what they (we) believe to be right. We want leaders who are both transactional and transformational – we want them to represent our views and ideologies (which Shepard does, because we as players create those ideologies), but we also want them to be transformational, capable of changing their world (our world) for the better.

In short, players are choosing the characters they wish they could be, and a character like Shepard does that better than most because of the level of control the player has over his design. We’ll see where the election ends up, but the fact that so many people care so much about this single character – whether because of the ending of Mass Effect 3 or this election or the “open vote” method BioWare used to choose the appearance of its standard female Shepard – says to me that we want our characters to, in some way, be better versions of ourselves. I think that, ultimately, that’s a hopeful sign that we possess the capacity for change, just as our characters do. And in this world, that’s a very good thing.

I’m So Over This

So things have been swimming along fairly nicely in the gaming community these last couple of weeks, and then Games Radar decides to make a post about Booth Babes. And my reaction is not blind rage, but, rather, the desire to drop my head onto my desk with a very loud thud.

(Booth babes, for those of you unfamiliar with the genre, are women hired by companies to dress in scantily clad outfits from their games or comics or what have you in order to attract the drooling masses to their tables. They are virtual staples of the gaming and nerd community conventions, according to some, and have been the subject of enraged feminist lambasting and stereotypical straight male geek fantasies pretty much since they were invented.)

One would think that at this juncture, with PAX and PAXEast having banned booth babes, with GDC and E3 taking fire for allowing them, and recent flame wars concerning online misogyny in the gaming community, that Games Radar would have more tact, taste, and maturity than to post an article with 106 words saying “Here are our favorite babes” and several cleavage-heavy photographs.

Perhaps worse is the fact that no one has told them that they’re being adolescent and crude. There are admittedly only three comments so far (and no, I didn’t comment as I have no desire to have my Facebook inundated with trollish comments, no matter how constructive trolls might be on their good days), so the trend might break, but the attraction to posting pictures of scantily clad breasts on gaming sites that purport to be serious about games is disappointing.

It’s also shown  me just how inured we’ve become to this sort of thing. Now booth babes are not women who have chosen to cosplay (fans who dress up in the costumes of their favorite characters, who are also often scantily clad because that’s how women’s costumes are designed, which is a whole different kettle of fish), they’re paid to fulfill a fantasy image. I don’t really have a problem with character-models being paid to emulate a videogame character (one of the coolest parts of PAXEast 2010 were the Gears of War 3 guys roaming about and taking pictures with Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite), whether scantily clad or no. What I have issue with is that articles like Games Radar’s are acceptable and expected, and that half the point of having people dressed like a character are so that they can be scantily clad. No one hires a model to dress up as Samus Aran.

What I’d like to see happen is that game companies hire all sorts of models – male, female, scantily clad, fully armored – and see game journalism sites post pictures of all of them. I’d like to see sites like Games Radar behave a bit more maturely than to cater to juvenile impulses like 106-word articles that say, in effect, “we took pictures of boobs.” If the gaming industry wants to be taken seriously, then it needs to stop acting like it just graduated from junior high.

Save the Trolls?

So today’s post is the consequence not of someone’s blog post, but of an email sent out to the Digital Games Research Association list. Apparently, the emailer (Jason Wilson) notes, there has been recent concern in Australia with trolling, which, given the media attention being paid to it here is probably unsurprising. After a fairly comprehensive definition of what a troll is and an analysis of how trolls interact with – and are even produced by – the “desire for deliberative democracy” that characterizes much of the online community.

And this is where things got interesting.

Trolls are usually someone else, defined from our own position and interests. When they are not, and we inhabit trolling, we discover that trolling requires know-how, close reading, experience, sometimes sympathy with those we would disrupt.

 What are the consequences to seeing trolling and other forms of affective behaviour as the norm, rather than the aberrant? The discourse of digital art has long since told this story, but the intellectual desire for open and constitutive democracy has overridden the ‘actually existing democracy’ of bullying, trolling, threats, inane memes and low signal-to-noise ratios. What would happen if we started to think of trolling as the central practice in online discourse? What if trolling is the Internet’s signature mode of discursive politics? What if we started to think about trolling as a practice which is generative rather than destructive?

Having heard the “confessions of an ex-troll” at SMCRVA last month, the idea that trolls might actually be contributing to the production and continuation of online community came as something of a surprise. But the sense that trolls are the perpetual Other – and almost never ourselves – raises some interesting questions. Are we trolling, for example, when we make arguments against a position with which we disagree when we know the other person cannot be persuaded? Is there anything wrong with perpetuating an argument just for the sake of perpetuating the argument? Is a devil’s advocate really a troll?

But I like the question, “What if we started to think about trolling as a practice which is generative rather than destructive?” Because when you stop to think about it, (some) trolling can be generative. For example, Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project probably would not have garnered the attention, the funding, and the national awareness that it now has were it not for trolls. (That said, I would not wish their treatment of her on anyone, and I stand by my assertion that much of what was said and sent to her should never have happened.)

Trolling can draw attention to those issues that we take for granted but aren’t motivated enough to do something about. Online bullying. Sexism. Homophobia. Bigotry. By hyperemphasizing the accepted and tolerated low-level intolerance that is part and parcel of Western society, trolls are actually making a demand (whether on purpose or by counter-point) that we reexamine the mores that make up our dominant and sub-cultures to see why behavior like theirs is possible. Whether intentionally or not, trolling actually permits the kind of “deliberative democracy,” even though, as Wilson remarks, “Trolls are not interested in redeeming democracy through deliberation, and they mock attempts to do so.”

In short, in order for our society to be motivated enough to make a change, we need to recognize that our ideology is permissive of a degree of behavior that crosses a line. We are willing – whether ethically or not – to tolerate a certain level of bigotry because it doesn’t inconvenience us; trolls raise that level to the point where we are no longer willing to tolerate it, thus actually catalyzing systemic change.

I’m not sure I would call a troll a leader in the sense that we typically mean in leadership studies. Perhaps the internet age requires a new term to describe such leadership (although “troll leadership” just doesn’t sound right for so many reasons), or perhaps this is simply a new form of social satire produced by technological progress. Whatever the cause, perhaps Wilson is right that trolls aren’t all bad, and that maybe we need to leave one or two of the more innocuous ones under a few choice bridges.

 

[Note: For members of DiGRA, the original email can be accessed here.]

When the GM goes a little crazy…

I‘ve posted about Junta before. But this time, things are a bit different and infinitely more awesome.

Most of the time, when the game ends, someone wins. That’s how games work.

Sometimes, the GM goes a little crazy, develops a god-complex, and decides to unleash a zombie horde on the players. And suddenly a competitive game rather instantly becomes cooperative. This makes the leadership studies professor inside me squeal with delight.

Two days ago, this group of ten people was lying to each other, backstabbing each other, and generally trying to get everyone else killed so that they could walk away with the most money. Insert a zombie invasion, and all of a sudden those ten people become compatriots in arms, best friends (which some of us were already outside of the game), and more than willing to cede authority to anyone who has a halfway decent plan for survival.

The dynamic of this sudden and immediate change reminds me considerably of the phenomenon we’ve been talking about in one of my classes – that crisis makes people immediately band together. Now in certain situations, crisis can permit the rise of a single charismatic leader behind whom the people will rally (for good or ill). In the case of our game, however, there is no single charismatic leader because, well, we’re all potential leaders (that is half the point of the game). What it produced in us was the sudden urge to collaborate.

And here’s the thing – the game also suddenly became a lot more fun. I think this is due to two factors. 1) This was totally unexpected. Novelty will produce a sense of elation that increases enjoyment. 2) Collaboration is naturally fun. We’ve learned this from horde modes, from Team Fortress 2‘s “Mann vs. Machine,” from Yggdrasil and Pandemic. Collaboration is just more fun because there is no enemy in the room – the Other (in this case, zombies) is a universal evil that we can all agree needs to be destroyed. (It helps that the Other is mindless and brain-eating so we don’t have to suppress any empathy.)

Essentially, by dropping a zombie apocalypse on us, our GM has given us a reason to unite with one another in a way which would never be possible in the “everyday” of the game. We’ve been given a common goal (“survive”) which we all want to achieve. It’s drastically changed the ludics of the game without actually needing to alter the mechanics themselves.

Best of all, perhaps, is that the game has ceased to be at all predictable. We no longer know the way things go – how long it will go on, what it takes to win, anything. In that sense, it mimics life much more truly than it ever can again (since we will know, in the next zombie apocalypse, how it works). And it’s amazing.

Boyhood, Manhood, and Why I’d Like to Hit Something

This was sent to me by a colleague’s husband, who I’m sure realizes that it’s going to end up on this blog: “A Call to Arms for Decent Men” by Ernest W. Adams. At the top of the article on its original page is this line: “Gamasutra declined to run this column, but I still consider it to be part of the Designer’s Notebook series. Contains strong language.”

My guess is that strong language is not why Gamasutra declined to run it. Despite purportedly encouraging politeness and fair play, Adams’ article is actually a prime example of misogyny at its nefarious best.

To be fair to Adams, his intentions are good. However, what he is doing falls within the same umbrella of misogyny as the behaviors he’s criticizing. For example, while he says that “boys” who engage in online harassment are immature and need to grow up, the way in which he phrases their responsibility to act as decent human beings leaves a bit to be desired on the egalitarian front:

Men have more power than women: financially, politically, and physically. What distinguishes a real man from a boy is that a man takes responsibility for his actions and does not abuse this power. If you don’t treat women with courtesy and respect –- if you’re still stuck in that “I hate girls” phase –- then no matter what age you are, you are a boy and not entitled to the privileges of adulthood.

While biology may generally dictate that women are in fact physically weaker than their male counterparts most of the time, the presumption that physical strength is tantamount to financial and political power is insulting. The entirety of the feminist movement has been spent to disabuse people of the idea that men are inherently superior and more deserving of money and power, and Adams has simply accepted that the old Victorian mores are in fact truisms.

In essence, Adams’s article panders directly to the attitude that women are inferior beings and that “real men” don’t need to abuse women just because they can. In fact, by Adams’s logic, “real men” should protect and stand up for women because they are inferior and, by extension, apparently incapable of standing up for themselves. That’s not what he’s saying, exactly, but that is the attitude he’s created here.

The statement “A grown-up man has no problem being in the company of women. He knows he’s a man” presumes the same ideological framework as the “boys” to whom Adams is writing. He defends this position, stating that he has to assume this attitude in order to reach his audience:

Some of you might think it’s sexist that I’m dumping this problem on us men. It isn’t; it’s just pragmatic. Women can not solve this problem. A boy who hates girls and women simply isn’t going to pay attention to a woman’s opinion. The only people who can ensure that boys are taught, or if necessary forced, to grow up into men are other men.

It is sexist. It’s absolutely sexist to assume that only men can teach boys to behave like responsible adults. It’s sexist to suggest that responsible adults of either gender have a specific set of behaviors coded to that gender that aren’t universal to all human beings. Men and women alike have the responsibility as human beings to treat all other people with the respect accorded them simply by virtue of being alive, regardless of gender (or age, wealth, creed, etc.). So long as we accept that “men” have different responsibilities or sets of behavior than “women,” we are perpetuating a sexist attitude in which one gender (or the other) is dominant.

Suggesting that “men” need to teach “boys” to grow up and behave treats the symptoms, not the disease. Both chivalry (in the modern and medieval sense) and sexist harassment are symptoms of the same social disease, and by attempting to eliminate only the symptoms, Adams does not recognize that his prescription is contributing to the problem. We – both men and women – have to eradicate the attitude that presumes a fiction of superiority, and the elimination of symptoms will follow.

Finally, Adams offers a list of things “real men” should do to curtail the behavior of the “boys,” and then a list of ostensible counter-arguments from those “boys,” including this sparkling gem of classist sexism:

 “Women are always getting special privileges.” Freedom from bullying is a right, not a privilege, and anyway, that’s bullshit. Males are the dominant sex in almost every single activity on the planet. The only areas that we do not rule are dirty, underpaid jobs like nursing and teaching. Do you want to swap? I didn’t think so.

This paragraph makes me want to run out of my dirty, underpaid office – in a row of offices that belong to men who are (by Adams’s logic) also apparently dirty and underpaid – and use my feminine fists to demonstrate just how “inferior” my physical strength actually is. I’m not going to, but that’s the level of frustration I’ve reached with this article, which engages in the worst sort of chivalric fantasy in which Adams, the white-clad paladin, rides in on his shining stallion to defend the honor of delicate flowers offended by the malodorous hordes of the trollish unwashed. Women don’t need men to defend their honor. Women need to be accepted as human beings, the same as all other human beings, regardless of race, gender, sex, creed, or orientation.

To be fair, Adams does close with perhaps the only truly egalitarian sentence of the piece: “Let’s stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the women we love, and work with, and game with, and say, ‘We’re with you. And we’re going to win.’” With this statement, I agree wholeheartedly, but that’s not what the article has spent most of its time saying.

Which brings me to another, more difficult point. I live in the South, but I’m from the upper Midwest and arrived here by way of Boston. I’m used to opening my own doors, to holding the door for whomever I’m with, male or female. Here, that gets me funny looks and even causes consternation among men who don’t know what to do with a woman who holds the door. My point is that women need to be willing to do the work, to get dirty, to accept that in order to achieve equality, we have to put in the same effort as men and not expect chivalry if we aren’t going to give it. And men have to let us do it.

Just when you think things are settling down…

Recent weeks have had me thinking that perhaps all of the online (and offline) discussion of misogyny and gamer culture perhaps had led to something – some improvement in behavior, online attitude, something. And then this story hit my twitter feed: a female blogger was assaulted while attending a Minecraft-related (but not official) party during PAX Prime (the party, it should be noted, is also not affiliated with PAX in any way). She tells her story here.

In short, she was sitting by herself, was approached by a man who made small talk, then showed her pictures of breasts, then not only placed her hand on his clothed penis, but took his penis out of his pants. She left immediately after informing him that “You can’t do that!”, and attempted to tell security, whose response was “What do you expect me to do?”

She prefaces the whole post with the following:

Everyone: I’m seeing a lot of comments on twitter and elsewhere blaming PAX for this incident and the security guard’s reaction. This party was NOT held by PAX, it was not even in the same venue, hell it wasn’t even on the same street. It was not affiliated with, sponsored by or organized by PAX. The only things it had in common were being gaming related and being the same weekend in the same city.  I’m even seeing some blaming Mojang. The ONLY person who should be held accountable for what happened is the asshole himself. And if you’re going to get mad about security, blame that guard. Also this post isn’t about nerd or gamer culture or blaming those cultures at all, this could happen in any community, at any party, to anyone.

I tend to think she’s probably right about most of this. Neither Mojang nor PAX hosted the party, first of all, but even if they had, they certainly did not ask the man in question to do what he did nor did they condone such behavior.

What I find particularly interesting is that she wants to remove the incident from gamer culture in general. Guest poster Scott Madin argues the following concerning this on The Border House blog:

Perhaps predictably, I disagree with Ky that this has nothing to do with PAX or with nerd/gamer culture. She is obviously the final authority on her own experience, and just as obviously the man who attacked her is the only one who bears direct (let alone legal) responsibility for that crime. But from my perspective, one shouldn’t be too quick to discount cultural and environmental factors that make predators feel they’re free to operate in a given situation — and that make bystanders more likely to shrug, to see the warning signs of predatory behavior as “normal”.

He acknowledges the point that these things can and do happen in other situations that do not involve gamers in any way, shape, or form (the T in Boston springs to mind as one of them), but I think his point is also valid. The atmosphere of the gaming community – which is not reflective of, I would argue, most gamers, male or female – is such that it tacitly permits such behavior and produces the attitude evinced by the guard: “What do you want me to do about it?” In other words, “these are gamers, lady, they’re creeps.”

Now, the guard didn’t say that last bit and I may be projecting a little, but the woman did everything right here. She left the situation, she told him his behavior was unacceptable, and she tried to gain support from someone who should do something about it. And the security guard dismissed her, which is unacceptable under any circumstances short of ongoing homicide, natural disaster, or apocalypse.

Madin suggests that gamer culture – “booth babes,” “dickwolves,” etc. – and PAX culture permit this kind of behavior. They insinuate in a variety of non-obvious and obvious ways that women are interlopers, sex objects, and eye-candy, rather than fully-articulate agents and human beings. But, he says, they do so in such a way that people don’t even notice – “Rape culture teaches men that they’re entitled to sexual gratification from women, whether visual, verbal, or physical; hiring models to ‘mingle’ with partygoers declares the same thing explicitly.”

What really concerns Madin, and should concern all of is, is that aside from an online tongue-lashing, “there will be no lasting consequences.” In short, the culture as a whole will click its collective tongue and say – as Madin points out, like the security guard – “What do you expect me to do?”

He closes with at attitude that I’m starting to see more and more often – one that says “I don’t know anymore.” An attitude I’ve seen from victims of repeated assault, from women struggling to change current legislation only to be told they have no voice, from people talking about the fact that a Michigan senator can’t say “vagina” while discussing birth-control laws. One I’ve had myself. Something has to change, but I don’t have any easy answers for how to make that happen.

That seems like a harsh way to close, but I don’t know what else to say. A lot of people have been patient and polite about this for a great many years, and the results have been rather underwhelming. Nerd culture resists change, and perceives efforts to bring change as attacks, no matter how moderate, no matter how careful the phrasing. I think the best hope is to work to make explicit what it is the pillars of the subculture support: to label their behavior indelibly as sexism, and to finally attach some modicum of shame to behaviors that should always have been seen as shameful. Challenge harmful structures, don’t support them. Don’t let praise for misogynist companies and institutions go unquestioned. make all but the most committedly sexist nerds uncomfortable voicing their boy’s-club attitudes, and make it socially unacceptable for the majority to associate with the hardcore misogynists.

Any culture, not just nerd culture, “resists change,” and in order to make it happen we have to wage a war of attrition. Sooner or later, enough words, enough objections, enough protests will eventually make a difference. Hopefully sooner, so that incidents like this one become less commonplace.

Playing Nice!

So an article that grabbed my attention yesterday is actually on how playing games can make us nicer – specifically, “Forget violence: Do co-op games make us less aggressive?” by Jamie Madigan on Gamasutra.

I’ve mentioned co-op games on this blog before, although specifically in reference to board games. Madigan’s article is talking specifically about videogames and psychology studies. Apparently, recent studies from 2010 onwards have found that players show fewer violent impulses, make fewer connections to violent language, and are generally more cooperative with others after playing a game in co-op mode. Basically, cooperative play produces a cooperative mindset that then translates into other behaviors.

I do not in the least find this surprising, nor do I imagine most people do. If you’ve just spent several hours trying to help other people accomplish something, you’re in a completely different mental space than if you’ve just spent several hours trying desperately to kill more people than anyone else.

Here’s something that the article doesn’t mention, but that I’ve noticed from a lot of play-time (electronic and tabletop). Your lexicon is totally different. When you are playing cooperatively – in Team Fortress 2‘s new “Mann vs. Machine” mode, say – the other people on your team are “dudes,” are referred to by “name,” or by their character class. The people or bots you’re competing against are usually some sort of expletive or insult. In-group vs. out-group, as I talked about today with my students.

“Mann vs. Machine” actually has raised several of these issues for me recently. As a long-time TF2 player, I was fully expecting to see a leaderboard when I loaded up “MvM.” I didn’t. At first, I was disappointed. I wanted to see that board – to know where I was on it and how well I was doing. Even though TF2 has always been cooperative to an extent (your team versus another team), there was always a leaderboard and therefore a level of competition. But not in “MvM.” And it makes people better team players.

There’s no competitive pressure to do better than your teammates (to say nothing of the other players), but there is pressure to help your teammates and the team as a whole. Pressure is exerted if you aren’t contributing to the collective goal by showboating or running off to kill everything yourself. And people are nicer to each other – fewer insults, more helpful suggestions, and even the tone of comments telling people they don’t know what they’re doing are constructive rather than offensive.

Maybe there’s something to the idea that we don’t always have to be individuals. We can be a useful member of a team and have value there without always having to be praised individually for being special. Sometimes, sure, individuality is important, vital, even. But sometimes, it’s better to play Engineer and support your team, to play Medic and keep everyone alive rather than just trying to rack up points by following the one Heavy who shoots everything.

And cooperative play – whether Yggdrasil or Pandemic or TF2 - puts us in a better state of mind overall when it doesn’t also pit us against one another. Games like Modern Warfare produce animosity within teams because they force players to measure one another rather than encourage team play. And the deep irony is that if players work together (rather than each striving for individual top score), their team does better. Leadership isn’t just about who kills the most enemies or steals the most intels. Leadership can also be about teamwork, and the leaderboard actually hinders that process in online play.

And, really, I’m all for anything that makes people be nicer to each other in the online gaming community.