Peace On Earth, Not so Much Goodwill

Given the time of year, this seems an appropriate topic heading. And an appropriate topic, if a controversial one. In the wake of what happened at Sandy Hook, many people have expressed not only their condolences to the families affected, but have advocated for non-violence, gun control, and increased security of schools.

But some people have brought out the now-traditional strawman of violent videogames as the impetus for crimes like this one and the shooting at Columbine. On December 19th, TIME notes, “Senator Jay Rockefeller introduced a bill calling on the National Academy of Sciences to ‘study’ video game violence on children.” Fortunately, Christopher Ferguson (the author of the TIME piece) knows better. He refers to a recent study that demonstrates that, in fact, higher rates of videogame play actually seem to correlate to lower rates of gun violence, overall. While correlation is not causation, it certainly seems to indicate that videogame play does not cause increased incidence of violence. These findings have been insisted upon by gamers, developers, and even scholars (including Exodus to the Virtual World author Edward Castronova) for years.

But that’s not really the point I want to get at here, just the background to it.

On December 21st, two days after Senator Rockefeller’s proposal, Antwand Pearman held a “Day of Cease Fire for Online Shooters” in commemoration of the Sandy Hook victims. The point of this Cease Fire, Pearman says, is that “We are simply making a statement that we as Gamers are not going to sit back and ignore the lives that were lost. Instead we will embace [sic] the families with our love and support.” The Cease Fire was covered by GamerFitNation, Kotaku, Forbes, and others (listed on the Facebook page linked to above).

The Kotaku article includes the following note, as well:

The other note I got was from the publicity-loving anti-gaming ex-lawyer Jack Thompson, a guy who only makes it into the news when they are violent deaths (or when he’s being dis-barred). He believes games train kids to kill. He hadn’t e-mailed me since October, when he was trying to shame Best Buy into no longer selling Mature-rated video games.

Thompson wrote: “You people at Kotaku have blood on your hands. You have facilitated the infestation of an entire generation of young men who have now come of age, like this sociopath in Connecticut, who were raised on violent video games and who see the killing scenarios therein as a means of solving their problems.

“I warned you at Kotaku that a day like this would come, and now it has come. Congratulations. Hand sanitizers won’t ever room the blood on your greedy little hands. Jack Thompson, Miami”

Obviously, Thompson agrees with Senator Rockefeller. But, despite calling for a “Cease Fire,” Pearman does not. He did not call for the Cease Fire because he believes that violent videogames had any impact on the shooting. He called for it as a sign of respect for the families involved. He wanted to do something to show that he felt sympathy for them. A Cease Fire seemed – I imagine – a logical action to demonstrate that there is too much real violence in the real world. Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo quotes Pearman:

“When I thought of this cease fire I saw it as a means for gamers to come together and show their love and support the families. The one thing we can’t get in this world is peace. War will always rage on but in the virtual world we have an opportunity to be better. This isn’t something for the media it’s for the families and us.

“So what if people stop playing shooters for a day? It will be forgotten the next day. The point is that in that silence you’ll have time to listen to something you haven’t heard in a long time. Something you have been too busy to hear. Too social to notice and that’s…your Heart.”

But Pearman is wrong. First, his actions have not been forgotten. Perhaps in a week or a month or a year they will be, but both the positive and the negative will continue to resonate. The positive is obvious – showing respect and expressing sympathy with the people most impacted by a tragedy. The negative may be less so, but is all the more nefarious for its subtlety.

Mike Rougeau, also with Kotaku, followed up on the story with a report about one gamer who refused to cease firing. That gamer – Isaiah-TriForce Johnson, and yes, Rougeau tells us, that is his real name – believes that a Cease Fire plays into the irrational fears of people like Rockefeller and Thompson:

“I’ve been around gaming for a very, very long time and I’ve watched the media butcher video games and blame video games for a whole bunch of stuff that has nothing to really do with us, or the manufacturers, or the developers, the producers, the inventors — it has nothing to do with us,” he told me.

“The reason I think that the online ceasefire is a bad idea is because, as I said before, the media will take anything that we say and they will manipulate it,” he continued. “I think the media would take that and use it against him.”

And I see his point. Rougeau says that “when you fly a flag half-mast, you’re not blaming the flag. A moment of silence is not an accusation aimed at speaking,” and that may be true. However, no one is angry at flags to begin with. But when you have an industry – or, let’s say, a minority group – that people already fear or hate, then any action that might even obliquely align that group with negativity becomes a springboard for increased bias. For instance, early modern witch trials. Women were already marginalized, and when women became associated with witches, they became increasingly marginalized, even though the object of the trials was “witchcraft” and not “women.”

Now Rougeau is right that Pearman’s intentions are good, but Cease Fire will not be read by the “pundits and politicians who would use games as a scapegoat” as gamers saying, “we don’t care what you say about us. We’re going to show respect, and we’re going to do it our way.” It’s going to be read however they want it to be – that games are negative, and that they have the power to influence us into making irrational decisions about violent behavior.

My reaction is essentially summed up by one commenter, username PillBinge:

I actually think TriForce holds an intellectual persona (and actual intellect) that gamers should put forth. I have my views and I think they’re rock-solid, but that doesn’t mean people want to listen to me. In fact, arguing often comes down to how the two sides view each other as people, not the views.

“You and I both know Antwand means good,” TriForce said. “But we are in a very tense position in the nation right now. We’re really walking on egg shells, and anything we do or say will be used against us.”

I say let them try.

The first quote is very reassuring. But the Let them try part is a little worrisome. Don’t invoke someone else’s anger just because you’re right. Progress isn’t about stopping and fighting and antagonizing, it’s about moving forward and over obstacles.

In essence, thumbing our noses at “pundits and politicians” like teenagers is not going to get us anywhere. Thompson was not willing to listen to Totilo’s (admittedly self-reported) reasonable dialogue about evidence, and others like him are going to be equally recalcitrant about seeing Pearman’s actions as anything other than a tacit admission of guilt. We need to speak and act like adults, not call out “pundits and politicians” to a mud-slinging fight.

But I’m also not going to say that a Cease Fire is a bad idea. I think Pearman is both within his rights and a noble person for arranging a memorial like Cease Fire. I also think TriForce is right to be leery of participating – or, at the very least – leering of not speaking up about what Cease Fire is really intended to mean. It isn’t a call to arms for some sort of gamer rights, and it isn’t an admission of guilt – it’s a call for gamers to have their own version of a moment of silence, and that should be a good thing. I’m just afraid it isn’t going to play out that way.

Ins and Outs

So about the last thing I expected in my in-box this morning was a response to yesterday’s post from Zoya at The Border House, and I have the feeling that Todd (who had inspired the original post from me) probably had a similar reaction. Now I think that Zoya’s point is actually a good one – How do we know for sure that Taric is gay? Isn’t it just as problematic to assume someone’s sexuality from markers and clues that may or may not have anything to do with sexuality? Absolutely, agree 100%. And this is an important conversation that needs to be had.

The only real issue I have with it is that Taric is not a real person, he’s an iconographic representation of something, and the motivations that we’re looking at should not be ascribed to him, but to the developers who designed and implemented him. We aren’t trying to “out” Taric (if he even happens to be in the closet), we’re trying to convince Riot to come out of the doorway in between “maybe he is… maybe he isn’t… we’re not telling,” because, as Todd argued on his twitter account, “In this wink-and-a-nod mode where everything is illicit and rumored and strange. That rhetoric is the same rhetoric that forced me and many…others into the closet in our lifetime, just as much as the expectation that we conform to stereotypes would. I don’t want that.”

At The Border House, Zoya says that “I’m not against coming out, but I am against the assumption that everybody will or should manage their social lives and personal identities in the same way. And even though I don’t play LoL, this call for an apparently feminine male character to come out as gay is deeply troubling to me as a genderqueer person.” She makes the very valid point that assuming that Taric is gay based solely on gender cues is fallacious, and it is, but when we’re dealing with media and (especially, unfortunately) games, those cues are important. Now I think it would be a really interesting move for Riot to have intentionally created Taric with his pink legwarmers and love for sparkles as a straight man, or an asexual man, or an identified-female.

So, first of all, maybe Taric is not gay. Maybe he loves women almost as much as he loves gems. Maybe he doesn’t identify as a guy. Maybe he just doesn’t know yet. Maybe he doesn’t need to explain his gender expression in terms that fit your worldview.

Or maybe he is gay, and he doesn’t feel the need to navigate the complex network of social connections between the League and the LGBT community through the rather culturally-specific rite of passage of coming out. Maybe Taric belongs to a culture where coming out isn’t the best option for him or for his family. Perhaps his privacy is very important to maintaining his connection with the community he grew up in. It doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t doing his bit to break down homophobia in that community, but the challenges might not be navigable by the same means that they are in your culture.

Maybe Zoya’s right. Maybe Riot is really much more complex and thoughtful about gender and sexuality than we’re giving them credit for. Maybe they just didn’t think about it and have a designer who likes sparkles and pink legwarmers. Maybe they want to make the point that we shouldn’t ask questions about sexuality because it is fundamentally unimportant to Taric’s role in the game. Honestly, though, I don’t think Riot thought about any of that, and I’m pretty sure that that’s the point Todd was getting at.

For the sake of full disclosure, I don’t play League of Legends, and I don’t really have a founded opinion on whether Taric is gay, straight, bi, asexual, questioning, or not even human at all (hence my use of “so if he is” in the original post, because I really don’t know). That said, I’m inclined to think that Todd is probably right, and that Riot created a character they “decided” was gay, but left his sexuality ambiguous (his description reads, “Taric is tight-lipped about his life outside the League and prefers his privacy”) to avoid fan backlash. And if that is the pattern we’re seeing here, then it is a problem, and should be talked about.

For instance, Todd’s response makes the equally valid point that while there’s no particular need for Taric, as a fictional individual, to be gay, it is important for media producers like Riot to include characters who – if they are, in fact, gay – are not reticent to own their sexuality. Not because people should feel obligated to do the same, but because of another point that Zoya made: “If there was someone like me on British TV, I would have a much easier time explaining my identity to my mother.” It’s important for people of all types to appear in our media as open, accepted, and equally competent as everyone else.

The assumption that Taric is gay – which, as I understand it, is held by much of the LoL community – may be problematic because of what it says about the way we read gender and sexuality codes, but that’s exactly why Riot should be open about Taric’s sexuality, whatever it is.The problem isn’t that Taric isn’t openly gay, nor that he likes sparkles, but because they’re pointedly refusing to talk about it while nevertheless including elements that our society automatically codes as homosexual:

Valoran’s media, for some reason, has taken a great interest in his personal life. While open about his life as a champion and gracious in all things, Taric is tight-lipped about his life outside the League and prefers his privacy.

The inclusion of a sly comment that hints at something nefarious, illicit, or otherwise “hush-hush” is dangerous because it allows for certain assumptions to be made based on the established pattern of closteting and bigotry that exists in our society. If that’s not what’s happening, Riot has the responsibility to make that clear so that no one – gay, straight, asexual, genderqueer – feels as though they need to remain silent. Can they? Sure. But they don’t need to because their sexuality or gender identity isn’t condemnable. If Taric is okay being whatever he is – and liking gems and pink legwarmers – then they can feel okay about being whatever they are.

Out with it!

So since a friend of mine (Todd Harper) wrote an Open Letter to Riot concerning the ambiguous sexuality of Taric, which was then picked up by Kotaku, I feel like jumping on the “come out of the closet” bandwagon, namely because Todd’s best point wasn’t echoed on Kotaku’s page.

And let me tell you, that last logic — “Why you gotta politicize our fun fantasy vidyagame” — gets on my nerves with a vengeance. A wink-and-a-nod character is already political; in fact, it’s deploying the epistemology of the closet as a politic right off the bat.

This, as regular readers will know, is one of my biggest pet peeves – the idea that entertainment isn’t already somehow inherently political. The idea that games are “just games” and don’t have any value or influence in the “real world” of politics, people, and perception. Because they do – videogames do, television does, movies do – and the influence they have is perhaps all the more important and powerful because we don’t see it happening.

Today I read a student paper about Modern Family and how its depiction of a same-sex couple marrying and adopting a child signifies the changing social mores of our country. Yes, and no. It does indicate change, but it also is attempting to positively reinforce that change. And that’s what Riot isn’t doing by keeping Taric in the proverbial hero closet.

And Todd makes another great point, which I think is as applicable to gendered and racial stereotypes as it is to sexual ones:

part of the great thing about Jann [Walker from Valkyria Chronicles] (and Taric) isn’t just that they’re gay (or, you know, “gay” in quotes) but that they’re also extremely good at their jobs. That last part is really important, because as annoying as it sounds, it’s the key to getting that character buy-in from your probably straight white cismale gamer audience.

In short, the only way to eliminate the kind of bias and bigotry that generally accompanies the inclusion of gay, minority, and female heroes (player-characters or otherwise) – and the inevitable screaming we hear from the “probably straight white cismale gamer audience” about corrupting their precious male power-fantasy games – is to make them valuable. Basically, we need to see in videogames the same things that we want to see in the real world: if you’re good at your job, then it shouldn’t matter what else you are, whether female, gay, lesbian, African American, Asian, Hispanic, atheist, Muslim, or covered in purple and orange tattoos.

While I do think that minorities of all kinds shouldn’t have to prove themselves, I do think that proving one’s worth is a step toward acceptance because it doesn’t demand counter-privilege. Women want equal pay for equal work – not special treatment. Homosexual couples want the right to marry the person they love, not a “special” kind of marriage. Racial minorities want the same opportunities as the majority, not a “free pass.” But because our society is so dominated by the straight white male mentality (and not just from straight white males, I would like to point out), when we go out of our way to promote someone who isn’t straight, white, and/or male, it becomes an issue of “special treatment.”

And that’s what drives me the most batty. Taric is, as Todd points out, a powerful character, whether he’s gay or not. So if he is, let him just be gay. Don’t hide his sexuality for fear of reprisal, but also don’t trumpet it from rooftops with explosions of feathers and glitter while shrieking “look how inclusive we are!” Just let it be what it is, no apologies, no special treatment.

 

No Girls Allowed (on the box)!

So a recent issue – and one which I intend to spend more time on at a future date when I have time – has come up since the release of the cover art for Bioshock Infinite (which you can see here at the announcement). If you know nothing about the game, you might look at the cover image and say, “so what?”

Here’s the kicker. Most of the game is spent protecting and being helped by an NPC (non-player character) named Elizabeth. You never see yourself (the player-character whose shotgun-wielding self is depicted – presumably – on the box), but you will spend most of the game staring at her. And she doesn’t even show up in the background on the cover.

Why not? Apparently, because, Matt Hawkins at Gameranx notes, “Mostly the reasoning behing [sic] it, which according to creator Ken Levine, is a means to target the ‘frat boys’ demographic.” If that is the truth, then the cover art is offensive not only because of the rather glaring lack of the female protagonist, but because it has just suggested that players are stereotypical “frat boys.” I, for one, do not consider myself a “frat boy” in any sense of the term, derogatory or no. But Hawkins’ article isn’t actually about Infinite’s cover, which apparently garnered so much disgust that Irrational is holding a cover art contest to make the cover “reversible.”

Hawkins points out that while Irrational may be catering to the proverbial “common denominator,” Naughty Dog (to which, I might point out, Nate Wells went when he left Irrational) is refusing to allow its publisher to make the same misogynist error and is insisting that the protagonist – Ellie – of their new title be left on the cover art. In fact, Naughty Dog’s director, Neil Druckmann, is quoted in the piece as saying, “I believe there’s a misconception that if you put a girl or a woman on the cover, the game will sell less. I know I’ve been in discussions where we’ve been asked to push Ellie to the back and everyone at Naughty Dog just flat-out refused.”

As Hawkins suggests, “Naughty Dog should be applauded for sticking to their guns,” but, he continues, “one fears the possibility of sales being hurt by such a noble stance. Unfortunately, numbers do not lie, and there are stats that does [sic] show that many gamers will not touch a game if there is a female on the cover. Yes, even in the year 2012.” While Hawkins may be right (his grammatical and spelling errors aside), it strikes me as though part of the reason gamers won’t pick up such games is that the games they want to play have never traditionally featured women… and so they have come to associate women on the cover with games that they don’t want to play.

But I bet they’d still buy Modern Warfare if the next version features a female soldier because they trust it. And I think that Bioshock Infinite probably has enough of a fan base at this point that it can afford to do what many smaller franchises cannot – to do what’s right for its fans and the game, rather than capitulating to the stereotypes pushed on its fans by the marketing industry. (After all, the fans were upset enough to call for a new cover to begin with…)