Escape Velocity

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Thelma and Louise picture courtesy of the Screenlines blog.

Sometimes you just have to trick yourself into thinking you’re going on vacation and while no one is paying attention, pack your car and head west.

It’s weird to think of leaving a game and its attendant community with the same gravitas as other more serious topics, but given how often World of Warcraft resembled a small town at times, it is an apt description. For a population of 7 million, it was incredibly insular in that regard. Instead of doing things for World of Warcraft, it’s been nice to focus on other things, particularly things that interest me, no matter what they are. I’ve been catching up on more television and movies with my boyfriend, as well as trying out way more games. Not having to maintain an audience who only care for me to talk about WoW means I can talk about anything I want, and interact with whomever shows up to listen.

I never thought I’d leave Warcraft. I thought about the day that I’d just end up being done and turn off the lights, wander away. I didn’t realize that it would really be me watching my pretty consistent enthusiasm for a game being ground into dust and my attempts to change things being stymied as I realized that a giant company doesn’t really have to care. Warcraft, and Blizzard if we’re being honest, is so massive that it has its own gravity. You either roll in towards it or in my case, work up the energy to fly away. It is a funny business attaching yourself, limpet-like, to one game and one game only and the whole method of criticizing the one thing you’re so intimately connected with. People resented me for my criticisms, but those same people were the ones I had to impress and cajole into listening. I grew increasing frustrated when I realized the only thing that kept us talking to each other was a thing I was growing to hate. I was playing the same game that I had come to despise over a number of months, wishing it would get better and then watching it get worse. I definitely wasn’t making any progress, and I wasn’t getting any better at what I was doing. I also was becoming a person I really didn’t like – resentful, angry and generally just bitter.

Everything looked like it would be better once I put enough distance between myself and Warcraft.  The reality is that it is and isn’t. I am a small country mouse in a big city now. (I would imagine some people would term it as “little fish in a big pond” but I am not nor consider myself such. I just know this is a different culture now where the land is way more unfamiliar.)

The larger gaming community is confusing and it’s been odd to disentangle myself from one population of people with a significant sexism problem only to run straight into watching the paranoia, misogyny and schisms happening all over due to gamers being angry that women like making games and writing about them. It did remind me though that trying to attack the problems with one game left me not focusing at how it’s a deeply connected issue to every other game that’s been made and the people who play them. It also showed me that the despite all of those fibers crossing back and forth, capital-G gaming is content to not overturn the rock that is MMORPGs and the shit that goes on there. This is one of the reasons that MMORPGs have such a weird, impenetrable barrier around them; they are a genre of game so all-encompassing and socially engrossing that it’s very hard to get out of them long enough to try other things, and the audience is okay with the larger world ignoring them.  MMORPGs are hard to understand unless you’re in the thick of it. Having been there, I understand that it is extremely hard to leave, and extremely hard to peer into it without feeling confused.

I guess this is at least one thing I do understand, this liminality. There’s a difficulty in making a promise to yourself that forever means just that, the end.  It’s hard to change present tense to past, to put down the road lines as you’re driving, trying not to outpace your expectations by the reality of the situation. I keep moving forward and away because it’s not cool to look at explosions. It’s also hard not to sound dire when I don’t even know if I’m running from, or to somewhere

Some days, it feels like a little of both.

 

 

 

Not A Photograph, But A Mirror: Sexism, World of Warcraft and Gaming Communities

A screencap of an item on Wowhead.com, called An Autographed Portrait of Jaina Proudmoore. It has flavor text that reads, "Before she went crazy."

A screencap of an item on Wowhead.com, called An Autographed Portrait of Jaina Proudmoore. It has flavor text that reads, “Before she went crazy.”

This is about a photograph.

But not really.

 

It’s about a fake photograph from a fictional woman, in the hands of a gaming company that made her, who also made her the butt of a joke.

But not really.

It’s about how we continue to talk about women, and how we talk to women in gaming spaces.

I had, perhaps naively, thought that when I quit World of Warcraft that it meant that I had a certain freedom to leave it behind and never talk about it again. But the problem is that even if I walk away from the game, the shittiness that permeates some of it and the community at large is still there. I still have friends and acquaintances who deal with this stuff. So while I gave up making World of Warcraft my 24-hour job in terms of combating sexism, seeing the continued effects of it ricochet around just makes me sad. In a positive way, it gives me a new freedom to address the subject in a more complete way.

Perculia, Wowhead‘s site director, is one of the more visible women in the World of Warcraft fan community. She runs a site that is the largest database for World of Warcraft as well as an informative news site about updates to the game. She’s good at her job herding digital cattle, whether it’s keeping up on news culled from developer’s Twitters, coallating data from a new beta patch or putting the massive amount of information in the database together in a relevant, clever way. She is an extremely important person in the game’s community as well as to the game itself – even Blizzard’s own employees use Wowhead to look for stuff. Despite not playing the game anymore, I still like to keep up with what she’s doing.

On Wednesday afternoon, she brought up a seemingly unimportant gray item that had come in the latest beta update for Warcraft’s Warlords of Draenor expansion. For those who aren’t familiar with the game, Jaina Proudmoore is one of the few prominent female leaders in the game’s canon, who has had many appearances in the overall world story of this popular MMORPG. However, her story took a bit of a turn between the last expansion, Mists of Pandaria as well as a tie-in novel, Tides of War. The powerful mage suffered a tragic levelling of her port outpost by an opposing faction using a mana bomb and has gone on the offensive since then, struggling with her own anger and grief. Whether or not she’s a moral person at this point is up for debate (as she also jailed and hurt neutral-aligned blood elf mages, staged military motions against the Horde) but within the game’s own lore, she’s not very different from other warring male NPCs with the same narrative prominence. However, many of the game’s players have taken Jaina’s turbulent actions since the bombing of Theramore as proof of her being “crazy” and have cracked jokes along those lines.

It’s obvious that this item is in reference to that, but despite protests from players that this is merely a joke on Blizzard’s audience, I don’t believe it. Jaina has become one of the more polarized characters in the game and there’s no mystery as to why – she’s a woman with extremely strong emotions. Prior to this latest character arc, she was powerful but she also was very loyal to a more pacificist, neutral approach to relations between the two factions in-game. Blizzard has done a pretty mediocre job respecting that change with nuance or sympathy, despite characters with far more morally bleak outlooks (see Garrosh Hellscream, leader of the Horde) garnering equal or greater spotlight and admiration. If Blizzard is cracking wise on their fanbase, which I don’t buy for a second, they would have to have a position distinguishable from who they are parodying. That’s how satire works.

One of the things that eventually drove me away from World of Warcraft is just that kind of jokey disregard for many of the under-utilized female characters that the game boasts as well, combined with an overall lack of understanding of their female audience at times. Seeing them continue to make little jabs like this at a character who’s gone from being made fun of for being a bookish nerd, to being made fun of as a “slut” because fans think multiple male characters were interested in her, to being too peaceful, to now being too crazy, is really disheartening. There’s also just the fact that underneath all of this is that she’s a woman, and that’s enough for players to dislike her. Having the company who created her undermine pride in who she is doesn’t send a very good message to Jaina fangirls as well as the rest of the community. What this really says is less about one particular fictional character but more about the real people who wrote her, the real people who thought this item was a good idea, and this has a ripple effect throughout an already pretty sexist community. Because it’s not really just about how we represent and treat fictional women, but moreso how it makes us look at real women.

Perculia bringing this item to light sparked not only enough discussion to get Warcraft to put in a fix immediately (to be updated in a future patch) but also a round of detractors, harassers and other miscreants who generally hate it when anyone criticizes the game, especially for reasons that have to do with things like sexism. That’s what this is, in case it wasn’t clear. It might have been a joke, but it wasn’t very funny to everyone and it was just another moment when women (and their mental health) were the punchline. Seeing Perculia deal with harassment for almost two days now over something that amounts for passing disappointment for a company she works closely with is more indicative of the problem than some flavor text. It might have been a throwaway item but over time little things like this just add to the constant river of shit you have to deal with as a woman trying to play this video game, if not video games in general. The item, as well as her tweet, has shown up on a noteable cesspool known as the MMO Champion forums, which stoked anti-“SJW” mockery and keeps bringing in fresh waves of people to berate her (but notably not as harshly to the devs who spoke to her about the change) or troll her about caring about it. It’s sad.

When I started poking at the larger game community outside of the insular crowd of Warcraft players, I thought that maybe some of the things I’d seen being an outspoken feminist would have gotten slightly better but then the last month happened and shattered that belief. What happens within WoW’s borders is nothing different than what happens when Anita Sarkeesian makes a new video. The only difference is that instead of finding lots of different female journalists, media critics or game developers to fixate on, WoW’s community often only has a scant few women who work for big fansites, post on the forums, or make fan works like YouTube videos. Instead of someone like Zoe Quinn being a target, I’ve seen people harassing Trade Chat on Twitter or post derogatory comments on Liz Harper’s editorials. I even caught a lot of flak when I brought up Ji Firepaw having sexist dialogue back in Mists of Pandaria. Big game companies have just as much responsibility to diversify their works as they do to make sure their fans feel safe discussing and criticising their company, especially when so many women (and other marginalized populations) put in so much time and work promoting their products and making them accessible to other players. I’d even say it’s a responsibility despite it potentially costing the loyalty of other segments of their audience.

At the end of the day, fans of World of Warcraft are no different than someone who writes for Polygon or makes indie games if we’re all talking about women. Gaming has a sexism problem, whether it’s towards real women or fictional ones and the two are intimately connected, no matter what we think. And as much as I’ve seen progress, we still have a long way to go.

Really.

This is How It Should Be

Adults on a concrete surface hold colored controllers in the air and move around.

Adults play Johann Sebastian Joust outdoors at BitBash Chicago.

 

The last three weeks have utterly destroyed me.

Granted, I’m not someone who had a hate campaign targeted at me, but watching women I considered to be at the forefront of games criticism being picked off, harassed, doxxed or quitting really took a number on my own sense of safety as well as my desire to be a writer in gaming. This slow-moving avalanche of misogyny reminded me of some awful things in my past and left me struggling to articulate feelings of helplessness as a woman, feminist and creative person.

In spite of all that, I was excited to be attending an indie games exhibition in Chicago called BitBash. Underscoring that excitement, however, was a touch of nervousness – what if I wasn’t “cool enough” to be there and what if there was drama? Still, I thought that getting a break from the constant misery-reinforcement on Twitter and various blogs was a good idea. I was also going to hang out with Gita, someone who’s work was incredibly enriching to me but also was a kick-ass lady to be friends with. In addition to that, she was also okay with hanging out with a weird Internet woman (me.)

We met up on Saturday and took a car over to the Threadless warehouse space in the Western Loop area of Chicago, not knowing what to really expect. We showed up and were greeted by a pretty welcoming sight: people milling around in the front parking lot playing games and having a good time. We had gotten there early enough so the food trucks hadn’t quite been set up yet, but late enough to make clear that the space was full of things to do and see. We had pushed our arrival later in general, as BitBash had warned of lines, but for the most part it was just the right amount of people and we had no problem getting in and milling around.

One of the first games I got to experience was Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik), which Gita had excitedly mentioned wanting to play since we got there. When I had read the description, I was confused, having no experience with the original game, and it seemed very abstract. Watching a bunch of people play it though, made me realize how fun it was. Even though I didn’t step in (I have a really intense performance anxiety), watching everyone flail around and move to get other people to shake their controller, appropriately controlling their speed to the slowed-down or sped up orchestrations, was incredibly entertaining. Adults playing and having a good time outside is infectious and isn’t something you see often, especially since many of us focus on hobbies that keep us inside, aloof. Not to be outdone by just peers, I even saw a group of grown men attempt to compete with a tiny little girl who was just as excited as them to play.

That kind of experience was indicative of what I noticed over and over again while we were there: everyone showed up. Gaming events have always felt very overwhelmingly white and male and this didn’t. Granted, there still were a lot of white dudes there, but many more people were that didn’t fit the profile. A highlight of this was notably how many women there were. Given recent events, it made the event feel incredibly safe. Looking around, I saw tons of women: working the event, playing video games, as well as sitting around chatting with each other. In general, it was a diverse array of nerdy people with splashy t-shirts with Metal Gear Solid or Doctor Who, hipsters with knit caps and flannel, as well as people who I’d probably see in my office. It wasn’t even the typical young, single crowd either. There were older people, parents with kids, and couples of all varieties. It surprised me, even as someone who’s crowed that “gaming is for everyone.” Seeing it happen as a bunch of people coming out to have a fun time really knocked that idea home for me.

Other than attendees, Threadless itself was another high point. The space was incredibly inviting for not just play but also relaxation, which I relished. I’m someone with a chronic illness and having half of it outside with benches and grass meant that I could take breaks to sit down, read my phone or generally enjoy the nice weather. Gaming tends to present a level of stimulus for me but adding in crowds of people (and it did get crowded inside at times) meant that it becomes a touch overwhelming, so being able to take a moment was appreciated. If I had to grouse about anything, it’s only that it needs a bigger space next time. Lines for the food trucks also presented a problem, as standing for long periods of time on concrete made comfort impossible. Overall, though, it felt nice that there were spaces to chill out and socialize if you needed a break. Gaming could do well to recognize this for other events, as I know I am not the only person who might need this sort of things.

Inside the store’s floor and warehouse proper is where most of the games were being exhibited. I milled around, elbowing my way past throngs of people, as most of the cabinets or laptop setups were close together. I regret to say that I did not play most of the games that were at the exhibition, but one that caught my eye was the Choosatron by Jerry Belich. The idea of a game being a Choose Your Adventure register printer was really unassuming and creative to me. I picked a story that revolved around the machine’s assurance that I was dead. Quietly, and with satisfaction at the simplicity of it, I folded up the tape of my story and put it in my pocket. I still have it.

Most of my time was spent watching other people play the games and that was fine enough for me. Something about games is intensely private for me, whether it is putting quarters into a machine no one is playing or sitting at my computer fiddling around in Diablo 3. The idea of people leaning over, waiting their turn and watching me gave me the creeps and reinforced this idea in myself that I’m still terrible at video games. However, this was mostly my own anxiety talking. No one was being rude or aggressive at any point during the event. Dying was a mirthful moment, and messing up got the usual face-palms and backslaps from friends. I got to watch one of the game’s creators (I believe) even cheering on participants who made a point of knocking over tables in Tango in Paradise Simulator (Andy Saia) by chanting, “TABLE TABLE TABLE!” loudly. While I was a touch sad I didn’t get to play Max Gentleman (Hats Productions) or Tango in Paradise, Crypt of the Necrodancer (Brace Yourself Games), getting to be a part of the overall experience was worth it to me. Everything about the space and experience was rewarding and gave me some part of myself back that I had lost along the way in the past month.

As Gita and I took a car back to her apartment, both of us remarked how positive the day had been. Both of us had felt a need for something like that and we had gotten it in spades. It was an enriching event that felt like the way games should be: fun and for everyone. Everyone from adults to kids had a good time, including two little girls that had just come from tap recitals and someone’s grandmother watching the Joust.

It was a renewing Saturday. It would have been even if in the wee hours of the night, Zoe Quinn hadn’t revealed that this feverish nightmare had been online misogynist brigades actually conspiring. It washed away a lot of the perpetually sour, negative feelings I’d had over the past couple of weeks and gave me at least one bright spot amid all of the rubbish. In the larger aspect, it felt like this is how I imagined things. I know it’s a little high-minded to wish for a utopian world where gaming could be for everyone, without harassment or guile or oppression, but for a few hours in a warehouse, maybe it was.

 

Cannot Be Tamed: A Questionnaire

Since everyone’s been filling out Jasyla’s really cool gaming questionnaire, I figure I might as well too. This week has been full of shit, so doing something a little less depressing and a little more fun might be in order.

When did you start playing video games?

If I had to be entirely accurate, it’d have to be when I was very little. My parents both worked full-time and would take me to a babysitter where I’d spend my entire day. When I was a little older, I would only be there in the morning and afternoons to catch the bus to school with the other kids and get off the bus there. My babysitter, having to watch a ton of little kids (while also having kids of her own) was smart and did things like let us watch The Princess Bride over and over and when the first Nintendo came out, got one of those. We’d huddle around the controller in the basement and play Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt. None of us were good at it at all.

What is the first game you remember playing?

Pong for the Atari. A family friend had an Atari and that is literally the first game I can remember at all, way back when I was 4 years old.

PC or Console? 

PC all the way, mostly because I’ve never owned a console. I’m one of those rare gamers who didn’t have the bright idea to beg her parents for a console. I didn’t understand that that is how video games worked – I could play them at my babysitter’s house and I guess that was enough. When I was finally old enough to purchase one for myself, I had fallen out of keeping up with console video games, meaning I was culturally behind many of my peers until I got into video games on the computer. In the interrim, I had played such vaunted PC titles like Myst and Seventh Guest though. When I finally started playing WoW, that seemed like the easiest method of playing games, since I’d always had a computer.

Shoutout to that “dropping a guy from a parachute onto a haycart” game that was on Apple IIe computers as well as Carmen Sandiego!

XBox, PlayStation, or Wii? 

No one idea. Whatever one plays the best games, I guess? I’ve been considering getting a 3rd or 4th generation console lately and I cannot really discern the difference other than Wii is more for kids/family games from Nintendo.

What’s the best game you’ve ever played? 

I haven’t really played enough to develop a Top 10 list in my head but probably pound for pound the best game is Portal. I feel like it was a cultural touchstone for me in a way other games really haven’t been. Second to that is Gone Home, followed by World of Warcraft.

What’s the worst game you’ve ever played?

Hell Cab. Though a close second is watching my boyfriend play the newer Duke Nukem game.

Name a game that was popular/critically adored that you just didn’t like.

Final Fantasy VI, but I am probably not the target market for older turn-based combat RPGs.

Name a game that was poorly received that you really like.

Final Fantasy X-2, which makes no sense if you think about what I literally just answered before this one. The costume changes relating to the classes was really appealing, even if I wasn’t sold on the combat. The story was light and fun and made me forget I was playing a Final Fantasy game.

What are your favourite game genres?

Action adventures, puzzlers, atmospheric/emotives, and sandbox or exploration games. I also love things that are slightly higher on narrative, and slightly lower on combat.

Who is your favourite game protagonist?

Visually, it would have to be Red from Transistor. I love red-headed women characters in most things, even if they are extremely overdone as the “well we need to make a woman look different but we can’t deviate from having only white women in video games” character. As far as character goes, my favorite would have to be Commander Shepard, even if I’ve only played a bit of Mass Effect. The idea of writing a character that is both customizable to the player and also without gender restrictions is really appealing. Though, I’m not sure who plays Commander Shepard as a dude, because I don’t feel that’s really canon at all.

Describe your perfect video game.

It’d have to be something cute with a really gripping story and lots of open-world exploration and also smooching women. I’m not hard to please.

What video game character do have you have a crush on?

  • Red – Transistor
  • Lara Croft – Tomb Raider
  • Commander Marjhan – World of Warcraft
  • Lilian Voss – World of Warcraft
  • Kasumi Goto – Mass Effect, Shadow Broker DLC
  • Kuradoberi Jamu – Guilty Gear X
  • Talim – Soul Calibur
  • Felicia – Darkstalkers
  • NOT WILLOW PAPE

There’s more, I’m sure but I haven’t had a lot of coffee yet. Stay tuned to watch this list mysteriously grow larger.

What game has the best music? 

Right now? Wildstar. Behind that would be World of Warcraft.

Most memorable moment in a game:

Figuring out the ship puzzle in Myst and hearing the ship raise out of the water and turning around to see it come up, with all of its’ Quicktime movie glory.

Scariest moment in a game:

Probably any time my internet connection or computer blacked out without reaching a save point. I don’t really play a ton of scary games. Ever. At all. Glibness aside, maybe the first time I saw Pyramid Head and decided that I really wasn’t a horror game person.

Most heart-wrenching moment in a game:

The letter where Sam tells her sister that her parents pretended like her coming out didn’t even happen in Gone Home. This hit me right in the “feels” for a lot of really personal reasons.

What are your favourite websites/blogs about games?

Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Forest Ambassador and any other personal blog that does good critical analysis, like Clockwork Worlds. I don’t visit a lot of websites about games.

What’s the last game you finished?

I am a terrible video game finisher. I do not finish a lot of games. The last one I outright finished was Transistor.

What future releases are you most excited about?

  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Splatoon
  • Red Hood Diaries

 Do you identify as a gamer?

That’s a really complex question and while I do in some contexts, I don’t in most others. It’s very hard to couple “feminist” with gamer and not have people look at me sideways or disparage me for my choice of stomping grounds for activism. Gamers have a lot to answer for lately, especially where it concerns women, representation, oppression and misogyny. But the personal is political and so I stick around and try to look at games as a place for media criticism and consciousness raising. But gaming is a hobby to me, not an identity. I’m a feminist woman and that is a far more important identity to carry around with me than gamer.

Why do you play video games?

I play video games for the same reason that I read books, watch movies and TV, and generally interact with media. I love stories, I love new worlds, I love learning things and I love escapism. I like getting caught up in something that is bigger than myself and my singular experiences. I like challenging myself and I like picking apart other people’s ideas. Gaming gives me the ability to mess around with control and narrative in a dedicated space in a way other media doesn’t usually. Interactivity is a novel concept to me.

Ninja Pizza Girl and The Thorny Tangle of Girlhood

As far as indie games go, Ninja Pizza Girl has been on my radar for a while. I saw a video with the creators a while back and it seemed quirky, in a fun sort of way. The idea of an entire family starting their own indie development house is cute, especially with the father’s daughters pitching in to help with story and art. So when Polygon had an op-ed from the creator about the game, I took notice.

The crux of it is Jason Stark, the head of Disparity Games, relating precisely how and why Ninja Pizza Girl came to be. He talks about how the concept came straight from his childrens’ mouths but more importantly he  also describes the stumbles in his own assumptions about not only game design but also about his daughters’ growing vulnerability as they move into teen-hood and beyond. It was a bit of insight that I found intriguing, not so much as a gamer, but rather as a woman. It’s incredibly commonplace that men in the world, even ones closest to us, do not realize that women have these hidden narratives that they’ve never stopped to consider. It never occurs to them that our lives are in any way unique or different from theirs. The idea of relating this back to game design and story development is a smart one. Video games are one of the avenues of interactive media that could do so much better at peeking into the kinds of stories women navigate and centralizing them as important. We’ve seen so much discussion lately about the lack of women protagonists in games as well as a lack of women in the game industry. Allowing more women to be game creators as well as seeing ourselves represented not only reinforces the notion that we are human to the world, but lifts the veil on how our experiences might differ.

It is in this vein that I welcome Ninja Pizza Girl into the world – I believe that teen girls are one of the pockets of womanhood most needing of stories to be told (though I still feel the market is only making baby steps and still trends towards white, affluent and the like). It’s the father’s own admission of fault in taking his wife and children for granted and not listening enough that reminds me of the interview that we did on Justice Points with Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja. Steve said that one of the things he took the most care to do when crafting Gone Home‘s narrative was interviewing queer women about being teens, as it was not something he had personal experience with. Jason not taking this tactic from the start is something he admits fault to and through the course of the article, outlines his own steps to rectify this. This is good – men realizing that they need to listen to the women in their lives in order to actually understand them.

It was this listening that informed Jason’s decision to turn the enemy of the story from rival pizza ninjas that you kill to something far scarier – other teens working for a pizza corporation that would tease and humiliate you. The bullying and how you deal with it is what determines how much of the game you spend in a more gray, colorless world of your own depression or in a world full of joy and brighter hues. I find this mechanic, as well as some of the ways the game rewards you for handling it (running away is definitely an option) really interesting. As someone who was very viciously bullied from middle school onward, the idea of centering a game around bullying as not only a narrative struggle but a combat mechanic seems a very unexplored but necessary “hook.” What really woke me up to the fact that being a teen girl now was significantly different than my experience was the mention of the protagonist, Gemma, having to fend off bullies phone-cam recording one of her ultimate embarrassing moments. The cultural touchstone of recording video with your phone is not lost on me, but it shook me out of my own reminiscing. I never, ever had to deal with other people, people who were seeking to hurt me, recording things without my knowledge and distributing them to a very, very large audience. With the recent news of Jada and looking back to something like Steubenville, it’s on my mind that teen girls being brutalized is aided and immortalized by the advent of digital technology. It was literally not something I had to deal with when I was a teen. It feels like more so now than ever, we need to start seeing young women as people and less as props for tormenting.

It was these types of things, along with the story of a parent humiliating a teen girl to suicide on Facebook, that hung around my head as I read. I was wondering if Stark would talk about mens’ role in being both abusers and harassers to teen girls, especially given the opening anecdote, but it never came. It seems the idea of bullies in the game (as well as the article) stops at a generic “other teens” but specifically mentions his own daughters dealing with the politics of other teen girls. This quote specifically jumped out at me:

Little girls start learning psychological games at the age of eight and master them by the age of fifteen.

It specifically refers to his youngest daughter losing some of her female friends due to internal politics, something I think a lot of us can relate to, but Jason lacking an understanding that many of us have now. It was this quote in particular that made me somewhat skeptical of his ability to grasp the subject matter that he was building his game upon.  While he may recognize that the things his daughters are going through actually happen, the larger context for them is missing. It’s a pretty common narrative that women are intensely catty, psychological torturers and “girl bullying” is a phrase I’ve oft heard over the years. With the aid of the Internet, there’s been a lot of scare stories about a bunch of girls smearing the reputation of another girl for some real or imagined slight. What I never heard was recognition of is why this stuff happens; to truly understand why girls bullying each other, you have to admit that sexism is real and is internalized in women from a very early age. When girls hit puberty,  we suck the light out of them. They lose enthusiasm for math, science and just about anything else. They have the world’s sexual expectations thrust upon them without being asked if they want it or understand it. Girls become increasingly hostile and political among each other but it’s for reasons that Stark didn’t note, which implied a well-worn narrative. Girls tear each other down due to internalizing the messages that we as a society tell them every day from the moment we decide they are girls: that they suck. Not only that, but that every other girl is an enemy because there is a valuable and finite resource called “men’s attention.” We reinforce notions that women are catty, will steal your “man” and cause you not to trust them. We teach them to be docile, to not speak up and that their problems aren’t worth hearing about, let alone resolving in a straightforward or assertive manner.  We break them apart because it keeps them compliant and without a support network.

All of these things are why, despite chipping into Ninja Pizza Girl‘s funding, I will be keeping a close eye on how the game will play. Because for all of the things I think it could do right, Jason Stark’s good intentions but ultimate lack of experience with the narrative of growing up as a girl still will be lingering there. I don’t think ill of him for this, but it makes me wonder how this could have been done by someone who had to jump and fly away from her own bullies way back when.

 

[Storify] Sexism and the Need to Call it Ignorance

I’ve started to notice in games journalism that as more and more conversations are had about sexism in the gaming community, the whittling away of what caused it keeps coming up. Game developers blurting out unvarnished opinions about women in video games and women characters are passed off as mere good-natured ignorance because it’s not seen as volatile misogyny. The problem with this is that is doing nothing but lessening the impact of calling it sexist. Intent and feelings do not matter whether a game developer is hurling slurs at women or merely making a statement that misses the mark. Sexism is sexism and we need to address that fact.

I wrote up a Storify regarding why I tackled this topic and it includes a link to the latest article that falls into that rhetorical trap.

This is something we really need to stop doing.

Interlude: Oh, But It Is Social Justice

I know that the dust has barely settled on my post about leaving WoW but I felt the need to say something, especially with this week being E3 and pretty much dropping jewels at my feet to talk about. There’s several large stories that I’d love to cover in more depth (and probably will on Justice Points) but given the lack of time this week, I just wanted to highlight someone who was saying these things, especially regarding Ubisoft’s admission that they did not include a woman in their upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Unity multi-player (or even as a main protagonist).

Ashelia is someone I don’t agree with sometimes, but I feel this article in particular hits a lot of right notes. The only thing I really disagree with though is this:

Honestly, it’s not even about women’s rights or so-called social justice at this point, either.

I hate criticizing women in games journalism but I feel this sentence really bears harping upon. I don’t want to speculate about why this was put here, but this is a common admission from quite a few women over the years. This isn’t unique to just Ashelia’s work, basically. But it is pretty untrue, in my opinion. I get not wanting to be seen as one of those “crazy” “feminists” that scream and cry about inclusion in video games, despite espousing feminist virtues for the other thousand words in the article. Not embracing that identity is someone’s choice, but to say that not including women in video games isn’t a women’s rights or is “so-called” social justice (by the way, social justice is an academic term that became more popular in the 1970s but has roots in pre-20th century discourse) is just flat out wrong in my eyes.

People seem to want to restrain caring about women to a couple of subjects like voting rights, the wage gap and possibly parental leave but do not think it includes media representation. As someone who has been hammering on these topics for almost four years now, I say that it does! How we feel about ourselves, whether we see ourselves as important absolutely demands that we see ourselves in the media we consume. It validates ideas that people internalize – if you fail to include women (or people of color, disabled people, trans people, etc) you are saying that they are not important, that their stories are less worthy of recognition. The fact that video games is one of the fastest growing forms of media (as well as experienced by an audience that’s 48% women) means that this absolutely is a crucial place for representation and diversity. This means that it is absolutely a social justice issue.

—-

This week has kinda gotten away from me, but I wanted to just say that I will be tackling some of E3’s offerings in the coming days.

Goodbye (For Now, In This Particular Way)

ais-mountain2

It’s not the end, not really.

A lot has changed since even the last blog post here. Funny how things can spin off of orbit when you’re not looking, but I need to be honest, I’ve been slowly rolling out of Warcraft’s gravity for the past 6 months or so. What makes me sad is that I didn’t want this to be the way it all fell apart – I wanted that day to be graceful and far off in the future, when I was good and ready to put the game away because I had outgrown it, that it no longer satisfied me and I wanted to move on to something else. What’s sad about that is that honestly, a bitter and slow decline would have been easier to brush off. Being forcibly ejected from something I have loved for so long means I look back on all the time I spent with regret and my present time now with confusion. I was moderately happy before Blizzcon, even with some of the problematic behavior. But it’s hard to take a good look at a property and realize that you don’t really factor into it at all, no matter how happy you’ve been in that world.

I know some people have called me “toxic” or “extreme” in terms of my particular strain of feminist critique, but at the end of the day, I am a nerd just like the rest of you and feeling shunted off to the side awakens some pretty old, dismal feelings. I have played World of Warcraft for 9+ years because I really and truly loved it. I became friends with my now-boyfriend here, I was part of the same guild that I first joined in Vanilla until now. I have thousands of screenshots, memories and achievements. I was a World of Warcraft player long before I was truly a feminist. I met amazing women via this game and it’s what lead me down that path in the first place. So in that way, the intense irony of that ideology making me realize that video games are still a hostile and alien place for marginalized people is not lost on me.

It’s just sad.

Still, I can’t say World of Warcraft is a bad game. It’s not. If it was, I wouldn’t have stuck around for so long. It has a great many stories and places that I wish I could relive over and over. It has a lot of people who worked on it/are working on it that truly love the franchise and truly put an amazing amount of effort into it and have made me feel like part of the community. To Tseric, Caydiem, Ghostcrawler, Nethaera, Zarhym, Terran Gregory, and Helen Cheng, thank you for making my tenure with Warcraft so pleasant. Even though some of you haven’t been at Blizzard for a while, your presence left an indelible mark on me.

To my guild, Northrend Commonwealth, I will miss you. Granted, I have most of you friended on Twitter and I suspect we’re going to be friends well into our twilight years, but you made being in a guild amazing. Not just present members, but everyone who helped me out from when I was just a tiny mage wearing INT/SPI gear (back when that wasn’t good, before it was good, then bad again). To my raid team who took me to Molten Core and beyond. To everyone who showed up on the guild’s doorstep four years ago and made it what it is today.

To everyone in the World of Warcraft community, I salute you. You have made my time as a Warcraft blogger and podcaster special and it’s been wonderful getting to break down the game with you all, sharing the highs and the lows. Some of you don’t particularly like me much, but I see it much like being a family, except now I’m not innately responsible for your well-being. Maybe I never was.

That screenshot up there was taken in 2006, after I had started raiding Onyxia and Molten Core. Featured is Bunny, my first epic mount and second mount ever. I spent so much time grinding out Ironforge rep with runecloth and Alterac Valley just to get you, and you are still one of my favorite mounts, even though I haven’t ridden you in a long time. I figured it’d be fitting to go out the same way I came in, in the spot I promised myself I’d settle Aislinana down in for a long winter’s sleep. I used to climb around here when I was level 10 and it was impossible to get up here unless you were a good wall-climber and jumper. I used to take people here and it was my special spot. Now anyone can fly up here but I still consider it a place that’s just uniquely mine. Funny how that works.

I tried really hard to believe that if I was a strong enough person, it could fix things. The world is far more complicated than that.

Anyways, I’ve put off the inevitable with more words that necessary. I will see you folks around. The blog is staying, even if I will not be covering Warcraft explicitly anymore. I will still be around, for better or worse. You’re not rid of me yet. This was just a eulogy for something that should have never died.

WoWScrnShot_061114_063826

 

– Nico, otherwise known as Aislinana the Gnome

 

 

 

Draenor Rock City: The Exclusionary Nature of Nerd Cool

Tzufit and Apple Cider look forlornly at the Dark Portal.

Written by Apple Cider Mage and Tzufit

If you had asked us last week what sorts of things Blizzard could do that might make us feel like World of Warcraft isn’t a game for us, we might have made some comment about treatment of female characters or perhaps the ongoing sexism that women face from other players. We probably wouldn’t have said, “They could make a show about middle-aged men designing motorcycles.” So when Blizzard dropped the announcement that they were partnering with American Choppers for a strange web-series that would document a competition to design a sick motorcycle as an in-game mount (what, another one?), we were glad that we weren’t the only ones going, “huh?”

The more we thought about it, this confused us because it was yet another tone-deaf offering that pushed us farther and farther away from World of Warcraft. Jokes about mid-life crises aside, it’s hard to be excited about the upcoming Warlords of Draenor expansion and WoW in general when you feel like you don’t belong there.

Because WoW is an MMORPG, feeling as if you belong in the world is exceptionally important, arguably more so than in any other genre of video game. In years past, we have drawn our excitement for new expansions by thinking about the things that our characters will do and see, the places they will explore, and the new challenges that we, as players, will experience. In recent weeks, people who used to see themselves as curious about the world we are about to inhabit now have a hard time picturing themselves there. We find ourselves traveling to an alien world, and yet the alienation we feel comes not from Draenor but instead from the people who have created it.

While we cannot know precisely who has their hands in every pie at Blizzard, it seems like the public faces and taste-makers of World of Warcraft often gravitate around fairly similar themes that they consider “cool.” Draenor, more so than any other expansion, feels saturated in these ideas, despite protests to the contrary. The particular rally point in this case has indubitably been Y’rel, a strong Alliance Joan of Arc-type. Yet, everything we’ve seen thus far, from new extra beefy mob models to some alpha dialogue is oriented around a hyper-masculine world that is brutal, savage (as we have been told ad nauseum) and inexplicably full of rock star pyrotechnics. When we saw the art piece of all of the warlords lined up like a gruesome metal band, there was an emotional distance between Chris Metzen eagerly throwing up the horns and us looking on in confusion. We’ve seen fun and goofy inclusion of these ideas before, but the tone now feels very serious; it’s a weaponized barrage of these concepts to the exclusion of everything else.

This nerdy (but still male) idea of “coolness” isn’t a unique problem to Blizzard. Big creator names in nerd culture are still predominantly male, which has been true since long before “nerd” and “geek” were a persistent cultural identity. You have Tolkien, Lucas, Martin, Whedon and, for our purposes, Metzen. Nerd-dom has been retconned into a male space, a refuge for the those who did not fit the traditional image of masculinity, but who enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons and got thrown into lockers because of it. The duality of this background is that for all of the underdog position that nerd men have had most of their lives, many of them still enjoy the benefits of a patriarchal culture that nurtures and comforts their tastes and desires, often to the tune of millions of dollars. For a group of outcasts, loners and misfits, they have, especially in the 2000s, enjoyed a renaissance period. When you combine that with a fairly critical ignorance (or even outright hostility) to other people who are not considered the marketable norm, your fantasy world, much less are suddenly devoid of people outside of that nerd paradigm.

The problem with nerd culture and the belief that only men are considered creators is that it reinforces that the only stories worth caring about are for men, by men, and in a way that is cool to other men. It’s a rigid set of interests that tends to not consider much else outside of it. The worlds themselves sometimes involve a realism and grittiness that is at best, voyeuristic – it’s easy to insert things into a fantasy world to make it more real when it’s not a reality you have to confront on a regular basis. All of this is nerd men and their creations revolving around power and cachet – the stoic, grizzly hero flanked by compatriots and female love interests. In the case of Blizzard, a lot of it looks like muscular brutes, heroes of light and rock guitars.

What seems apparent to us is that some of Blizzard’s content creators are still finding the same things cool at 40 that they did at 15, and though their customer base has matured, their interests are showing their age. No one faults content creators for having inspirations, but when you achieve a level of success that allows you to create content for literally millions of people all over the world, isn’t it reasonable to ask that your inspirations grow to reflect the diversity of your audience? It seems equally reasonable to expect that this is not only something Blizzard should consider but rather something they for which should actively strive.

How we’ve seen people typify this cultural problem within Blizzard and throughout Warlords of Draenor is one of marketing, and we don’t believe that that’s entirely the case. Marketing is a symptom of the problem. The primary issue is a concept and an atmosphere that people are struggling to see themselves in. Is it so terrible to ask for inclusion? Is it so terrible to be afforded even a fraction of the same consideration that a particular segment of nerds have enjoyed for years in WoW? Our standards are not unreasonable; in fact, we might go so far as to call them incredibly low. While active inclusion of diverse women in Warcraft’s story may be the ideal, in the past we have at least been able to say that WoW does not actively exclude us. Recently, that seems to be less and less true. It feels like WoW has been moving backwards (now quite literally) in some places with how women are characterized or talked about, those failures buoyed by the few small successes we’ve enjoyed since then. For every five minutes Jaina is allowed to be a competent leader, we have many more moments of women being killed, hurt, married off or otherwise left behind.

There’s such a spectrum of problems that surround both the women in the story and the audience that it’s hard to list them all. The problem now is how to deal with these revelations about Blizzard and the game we’ve been enjoying for so many years. Loud, vociferous criticism only works when we are able to make headway, and the road to Warlords has so far been littered with increasingly insurmountable obstacles.

Much is still unknown about the new expansion at this point. Alpha and beta often provide key contextual clues to the overall direction an expansion is headed and we acknowledge that there have been exceptionally long dry spells in between updates since Blizzcon. It’s easy to feel like small, select issues make up a larger percentage of future content than may prove to be the case. Historically, alpha and beta have been periods when we’ve seen that critical analysis can and does create change and improvement in Warcraft. Yet, for the moment, we don’t know how to align ourselves with Blizzard’s visionaries because their ideas don’t seem to include us.

April Fool’s Jokes and Perfect Storms

Draenei priest drawing.

Taking a page from Vidyala and posting my own draenei art.

At the risk of stirring things up even further, I want to talk about why the fake Artcraft presented by Blizzard’s World of Warcraft team was the worst possible joke to make at the worst possible time.  I hope people don’t think I am going to debate the relative offensiveness of it; I am not because I do think it was offensive and I know there’s better people that have been talking about it rather than myself. No, rather, we’re going to talk about what made everything so much worse.

I know the title talks about “perfect storms” in that it was a confluence of several factors coming together, but let’s abandon that particular metaphoric imagery for a second. Imagine a giant field full of grass. In this scenario, World of Warcraft’s assembled community of fans are the grass.

It’s been a drought since Blizzcon. We’ve been fairly starved on concrete updates on the expansion’s progress. We’ve seen some model update Artcrafts, some dev watercoolers, but no beta, no big news and only minor progress on everything else. Bigger sites like Wow Insider or Wowhead news are scraping for content and opting to talk about Blizzard’s other releases like Diablo III: Reaper of Souls or Heroes of the Storm. We’ve grown pretty dry and bitter about the expansion the longer we don’t hear about it. It’s a pretty unusual method given how long we’ve been marinating in Pandaria’s last content patch. It would be easier to deal with if we had the new expansion to look forward to on the horizon but it’s been pretty dust and tumbleweeds thus far.

In this field, imagine a couple piles of goblin bombs laid haphazardly on the ground, hidden among the tall weeds. These are the issues a lot of us have had with the potential content of the expansion: lack of positive female character representation, expectations of more grimdark “gritty” realism, and the inevitable “boys trip” that we heard about at Blizzcon. There’s a lot of worries among some of us regarding how enjoyable we will find the questing and story experiences of this new expansion. While Ji Firepaw was a net positive, what lurks in the water for Warlords?

On top of that, the air is dry. Fans are looking for anything to digest or keep their attention. Our community is tied between forums, social media, blogs and anyone we play with in-game. We spend a lot of time nitpicking, dissecting and debating. Given the lack of information thus far, it’s mostly speculation. People are anxious.

Then you toss out the equivalent of a lit match on all of that and you have an explosive, incendiary wildfire on your hands. The models make people feel awful about themselves or angry at Blizzard. The blog text makes fun of all sorts of women and pokes at things like incest and twerking. It comes on the heels some other April Fools jokes that while bizarrely problematic, are also funny. It sticks out like a sore thumb. It riles up people who only want “real” content. It makes everyone who was worried about problematic content feel even more unsettled about their gut feelings. The community goes into an uproar: those who found it funny, those who didn’t, and people who think the “not funny” people are giant babies. The explosions that occur over any sexist content go about as well as expected now that everyone is in on the discussion.

Pulling myself back far enough from my feelings about women being mocked at a time like this (not intended maliciously, of course) means I look at why this happened. Is this a cultural problem within Blizzard? Did everyone think this would have a positive impact and anyone who didn’t not get to speak? Were they overruled? Who looked at this before it went live? We’re not talking about a developer being caught off-guard and speaking close to his chest, but something that was written, edited and arranged for publishing on the front page. Models were created specifically for this. It makes me wonder.

Sometimes thinking about the mechanics and anatomy of a controversy keeps me from getting too upset about the thorny emotional center, but even if you know how a disaster came to be, it doesn’t help you deal with the aftermath.