The Simple Life

Blaugust 2nd 


Why are so many gamers, especially those who consider ourselves part of the core RPG community, so drawn to medieval settings?

Is it the simplicity of life we imagine took place?

Sure, being a peasant with an overlord isn’t all that romantic. Yet the world was large. There was the ever available opportunity for adventure  …right? That’s what we all think. Medieval life isn’t anything pleasant to dream about, but maybe we find some of those same unpleasantries in our modern, high-tech world. Maybe we crave a world that’s easier to understand. Our medieval fantasies put that world within reach.

Is it the magic?

There’s a strong association between medieval life and magic. Literacy was literally considered magic. Writings on sheets of thin objects called paper were spellcraft. It seems absurd to us today, but we treat them like a throwback in Zelda or Dragon Age. Is this why there’s always princesses in need of rescue? Is this why some warrior knight is on the cover of all our favorite RPGs (or dragons)? What’s the draw?

Is it the game?

Games are well structured simulations. All the parameters are finite and understandable. The rules are all known. The object is clear. Your abilities are all that stands between you and success. OMG if real life were this simple! If all the rules could be known and the object clear. It’s probably not that medieval settings are attractive. Maybe it’s just the entire concept of games that’s attractive and the medieval setting is simply familiar to our generations. It’s a setting used in all fiction a bazillion times a year. The simple life. I don’t think I even know what that means.

I wake up very early mornings, grab my favorite kid and have a hot cup of tea. We sit on the porch eating usually bread or fruit, enjoying the California sun and light breeze. She can’t really speak English, but she talks to me. And I’m her dad, so I know what she’s saying and we have this conversation for a while. Until my other two babies join me and remind me that their little sister can’t talk. They half believe me when I tell them I know what she’s saying. Dad is always tricking them, you see, so they can never be sure I’m not telling the truth. Those mornings are the only part of my life that’s simple.

Scree Tags: #blaugust #fantasy #life

Oculus Rift: Selling Out and Cashing In

I’ve watched this topic get batted around a few news sites, discussed on a few blogs, debated in dozens of comment sections …and some seem to grasp what’s wrong with the Oculus deal. Will it hurt Oculus in the end? Who knows? I’m not wishing them any ill will. But was there something wrong with striking a deal with Facebook?

Why is anyone even pretending there’s nothing wrong with this? I think it’s obvious this is a betrayal, regardless of whether this turns out good for Oculus. The argument that because this ensures VRs future, it’s not a betrayal is hypocrisy if you believe Facebook isn’t in it for the same reasons as the Rift team. And that’s not even a wild guess — of course they’re in it for consumer information. Facebook is in it for as much personal information as they can wring from users who don the goggles, as much as they can rip out of your virtual body. It’s a deal with the devil.

The Kickstarter Angle

There’s the angle that says Kickstarter is just a place to support projects you believe in. It’s not a purchase. It’s not a pre-order. It’s not a promise of any sort. You throw your money into a hole and feel “warm and fuzzy” for supporting your local designer. If only this even came close to matching the reality of what Kickstarter means to backers.

Kickstarter, for ordinary people, is about good faith. It’s designers coming to an audience and saying “hey, we’re too poor to make our dream come true, but it’s a very worthy dream and all that’s holding us back is money. Can you help?” People who identify with this level of material deprivation go there to show solidarity. They do it because they know what it’s like to not have the capital for your dreams. They know what it’s like to have a great idea and have money be the reason you can’t realize it. These people are here on faith. They want these projects to not only succeed, but to be able to stand next to their designer and say “alone, we couldn’t do this, but together we’re as good as the best of them. Together we don’t’ need corporations.” This is what Kickstarter does for it’s community of backers.

I loathe the whole line of reasoning which ignores this. So many want to pretend this was strictly an economic transaction and I get it. That’s one of the things capitalism does best: alienate us from the things we do. We aren’t people, we’re dollar signs, a line on the balance sheet, on the expense report. You’re not a person, you’re a hammer, you’re a coder, you’re a writer, you’re a bank account; your work and money are divorced from your person. And the market doesn’t care about people; it only cares about the services people provide. This is the lens those who ask us to see this as a simple economic transaction use to frame the discussion. But a backer on Kickstarter is more than his money. A designer is more than his design. This is fundamental to the ethos of Kickstarter: that there are people here and they matter.

Of Faces and Facebook

This beast called Facebook is not your friendly neighborhood Mr. Rogers or Mary Poppins. This is the neighbor peeping through your window with a telescope every night. Facebook is the Dark Lord of Privacy Invasion, Prime Evil worthy of Diablo tales. Their users are little dots on a grand chart, each of whom represents a byte of information. Facebook wants to turn you from a byte to a terabyte. They want to reduce you to pure information for the purposes of selling it. This is what Facebook sees in VR technology, another opportunity to convert your person into pile of lifeless cold cash.

This is whom Oculus sold to. This cannot be overstated because it so defines the anger, disappointment and betrayal felt by supporters of Oculus.

If Oculus had sold to Microsoft or Google or Mozilla, there’d be moaning of a different sort. If it had sold to Blizzard or EA, its possible the dissent would be little more than curious mumbling if any at all. Any company but Facebook was more appropriate even if not totally appropriate. Facebook represents the very opposite of Kickstarter. If Kickstarter is about grassroots people supporting one another, Facebook is about turning people into faceless commodities, packaging them and selling them like they’re nothing.

White Lies and Whole Truths

Oculus Rift is a new virtual reality (VR) headset designed specifically for video games that will change the way you think about gaming forever.

This is one of the opening sentences of the Kickstarter campaign for Oculus Rift. Importantly, note who and what they said this was designed for. This kind of verbage is plastered all over the Kickstarter, updates and various game companies and conferences the developers patronized. Not to mention that some of the developers are industry veterans. No matter what song they sing today, it’s undeniable that they went to the gaming community for support and intended to build hardware for that community. They found millions of dollars and support there.

I agree that VR is bigger than gaming, most reasonable people do. What I disagree with is how once $2 billion was waved in their faces by Facebook, it suddenly became beyond gaming for them. Throughout the whole campaign it’s been all about gaming, but once Facebook waves that cash it’s suddenly FOR THE WORLD.

The dev team sold out. Notch said it perfectly: “I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.” This captures the anger expressed by supporters. Gamers aren’t claiming sole ownership of VR, but it’s been financed by our community by developers who told us that their first design was for us. The OR team got ahead of themselves and slipped into the world of dreams before they even successfully put the first pair of glasses to market. All this talk of the future of VR when they have yet to deliver the present.

Since our Kickstarter is all about developers building great games for the Rift … – Oculus Rift Kickstarter Update #6

Those were the days, eh?

The Done Deal

So now that we have this context, let’s revisit a few questions.

What was wrong with selling Oculus Rift to anyone?

The Oculus team knew going in that they were going to sell to the highest bidder and they abused the faith of Kickstarter backers to do this — without even thinking there’s ANY ethical considerations here. This isn’t what Kickstarter is about for it’s backers. And its exactly this kind of abuse that will make them discontinue supporting the platform, not that it will hurt Kickstarter. It’s increasingly a a scouting grounds for venture capitalists, people very unlike the average Oculus backer. So Oculus and company can do what they did, but it has a different cost that future developers on Kickstarter will pay.

What was wrong with selling Oculus Rift to Facebook? Facebook. That’s what’s wrong.

I’m sure Oculus VR needed those millions to get the thing through development and to market. I have no doubt about the usefulness of such cash. That also doesn’t matter. The sale represents bad faith to supporters who aided their success and who showed a willingness to financially support them into the foreseeable future.

I think the OR team’s days are numbered, not because I want them to fail (I don’t) but because they’re in a deal with Facebook. They can drink their own Kool Aid, but that won’t turn it into truth serum.

And now the Oculus deal is done and it’s OK. We all learned our lesson. Kickstarter backers are now much more wary of backing such projects, knowing that these designers intend to abuse their faith. We can all talk about “the rules” of Kickstarter and “the obligations” of using it until the cows come home and it won’t change the fact that Kickstarter has been a community built on good faith and succeeding without The Man. Kickstarter thus far has been nothing if not commoners helping commoners, sharing the successes of a few geniuses whose ideas we admire and whom remind us of ourselves. Having Facebook emerge the winner of a Kickstarter project of such importance is bad for everyone involved.

Scree Tags: #kickstarter #oculusrift #virtualreality

There and Back: Escapism and Fantasy

This week’s throwback article is left pretty much in tact. Reading again, I don’t think I’ve changed my views a whole lot and some of my questions about escapism remain unanswered. I did recently write an article about the power of our fantasies and the role they play in the design of our games and development of that community, which you will find even more relevant than what follows.


Original Article: http://www.trredskies.com/escapism-and-fantasy/

I read a passage from a book this summer with a quote that really got the wheels in my brain turning about socialization in MMOs. The quote?

But fantasy is not created from nothing; at least in a limited sense, fantasy is a “recollection” of a world we have lost. It is a psychoanalytic truism that what we lose in reality we recreate in fantasy.

This comes from a book titled The Gender of Desire by Michael S. Kimmel, and the subject matter is male sexuality. Being a gamer, any book that uses the word fantasy instantly triggers images of unicorns, elves, and dreamy landscapes.

What is it that I bring into my fantasies because I lost those things in the real world?

Escapism and Addiction

If the above quote can be true, then it’s a significant clue to understanding the nature of MMO escapism and addiction. I’ve had plenty of friends in my MMOs who seemed, to me, to be a little too attached to the game world. They lived in it, never logged out. In WoW’s heyday, I absolutely preferred logging in most evenings to going out. At that time in my life, Azeroth was far more pleasant, contained much more of what I needed than the real world did, which was filled with crappy circumstances that seemed out of my hands.

Escapism isn’t necessarily a negative or a bad thing. In fact, it’s a pretty healthy thing. Like most things, the context and extent to which it’s used determines whether it remains a healthy outlet for our minds and emotions. I believe game addiction is real, but I also believe most players aren’t addicted to their games. They’re using these virtual worlds to escape often dire circumstances, mitigating things like depression, which in turn gives them the reprieve they need to actually function day to day. MMOs can be therapeutic in that regard and in America an MMO is the cheapest therapy you can buy anywhere!

In these situations, does it seem true that what we lose in our real worlds we attempt to recreate in our MMO experiences? It definitely seems so.

Self Perception in Fantasy

Not too long ago, I wrote an article about sexism and male power fantasies. I followed that up with an article about male fantasies of women. Here, I think we can apply the question above to both topics. What are we (men) trying to reclaim in our power fantasies? What are we trying to recreate in our fantasies of women? Likewise, I’m curious to know the answers to these questions for women as well.

Many of us have responded to women, especially feminists who hold the view that men in general hold all the power in our society, with the remark that we don’t feel powerful. We say to them that women, in fact, have power over us. They control the sex, the marriage, the money, etc. We respond that we need permission from our significant others to do the things we want. Of course, many of us make these remarks half-heartedly with levity in them. But it’s generally true that the average guy doesn’t feel like they’re in control of anything in their daily lives and he may easily perceive the women in his life to have just as much control or more. We’re just sort of being swept along and even in those situations where we want to exert control, such as over our jobs or our homes, we often find that forces beyond us take that control from us as well (the boss can fire you and the bank can take your house).  It’s perfectly valid, and I believe true, that the average man is as powerless as the average woman in their daily lives.

But there’s a significant difference. It isn’t so black and white as that.

I think the average guy understands that he’s supposed to have a little more power and control — but men actually have access and that’s key here. Non-males and non-white ones especially, do not have that level of access. It’s why men are so assertive, or at least it’s socially acceptable (and expected) that men will assert themselves. It’s the assumption of power.  It’s also a source of frustration, knowing that as guys we’re given certain responsibilities and jobs as a matter of gender, but also knowing the expectations are impossible to live up to.  Grappling for that sense of control and power can be maddening because it’s so elusive.

…and what we lose in real life does seem we recreate in our fantasies. Men are paragons of power* in our games. It’s not merely a case of imagining ourselves with slaying dragons within Tyria, nor is the desire to transfer merely more control over the minutiae of our lives. Any examination of men’s power fantasies reveals a desire for domination, for achievement, for high social status. Now I’m not saying that all of us feel this way or have these particular fantasies. Rather, I’m speaking to the men’s fantasies that predominate our media. I’m personally starting to believe these are relics from a time past and that a lot of modern men don’t identify with those fantasies. Yet I meet guys on a daily basis who truly buy into those kinds of fantasies, truly believe that it’s a man’s nature to be in control, unemotional, and a winner while also believing that it’s woman’s nature to be …well …hysterical, out of control, emotional, and dependent. And what do we have in our games? Scantily clad women taunting us but who are easily subdued, NPC femmes who need to be rescued, or succubi who torture us, but whom we ultimately conquer.

This all reinforces my perspective* on the power of fantasy. It’s not just art or just games, but aspirations and desires. Our fantasies and our enjoyment of them is linked intimately with our wants and needs. They reveal what we value and yearn to possess.

How has fantasy impacted your life and how do you feel it interacts with your true desires?

 Edit: Links added for clarification wherever you see a *.

Scree Tags: #escapism #digitalfrontier #fantasygames

The Digital Frontier

Socially and culturally, video games occupy a portion of what I call the digital frontier, a place where the war for social justice is raging in the virtual space; where unfettered sexism, racism and other forms of group oppression and discrimination are entangled in a battle for greater games. What makes it such a critical battleground is that virtual spaces provide as much opportunity to re-establish regressive notions of group identity as it does opportunity for progressive ideas that can really transform the gaming space into something inclusive of all groups. Representation matters. That’s the battlecry of those who are the community’s toughest critics and most passionate gamers. What are we up against in this battle and is there some sliver of common ground all sides of the conflict can agree on?

Political Correctness as Appeasement

Concept Art of KerriganPolitical Correctness (PC) is the brush used by defenders of the status quo to paint every effort at inclusiveness and diversity as appeasement and dishonesty. It’s used to denigrate those perceived to act PC and to discredit all actions taken towards radical change. When I see “PC” being used in response to cultural sensitivity and social/political awareness, I see the person using it as angry and offended that things they feel entitled to are being challenged; a person afraid that change will take something from them that they hold dear. It’s good to have a healthy fear of change, but these responses aren’t usually of the healthy variety. When our contentment relies on the discontentment or deprivation of others, or when others gaining something is viewed as a personal loss, I consider that a good barometer of an unhealthy sense of self. It can cause serious conflicts of identity and make it difficult have relationships with others.

Gamers have quite the reputation for vitriolic and vicious responses to challenges to our space. When sexism and racism and other -isms turn up on a game site or blog, there we can find angry (mostly) dudes shouting down those challenges and attempting to derail discourse or trample it into obscurity. But why the violent response? Because it poses an existential threat to them.

For men, as an example, accusations of sexism are challenges to male identity. They are bound up in the homosocial aspects of masculinity, where we (men) do things for the approval of other men in the quest to relentlessly demonstrate our heterosexuality. For example, the artists responsible for Sarah Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades in Starcraft 2 aren’t simply sharing their sexual fantasies or demonstrating their artistry, but signifying their heterosexuality for the approval of male gamers. She is something male gamers toast to, a symbol to appraise the quality of their masculinity. The angry responses are not only a sincere defensive reaction to a perceived existential threat, but simultaneously an opportunity for men to prove to other men their solidarity and commitment to manhood. Threats to the group are a direct affront to our personal identity and so we respond accordingly to shut it down. But sexism is only one easy example to make. This applies to all identity politics.

Escapism

Quote by M. Kimmel

In the broader analysis of the construction of fantasy, video games offer an escape unlike other media. It can thoroughly immerse us within our fantasies through the use of interactive avatars and virtual environments. The gamer culture which emerged from this has been built on the values of middle-aged white men who have been the architects of our virtual fantasies and founders of the communities we inhabit. As sociologist Michael Kimmel puts it in his book Guyland, video games are “both an escape from reality and an escape to reality — the ‘reality’ that many of these guys would secretly like to inhabit” (Kimmel: 150).

Our game developers have created a space largely for men like themselves and filled it with traditional notions of manhood, ostensibly things which represent their own beliefs about masculinity. I don’t judge them on that, because none of us had control over the social structures that helped create who we are. However, the most popular gaming titles each year espouse a social Darwinist view of the world as naturally consisting of unbridled competition (sports), projections of male sexuality onto women (fantasy), and often asocial behavior (stoicism, unfeeling, disregard for others, such as seen in war games and the like).

So if people recreate in fantasy things lost in our reality, then it’s worth asking what it is our developers have aimed to recreate in their games. In the western world, we have seen the nearly exclusive use of the Middle Ages as a backdrop for these worlds. Medieval fantasy seems the preferred time period to simulate and the values of the time are reproduced and valorized in ways that romanticize classism, discrimination and other forms of oppression.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The hyper-masculine values extracted from the European Middle Ages and repackaged for gamers as an age of glory for men is unmistakeable: the appeals to bravado, gory violence (portrayed as natural and always justified), conquest (of women and other property), domination, virility, sexual success, and entitlement to rewards as a birthright. However, these aren’t limited to the medieval period. Games like Call of Duty and other combat simulators peddle to an antiquated warrior culture as well, where belligerent behavior is expected and fostered, shrugged off as natural male behavior or a healthy outlet for pent-up rage. These are some of the things which help construct our gaming fantasies, that developers and players like have determined were worthy of recreating.

Through this lens, the absence of ethnic minorities and the second-class role of women in those virtual spaces is understood to be justifiable because it’s something you would expect a game striving for historical replication to capture. The question is why we want to replicate this; what is missing from our reality that drives us toward these fantasies? Medieval Europe was a time and place where white men were in charge and their authority unchallenged, their superiority taken as granted. The battlefield is still largely considered a man’s place and minorities are still depicted largely as insane bad guys. These are the most popular fantasies our game designers have reclaimed for us.

Is there any wonder that accusations of racism and/or sexism within the gaming community are followed up with extreme threats and promises of violence by fans? If there is a longing for these values, then I might expect someone who espouses them to react in this way.

These accusations have no power in a medieval fantasy and through this lens these social ills cannot be defined as problems at all. The sexism, racism and classism are part and parcel of the construction of the fantasy, whose authenticity is lost when those things are absent. Men invested in these fantasies feel entitled to have them and history is used as the reason this should be so, creating a virtual space where men escape from reality and to reality as Kimmel pointed out. This glorification of the medieval and warrior value set becomes much more worrying when we acknowledge the relationship between our fantasies and our personal longing. The fantasies we enjoy often betray us.

When gamers like Anita Sarkeesian or developers like Jennifer Hepler or commentators like Carolyn Petit dare point out that perhaps there’s a bit of misogyny and sexism in our games (both of which are characteristic of the Middle Ages), this is the audience to whom they dare speak. Why should we be surprised at the aggressive reaction given the context from which it emerges?

Reclamation of the Real

On the digital frontier, certain groups of men are desperately trying to reclaim themselves through sexist and racist fantasies. They are reasserting their right to things which they perceive the real world has taken from them: their right to dominate, right to women as sexual objects, as loot; their right to be the default audience whom everyone else must adapt their tastes to; and their right to establish “the way it should be”. They have historically been the group who has always filled these roles and they don’t see why they shouldn’t continue to do so.

Grand Theft Auto V

This is not a parody of sexism and racism, but a celebration of it.

This points to why some of these men believe calls for change are equivalent to the scandalous requirements of being “PC”. They are trying to reclaim their right to be the opposite of PC, which for them means a natural Man, defined as belligerent, aggressive, competitive, and controlling. For them, games are supposed to be a pure space where PC has no place, where change is unnecessary, even a silly suggestion at all; where minority groups are not welcome, because inviting them is considered being PC! Additionally, this minorities’ demands should be ignored because they are merely tolerated, merely allowed to participate in gamer spaces. As we’ve seen in many a comment section, these marginalized groups are told that if they don’t like it they can go elsewhere because this was never meant for them in the first place.

I’m grateful and lucky to know of many men and women who are more progressive, more amenable to sharing the digital frontier generally and gamer spaces specifically. Certainly there are large swathes of the gaming community who don’t subscribe to such fear-driven beliefs and violent reactions to calls for inclusion and sensitivity in our games. There are many of us who believe that requests for a more colorful character palette, a more diversified representation of culture, less objectification, more gender expression and on and on. Yet the rage and sense of entitlement on the digital frontier is so ever-present that we cannot ignore it. It demands our attention and I hope the men and women who share this gamer space with me will continue to have the energy and courage to keep this topic on their lips and at their finger tips.

As for video games, I believe change must start with our developers and the games they make. Developers are too often apolitical and amoral in their designs and public stances. It creates the toxic environment for dismissal of serious issues by their fans who defend their work. It seems like the popular belief amongst developers, as seen through the games they deliver (not the words they speak), is that to create virtual worlds with inclusiveness, equality of representation, and less sexualization is to be “PC”, which is understood by them as appeasement. They concern themselves only with making “cool” games, leaving the thorny issues of sexism and racism for presidents. To have an opinion of sexism, for them, is a violation of the fantasies they’ve been selling in which sexism and racism are not only a given, but are celebrated and which literally help construct the virtual worlds we’ve come to love and enjoy. If these issues are only for PC persons and politicians, I expect developers to not retreat to PC apologies and PR gloss on the matter, but to come clean instead of laying the responsibility on their fans. They should join the discussion instead of evading it for as long as possible and crying foul as soon as someone asks them about it.

Real PC

Political correctness really means having a respect for others, their experiences, and their dignity. People who paint being PC as insincerity or appeasement, or who believe that being politically correct diminishes them personally, are tragically missing the wider points at the heart of the discussion. Accusations that a person is being PC are done to dismiss their points as superficial pandering.  Meanwhile those who abuse the term in this way are proclaiming their birthright to behave in ways that are spiteful to others, thinking themselves entitled to the way things are and believing that fantasy notions of social equality to be the way forward, even as those fantasies reach into the past.

I take questions of identity very serious, and even when I disagree with others I try to respect what they’re feeling when issues challenge their identity because it can cause anxiety. It is a fundamental query of our humanity: who are we? It’s critical to have dialogues on the digital frontier which involve our politics, culture, and social concerns, but developers have to participate in that conversation through the fantasies they design in our games. Games are not only influenced by our personal beliefs and those of society, but create influences of their own. Every game has a message, no matter what a developer says to the contrary. The only question is what that message is.

The battles on the digital frontier have only just begun, but they have been pretty bloody so far. The good news is that sanity seems to be prevailing (progressive discourse). The bad news is that insanity is determined to fight to the last man, refusing to yield to our common humanity and right to a dignified gaming experience the same as they are.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The nice thing about fantasies is they are alterable.

Sources

Kimmel, Michael Guyland.

Kimmel, Michael The Gender of Desire.

Grayson, Nathan, “Blizzard on Heroes of the Storm, Female Designs in MOBAs”. Interview from Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Scree Tags: #fantasy #escapism #gamertalk