Saturday, December 20, 2014

Devil Off My Back: How I Stopped Competing in Marvel Puzzle Quest

There were a few of demands on my time the last semester, mostly ill-advised, self-imposed ones. First and foremost, I sank an ungodly amount of time into my new course, on forms of fantasy. I can't really regret the time I spent on it, though, as it was by far the most I've enjoyed researching or teaching in ages. It's really the first time I've been teaching a course where both my students and I were interested in the material; I really hope I can channel that interest into future projects.

Speaking of future projects, there's the dissertation (which is really an ongoing project. This segue is not the best). It's been progressing, though rather slowly--I found some vital research I needed on a journal  that's only in French, which has meant slow going. And there's the aforementioned course I was teaching--I tallied up all the notes I took for the fantasy course, and it wound up being 200 pages.That length is about 4/5 of a dissertation right there. Again, I'm hoping to do better next term, but since I'll be teaching two courses--Introduction to Rhetoric and Forms of Science-Fiction--that's going to take some focus on my part.

Luckily, I just had some of my distractions removed from me. Remember my glowing reports of Marvel Puzzle Quest, the freemium, superhero version of Candy Crush? Well, I finally have that devil off my back. Or, to be more accurate, the devil climbed off my back, told me it was time to see other people, and walked away, whistling a jaunty tune. But it's the end result that matters, right?

What happened involves another facet of Marvel Puzzle Quest I don't think I've described much until now. A player of MPQ competes against special battles or other players' rosters; either way, she accumulates points, and moves up and down the ranks depending on how many points everyone else in her bracket has as well. And at the end of a set period of time, rewards are handed out based on ranking. There's an individual tally of points, but there's also a group tally--you can join an group, or an "alliance," and then the points a player accumulates go to her individual tally, but also her alliance tally, and one can get additional rewards based on the alliance tally as well.

What players can do for each other is limited; there's a chat function, and there's the option to send your characters out to help someone else. But mostly, the only purpose of the alliance is to work together towards that alliance tally reward. As such, anyone who isn't scoring high on the individual level and seems to be latching on in order to get the alliance reward is seen as deadweight. (You can probably see where this is going already.) And a cycle of top tier and lower tier players develops in the game overall--the best players and alliances win a bracket and get the best rewards, which allows them to perform better in the next competition. The losers don't get worse, but they don't get to improve either. The gap can be met somewhat through a willingness to spend real money on the game for better characters, but mostly that willingness exacerbates the gap rather than closes it, as it's the top tier players who seem most willing to shell out money to stay in their positions. There's two things (probably more, but two that occur to me right now) that can change this dynamic: the developers slowing down on the characters they release or doing something to increase the likelihood of drawing good characters for low level players, and the players' chief resource, time, becoming scarce. Both are unlikely; it's the top tier players who tend to invest the most time (understandably, since they get the most reward and motivation) and it's also the top tier players who, as I learned, pay the most cash.

And this is where I came in, or rather, fell out. I was doing fairly well on the player versus player side of things, but that was largely because I was taking advantage of my open schedule to select brackets with very unfavorable end times. (Play until my bracket ends at 4 am? It... seemed like a good idea at the time? Well, it kind of did.) And thus, I maximized my own time potential. But I did *not* have time to play through the player versus environment matches multiple times a day, especially given that my characters aren't really developed enough for it. As my individual rank dropped below my alliance's rank, the writing was on the wall. The real eye-opener moment was when someone asked in chat how much everyone involved has paid for the game. I have never spent a cent on Marvel Puzzle Quest; while you can pay to advance faster, or at least for the chance to advance faster, I stuck to my slow, plodding way. My teammates, however, were not so restrained. The *minimum* amount they spent was $150. It was fairly clear at that point that we had very different notions on what we wanted to get out of this game.

So this morning, one of the alliance's leaders kicked me out. There was no warning, no "time to shape up or you're dropped"--just a notification that I'm no longer aligned with anyone. I can't blame them for it; I can't even look up who they replaced me with, since I don't remember the name of the alliance to begin with, which suggests my commitment was never really that firm, despite the time I was sinking into playing.

I haven't looked for a new alliance, but I haven't deleted the app either. I think I'll keep playing the game--it's a good filler for when watching junky TV--but at the same time, I think I'm going to fall back from the competitive side of it. It's an investment I'm not willing to make financially, and shouldn't have been making in terms of time. I'll probably miss it, but if you can look at your time in a game and say after that it should have been spent elsewhere, you're probably right.It was an interesting experience; I've always said that my personality precludes any serious investment in MMO-type games, but through the magic of MPQ, I've inadvertently gotten at least a small taste of the competitiveness and serious time commitment involved in multiplayer affairs. I have to say, I prefer games with clear, unambiguous endings much better--I need that "stopping point."

MPQ has also taken down some of the barriers in my mind about the difference between casual and hardcore players. I know intellectually they're terms that have no reality behind them, but MPQ really blows them away. At its core, it's a "casual" game--a match three tile based on Bejeweled. But because of the competitive aspects added to monetize it, it is also a game requiring a very, very high level of commitment in order to excel.

The numbers my former fellow players reported spending on it are interesting too. Popular industry wisdom and consumer reports claim that most freemium titles are supported by "whales"--that is, 0.15% of all freemium players account for over 50% of its revenue. So you have many players, but only a few who pay enough to keep the lights on (it's similar to the porn industry that way). My teammates belie that number, paying enough to be significant, but not enough to land in the whale category. Now, one anecdotal result doesn't contradict a million sample size survey. But it's fun to speculate. Does MPQ attract a different audience through its focus on superheroes and competition? Did I wind up in an atypically large spending group? Is the 0.15% number wrong?

I don't know. Can't know, really. But I appreciate the opportunity to watch things unfold from the sidelines, instead of in prime freemium seats.

Later Days.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Origin Story

Last survivor of a dying people
tragic death of loved ones
sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them
science experiment gone wrong
two brothers, one strong in mind, one strong in body, compete for the affections of a distant father
different from birth, trauma reveals a teenager's latent talents
accused of a crime she didn't commit
a mission to right a tragic wrong
in the wrong hands
hunted by the mob
great power
secret government program creates what it can't control
a family legacy inspires
arcane magic rituals awaken what once slumbered
older mentor figure guides youth to a fate he did not choose
many are called
few are chosen
two college roommates, both geniuses, one beloved and revered, one alienated and alienating, neither used to equals, are drawn to each other, then drawn apart
small time criminal stumbles upon magical artifact
yearns for greatness
in a world gone wrong, one figure rises
built then abandoned by creator
arrogant materialistic man has moment of epiphany and swears to
great responsibility
betrayed by the people they had sworn to protect
separated at birth, she discovers her secret heritage
dying alien bestows last gift
invention leads creator to unusual acts
lost and far from home
a being more than human swears to make the world better
a being more than human swears to make the world in their image

Later Days.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Good Folk at DiGRA

So Gamergate is two months old or so now. If that term doesn't mean anything to you, you're probably better off; if you're really curious, The last I checked, Rational Wiki had a version of events that I endorse, and the site I'm a part of, First Person Scholar, has run some pieces on it that I endorse 100%. Personally, I haven't been directly involved with many self-identified Gamergaters like some of my friends and colleagues because--go figure--they aren't really that interested in seeking out male academics, for the most part.

One of the branches of Gamergate that has struck closer to home, however, is one that's decided to take on DiGRA--that's the Digital Games Research Association, whose mission statement is almost ridiculous innocuous: "It encourages high-quality research on games, and promotes collaboration and dissemination of work by its members."  What DiGRA did to get into the crossfires is immensely frustrating--at a roundtable panel during the last annual meeting, its members advocated encouraging developers to devote more attention to gender and diversity. That's it. That's the smoking gun. The transcript for the talk was published, and you can probably find it online, albeit perhaps not in its original form. For that, everyone at the talk was accused of being part of a radical feminist, communist(!) agenda to taint game development, and thus could be subject to any sort of accusation a gamergater could muster.

To the gamergaters who claim this is still about ethics in videogame journalism--well, maybe it is for you. But don't believe that it is that way for everyone else in your group. There are some who believe that the purpose of gamergate is to strike back at a feminism they find frightening, and as long as you permit them in your group, they're going to keep pursuing that goal in your name.

That, though, isn't what I want to talk about. Instead, let's talk about rhetoric. One of the rhetorical strategies of the gamergaters who are attacking DiGRA--calling, alternatively, for all the members of its board associated with the talk to be forced down, or for DiGRA itself to be "razed to the ground"--is to declare that these female academics(and yes, as far I can tell, anyone attacking DiGRA is attacking just women in DiGRA) as outsiders, forcing feminism on videogames they know nothing about. What I want to talk about, frankly, is what a load of shit that is. I don't know most of the people on DiGRA personally. But I do know they are excellent scholars, and I'm proud to work in a discipline that has them in it. So here's some of my favorite scholarship by female academics who are, or have been, a part of DiGRA.

If anyone wants to be taken off this list, let me know. I'm not listing anything that's not available online, but I absolutely understand if, under current conditions, some would prefer not to have a spotlight on them. Most of the links will require either a credit card or a university account to access, which admittedly, isn't ideal, given the price of academic journals. If only someone was advocating for a reconsideration of how academic publishing works...

Mia Consalvo. I don't think I can overstate the influence Consalvo has had on me as a game scholar. Her work in her book Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames introduced me to the concept of paratext, and gaming capital, both of which have been paramount in my own research. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that dissertation chapter on the paratext of the instruction manual wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for the inspiration of her example. Now, that book alone is enough to make her a game scholar MVP as far as I'm concerned, But I also want to highlight her work in co-editing the book Sports Videogames (with Mitgutssch and Stein), which is the first collection of essays on a genre of videogames that typically get very short shrift from scholars despite their popularity; her study of game culture via the walkthroughs written for Zelda 64 (a paper from 2003--not many game scholars can claim such a wide set of activity)' and yes, her work on gender in game culture ("Dwarf acts like a lady: The importance of gender roles in understanding gender switching and player behavior" = best paper title ever?).

Now, Consalvo is the one whose work I'm most familiar with. If there's any comparative brevity in the descriptions of the others, it's because of my failings, not theirs.

Shira Chess. Chess, too, has done some work on gender in games--for another candidate for best title, there's "Youthful White Male Industry Seeks ' Fun'-Loving Middle-Aged Women for Video Games," in Steiner, Carter, and McLaughlin's The Routledge Companion to Media and Gender.  Her piece "Playing the bad guy: Grand Theft Auto in the Panopoticon" in Garrelts' Digital Gameplay: essays on the Nexus of Game of Game and Gamer is an older piece (2005), but all the more noteable for that--it's the earliest piece I can think of for academic articles that consider "playing bad" (like breaking bad, but with more reloading) in videogames. And for my personal interests, I'm looking forward to checking out her piece on the subject position of women players in the Ravenhearst trilogy of gothic videogames when I get a chance.

T. L. Taylor. Taylor's best known--and rightfully so--for her work on e-sports. Raising The Stakes is a must-read for any scholar who wants to become familiar with the field. She also co-wrote Ethnography and Virtual Worlds with Boellstorff, Nardi and Pearce (and, hopefully, a review of it will be up on FPS some time soon). I'll admit, I'm not a big fan of sociological approaches to games in general, but I think if there's a right way to do it, it's the ethnographic approach that emphasizes working with an existing community. And this is a great introductory volume on how to do it right. They're both excellent works on player culture.

Florence Chee.  A large subset of Chee's work is on South Korean game culture; my knowledge of this field is absolutely minimal, but given South Korea's significance  in global gaming cultures, it's worth knowing. One example of her work in this area is, with Jin and Kim, "Transformative mobile game culture: Sociocultural analysis of Korean mobile gaming in the era of smartphones." As someone who has spent entirely too much time on Marvel Puzzle Quest--I swear, the alliances in this so-called "casual" game have taken their notes straight from WoW raiding parties--I  can attest how gaming culture can go mobile.

Ashley Brown. I've had the privilege of working with Brown personally. Well, personally via the digital; she wrote a piece for FPS on her research into erotic role play in games. Videogames have a tendency to be, well, a tease--a lot of them exaggerate physical sexuality, but any further desires need to be negotiated by the players. Brown's doing good work to consider how that unfolds. She's also got a chapter in the upcoming Game Love: Essays on Play and Affection by Enevold and MacCallum-Stewart, and you can bet that's on my pre-order list.

Tanya Kryzwinska. Kzyzwinksa is another scholar who's been extremely influential on my own work. Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders: Video Games in the 21st Century, written with Geoff King, was one of the first full-length books of game studies I ever read, and a lot of it--especially the chapter on realism, spectacle, and sensation--has sunk in deep. Likewise, the anthology she edited with Barry Atkins, Videogame/Player/Text, was extremely important to me just by virtue of it being a collection of people studying videogames and players from a background that reminded me, as an English major, of my own--Atkins' essay on Prince of Persia and Bittanti's on SimCity I remember as being particular stand-outs. More recently, and speaking again of sex, her essay "The Strange Case of the Misappearance of Sex in Videogames" is my go-to on the subject. And just two weeks ago, I was editing my own essay on the gothic in videogames that referred to her recent "Digital Games and the American Gothic: Investigating Gothic Game Grammar," in which she looks at Alan Wake and the Secret World MMO.

I could go on for ages, but I'll limit myself to one more:
Esther MacCallum-Stewart. MacCullum-Stewart (in retrospect, I should have limited my last to someone whose name was faster to type) is, as mentioned earlier, the editor for the upcoming essay on play and affection in games. She also (alongside Krywinska and Justin Parsler) co-edited a book of essays on the Lord of the Rings Online called Ringbearers, which, thanks to the existence of a grad course offered at UW I've never actually taken, I've read cover to cover. (I'm particularly fond of Frans Mäyrä's essay on art-evil in the collection). And while I sadly can only find the slides for the talk online, judging purely by title and visual aid, I can only imagine how great it would have been to hear her talk "Sex, Love, Dwarves, Bacon" (best title candidate the third? The Best titles probably have "dwarf" in them, is what we're learning.).

This is work that has made game studies better. And I'm glad to be part of a group that includes these people as members.

Cheating. Gothic Games. E-sports. The Panopticon. South Korea. Virtual Ethnography. Sex. Gender. The research here spans a very wide gamut. This is NOT the output of narrow-minded people blindly pursuing a single agenda without any heed to facts or argument. For that, I think, you'd have to look for a different group entirely.

Later Days.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Movie Buff: A Spoileriffic Review of Happy Go Lucky

Happy Go Lucky. Years from now, when I've forgotten everything else about Happy Go Lucky, I'm still going to remember That Scene. The rest of the show--the flamenco lessons, the sister, the boy from the abusive home, even  Poppy herself--might fade, but That Scene's going to stick with me. The plot, such as it is, is that Polly (Sally Hawkins) is thirty year old school teacher who is, basically, impossibly cheerful. She rarely does anything for more than a few seconds without bursting into a mild guffaw. It's initially very irritating and that irritation never quite goes away, but I found myself developing some affection for her as well. (Although my eyes rolled pretty heavily at the scene where she hurts her back jumping on a trampoline, which she did weekly, because she is just that damn whimsical. If she wasn't the lead of the film, she'd be the lead's manic pixie girl.) It's a good thing she's a primary school teacher, because her temperament is ideally suited for sugar-infested six year olds.

The most accurate description of the film is probably a slice of life thing; it's not a plot moving to a conclusion, but a series of vaguely related vignettes that take place at this point in Poppy's life. But while there isn't a conclusion that's built to, there's certainly a climax. And that comes courtesy of Scott (Eddie Marsan), Poppy's driver instructor. Where Poppy is a free spirit almost incapable of paying attention for more than three seconds--she defends her choice to take her eyes off the road to look at a passing squirrel--Scott is rigid, insisting on a rule for every occasion. In a different movie, they'd be the romantic odd couple who slowly come to appreciate each other. Here, she's not interested, and when Scott makes an inquiry to her living arrangement, she laughingly tells him she's a lesbian. Gradually, it becomes evident that Scott's rules are there for a reason--Scott needs them to keep himself under control, because underneath them, he is a very angry man. He's angry that his pupils don't give him the respect he deserves. He's angry that US government is enacting a conspiracy to draw out Satan. He's angry that the immigrants are ruining Britain. Mostly, he's just angry.

That anger bubbles to a froth when he arrives at Poppy's, and sees her saying goodbye to her new boyfriend. His instructions become increasingly angry, and when Poppy insists he's in no state to drive, he explodes at her, swears at her, grabs her, insists that it's her fault, that she's lead him on, that she acts all friendly and nice and all the time, she's laughing at him with her boyfriend and her girlfriend and her other friends and she's just a stupid fucking--Poppy calms him down only by threatening to call the police. Even then, he doesn't seem to understand how far he's gone and asks if they'll meet the same time next week. "No, Scott," says Poppy.

It's a masterful performance from Marsan. The sheer bile that spews from his mouth is one of the most powerful things I've seen in a while. And maybe it's hit me so hard because... and this isn't an easy thing to cop to... I've been in Scott's shoes. Not the hateful, vitriolic attack, but the part that comes before, the moment when you realize that someone you're attracted to doesn't feel the same way, that they've actually turned you down in multiple ways that you've fooled yourself into ignoring. And then there's the other moment--that moment when you're plunged into a deep sense of embarrassment, where that embarrassment threatens to turn into resentment. I feel bad; it's your fault I feel this way. It's lashing out, it's ugly, it's unfair--it's misogynist. And it's a pretty damn small step from look at how you make me feel to look at what you made me do. If you can blame someone for your negative feelings, you can rationalize blaming them for your negative actions too. The trick is to take that embarrassment, learn from it, own up to it, and pull yourself away from bad patterns. Life's disappointing sometimes, and it's unfair sometimes; don't heap your disappointments on someone else.

And of course, it's most unfair for women. This is what misogyny culture is--the entitled lashing out, the expectation that your feelings are the woman's faults. Poppy had to lie about her sexual orientation to get Scott to back off, initially--and yes, she treats it as a joke, because she treats everything as a joke, but she still had to do it."I have a boyfriend." "I'm gay." These are the lies women have to tell to ward off unwanted attention.And I don't think they can be blamed for not just saying "I'm not interested"; Scott's hate-filled speech is what comes out AFTER learning she has a boyfriend--imagine how he  could have responded if he thought she just didn't like him. If a film has a lesson, it's that Poppy, in response to her friends and to Scott, does question her happy go lucky nature, and makes happiness her deliberate choice instead of just her unconscious one--especially if Scott's example is the alternative. It ends the film on a positive note, but it's not that ending that's going to linger with me.

I was pointed to this movie from an online persona who goes by the handle of Movie Hulk; he recommended it after a long post (it's here--although I really wasn't kidding about the length) about the problems with the Gamergate movement. If you've been following, the parallels are obvious enough (and, in retrospect, clarifies his argument a bit for me). "The feminists are making us feel bad." "The journalists are colluding against us." "We'll never stop fighting you." Even if, magically, any trace of misogyny could be removed from the argument, it would be a movement characterized by anger. And for a long time now, any time I see something that involves responding with anger against a villainized Other--especially if that Other is a woman--what's going to come to mind is Scott, spewing hatred at Poppy for just trying to be.

Later Days.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Year of Villain Songs

 I've been engaged in a project, of sorts, for the past year. I was looking at a list of top "villain songs"--broadly defined as songs sung by or about a story's villain--and thought to myself, I could do better than that. And so I did. Every day, for 365 days, I've been posting one villain song, and a link to a video of it on Facebook. (I'm sure any subsequent drops in my friends is purely coincidental.) And, for the last half or so, I tweeted the links as well. For posterity's sake, I thought I'd post the list here. A few provisos:

1) This is a numbered list--to make sure I've got all 365 songs--but not an ordered list, because, frankly, finding 365 villain songs was enough work without creating some master rubric to evaluate them all. I burned through a lot of my favorite at the beginning when I wasn't sure how many I'd be doing. Beyond that, I tried to pick "special" ones for momentous numbers, generally at multiples of 25.  And the last ten or so are the best from my remaining pile.

2) Some of them have links, and some of them do not. This is largely because--see 1), making the list was enough work. They're mostly findable through a google search, if you're curious.

3) This list is not quite the order they were originally presented. I didn't keep great records of the whole list until I was fifty or so songs in, so that order's messed up a bit, and I'd do things like count 124 twice, and not notice till much later, then skip ahead accordingly. But it's close to the original order. Pardon the errors; I've marked the ones I've noticed. 

4) Favorite songs are marked with favorite.

5) There was a rather large number of songs that didn't make the 365 cut. For the most part, it's because I'm less familiar with them. If you've got something that you think should be added to the overall list, by all means, let me know and I'll put it in the extras.

Here we go, then.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Nature Talk

Every day, around mid-afternoon, the gulls in Waterloo nest on top of the mall northeast of my house.

Every day, around dusk, they leave there, and head due south to a small factory, and swoop around it for a few hours before settling down for the night.

Add to that the crows, who travel to a forested area just south of campus at dawn and dusk and caw so loudly and in such numbers that it sounds like you're standing outside a half dozen racquetball courts. (Seriously, the caws sound like the echoes the balls make when they bounce off the walls.)

Add to that the geese, who have lost their fear of people a long time ago, and belligerently walk all over campus, staring down the cars that get in their way.

Add to that the ducks, who are much more timid than their avian counterparts, and try to fit into the hole the geese have made, only to be run off by the geese at every turn.

Add to that the single swan in Victoria Park, the only bird that the geese give wide berth.

Add to that the sparrows, chickadees, and other small birds that try their best to eke out a living where they can.

And all the other animals: the groundhogs on campus, the ubiquitous squirrels, the cats constantly patrolling their territories against trespassing from--well, other cats, mostly.

And the plants too--the trees, the bushes, the ivy creeping along the walls. Even--ick--nature's mooch, the grass.

It struck me today how all these living creatures are around us all the time, whose lives we can endanger pretty easily but can't do a lot to retaliate in return. And rather than reveling in the power that gives us, I think we need to appreciate the responsibility that puts on us. I'm teaching Tolkien's The Hobbit this term--more on that some other time--and one of the theories around Tolkien's work is that he promoted the idea of stewardship with regards to the environment, that people have the moral responsibility to act like we're looking after the land and need to keep it safe to pass on to the next steward, rather than look at it as if we're the absolute monarchs. The idea is still a little too "dominion over the earth" for my tastes. It suggests that we're at the top of the structure rather than a part of it, as if the environment isn't something we need to worry about. I much rather like the idea some sci-fi pundits have suggested, that we're the planet's janitors. We should do our best to keep things running, and doing that well is worth more respect than we usually afford it.

Anyway, the point at hand is less environmental responsibility and more--be humble. There's worlds going on around us that don't see us as the center of existence. They're not hostile to us--rather, they don't care one way or the other about us at all. We're a tangential part of their system, and they're just cawing to the world, or nestling in on a convenient roof or just trying to get by.

Later Days.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Because if I'm talking about writing on my blog, it's like I'm actually writing

All right--we're going for a two stone initiative here. Blog needs more content. Dissertation needs to get written. So we'll try a positive affirmation method, whereby I state how long I worked on the diss, and how much I wrote. I will say a disclaimer right now that I will not be posting EVERY time I work on the dissertation, and these blog posts are in no way a reflection of the total labor involved.

So--today, I spent 36 minutes on the dissertation. I wrote approximately 200 words. ...Every little bit counts, ok? It's a Saturday, cut me some slack.

I *might* be a little defensive where the dissertation is concerned.

Later Days.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Movie Buff: A Spoilerific Review of What If

More movies. More movie reviews. Filmic experiences the likes of which mediate the world thrice over, recasting all of existence in cinematographically well-framed glory!

This particular review was actually written in stages, as I watched the film.  Thus, it's a little scattered than most, and a little more self-contradictory than most.

Starting below.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Movie Buff: A Spoiler-iffic review of Garden State

It's not quite a dead blog, but the pieces are few and far between, ain't they? Well, so it goes, for now.

Review of the movie Garden State, after the break.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Pet Peeve with Words: Problematic edition

An English major getting pedantic about word use? How remarkable.

But it is in fact the case. The word I would like to complain about is "problematic," a word that tends to get used a lot in academic and socially conscious contexts:

Exhibit A: "How comic frames and panels operate for the reader is problematic because the reader is able to see so much at once, but sequencing -- even with the retraceability and the limited omniscience available from the design of the comic book page -- remains very important." (Compromised Divisions: Thresholds in Comic Books and Video Games)
Exhibit B: "Chris Franklin provides an excellent example in the dangers of playing with history by analyzing Civilization. He argues that the representation of barbarians as less-than-human beasts  is problematic and supports the idea that “some peoples or social constructs [are] below consideration as equals.” (Critical Distance).
Exhibit C: "Say what you will about Joss being a bit problematic with his treatment of women -- I give him credit for trying and for being an ally." (Comment section, "Joss Whedon Tweets About Anita Sarkessian -- The Mary Sue)

Between the three of examples, "problematic" is a placeholder for "arguable sexist in some circumstances" (C) to "demonstrating a racist, colonial perspective" (B) to (A) "potentially a problem for an artist trying to convey a guided narrative."  That's a lot of versatility for a single word--and I think that's a problem.

In its literal interpretation, "problematic" is simply "something that contains a problem." So it's a perfectly accurate term to use in all these cases, for any general case where a problem or even a potential problem may exist--that covers a lot of ground. On the other hand, as examples B and C suggest, it's also a term that's taken on a more specific meaning within writing concerned with issues of justice and equality. There, it functions as a sort of shorthand for some sort of perceived prejudice that the writer sees in whatever they're discussing. And in that sense, it's a handy (can that be considered a pun on shorthand?) way of summarizing that issue without having to explain it at length. And sometimes, that's a necessary step, to keep the focus on whatever the actual main topic of discussion may be.

And there are other arguments justifying the term's use as well. There's a common saying I've seen online that it's not women's job to inform you about feminism; it's not a minority's job to explain racism to you; more generally, the onus should not on the oppressed to justify their oppression. And that's one hundred percent right. If someone tweets that Whedon's treatment of, say, racial issues is problematic, your first response should not necessarily be to ask them to clarify, because, among other reasons, unless you are very, very careful in  crafting your request, it will sound more like a demand to defend themselves. Instead--you have access to google. You know how to use the internet. Do your own homework. (I'd acknowledge that it's a slightly different case if the use popped up in an online article published on a pop culture news site--in that case, the author's presenting themselves more as an expert, and questioning is more appropriate. But still, remember context, and remember that it's generally best to see what you can find yourself to answer a question, if the resources are available to you.)

And finally, I think one of the reasons that problematic enjoys such frequent use is that it plays a useful role in keeping discourse civil. If you replaced B or C with their equivalent substitutes, then you're implicitly if not explicitly accusing the original creators of racism and sexism, which starts a pretty emotionally charged discussion. Given how belligerently many have responded to the term "misogyny" in the recent Gamersgate grossness (and with responses that often demonstrate how "misogyny" was exactly the right word) there's an argument to be made that to keep a discussion even, a less charged word like problematic may be the way to go.

 But here's the turn in the argument.  I'd counter the idea that problematic keeps a discussion civil with the argument that what we need is less even, "both sides present good points" style of argument, and more direct accusations. If we reserve racism or misogynist terms only for the worst cases, then it's easy for many to pretend, as the Gamersgate case again demonstrates, that systematic sexism or more subtle forms of sexism exist. Let's not allow racist, sexist, or any other oppressive behavior to hide itself behind the more genteel term "problematic."

My other problem with problematic is that it's quickly joining the ranks of those words I try to steer my undergraduates away from, like "good" or "important"--because it can be used so generally it becomes overused, so it becomes not so much a tool for the writer to keep the focus where they want and more a sign to the reader that they can turn off their active reading and just coast until something... important... is said. Problematic is often used as the opening for the argument, a way of easing the reader into the topic until the writer has time to fully explain what they mean by the term. Slowly introducing an emotionally charged subject is not by any means a bad idea, but since "problematic" gets trotted out for that so frequently, it's becoming the online article equivalent of the phrase "since the beginning of time" in first year college papers.

Finally, my last beef against the term problematic is that its widespread use cheapens the topic at hand. To return to my original examples, underlying sexism in popular science fiction/fantasy television is not the same as colonialist racism reflected in videogames that center on strategic conquering. And they are certainly not the same as the problems of authorial intent. Using the same word to apply to all three situations suggests an equivalency between them, one that undermines the actual social context in favor of some universal wrong. While problematic can then be used as a rallying term to unify people from disparate tracks of life, it could just as easily be used as another oppressive tool, whitewashing difference and lived experience.

I'm not saying don't use the word "problematic." It's got a lot of arguments in favor of it, as I've noted. I'm probably going to keep using it too. But I'm going to try to be more aware of how I'm using it, and to what end.

Later Days.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Game Retrospective: Hex Cell Plus

Okay, so the long form build up to my currently played game wasn't working. Some would see that as a sign that I should stop trying to talk about videogames on the blog. Well, I see it as a sign that we should talk about slightly different videogames. Recently, I asked my FB friends to pick random numbers that corresponded to positions on Steam account. And then I would play them, and talk about them here. The results: Shelter (badger mommy sim), 10 000 000 (bit runner meets match 3), Zuma's Revenge (marble blasting), and HexCells Plus (minesweeper puzzle game). The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, and Hammerwatch (pixel-based fantasy tactics thing). 

I didn't have the heart to tell the poor dears I already did 10 000 000. Mostly because I'd like to play it again. 

Anyway, a review of the first one I finished, HexCell Plus, after the break.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

HULK Smash-hit: Incredible Hulk 201-300, pt 1

In one of the more questionable uses of my time, I've recently read a hundred issues of the Hulk #201 to  #300--that's the period from 1976 to 1984. Most of the period is Bill Mantlo's time as writer on the title, and it's... an odd bag. Join me, then, after the break, for a general discussion of issues 201 to 220, as we talk about such things as deadbeat magicians, over-eager landladies, and the special love between villain and henchman.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Judging Judging Books By Their Cover

Question: is there a correlation between a fantasy book's perceived quality and the quality of its cover?

The answer which may surprise you below. Warning: surprise not guaranteed.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Match 3 part II: The Matchening

Man, July was a sparse month for blogging. Well, we'll fix that. We will blog it faster, stronger, better. Or at least sooner. Continuing where last post's videogame travelogue left off, I was slowly, slowly edging towards describing Battleheart: Legacy, and listing all my match 3 substitutes. Let's try that some more, after the break.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Swappin' Blocks: A Match Three Tale about a game that is not a match 3 game

All right: as promised, a game-related post. What a radical departure! Battleheart: Legacy, Little Big Planet, Reign Maker, Costume Quest, Sunless Sea, Cosmic Encounter, and Dark Souls II,all after the break. And when I say they're after the break, I mean the first post where I didn't get around to talking about any of them at all was so long I've decided to do this in pieces.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Adventures in Cat-Sitting

I've got yet another game post in the near future, but for now: cats, cats, cats. After the break.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Google Custom Search: Customize Your Frustration

A few weeks back, I'd hoped that Google Custom Search would help in my efforts to track down well-written but nonscholarly game criticism. Yeah, not so much, as it turns out. It worked great for Nier, and produced a fairly full body. But when I started to use it for better known games, the cracks started to appear in the system. There were two major problems:
 1) Too much of the same. You know that little notice Google sometimes puts at the bottom of your searches, the one that says they've omitted similar results? Well, Custom Google does not omit that, and isn't the better for being more thorough. When it searches a site, it'll find the most prominent page featuring your search term on the site. Then it'll list it again in the site's monthly archive. Then again in the total page set search. And again. And again. When my first dozen or so results are variations of the same page, that gets frustrating.
2) Cut off point. The other issue is that, even with (or maybe because of) these repeated searches, it's truncating my list. The first page says that there's thousands of entries found, but the time I hit page two, that same number is twelve, and my search is abruptly over. Worse, it's clearly missing some entries; searching "Elder Scrolls" and "Skyrim" brings up results that aren't in just a search for "Elder Scrolls."

At this point, I'm basically stuck with my original method, using the site: search option to check promising sites out individually, which is hardly an optimal method, when you've got just under a hundred sites in your total list. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there's some sort of threshold limit for the number of sites you're searching, and I've passed the ideal amount, creating all the noise in the system.

If we're going to insist on making this a teachable moment, then this is a good example of mental models in action, or failed action. This idea comes up in HCI (Human Computer Interface) a lot, and it involves how we respond to stimuli. Essentially, humans rarely really understand how the world works. What we do is we create mental models of how we think a given system works, based on how it responds to us. Frustration with a designed product often comes from a moment when we realize our mental model doesn't actually match an object's reality. (Although frustration can come from plenty of other sources too.) A big part of design--and game design, specifically--is how to cater towards players' expectations, or even push their expectations in certain directions. Skeuomorphs are one such tool; making some new technology deliberately look like older technology, so people will go to it thinking they understand its function. Computer design is littered with these; an easy example is the Word spreadsheet--it's really not very much like the print spreadsheet at all in terms of all the extra stuff it can do, but it's useful to start by thinking of it as a spreadsheet. The downside to skeuomorphs is that often people never go any further; they assume the tech just models the tech they know, and never learn what else it can do--or learn where the new version falls short, until it does.

In a nutshell, my mental model of the Google Custom Search was that it functioned like the regular google search I was familiar with, but it looks like it doesn't. Perhaps even worse, it may be that the fault is also that my mental model of the regular Google search was flawed to begin with. It may be time to upgrade my knowledge of how a search engine works--but that still doesn't guarantee I can fix the custom search to work more like I want it to, so it may not be worth the effort.

Mostly, this post is just an excuse to take a break from searching through pages on Elder Scrolls that I don't need. You'd think more people would be talking about the use of scrolls in the game. I mean, it's right there in the title and everything.

Later Days.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Nier: A Criticism Guide

The goal, at the moment, is to take everything I found useful in essayatic criticism for Nier and synthesize it into one place. Unfortunately, instead of doing that, I spent all of the last post summarizing the Grimoire Nier Companion project and Nier's labyrinthine pre-game plot. So this time, we'll do the actual criticism part. Here, then, are the major topics and posts on the funny little mess that is Nier.

Nier: So many article titles with the same pun

In my last post, I promised that I'd be following it up with the actual results of my research. Also that I'd be doing it tomorrow. Well, this particular tomorrow is now over a week ago, and there's a lesson there: always say "next post" not an actual date. Regardless, we are here. So, after the break, there will be a collection of links for Nier-related resources, and a summary of what my research on it has found.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Game Research

I'm sure I've talked about this before, but it's a topic that's been on my mind of late: how to research videogames.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Game Retrospective: Dead Rising 2: Off The Record

It seems like just yesterday I was penning a retrospective on the first Dead Rising game. Where has the time gone?

The time has gone into Dead Rising games.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Food for nought

All things happen, given enough time and the right circumstances. Even things that seemed like they never would. How I Met Your Mother ended. I occasionally go on dates. The slow heat death of the universe trickles onward. But while all things may happen, there is one thing happening that I thought may never come to be during my own allotted time on this plane:

I'm getting sick of junk food.

More on this momentous... moment... after the break.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Latter Conference post-proceedings

This is one of those cases when the further we get from the original event, the less likely I am to remember anything ever. So let's get back to business. When we last saw our stalwart conference goer (me), he was finishing day one of his conference experience. Let's see what happens next.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Conference post-preceedings.

Blog's taken a turn towards the diary/confessional tone of late. Well, we'll see where it takes us. I'm sure I'll get the urge to get all scholarly sooner or later. And really, considering my current profession, the two overlap to a fairly high degree.

First: the conference. It was a lot of fun. Our local Game Institute meetings are a pale shadow of yesteryear, which mainly means I get much less chance to talk about videogames with my colleagues than I used to. (My roommate lends a sympathetic ear, bless her heart, but even the world's most sympathetic ear can't entirely hide the sight of eyes glazing over.) So this was a great opportunity to hear some philosophy and videogames. I think what I like most about the Canadian Game Studies Association is that it has a nice balance of age and gender--while it definitely skews towards dudes, the women and gaming panel--called "Sweetheart This Ain't Gender Studies," in a nod to Supernatural--showed how much interest there is. Anyway, I'll give you the detailed run-down on what I found interesting. It'll be detailed, because it's Saturday night and I don't have anything better to do, right? (Weeps inwardly.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times

It's been a weird two days, with another two weird ones to follow. The Congress of the Humanities is happening in St. Catherines, and has been since last Friday. For those not in the know, Congress is basically the Woodstock of Canadian Humanities academics; all the associations that aren't quite big enough to hold regular meetings of their own hold their annual conferences during the same week span, and this year, St. Catherines gets to be the lucky host. This year, I'm delivering a a 10 minute work-in-progress paper for the Canadian Game Studies Association, which runs from the 28th to the 29th. My presentation is 9 am Wednesday morning. The downside is that my ride to St Catherines is picking me up at 6:50 am to make the drive there in time; the upside is, with the presentation happening so early in the conference, I'll be able to relax for the rest of the two days. Last year, the only major conference I went to put my presentation at the very last panel of the day, and it was both nerve-wracking, as it was looming over me the entire conference, and depressing, as most people had gone home, and I think there was a grand total of four people in the audience. The stars willing, this presentation will be different. Further, I'm giving a 10 minute presentation, which is a very odd thing. Five minutes is enough time to read your abstract out loud and sit down; fifteen minutes is time for a rushed argument, but ten minutes is a bizarre limbo. Still, I'm third on a panel of five, so even if it's a horrible mess, I'll at least be able to fade into the woodwork.

All of which is to explain why my next two days will be weird. Yesterday was weird because it was so productive; I finished my lesson plan for today's course in record time, and finished the CGSA paper, also in record time. (Of course, the works cited and slideshow took hours, as they always do; videogame screenshots can be persnickety things.) And then I went for a nice run. And I mean a really nice run. Two weeks ago, against my better judgment, I downloaded a running app called RunKeeper for my phone. It monitors your distance, speed, and so forth. I set it to a weight-losing routine, and it's been giving me exercises every other day. I've always resisted following an exact program for exercise; it seems like it takes all the spontaneity and fun out of it. But... well, it's already paid off. Following the program, I've increased my speed slowly, and built up some endurance. Yesterday showed me how much; for the first time, the program made me do a half hour of speed intervals, and it went fine. Wound up with a 32-minute five k run. It's not a particularly good speed, and nowhere near what I was doing when I was in peak shape. But when you factor in that I was averaging a 37-minute five k when I started using Run Keeper, it's an impressive improvement. And I felt really good after finishing. Darn you for making me like you, Run Keeper!

Today, on the other hand, has suuuucked. First, I forgot to set my alarm, so instead of waking up at 8, I woke at noon. NOON. This does not bode well for a good night's sleep before my presentation tomorrow. Then I get to campus, and dig through my office for a game case I need to finish the slideshow side of the presentation. Of course, it's at the very bottom of a stack of game cases (I keep the cases in my office and the actual games at home; never mind why), which is behind two other stacks that need to be moved first. And while I'm under my desk--because the stacking is so tight it's easier to go under the desk than move it all--my pants tear a hole in the side. My new pants. It's a combination of the fact that I caught on something while I'm down there, the fact that, well, there's a reason I'm doing a weight loss running program, and the fact that, surprise, cheap pants ordered online from Sears are probably cheap for a reason. Now, normally, I'd just suck it up and go home late at night where people spotting my new ventilation system would be at a minimum, but I teach today, so that's not an option. So I hop on a bus back home, change into a spare pair of pants (the pants I was planning to wear to the conference tomorrow--but what are the odds something will happen to them between now and then, he said, daring the gods' wrath), and ride another bus back to school. Ick. Luckily, it's a night class, so I still have four hours to race through all the other things I wanted to do today. Just as long as, you know, nothing else goes bizarrely wrong.

Later Days.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Day in the Life

To pick up where the last post left off, I took the computer in, the technician fiddled with it for about a minute, he snapped the key back into place, and said "there you go," no charge. Would all of my problems be solved in so easy a manner. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Keyboard of Woe

It's been a slow blogging year, 2014 has. Part of that is because I've felt less need to blog; as I've commented before, when I have actual people in my day-to-day life to share my oh-so valuable reflections on comics and videogames with, my need to blog about such things incessantly diminishes accordingly. And last term was busy; I was teaching a new course on digital media for the first time, and actually working pretty constantly on school projects, which diminished time for most other things. But this term, I'm teaching a course I've already taught, and I'm... well, still working on school stuff, but the first thing has changed, so more blogging time, I imagine.

And for today's post/complaint, we have a return to an old faithful, the busted keyboard. Back way back, I had a fun couple of days when my keyboard's spacebar gave up the ghost. Now, years later, different keyboard, different problem: my letter 'l' has decided to self-destruct, leaving me with a little white nub to press in place of a key. In practice, it doesn't do a lot to change how I operate except it makes my laptop look rather trashy (I can live with that) and it interrupts my typing flow (I can't live with that at all). So I've already sent out emails to two laptop repair folk in the area. Were a keyboard for a home computer, the answer's simple enough. Even if you don't want to replace the keyboard--the obvious, easy solution--it's still relatively simple to swap in a new key. I've done it myself a few times. For a lap top... forget about it. The Alienware model in particular uses these keys with three detachable plastic bits, one of which is the actual key top. The other two fit into each other and connect it to the mainboard, and they are IMPOSSIBLE to work with. There's a Youtube video of a guy replacing the keys in seconds; it takes me hours. I have small hands. Really, really small hands. So small that my piano teacher told me that there's a ceiling to how far I could go because my hands just weren't up for those larger chords. But these stupid plastic bits make me feel as if I'm massaging my keyboard with giant hams stapled to each appendage. And these are very flimsy plastic bits. They'll snap off if you look at them sideways, and then they're pretty much ruined. It's the worst.

The big concern here isn't how much it'll cost me to replace them--it probably shouldn't be that much, given that they're just little plastic bits--but how long I'll be without the laptop. I could be without it for a few days, but it's much easier to work with it. Hopefully, I'll get back those estimates soon, and we can all put this sad chapter in our lives behind us. 

Later Days. 

I tramp a perpetual journey

Note: this post has been literally been taking me months to complete. In addition to the usual blog lethargy, there's also been the problem that I keep getting so caught up in the actual work that I'm doing when I'm listening to music that I forget the part where I listen to new music. Not the worst problem to have, but it's mine.

Let's try something a little kind of not really different with this Musical Journey: an alternate history story. Traditionally, alt history stories are when you take an event in earth's history, and write about how history changes if it goes another way. In theory, that's an entire multiverse of fictional possibility. In actuality, what we get is a lot of stories about what if Hitler won World War II, with the occasional story regarding the American Civil War or War of Independence thrown in. That's not really the genre's fault; if you take an event people aren't historically familiar with, then you have to do a lot of explaining to justify the changes. And the average North American is a totally self-centered person (myself included); you can hinge an alt history story around the Boer War or something, but you'll have to work extra hard to make us appreciate it.

Which is all somewhat beside the point. What I'm proposing we do today is that we start with a song that I featured previously, with the stipulation that I can't choose any of the paths that I chose before. Will we create a resonate alt history that's the same, but different? Will it be a wildly divergent branch? Will it be more or less the exact same choices?

Let's find out. We'll start, once again, with Los Campesinos! -- Avocado, Baby. That song led to what's probably my favorite set so far, so let's see if we can recapture some of that magic.

Frightened Rabbit - Holy.  So: woman's on a business trip, finds God (?), or at least seems to take advice from some book, deserts the meeting, drives to the country, looks at the mountains, goes into the woods. Walks into the ocean and has the holy awakening, or, alternatively, drowns. It's a song whose video matches its lyrics, which is nice. The song never grabbed me, but it was nice enough; it was something I'd be happy to play in the background while doing other things. 

Metric -- Synethica. Oh God. It's doing this split/diverging mirror thing. It's like the horizontal equivalent of that White Stripes video for "Seven Nation Army."  It's kind of giving me a headache. The skeptic in me questions its function, as it seems to be there only to disguise the fact that they're shooting from a limited set. But then, at the 2:30 mark, it switches over to a sunset, and I'll admit, there's a nice sense of visual relief that accompanies the lyrics well. But then it's back to the split/ting screens. No thanks.

Bombay Bicycle Club -- Carry Me.  It's interesting. The video's essentially using stop motion and scribbles to convey a sense of artistic chaos; the music does the same, and it's really cool how they create a sense of stuttering in what's obviously a very composed song. Beyond that, the music's a little too... digital for my tastes. And while it's a nice combination of visual style matching music, the video part froze for a second, and I couldn't tell if that was part of the song or part of the medium, which seems like there's been a mix-up. The coda's nice.

I'm in Vevo territory now, which improves the variety of the links, but means that they're going to be much more "official" video releases. No, I'm not entirely sure what that means, but it sounded ominous, didn't it?

Two Door Cinema Club -- Changing of the Seasons.   I would never catch anything that was tossed upwards. That one scene would require about a dozen takes under my watch. The song is about a guy describing how he doesn't love his beloved anymore--after all, nothing says "I feel nothing for you" like writing a song about the sentiment. The music's a little too digital for my tastes, but I do appreciate being able to actually hear the lyrics on a first go. The video is a little nonsensical; a black and white press conference, which goes disastrously wrong. Our heroes flee, only to have their car mobbed by fans. It's okay; didn't blow my mind, but didn't actively offend me. I can see how it's a clear path hear from Bombay Bicycle Club.

Passion Pit -- Take a Walk. I usually don't like a percussion that's this heavy, but the opening works for me. The camera pans across various suburbia scenes, eventually heading into the woods, a farm, back to the city. I think the conceit here limits its emotional scope; there's only so much you can do with boldly declaring "I took a walk," at the end of the day. Of course, that's the whole point: the contrast between the dark economic despair of the regular verses, contrasted with the banality of the chorus. But the video doesn't help convey any of that at all.

Grouplove -- Tongue Tied.  Okay, we've definitely been stuck in the same genre for a while now. At least this video eventually has a lady singing. And I know this isn't the most gender-positive thing I've ever said, but whenever I see excessive eyeshadow on a guy, I immediately think of Johnny Depp. Anyway, it's definitely a gimmick video, where the idea is that the whole thing is being presented in reverse. We see a guy running naked from a bunch of masked men; eventually, we follow him back to a house party where he suddenly runs away; he kisses a girl, and eats a brownie. Only, it actually happens in reverse. Lyrically, not a lot happens; it's one of those "repeat the same line over and over" songs. Again, it's fine, but not particularly noteworthy.

Cage the Elephant. Shake Me Down.  I appreciate a video where something happens; an older man on a jog stumbles onto a portal that leads to his own memory palace--if a memory palace was essentially a giant pillow fort containing the memories of his childhood. I also like that it's a fairly young band using an older actor in the video; it might be more common than I realize, but it struck me as something different.  It's smaltzy, especially the ending, where he comes to terms with his now, but it's sweet too. I like it. The song, on the other hand, is fairly forgettable, especially in comparison.

Flobots. Handlebars. Flobots is a rock and hip hop musical band from Denver Colarado formed in 2000 by Jamie Laurie. I don't know what it means to add "musical" in there, but I guess we'll find out. Their single Handlebars was apparently very popular in 2008. The video is an animated, computer graphic thing. And the music is... rap and rock, all right. I kind of like it. It's got an escalation in lyrics that belies the sort of laziiness of the simple tone. And then everything accelerates. Okay, that was fun. And the comments are... interesting.

Weird Al Yankovic. Trapped in the Drive-through. I have a lot of fondness for Weird Al; it's not easy to get comedy cred among youths (well, my generation of youths anyway) without going extremely crude, and he doesn't, for the most part. On the other hand, an 11 minute video automatically makes me apprehensive.  It's a very, very detailed account of what starts as a boring day, set to vaguely epic music, which is the joke. At this length, it's really more an animated sketch that happens to be set to music. At 4:08, I don't know how this stretches out to full length. Never insult the server--just asking for extra spit with that burger. Okay, I can guess how it stretches out, at 8:00. It's a little tedious, to be honest, though it sticks the ending; while the mundane description is the point of the joke, that doesn't make it any more entertaining.

Okay, let's take this baby home with... okay, because I went to a Weird Al song, we've exited the realm of music and we're now closer to just straight up comedy. Fine. Here's the last song of the list, then, The Duck Song.    And dammit, in the first 15 seconds, I recognized the joke, only the version I heard had crackers and a bar. Adding music doesn't make it any more endearing, particularly. Okay, a little endearing. But still, not my first choice for how to spend three minutes. It's fine in a Youtube for Kids way.

And so, we've reached the end of our question. If we had gone through a different set of songs, everything would have been worse. Handlebars was good.

Later Days.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

On Bronies and Responsibility

I came across this post recently on the subject of bronies, male fans of My Little Pony. This is my lack of Tumblr knowledge showing, but I find it hard to parse exactly who said what in that conversation, so I'll sum up the whole thing (and trigger warnings for sexual assault in a situation that involves the potential for that, though it doesn't happen):

The original poster is relating the events of a My Little Pony Convention, where she met an 11 year old girl full of MLP enthusiasm. The same girl came to her the next day, scared, because she was being stalked by an older male brony who was trying to get her alone in his hotel room. The poster and her friend rallied around the girl, hid her, and pushed the brony away for the rest of the convention. And she concludes that she's angry she is that this space for kids was being turned into something gross and sexual and entirely about the bronies involved. And she is absolutely right; that's absolutely gross and wrong.

The responses start there, mostly involving a debate over whether the poster should have gone to the police, and whether any good would have come out of that. The general consensus is that both the convention holders and the police would be very reluctant to take any action until something outright criminal occurs, which is incredibly depressing and probably accurate. What I wanted to emphasize, though, is the first sentence of the last paragraph: "I’m going to lay it on the line here: If you identify as a Brony and you do NOT call out this behavior when you see it, you are a piece of shit. ... You’re a dude who likes MLP? That’s awesome! I hope you get much joy of it. But if that joy comes at the harm and expense of little kids then fuck you. Seriously."

So in light of that, it's time to talk about what My Little Pony means to me, and what responsibilities that gives me.

First: I totally get the obvious objection, that the whole point here is that an unwanted group is taking a show affiliated with a fandom and warping it all to be about them, and by centering this discussion on what MLP means to me I'm doing the same thing. I can only ask that you hear me out; this post is about working through what the show means to me in order to build for myself how I can support it. With that proviso...

 A lot of the specifics here don't apply to me exactly. I *like* MLP, in the sense that I'll go out of my way to watch it, and there's a lot it does that I'm a big fan of, which I'll probably get into later. But I don't consider myself a brony, on the basis that the concept of brony has become so toxic to me that I want to go out of my way to avoid that label and because I'd never go to a convention for it, both because my level of fandom isn't quite that high and because I don't like going to conventions in general; whenever there's a situation where there's a large number of people I don't know and my own role in that group is undefined, unless I have a very compelling reason to attend, I'd rather stay home. My anxiety issues don't handle crowds well. (The difference, in case you were wondering, between that and a conference situation is that at a conference, my role is defined, especially if I'm giving a paper.)

And all of that is equivocating nonsense. The issue here isn't to measure exactly what kind of fan I am. The issue is whether I'm willing to stand against those who would warp MLP into something that comes at the extent and harm of an audience that can't defend itself. In the past, I've deliberately avoided the brony question because I didn't want to get involved; I thought if I avoided putting a clear label on my own interest on the show, I could get away with just enjoying the show on my own terms. Well, as I've said elsewhere online today, escapism is a political statement, and a choice in itself. Saying I'm just here to enjoy myself and not hurt anyone stops being enough when people who do want to hurt someone show up.  The tl;dr version of this post is that I want to be someone who would stand against the people described in that tumblr, and I want the writing of this post to be a first step towards that.

I think the sexualization of MLP characters is absolutely gross because it's alienating to an audience that shouldn't have to worry about that, and it's so antithetical to what the show is about. As for what it is about, that's not hard--it's right there in the show's subtitle, "Friendship is magic." It is a show about six friends with very different personalities and interests, and how they stay friends both in spite of and because of those differences. At its best, it stays true to those characters and those friendships above all else, and that's what I personally find appealing about it. That it does so with humor and long-term world building, that it's presenting these characters to young girls who are bombarded with media messages about how they should be competing in terms of looks and shunning those who are different, that, for the most part, it respects those fans and doesn't talk down to them---all of that is icing on the friendship cake, as far as I'm concerned. (That "talking down" point is a little iffy; in the early seasons especially the episodes tended to end with the lead character literally writing a letter that told what lesson she learned from the episode. But hey, it's miles ahead of the "The More You Know" GI Joe thing.)

It's important to me that I make clear that watching MLP is not a blip in my personal media history. As a kid, I read a lot of Babysitter Club books. When I got older, it was Judy Blume. And older than that, I spent a summer reading the works of Maeve Binchy. Usually, whenever I tell anyone that, I add that it was because I'd ran out of sci-fi and fantasy books in my local rural library. And that's a lie, or at the very least, a sin of omission, and one with a sexist core. It was something I said because I didn't want people to think I read "girly" books because I actually enjoyed them. (And, if we're going for total honesty, as a teenage hetero male, books about female desire was kind of a turn on.) For most of my childhood, I felt like reading itself was considered an un-masculine past time--I had wonderfully supportive teachers, but to my own peers, books--and any level of effort in school in general, beyond the bare minimum--were weird and uncool. And being caught with the latest Ann M. Martin was just going to make things worse for me.  That doesn't excuse not owning up to it in the past decade, though; my only excuse is that a childhood is a hard thing to put behind you, as my collections of dreams in any particular week could attest.

I've also been a fan of certain TV shows that unfold on similar lines: Gilmore Girls, Nashville,  Gossip Girl. I have a very, very high standard for rom-coms, but when I find one I like, I'll praise it for ages, like My Best Friend's Wedding or Fever Pitch (okay, high but eccentric standard). The first 30 minutes of Frozen rocked my world.  Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane was one of my favorite titles Marvel ever published. What all of these things have in common are, for me, the reason why I turned to those "girlie" books to get something that the YA sci-fi of Heinlein or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy just weren't supplying for me: emotional depth. A large portion of Western fiction is centered around action, around characters who are trying to get something accomplished above all else. These other stories that attracted (and attract) me aren't about that, not primarily; they're more about just being. They're stories that recognize that people are filled with these strange, overwhelming impulses, and they focus more on how we can relate to those impulses and relate to others through them. And that mattered to me. It's not that the other stories don't do that--Dan Harmon's shows, Community, and Rick & Morty, are both examples of shows that tend more towards zany meta-narratives, but also keep a core of emotion to them. (His big complaint about rom-coms, incidentally, is basically the inverse of this, that they're all the emotion part with no discernible action.) But so much of Western masculinity seems to be tied up in hiding the fact that we're all dealing with this inner turmoil. Shows that are overtly about characters working their way through these emotions, trying to become better people in the process--all that matters to me.

Granted, it's not something I'd want to watch exclusively, or read exclusively; heart-wrenching can become over-wrenched, with too much exposure, and this type of story can lend itself to melodrama very quickly (I'm looking at you, The Notebook). But experiencing media where people openly struggle with their own inner depths appeals to me--and, this probably goes without saying, gives me impetus to express my own. Now, I'm not saying every episode of MLP is a deep journey into the inner psyches of magical horses. But it certainly isn't a show about a positive set of role models from young girls and turning them into sex fantasies. Rather, it is a show about how friends can explore who they want to be in the comfort of other friends. And I want to defend the right of those who aren't in a position to defend themselves to be able to do the same. I don't know if this post is a step towards that, but it is a step towards me realizing that I have a responsibility to do so.

Later Days. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Keep in mind, my marking time beard is also two and a half weeks old at this point.

It's been a very quiet month; it's that special time between terms, and I got most of my marking out of the way early in April, so I've been taking it fairly easy. I'll try to populate the site with a bit more "stuff" in the next few days.

As for now, here's an update from my life. I was having lunch with a friend, and I wanted to do a little reading before she got there, so I was dressed in an instructor's suit (when I'm doing scholarly reading, I tend to do that. It helps the learning flow. No really, it does.). That means collared shirt, sweater, tan pants, and nice shoes. In short order during our lunch, I broke the fly to my pants when I went to the washroom; spilt soup on the sweater; and, when attempting to tie the shoe, pulled the shoelace in half, rendering one shoe laceless.  So I hobbled home, with one shoe that had no lace, a fly stuck at half mast, and a big stain on my shirt, clutching my copy of  Fred Botting's Limits of horror: Technology, bodies, Gothic. I looked like a hobo scholar.

Later Days.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Also, I'm not showering regularly. That's a playoffs thing, right?

In honor of the tradition in hockey where members of a team in the playoffs stop shaving, I've decided to do the same until I'm done all the marking for the course I'm teaching. That is all.

Later Days.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Friday Link Thinks: Go Rub a Monkey's Tummy with Your Head

All right, so the luster has gone off the Friday Quotations. So it goes. But let's try a new weekly feature out for a spin .Welcome to Friday Link Thinks, in which I choose five links that have come my way, and briefly talk about them. Yes, it's yet another "list of things" type post.

A bit of background: back way back, I realized that the largest collection of information on new online articles I had was what people were tweeting on my twitter feed. The downside, though, is that the people who tweet the most useful links also tend to be the people who tweet a few dozen times a day, and sorting through the riveting stories of how their breakfast is going and baffling in-jokes for what I actually wanted was becoming more a time-commitment than I was willing to make. So I counted my self quite lucky to stumble onto, an online ... service, I guess... which lets you plug your feeds into it, and strips those feeds for links. You could, for example, set it for facebook feeds and blog feeds, but I set it to my twitter. (Since it's a free service, I imagine that means it's mining all the data I submit to it. With Facebook, that brings up an interesting question--do I have a moral obligation not to provide the information my friends post? They're posting on Facebook, which means that some level of privacy is intended, and yet, they're already opening themselves up to Facebook data mining. But do I have any right to give that information to yet another party? Complicated.) And now, I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to information. My bookmark pages are flooded, and so, I'm dealing with that flood a bit by posting some of them here. So without further ado, here's what's interesting yesterday (there's a day lag on creating the feed):

Gawker Bans Internet Slang by Andrew Beaujon. This piece grabbed my attention because, in the class I taught this term, the concept of internet linguistics, the words that we've created to communicate online, really got a lot of the students interested. And I've been on the look-out for articles with similar slants ever since. The issue here is obvious--by imposing strict grammar rules on the Gawker staff, editor Max Reed is drawing a firm line between his writers and the general internet public. Gawker-type sites get a lot of their readership from their projected persona, which is less a professional who keeps themselves separate, and more an enthused hobbyist of cool that the readership can relate to, so a memo like this is probably bad press, to say the least. It also points to the tension that exists between "proper" English and common netspeak.

The Guilt of Video-game Millionaires. by Simon Parkin. Obviously, the highest profile example of the indie "video-game millionaire" recently has been Dong Nguyen, the creator of Flappy Birds, which has been particularly interesting because he not only made a lot of money and ultimately removed the game from circulation, but also the subject of a lot of critiques that were basically centered around the idea that his game didn't deserve what it got, that it was derivative and deliberately addictive.  But I imagine Parkin would also be aware of this heartfelt post by Stanley Parable creator. Before I read this post, I'll admit I was a little callous to this issue; it feels a little "poor little rich boy." But Wreden does a great job in humanizing his position. All of this suggests that people are still very enthusiastic of the indie scene, but there's also a blowback against those some feel haven't "earned" their success. That the creators feel the same way maybe isn't surprising. As the original tweeter noted, one of the issues here is that they are all uneasy about attaching great monetary value to their labor. There's also a general awareness for some, I think, that their success is based a bit on luck, on their app trending at just the right moment. It must be a very uncomfortable position; if you're an established artist, you can rest on the idea that your skill has been affirmed. If you win the lottery, you can be grateful to whatever deity of choice that your chance came up. But the uncertainty under which held in your case--that must be very unsettling.

Selling Candy to Babies by Richard Stanton, Polygon. In-app purchases are "as of December 2013, responsible for 92% of App Store revenue." That's insane. More importantly, that means it's in Apple's own interest NOT to crunch down on unfair or unethical IAP practices. It's not just a kids-game issue, obviously, but it's interesting to see an article focus on that side. Granted, it's a bit of "youth culture panic" when you look at an issue from that perspective, but kids games in general don't get enough attention in mainstream game press (both because children games are generally on app-related stuff, which gets less coverage--at least, in the places I look--and because the game industry in general is focused on an older market these days). Issues like games that are deliberately avoiding being categorized as children's games to avoid following IAP children's games rules but still clearly marketed towards children are clearly exploitative. From one children's developer invested in IAP: "If IAP isn't allowed for kids' products then the economics are such that very few developers will... be able to make amazing entertainment for kids on mobile devices. That's a very sad scenario for all concerned." Oh, go rub a monkey's tummy with your head. As if developers are suddenly going to give up on the children's market as a profit maker if IAPs are more strictly enforced. Another case where internet law is lagging behind what's needed. I can't remember exactly where, but I think I read recently that the F2P industry is financed largely by 0.01% of its players--I wonder if that's a sustainable model?

THIS ARTIST IS PLAYING ‘CIVILIZATION’ OUTSIDE OF THE WHITNEY EVERY DAY by Rhett Jones, Animal. I was recently reading Grant Tavinor's The Art of Videogames, and one of the things he discusses near the end of the book is the claim that the avant-garde has gone too far, that art has moved too far from mass appeal, or anything relateable. I push back against that theory, because I don't think art should have to be popular to justify its existence. But something like this... I'll admit, it sets my teeth on edge. Granted, the point is that context defines art; if Diego Leclery was playing Civilization at home instead of on the street outside of a museum, it wouldn't be art at all. But that point was made very nicely by Duchamp 97 years ago, and it's going to take more than that to impress me in the here and now. Jones essentially acknowledges as much with his use of Ricard, but... eh. In a lot of ways, I'd accept this more easily if it was framed as philosophy instead of art, although I realize that on a certain level, that's hairsplitting. And there is a point to be made about the nature of videogames and creation too--when Jones notes that Ricard criticized artists getting too rich too fast, it's hard not to think back to that earlier Parkin piece. Who decides what activity with games should be valued? At the same time, though, the article's opening really rubs me the wrong way: "Art is easy." Again, rub the monkey's tummy. If art is easy, you're doing it wrong.

Is the Oculus Rift sexist? (plus response to criticism). by dana boyd. boyd is making some very complicated claims about sex and technology here. Of course, there's a clear sense of striking while iron's hot--the obvious reason to publish this article now is that news of the Rift's sale to Facebook is very much in the public eye at the moment (and boyd's profile isn't too low either, given the recent release of her book "It's Complicated."). I'll admit, I haven't been paying attention to the Rift. There's a part of me that's not quite of the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mindset, but it's certainly of the mindset that I don't want to do anything new until I've exhausted what I've already got. Which in media terms, translates into "why build something new when we're not using what we've got to its full potential?". Which is a silly way of looking at things, since we're never going to develop anything to its full potential, since "full potential" is an abstract ideal and we live in a real world. But if there's a device that works poorly with women on a physiological level that's getting a lot of attention, then, yeah, that's an issue that needs more attention in itself. And I'll wager Facebook is going to be very concerned if the big toy it just bought turns out to alienate a large percentage of its user base.

Well, that's a lot of words, so I'll call this an end, even though it is no longer Friday.

Later Days!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sundays of the Soul

Has it really been a whole week since the last post? Well, we're here now. Let's make the most of it.

I know several colleagues of mine who use Sunday either as a day for catching up on all the socializing they had to put to one side during the week, or to catch up on the writing they couldn't do because of all the other work that the week demanded. For me, the best approach is something more mellow; I like to use my Sundays to recharge the batteries, so to speak. Here, then, in best point form, is how I've spent the day thus far:
--woke up at 1ish. I am a lazy bones on the weekend.

--Did a bit of creative writing--833 words, to be precise--and man, it's been a long time since I've tried any of that. The page is essentially a bit of dialogue between one of the main characters of my Twin Powers series, probably from the third book. In true crazy person writing style, as I may have mentioned before, I wrote a novel in 2007, and, unable to find any publisher or agent willing to read it, occasionally plot out sequels to it in my head. I figured it was about time I got some of that out of my head onto paper. We'll see if anything ever comes of it.

--Went for a run. I've been jogging since... let's see... started University in 2001. Started jogging after my third year of university--that's 2004, then. That makes nine years in total, which means pretty much the only things in my life I've done more constantly is the schooling itself and vegetarianism. Of late, though, it's been more thinking about jogging than actually jogging, and sadly, it's starting to show. My lungs have gotten much worse since 2004, which limits my top speeds considerably, and my sags have sags. But the weather may finally be on an upswing, so there may be more jogging in the near future.

--read the first six or so essays in the essay collection "What Is a Superhero?", edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan. It's a strange book, in that the essays are very, very short. There's essentially time to establish the basic case, a bit of context, then that essay's over, and it's time for the next one. So far, the ideas that seem the most interesting to me is Clare Pitkethly's essay looking at the superhero as an articulation of difference, and Alex Boney's claim that the originary, 1930s superheroes speak to the same modernist anxieties that the modernist writers addressed.

--watched an episode of Banshee. I'm not sure if it's because I wasn't paying attention, or the show's getting sloppier, but a plot twist at the end (it's episode six of season two) really confused me. Banshee's always been a weird show. It bends over backwards to convince you that the protagonist is a Very Sympathetic Character, by always making him right in pretty much every situation, even as the town's sheriff/master criminal. I think a Shield approach would have been more effective, where your sympathies aren't always 100% with Vic. Then again, it is a show that depicts more breasts than an episode of Game of Thrones, so there are a lot of problems going on here beyond just an unlikeable by virtue of being too likeable protagonist.

It's a good, low-key day, in other words. Just what I needed, after the onslaught of guest speakers and teaching. Why, tomorrow, I may even feel revitalized enough to work on the dissertation.

Later Days.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Academics writing fiction: yea or nay?

I feel like taking a blog day--a day where I just write a bunch of posts, and feel like I achieved something creatively. Or something. At this point of the day, it's probably going to turn into just one post, so I'll shout out the idea for the others and hope I get back to them some day: A series of Book Triads to catch up on my book review backlog! A description of what I thought about Uncharted! A post on modular story telling in Dragon Age, vs. the more linear JRPG!

To get to this post,  I've noticed that when I get really into a book, my writing actually takes on a bit of the author's style; I start thinking of weird puns when I'm reading Spider Robinson, and really depressing fantasy situations when I read Stephen Donaldson, for example. Back when I was doing creative writing on a regular basis, that bothered me--how much of what I was writing was my own ideas, and how much was just me aping someone else's style. I imagine I go so far as to start thinking in that writing style, just a bit. In that sense, the whole thing can be explained away in terms of technics and epiphylogenesis, that we are changed by the tools we're using, and books are just another possible tool through which that change occurs. You could even push that idea further, and argue that

The reason I bring all that up is that I certainly feel as if, for the moment, I'm writing not another author's voice, but in a character's voice, the lead of Jo Walton's "Among Others"--very reserved, formal, and matter-of-fact, but with a clear passion for what she's (I'm?) talking about. I was certain going into the book that Walton was an academic sci/fi fantasy writer, and I had a whole section lined up where I'd discuss the role of the academic who writes fiction on the side, which it turns out is not the case at all. Well, I'm going to do that anyway, since that's what I want to talk about today. It's been in my mind for a while, going at least as far back to a recent announcement that a professor in my English department, has released her own fantasy book, The Stone Boatmen, by Sarah Tolmie. I haven't read it yet, to be honest, but from what I know about Tolmie's work, it'll certainly be a book full of ideas worth reading.

The English academic turned writer fits with a larger category of critics who try their hands at whatever thing they are criticizing. It happens often enough that it's a bit of a trope, and it leads to the stereotype that the critic is someone who failed at the art, and so criticizes others. I know of plenty of people who started blogs on comic books, then went on to write their own; plenty of game journalists who went on to write videogames. In fact, regarding games in particular, there's an enormous pressure for academics to not just write about games but to make their own--I should know, because I usually feel like I'm under it, being ground away.

The trick behind academics writing fiction is that it's a shift in audience. It's hard to go from writing to a select, jargon-heavy, elite (and we have gone to great lengths to make ourselves appear elite) specialization to writing for the mass market. There's a push to be innovative, to craft something that reflects our theories and revitalizes the genre, and sometimes, the big ideas get in the way of the story at hand. The best example I can think of is a YA fantasy book that I can't remember the title of, but remember it was written by a professor of linguistics, and showed it too, as the syntax was very different from the usual subject-predicate that English abides by. It was a neat idea, but since the thoughts and action were written in more straight forward English, I found myself skipping past the dialogue, which almost never happens under my particular reading style.

There's plenty of examples of doing it right as well, of course.The obvious Canadian example is Margaret Atwood, who has made quite a name and reputation of herself writing a brand of Canadian lit theory as well as sci-fi and other genres.My favorite example is China Mieville, though his PhD is in political studies (specifically, International Relations, with a dissertation on Marxism and international law); his fantasy writing is chock full of ideas that aren't really found anywhere else in fantasy (especially when he started writing), but are still good fantasy stories. And of course, there's a whole branch of English studies devoted to teaching writing, to mass market and otherwise. We call it "creative writing." That's not quite what I'm talking about though--rather than people who have spent their lives training themselves and others to write for any audience, I'm thinking of the professor who spent their life studying something like gender in the romance fiction genre, then woke up one day and thought "you know, I could do that."

I wish I could think of more examples of what I'm talking about. I know Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" is highly acclaimed, but I could never finish it; a parody of conspiracy theory thrillers turns into everything I hate about conspiracy theory thrillers very quickly, and I never had the time or patience to stick around and see if turned into anything else. I know Julia Kristeva has written detective fiction, and I occasionally search for a translated copy with a sort of fascinated terror. I know a lot of drama professors have written plays and star in other performances (I think it's much more of a requirement for them, and it might help my game-phobia to think of the pressure in game studies in the same light) and people like Tomson Highway have done a lot of great work in that regard, but that's again drifting from target.

The point I'm trying to make, and I'm less sure of now, since I don't really have a lot of evidence to back it up, is that fantasy and sci-fi academic authors have a bit of an easier time spinning out fiction that actually works as a story than other academic writers. I think it's because both genres are about the ideas over the characters a bit more than fiction traditionally tends to be, and lend themselves to weird expression in that regard. I also think that the traditional denigration of fantasy and sci-fi as lower forms of fiction work in their favor, in that there's less pressure to do something that's "high literature," and the respective writers feel more free to just tell a story of their liking.

Long time readers are free to call BS on that theory, given my own self-interest, that I've written my own fantasy novel that lingers on the digital shelf, to be revisited and starred at longingly once a year, then routinely rejected by agents and publishers alike without a reading. My own story isn't particularly academic or high concept fantasy--in fact, magic is barely involved at all, to the point where it's more a character study than anything else (much like Walton's book, come to think of it, albeit with a much more traditionally fantasy scope in turns of story progression). I like to think there's room, then, for the fantasy-based academic writer. In a way, the connection makes my relative failure in each seem somehow more acceptable.

My rationalizations are legion.

Later Days.