Sunday, November 11, 2018

It's been awhile since I blogged.

For the record:
I'm a trans dyke and an anarchafeminist. This probably shouldn't matter but probably does.

So here is my extremely late take on the outrage over #Feminism (a storygame collection that is ostensibly about bringing feminism to people who play it) not winning an Ennie as an object lesson about nerd hot take cycles and whatnot. Which as a first order of business brings up why I am picking on a storygame collection (or microgame or honestly just non TTRPG or whatever thing). So here is the crux of my argument: There is an idea that is easy to get people affirming is that #Feminsim was nominated in the wrong category and didn't win an Ennie because it is feminist. Which is why an easy hot take was to complain #Feminism didn't win a fucking award because this is clearly not an attack on the problems with #Feminism but on feminism. Which is easy to be pissed about. Unless you read the book. Then it kinda makes sense I was on the stage more times than #Feminism (I also didn't win anything).

So, the hot take argument is that this is a concrete example of anti-feminism in gaming, something that is good (from the standpoint of game design) and good (from the standpoint of ethics because it teaches feminism) was not appropriately recognized for it's contribution. So because I take anti-feminism in RPGs seriously, I'm going to go slaughter a sacred cow because I think people can collectively do better. To emphasize this differently: I'm arguing that 'good' content is something that has to be established (calling something feminist doesn't intrinsically make it feminist, slapping a sticker that says feminism on a monster manual doesn't make it a feminist monster manual). I'm also arguing that games that people play don't say a lot about them as people but what they do while playing those games actually is what matters.

Before delving into content, let's talk about presentation for a second. First, I am not a graphic designer and i can barely use basic functions on InDesign. That said, I can safely say that every other Ennie candidate had better design work and didn't use stock art and have enormous amounts of white space.
Despite the tons of white space and several games that involve people adopting multiple roles or interacting with each others physical space there are no diagrams. But there is a high definition photograph of a lamp in the book for some reason? Which feels really lazy since so much of the core of these games is framing it is really weird that the big empty pages weren't filled with even MS Paint level diagrams for stuff. Ikea Furniture has solved how to communicate constructing frustrating ergonomic Swedish furniture in a mostly legible series of diagrams. I feel like a floor for consideration to win an award should maybe be presenting visual information better than something that has consistently had me assembling drawers backwards. The whole point to the fucking thing is the actual medium should be good. The reason games no one plays with pretty books (usually based on branded properties) win awards is because they deliver a nice object and they have name recognition. So in a weird way the argument that this collection got snubbed is an argument that feminism is not recognized widely as a good thing. So, this is probably the start of a proper argument.

This probably starts with the axiom that feminism isn't a monolithic concept. That is, as somewhat argued above, there isn't some singular standard by which something is called feminist, there are a lot of schools of feminism including the history of anti-feminists who argue that their feminism is the real feminism. Which maybe gets to the heart of the matter: something billing itself as feminist doesn't mean it is inherently good because the real question is what sort of feminism is it peddling and if that is actually good. Something calling itself feminist doesn't mean it is or that it is any good but rather that it understands itself as doing something for women. Which is why we evaluate things and decide if they have succeeded in their aim.

In a G+ Post I talked about the experience of reading #Feminsim. It's sort of stuck with me because it is confusing to me what the collection of games is trying to accomplish. I could do a breakdown of each game (honestly you'd have to pay me), so this is more or less a metacritique. If you think I am wrong in my interpretation of something please feel free to comment. This divides roughly into "some speculation about the people making this" and then has a skeleton tree diagram of what I think is wrong about the theories of what games are doing which is something a lot of people have covered.

So to start, I think #Feminism sprung from a plethora of misguided but good intentions. Importantly, I don't think this was a cynical cash grab (and i decidedly cannot prove that it was). So I don't think the people that made this are evil which is probably what separates my criticism from the people who hate the idea of feminism and therefore are opposed to goofy storygames about feminism rather than being critical of the execution of what, ultimately is a sort of inoffensive feminism for people who are really into Belle and Sebastian and NPR. This is sort of important because it feels like the people who this game was written for and the people who wrote it don't have a lot of exposure to the world or that their exposure is idiosyncratic and particular. A short summary may be that regardless of the intentions behind their actions the content of #feminism largely boils down to a harrowing paucity of real world experiences. As a corollary, a lot of stuff is uncomfortable to these people. For simplicity's sake we are gonna separate issues with the theory of design implicit in these games and me doing speculative armchair diagnoses of people I have never met.

A big impression of reading #Feminism is that it feels like the people who are really into this sort of thing have a limited experience of the world. They also think imagination bridges the gap between their experience and the experiences of others. It feels like both the audience (from what I guess from reading a book, drop me a line if you enjoyed #Feminism) and the writers have gaps in their understanding of social identities and think imagining what someone else's life is like will make you empathize with them. To be perfectly honest, I don't know how pretending to be a trans woman would help a cis person understand me or my life at all but I do think they could portray a ghastly parody of my life. This is probably true of all sorts of experiences.

There are also some games that boil down to "endure playacting an unpleasant experience" where I think there is to be some evocation of pathos but it ultimately comes across as sort of silly. For example, a game where you just roleplay a shitty date and someone play acts a dude who thinks the orgasm gap is OK and someone play-acts a woman... leaving when this gets too stupid? Like... you can train men to not be terrible at sex rather than performing an embarrassing pantomime. I don't know any men who woudn't feel deeply mortified by that dude but I also don't think roleplaying a woman telling a dude to shut the fuck up when he says stupid things is necessarily going to hurt anyone, I just have no clue how it is helping. The same cannot be said for the suggestion that a group of people perform cartoonish Hollywood racism in a game of a social gender role reversal in the film industry which is apparently to help the players learn something but the game itself seems like it is deeply confused about what that something is? For real, I'm not even cherrypicking results because I'm at least minimizing my complaints to games that can still be understood as games. It's also probably notable that a lot of aspects of these games either reveal poor understanding of present day issues or how human beings interact with each other.

  • trans women are presented as women who are relatively vapid, highly emotional and vulnerable... which is some patronizing bullshit. 
    • It gets fairly close to TERF portrayals of trans women as patriarchal dupes who only care about sexuality and have few, if any, interests and no larger political ideals.
  • there is an utter lack of comprehension about sex work and the nature of sex work & the repetition of human trafficking myths which actually directly negatively impacts sex workers
    • Also there is a weird sort of question of how boundaries work in games which gets to awkwardly half socialized stuff like a game that is an elaborate excuse to play spin the bottle with friends to learn about lesbian desire or something (I didn't re-read #Feminism to write this)
      • LIFEHACK: You can just make out with your friends, just ask them and accept a no. I saved you 30 minutes of awkwardly saying rhymes and playacting.
        • A Lot of these games have excuses for touch and like... again: you can touch other people by asking them if you are suffering from a desperate need for human touch and it isn't a shameful thing. Why does anyone need a game to touch their friends?
          • Also how do you rate someone as being "good" at this 
    • Sex as a whole seems to be really vexing to these people
      • Like sexual shame, stigma and coercion are kinda presented as norms in ways that feel distressingly personal disguised as universal experiences.
        • Which is not really my place to speculate just... the attitude this entire thing takes towards sex is like... a really intense case of attraction/repulsion
    • Also everything is Rated For Emotional Intensity 1-5 Tears
      • But like... it isn't well described and playing someones shame convincing them they deserved to be assaulted seems less a problem of emotional intensity and more a problem of why this exercise is helpful? (which is what i understood "The Grey Zone" to entail with competing self interpretations of something which... I shouldn't have to tell you why this is bad)
  • but a Nail Salon (a site of frequent debt bondage) is for playacting differences across race, immigration status and class... 
which really drives home the yawning chasm between "how human beings interact and understand each other" and "how storygames simulate human encounters." but more than anything, I'm flummoxed because there isn't any tonal consistency or particularly meaningful discussion of what feminism is or why feminism would matter or (because it seems like there was a realization that feminism isn't internally homogeneous and a lot of the games are asking players to just have fake arguments using stand ins for... positions distorted to the extent that you are clearly supposed to compromise). It feels like compromise is really important to these games because of what seems to be a strong emphasis among storygame stuff for everyone's feelings to be valid (unless you are someone that is collectively hated by that community, as far as i can tell). So... Feminism that argues that women should be better professionals and make more money and feminism concerned with the inclusion of trans women and feminism that is misguided about how to help sex workers and whatnot are all equally valid positions as long as they also accept the others as valid. There is maybe something to say about that from a standpoint perspective (that is, the feminist theory that everyone has their own particular experiences and they provide a valid site of analysis) but the problem is the whole "the personal is the political" implies that these are your real experiences. Roleplaying being another person who you may know nothing about doesn't seem particularly helpful for understanding why people make the decisions they do OR developing a greater understanding of them as people.

Which sort of wraps into the fact that these seem to be written for people with a relatively low degree of socialization (note: I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with not being particularly adroit in social situations, I think it is wrong to make broad and sweeping pronouncements about other people from a position of ignorance). Here's an example:  there's a thing where a lot of nerd genre writing tries to write someone cool who does sex and drugs and they come off hilariously ineptly. They have a limited music taste so usually they listen to classic rock, they don't know a lot about sex so risque sexual content available in a lot of nerd worlds is really goddamn tame (I think it was the dude who made ready player one who in the HARDCORE PORN FUTURE had the range of extreme porn be: amateur and foot fetish stuff... which is to say tamer than web 1.0 internet pornography) and they basically don't do drugs so they describe drugs like the drug culture lecture in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Which is why they often don't write these things because either: 1) they know they know nothing about the subject at hand and describing or discussing it is really goddamn embarrassing or 2) the idea of the thing is deeply uncomfortable to them. [Note: I'm conflating writing games with writing fiction because the tendency seems pretty universal in nerd communities and i don't read a lot of storygames],

Which is why we need to differentiate "this is uncomfortable for me" from "this game is Evil!" Because weirdly the tolerance for explicit material is nearly nil among a lot of people who haven't really had a rich variety of life experiences. Which explains how the content of #Feminism ends up getting kinda incoherent is that it's people who don't seem to have any meaningful exposure to several topics that the games grapple with and therefore they wind up saying some stuff that feels inherently suspect to me: good intentions from poorly informed people don't count for much. Or distilled into a nice maxim: people with an incomplete understanding of a problem are bad at diagnosing problems. This book misunderstands some really important things (Like Seriously: SESTA passed and people still cheer Elizabeth Warren which is why something that made people less ill informed about sex work would have been nice) and it provides a concept of feminism that isn't coherent or particularly positioned to address anything other than really basic ideas like sexually assaulting people is wrong and women should have control of their bodies (but maybe not for porn) and people should check their privilege but also what that really means isn't implicit or explicitly there but you should probably do that. Which is where the good intentions calcify into actual problems.

Circuitously it is worth mentioning that I wrote this today because I ended up talking about The Misandrists by Bruce La Bruce. It's dope, my friend wrote a review (she didn't like it) but told me it was absolutely the sort of thing I liked and I should watch it. Anyway this has been really long:
It has a graphic scene of archival GRS surgery (or SRS or GCS or whatever acronym you prefer) overdubbed with screaming and forcible transition.

If that was released to RPGs there would be a riot. Someone else on Discord was surprised it had had a really high Rotten Tomatoes Score (it's dropped to 75%, i think when it was just on art circuit stuff it was 93% or near enough and the IMDB viewer score is 4.8). Why bring up these numbers:

  • People who are exposed to art or generally have a wide variety of life experiences (which is what people who review art film sort of self select for): aren't easily freaked out and review the movie as a sort of commentary
  • Random people freak out a significant amount and really hate this movie.
Which is relevant: the discourse should probably improve because people should maybe focus on having substantive critique or actually looking at cultural objects as if they are important using some better heuristics than asking if it is unchallenging. 

Which is the real sin of #Feminism as a design thing: it doesn't take a particularly firm stance about what feminism is or should be or could be or even what anyone should do with a series of play acting exercises. It seems content to assume everyone already agrees that feminism is good and that compromise is possible and this is good enough. Which is a weird corollary to the idea that games have some sort of implicit teaching  function. So given these two things in conjunction we can account for the weird evangelical tone some people take. If the content of games is important, a corollary is that bad content is intrinsically reinforcing, forming or maintaining bad behaviors. Further, if a game has good content it serves an intrinsically good moral function (i.e. the voters rejected feminism as a concept by not voting for said game to win). So this is gonna be a really fast breakdown:

Inoffensive Point #1: Games are 'about something'
Roleplaying games have content that reflects the society where the game was produced (if I was trying to obfuscate my point: I would say that games are a hegemonic). So games have built in assumptions about what people and culture and economics and a host of things are like (mostly just the DM saying "sure this is how a thing works" because it isn't immediately gamable).

Potentially Contentious Claim #1: Games are not a pedagogical tool
Agreeing that games are about something, it seems counter-intuitive to say they don't teach you anything and this violates a principle of storygame design so lemme be really clear here.
  • Games have content that reflects the author who is a product of their society
  • People interact with these games
The storygame argument is that interacting with these games reinforces the ideas of the society and therefore games with 'bad' ideas are making people believe bad things. This assumption is appallingly wrong.  

  • because people have free will and a modicum of self awareness, even Tumblr level deconstruction arguing that the portrayal of X group in Y media reflects Z belief would be impossible if this wasn't true. If social norms were internalized uncritically no one could point at a piece of media and say "hey this thing hates women!" 
  • ALSO: storygames couldn't try to make games unpacking or undermining social expectations
  • SO: ultimately games are just things people play and they can potentially reject ideas that are present in the document itself. 
    • Ex. the argument D&D is colonialist is predicated on several arguments
      • Colonialism is reducible to economic activity (this isn't true)
      • Plundering non-humans is what D&D is about (also not true)
      • This economic activity is colonialist (in an extremely shallow reading)
      • D&D makes me believe colonialism is a good thing because I justify all of my decisions by dehumanizing anything I am given carte blanche to kill because of economic reasons. (doesn't follow)
        • Which would be pretty gross (it would be if it were true)
    • Which ignores that while gold for XP doesn't mean that I simply do everything to get gold or it wouldn't be a roleplaying game.
      • People do a lot of things for a lot of reasons (in games and also in real life)
      • This includes behaviors that work against getting gold because their character finds them objectionable (hence the idea of adopting a role)
      • Theoretically: you can play any game and the person at the table has more to do with whether a game is colonialist or not (it turns out bad people playing a game will probably make awful stuff happen because it is who they are, theoretically #Feminism as a collection would not change the alt-right gamer contingent into feminists).
        • This probably is a point about "whiteboard theory" and well meaning people with limited social skills determining why X group isn't in the room is that Y media is offensive to them (this is an ostensibly important thing)
          • This is a sort of cargo cult mentality that if "tolerance" vaguely defined is performed more people will play games. (It definitely helps to be welcoming to people, just saying the right words doesn't magically people show up to do something they don't find enjoyable) 
          • I believe this misidentifies the problem, badly. Specifically: it conflates a problem with group with a problem with content. 
        • Only it may be that I don't get along with the people making the speculation
        • It doesn't have to do with the assumptions built into games
Overall, this leads to a really impoverished idea of what games do (because a game just saying that it does a thing doesn't mean it accomplishes its aim).

You Can Call Me A Cruel Bitch If You Want, That Is Your Right

If you think I'm being mean-spirited you have every right to say that I am a cruel, edgy hatchet-faced bitch. You can say all sorts of mean things about me.
I'll just delete it but if it makes you happy to block me on some social media platform or throw a tantrum feel free to. 

If you can't beat my argument: I'm still right.