Everything I needed to know about game theory, I learned from Italian publishers

There is an Italian version of More Than Two. Or rather, there is, in an alternate universe in which the Italian publisher who published the Italian-language edition of More Than Two was honest and abided by its agreements, an Italian version of More Than Two. Alas, that universe is not this universe.

In the universe we live in, the publisher signed an agreement, but then never made the payment that would have activated the rights transfer. They also added a foreword without consulting with us first, something explicitly forbidden in the agreement.

Okay, so that’s shitty and all, but the place where things get especially weird is that so far, every Italian person we’ve talked to about this has nodded sagely and said, “Well, yes. That’s Italy.”

Since things have gone sideways with the Italian publisher, I’ve heard a number of stories of commiseration from Italians. This is, it seems, about par for the course when one sets out to do business in Italy.

Which is really weird, when you think about it.

But I didn’t come here to complain about the Italian publisher of More Than Two. I came here to talk about game theory.


Say you’re a businessperson who deals with a certain…unsavory element buying and selling products you legally oughtn’t. Say that, for your security and that of your clients, you always do business anonymously. You don’t know who your clients are, they don’t know who you are, and never the two of you shall meet. You do business indirectly: you leave a suitcase full of money under the tree stump at the old Dearborn farm, and your client leaves a sack with the shady goods under a trestle out by the abandoned railroad bridge.

This is a variant on the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem, which I’ve touched on before in the context of polyamory. This is a classic problem in game theory. You have a choice: leave your money or leave an empty suitcase. Your mystery client has a choice: leave the goods or leave an empty sack. If you both leave what you’re supposed to leave, you both benefit. If one of you leaves what you’re supposed to leave and the other leaves nothing, then whoever left nothing makes out double–he gets the money and the goods. And if you both leave nothing, neither of you loses but neither of you gains, either.

In game theory terms, you each have a choice: cooperate (C) or defect (D). Each of you chooses C or D. If you both choose C, you both benefit a little; if you both choose D, neither of you benefits but you also don’t lose; if one chooses C and once chooses D, the person who chooses C loses and the person who chooses D gains.

The temptation, then, is very strong to defect.

Ah, but what if you don’t have just a single exchange? What if you have a standing arrangement where you do the transaction every Friday night at midnight? If your mystery partner defects, you will naturally lose trust, and you’ll have no reason to cooperate. But if both of you defect all the time, neither of you is getting what you want! Presumably you want the goods more than you want the money, and presumably they want the money more than they want the goods, or else you’d never agree to the exchange. So what benefit is there in both of you practicing an all-defect strategy?

So the calculation is a bit different in one-off exchanges (where there’s strong incentive to defect) vs. an ongoing relationship (where there’s incentive to cooperate).


These situations play out all the time in real life. Every day, we have choices to cooperate or defect, where defecting might give us short-term gain, but at the cost of long-term success. Some of those choices are made in situations where there won’t be an ongoing relationship, and some in situations where there will.

Most of the time, we know the other player in these games; it’s rare the other side is totally anonymous. It’s also rare each side is powerless to seek redress if one party defects. In fact, you could make a case for the notion that’s what civilization is: a system designed to prevent people from practicing an all-defect strategy without consequence.

We are a social species. Social entities have to work together. If everyone defects all the time, social structures break down. This is, in fact, hypothesized as the root of altruism: for social species, altruism has positive survival value. Working together, we can accomplish more, and survive challenges we can’t survive apart. (There’s a book about this, in fact; it’s called The Evolution of Cooperation.)

But there’s no getting around the fact that defecting does offer a short-term payoff, especially if you do it and your partner doesn’t. And there’s a huge penalty for cooperating if your partner defects. Them’s the facts.

In most human societies, most people cooperate most of the time. In some societies, however, it seems people are more prone to defect.

The Italian publisher applied and all-defect strategy with us. They defected when they didn’t pay us, and defected again when they added a foreword. When we complained, they said they’d stop selling the book until we resolved our differences; and while we were in the process of negotiating with them to do so, they defected yet again, continuing to sell and advertise the book when they’d said they’d stop. And then, when we complained again, they said, “Ok, sue us, Italian courts are so slow it’ll never go to trial–and even if it does, we don’t have any money anyway.”

So finally, we stopped trying to negotiate, issued a statement, and started filing takedown requests. From the publisher’s perspective, this probably felt like a defection. And neither we nor the publisher got what we wanted. And everyone shrugged and said, “Yeah, that’s Italy for you.”

Worse, the fact that we pulled the plug probably validated the publisher’s idea. “See,” they might say, “this is why we behave the way we do–because, look, people are always screwing us!” When you practice an all-D strategy, your partners are going to defect too. Which means you should defect, because they’re going to defect, so why should you be the only chump cooperating?


But here’s the thing: Since we are, arguably, evolved to be cooperative; since most of the encounters we have are not one-off exchanges (and even if they are, word gets around–if you screwed your last ten customers, the eleventh might not want to deal with you); and since societies need some minimum level of cooperating in order to function…why do we occasionally see places where people appear to play an all-D strategy?

One person Eve and I have spoken to has suggested that Italy has such a long history of corrupt, dysfunctional politics and essentially broken legal systems that people have developed a habit of breaking rules, simply because in a corrupt society, you must break rules simply to get anything done. This pattern has played out in Russia as well, another place where, it seems, all-D strategies are common. If that’s true, it would seem to create a perfect storm of positive feedback: people begin to defect routinely, as a matter of course, because the social systems have become dysfunctional. This causes the social systems to become more dysfunctional, because societies in which many people tend to defect are intrinsically dysfunctional. That increased dysfunction causes more people to defect more often in their exchanges with others, which leads to greater dysfunction, and so it goes.

Which, if that’s true, bodes ill.

There is, right now, in the US White House, a person who has made a career of defecting. The Cheeto-in-Chief is notorious for screwing his contractors, his vendors, and his financial backers; that’s why he ended up in bed with Russian banks–American banks refuse to do business with him. His Orangeness has surrounded himself with people who also tend to practice all-D strategies; indeed, one could argue that the Tea Party was virtually built on a foundation of all-D behavior.

I fear that, if this idea becomes entrenched enough in US society, it will become normalized to defect as a matter of course, in all kinds of business and social interactions. Once that positive feedback loop sets in, I’m not sure how, or if, it can be reversed.

And people will sigh, and nod, and say, “You got screwed by an American company? Yeah, that’s the Americans for you.”

A society that works this way will never remain a world power. (Russia, I’m looking at you here.)

“But I’m changing it from within!”

Many years ago, I had an online conversation with a woman who was a devout, practicing Catholic.

She was also a polyamorous, pro-choice sex activist in a live-in relationship with her boyfriend, to whom she was not married.

When I asked her about the contradiction between these two things, she said that she recognized that Catholicism was behind the times on issues like women’s rights and nontraditional relationships, but that she remained Catholic because she wanted to change the Church from within.

I was reminded of that conversation recently when i had another online conversation with a guy who claims to be pro-gay rights and pro-gay marriage, who professes horror at the Republican Party’s treatment of women, who says he is appalled at the way the Republican party uses fear of immigrants and sexual minorities to raise votes, and who says that anti-Muslim sentiment is morally wrong…but who is still a member of the Republican Party and plans to vote the Republican ticket this November.

I asked him how he can, in good conscience, be a part of an organization whose values are so antithetical to his own. He said the same thing: “I want to change the Republican party from within.”

He and the woman I talked to all those years ago had one other thing in common besides saying they wanted to change the groups to which they belonged from within: They were both rather thin on details about what work they were willing to do to make that happen.

Both of them said they want to change these groups from within, but neither one of them was working to make that happen.

Which, in my book, is dishonest.

Changing a large, entrenched organization from within is hard. It requires serious work and serious commitment. It requires sacrifice. If you are a pro-life Catholic or a pro-immigration, pro-gay Republican, you will suffer if you make those beliefs known. You will face condemnation. You will face ostracism.

Working to change an organization takes dedication. If you actually want to change a political party, that means getting involved, deeply. It means showing up at the party’s national convention. It means becoming a delegate or an activist. It means voicing objections when the party attempts to make a platform plank out of hate and fear.

If you actually want to change the Catholic Church, that means becoming part of the church hierarchy. It means going to seminary. It means becoming a respected theologian and integrating yourself into the church’s structure.

Steering a ship requires getting on deck and putting your hand on the wheel.

Neither of the people I spoke to, all these years apart, were doing any of these things. Just the opposite, they were doing exactly what the rank and file are expected to do: go to church, tithe, vote in a straight line for every name with an (R) after it.

This is not how you change a group from within. This is how you signal the group that what it is doing is working.

It does no good to toe the line while secretly disagreeing within the privacy of your own head. If you do that while claiming to be “working for change from within,” you’re being dishonest. You’re running away from the genuine hard work and the real social cost of change.

You do not fight segregation by docilely sitting at the back of the bus like you’re told, then grumbling about it on the Internet. You fight segregation by sitting at the front of the bus, getting arrested, and inspiring others to do the same.

“I am changing things from within” is, all too often, a bullshit justification, a wimpy self-rationalization for complicity in atrocity. If you can not point to direct, tangible things you are doing to create that change, even when–especially when!–it costs you, you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. You are not a force for change; you are a participant in the very structures you claim to want to change.

No bullshit, no evasion: if you’re working to change the world, ask yourself, what have I done to make that happen?

What squirrels taught me about post-scarcity societies

If you know any transhumanists or other forward-looking folks, you’ve probably encountered the notion of a “post-scarcity society.”

I just got back from a two-month writing retreat in a cabin deep in the heart of rural Washington, many miles from civilization. The squirrels at the cabin are quite talented at stealing birdseed from the bird feeders around the cabin, and that taught me a lesson about transhumanism and post-scarcity society.

This might make me a bad transhumanist, but I think the hype about post-scarcity society is overblown, and i think the more Panglossian among the transhumanists have a poor handle on this whole matter of fundamental human nature.

I’ve written an essay about it over on Think Beyond Us, which includes a video of squirrel warfare. Here’s a teaser:

We’re moving toward the technology to do things in a completely different way: using tiny machines to build stuff from a molecular or atomic level. In the book Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler envisions a time when we will be able to fabricate almost anything we can imagine from simple raw materials and energy.

And on this foundation, futurists say, post-scarcity society will be built. If we can make anything from any raw materials cheaply or free, there is no longer a divide between rich and poor. Think Las Vegas where everyone is a millionaire whale. Want a car? A sofa? A cup of tea? Program assemblers with the characteristics of the thing you want, push a button, and presto! There it is.

In a society where everyone can have whatever stuff they want and nobody has to work, entertainment becomes very important indeed. And those who can provide it—those who can write, or sing, or perform—well, they control access to the only resource besides land that means anything.

So what, then, do we make of a society where the 1% are determined not in accordance with how many resources they control, but how creative they are? A Utopian might say that anyone can learn to be creative and entertaining; a look around the history of humanity suggests that isn’t true.

Those who own land today command one of the few resources that will matter tomorrow. Those who can entertain command the only thing that can buy that resource. And the rest of humanity? Suddenly, Utopia starts to look a whole lot less Utopian to them, and a whole lot more like the same old same old.

Check it out! You can read the whole thing here.

Some thoughts on being fifty

Three days ago, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday.

Well, perhaps “celebrated” is too strong a statement. I was in the middle of an allergy attack that made me miserable, so I spent it faffing about on the computer rather than engaging in the kind of orgiastic bacchanal that one might expect from an Internet sex gargoyle.

In any event, in between faffings on the Internet, I spent some time musing about what an absolutely bizarre trip it’s been, and some time cleaning in my writer’s loft. These two things are related, as it turns out, because in the process of cleaning I came upon some old photographs.

I started the journey through life in New Jersey. Before I was a year old, I realized that living in New Jersey was a bit rubbish, so I moved to Idaho, taking my entire family with me. My parents drove a Volkswagen Bug, something which apparently left quite an impression. What can I say? I was struck by the elegant simplicity and robustness of the design.

We stayed in Idaho long enough for me to pick up a sister, then bounced around the Great Midwest for a while, where I picked up the hobby of model rocketry. There is, it seems only one battered and scuffed Polaroid photo exists from this particular time in my life–peculiar, when one considers that model rocketry was pretty much the greatest thing in my life for quite a long time.

And yes, that’s a plastic model of a Romulan bird of prey from the original Star Trek on my desk. Don’t judge me.

I had a computer back then as well, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 that was a Christmas gift from my aunt in 1977. That thing might have saved my sanity. I didn’t have any friends while I was growing up in Venango, Nebraska, but who needs friends when you have a computer and a bunch of rockets?

Radio Shack published the complete schematic of the TRS-80. Seriously, you could walk into the store and buy not only the schematics but also books on how to modify it, and a complete, commented disassembly of the ROM chips–something that is beyond unthinkable today.

I modified the computer extensively, spray-painted it black, and overclocked it. Stock, it had a 1.77MHz Z80 8-bit processor, which I modified to work at 2.44 MHz (which caused some software to break) or at approximately 4 MHz (which caused it to malfunction frequently and required that I set it in a tray full of plastic bags of ice). The yellow LED you see in this photo would come on when I ran it at 2.44 MHz, the red LED would come on at 4 MHz. My parents were often horrified to see it spread out all across my bed, which was the only work space I had.

I kept it until I was almost 40, purely from nostalgia.

In my memoir The Game Changer, I talk about taking two dates to my high school senior prom. This wasn’t because I was suave with the ladies; it was because one person asked me to the prom, I said yes, another person also asked me, I said yes again, and it didn’t even occur to me that this might be a problem.

Fortunately, they were both totally cool about the whole thing. I took them both to dinner before the prom, which raised a few eyebrows.

Only two photos from that prom exist that I’m aware of, and I found both of them. Yes, I’ve always been a weird-looking motherfucker.

Until recently, I have not been much into partner dancing, though I do love to dance. My high school senior prom might’ve been the last time I partner danced until I was in my 40s.

I had a storied checkered educational career. I went to school at Lehigh University, where I discovered, and feel in love with, a Digital Equipment Corporation DECsystem-20 mainframe. Ours was a forbidden love. There were certain…allegations from the faculty of less-than-completely-aboveboard activities involving that mainframe. “Computer hacking,” they said. Also, “your scholarship is revoked.” And “don’t come back.”

I bounced around for a bit, worked fast food for a while, then ended up going to school in Florida again. Sadly, that part of my life is poorly documented–if any photos exist from that period, I don’t have them.

I did find this photo of me, taken in April of 1991, the last year I was in college.

My early childhood experience with my parents’ Volkswagen led to a long-term love for the cars, of which I’ve owned two. The first car I ever owned was a 1969 Bug; my third car was a 71 Bug, which, like my computer, I modified extensively.

There’s a passage in The Game Changer in which I talk about how absolutely clueless I was about sex and relationships, and how I could not recognize even the most obvious attempts at flirting:

Worse, I was in that awkward stage of male development where I was so desperate to try to figure out how to get girls to pay attention to me that I completely missed it when girls paid attention to me. Prior to that afternoon at Jake’s place, Caitlin and I had spent quite a lot of time together. We were great friends. But when I look back with wiser eyes, I can see she was trying in a thousand ways to tell me she was open to more.

One particular evening, I drove her home from work in my beat-up Volkswagen Bug. We sat in the car in front of her house talking for a while. She complained there was something on the seat digging into her butt. She dug around for a bit and came up with a small machine screw—a leftover, no doubt, from the work I’d just done replacing the back fenders with the half-sized fenders popular among people who liked to take Volkswagens through deep mud. “Hey!” she said brightly, holding it up. “Wanna screw?”

The whoosh of her flirt passing over my head might have sucked all the air out of the car had the windows not been open. It was years before I realized she’d been flirting with me all along.

This is the car in which that happened.

From about 1978 or so on, I had been involved heavily in the computer BBS scene. A BBS was the forerunner of modern Web forums–a computer running special software connected to a phone line, which you could dial into and leave messages on (text only, generally) at agonizingly slow speeds. Most BBS systems could only accommodate one user at a time, so if you called while someone else was logged on, you’d get a busy signal. Popular systems were constantly busy, so you’d set your computer up to keep redialing, over and over, until it got through, then alert you when it made a connection.

I was on systems with names like CBBS-Chicago, Pirate-80, and Magnetic Fantasies. When I started school in Sarasota, I ended up with a roommate who was, like me, an enthusiastic TRS-80 hacker and BBS fan. He ran a BBS called The Wyvern’s Den. I thought “hey, I can do that!” and started a BBS of my own, called a/L/T/E/R r/E/A/L/I/T/Y.

I ran A/R for about six or seven years, on a TRS-80 Model 4 that had been heavily modified. The IBM PS/2 computer had just come out, and the PS/2 systems used 3.5″ floppy drives that had a design defect: they were prone for going out of alignment. IBM would replace them under warranty and then, rather than taking the five minutes to fix the floppy drives, would just throw them out. I went Dumpster diving behind an IBM repair shop one evening, came out with a big pile of 3.5″ floppy drives, cleaned them up, aligned them, and connected them to the TRS-80 by way of a custom hardware interface I designed and built. These became the storage for the A/R message boards. You can see two of them, sitting bare without cases, to the right of the computer in this photo. There’s a third one sitting on the shelf just behind the center of the computer, and a fourth one under the 5.25″ floppy in the foreground on the right.

TRS-80 floppy drive controllers were only supposed to be able to access four floppy drives, but it turned out to be possible to instruct the floppy controller to access two drives at the same time, so with a bit of software trickery and a 4-line-to-16-line demultiplexer chip, you could actually get them to talk to up to 16 drives at once.

There’s a wooden box just barely visible in the right-hand side of the picture. It held a power supply that powered all the floppy drives. I used to warn guests to the apartment, “don’t touch that, you’ll get electrocuted.”

I was a late bloomer sexually, but made up for it through the rest of my life. In the late 90s, I developed a prototype of an Internet-controlled sex toy. It rose up out of a toy I’d developed in the mid-90s that was designed to be plugged into a telephone line and controlled by the tones from a Touch-Tone phone. My former business partner and I tried to bring it to market, with less than stellar success.

We designed a plastic cabinet for it, which we made with a vacuum-forming rig we built. We had a run of circuit boards made, and I would sit for hours at the kitchen table with a soldering iron in my hand putting components on them. The company we’d hired to fab the circuit boards made a mistake in the fabrication, so each board required reworking as well.

We called the device “Symphony.” This is the very first one we ever sold. It’s supposed to have the name “Symphony” screen printed on the front; somehow, this one ended up without the screen printing.

And now, decades later, Im still exploring the intersection of sex and technology.

From high tech to low tech: in the early 2000s, I was invited to speak at Florida Poly Retreat. One of the classes I taught was in how to build a trebuchet, a Medieval siege engine. During the course of that workshop, we designed and built a working model trebuchet.

The T-shirt I’m wearing in this photo reads “Catapultam habeo. Nisi pecuniam omnem dabis, ad caput tuum saxum immane.”

Even after my divorce from my ex-wife Celeste, which story forms the backbone of The Game Changer, I kept this habit of extensively hacking any computer I own. (That continues to this day; I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro that has had its DVD drive removed and replaced with a second hard drive, and the first hard drive has been replaced with an SSD.)

My partner Amber and I moved into an apartment together after the divorce. The living room looked like this.

I kept the TRS-80s and an Apple Lisa, even though they’d largely been retired by this point. The black thing stuck to the ceiling is an Apple //c monitor, spray-painted black. It had a green screen monochrome display that accepted a composite video signal, so it was easy to pipe just about any video into it. Most of the time, Amber and I had it showing Bladerunner on a loop. When I played World of Warcraft, though, I would pipe that to it instead.

Amber and I ended up rescuing two cats during the time we lived together. One, a rather handsome tabby, had climbed a tree to the third story of the apartment building next to ours, jumped from an overhanging branch onto the roof, and then realized he couldn’t get back down. He cried piteously for days. We threw food up to him until we could figure out a way to rescue him. We named him Snow Crash.

The other adopted Amber when we were out walking in a large park late one night. We heard a cat meowing from under some bushes. When we turned around, a cat came catapulting out straight for Amber and jumped up into her arms. She refused to let go, holding on to Amber until we walked all the way back to the car, then insisting on accompanying us home. We named her Molly, for the character Molly Millions in Neuromancer.

So here I am, fifty years old, and what a peculiar thing it is to be a human being. Life is amazing.

When I was a child living in Venango, the bus that took me to school would drive past a church with a sign out front that had pithy sayings on it intended to inspire us to live better lives. One day, that sign said “Your life either sheds light or casts a shadow.” I knew, at eleven years old, there was something wrong with that, but I didn’t have the words to describe what. Now, almost forty years layer, I understand: it’s bullshit. We are all, every one of us, made of light and shadow, good and evil.

I have screwed things up and hurt people. I have been hurt. I have gotten things wrong, made mistakes, been careless with the hearts of others.

I have also experienced the most amazing love. I have known and been loved by people who are so remarkable, I consider myself privileged merely to have known them. I have learned things and gotten some things right.

We are all made of light and shadow. It is on all of us to treat each other with care. We’re all confused. Being human is fundamentally weird and more than a little scary. We’re all making this up as we go along, even those of us–especially those of us–who try to pretend we Have It All Figured Out.

I’ve spent thirteen and a half billion years, give or take, not existing, and fifty years existing. That’s enough of a sample size to tell me that existing is better. It’s harder, sure. We have to do stuff. We have to make choices. You don’t have to make choices when you don’t exist. Making choices means sometimes we make wrong choices, and making wrong choices means sometimes we hurt people. Hurting people sucks.

I carry a lot of regrets with me. There are many things I have done that I wish with all my heart I could undo–times when I have not been as careful as I should be, perhaps too preoccupied with my own fears to be properly gentle with other people. It’s a consequence of being plonked into existence without a user’s manual.

We all get banged up a bit on the journey through life. But despite that, I would not trade a goddamn minute of it for anything. I am flawed and I make mistakes. All the people I know are flawed and make mistakes. And yet, this brief moment we share in the sun is a gift of inestimable value. I am grateful for every moment of it, and I hope to be here in existence for much, much more.

“Does my butt look big in this?” Some more thoughts on honesty in communication

“Does my butt look big in this?”

I am a fan of the idea of honesty. This is no secret. I’ve written before about why I think lies, even supposedly harmless “little white lies,” are destructive. (tl;dr: They teach people not to listen to the good things we say, and to dismiss compliments and positive things as white lies, while making negative things stick more.)

Inevitably, every time I write something like this or I say this at a workshop or lecture I’m giving, someone always, always says “but what if my girlfriend asks if her butt looks big in this dress? I shouldn’t tell the truth then, right?”

And I say “honesty in communication works both ways. It is wrong to give dishonest answers. It is also wrong to ask dishonest questions.”

Far more often than not, “does my butt look big in this?” is a dishonest question.

Questions like this are not requests for information. They are passive, indirect requests for validation. They are an indirect way of saying “I am feeling insecure. I want you to tell me that you think I’m attractive.” And, of course, they’re harmful and destructive ways of seeking that validation, because if you say “no, your butt looks awesome in that,” the other person is just going to dismiss it as a white lie. The answer doesn’t meet the need for validation, because on some level, the person you’re talking to won’t believe you. We’re all conditioned to know that other people are likely to prefer white lies to honesty, usually under the guise of sparing our feelings.

And if you say “yes, that’s unflattering,” well, not only have you not offered the hoped-for validation, you’ve confirmed the other person’s deepest fear. These questions are lose-lose: affirmations aren’t believed, unpleasant answers cut deep.

“Does my butt look big in this?” It’s the most obvious example of an indirect request for validation masquerading as a question, but we ask dishonest questions that are less obvious all the time. Whenever we ask a question expecting to hear a certain answer that validates us, that’s a dishonest question.

Honesty is just as important in the questions we ask as in the answers we offer. Dishonest questions are just as harmful as dishonest answers. Indeed, they might be even more harmful, because they set the other person up for failure.

I don’t believe they’re always a deliberate setup. It can be difficult to tease out all the threads woven into the way we communicate. Sometimes, we ask questions that we believe are honest, but then become upset when the answer doesn’t validate us. Sometimes, we tell ourselves we want an honest opinion while secretly longing for the answer that feels best.

But dishonest questions are not fair. They put other people into a difficult bind that offers no easy way out. At best, they are a sign of chinks in our own sense of self; at worst, they’re manipulative, immature, or both.

I am a fan of honesty in communication. I would like, therefore, to propose an idea: If you ask a question, be prepared for an answer that surprises you. If you’re not prepared for that, it’s probably a dishonest question. If you ask a question and then blame the other person for giving an answer that doesn’t follow the script in your head, it’s definitely a dishonest question.

Relationships do not thrive when everyone is reading from the same playbook of dishonesty, they thrive when people are straight with each other and ask for their needs to be met directly rather than indirectly.

How, then, do we deal with our ordinary human need for reassurance and validation? I propose a solution: direct communication. I’d like to propose that we strive for relationships where we feel safe to say,”I’m feeling insecure about thus-and-such, and I would like your validation.” I think that looking within ourselves to understand what we really want, and doing whatever may be in our power to ask only honest questions and to advocate for our needs directly, is a gift we can offer our partner. By offering this gift, we avoid putting our partner in a position where they must either compromise their integrity or hurt us.

I would also like to propose the suggestion that by answering questions honestly, instead of telling white lies, we are offering a gift to our partner: the gift of integrity. This gift allows the people in our lives to believe us more fully, and not dismiss the positive things we say.

Honesty works both ways. We can, and I believe we should, seek to ask honest questions as well as answer questions honestly.

Some thoughts on changing the world

“My vote doesn’t matter.” This is a common call of the North American White-Chested Citizen, particularly prominent during election years.

This isn’t really a post about political participation, except that it kind of is. Bear with me.

There are rather a lot of human beings on the planet–almost seven and a half billion of us, at last count. That’s quite a big number. Even the smallest of actions, when combined across seven and a half billion people, can make for an enormous impact.

Problem is, each one of those seven and a half billion people individually feels they are not responsible for the cumulative impact of their actions. No raindrop feels responsible for the flood.

Back when I was a kid, I remember my father telling me to save money by turning off the lights when I wasn’t using them. I recall arguing the point with him, to the extent that I got a copy of the power bill, figured out what we were paying for electricity, then sat down and did the math about how much it would cost for me to leave the light on in my room all the time.

It turns out it really wasn’t much. The cost of lighting isn’t that great–one light bulb is barely a rounding error in the bill even if you leave it on all the time. Other things–the water heater, the refrigerator, the stove, the air conditioner–totally swamp the contribution made by that lowly light bulb.

He was unconvinced, but I think it had more to do with him not accepting the math than him not accepting the argument. Light bulbs are easily visible sources of power consumption. The water heater? Not so much.

So I went about my life for many years thereafter, not really caring if I turn the lights off or not, because they’re a drop in the bucket. Compared to other things I do, the energy I use for lighting is insignificant.

As CFL and LED lighting has become more common, I’ve cared even less.

But here’s the thing: It’s not just me.

See this? This is not you. You are not a unique and special snowflake, except that you kind of are.

I mean, yes, you are unique in all the world’s billions. Yes, there has never been and never will be anyone else like you again. And yes, there really is nobody else who brings what you bring to the table. So in that sense, you are a snowflake.

But all snowflakes have six sides. There are consistent and repeatable similarities between people. Whatever chain of reasoning you use to arrive at some conclusion, there are other people who use that exact same line of reasoning to reach exactly the same conclusion. So when you tell yourself “My vote doesn’t matter,” there are millions of other people–people who might vote the same way you do were they to vote–who say the same thing for the same reason. When you rationalize leaving the lights on because the amount of electricity consumed by a light bulb is so small, millions of other people reach the same conclusion for the same reasons.

Which means it isn’t just you. You represent a multitude. You follow in the footsteps of many others, and they follow in yours. The road you take to arrive at whatever you arrive at is walked by more people than just you.

And that means if you want to make fully informed and rational decisions–decisions that account for all the variables and arrive at rational, logically sound conclusions–you have to account for the fact that you don’t exist in a vacuum–that whatever chain of logic you use to get where you’re going, other people will too. You need to account for the fact that it’s not just you, that the inevitable reality of being a person among billions of others is that whatever choices you make, you make in the company of millions of others for the same reasons.

So, that means weighing the consequences of your actions as though it isn’t just you. The vote you cast, or don’t? The lights you leave on? Your choices are bigger than you think. They’re amplified enormously by the simple iteration of your reasoning applied across vast numbers of others. Think of the consequences of your choices in terms of millions, not just one.

No raindrop believes it is responsible for the flood. Each raindrop thinks “what difference do I make?”

I have resolved to stop leaving the light on.

The Strange Allure of the Superhero

Superheroes seem a uniquely American creation. There’s no other society I know of that’s invented the superhero as it exists in American society (Ulysses and Beowulf were heroic and larger than life, to be sure, but don’t really fit the superhero mold), and our love affair with all things superhero has made Marvel Comics one of the most enduring box office success stories outside of Star Wars.

Iron Man. Captain America. The Avengers. Deadpool, the funniest movie I’ve seen so far that involves multiple decapitations. The American moviegoing public is all about the superhero these days. That means the American entertainment industry is all about the superhero, and by extension, the world is all about the superhero, American cultural hegemony being what it is.

And doesn’t that seem just a little bit…weird to you? It does to me.

Superhero stories are the height of implausibility. Man gets bitten by radioactive spider, becomes crusading vigilante with superpowers. Man gets zapped with gamma rays and becomes, not dead, but crusading vigilante with superpowers. Man arrives from another planet to become crusading vigilante with superpowers. Man loses parents in a dark alley, spends vast fortune to be crusading vigilante with superpowers. Crusading vigilante with superpowers faces escalating series of evil embodiments with superpowers, bent on destroying the city the country the world the universe.

The stories are hokey, the characters hackneyed, the plots contrived and predictable. Why are they so damn popular?

Enter Captain America, stage left.

In the book Captain America and the Crusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence argue, convincingly, that the superhero is the expression of American religious mythology. Captain America was the first modern superhero, after all, and they argue that Captain America is the embodiment of the American ideal: a heroic figure, above the law and answerable to nobody, doing God’s work by defeating the forces of absolute evil through any means necessary.

This is the way the United States likes to see itself: invulnerable, invincible, morally pure, the vanquisher of all that is unjust, uniquely blessed by God, wielder of the holy sword of redeeming violence that cleanses the world.

And like the comic-book superhero, the United States must operate outside the law to redeem the world and purge it of evil. Superheroes aren’t concerned with Miranda rights or due process. The existence of the superhero trope is, by its nature, a vote of no confidence in the normal processes of justice and law. The superhero comes along to save us because the law is incapable of doing so, too feeble or too corrupt to stop the encroachment of evil. If the superhero must beat people up or dangle them off a balcony to save the world, so be it. If the United States must torture suspected terrorists, so be it. Only such purifying violence can bring about righteous victory.

People argue, of course, about what the “appropriate” use of torture is and what the acceptable level of violence is; a guy I know has, with a straight face, made the argument that if you’re willing to shoot someone and you think that’s okay, surely it must be okay to hurt him as well (by which logic, anything becomes okay–rape, dismemberment, mutilation–to someone you’re willing to kill). The underlying logic beneath all these arguments is that we, the forces of right and good, are entitled to commit acts of violence upon the wicked, and no laws or treaties matter. Ours is a morally pure end, we are sanctioned by God, and we must do whatever it takes to purify the unjust and the iniquitous through cleansing violence.

They argue in the book that this idea is rooted deep in the Puritan Christian history of the United States. Our ancestors came here because they wanted a place where they could build a paradise on earth, and if creating that righteous place in God’s name required wrenching the land from the natives by violence and had to be maintained through violence, so be it. The God of the Bible (yes, both books, not just the Old Testament) is completely fine with the violent application of holy zeal.

This thread of zealous nationalism, they argue, is still part of the fabric of American civil religion today, so deeply woven into the way we see ourselves that even people of no particular religious faith still accept its premises. We are good. They are evil. Law is weak and corrupt. The application of violence by the forces of good is the only way to bring about the destruction of evil. Those forces of good are above any law, answerable to none save God, and cleansing violence is always just.


The book makes a good argument, and I think there’s a lot of truth in it.

But it misses something.

The appeal of the superhero is not just that it validates our image as a morally pure country wielding the divine sword of redemptive violence against the wicked and evil. There’s another part of it, too.

Superheroes are, by their nature, an adolescent power fantasy. The invulnerable superhero, with superpowers and the ability to do whatever he wants, is the daydream of the person who feels disempowered and weak. Superman is bulletproof! And can fly! And see through walls! Batman is rich! He gets all the cool toys and beats up bad guys! The appeal of superheroes is deeply rooted in revenge fantasies and desire for power. Superheroes don’t have to take shit from anyone, and they have, like, totally awesome powers, man!

The prevalence of the superhero trope in social entertainment, then, shows a widespread underlying feeling of helplessness and disempowerment. The world is a scary place, and a lot of people–ironically, people in the most powerful nation the world has ever seen–feel disempowered. Terrorists want to blow us up! Other countries don’t like us! I can’t get a girlfriend! Boy, Iron Man would sure fix all that up. He can go get those terrorists where they live, and he gets hot girls, too! The superhero becomes an expression of the ego, a desire for power and control. The superhero has meaning and purpose. The superhero may brood–there’s a reason superheroes tend to act like angsty teenagers when they’re not smashing in the faces of bad guys–but ultimately, the superhero has a mission and that mission gives him clarity. The superhero applies power to solve his problem, and in so doing saves the day.

So on the one hand, we have the American monomyth: the United States is the agent of good and right, wielding violence to vanquish evil and bring about redemption of the world, transcending mere law to do so. On the other hand, we have the superhero as adolescent fantasy fulfillment, intoxicating because he offers an escape from our own helplessness. Put those two things together, and it creates the perfect soil for growing atrocity. We see ourselves simultaneously as hero and victim, all-powerful and powerless, the bringer of holy violence and the victim of malign evil.

The implications of that particular mix are quite frightening, I believe. The nation that believes itself simultaneously powerless and also called upon to deliver the world from evil through the instrument of violence is a very dangerous thing.

Some random late-night musings on profanity

When I was a kid, I had a little plaque with a poem on it hanging up on my bedroom wall. I have no idea who wrote the poem or where it came from, but it was there on my wall for so long I memorized it.

Never say die, say “damn!”
It isn’t poetic,
it may be profane,
but we mortals have need of it,
time and again.
And you’ll find you recover from Fate’s hardest slam,
if you never say die, say “damn!”

I love profanity. I’ll admit it. Supposedly “profane” language is language that communicates quickly and effectively, with lovely immediacy. It’s shunned because it’s particularly well-suited to conveying unruly emotions–messy, untidy emotions that some folks would like to pretend don’t exist.

But they do, and “vulgar” language is singularly eloquent in expressing them.

There is tremendous nuance in vulgarity. If I call someone a hopeless fuckmuppet, that conveys a different meaning than if I say they’re a hopeless fuckwit or a hopeless fuckhead. Each of these communicates disdain, to be sure, and in a far more visceral way than saying “I rather do believe that chap is quite distressingly incompetent at going about this business of life,” but those few syllables after the vulgarity carry a great deal of subtlety and differentiation.

People who fear vulgar language fear life, for it is a fact not easily overlooked that some parts of life are vulgar.

So you Want to Have a Threesome…

Group sex. It’s arguably one of the most common sexual fantasies that exists, right up there with the one about your French teacher, a paddle, and a giant pot of honey. It’s also one of the most fraught: How do I find people who want to have a threesome? What happens if I’m with a partner who’s more into the third person than into me? What if I get jealous? What if my partner gets jealous? What if there’s Drama? What if I feel left out?

I’m a huge fan of group sex. I lost my virginity in an MFM threesome (something I talk about in my memoir The Game Changer), and in the time since I’ve had far too many threesomes (and quite a lot of foursomes, and a few fivesomes, and some elevensomes, and at least one fifteensome) to count.

Group sex is hella fun, though like any kind of sexual activity it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. If group sex is something that interests you, it can be hard to know where to get started and how to stack the deck in favor of a good experience for everyone. That’s what this guide is for.

What is group sex like? Fun. I’ve consistently found it to be amazing. First, though, I’ll talk about what it’s not like.

What group sex isn’t

It’s not (usually) like what you see in porn flicks or Hollywood movies. The other folks involved are people; unless you’ve hired a pair of sex workers, they’re not there just to be part of a male wank fantasy.

I’m afraid I have some bad news for the straight dudes in the audience: When you’re having sex with two (or more) women, they’re not there just for you. It’s not all about you and your pleasure. A typical threesome wank fantasy is about two women who make out or have sex with each other just to get the dude hot, but secretly they both need the D.

That’s not likely to be how it happens. Maybe they’re both straight. Maybe they’re both bi and more into each other than him. Like I said, I’ve had a threesome with a bi woman and her lesbian girlfriend; we both paid attention to the bi woman, but her girlfriend and I had no contact at all. It was all about the bi woman, not all about me.

In fact, threesomes with two men are about as common as threesomes with two women–and no, you don’t need to be bisexual to have a threesome. Three men can have a threesome, as can three women. If you’re a straight guy, you also need not feel threatened by the presence of another penis in the room. As many women as men fantasize about threesomes, and often, women quite fancy the notion of two men paying attention to her as much as men like the idea of two women paying attention to him.

Which brings up another point: unless you’ve explicitly negotiated otherwise, you can’t assume it’s a free-for-all. You don’t get to do whatever you want with both of the other folks involved. Everyone is going to come to group sex with their own limits and boundaries. If you ever want to have a second threesome, pay attention to those boundaries! Yes, people are getting naked and sweaty. No, that doesn’t (necessarily) mean you get to have sex, or perform any particular act, with either or both of them. They have the right to say what you may or may not do with their bodies. (And so do you, by the way. You are never obligated to have sex with someone just because they’re involved in sex with someone else. I am straight, so when I have threesomes involving another guy, he and I don’t touch. That’s fine. Your body, your rules.)

Finally, a lot of folks naively assume “if I’m with someone and we both have sex with the same third person, we won’t feel jealous because we’re both there!” Wrong. Jealousy is about insecurity, and it’s possible to feel insecure even when you and your partner are having sex with the same lover. The best time to get a handle on that is before you invite someone else into your bed, not after.

What group sex is

Fun. Lots and lots of fun. Threesomes can happen in a wide range of configurations with a wide range of activities that go way beyond the stereotypical porn shoot or wank fantasy. They offer virtually unlimited ways for three people to come together and explore.

There’s something delicious about having two sets of hands and lips and tongues on your body that’s just amazing. It’s fun to be the one receiving that attention, but it’s also fun to be participating in giving someone else that kind of pleasure.

It’s cozy. Three people all wrapped up together is really nice. It’s incredibly intimate, both physically and emotionally. I remember a situation where I, one of my girlfriends, and my FWB all spent the night together. We had lots of sex and fell asleep all tangled up together, but you know what the most fun part was? The next morning when we woke up and showered together. The three of us barely fit in the shower stall, and all of us were still sleepy and a bit giddy from the night before, and it was incredibly warm and cozy and intimate.

The sex is amazing. There are a lot of sensations and activities that are not possible with two people that are possible with three.

If you’re a straight dude in an FMF threesome, for instance, it’s not necessarily a question of having ordinary PIV intercourse with two women, though of course that can be part of it (and it’s hella fun when it is). I’m a big fan of pegging (having a woman use a strapon on me), and in threesomes, there are all kinds of fun combinations available. I’ve been on top of one lover having PIV sex with her while another lover is behind me pegging me…that was fun! (We broke the bed.) I’ve been lying on my side spooning a lover and penetrating her while another lover is spooning me and pegging me. There are all kinds of varieties in any kind of threesome, and a little imagination goes a long way.

It’s a lot of fun when bondage is involved, too. The night before my girlfriend and my FWB and I ended up in the shower together, my girlfriend and I tied my FWB to the bed and we both took turns playing with her. On another occasion, I was tied to the bed on my back while one lover straddled me and rode me, and another lover sat on my face. The two of them made out with each other while they both took pleasure from me. As you can imagine, both experiences were really hot.

So how do you make it work? What are the rules for group sex?

In my experience, the most important rules for threesomes (or foursomes or orgies or any other group sex) are not that different from the most important rules for two-person sex. Sex is sex, after all, and it doesn’t turn into something qualitatively different for n>2. As with any sex:

  • The folks involved are people, not sex toys or objects for your pleasure. Their needs and desires matter just as much as yours.
  • Consent matters. This means do not do things without someone else’s consent. Do not, for example, assume you have sexual access to everyone else involved. (I have had threesomes with two women where one of the women involved self-identified as lesbian. I have had threesomes with two women where one of the women was the girlfriend of my partner. In neither case did I assume that just because there were two women there, that meant I got to have sex with both of them.)
  • Set and respect boundaries. Talk about what access you will and will not allow to you. You don’t have to have sex with all the other folks just because your orientations and/or wibbly bits line up!
  • Talk about and plan for sexual health. Use barriers, exchange sexual histories, or do whatever else you need to do to protect your health.
  • I have found that sex of all sorts usually goes better with friends than with strangers. It is common for people new to group sex to want to try it with strangers, because they fear that having sex with people they know will make things “awkward” or induce jealousy. In my experience, though, inviting a random person into your bed goes along with inviting random communication skill, random sets of expectations, random STI risk profile, and random risk of Drama into your bed. With friends, you’ve already established a baseline, I hope, of communication and trust. Those things make sex better.
  • Communication matters. If you’re feeling something you didn’t expect, communicate! If you want (or don’t want) something to happen, communicate!
  • Treat the other people with respect and compassion. They are people too, remember? Treating people well is the key to having everyone have a good experience. When you treat other people well, you might get to play again!
  • If you do have an unexpected response, try to deal with it with grace. It’s okay to feel unexpected things when you try something new. If you need to stop, stop, but do so calmly and without shame, blame, or drama.
  • Don’t spend all your time trying to script exactly what happens or how it goes, unless scripting sex is your particular kink. Sometimes people are tempted to try to avoid jealousy by using a script. That’s unlikely to work. Jealousy is caused by insecurity and it’s hard to navigate around insecurity with rules or scripts.

Special considerations for safer sex

Group sex poses special challenges for safer sex that you might not have to think about when you’re accustomed to the more one-on-one variety. In addition to being aware of transmitting potential pathogens to your partner or receiving them from your partner, you also have to be aware of transmitting them between participants.

Some of these guidelines are common sense. If you use barriers like condoms, for instance, don’t use the same barrier with two different partners. Change condoms when moving between partners.

The same goes for use of sex toys or fingers. Be aware of who you’ve touched and with what. Cover toys and change the coverings between partners, or use toys with only one partner. Don’t put your fingers in one person’s wibbly bits and then put them in another person’s bits, if those people aren’t fluid-bonded.

Oral sex requires particular care. We don’t necessarily think of it as a vector between two folks who aren’t directly intimate with each other, but it can be. Use dental dams or condoms if you’re offering oral sex to two partners, or use mouthwash between partners. Be aware of where your bits have been, where your fingers have been, and yes, where your tongue has been.

Finding partners

Having group sex doesn’t take magic superpowers or arcane pickup secrets you learn from the seedier corners of the Internet. It does, however, help to let go of conventional attitudes about sex. We are all, throughout our lives, inculcated with a lot of baggage around sex, and some of that baggage makes it really hard to have threesomes.

In my experience, there are three approaches to trying to find group sex.

A lot of folks start out with a conventional relationship, then search for someone who will basically be an expendable fantasy fulfillment object. That can feel nice and safe. The third person is barely even a person. In fact, a lot of folks set strict rules on what that third person can and can’t do, or even set rules that it has to be an anonymous stranger from Craigslist rather than a friend or acquaintance, in the belief that this will avoid jealousy or awkwardness.

There are several problems with this approach. First, in my experience, the couples who do it are often trying to outsmart jealousy by planning and scripting a scenario they think will keep it at bay. But jealousy doesn’t come from sex. Jealousy comes from insecurity. If you see your partner enjoying someone else, and you’re sexually insecure, you will likely feel threatened and jealous even if the other person is a stranger, even if you’re having sex with that person at the same time, and even if you’re following a script. Second, sex with a stranger can feel less threatening than sex with a friend, but the problem is a random stranger brings random STI profile, random integrity or lack thereof, random baggage, and random drama to the table. Third, it encourages thinking of that person as a thing, not as a person with needs and desires.

It’s easier to take this approach than to build good tools for self-confidence, security, communication, and respect. A lot of folks take this approach because they don’t want to (or don’t know how to) build those tools, and the results are mixed. It is possible to have a good threesome with this approach, but it’s surprisingly hard. I think every threesome horror story I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard quite a lot of them) started with this approach.

The second approach is to join a swing club or lifestyle community. This approach is really intimidating to a lot of people. There are all kinds of stereotypes about swingers, it can be hard to admit to other people what you want, and a lot of folks will say things like “sure, I want to have group sex, but that doesn’t mean I’m like all those perverts!” (Seriously, I’ve heard people say just that.)

The advantages to this approach are that it’s safe–the lifestyle community tends to have zero tolerance for abusive or disrespectful behavior, there is a strong culture of not disrupting other people’s relationships, there are meet and greets where you can get to know folks in the community in a low-pressure social setting without sex, and you’ll meet people who are on the same page about what you want. The disadvantage is that it’s intimidating at first, and if you’re still carrying around a bunch of baggage like sexual insecurity, sex negativity, or poor communication skills, you’re going to have to address those. It also can tend, depending on where you are, to favor people who are conventionally attractive. But the lifestyle community offers a structural way to get what you want on your terms.

My approach is different. I’ve never “found” a partner for a threesome by going out and looking. All the threesomes I’ve ever had have involved people I already knew. I’ve always had a social circle who are open and sex-positive, so I’ve never had to go out searching; it’s always been more like “hey, I like you, I’d like to explore bring more physically intimate with you, whaddya say?”

I’ve tried to work on myself to build strong self-esteem and security, to confront my fears and insecurities, to develop the qualities of integrity and transparency, to be able to talk about sex without fear or shame, and to let go of the idea that if my lover digs sex involving another person that means I’m not good enough or whatever.

I’ve also worked hard to understand three principles that sound obvious but aren’t:

  • I can’t expect to have what I want if I don’t ask for what I want
  • If I feel something bad or unpleasant that doesn’t necessarily mean someone else is doing something wrong
  • Other people are real, which means their needs and desires are just as valid as mine.

Having done that, I deliberately built a social circle of open, sex-positive people. I got over feeling intimidated about going to kink or lifestyle social groups. I sought out people who have positive, healthy attitudes about sex. I worked on my own integrity.

And it really paid off. And because my social circle is made up of folks with good communication skills and positive attitudes about sex, it’s remarkably drama-free.

This approach takes the most work of the three, but it’s work you do on yourself. Being confident and secure, being open, having good communication skills, being willing to face down your fears and insecurities help you find partners, sure, but they also help you live a better, happier life.

Some thoughts on social issues in video games

Unless you’ve spent the last year living entirely under a rock, far from the hustle and bustle of normal life, and entirely without any sort of Internet connection, you’re probably aware to some extent of a rather lengthy fuss about the heart and soul of computer gaming. This fuss, spearheaded by a diverse group of people loosely gathered under a name whose initials are similar to GargleGoose, is concerned about the future of comic book and video game entertainment. They believe that a sinister, shadowy cabal of “social justice warriors”–folks who are on a mission to, you know, right wrongs and uplift the oppressed, kind of the way Batman or Superman do only without the fabulous threads. This cabal, they fear, is coming for their video games. The social justice warriors, if we are to believe GameteGoose, are so obsessed with political correctness that they wish to make every game in the world a sanitized, sterile sandbox where not the slightest whisper of sex or violence may be seen.

Okay, so granted that’s not likely the characterization GrizzleGoose would put to their aims, though I think the general gist is there.

And they’re not entirely wrong, though they’re pretty far from right. There is a battle going on for the heart and soul of entertainment. For decades, comic books and video games have catered to straight white middle-class guys, who overwhelmingly make up the demographic that bought the games, read the comics, and to whom writers, artists, and developers catered with laser focus.

But times have changed, comics and games have gone mainstream, and they’re attracting more and more people who aren’t straight white dudes any more. And as other folks have come into the scene, they have started pointing out that some of the tropes that’ve long been taken for granted in these media are, well, a little problematic.

And merely by pointing that out, the folks talking about these problematic things have provoked pushback. When you live in a world where everyone caters to your exact tastes, the idea that some people might start making some things that aren’t to your liking feels like a betrayal. And the suggestion that there might be something about your taste that isn’t quite right? Well, that can quickly turn into an existential threat.

GooeyGoose has effectively capitalized on that existential threat, rallying straight white dudes into believing they’re the Rebel Alliance who are under attach from the forces of social justice while adroitly handwaving away the reality that when it comes to popular taste in entertainment media, straight white middle-class dudes are and have always been the hegemonizing Empire.

But here’s the thing. You can point out that popular entertainment media is problematic without saying the people who like it are bad people.


I play Skyrim.

Skyrim is an open-world role-playing game where the player takes on the persona of a mythic hero trying to save a world plagued by dragons, a civil war, and the restless undead. It’s almost entirely unstructured, with players having the ability to choose to do just about Anything. Non-player characters the player interacts with offer advice and provide quests, which the player can choose whether or not to do.

It’s a lot of fun to play. I’ve lost quite a number of hours of my life to it, fighting dragons, deciding which side of the civil war to support, participating in political intrigue, exploring creepy dungeons, and exploring a lush and richly detailed world.

It also has some problematic issues.

This is Haelga, one of the characters in the game. The player can be given a minor side quest in the game by her niece, who works for Haelga but doesn’t like her very much. Haelga’s niece, Svana Far-Shield, tells the player that Haelga is having sex with several different men, and wants the player to get proof in order to shame and humiliate Haelga.

The way the quest is written, it’s sex-negative as hell. It plays to just about every derogatory trope out there: open female sexuality is shameful, women who are perceived as sexual are “sluts,” and pouncing on a woman with evidence of her sexual attitude is a sure way to humiliate (and therefore control) her.

You might argue that Skyrim is set in a time that is not as enlightened as the modern-day West, but that ignores a very important reality: Skyrim is set in a time and place that never existed. There’s no compelling reason to write sex-negativity into the script. The game works well without it. It’s there not because the distant faux-medieval past was sex-negative, but because modern-day America is.

But that, too, misses a point, and it misses the same point the GiggleGoose folks miss:

It is possible to recognize problematic elements of a game and still enjoy the game.

I recognize that this quest in Skyrim is sex-negative, and that’s a problem. I still like the game.

The people who play these games and read these comic books are not bad people for doing so. The content of the games and comics is troubling to anyone who cares about people other than straight white middle-class men, sure, and it’s certainly reasonable to point these things out when they occur (though they happen so damn often that one could easily make a full-time career of pointing them out). That doesn’t make the people who like them Bad And Wrong simply because they enjoy them.

GiddyGoose believes that saying video games are a problem is the same thing as saying people who enjoy video games are a problem. And if you identify with comic books and video games so strongly that you can not separate your entertainment media from your sense of self, they might be on to something.

But most folks, I think, are able to take a deep breath, step back a half pace, and recognize that the writers and developers have done some really cool, fun stuff, but they can still do better. It would not kill anyone if the quest in Skyrim were rewritten (how about have Haelga’s character replaced by a man? There’s a thought…), or even dropped entirely. Nobody suffers from recognizing that it’s not cool to make fun of people who aren’t like you.

Nobody’s saying that Skyrim shouldn’t exist, or that people who play it are terrible people. I would like to think, on my optimistic days, that that’s an idea anyone smart enough to work a computer can recognize.