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.

Two Chaosbunnies in the desert: Now we’re getting somewhere!

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

Our journey to Sparta presaged the lowest point in our travels, a long barren stretch of time (by which I mean about a day) during which we failed to locate any ghost towns of note, or indeed even any zombie towns, vampire towns, or other even approximately dead or undead towns.

But be assurred, Gentle Reader, for things did turn around, and amazement and wonder lay in our future.

We drove aimlessly for a while, chasing the ghosts of ghost towns whispered of in rumor and myth on Web sites of dubious provenance.

There is a lesson here, dear reader, which I hope that with this tale I might impart to you, so that you may avoid some of the travails which bedeviled Bunny and I on your journey. These words may, I think, impart to you a wisdom we lacked. This may be upsetting to those of you with more delicate sensibilities, so if this describes your constitution, you may wish to ensure you are seated before continuing.

Much of the information you will find on the Internet is rubbish.

Pure, unadulterated rubbish. Bunkum. Baloney. Poppycock, even.

So it was with the next ghost town we arrived at, the town of Cornucopia. An amazing ghost town, they said. Now completely abandoned, they said. No population, they said. A great example of an 1800s mining town, they said.

So we naively plotted a route, past the “Road Closed” sign, around the “No Access Turn Back” sign, up a winding dirt road and through steep and treacherous cliffs into the ancient mining town of Cornucopia.

What we found, I’m afraif, was not what we were promised. A stream, a couple of foundations, a scattered handful of modern houses with satellite dishes, a sign advertising WiFi(!), and one shell of an abandoned house. This, after many hours of driving, was all we had to show for our adventure.

It’s a very cool ruined house, mind, but still not quite what we were led to expect.

It turns out that Cornucopia is now entirely privately owned. Someone bought the town. I didn’t even know you could just buy a town, but apparently that is a thing that you can in fact do, and someone did it here.

Someone who didn’t much cotton to city folk, from the sound of it.

The sign reads “Warning! Cornucopia township, land and buildings are all private property. No shooting allowed. No trespassing without permission. Baker co. sheriff.” It also says “we don’t much fancy your kind ’round here,” but that’s more the subtext than the text.

Our spirits low, we wound our way back down steep (and nominally closed, though that’s never much deterred us) winding roads, heading off toward the next stop on our agenda, about which we had, I must report, some nontrivial degree of skepticism. Sparta and Cornucopia had been almost enough to make us despair of finding a really good, solid ghost town of the kind Hollywood movies had led us to expect. That cinematic ghost town experience felt beyond our reach.

And it was in this dark hour, when hope seemed naught but a flickering candle in a howling maelstrom, that Bunny said, “Hey, Franklin, pull over!”

Just like that, the storm ended and the candle roared into life, no longer a flicker but a towering column of flame, a flame to lead the lost tribes of Israel through the trackless wilderness. A flame that shed a clear, bright light on: Whitney, Oregon.

Without even planning to, we had stumbled upon a real ghost town.

Whitney provided plenty of photo opportunities to keep both of us busy for the next while.

And, astonishingly, the town of Whitney also is not uninhabited. It is home to someone who no doubt wanted to get away from the bustle and the hurly-burly of life in a big city like Cornucopia, and settle down somewhere a bit less crowded where he could relax in the shade and, I don’t know, shoot chipmunks (of which there were many) with a high-powered rifle (of which there was much sign).

Yes, someone lives here.

Alas, a real storm was fast approaching, preserving a metaphysical symmetry now that the metaphorical storm had departed, and all too soon we were forced once again to pile into the Adventure Van and be on our way.

Once more the miles sped beneath our wheels, and we were on our way to still more serendipitous discoveries…but that must wait for the next installment.

Movie Review: Live and Let Spectre Die Hard with a Vengeance

The life of a sociopathic British secret agent isn’t what it used to be. Time was when you could expect that evil supervillains bent on making doomsday weapons from their space lab in space could be counted on to invite you in for dinner, explain the entirety of their sinister plan to you, and then concoct some ridiculously over-the-top way to kill you while they conveniently absented themselves from the room to deal with pressing matters elsewhere.

Alas, times change, and even the most dense of today’s modern supervillain has become wise to the various flaws in this otherwise cunning course of action. Previous James Bonds have had the luxury of knowing that the supervillains they faced, while no doubt quite super and unparalleled in their villainy, were perhaps a few bricks short of a deck in the “dealing with British secret agents” department.

And so a new James Bond was needed. A tougher James Bond. A more resourceful James Bond. A James Bond with a steely gaze.

And that James Bond is back for another romp through the gardens of man’s inhumanity to man in the delightful little movie Spectre, featuring car chases, explosions, sinister villains, fluffy Persian cats, acting, plot, and dialogue.

The movie goes something like this:

RANDOM HOT WOMAN: Oh, James, ravish me! Ravish me now!


MAN IN THE DIFFERENT SKELETAL COSTUME: Let us blow up the stadium and then go see the Pale King, because we are villains in a James Bond movie and so we can not assume that our co-conspirators know what we’re conspiring about and we need lots of exposition to establish that we’re the bad guys.
RANDOM BODYGUARD: There is a man listening to us from the top of the roof outside our window. I think he may be James Bond.
MAN IN THE DIFFERENT SKELETAL COSTUME: Well, shoot at him, then! Isn’t that what I pay you for?

A bunch of people shoot at DANIEL CRAIG


DANIEL CRAIG shoots the BOMB they wanted to use to BLOW UP THE STADIUM. The entire building CRACKS and then FALLS OVER onto DANIEL CRAIG, who fixes the crumbling building with a STEELY GAZE


DANIEL CRAIG slides through the CRUMBLING WRECKAGE and lands on a CHAIR, then pursues the MAN IN A DIFFERENT SKELETAL COSTUME through the streets of MEXICO CITY

MAN IN THE DIFFERENT SKELETAL COSTUME: James Bond is chasing me! Meet me in the square!



DANIEL CRAIG steals a RING, throws everyone else OUT of the HELICOPTER to their GRUESOME DEATHS, and then FLIES AWAY into the SUNSET

The rest is down here! Beware, here be spoilers.