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An Immersive Experience

Every so often I see someone issue a challenge that goes something like this: for the next x period of time, only ready books by or about y and/or z. For instance, a challenge might be, "For the next year, read only comics where at least one of the creators is a woman."

While some embrace those challenges, others often try to argue against them. They often give arguments that say while the thing the challenge is seeking to fight against is real and bad, the challenge is just as bad. I'd like to provide a counter to this line of reasoning.

When I studied Japanese in college, the most frequent request our professors made was that we go to Japan and study there at least once during our undergrad careers. Part of their reasoning was that it was impossible to recreate in the classroom all of the nuances of the culture that are necessary to enable us to really grok both the language and the culture (they are interlinked after all). They were absolutely correct and my friends who went to Japan came back much better speakers.

I think this seems pretty obvious for lots of genres of media. If you want to write a game about slasher films, you really need to watch a ton of them (or have already watched them) so you can reproduce the similarities and differences between the films. It's relatively safe to do this on subject matter, but when people recommend it in other ways, say, gender or race, there's often a backlash.

One of the problems I see right now is that we have a small number of dominant view points (if not one) that rule at least US media. Many of our stories have a rather masculine viewpoint, meaning they tend to glamorize and reinforce certain behaviors and outlooks that we attribute to masculinity, and particularly white and heterosexual masculinity. Within that viewpoint, there can be and sometimes is a variety of viewpoints, giving the illusion of diversity, but they often can be traced back to the same node and other nodes are left unexplored. Likewise, even from that dominant node, there are a bunch of branches that also are underexplored.

These challenges are requests to explore those other branches and nodes. For instance, if I challenged you to read only books from female authors for a year, there's a chance that at least one of those books will not be part of the primary node. You'll now have a jumping off point. From there, you'll be able to start to see the nuances in presentation and the vast variety of ways in which women write books. It becomes harder to say things like female authors write in particular ways or about particular stories. You'll start to have enough different experiences that you'll be able to see the nuances between them.

None of this is guaranteed of course. As with learning a language, circumstances vary and often what you put into it can determine what you'll get out. But I do think it's unfair to claim that balancing out the scales is discriminatory, especially when they often are so unbalanced anyway.

So for the past three years, I've made a lot more conscious choices about what media I consume. I look for diversity in the characters and the creators and love when I find the ones that have both. I try to keep a balance of viewpoints (with rare exceptions). My life has improved greatly because of it. I now am better able to give examples of characters I like or ones that illustrate the difference between sexy and sexualized or that show not all nudity is sexual in nature.

A big part of my immersive experience over the past couple of years has been in comic book form. Comics are interesting because the initial investment is often relatively low and there's a relatively large number of titles so you can experiment. Here are some of the series I've enjoyed over the past three years if you are looking for a starting point.

Have you done something similar? Which comics, novels, movies, etc caught your eye?

Looking Back: Aleena

As I look forward to 2015, there's one thing left from 2014 that I feel the need to write about. Back when I was getting a bunch of hate directed at me over the summer, leading to the "What happens when you engage" series of posts, Stuart Robertson, who had a disagreement with me in the past, decided to not only drag up the old disagreement, but misrepresent my positions. This led not only to more attacks and harassment along the same type discussed in the engage series, but as recently as a month ago I had two different people reference the distorted and incorrect arguments as if they were true.

So what is this all about? Why Aleena the cleric?

The original discussion started because I pointed out that the D&D art I saw growing up didn't make me feel welcomed, especially when combined with things like the gender-based attribute score stuff. Someone, I forget who, decided that since Aleena existed, my argument was incorrect, as if my lived-experience is something that can be disproved. This led to a long discussions, some of which I recorded here.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that we could disprove lived-experiences. The argument still falls flat on a number of levels.

  • Even if Aleena was a character that would have made me feel welcomed, they admit that she is an outlier in regards to the art at the time.
  • Likewise, they ignore that Aleena came out when I was 2 or 3 and around the time that my brother was born. Since he was my conduit to the published D&D stuff, by the time he was ready to play, there's a good chance I don't see Aleena, especially with the lack of ebay and online pdfs.
  • They make the argument that since she is so much closer to what I suggest I would like in female representation for D&D, I must then be happy with her. This would be akin to saying that because most things are red and I love blue, I have to be content with green because it's closer on the color spectrum or else there is just no pleasing me. They go even further to allege that I wouldn't be happy until everything was blue.

The above is the actual image they chose to make their argument. It has some things going for it. She in a more active pose. She's actually standing up to a bad guy. She is covered nearly head to toe.

But there are some things that are, in my opinion, rather silly too. Her chainmail is rather form fitting (which we'll see even more in the image they didn't share with me that day). To me, she's in a rather strange stance for someone facing a magic flying arrow. It reminds me of a batter's stance from baseball, but seems all wrong for the perspective. The long tabard seems impractical and she seems more like a model than someone actively going up against an enemy. While the phrase "women in refrigerators" hadn't been coined yet, Aleena exists solely to die and be a reason for the player character to continue on. Her main role is to teach and heal the player character.

And they don't argue with most of these criticisms, not really. They'll say things, like "What do you expect, the artist is Elmore, king of fantasy cheesecake?" Or they'll take issue with the desire for "realism" even though many of them prefer certain other games for their "grittiness" or verisimilitude. If you read a number of forum posts about her, you'll see that a number of men fell in love with her when they were boys and some fantasize about her in a sexual way. None of these things would have made me feel welcome as a kid and they still make me feel unwelcome now, especially the exasperated "well, obviously" tone that accompanies a number of the arguments.

Of course, a number of them felt the need to take an argument calling for a diversity in art (yeah, she doesn't go far enough) into an argument against diversity (she shouldn't exist). That's why they try to force me into a yes or no answer on whether or not she's sexist and, when I refuse to play their game, claim my lack of yes or no answer is a statement that she is. Sorry, boys, it doesn't work that way. In addition to not engaging with what I'm actually saying, they are oversimplifying and presenting a false dichotomy. Let's explore this.

Whether or not Aleena is sexist has nothing to do with the question of whether or not I felt welcomed by the art. To turn it around, let's say we got rid of all female characters in art who were sexy. Even if that were the same as eradicating sexism, we would still have a problem of some women not feeling welcomed by the art. The sexism comes in the frequency of representation and lack of other types of female characters which leads to the feelings of not being welcomed by women who aren't interested in the limited representations offered. Making it about whether or not I think the individual character is sexist is an example of pitting women against each other.

Additionally, things don't have to be sexist or not sexist. Many of the those who try to enforce this binary are the same people who claim that saying something is sexist is the same as saying it shouldn't exist or that the creator intended it to be sexist. Most people I know who try to talk about issues of sexism and representation consider sexism to be more of a spectrum (ok, some of us get even more complicated than that, but that's beyond the scope of this post). So, while I think there are a number of elements of how Aleena is presented in the work that are problematic and the fact that she is the outlier is an example of the sexism common at the time, I don't see the need to reduce the discussion to a yes or no checkbox.

Finally, saying I have to accept her is an attempt at control and dominance. When I refused, they have spent multiple years attempting to marginalize me by misrepresenting and libeling me. Others accept their lies as truth because it fits with the societal narrative about feminists and spread them further, reinforcing them.

Whether or not I see her as sexist is one of the least interesting questions out there to ask. It's asked not because my answer has any chance of being interesting but rather because if I answer no, they get to dismiss the issues with her being the best case they can make about the art at the time and if I say yes, they get to spin this narrative about insatiable man-hating, sex-negative feminists who want nothing more than censor cheesecake. They get to look like they are having a rational discussion while really making it about me.

And we see this same sort of reductionist argument style again and again. The follow up to the lie that I said it was sexist was to say that I won't be happy until all female characters wear burkas. When it was pointed out that I've said positive things about both Saga and Gail Simone's Red Sonja, the argument was twisted that I wouldn't be happy until everyone dressed like me. This is more of what happens when you engage with them, which is why I've decided to block the bunch of them.

This isn't the first time they've done this and it won't be the last as long as people allow it to continue. Aleena is important to discuss both because of how far ahead she was for the time but also for how far she had to go.

P.S. Some interesting facts about Aleena.

  • The character art is based on one of Frank Mentzer's ex-girlfriends.
  • While we do hear her voice before we see her, the very first thing we learn about Aleena is that she is a "beautiful woman."

    You carefully start down the corridor into the unknown, your lantern held high and sword ready.

    The corridor leads to another small cave. As you approach, you hear a voice, and see a light.

    You pull the shutters closed on your lantern, so you can hide better, and care- fully peek around the corner. To your right, sitting by the cave wall, is a beautiful woman, wearing armor like yours. She has no sword, but has a rod with a metal ball on one end; this is a weapon called a mace. A lit lantern is on the floor next to her. She seems to be meditating or praying.

  • I'm pretty sure chainmail wouldn't hug one's rear the way it does in the picture of her dead.

P.S.S. Here are some descriptions of her I found on the internet. Yeah, my reaction to her was sooooo off.

I met Aleena, the cleric, her long blond hair flowing from beneath her finely crafted helm, her luminous eyes. . . err, where was I? Sorry.

-- source: "Mentzer Reflections, Part 4: Bargle and Aleena"

For those of you who may have forgotten, we meet the blonde-haired cleric shortly after wounding a goblin in a cave. As we cautiously pursue the fleeing goblin, we come upon her silently meditating in a corner of a cavern chamber. She is drawn to our high charisma and invites us to join her for a rest. After instructing us on several aspects of an adventurer's life, the cleric not only joins our expedition but kindly offers to heal us as well (that 16 charisma really pays off). Aleena becomes a mentor of sorts as we explore the remainder of the caves together but she can do more than just offer instruction. She exhibits her skill and power as she uses her clerical abilities once again, this time turning the undead ghouls that block our route. We are beginning to fall in love with this woman!
But our love affair is not meant to be. Bargle, the roguish magic-user that has been terrorizing the countryside around Threshold slays the beautiful young cleric with a deadly spell. She falls in battle and no matter what we do, we cannot alter that fate. We either kill the evil Bargle after making our saving throw or unwittingly aid him while under a charm spell. Either way, Aleena the cleric is no more.
With either outcome, we do manage to recover Aleena's body and return her to the local church. Hearts are broken, both in the game and in real life over the death of the cleric. No matter how many times we play the scenario or what we do, we cannot save her. The cleric's fate is preordained. It is with great remorse for her loss that we begin our adventuring careers in the world of D&D. But with her loss comes wisdom and the understanding that death is real in the game and the hero does not always win. We are shown just how dangerous the adventuring life can be. This would have been a profound lesson to those new to the game and perhaps this is why the Metzer boxed set remains so ingrained in the collective memory of D&D players worldwide.

-- source: "Aleena the Cleric

I liked Elmore's art, always have. That alone seems invalidate my Old School street cred. I love his witches (no surprise) and love how he draws women. So when I finally got my hands on a Mentzer basic set, I loved the art and yes, I found Aleena. Though there was no emotional connection there with me. I felt that killing her was a cheap attempt to get the players involved. This is called a "Women in Refrigerators" effect and its a cliché.

That all aside, it also worked.
People to this very day still remember Aleena and hate Bargle.

-- source: "Aleena, doomed cleric for D&D 4 Essentials

Aleena and the Bargle incident are often remembered with tongue in cheek fondness by many gamers, and for good reason, she's a memorable NPC, it's a cool campaign starter adventure hook, and Larry Elmore's art for her is D&D cheesecake gold.

--source: "Aleena, and the fine art of annoying the party with their hirelings"

If the original red box basic set was your first experience with Dungeons and Dragons, then chances are you will remember this cleric. The introduction solo adventure was a great way to ease into what D&D was about if you did not have friends to play with just yet. And who could forget the beautiful illustration of the first non player character you run across. She saves you from a pack of undead and chances are she ends up dying in the final battle. She was probably a level 2 cleric then, but no stats were provided. Later on, she was described in the gazetteer for Karameikos and given a last name. Some time must have passed as she is a level 12 cleric and active in church politics of the town of Threshold.

--source: "Iconic Basic Dungeons and Dragons Characters Part 1

havard wrote:
Bargle and Aleena... Were they from Frank's campaign or just created for the purpose of the introductory adventure?

Just for this. There are analogues in my own campaign of course, especially of Bargle. But none of my clerics are as foxy as Aleena. ;>

--source: Mentzer, Bargle and Aleena

Frank Mentzer wrote:
Just for this. There are analogues in my own campaign of course, especially of Bargle. But none of my clerics are as foxy as Aleena. ;>

Too bad. I was hoping I could leech some information about Aleena from you. Ofcourse, foxier Clerics than her would be hard to come by wouldn't they? :)

It is weird. When I pick up an RPG these days, I rarely even read through the introductory adventures. But this was the game that introduced me to RPGs. I guess that is why I will never forget those characters. Elmore's illustrations probably helped too!

--source Mentzer, Bargle and Aleena

Quote:
Does anyone else have as strong memories of Aleena and Bargle?

Hmmm.... Bargle? Aleena? Never heard of em'.

Okay, Okay, I might have seen them before.

I was introduced to RPGs through the Epic Hotness of Aleena, and the Evil Bargle. Elmore's illustrations aside, I will always remember that intro adventure.

--source: Mentzer, Bargle and Aleena

So just imagine you are the clerics at the church where the fighter returns Aleena's body...

Are YOU going to let someone that hot stay dead?

--source: Mentzer, Bargle and Aleena

On Liberation and Empowerment

Found this recently through a reblog on the deviantfemme tumblr (NSFW).

sexual liberation comes not just from having sex
but from the decision to have your sexual experiences on your own terms
which can mean deciding to have sex with whomever and however many times you want
or deciding to have no sex
the empowerment comes from the decision and having that decision respected

Source: Young Black and Vegan

I've been letting it roll around in my head ever since.

When I talk about things like how women are portrayed in games, a common response is to attack me as a person. The claim is that I don't get it because I'm supposedly sexually repressed and a prude, a pearl clutcher, a Tipper Gore. Clearly, living in the US, I must have a fainting couch and smelling salts.

What I love about the quoted text is that it acknowledges that sexual liberation is way more complicated than how comfortable you are with taking your clothes off or with seeing sexual imagery. It's about being able to choose and part of choice is the ability to say no. When that decision isn't respected, as in the case of the "You're just a prude" response, we are not talking about a sexually liberated world. We're still talking about one that is built for others' pleasure.

And it's messed up because the world isn't liberated for anyone. As much as it sucks for me to deal with an environment that sends the message "Tits or GTFO," I statistically have less to worry about than those who make the choice for yes. Yesterday was the tenth annual "International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers." An important image went around with stats about the violence sex workers face.

From HIPS.orgFrom HIPS.org

Sex work is just that, work. The risks sex workers face don't have to be inherent to their job. They are risks we create through our treatment of them. The collective and common disdain shown towards sex workers allows the people who attack them to do so. It allows bad cops to abuse them, especially with the artificial power differential we create through criminalization and non-legalization. That attitude gets reflected in our stories and games. Women who engage in sex work often are seen as one of the few classes of women where it's ok to either watch or participate in violence against them (via movies, books, video games, and the like) and that view is rarely if ever questioned. We live in a world where once you've done sex work or anything people might consider sex work, you're considered tainted for the rest of your life and can lose your job if anyone ever finds out, no matter how many decades have passed.

It needs to stop. We need to question narratives that normalize violence against sex workers (which is what that petition in Australia regarding GTA V was about). We need to question narratives that say their lives don't matter or that focus on their lives through an outsider lens. We need to stop telling women that they are only good for sex and we need to support women's choices about how to express their own sexuality, whatever that choice is. Policing women's choices, whether by calling them a prude or a whore, needs to stop and we need to stop pitting women against each other for these choices. We need to stop acting like women's sexuality is binary, you're either sexual or your not. We need to stop telling women that they either need to be comfortable with little to no clothes or that they have to be happy with being modest. We have to allow for complex emotions regarding pornography, monogamy, sexual desire, and more. We need to change media rating systems that rate expressions of sexuality commonly equated with women's pleasure as more mature than those commonly equated with men's pleasure.

If you are looking for different narratives, here are some suggestions:

There are so many more, but this is a good start. Challenge the narrative. Don't be compliant. Become empowered.

Stop Pitting Women Against Each Other

Discussing female representation in gaming art, especially tabletop role-playing games is complicated by a number of factors. One of the first issues is that it's often presented as a zero-sum discussion, leading people to react as if it's a conflict situation over limited resources rather than a cooperation situation where we could be improving things for everyone and even end up with more art.

It reminds me a lot of the Robbers Cave experiment done in the 1950s. During this experiment, boys were invited to camp out in a park. The first phase of the experiment involved the boys getting to know each other and forming a group. Unbeknownst to them, they were not the only group invited and during the second stage, they not only found out about each other, but were put into positions of conflict over limited resources. During this phase, they grew hostile to one another, especially when there was something that only one group could "win."

While there are definitely more than two groups when it comes to how female characters should be represented in art, I do think there's a generally feeling of limited resources when it comes to those representations. There are only so many books printed per year by the larger companies after all and while there's theoretically no cap on what small publishers can produce, there is a bit of a limit to how much money is available in the market.

We also know that a fair number of the marketing axioms over the past several decades, in particular the narrowing in on measurable demographics, tends to reinforce and add to the market for certain consumers while limiting the market of others. This trend is what Douglas Lowenstein, then President of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), was referencing in his 2005 state of the industry speech. People in public relations and marketing would continuously focus on a certain portion of the audience, reinforcing the belief that that audience was "core" and representative of the audience as a whole when the truth was that the audience targeted was 1) incapable of supporting the market on their own and 2) may not even constitute a plurality of the market. In fact, there's an argument to be made that the group they picked happened to be easier to market to and people from the other markets didn't complain enough for them to be forced to broaden their focus.

This combination of factors leads to a situation where people who feel adequately served by the status quo find it easier to be involved in the hobby and often feel that other people who want something different are their competition. It gets even more complicated because often the people currently here, especially in this case women, aren't even necessarily well-served by the current content but they are afraid of losing what they already have.

Add into this that women (at least in the US) are often taught to see each other as competition anyway and that ways of thinking and acting that fit into the feminine stereotype are often denigrated, and the situation has all the required elements to become intractable if not downright explosive. The conversation becomes hostile and combative rather than cooperative.

Take for instance how my arguments for a wider representation of female characters are often received as requests to exclude certain types of representation. I remember a few years ago on Twitter someone was arguing with me from the point of view that I was saying "no sexy art evah" and was surprised when I took a step back and said, "No, it's about the percentage of art that is sexy." He was further surprised when the percentage I said that would make me happy, say about 20% of female character art being meant to emphasize sexiness, was higher than his own.

The problem, as I see it, is that sexiness for female characters is still the default. This isn't some big controversial opinion. My detractors argue that this default setting is why we have it. They'll write long pseudo-scientific supposedly evo-psych treatises on it. Or often they just don't see anything wrong with it and, even when they do believe it's something that maybe should be changed, they suggest that asking artists to be aware of their own biases is a step too far (self-censorship!). No, no, in order to change the percentage we just need to hire artists who think in other ways, but heavens forbid that anyone point out that a particular artist has a tendency to draw characters in that way.

They often then point to the women who are seemingly satisfied by the status quo as a sword against those who are not being served by the market. Since we're artificially being limited to just one female viewpoint, those women then feel the need to defend what they already have. Thus the conversation gets derailed from the larger issue of how do we broaden representation to one where we're arguing for the existence of any one piece of art. Any attempt to explain the pattern using particular pieces of art as references becomes a fight over defending the existence of that piece (this, by the way, is why Anita Sarkeesian didn't list 3 games when asked to on the Colbert Report). The women who do like the piece feel attacked and lash out.

Another example of this had to do with Team Unicorn. The public face of Team Unicorn is conventionally attractive. This isn't a problem but in my extended circles became an issue when people started using them as the norm for how other women should think, act, and look. In fact, some people I know decided to use Team Narwhal as a counter, insinuating that unlike Team Unicorn, they were real.

These situations for a no win situation that those who want to continue the status quo continuously exploit. They set up certain women, those who they see as supportive of their position, as the "good ones," further reinforcing the us vs them mentality. We all know what happens to those women who stand up to this.

It needs to stop. We need to stop taking the bait when these people set up women as being in competition to one another. We need to learn to recognize when we are being baited like this. By doing this we can grow the pie. We can have a bigger market, potentially with more overall number of illustrations and chances for a diversity in representation. We can start cooperating and listening to one another.

We can even improve the existing representations. Take for instance how sex workers are often portrayed in games. I don't know many people who are sex workers who like how they are portrayed. But they also don't want to be erased. What if we could get to the point where we improve the depictions of sex workers while also diversifying how women are portrayed? Wouldn't that be an all-around win?

Let's stop setting women against each other and instead work together on meeting everyone's needs. Maybe we could have a world that looks something like this instead. (Love this t-shirt by the way) We will still have disagreements and even fights, but they will be because of irreconcilable views, not because we start off the conversation pitting women against each other.

PS: While not directly related, I thought this article about scheduling in polyamorous relationships is an interesting example of how what initially can look like a competition for limited resources can become a cooperative and even more fulfilling way of viewing the world.

The Purpose of Reviews

Recently I attended my aunt's birthday party. While I was there, I had the chance to talk to my cousin Christina and her friend. Both love games and were happy to tell me about what games the liked, which games they wish they could afford, and ask me for game recommendations. They also related their frustrations about games.

You see, both of them have physical conditions that make playing many games difficult. They can't afford more recent computers or consoles, let alone the types of controllers that would make it easier for them to play. I instantly remembered the AbleGamers website and suggested they check it out. I figured if anyone out there could give them the advice and information they needed, it would be them.

Imagine my great sadness this weekend when people started attacking the Able Gamers website because the charity did not want someone to fundraise for them under the GamerGate banner. I wasn't surprised by the obvious attacks, the "how dare they not accept our money" expressions of anger. I was surprised, but guessed I shouldn't have been, when they started going after the types of reviews that AbleGamers produces.

First, let's back up a bit. All reviews are, to some degree, arbitrary and/or subjective. For instance, I recently saw an argument that review scores should be tied to quantifiable items like number of found bugs, frame rate, etc. But really, that's just as arbitrary as saying it should be about the number of female characters or how many challenges can be solved in non-violent ways. Reviews say far more about the expected audience of the review than the game itself.


AbleGamers, as a website, has a rather specific audience. Their audience consist of game consumers who have specific requirements for their games that may not be covered by reviews from other outlets. Just like the average consumer needs to know the technical requirements of a game so that they don't buy games their system can't run, people with disabilities need to know if the game's physical requirements match their own proficiencies. If it doesn't, why should they spend the money on the game to be disappointed?

What this incident shows is a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the nature of reviews and how a significant number of gamers care more about how games are talked about than they do about fellow gamers who have needs and tastes different than their own. Reviews should be about helping consumers find the games that meet their individual mix of wants and needs. Given how many people game, there is no way that one, unified set of reviews will do this. Reviews can and should be different from each other, talk about different points, even deduct points for things like racism, sexism, etc.

We, as the consumers, are then given the task of finding the reviewers who best deliver information pertinent to our tastes. Often this will mean a reviewer who matches our own tastes, but don't be surprised if a reviewer whose tastes are different from your own provide needed insight into a game.

That's what reviews should be. I think if people want something that compares what are essentially technical specs of the product, they should found something like Consumer Reports, a product testing company that rates and compares various products in a category against the same set of standards.

In the meantime, if you would like to support AbleGamers, you can donate here. They also have some great shirts available in their online store.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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