What I’ve Been Reading

From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins (1998)

For almost as long as video games existed there has been debate about how video games should be made with female players in mind.  This book is a collection of essays on the subject.  It has been on my to-read list for a while since I’ve always wondered what the answers might be, but the recent furor over the furor over Anita Sarkeesian‘s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games essay series prompted me to finally get around to reading it.

The short answer is: There doesn’t seem to be much consensus on how to make games for girls, or whether that is even a valid question.  The phrase “for girls” raises the ugly specter of pink toys, which many people (myself included) unfairly channels girls into culturally predefined roles.

One theme that kept coming up in the essays is that games that let the player create their own narrative (ie be a storyteller) were popular with girls.

I think the book has been outdated by changing demographics, as despite the continuation of the games market containing mainly “generic” and “for boys” games, roughly half of gamers these days are women.  There certainly still is plenty of room for games targeted at women, and if anyone ever finds the right formula for that it’ll be interesting to see what it does to the demographics.

 S. Andrew Swann’s Apotheosis trilogy: Prophets, Heretics and Messiah

A sequel trilogy to his earlier Hostile Takeover trilogy, I enjoyed this one just as much.  The characters and settings all feel familiar, though only a few characters are in common with the previous books.

The main thread of this trilogy is an insane AI accumulating tremendous power and launching an assault on all of human space.

What I kept thinking about this was, what a waste.  The way this AI builds its power base and interacts with the technology at its disposal is very much like what I would like to do one day, but it wastes all that potential by proclaiming itself a god and trying to exact revenge.  With that kind of tech, I’d be leaving human space behind and exploring the universe in all directions at once.

America’s Painted Ladies by Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen

Well, I haven’t exactly read this one – mostly just looked at the pictures.  It’s a tour of lavishly restored and painted Victorian houses.  I really love this style of house and pored over the pictures in a way I rarely do.  I think it’s mainly the exteriors I like – although I like many of the interior decoration features, I’d rather have a much more modern appearance on the inside.


Lovecraft: Tales and Waking Up Screaming by H.P. Lovecraft

I’ve always been attracted to Lovecraft’s mythos but recently realized that I’m getting most of it secondhand, by others who are building on top of it.  I decided to rectify that by reading all the original stories I could find, but I wasn’t able to locate a complete collection.  These two compilations have proved a good start, with the second only duplicating about half of the first.

So far my favorites by far are “At the Mountains of Madness”, which really needs a movie adaptation, and “The Dunwich Horror”, which has a couple of movie adaptations that I’m not really satisfied with.

Though I can see why “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is one of Lovecraft’s most popular tales, it just isn’t for me; fish-men aren’t my thing.  Also, “The Call of Cthulhu” wasn’t what I expected and was a mild letdown.

There are a lot more aliens in his stories than I expected; supernatural and extrauniversal monstrosities are less than half of his bestiary.

Lovecraft doesn’t seem to have had a very high opinion of human mental stability.  All of his stories are full of people becoming mentally unhinged by things they’ve witnessed, many of which seem laughably minor (though still scary) by modern standards.  I have to wonder if people really were that easily broken back in his day and if we’ve desensitized ourselves to creature and body horror at a cultural level.

I wish HPL had lived longer and cranked out more of these wonderful tales.

BTW, if you like Lovecraft I’d also suggest picking up the excellent Laundry series from Charles Stross, which builds on Lovecraft better than anything else I’ve seen.


Manboy and the Girl Cooties

(You can use the title as your band name if you want.)

There has been a lot of media awareness of gender politics in the gaming community lately, and I’ve been following it with interest. Today’s Twitter feed brought me this: A Call to Arms for Decent Men.  I was going to simply retweet it as usual, but I found that I couldn’t accept the implicit agreement with all of the content, and that I would have to explain my disagreement in order to avoid feeling like a jerk.  It’s likely nobody would notice if I simply failed to note the article, but it does have a lot of content that I think is valuable and worth reading.

Go read the article and then come back.

The first thing I have to quibble with is the underlying assumption that the giant boys who are making things difficult for female gamers are like that because they never outgrew the “girl cooties” stage.  I don’t think that’s true.  There may be some like that, but if you’re talking about the kind of gamers you find on XBox live, they probably actually ARE at the “girl cooties” age.

Showing my own bias here, I think that the anti-female attitudes displayed by supposedly “adult” male gamers comes from the continued resistance to and undermining of womens’ legal and social equality, which has become glaringly visible in the sensationalist media spotlight recently, especially in politics.  In other words, male gamers are reflecting the attitudes they pick up from TV news, movies, sports commentary, advertising, talk radio, music, church, school and social groups.  The contribution of their gaming community is not the main source of the bad attitude but it tends to be a strong reinforcing factor, which is where the call to arms of the article I linked may prove effective.

Secondly, while I agree that the existence of the sexist gamer problem is not subject to debate, I take exception to the author’s statement “The real-world analogy is not to social issues but to violent crime.”  No.  A man denigrating or even screaming invective at a woman does not equate to a man hitting a woman.  They’re both bad things, but of different orders of severity.   You don’t actually need a real-world analogy for this because there are several real-world terms that already cover the situation, for example “emotional abuse” or “mental abuse”.

Thirdly, I’m not entirely convinced his proposed solutions are likely to work.  Calling immature players immature in the heat of a match is probably not going to have a positive effect.  I also don’t think financial penalties are a good idea in an environment where mass false accusation is a viable strategy for revenge.  The rest seems reasonable though.

And finally: Since members of my gaming community (some of whom are even female) are likely to read this, and I would hope they would call me out on it, I must admit that I’m not  exactly a saint here.  I would like to think that the article I linked is aimed at me, that I am one of the “reasonable, decent, but much too silent majority of male gamers,” but there have been occasions when I’ve blurted out things like “That’s what she said!” or “Don’t be silly, everyone knows there are no women on the Internets!”  I won’t bother making excuses.  I usually feel bad about it seconds later, and if you play with me please say “Dude, that’s uncool!” if I do it again.

A thing I just realized about RPGs

I like single-player computer role-playing games a lot, but there are only a few that I’ve stuck with until the end.  Usually at some point I get bored or frustrated and put it down for a while, and end up never coming back.

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim.  Actually it has consumed most of my free time since I bought it three weeks ago, and it has made me realize the nature of one of the qualities that sets a good RPG apart from a mediocre one.

A good RPG makes you want to tell stories about things that happened in your game.

Now that I think about it, this generalizes in some sense to other kinds of games too.

Here’s the specific story I told, the formulation of which made me realize this thing: Once I emerged from looting a dungeon in Skyrim to find a dragon fighting a giant. When I realized neither was about to turn on me, I watched them fight and when the dragon was almost dead, I finished them both off with two arrows each.

What made this experience inspire storytelling was that it felt emergent – for all I know it was scripted to happen when I exited that particular dungeon, but based on other things that happen in Skyrim, it really felt like the dragon had just happened to be cruising by at that time and decided to pick on a giant. It felt like something that probably hadn’t happened in my friends’ instances of the game.

A different example is from the first Neverwinter Nights.  I played all the expansions for that one, and in one of them there was this epic battle where you were supposed to defend a gate from an attacking army.  It was supposed to be a very challenging battle, but by that point in my game I was at a higher level than the designers had perhaps anticipated.  I had two dragons on my side, and a few other summoned creatures.  On seeing the dragons, the invaders mostly panicked and the dragons simply roasted them while they tried to flee.  So the battle was a cakewalk instead of a challenge, but it was really enjoyable because the ease of it felt like a reward for all the effort I had put into reaching such a high level.

More emergent behaviors, please.  More alternative ways to progress through the game, even at the risk of sometimes making the challenge level lumpy (err on the side of the occasional cakewalk here, as frustration is more, well, frustrating.)

But the take-home message is that I will get excited about games that sometimes produce unique-feeling experiences that I will want to tell other players about.

On Tron

With Tron Legacy about to open, I felt I should review the original.  From the first time I saw Tron in theaters, it had a huge impact on me.  As a child I watched it at least three times while it was still showing, and since then I’ve watched it many more.  Today was, I think, the 11th time I’ve watched it.

It holds up very well.  I’m still happy to say it’s one of my all-time favorite movies, and the most visually appealing movie of all time.  And Sark’s carrier is still the coolest vehicle design ever.

The story is actually less corny than I remember it being.  Sure, under the trappings it’s still a pretty straightforward uber-hero versus evil overlord action-adventure, but there’s nothing wrong with that; when done competently it can be entertaining.  More importantly, it served as an early and powerfully positive introduction to the concept of mind uploading; the “living in a video game world” aspect of the story wasn’t the entirety of the appeal to my younger self.  Sure, I was an arcade rat and loved the whole video game aspect, but at some level I think I also understood that living inside the computer was highly desirable because it offered freedom from the disadvantages of biology.

There is, however, one plot point that bothers me: Why was the workstation Flynn used right in the path of the laser beam?  That makes no sense at all.

It has been a number of years since my last viewing, and I’m surprised at some important details I missed before.  It makes me question my long-held belief that adults are less perceptive than children.

  • I never picked up on the MCP’s comments about the Pentagon and Kremlin before.  I got that it was taking control of Encom, but this is the first time I noticed it intended to dominate the real world too.  I don’t know how I missed that before – probably because of the general disregard for politics I had in my youth.
  • Flynn was a former Encom employee and was doubly wronged by Dillinger: Dillinger stole credit for his games and then dismissed him. I think I understood each of these things separately on separate occasions before but never grokked them together until now.  I sort of assumed Flynn was doing what he was doing simply because Dillinger and the MCP were villains and he didn’t like them.
  • Tron picked up on the same vibe between Yori and Flynn that Alan got between Lora and Flynn.
  • Clu looked like Flynn.  I noticed it before and it confused me.  Now I understand it’s because the programs resemble the users that created them.
  • Lora and Yori have more in common that their author/program relationship and their connection with Alan/Tron. They’re also both involved in research and development work and they’re both enablers that make it possible for the “heroes” to do their thing without being flashily heroic themselves.  There’s probably some sociology mileage in that but I don’t have the background to comment on it.  The parallel symmetry between them becomes a mirror symmetry when you note that Lora’s work is used as a weapon by the MCP whereas Yori’s is used to aid in the MCP’s defeat; in a sense Yori redeems Lora.
  • When in the computer world, Flynn was essentially being forced to survive inside the very same games he wrote, and that’s ironic.  So obvious I completely missed it.
  • Sark was afraid of Flynn because of his presumed awesome user powers.  Dillinger was afraid of Flynn because of his presumed awesome hacker powers and Dillinger’s dirty secret (which he should never have kept a record of!).  Sark was one of Dillinger’s programs.  Another elegant parallel.  Again, I noticed these things separately before but didn’t integrate them until now.
  • I always noticed that Dumont and Gibbs had the same face, but I could never figure out what relationship they could have had.  Now I get it: they’re both concerned with the connection between the two worlds.  Dumont was an I/O controller, and Gibbs an engineer working on the digitizing laser.  It’s not a huge stretch to imagine that Gibbs may have written Dumont.
  • As the defeated MCP is disappearing, we see the remnants of an old I/O controller like Dumont.  I don’t recall seeing this scene before, but I noticed he’s typing on something that looks like a typewriter; the mainframe is old technology.

I also have greater appreciation for some of the design aspects of the movie than I did before.  For one thing, the sound design really helps.  With the exception of the comedic sequence where Flynn is flying the recognizer badly, none of the sounds in the computer world are realistic.  They’re all distorted analogues of real-world sounds, and it works very well to reinforce the unreal nature of the environment.

There are also a couple of nice visual connections made between the real world and the computer world.  The obvious one is the transition into the cityscape at the beginning, but there is also the suggestion of the shape of the helicopter by the lines on its sides, and in the computer world just after the MCP’s defeat you can see a glow on the horizon that is echoed by the sunrise behind Dillinger in the next scene.  The computer-world scenes are obviously gorgeous and anything I could say about them would feel inadequate, but use of color in the real-world scenes is well done also – note for example when Lora and Flynn are climbing up to the laser area, they’re both lit with warm, almost orange light whereas their surroundings are cold and blue.

I always loved this movie, but with the new things I picked up on this watching I love it even more.  I may have to consider giving it all-time-favorite status (currently held by Forbidden Planet).

Having seen the trailers for the sequel that is about to be unleashed upon us, I’m cautiously pessimistic.  They’re concentrating on visuals and action sequences, with only a hint at possibly plot.  I can’t complain too much about the visuals being updated – that can easily be written off as a representation of advancing technology – but I can complain that the visuals seem to be more “realistic” and less abstract.  The computer world in this trailer just looks like the real world with glass roads and neon outlines.  Also, the nice sound design is gone; the light cycles sound like motorbikes, which is just wrong.  Granted some real-world sounds could be detected in the original movie, but they were processed with the intent of making them unreal.  (I’m on the fence about the light cycles following curved paths; on the one hand it’s another case of a nice abstraction disappearing but on the other, the light cycles could follow curved paths when not in game mode in the original film too.)

I’ll post a commentary on the new movie after I’ve seen it a couple of times.

(Looked at the Tron Collector’s Edition bonus DVD afterward, and man am I ever glad they didn’t go with the Heavy Metal style concept art! This movie would have been awful with that visual style, and that really drives home to me how much presentation can influence the perception of a story. So I guess that means I like Tron because of the visuals and the story doesn’t transcend them.  How superficial of me. (Oh, and Wendy Carlos’ original score for the closing credits works much better than what they used.))