Highlights of 2015

blog photo
After a lengthy and unplanned, but personally productive hiatus (slogged through graduate school applications and played a LOT of Fallout), I am back to wrap up 2015 and put a bow on it. This year saw the release of a number of highly-anticipated games, films, books, and television shows as well as plenty of surprise hits and a few disappointments. As just one person with highly subjective opinions, I will not be attempting any kind of top ten list or ranking system. There are so many wonderful pieces of media out there that it would be absurd for me to even pretend I could evaluate them all. But I am a big fan of taking time to look back and wallow in nostalgia, so I decided to talk about some of my personal highlights of 2015 as they relate to nerd culture and this blog.

In no particular order, here were some of my favorite moments of the past year:

Master of None
While not sci-fi, fantasy, or fairytale, Aziz Ansari’s single-camera sitcom about the experience of Dev, an Indian American actor in New York City, has plenty to offer for film-nerds and pop culture connoisseurs. The cinematography and soundtrack call back to 1970s American films, and the scripts/dialogue take some cues from Richard Linklater (whom I love), but Aziz Ansari’s contemporary content, diverse casting, and willingness to address social issues help the show feel fresh. Each episode focuses on a different ‘topic’ ranging from family relationships to racism to sexism to long-term romantic relationships, and each except the last two are directed by a different person. The show is consistently funny throughout its first season and its surprising and somewhat risky finale only makes me more excited to see where it goes from here.

Life is Strange
Since this blog was inactive until midway through Life is Strange’s episodic release, I was only really able to talk about episode 5 here so far, and what I did say about it was highly critical. But this was easily my favorite game of 2015 if only because of the emotional impact it had on me. Although I’d played Remember Me, Dontnod and Life is Strange weren’t really on my radar in January, a friend recommended this game to me and I was immediately hooked. The sci-fi premise, artistically rendered environments, and well-curated soundtrack drew me in but it was the authenticity of the Chloe and Max, and the nuanced performances by their voice actors Ashly Burch and Hannah Telle, that kept me hooked. While the pacing, puzzles, and dialogue missed the mark at times, moments like breaking into the school and going for a swim with Chloe or playing detective in her room were a pleasure to play. For all its eccentricities and missteps, Life is Strange was one of the most compelling games of 2015, as its passionate fans who spent months speculating, theorizing, and creating art and follow-up projects can attest to.

SXSW Gaming Expo
This was my second year attending the SXSW Gaming Expo in Austin and it was just as entertaining and content-packed this time as in 2014. The indie game corner is my favorite portion, but the panels were interesting and the table-top area is really fun; they’ll teach you games like Magic the Gathering if you’re a first-timer or you can play competitively if you’re experienced. You can try Oculus Rift/VR if you haven’t had a chance, and explore exhibits of older game and computer technology. I almost didn’t want to mention the event here since it is one of the only Austin-based festival activities that isn’t horrendously crowded, one of the coolest conferences/expos/game things I’ve attended, and totally free, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge it as one of my favorite parts of 2015. Plus, in case I haven’t mentioned it 12,000 times, I met Felicia Day!!!

The Martian
I have not read Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, and took my sweet time to see this movie, but I am so glad I did. I was less than impressed by both Interstellar and Gravity, but this film has earned a place in my list of favorite space movies. While the decision to cast non-asian actors in the roles of Vincent Kapoor and Mindy Park was very disappointing to me, and the tale of the sympathetic white man who the world saves/who saves the world has certainly already been told, The Martian was an engaging story with a diverse cast that emphasized the power of humanity to come together and use our knowledge and compassion to address incredibly complex issues, and that was something I appreciated. Rather than feeling dumbed down, sensationalized, or derailed by seemingly shoe-horned romances (although it does contain one of these), the film felt like it trusted and respected its audience. And Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis is probably as close as I’ll ever get to seeing FemShep on the big screen.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Speaking of space movies, the latest installment in the Star Wars saga was quite a satisfying one. While talking with people about this film before its release, I got the feeling that each of us was holding our breath, hoping that we wouldn’t be disappointed. Upon leaving the theater after watching the movie, I imagined a collective sigh of relief as we all realized J. J. Abrams actually did a really great job of rooting this film in the Star Wars tradition while opening up room for new chapters of the story to unfold. Nothing about the movie particularly surprised me, from the climactic battle to the binary of good and evil to who lived and who died, but it was quite refreshing to see beneath the Storm Trooper helmet to a black man, and to watch a woman inherit the Jedi legacy. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the story heads, and now that we’ve established that Star Wars can handle sequels and we can handle them, to the surprises I hope Episodes VIII and IX will bring.

And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the indie PC game Her Story (which I’ve written about pretty extensively on this blog), the choice-based horror for PS4 Until Dawn, the lovely Adventure Time mini-series Stakes, or the countless other 2015 productions that deserve a place on a highlights list.

There are also quite a few things from this year that I haven’t gotten to check out yet and am really looking forward to, like:

  • Tales from the Borderlands
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
  • It Follows
  • Carol
  • Sicario
  • Orphan Black Season 3

While I’d say we’re ending 2015 on quite a high note, I have a lot of catching up to do without even beginning to touch on all that next year will bring, so don’t be surprised if things stay a little quiet around here through the winter. The blog remains a priority of mine and I hope you guys will stick around as we continue reading, playing, and watching in 2016.

As always, thanks for reading! Your comments are welcome below. Happy holidays!

Beyond Auteurs: Do Video Games Need Visionaries Part 3

Part 3: Conclusion

This is the third installment of a series, so if you missed parts 1 and 2, you might want to go check those out.

Welcome back! So far we’ve established that the auteur theory posits that a single visionary drives the artistic success of and takes the credit (e.g. answers) for a work. We’ve also decided that Cage is not the auteur in shining armor the gaming industry’s been waiting for. But that begs the question: if not Cage, then who?

We might first look at indie developers, whose small studios allow them to become more well-known names in the industry. For me, the person who immediately comes to my mind is Phil Fish, one of the developers of Fez and the man you either know from a) Indie Game: The Movie, b) that Innuendo Studios short, or c) haters on the internet.

credit: Flickr user Jeriaska

source: Flickr user Jeriaska

Phil Fish is not the only person who worked on the game Fez. Shawn McGrath brought the initial idea to the table but left the project because of a conflict of vision, after which Renaud Bédard came on as a programmer for the game. Yet only Fish gained a notable level of celebrity from the project itself, the documentary coverage, and his own unflinching outspokenness.

If you’re readying your typing fingers to let me know that Fish is self-centered, overly critical, or a huge douche, never fear–I am definitely aware of his reputation. I would argue, however, that the likability of a developer should not factor into whether or not they play the auteur role. Instead we might look at how developer-player interaction, or more specifically how gamers’ perceived ownership over things they play, affects the development and artistic direction of games.

When we watch a film, even if we’re thinking critically about the costuming or the performance of the actors, going to a movie is a mostly passive experience, an opportunity to ‘veg out.’ When you play a video game, on the other hand, even the most repetitive tasks you’ve done a thousand times before require some level of engagement (as anyone who has tried to eat their dinner while playing can attest).

source: This is Chris

source: This is Chris

What sets gaming apart as a creative medium is its interactivity. Cage’s ideal of a story-based, innovative work can apply to anything from a song to a poem to a comic, but in order for something to be considered a game most agree it should involve some level of player agency, which comes with a necessary feeling of connection to and power over the story.

Consequently, when a developer’s vision or persona deviates from player expectations, players react differently than movie-goers or music fans might. In fact, sometimes that feeling of ownership fosters entitlement that can manifest in not just hurtful but also dangerous ways: for better or for worse, Phil Fish is no longer in the industry.

And sometimes, as seems to be the case with Half-Life 3, developers’ fear of player reactions prevents pieces of art from ever making it to market. (For the record, I don’t think that means we should stop being critical of games or lower our standards, although we may need to rethink the way we convey those criticisms to those who create and produce the games.)

So is expecting a single person to answer for the entirety of a game, especially one much larger than Fez like Half-Life or Mass Effect, beneficial or even reasonable? Games are traditionally made by studios, teams of people working together on project after project. This differs from films, which are similarly made by crews, but by crew members who then go their separate ways after the release.

Yet studios themselves grow and change, shifting workers from one project to another, sometimes giving away projects altogether; Call of Duty has moved studios three times since its inception, while 13 different studios have contributed content to Halo games over the past 15 years. While many are known for certain types of games, few have a singular style as distinct as the ‘auteurs’ of old. And I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing.

source: Halo Waypoint

source: Halo Waypoint

Cage has said in a lecture for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts that he looks forward to the day when game designers can use camera algorithms to mimic the cinematic styles of Scorsese or Tarantino, capturing emotion in a way that he feels is superior to the traditional perspectives of game cameras. But simply imitating the shots of a famous director does not create a meaningful story.

Beyond that, game developers do not have sole or even primary control of the camera. That tends to belong to the player in most games, and players can shape the story in other ways too, from character creation to dialogue choice to world building in games like Minecraft. Yet players certainly wouldn’t be given credit for the music in the Elder Scrolls games or the art direction of Life is Strange.

Which makes me think that we’re asking the wrong questions about games. With roots in interactive fiction, tabletop, and many many other forms of media, video games resist the categorization that film criticism can offer. They do not need auteurs to achieve artistry, and our efforts to transplant film theory onto game analysis is neither as simple nor as productive as many, Cage included, seem to think.

As a form of art, games are academically and critically under-examined, but that’s part of what makes them so exciting. The industry is rapidly changing and the potential for creativity between player, actor, designer, programmer, etc. is huge. And as games continue to evolve, this potential for growth and innovation extends to game criticism, journalism, and analysis.

Thanks for reading! Where do you think gaming, and game analysis, is headed? Do you believe auteur theory holds up? Let me know what you think in the comments. 

On Ian Danskin’s Theory Part 2: Where Do We Go From Here?

On Wednesday I talked about the first three videos in Innuendo Studios’ six-part series Why Are You So Angry?, which explores where online harassment and movements like Gamergate come from. The last three videos touch on how we can try to reframe our own thinking about morality and social justice.

It can feel overwhelming to imagine solutions to issues as big as these, but keeping some simple things in mind helps. As Danskin and Sarkeesian (and I and many others state): consuming problematic media doesn’t make us bad. Creating it doesn’t make us bad. Even becoming an AJ doesn’t make us irrevocably bad. We always have the power to change our beliefs and our behaviors, or to reconsider how they affect us and others.

By change I don’t mean stop playing your favorite video games or stop eating meat or stop existing as a privileged person. Simply acknowledging that the things we say, do, and enjoy are affected by society and have the capacity to reflect social problems/affect others is an important step that validates oppressed group’s experiences..

anita quote

Of course this can’t totally solve the problem. We can’t control another person’s choices, or force them to confront their own privilege. But we can control our own behaviors and hold others accountable for theirs.

So what can we ‘privileged few’ do to deal with our discomfort and make healthy choices for ourselves and others? What can we do to make it clear that harassment is not okay and that AJs are not welcome in our community?

Danskin still isn’t 100% sure on this, and I’d say most people are in the same boat. But through a conversation with the experts – women affected by GG like Zoe Quinn and Lindsay Ellis – and his own rumination, he came up with some tentative suggestions which I have expanded upon to create my own (incomplete) list:

First of all, we can try to stop thinking in absolutes. Binarism makes the world easier, especially for people with privilege.I think Danskin is right that puritanical and binary thinking are Western concepts, and not just that, but colonial concepts used to empower some while oppressing others. If everything is cut and dry, one or the other, we get out of grappling with nuance and the feelings it brings up in us.

source: Yael Megery - Pikiwiki Israel

source: Yael Megery – Pikiwiki Israel

Second, we can try to look at the big picture, which means beyond ourselves. This is hard, because being selfish allows humans to survive. Some would argue that it is the natural and primary instinct, and that humans do not do anything without some kind of personal benefit. With that argument, I wholeheartedly disagree, but that is another post for another blog. When I say look at the big picture, I mean examine how media and social norms shape our current beliefs and, when making a choice about our actions or attitudes, ask how it affects other people who don’t have our privileges?

Along these lines, we can practice compassion towards ourselves. Much of the anger and hatred and violence turned towards cultural critics or so-called SJWs – especially female, trans, disabled, queer, and black and brown folks from those categories – comes from a sense of entitlement we get from society, but another chunk of it is a deflection of the anger or disappointment we feel towards ourselves for not being what we define as ‘good,’ for not seeing our own privilege or having it at all.

If we allow ourselves to be flawed human beings who sometimes make bad choices or miss things, but are not inherently or permanently bad, then we stop feeling the need to attack others who make us uncomfortable. Instead, we learn to cope with those feelings and show ourselves the understanding we might show a friend.

jay smooth quote

Once we show that compassion to ourselves and others, we’re able to continue watching and reading and playing the things we loved before, but also to be critical of them and help make them better.

When faced with others who choose not to acknowledge privilege, and worse, to attack those who do we can react to them in a variety of ways depending on our connection with them. If we are their close friend or family member, we can call them out and ask them to stop, or we can ask a mentor they respect to call them out.

This, as Ellis and Quinn told Danskin in their recent Twitter conversation, is really the only way to plant any seeds of change in an individual. They have to be hear it from someone they respect and be ready and willing to stop toxic behaviors.

whyareyousoangry1

source: Innuendo Studios

We can also talk about privilege (and choice and social justice and popular culture in general) on our own platforms, to allow those who are open to listen and learn in a safe space, away from conspiracy theories, threats, or attacks. This helps minimize negative effects on bystanders doing similar work or affected by the issue when we speak out.

And last, we can demand good moderation in our communities, and expel people who choose to put our safety at risk. While education can be an important step towards change for AJ, it is not the responsibility of Sarkeesian or the other people he attacks to educate him. It’s best if he can take initiative himself, but if he won’t, people close to him who also have privilege have the best chance of pushing him along the path.

So those are my thoughts on Ian Danskin’s thoughts on AJ’s thoughts on Anita Sarkeesian. Whew, that’s a mouthful! How do you guys deal with nuanced issues in your day to day life? What are the best ways we can foster critical conversations? Let me know in the comments.

On Ian Danskin’s Theory Part 1: Why We’re All So Angry

Recently, Ian Danskin of Innuendo Studios released a lovely, easily digestible video series about cultural criticism, harassment, and privilege. It was super thought-provoking, so I want to showcase and engage with his argument here. In this first piece, we’ll look at his first three videos and talk about what I think he gets wrong.

On the ‘About’ page of this blog, I talk a little bit about my tongue-in-cheek url and my drive to analyze the pieces of pop culture I love. I started this project because media we consume both shapes us and is shaped by us. The people I promote on this blog and my YouTube channel share these beliefs, and one of those people is Anita Sarkeesian.

If you haven’t yet heard of her, I’m a little concerned that you haven’t been on the internet in five years, but don’t worry–Danskin gives a great summary of her work and the backlash to it in his new videos.

Danskin’s central question is why do cultural critics like Sarkeesian receive not just floods of counter-arguments but also personal attacks against them ranging from ridiculous to terrifying? And why do some of those attackers join together to form movements like Gamergate? In essence, why are people so angry?

As a shorthand, he calls the people attacking Sarkeesian ‘Angry Jack’ or as I’ll call him ‘AJ.’ AJ is typically one or more of the following: white, male, straight, cis, and middle/upper class. This allows him to see the world at its most ideal: a world where he is not judged based on his gender, the color of his skin, his sexuality, the abilities of his body, the state of his mental health, or his wealth or class status. A world where he is an individual and defined by his individual actions.

credit: Amanda Watkins

Angry Jack, credit: Amanda Watkins

When someone says something like “I’m vegan,” or “I don’t drink,” or “that game is sexist,” it forces AJ to look at the world in a different way, to wonder whether doing or liking the things this person doesn’t do/like makes HIM a bad person. As Danskin points out, this is a complex question, but I’ll do my best to outline what we have to consider.

First things first, the value of a human being is inherent and does not come from their accomplishments or even their individual choices in isolation. Second things second, of course, we are all responsible for our own behaviors and accountable for the consequences of those behaviors. Behaviors can affect others and society at large.

Growing up, most of us believed what we saw and what we were told without questioning it. It would be exhausting to debate every single decision we made or belief we adopted, and the beliefs our society extolled are already long-established, so we accepted them as fact upon hearing of them and moved on.

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

That means that if/when we’re forced to question them, we’re questioning not just our beliefs at that moment, but an entire lifetime of attitudes and actions. And if we forget for a moment that what is up for debate is not our character as an individual, not our intentions, but the society we live in and how our attitudes and actions affect everyone, then that means we could believe we’ve been not just wrong but ‘bad’ for a long time. And that might make us feel judged for the groups we belong to or the things we enjoy rather than our character.

On all of this, Danskin and I agree, but I do think he gets one thing wrong in his argument; he posits that the AJs of the world feel this way but are hangers-on who go along with the real ‘bad guys.’ He contrasts them with ‘psychopaths’ who threaten and dox people they disagree with for no good reason. I don’t think that’s the case. First of all, as one of his viewers/followers pointed out, it is ableist to blame harmful behavior on mental illness or say that all psychopathic or sociopathic people will behave harmfully. But it’s also just plain not true.

The sad fact of the matter is, the abusers and rapists he uses as foils to online harassers in his videos are not the exceptions. They are parents and siblings and friends. They are humans. As are online harassers in communities like GG. That’s why things like rape culture and toxic gaming culture exist–those acts have the power of social norms and hierarchies behind them.

Credit: Chase Carter

Credit: Chase Carter

In the most benign of forms, AJ dismisses rather than engages with privilege. He resorts to derailment in the name of things like ‘journalism ethics.’ He posits that he and his fellow AJs are a ‘minority’ who deserves to speak, or that he is engaging in an ‘intellectual debate’ with two equally valid sides. He is Taylor Swift tweeting to Nicki Minaj about the VMAs.

At his most dangerous, the same AJ is violent and abusive. He uses hate speech to scare people who speak up about issues they care about. He makes an online game where people can punch Sarkeesian in the face. He is Redditors sending death threats to former CEO Ellen Pao.

Danskin points out that many people believe that harassers are gonna harass no matter what. But that isn’t exactly true. Harassment is a choice, a reaction to discomfort, to anger and disappointment and doubt that previously didn’t exist, that makes it harder to continue living the way we always had until someone like Sarkeesian spoke up. Those who bring social issues to AJ’s attention and spark this discomfort become symbols of the destruction of ease and innocence in AJ’s life, so to cope he chooses to lash out at them.

source: City of Renton website

source: City of Renton website

Many AJs have most grown up seeing gaming as a safe space for them, an area of culture where they can go to escape their personal disappointments. This helps explain, but not excuse, why someone like AJ might attack someone like Sarkeesian, who asks him to examine games and how they affect others. To him, this means he has to question himself, which is a scary, difficult, and – if we’re honest – life-long process.

It’s much easier to deflect. Danskin says that AJ is less a type of person and more the mindset we enter when we are faced with our privilege and enter defend-and-attack mode. I agree that every person with privilege, at one point in another in their lives, feels uncomfortable about taking advantage of privilege or having it at all says about their character. We privileged few each have the ability to become an AJ.

But that reaction is a choice. To avoid becoming one, we have to develop alternative reactions, new coping mechanisms. We have to recognize that a) it’s okay to feel discomfort but b) the social issues being exposed are bigger than our individual discomfort and therefore c) the debate at hand isn’t actually about our morality at all.

Thanks for reading! On Saturday we’ll talk about how we can create just online spaces and hold ourselves and others accountable. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts, like what do you think of Danskin’s videos? Where does harassment come from? Why do I get so defensive when someone says they don’t drink soda?