Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Ice Cube's "Good Day"

No, wait, don't walk away yet, I promise this will not be completely insufferable.

"Good Day" is a great song, I think, because the day it describes is a good day. Not a the best day ever but a solid day. The things that Ice Cube enjoys about the day are, aside from the fancy ride, things that people of similar lived experience could also enjoy: solid breakfast in keeping with a diet, performing well in various competitive events, solid sex, and late night fast food.

But what strikes me more are the negative statements in the song, the lyrics that focus on bad things that could have happened but didn't, all of which make the song topical and political in a way that makes the songs good-feel vibes still feel consistent within the dark, angry Predator album.

Particularly, the lyrics that stand out to me are the ones that focus on that make note of the violence in early-90's LA. (The Predator was released not long after the Rodney King riots, marking a particularly tumultuous time in an already dangerous city.)

For example, early in the song Cube notes that he "finally got a call from a girl I wanna dig out/Hooked it up later as I hit the door/thinkin' will I live another 24?" He may be looking forward to his hot date later but that enthusiasm, and the good vibes from the halal breakfast he just ate are both clouded by the constant threat of death. In Cube's own words from Hip-Hop Documentary in 1994 (around 6:15):

Death is something that’s always on my mind because death comes so sudden to young Black males. You know, I don’t know anybody who planned to die … So just living another 24 hours is my focus. You can’t really plan on what you’re going to do next month or this month. Just getting the day, making sure you stay out of people’s way who are fools, who will take your life. So that’s constantly on my mind.

Later in the same verse he notes that while driving that there "wasn't a jacker in sight" which would probably lead us to believe that he has been carjacked before. Another factor in this "good day" that is simply the absence of something shitty.

In the second verse he notes he "didn't get no static from the cowards" which is surprising because "just yesterday them fools tried to blast me," so Ice Cube is having a good day, but this is coming after one that sounds like it was, shall we say, comparatively weak. To end the verse, Cube then notes that, on top of the great day he's having that "nobody I know got killed in south central L.A." This is again, something you'd only bring up if it happened to you consistently enough to be a real worry, just like the car jackers, just like the police, just like his self-consciousness about his own mortality.

There's plenty of "Today Was A Good Day" that is simple pleasures, but what makes it a truly great day is how he was able to get through the whole thing alive with no troubles. In South Central LA, that's not as common as it oughta be. Even getting up alive is cause for celebration.

"Just wakin' up in the morning gotta thank god."

Friday, May 30, 2014

Stuff You Will Hate Posts Nothing But Garbage: Exhibit A

So for those not in the know, Stuff You Will Hate is a Tumblr blog operated by one "Sergeant D", who I first came to know as a guy who would occasionally make a legitimate point about something in the middle of a series of otherwise-guaranteed-to-be-terrible article. (As I write this and actively search for an example of this, I realize it's been awhile since he's even made the stray halfway decent point.) He's a troll. He posts shit about shit to get a rise out of people from various music fandoms because, as we all know, people take their opinions about music too seriously and "take life too seriously" as D himself states in a post intended to explain "what this site is really about."

This is the stated goal of the blog. Here are some actual quotes from that post if you're not gonna read it, as they appear chronologically.

I used to be . . . self-pitying beta f[xx]t
Taking the fun out of punk/hardcore/etc by writing songs about how your pussy hurts because you don’t like the people you go to college with?? PURE F[xx]TRY. Basically, lol @ u if you care about anything other than acquiring currency and females (I suggest pursuing them in that order, but you are free to prioritize for yourself).
You know what sucks even more smug douchelords, people with tr00er-than-thou attitudes and attention-starved Tumblrsluts? People who are just plain mean. [The fucking irony.]

If it's not already apparent by those quotes and the title of this article, this website posts nothing but shit. Nothing but the worst writing by the worst writers that is probably intended to be awful because it's "funny" or something I guess. (God knows why I still visit it other than that I have an uncontrollable need to make myself suffer.)

Sergeant D is awful. But we can get back to him because (Yoko Taro have mercy on my fragile heart) SYWH has posts by many different writers.

Now to be perfectly honest, most of the reason this website sucks is because they suck at writing about music. They make up fake new genre names in response to glacial shifts in style, many of which make no sense at all (seriously, when did early 2000's metalcore ever sound even remotely like At the Gates?), the strongly prefer music that's intentionally unintelligent, and regularly denounce music with artistic ambition of any kind, and they never address form and content beyond using the aforementioned nonsense genre names along with a set of descriptors that seem to get used exclusively on the site (if your band pioneered a trend, is pioneering a trend, or does good work maintaining artistic credibility, any of these things can be described as "advanced" by the sites writers). The site as a whole is largely indicative of the problems in modern music writing that Ted Gloria complained about in his Daily Beast piece, though I'll be generous and say that SYWH rarely ever devolves into gossip (though I wouldn't put it above them.) They're the South Park of music blogs, and they'd probably take that a s a compliment.

To people who follow me on Twitter, this is old news. I can't stand this site. But why sit down and write about it when I've got games to play and write about? I guess because something like this has been boiling for a while, but I was waiting for something truly awful to happen.

Like denouncing the feminist response to the Isla Vista massacre.

So where to even begin with something like this? I guess from the top?

There's nothing to really say about the fake Magic: The Gathering card other than that the joke is only funny if you know how the game works, and considering that's not really the blogs crowd I have no idea why it's there. I know it's kinda tangential to my ultimate point but god does bad writing like that piss me off.

Anyway, actual article. For the record, and this will be important later, the pieces by-line attributes it to one uppercut613. Full disclosure: I know this person's real name, but just for the sake of diplomacy I'm going to let the site take responsibility for posting his vile garbage and not just attack him directly.

In the wake of the killing spree committed by Elliot Rodger last week, lots of debate has been sparked about the motives of the killer. Based on his manifesto and the videos he made prior to the killings, it’s pretty clear that he hated women.

The sad part is the article could've ended right here with, y'know, some kind of sympathy for the victims and it would actually be pretty tasteful sans the Magic card.

The girls he interacted with must have been smart enough to detect that this dude was a total weirdo because none of them ended up having sex with him.

So aside from the fact that the joke itself is tasteless, I want to note that the inevitable connection of women and sex is a running theme in uppercut613's articles. For example, in this post he grades various band frontwomen by their sexual attractiveness, and in this one, the first band that he writes about that has a woman in it he immediately notes that she is a "cute asian girl". It's almost as if in his eyes, women only exist in relation to sex, perhaps because he views them as sexual "objects" of a sort whose only value are to please his eyes or satisfy his dick. 

This then led to his killing spree or what he called his “day of retribution” in which he got revenge on the people who deprived him of the sex and pleasure that he so desperately wanted.

Notice, in another example of bad writing that his the sentence about girls not having sex with Elliot Rodger "then led to his killing spree" as though this sort of thing is inevitable when guys don't get laid, as opposed to the truth which is that anyone with self-control can manage to not kill 7 people and themselves when they're frustrated with life. With this phrasing he is essentially agreeing with the killer's logic.

Of course, this gave the tumblr social activists a chance to rise up and have their superhero moment. The thing is… 9/10 times it’s pretty cringe-worthy and they probably should have just left their cape away from the computer chair.

I'm not even gonna comment on "tumblr social justice activists" (or the irony of that phrase considering SYWH is Tumblr blog posting this piece about a hot button social issue, but suffice to say you have to question the logic of this. What's wrong with using a tragedy like this to talk about the issues that matter to you when the issues at hand are exactly the kind of shit you've been talking about? When people died in a factory in New York thanks to bad working conditions, workers protested working conditions. When the Pentagon Papers leaked showing that the Vietnam war was "unwinnable", people showed up in larger numbers than ever before to protest the Vietnam war. This is how activism works. You campaign for change, and you use examples of what requires change.

1. They exaggerate the problem so they can play the role of the victim

I'm just gonna take on this section as a whole. Leading in by calling it an "extreme example" uppercut cites a quote that reads thus: "The fact that it is 2014, and women like me . . . must now live in constant fear that that they will be randomly slaughtered by childish men who can't take no for an answer." He then responds to the notion by suggesting that this shooting is an "extremely isolated incident." 

When you actually listen to feminist writers of any stripe you know this isn't true. For one, as recently as 2012 a publication as big as The Guardian published a piece about a misogynist massacre that occurred in Canada in 1989. 23 years is nothing in the context of history. Aside from that, violence against women by sexually and romantically frustrated men is not isolated, it is systemic. For example: "Every year, 1 in 3 women who is a victim of homicide will be killed by a current or former partner." These are things you simply know when you've put any research into the topic of violence against women. Any at all.

This is part of the point of feminism. Women really do have to live in this kind of fear, even in a modern era where supposedly huge strides have been made because Elliot Rodger was part of an active, toxic culture. 

2. They preach against misogyny while ironically giving off a sexist vibe

In fact, uppercut could've very easily learned this by actually sitting down long enough to pay attention to the video he linked in his article that he proceeds to complain nonsensically about. The main problem in this section from just a regular writing standpoint is that he has that idea he leads off with, and then never formulates any kind of cohesive argument based on it. Every sentence falls apart immediately after you read it. 

She seems to be insinuating that “male culture” is to blame for the acts that only a deranged sociopath with a twisted sense of entitlement is capable of.

Again, any research into even just Elliot Rodger himself would've shown that he was part of a culture of people that agreed with him. Need more proof? Check out the people congratulating him on his having struck back against women. From the Guardian article about the forums where Rodger hung out:

After news of the shooting broke but before PUAhate was taken offline, some users posted adulatory comments to Rodger’s public profile. A couple called him a hero.
But one user of PUAhate who had more than a thousand posts on the site contacted me via reddit to complain that the site was “being depicted as a place where bitter men sat around discussing their hatred of women”. He told me that discussion on the site was usually “more light-hearted than violent”.
He didn’t wish to give his real name. On Reddit, he goes by the username “ElliotRodgerIsAGod”.

Elliot Rodger likely was very mentally ill. Given the state of mental health care in the United States, this likely does not make him terribly unique among misogynists, PUAs, and MRAs.

So aside from the absolutely batshit assertion that this toxic "male culture" doesn't exist:

Imagine if these girls lived a day or two in the life of the average male to see what it’s like and get some real first hand exposure. How many girls who think that “women shouldn’t be viewed as sexual objects” would end up caving in and jerking off to with 10 different tabs open? How many of those girls who are tired of being harassed by dudes who whistle at them in the hallways would successfully repress their new-found urges to stare at girls’ asses in public or try to hustle nudes from them online? I want to see a hardcore feminist enter the body of the most testosterone-ridden ignorant bro right before he gets provoked into a drunken bar fight with another equally ignorant bro because one of them claimed that the other one couldn’t bench as much as him. Shit would prob get pretty ignorant.

So boys will be boys? I like in particular how he describes things he personally has done (the crack about porn), stuff that he very likely has done but doesn't explicitly admit to (trying to get nudes), and then shifts that kind of asshole behavior on to "testosterone-ridden ignorant bro[s]" through the magic of structure. It's a cute trick. This is of course before we realize that the only way he can seem to respond to assertions about the culture of masculinity is to reply "well you try it!" because that really is the only possible response that isn't a whole-hearted admission of guilt. Actually, what's funny is that this is exactly what this paragraph functions as on a subtextual level: uppercut is just listing awful bro stuff he's probably done!

3. They completely ignore any injustice on the opposite end of the spectrum

So uppercut goes on to cite a single example of a woman receiving a shorter term in prison for committing heinous crimes with her husband. Then, through the power of a single phrase: 

I’m sure there are many more examples of *man and woman commit same crime but man ends up with harsher punishment* but do tumblr feminists give a fuck about that? Probably not.

He just insinuates that violence against women and violence perpetuated by women are equally common. Given, however, that he doesn't take the time to find even a single other example relevant to his argument, I'm not gonna look for him. 

It’s not in their best interests because it’s a situation where women have the upper hand.

Men are not expected to be abused (they're expected to "stand up for themselves") so when they report abuse, especially by women, it's hard for them to get people to believe them. It's hard to believe women can abuse men because we perceive women as being soft and feminine, as opposed to the reality that women can be anything because women are people. Feminism seeks to cure both of these social ills.

The article then just kinda weirdly cuts off there without really concluding on anything. Again, just terrible writing. To be perfectly honest though, I don't really have much to conclude on either, so I'll just go ahead and mention this. Earlier this year uppercut also wrote a piece for the site about Unlocking the Truth, a metal band composed entirely of young black boys, about them being confirmed to play Warped Tour. The article had all kinds of other vile shit in it, but the key thing I remember was that, according to PR from the band, they had recently picked up a bass player who they had taught how to play, and uppercut cracked that because the boy was black, he must have already knew how to play bass.

That article was deleted. Here's what Sergeant D had to say about it when I asked him:

Since then, uppercut has been allowed to write multiple more articles for the site, including this one

The article is garbage, the person who wrote it is garbage, and the website that published it is garbage. Thanks for listening to me complain about it.

- Austin C. Howe

UPDATE: Since this article went up, Sergeant D has taken down uppercut's article about "Tumblr Feminists" but all of his other posts remain. Frankly, it doesn't change the fact that SYWH is still a pretty terrible site.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Norms, Possibility, and Permissibility

Here is a collection of pieces related to Zoya Street's article that translated a discussion between Masayuki Hambalek and Shinji Matsunaga.

First of all, the piece itself, wherein Masayuki states that "When you can't do something in a digital game, it simply doesn't exist, so it doesn't lower the degree of freedom". Matsunaga wrote a blog piece wherein he asserted "a subtly different definition": "Since digital games can cut straight to can and cannot, they don't need extrinsic norms." Street translates some of it in his piece, but here it is in the original Japanese.

In response to some of Street's thoughts in his piece in regards to the overlap between norms and rules as it pertains to queer representation in games, Matsunaga then wrote a response on his blog, this time in English.

I then responded with some mixed commentary on both the theory itself, and the queer representation aspects, and how those relate to games with highly authored narratives (in contrast to Street's focus on Tomodachi Life, a game based on free choices of the player.) Street and Matsunaga have both commented on the article.

Kimiko Koopman then responded to my piece, and I had some thoughts on that as well.

This has all been great discussion so far, and I hope to see more of it. I'll update this section of my blog as articles come.

Koopman's Response + My Thoughts

Response to my article by Kimiko Koopman

Koopman here brings up the interesting point that when we consider possibility and impossibilities in a game, what will feel an arbitrary restriction on our freedom is also largely dependent on the identities of the people playing the game.

I argued that just because FFVIII doesn't offer certain experiences that I didn't come to experience that it does not feel arbitrarily limited. Koopman makes the point that, when players have more exploratory playstyles, the arbitrary borders between the possible and impossible become more immediately apparent and grating. In their words:

The waist-high fence is annoying (feels like it limits your freedom) because there are other fences that you can jump over or break through.
The painted-on door is annoying because it's the only door there's no keycard for in the game [. . .] These examples draw attention to them by being exceptions to rules that apply elsewhere in the game's world. They stand out because we (are led to) think things should be possible that turn out to be impossible.

(Note: I tried to format this quote to be centered, but blogger's system ended up jumbling the words by doing so.)

I would like to note that this is why consistency in design, something I've been rambling about quite a bit on twitter and on various streams is so important in games. After all, the arbitrary waist-high wall will feel arbitrary when it's placed as a deliberate barrier that should be easy to pass, but most games worth talking about barely ever feature this particular design problem. What some games do have, however, is arbitrary differences between examples of waist high walls. Personally speaking though, I am fairly forgiving when a game is completely consistent on it's position: I would rather play a game where waist-high walls are a consistent barrier rather than a game where some waist-high barriers are climbable, thus leading to a situation where I as a player have to test each of them for the HUD climbing indicator.

This is applicable to every facet of design: I may not enjoy SFIII's parry mechanics very much, but I believe that the game is a better game for making every hit parry-able.

Moving on: Koopman also make the point that the personal identities of players can rub against what experience a game wants to offer and therefore make that experience itself meaningless to that player. This is when a player of color is playing a game that "just so happens to have an all-white cast", to name one example.

Koopman makes the point that these are all arbitrary decisions on the developer's part that reflect the worldviews of the developer and I would like to emphasize that I absolutely 100% agree with that.

However, Koopman seems to make the argument that the decision for a game to star a straight, white character is already an inherent and arbitrary limitation on player freedom for a queer player or a player of color. To this I would respond with a modification original point that when a game is upfront about the experience it intends to offer than players do not expect the choice to play as a character of color or a queer character, and therefore in the confines of that particular experience the restriction does not feel as arbitrary.

But of course, when every "particular experience" offers us the same kind of characters, that's where the problem is.

This again brings me back to a point of cultural criticism. To me, the problem isn't that any one videogame does not offer the experience of being a character of color or a queer character, but that the larger culture of games (mainstream games at least) offers these experiences in stunningly less numbers than offering the experience of playing a straight, white male.

To be certain, this is worthy of loathing even when we consider that, to my knowledge, there are not any major AAA directors who are women, queer, or genderqueer (a fact that is loathable in and of itself), and thus these people may not be experts on the lived experiences of these groups. But mainstream games are made by absolutely gigantic teams of people, and the more people who work on them it becomes impossible to deny that there are definitely trans people, queer people, people of color, and women who work on these games who, in addition to their job as an animator or a UI designer, could also be part of the central creative team to assist in the creation of games that respectfully and responsibly depict those lived experiences, to say nothing of the lack of diversity in the upper echelons of AAA development.

I cannot condemn an individual game for it's omissions without condemning the culture that produced it, without considering the lack of diverse experiences that games offer. To me at least, an individual game's lack of diversity or lack has to be used as a jumping off point to criticize the larger culture of games.

I would also apply this logic in reverse to system and world design: we notice the problem of the waist-high wall (in games where the waist-high wall is a genuine problem) because of the large number of games that have this problem. However, unlike when we consider representation, it's easier to argue that if [x] game's treatment of a particular design idea is not to your liking than perhaps it's time to play a different game, because games by and large do offer lots of different choices for games to play that treat similar design ideas differently. Do you wish you could use a quieter approach when achieving objectives in the last Call of Duty or Battlefield? There are Splinter Cell games that call out to you. Do you like how first-person stealth works in Skyrim but wish there was a game that focused on those mechanics, rather than a sliver of those mechanics in the same basket as slivers of others? There is always the Thief franchise to consider. Going back to FFVIII, if the highly scripted experience it offers is not to your liking, there are plenty of games that offer more freeform approaches to gameplay, for example the RPGs made by Bethesda. To be certain, diversity in mechanics is important in games, but it's something that games seem to be handling pretty well. Even in the most mainstream publications, selections for the possible "Game of the Year" award tend to be across multiple genres including shooters, stealth games, and RPGs among a number of other choices that are harder to define, or games that blur genres together to create unique experiences.

In any case, I thank Koopman for taking the time to read my piece, and for responding, and I look forward to hearing back. 

 - Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014

Response to Masayuki, Matsunaga and Street

"It Simply Doesn’t Exist": Responding to Shinji Matsunaga and Zoya Street.
If you haven't been paying attention to Zoya Street's efforts to translate pieces of non-English games criticism, you really should take a look at it. All of it is brilliant, but I want to focus on his most recent piece about a conversation between two Japanese game critics regarding what you might call the scientific "laws" of games that dictate what is and is not possible within the context of a videogame, and how that relates to the social norms and "rules" that inform them.

I ask that you read the entire piece, as Street himself has important things to say about this interpretation of freedom in games given the recent scandal regarding gay couples in Nintendo's Tomodachi Life. (UPDATE: Shinji Matsunaga, the critic on whom Street's piece mainly focuses, has recently written a terse response to Street’s article as well.)

On “Freedom” in Games with Highly Authored Narratives

I would suggest that the choice not to have a gay relationship is an encroachment on players' freedom in the space of that game because Tomodachi is among the types of games where the players' choices to do what they like is the entire point of the experience they want to offer. It feels restrictive, in a game that offers the possibility of romance, marriage, and childbirth, to limit that experience to straight people because it is an entirely arbitrary restriction, especially since the option did technically exist in the first place.
But what about in a more strongly authored experience of a digital possibilities? Does it feel like a restriction on our freedom in the space of Final Fantasy VIII that we can only pursue the one romance with Rinoa because it is the only possibility? Does FFVIII become or feel less free because it is impossible to pursue other straight relationship options? Does it become or feel less free because we can't pursue queer relationship options? If I’m reading Matsunaga correctly, I think he’d argue (and I would as well) that FFVIII doesn't make players less free by restricting our choices to the one when other romantic choices are impossible in FFVIII's digital space. The critic whom Matsunaga was discussing with, Masayuki Hambalek, stated this with devastating clarity:

When you can’t do something in a digital game, it simply doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t lower the degree of freedom.”

(UPDATE: This quote was originally attributed to Masunaga. I personally apologize for the error.)

But more importantly to me is that the choice of a romantic partner is not the fantasy that FFVIII is trying to sell, whereas in Tomodachi it is. Picking our partner is not part of the fantasy in FFVIII, and in fact being able to do so would throw a wrench into the game's vision of what it wants to achieve, which is a highly authored narrative.
In other words, I would really only argue based on the type of game do certain sets of arbitrary "laws" feel restrictive to play, even though I agree with the rhetoric that, regardless of game, a lack of certain choices does not mean less freedom.

The Social Contract

When we enter a space that promises us the ability to live out a happy fantasy of our lives and we cannot tailor an experience that is supposed to uniquely ours to feel that way, it feels much more restrictive than when we enter a digital space where we are inherently agreeing to certain sets of rules to fantasize about a certain experience. We as critics and players more often than not highlight the fantastical things that games allow us to do over the mundane things that they do not. In reality, the amount of things you can't do in a videogame far outnumbers the things that you can, but the appeal of most digital games are those specific possibilities they do offer.

This is a social contract. When I play a game, I sacrifice most of the freedom I have in the real world to imagine the possibility of a specific set of experiences and enter a world where that imagination comes alive. In Final Fantasy VIII I can't drink a cup of coffee or get a job, but those are not the things I came to experience, and therefore it does not feel restrictive that I cannot make my avatar do them. It would only feel that way if any of those things would make it easier to enjoy the things I came to experience. (See, for example, the arbitrary nature of the infamous Insurmountable Waist-Height Fence.)

What Game Are You Making?

When making a game, developers need to actively consider what the experience is that they intend to offer. If Nintendo intended to make a game that accurately reflected the various choices one has in human romance, they failed when they patched gay relationships out of Tomodachi because, at the very least, they closed off what made the game enjoyable to a significant portion of the game's potential audience, to say nothing of how absolutely fucking repugnant it is that someone can want to make a game about life and yet deny the lives and existence and basic humanity of so many people. However, I cannot say that FFVIII meaningfully reduces player freedom though it has the same lack.
Postscript: On Queerphobia in FFVIII

This is of  not to say that Final Fantasy VIII does not have problems with it's presentations of sexuality. In FFVIII of course, the only romantic relationships that exist are between cisgendered men and women of the same race. Indeed, under Matsunaga's theory (as interpreted by Street), FFVIII, by not depicting queer relationships or genderqueer characters, denies the existence of such people, and as such codes the views of what is permissible and impermissible by it’s creators (or, to be generous, those who forced their hand,) into the possibilities and impossibilities of FFVIII.

I can concede that, in a vacuum, it would be hard to call the game homophobic simply by omitting queerness from it's world, but of course it does not. It exists in a wider culture of games and other mass media that continues to either not depict or irresponsibly depict queer and genderqueer characters, and therefore in part contributes to a culture of homophobia.

All that being said, I still cannot say that players are less free for not being able to choose queerness in FFVIII when the game is fairly upfront that it intends to put you in the body of a straight character. That being said, I am still open to see queer readings of FFVIII, though I feel wholly unqualified to construct one.

- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

New Blog!

I started a new tumblr called Heavy Metal Poets which is about exactly what it says on the tin. I sincerely believe that there are lyricists in metal whose work is subtle and complex enough to deserve the sort of detailed analysis I provide to videogames here on this blog. This is part of a larger mission I have to take serious analytic approaches to what have previously been considered works of low-art entertainment.

For my first post, I wrote about one of the absolute greats: "Embody the Invisible" by In Flames, with lyrics by Anders Friden, and I talked about how the song describes a sense of existential loneliness and a yearning for a god that we can never be sure is or isn't there.

Read it here!