structural bias

Penny Arcade, PAX, and “gamer culture”: a few more thoughts

I’ve written about Penny Arcade and the Penny Arcade Expo quite a few times before, though not more recently than about a year and a half ago on this blog. In fact, these old posts are a pretty good way to trace the development of my views on PA, PAX, and “gamer culture” (a nebulous term to be sure, but I think not a wholly meaningless one).

It would not be overstating the case to say that my opinions of all three things have gotten no more favorable since that last post. (Elizabeth Sampat’s Quit Fucking Going To PAX Already, What Is Wrong With You from last September is another worthwhile read.)

I’m still friends with a number of people who regularly attend PAX, some of whom are indie devs who exhibit there. I know that the “should you boycott PAX” question is a prickly one for some, and I want to try to be careful here not to blame individual choices for systemic problems. In any case, I think my views on whether PAX can be “reformed” or “improved” or “changed from within” have been clear for some time now: it can’t, because the people who run (and profit from, let’s not forget) it and actually most of the people who go to it either actively oppose any such efforts, or simply don’t care.

I’ve sometimes taken a harder line on things like this, and I certainly know and respect many people who still do — whose position is a flat “don’t go to PAX”. In the abstract, I think that’s the right choice, but practice is always messy. Ultimately, PAX isn’t going to stand or fall, or change or stay the same, on the choice of any individual to go or not to go. All the same, if you’re a ticket-buying attendee, I hope you’ll consider not going; the people in charge of the event do not deserve your money, and there’s a great deal else to do in Boston, and many offsite or after-hours chances to meet up with other games people who’ve come to town for PAX.

It’s important to remember that the problems with Penny Arcade, and with PAX, are symptomatic of problems in game culture writ large, which themselves are symptoms, or manifestations, or particular versions of societal problems. Most everything wrong with any of these microcosms is, ultimately, linked to the racist, patriarchal, capitalist structure of society.

But it’s a funny kind of symptom — we can see this in other sexist media, for example, as well — in that culture is a feedback loop, so the symptoms actually exacerbate and prolong the disease. A fever is a symptom of an infection, but imagine a virus that could survive at 98.6°F but thrived at 103°: the fever would only make the infection worse.

How do you fight that kind of disease — how do you diminish or break the cultural feedback loop? That’s a good question. If PAX does collapse, without any general improvement in gamer culture, something just as bad will likely take its place. To switch metaphors abruptly, audio feedback can be diminished by attenuating the signal at the input, the output, or both. Criticism of games, games culture, games media, and games events (and in particular of prominent events like PAX, E3, GDC, etc.), on grounds of diversity, inclusivity, and social justice has become much more vocal and widespread in recent years (meeting, of course, predictable resistance and backlash); and “counterprogramming” (though much of it is not positioned directly in opposition to the “mainstream” events) like Lost Levels, Different Games, No Show Conference, etc., also seems to me to be on the rise.

I don’t mean that to sound like blithe it-gets-better-ism; “things” are not “getting” better — many people are putting in real, hard work, often with little or no compensation, to make things better. I think probably the best way to “fix” the culture, insofar as we can, regardless of anyone’s individual decision on PAX attendance, is to try to support those critics and counterprogrammers, to join them in the work, or to give them what support we can, or to contend with those who try to tear them down in defense of the status quo.

Again, it’s no secret I dislike Penny Arcade and all their works, with considerable intensity. If their offices were shuttered tomorrow I wouldn’t feel the world had lost anything of value. I avoid visiting their website, and I definitely don’t go to PAX. But (if these are the only two possibilities, which they probably are not) I’d rather see a future in which PAX and Penny Arcade rumble on, perhaps a slightly smaller fish than they are today, in a somewhat bigger pond — but one full of clear, sparkling water and every kind of fish and water plant — than one where they float belly-up, but everyone keeps struggling through the same shallow, polluted muck.

On Adria Richards, PyCon, and SendGrid

As many people are already aware, a woman named Adria Richards, who worked at a company called SendGrid, was fired yesterday. Both Richards personally, and SendGrid as a company, have been under attack by individuals, and by Anonymous. These attacks are “retaliation” for the firing of a developer at Play Haven, by Play Haven, after that developer was ejected from the PyCon conference taken aside and spoken with by PyCon staff (Update: the accounts I initially read said he’d been removed from the conference, but that was evidently not the case. My apologies for the misinformation.) following Richards’ reporting to the conference that he was making inappropriate jokes in the audience of a talk.

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled already on this topic, and as a cisgender, hetero white man, whether or not my understanding or ideas are correct, my voice is not among the ones that need to be heard most. (This is also a big part of why I haven’t been blogging nearly as frequently as I used to.) That said, I wanted to list a few links covering the story-so-far, as best I’m aware of it, and make a few short remarks on the matter.

First, Richards’ own account of the incident at PyCon.

Next, a Venture Beat article discussing the incident and some of the fallout, including DDoS attacks against SendGrid.

Here’s the Facebook post where SendGrid announces firing Richards.

This post by Amanda Blum has been getting a lot of circulation (perhaps because, I uncharitably speculate, Blum leads with “I don’t like Adria Richards,” imputes to Richards a history of being “unreasonable”, and insists “This wasn’t about feminism, and she shouldn’t be allowed to sit her perch on the issue.” and “Adria reinforced the idea of us as threats to men, as unreasonable, as hard to work with… as bitches.”). I think there’s a lot wrong with it.

Here’s a further post on SendGrid’s blog about Richards’ firing. Interestingly, they make the same mistake I did yesterday: they interpreted a proposed change to the PyCon code of conduct as a confirmed change intended to prohibit public discussion, like that Richards engaged in, of harassment incidents. My friend @quarteringsea, however, pointed out to me that PyCon say the proposed change (under considerable discussion on their GitHub repository) was intended to target the kind of doxxing and attacks Richards has been subjected to, rather than her initial report:

(Further update: it is actually now completely unclear to me which behavior the change is meant to address, so I’m cautiously holding out hope, but PyCon really needs to do a better job clarifying the situation. A Code of Conduct should be unambiguous.)

Finally, Melissa McEwan has an excellent response at Shakesville to some of the most common criticisms of Richards’ actions; and my friend Courtney Stanton has a thoroughly documented piece at BuzzFeed linking these incidents to the whole disgusting history of sexism and harassment in the tech and gaming worlds.

Here’s what I want to say, and it’s almost certainly redundant with some of what I’ve linked above, but the right way to articulate what bothered me most about the common insistence that “she should have just asked them to stop” instead of publicizing the photo: There is no fucking reason the onus should have been on Richards to politely ask the men to stop. She had a right to expect professional behavior, and moreover the odds of a man responding constructively when confronted by a woman — especially a woman of color — over sexist behavior are, in our society in general and in the male-dominated, “proudly-politically-incorrect” tech world in particular, extremely low.

Maybe the persons in question would have responded calmly, apologized, and improved their behavior in the future, but anyone who knows anything about how women who complain are treated in male-dominated fields (allow me to again recommend Stanton’s BuzzFeed post above) knows that, without already knowing them personally, there is no reason to assume they would. The odds are much, much stronger that they’d be defensive, dismissive, passive-aggressive, or just plain aggressive, and quite possibly escalate their inappropriate behavior — and that they’d feel themselves perfectly justified in doing so, that no one around them would step in, and they’d later deny having done anything wrong. (For an excellent account of how this sort of thing often works, I recommend my friend Maddy Myers’ writing on the fighting game community.)

“In an ideal world,” as the device goes, would it likely be preferable for a person witnessing inappropriate behavior to try asking those responsible to stop before taking any other action? Well, in an ideal world, no one would be behaving inappropriately in a professional setting in the first place; but let’s set that aside and stipulate that yes, if you have a reasonable expectation that a polite admonishment and request will be effective in both stopping the current problem and reducing future problems, without compromising your safety, that’s the fastest, lowest-friction, best response. We do not live in a world where women, especially in male-dominated spaces, can reasonably have that expectation. Keeping it private doesn’t necessarily result in any less harassment, but making it public does make it harder for everyone else to deny it’s happening.

A final note: As my friend @lastnora pointed out, the “don’t publicly shame people, that hurts the community, let’s just deal with it internally” logic being deployed in a lot of responses to this incident is precisely the logic of abusers. Don’t make the family look bad, don’t make the church look bad, don’t make the [whatever group] look bad — but a group that protects hostile or abusive behavior is bad, and to try to keep it looking good is deeply dishonest. Nora’s tweets, referring to the proposed PyCon Code of Conduct language:

Oh look, it’s time to talk about gamer culture and rape culture again.

I guess I don’t need to elaborate here on how I feel these days about Penny Arcade and their bicoastal, twice-yearly paean to conspicuous consumption, PAX Prime/PAX East. They represent some of the worst of gamer culture, they gleefully profit from misogyny and rape jokes, and their convention (increasingly, it seems) disregards its own “no booth babes” rule, making women feel less welcome and encouraging (presumed male) attendees to see all women, booth babe, cosplayer, developer, PR, or “regular” attendee, as sexualized objects there for men’s pleasure.

It’s distressing, then, but hardly surprising to hear that, at a party thrown by Mojang’s Markus “Notch” Persson, noted fedora enthusiast, indie-game-scene darling, and creator of the wildly successful Minecraft, a female game blogger seeking some relative solitude in a corner was accosted, harassed, and sexually assaulted by a male party-goer. Understandably upset, she fled the party, and when her friends sought out security, they were greeted with shrugs.

Some salient points:

  • The party was paid for by Persson himself, not by Mojang. It’s not entirely clear to what extent he organized it, and to what extent the party venue handled those details.
  • The party took place during PAX Prime, but was not an official PAX event, nor was it at the PAX venue. However, as it was a party thrown during PAX by a video game celebrity; it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of attendees were PAX-goers.
  • A notable exception: some attendees, distinguished (according to Ky, the blogger who was assaulted) by red wristbands, were women hired from a modeling agency.
  • Lydia Winters, Minecraft’s “Director of Fun” commented on Ky’s blog post clarifying that Persson, not Mojang, had thrown the party and that the models were hired by “the production company” to “have more girls there to up the girl to guy ratio. It’s a pretty typical club procedure.” (Winters confirmed via twitter that it was in fact her who posted that comment.)
  • It’s not clear, then whether hiring the models was in fact Persson’s idea, or whether he knew about/approved it. (One would imagine that, if planning were left to the venue or some other third party, given that Persson was paying, he’d at least have been asked to sign off on the expenses.)
  • Persson himself, about three hours ago, tweeted:
  • In an update at the top of her post, Ky emphasizes that she doesn’t feel PAX or Mojang is responsible in any way for what happened, and that in her view “The ONLY person who should be held accountable for what happened is the asshole himself.” She also states, “Also this post isn’t about nerd or gamer culture or blaming those cultures at all, this could happen in any community, at any party, to anyone.”

There are a few points I want to make about this.

[Author's note: I added a few sentences and split the next paragraph into two, because I wasn't entirely comfortable with its original tone.]

Perhaps predictably, I disagree with Ky that this has nothing to do with PAX or with nerd/gamer culture. She is obviously the final authority on her own experience, and just as obviously the man who attacked her is the only one who bears direct (let alone legal) responsibility for that crime. But from my perspective, one shouldn’t be too quick to discount cultural and environmental factors that make predators feel they’re free to operate in a given situation — and that make bystanders more likely to shrug, to see the warning signs of predatory behavior as “normal”.

It’s certainly true that things like this can and do happen “in any community, at any party, to anyone” — rape culture is endemic, and no subcultural niche is entirely free of it. However, gamer culture — fueled by Nice Guy (often shading into MRA) bitterness over high-school bullying and lack of “success” with girls (an historical injustice elevated to mythic proportions in nerdism) — clings to especially overt misogyny and objectification. One need only look at the vitriolic response to Anita Sarkeesian‘s proposed (now underway) “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” video series, the myriad examples at Fat, Ugly, or Slutty?, or of course the Dickwolves debacle, to see this in action.

PAX encourages and revels in these attitudes — reflecting the views (so far as one can surmise from their actions) of its founders and their core fanbase — but it certainly doesn’t start with PAX, or with Penny Arcade. Society’s misogyny has always been an element of nerd culture, and nerd culture’s tendency to be self-referential, insular, and distrustful of “outsiders”, makes it self-reinforcing. Critics, whether from without or within the subculture, are almost invariably dismissed out-of-hand as “not understanding”, not being “real gamers”. And people growing up in gamer culture — especially young men — have spent a decade, or two, or three, absorbing these attitudes with very little real challenge to them.

So inasmuch as gamer culture is tainted by rape culture, and PAX is one of the purer expressions of contemporary gamer culture, yes, this is about PAX. This is about the kinds of people who felt welcome at PAX, and what they thought they could get away with. It’s about the constant presence of “booth babes” at gaming conventions, and the still abysmal representation of women in mainstream games. It’s about the kind of people who think it’s reasonable to “up the girl to guy ratio” by hiring models to attend a party, because they think their (presumed male, presumed heterosexual) attendees neither possess nor need to be encouraged to develop any social skills, and thus are and will remain repulsive to women not paid to tolerate them. (There are, of course, far too many problems with this to unpack in a single blog post.) And it’s about what all this, taken together, in constant dosage over many years, teaches people who didn’t even notice they were being instructed: women are decorative objects, there for men’s enjoyment; they have no significant interests of their own; they are not skilled; they are not peers; if they are not attractive to men they are failures; they are merely things for men to desire and despise. (If you think I’m overstating, now would be a good time to go look again at those links a couple paragraphs up.)

Now, almost everyone — even in the comments section of her blog post, a rarity here on the interwebs — has reacted to Ky’s story with horror and disgust. But almost everyone (including Ky herself) has directed that horror and disgust solely at the individual assailant. It’s easy in this case, because “grabbing a stranger’s hand and putting it on your penis” is behavior (in point of fact, a crime) even most MRAs will recognize as beyond the pale. Oh, that one guy did something really unacceptable! He’s terrible, nothing more to see here. But given what we know about sexual harassment and assault, it’s highly likely that he harassed more than one person that night, and furthermore that he wasn’t the only one who did. How many of the models paid to be there put up with harassment and perhaps assault? How many women party-goers were harassed by sexist nerds who thought harassing the models was “part of their job” (nope!) and extrapolated from there that it was an acceptable way to behave toward any women at that party (again, nope!)? Rape culture teaches men that they’re entitled to sexual gratification from women, whether visual, verbal, or physical; hiring models to “mingle” with partygoers declares the same thing explicitly.

Ky’s assailant is the only case from that party, that we know of, where someone decided he was entitled not only to sexual gratification but to enforce his claim to that gratification with violence — and make no mistake, all sexual assault is violence — and that makes him a relatively egregious example. But that doesn’t make him an isolated, unconnected, free-floating Bad Person whose worldview, impulses, and actions come from nowhere and cannot be interrogated. His attitudes came from somewhere, and for every person like him who physically sexually assaults someone, there are dozens or hundreds who hold basically the same views, absorbed from basically the same sources, who “only” harass and intimidate and make gamer culture hostile to everyone who isn’t heterosexual, cisgender, white, able-bodied, and male.

Finally, here’s the kicker. If past incidents in gamer culture are any indicator (Dickwolves, Fat Princess, Duke Nukem Forever, Resident Evil 5, the Borderlands 2 “Girlfriend Mode” controversy, and countless others) there will be no lasting consequences. A few more people will be alienated from gamer culture, but the majority of gamers will brush it off, and continue to support the institutions that promote these attitudes. The gaming press — even the smart, progressive gaming press — will write about Penny Arcade and PAX and Gearbox and Mojang to talk about their press releases and upcoming games, and will not mention the kinds of things that happen under their various auspices. No lasting opprobrium will attach to any of their names, and the culture will not change. People, even smart, thoughtful, progressive people who understand rape culture and how it works, and work tirelessly to break down race, gender, and sexuality barriers in gamer culture, will keep attending PAX and buying games produced by developers with toxic, misogynist studio cultures. The overwhelming sense will be that yeah, that stuff was bad, but that’s all in the past. Like the security guard in Ky’s story: “Okay? What do you expect me to do?”

That seems like a harsh way to close, but I don’t know what else to say. A lot of people have been patient and polite about this for a great many years, and the results have been rather underwhelming. Nerd culture resists change, and perceives efforts to bring change as attacks, no matter how moderate, no matter how careful the phrasing. I think the best hope is to work to make explicit what it is the pillars of the subculture support: to label their behavior indelibly as sexism, and to finally attach some modicum of shame to behaviors that should always have been seen as shameful. Challenge harmful structures, don’t support them. Don’t let praise for misogynist companies and institutions go unquestioned. make all but the most committedly sexist nerds uncomfortable voicing their boy’s-club attitudes, and make it socially unacceptable for the majority to associate with the hardcore misogynists.

Update: Now cross-posted at Shakesville and The Border House!

Instability

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Hanne Blank at an event for her new book, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality at the Harvard Bookstore. I enjoyed the talk — the gist of which is that our (where “our” roughly means Western European and Anglo-/Euro-American, and other cultures to the extent “we” have successfully exported our ideas) idea of sexual orientation as a more-or-less fixed component of identity — indeed, as an intelligible thing at all — is an historically contingent construction dating only to the mid-19th century. The history of that idea, the political tactics and strategies, it was formulated to serve, and the originally unanticipated constructions which have been put on it and uses to which it’s been put, can be traced, examined in context, and demystified. It’s a powerful thing, to see a prevailing way of understanding the world, and be able to say, “this is not decreed from on high; this is not unalterable natural fact; this is a human construction that arose for intelligible reasons.”

This discussion of historical constructedness put me in mind of a couple of my favorite short quotations, which you’ll see in the sidebar to the right. Edward Said, from the introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of Orientalism: “[N]either the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.” And Kai Chang, from his sadly vanished-into-the-ether blog (he maintains a presence on Tumblr, but I’ve never been able to figure out Tumblr) — the Wayback Machine does have an archived copy of the post, at least — “Because the world is not a floating sequence of unfortunate events; it’s an edifice with foundations, load-bearing walls, plumbing, wiring, ductwork; and in order to renovate, you need to study those structures.”

Between them, those beautifully expressed thoughts point the way to a great deal of the foundation ofmy way of understanding the world (itself, of course, alsoconstructed and historically contingent). No social convention, no matter how “natural” we’re accustomed to thinking it is — indeed, “nature” vs. “civilization” is yet another constructed dichotomy which obscures and mystifies humans’ relationship with their environment — is actually somehow encoded, immutably, in our DNA.

Almost a decade ago now, Joel Spolsky described his Law of Leaky Abstractions. The law is, “all non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky.” And what Spolsky means by “leaky” is that whenever you deal with an abstraction (he’s discussing software, but it applies much more broadly than that), details of the underlying system (“reality” if you like, or just a lower-level abstraction) inevitably operate in such a way as to prevent the abstraction from being perfect: some of the messy underlying workings leak through. In programming, we talk, and mostly think and act, as though we dealt in pure, logical concepts, free-floating in the air for us to manipulate as we please: but in fact what we ultimately deal in is electrical impulses traveling between transistors on nanometer-scale wires, and that physical reality constrains and warps the gloriously pure logic of our airy thoughts.

We still have to deal in abstractions: even the relatively low-level abstraction of logical 1 and 0 bits moving between ALUs and registers in neat groups of 64 is too much information for a human brain to hold and track all at once, never mind the electrochemical reactions playing out by the billions every second — or being able to also recognize any kind of higher-level meaning. All thought is abstraction; all speech is abstraction; all social interaction is abstraction. We are complex physical systems understanding ourselves through abstractions. And that’s all right! We can’t do away with abstractions; such a thing is so far outside the realm of the possible that even to ask whether we “should” is incoherent. But we do need to be cognizant that they are abstractions and that they do leak: if we mistake abstractions — historically contingent, constructed systems, which serve necessary functions but are not necessarily the only systems that could serve those functions — for uncomplicated, “natural” fact, we are ill-prepared for what on Lacanian terms* would be understood as irruptions of the Real into the Symbolic.

To come back around to Hanne Blank’s book, then: the binary system of “heterosexual” and “homosexual”, and indeed the entire concept of “sexual orientation” as a relatively uncomplicated, fixed characteristic of a person’s identity, is a leaky abstraction (though no less so, of course, than the system of “acceptable” and “deviant” sexual behaviors which preceded it in Western European thought). It’s a nice, simple idea, easy to think about and apply, and in most cases it seems to fit pretty well. But if you start digging you find it doesn’t have any ontological stability. Not everyone is attracted exclusively to one gender. Not everyone is attracted to ANY gender. Not everyone experiences their sexuality as a fixed “orientation” over their lifetime. If you dig deeper, you find it’s built on another leaky abstraction: the idea of “sexual orientation” rests (among other things) on the idea that there are two genders, masculine and feminine; that every person is either one or the other; and that every person is attracted to either one or the other. But gender, too, is unstable, as not everyone identifies with the gender they’re assigned at birth, or indeed with either pole of the standard gender binary, and not everyone experiences their gender identity as stable over their lifetime. Psychology, sociology, even anatomy, are all susceptible to these leaks.

Every level you try to systematize and stabilize turns out to resist that process. The wild multifarious variety of human biology and brain chemistry and all the complex interactions of systems with systems — all the way down, at the very root, to the perpetual randomness of quantum foam — filters up through the abstractions as instability. When we take these neat abstractions and try to impose them on the messiness of lived experience, at best they only mostly fit. Some people can’t or won’t fit into the mold, and some get hurt trying to fit, or more often, by others trying to make them fit. And I think the best way to deal with this, probably, is — if you’ll pardon my repeating myself — to recognize the constructedness, and the leakiness, of the abstractions we use, and to understand them not only as contingent but as provisional. That they are constructed means they are not immutable. We absolutely require sets of abstracting conceptual tools to manage our experience of the world. But there is no reason to presume a priori that the specific sets of tools we have are the only ones that could ever possibly serve the purpose. A worldview is not handed down from on high. It is learned and built up, and it can be revised and replaced as events and information warrant.

Accepting instability lets you adjust and adapt. Moreover, trying to prevent or quash it is an effort doomed to failure.

* in fairness I must admit I know very little Lacan and can claim to understand even less.

On Troy Davis, Lawrence Brewer, Capital Punishment, and — again — on Being America

Below is the text of a public post I made on Google+ last night; I wanted to put it here, as well, and to make a couple of other notes on the subject.

State-enacted killing of innocent (and not-proven-guilty) persons is a necessary, inevitable feature and consequence of a legal system which allows the death penalty. There is no such thing in the world as perfection: all systems fail sometimes, all humans are fallible. The theory, though not the implementation, of the criminal justice system we have in the United States is probably one of the most resistant to failures, but there is not and can never be a system which never fails.

Knowing that systems always fail, the only rational thing to do is to try to design them not only so that they fail as infrequently as possible, but also so that their failures are as mitigated, and do as little damage, as possible.

A system which allows execution as punishment for crimes is a system which will — not can, not could, but WILL — kill innocent people. Troy Davis is far from the first, and so long as the death penalty is legal in this country he won’t be the last.

To support the death penalty is, inescapably, to support legalized killing by the government of innocent persons. The vast majority, I am sure, of death penalty supporters think that such cases are deeply regrettable, and that efforts should be made to avoid them; but as long as the state is allowed to kill people, it will sometimes kill innocent people.

Supporting the death penalty requires either a belief against all evidence, all facts, and all reason — a willful delusion — that some human legal system could possibly be so infallible as never to put an innocent person to death; or a belief that some rate of wrongful executions of innocents is acceptable in order to kill criminals.

Either is deeply troubling, but the latter especially makes my blood run cold.

This is what we are, in the United States of America. We tell ourselves, as a society, a lot of stories about our history, about the important people in our history, about the founding values of our country, about “what it means” to be an American. Most of them are lies.

What it means to be an American is to claim to be uniquely virtuous in the world, while living atop the piled-high bones of centuries of genocide and atrocity, profiting to this day from centuries of stolen labor, claiming the mountain of bodies on which we stand and the filth-filled gully below it together constitute a level playing field. What it means to be an American is to tell other countries to respect human rights, while we tap our own citizens’ phones, kidnap and torture people on mere suspicion of having connections to “the terrorists,” and proudly murder a man whose guilt of the crime for which he dies is not proven.

We are a nation of vicious, hypocritical cowards; we should own up to it, at least.

That post discusses the inevitability of killing innocents under the legal death penalty, and the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves in the US — something I also wrote about a couple years ago, after Shepard Smith was so angry about torture that he dropped an F-bomb on-air; then, I said: “And all of [this] does count.  We don’t get to pretend it didn’t happen.  We don’t get to pretend someone else did it.”

But the other thing I want to say is this: Lawrence Brewer, who was one of the three men who murdered James Byrd, Jr. in 1998 merely for being Black, and who was unequivocally, confessedly, unrepentantly guilty, was also executed last night. There’s an enormous amount of doubt about Davis’s guilt; there is none at all about Brewer’s. He was proud of what he’d done.

For the state to kill him — no matter how strongly one might believe (and I do) that the world is no worse off for not having him in it anymore — was nonetheless every bit as unjust and barbaric as was Troy Davis’s execution.

The state’s power to enact and enforce laws, and to try, convict, and penalize those who break them, arises from society’s right and obligation to keep itself intact, functioning, and healthy. In principle, though frequently not in practice (see above, re: impossibility of perfection), laws represent the lines drawn by society to protect itself: what falls outside those lines is too harmful to society to be allowed. And so to keep itself healthy, a society has the right to create mechanisms to try to prevent that harm, such as imprisonment to prevent perpetrators from causing further harm; well-known penalties such that people tempted to break the law will decide the risk is too great; requirements where possible that the perpetrator(s) compensate the victim(s), and reform and rehabilitation programs to make it easy for people who’ve done harm to society to instead find ways to help it. But society only has the right to do this so long as the mechanisms it puts in place are themselves within the harm threshold.

Capital punishment by the state is, in my view, inherently as far outside the harm threshold as murder is. A murder is, by definition, a harm that cannot be compensated for: no recompense or restitution can be made for a death, because lives are not objects and do not have a price. A victim’s family might want, as the MacPhails did in the Davis case, the killer to be killed; or they might want, as the Byrds did in the Brewer case, the killer’s life to be spared. But the law should never be an instrument of personal revenge: society’s concern is protecting, preserving, and keeping itself healthy, not enacting vengeance on behalf of individuals. If someone is a continuing danger — Brewer is reported to have told a reporter the day before his death, “I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” — society is justified in keeping that individual isolated, to prevent further harm. But just as we might take prisoners of war, and hold them for the duration of the conflict, but are compelled by law and decency to treat them humanely, and forbidden to kill them, so too is it inhumane to kill a killer.

Really, Gearbox? Really?

[Cross-posted at Shakesville.]

I had really expected that nearly two years ago would be the last time I’d write about Duke Nukem. I’d happily put the character, the franchise, and its gleeful participation in the worst traits of gamer culture, out of my mind. Until Gearbox Software announced they had acquired the rights and that the vapor-for-fourteen-years Duke Nukem Forever would be seeing release after all. So, thanks for that, guys. That’s just swell.

Since that miserable announcement, almost like clockwork, predictably awful globs of congealed misogyny have been flung forth from Gearbox HQ, splattering all over the gaming press. They held a press event at a strip club; they flagrantly violated PAX’s longstanding “no booth babe” policy (a policy which, it seems, contrary to how it was presented, was basically voluntary all along); and most recently they announced that the multiplayer capture-the-flag mode (a de rigueur component, of course, of any multiplayer shooter) would be entitled “Capture the Babe,” and that when a player had “captured the babe,” slinging the presumably-otherwise-passive female character over his shoulder, she would occasionally “freak out,” and need to be slapped (on the ass, Gearbox hastened to clarify, not the face! So that’s OK then) to “calm her down.”

…yeah. The aim of the game mode is to 1) abduct sexually objectified “babes” who have no agency of their own, but 2) who hysterically “freak out” at being bodily lifted up and hauled around, 3) who you then physically abuse to ensure their compliance, and 4) collect them as trophies.

I was going to write at more length about this, but Gunthera1′s excellent post at The Border House pretty much covers it, so I recommend reading her if you need more background or detail.

I’ll add a couple of other notes, however. As a bit of background, Randy Pitchford from Gearbox was on the “Irrational Interviews” podcast produced by Boston-based Bioshock developers Irrational, back in February, and when asked about the challenges of marketing games, he (I’m afraid I’m paraphrasing from memory, but I don’t believe I’m misrepresenting him) explained that seeing marketing materials for a game is like “when you meet a girl (sic), and you decide in 5 seconds ‘would I do her, or not?’” It’s obviously a total shock that a fellow like that might be insensitive to concerns about sexist content in the game he’s making.

And finally, Penny Arcade — having, perhaps, after the Dickwolves debacle, decided to prove everyone wrong who ever praised them for attempting to take a thoughtful approach to game-related controversies — have joined in.* In an echo of their earlier misrepresentation of criticism of the “Sixth Slave” comic, here they misconstrue the DNF criticisms as being solely about the slap rather than about using women as trophies — literally objects — ignoring that at least within the conceptual framework of the game enemy soldiers in the Call of Duty games have agency and contend directly with the player, and slandering hundreds of thousands of soldiers as “murderers” into the bargain.

It seems like for every lovely moment like David Gaider’s eloquent rebuttal to an aggrieved “Straight Male Gamer” there’s still a half-dozen episodes which (to borrow Mr. Walker’s phrase) make my spine hurt. This is why we can’t have nice things, game industry.

Addendum: Denis Farr pointed out to me on Twitter something I’d missed: evidently the game also includes cigarette vending machines labeled “fags”. So, uh, yeah.


*For those who may not want to click through, the comic shows Tycho, in an exaggerated “moral scold” posture, wagging his finger at Gabe and declaiming, “Did you know there’s a mode in Duke Nukem where you slap a woman’s bottom?” In the second panel, Gabe, looking bored, responds, “Did you know there’s a mode in Call of Duty where you murder, like, a million people?” as Tycho appears taken aback. In the third panel, Gabe continues, “It’s called Call of Duty.”

Response to Randy Milholland

Randy Milholland, a friend of mine and the author and artist of Something*Positive, asked me today,

Honest question for you: how come you’re bothered by the Penny Arcade stuff but the Redneck Tree never bothered you?

And that’s a fair question. I was going to respond in a series of twits, but 140-character bursts become unwieldy when you need more than a couple of them, so instead I’m writing this post. I don’t want to make Randy wait too long for me to answer him, though, so this is basically going to be a listing of the things I was going to say over Twitter, rather than a more carefully structured post.

Herewith:

First, the Redneck Tree was years ago (almost 9 years, now that I look it up), and my views have changed since then (I like to think they’re better now).

Second, I actually was somewhat uncomfortable with it — just not enough to say anything at the time. If it were a new SP strip, I most likely would speak up. I haven’t gone back to bring it up both because I hadn’t really thought about it in a while, and because I didn’t think it’d be productive to.

Third, Randy’s not running a convention attended by tens of thousands of people, let alone threatening to blacklist critics from that convention.

Fourth, the original Dickwolves strip is less an issue than their response, which was to lie about the criticisms, attack the critics, double down on the problematic content, and insist that they shouldn’t be held responsible for things they did and said. Randy didn’t do any of that (though I don’t recall any criticism of the Redneck Tree anyway — there may well have been some, but I don’t think I saw it).

Fifth, Randy’s never positioned himself as representative of a whole subculture; Gabe likes to act as though no “real” gamers or PA fans have a problem with what they did — see Kirby Bits’s post, where she discusses his use of “some people” vs. “you” — when the fact is that the criticisms are coming mainly from longtime PA readers. The PA response has essentially been to assert the prerogative to define who is and who isn’t a “real gamer” according to whether a person doesn’t or does, respectively, have a problem with the Dickwolves strip and their subsequent actions. That is, effectively, they assert the prerogative to define gamer culture as a subset of rape culture. As a gamer who opposes rape culture, that makes me really angry.

Finally, as I said, Randy’s my friend. I don’t want to have a fight with him, or seem like I’m attacking him, so although there are a lot of things to criticize about the Redneck Tree stuff, if I were going to present that criticism I’d want to be fairly careful how I went about it. I’ll admit, I don’t really care very much whether things I say regarding the Dickwolves mess hurt Mike or Jerry’s feelings, so long as I’m confident I’m not saying things that aren’t true.

So that’s my response, and I apologize, Randy, for the delay in posting it.

Well, I Guess That Resolves Things

Again, probably reading Kirby Bits’s post is the best place to start; I only have my own commentary to add on a couple of points.

One is that Krahulik has been out front, and taking most of the heat, on this issue. That’s probably by design; he’s always seemed more comfortable with confrontation than Holkins. And it’s left room for people (including me — I have certainly always preferred to think that he was in general a more thoughtful an empathetic person than Krahulik) to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions about where he stands on the issue. I think at this point, though, Krahulik’s behavior has become hostile enough toward rape survivors that Holkins’s apparent neutrality begins to look like tacit approval, or at best cowardice. Jerry, if you happen to read this, this isn’t actually a complicated question. You can just speak up. Are you for, or against, mocking the suffering of rape survivors? Having a voice other than Mike’s speaking for Penny Arcade, at this point, would probably be a good idea.

The other point, which Kirby Bits doesn’t directly address, is the dig in this section:

I’ve gotten a couple messages from people saying they are “conflicted” about coming to PAX. My response to them is: don’t come. Just don’t do it. In fact give me your name and I’ll refund your money if you already bought a ticket. I’ll even put you on a list so that if, in a moment of weakness you try to by a ticket we can cancel the order. (emphasis added)

Sure enough, Krahulik threatened to blacklist anyone so upset or angered by his mockery of rape survivors that they weren’t sure they’d feel comfortable attending PAX.

Guess I’m not so conflicted anymore. It’s a shame — as I mentioned in my last post, I really enjoyed going to PAX East last year, and I think that the work Child’s Play does is really valuable. But even if I’d still have a good time — which I very well might — if I went to PAX East this year, PAX attendance numbers (among many other factors, obviously) affect Penny Arcade’s clout in the video game industry. So my having fun would go hand in hand with helping to boost Krahulik and Holkins’s profile, driving more advertising dollars to their site, and increasing their legitimacy as representatives of video game culture. I’m not willing to contribute to Penny Arcade’s push to define gamer culture as hostile to everyone but heterosexual, white, cisgendered men. So whether or not Mike has actually put my name on the auto-cancel list at Penny Arcade Expo HQ, I won’t be going to PAX this year.

Child’s Play is a somewhat trickier issue. I worry that on the one hand, if people stop giving to Child’s Play over its association with Penny Arcade, Krahulik and Holkins will yell “look, they’ve got a vendetta against us and they don’t care if they hurt sick kids!”; but that on the other hand, if people don’t stop giving to Child’s Play over this, they’ll point to those numbers as evidence that they’re Good People, and so all the mean things those Nasty Internet Feminists said about them must be false. I think that I’ll continue to give to Child’s Play, myself, because ultimately it’s only an aggregator — the gifts are still picked from wish lists put up by the hospitals, and still go directly to the hospitals. And because even if Gabe and Tycho don’t, people like this woman deserve to be honored.

Why I’m Conflicted About Attending PAX East 2011

Kirby Bits’s excellent post at The Border House pretty much sums it up, actually. As KB notes on her blog, in the two days since that post went up, the “Dickwolves” merchandise appears to have been removed from the Penny Arcade store; that’s certainly a good step, and it deserves some recognition.

But it isn’t really very much — to, months after initially responding to criticism with dismissal, mockery, willful misrepresentation, and attacks, quietly stop trying to turn a buck by trading on rape culture in a couple of instances. (Especially when they’re still trading on rape culture, misogyny, and violence against women as a punchline.) It’s a step — and, again, it deserves recognition as such — but it’s also important to recognize that it’s only one, fairly small, step, and for it to be meaningful they need to follow up on it. If you hurt someone accidentally, and especially if at first you reacted defensively and insisted you’d done nothing wrong, doing something small in the way of redressing that hurt late is better than nothing or never, but if you don’t also make a point of being careful to avoid hurting them again, people are going to find it harder and harder to believe the “accidental” part.

I’ve been a Penny Arcade reader for over a decade (and yes, that means I’ve passed over a lot of problematic material without comment in that time, for various reasons; that’s not something I’m proud of), I attended and enjoyed PAX East last year, I’m a huge fan of their charity work, and I’ve offered praise for Tycho’s relatively thoughtful engagement with difficult issues in the past. So I would like to believe — and I do have some hope — that they will follow up appropriately on this, educate themselves on rape culture, and react more thoughtfully to criticism in the future. I don’t know how likely it is, but I’d like to believe it. (I mean, while we’re at it, I’d also like for Gearbox to have left Duke Nukem Forever to rot, so…)

So ultimately, I’m conflicted about attending PAX East this year. Some friends are going to be in from out of town to go to the convention, and Gabe and Tycho have always been insistent that PAX isn’t about them, it’s about the gamer community. I don’t necessarily think writing PAX off and conceding the space is a productive approach, but it also can’t be denied that Penny Arcade sets the tone for PAX, and at the risk of being redundant, just pulling the Dickwolves merchandise is far from sufficient, and while it deserves recognition as a positive step, it doesn’t deserve a whole batch of cookies or renewed unconditional support.

Of course, there’s still about a month and a half until PAX East, so any number of things could happen in that time to affect my decision on this. One possibility — I did this in the case of Talib Kweli’s new independently produced album, Gutter Rainbows, because I like his music and want to support independent music production, but was troubled by the line “life’s a bitch, it’s how you handle her” in “I’m On One” — is that I’ll go to PAX, and also give an equivalent amount to an organization like BARCC that works to fight rape culture and provide help and resources to survivors of sexual violence. On the off chance that any of my approximately four readers are feeling similarly conflicted about this situation, perhaps they’ll find that approach to be workable as well.

On Security Theater

(Updated below)

I assume that y’all are more or less familiar with the TSA’s new “security” measures — you get the choice of submitting to a full-body imaging scan which produces detailed images of your naked body, which images are then supposed to be but not necessarily actually destroyed, or of submitting to an “enhanced pat-down” (and if you think that sounds a lot like “enhanced interrogation technique,” well, that’s maybe not such a coincidence) in which a TSA employee of the same gender (as long as you’re cis and your gender presentation fits the conventional binary) gropes your entire body, chest and groin included.  If you’re inside security and try to refuse both procedures, you will neither be allowed on the plane nor allowed to leave the airport without being threatened with arrest and hefty fines.  I’m dashing this post off quickly, so I won’t include links to sources — I’m confident that Google will back me up.

A few points about this situation, though they’re probably not going to be new ideas to anyone.

  • There is no reason whatsoever to believe this will in any way make air travel safer.  People who want to sneak things onto planes will still find ways to do so, because people who want to sneak things onto planes are not stupid, and will be able to figure out, just as I have figured out, and just as you have probably figured out, that neither the grope-down nor the naked scanner will reveal any objects hidden inside a person’s body.  People who, for example, want to blow up a plane while they’re on it are probably not going to be deterred by the idea of sneaking the explosives on by swallowing them or inserting them rectally — after all, drug smugglers have been doing so for ages.
  • What makes air travel safer is good investigative and intelligence work, so that plots against air travel can be stopped in the planning stage, before anyone gets on a plane.
  • Approximately one in six American women has been the victim of rape or sexual assault in her lifetime.  That means about 8% (at least) of the flying public are now legally required to relive their sexual assaults.  (The remaining 92% are “merely” required to submit to an initial sexual assault.)
  • A common refrain from defenders of the new measures is “I’d rather be groped than blown up.”  It’s crucially important to try to get through to people who argue that, that being groped in no way reduces their already-minuscule chances of being blown up.
  • Another common claim is “we have to do anything we can to prevent another 9/11.”  But, aside from the aforementioned intelligence work, which we aren’t doing as much of as we should because we’re distracted by nonsense security theater like this — and aside from the bill being sponsored by Rep. Markey which would require screening of 100% of air cargo, an entirely sensible measure — we have already done all we can to prevent “another 9/11.”  Namely: we locked the cockpit doors.  It will never again be possible for hijackers to gain control of an airplane and fly it into a building, killing thousands; and unless you’re just invoking the September 11th, 2001 attacks for cheap political gain you have to accept that nothing short of that would be “another 9/11.”  (The September 11th hijackers themselves also had a hand in ensuring that another such attack could never happen: they let all air passengers know, from now on, that it is not safe to assume hijackers are just after ransom and intend to the hostages unscathed once their demands are met.)
  • We have to assume that the people in charge of devising and promulgating these policies — the TSA, DHS, and up the chain to the President — are themselves also not stupid, and know just as well as some guy with a blog that there’s no plausible way the new screening methods will improve security in any meaningful sense.  We have to conclude, then, that improving security is not their purpose.
  • Finally, even supposing that there were some way in which these measures would reduce the already-minuscule chances of dying in a terrorist attack, it wouldn’t matter.  It wouldn’t matter because these searches are clearly in violation of the 4th Amendment: they are neither reasonable, nor spurred by immediate probable cause, nor backed by warrants issued on evidence of probable cause and describing the specific things to be searched for and seized.  This would be plainly true even if these techniques were effective, and the fact is that they aren’t.  (In DC v. Heller, for example, the Supreme Court made it clear that even a law which is demonstrably effective at reducing crime does not supersede [their interpretations of] the Constitution.)

Update: Of course, another thing to keep in mind here, and it’s something I’m as guilty of as anybody, is that arbitrary harassment and abuse by authorities who can’t be effectively held accountable for it have just been the status quo for many marginalized populations in the US, especially people of color, GLBTQI people, people with disabilities, poor people, etc.  It’s only now that affluent white men — John Tyner, a software engineer; Penn Jillette, a millionaire comedian — are being subjected to this kind of treatment that there appears to be some serious outrage growing.  Only now that white men aren’t treated differently from those other people.  There are all kinds of ways in which that doesn’t say anything good about our society.