The View From Thedas: “Find a way forward.”

The following post has spoilers for the ending of the quest “In Your Heart Shall Burn”, which ends the first act of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I’ve been thinking a lot for a while about how the gaming medium can do things that other formats can’t, and one of the major ones is by making things in-game react differently than you expect them to. This is something we see in a big way in Depression Quest, which does a good job of using the UI that we’re used to seeing in games and other programs, to choose what is and isn’t clickable; when the protagonist doesn’t have the mental energy to do some of the things that depressed people are told that they “should” do, those options still show up, but you’re taunted by your inability to actually do them. It’s a really smart way of showing something using gameplay that you wouldn’t be able to just explain.

I’ve been thinking a lot about running in games for several years, because when I was growing up and I played games on the living room TV, my mom always commented on the fact that the game protagonists always ran everywhere. I usually showed her that I could walk, but except in rare games such as Morrowind where the protagonist gets “tired” in a way that makes them less able to cast spells or attack, there isn’t much reason to walk instead of run.

Dragon Age: Inquisition does a good job of using this always-running expectation, plus the way you get used to running animations, to effect your sense of story.

For those who haven’t played it, Dragon Age: Inquisition starts out with the protagonist and their friends/colleagues working out of the poorly fortified mountain village of Haven. The first part of the game ends dramatically with an assault on the village and the council of advisers leading the village’s inhabitants and what is left of the military forces that the protagonist has spent most of the game gathering out of Haven through a series of secret hidden tunnels. Meanwhile, the protagonist and three friends use the one trebuchet that has not been (dramatically) destroyed to collapse the mountain on the invading army, which destroys the village in the process.

Since there wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise, the protagonist miraculously survives by falling into some of Haven’s tunnels, but this is where the game designers made some interesting choices.

For one, you aren’t able to run at first. You’re injured and tired, and so the protagonist sort of stumbles along and is only able to get up to a light jog as their top speed. There are several stretches of tunnel that you run through doing this, and then you’re thrown outside, where it is obvious that the wind is keeping you from even walking very quickly. The animations change several more times, and the protagonist has to shield their eyes from the wind and snow. There are several scenes of struggling through the snow, and except when you stop to inspect a campsite, you never actually say anything, but there are audible gasps and struggling noises as you attempt to make your way through it.

the Herald struggles through the snow

In games, you’re used to your onscreen character responding in certain ways, and there’s a very visceral component to that. It’s the reason a lot of us end up leaning in the direction we want our character to go in addition to the standard “edge of your seat” type reactions many people experience while watching movies; even though we don’t expect our characters to respond to our movements, we still make them, often without thinking.

That visceral sympathy ends up being why we react badly to characters behaving in ways we don’t expect, particularly in the case of bugs and glitches. But there are ways to subvert our expectations of how our onscreen avatar would respond to certain things, and it’s hard not to feel a little bit of how the protagonist feels when they’re struggling through that snowstorm, since you are used to commanding your character to move forward and having them do so at a run with the same running animations you’ve seen for the past 15-20 hours of gameplay. Of course, the whiteout of the blizzard, the occasional completely black screens accompanied by the barely audible struggle-sounds of the voice actor that you’ve grown used to being your voice are part of it. But it’s almost all in the deliberate slowness of the movement and the walking/jogging animation changes.

The part of the game that comes right after this is basically a series of dramatic cutscenes, and though they’re absolutely beautiful– the cinematography of DA:I is probably the best I’ve seen in any game I’ve ever played– they didn’t give me anywhere near the connection to my character that I got from watching the mighty Herald of Andraste struggle to walk through a blizzard.

Chris Mancil compares using an anti-harassment blockbot to McCarthy-era blacklists, acts like a tool

Electronic Arts game dev Chris Mancil posted a disingenuous load of shit on his blog today, but it was sort of a platonic ideal of the kind of disengenuous shit written by boring cishet men who think their opinions matter, so I’m gonna take that shit apart, alright?

I’m just not a fan of collective punishment, or guilt by association.

It is not punishment for people to protect themselves from harassers. Collective blocking is an attempt to keep assholes out of our mentions, because no one is entitled to our time.

These two tactics in real life usually lead to terrible results by stripping individuals of their agency and humanity. In warfare, dehumanization and ‘othering’ allows more flexibility for the troops, and their administrators, to you know – temporarily abandon ethics and morality, for the greater good, and other such mindless rationalizations. A dangerous but all too familiar historical phenomena in war, but also with strong roots in our entertainment history – such as the Hollywood Blacklists for communist sympathizers.

This manages to combine the first geek social fallacy with a conflation of the actions of private individuals and government. It’s something you see a lot with people who think they are entitled to audience because they have freedom of speech or that they should be free of the consequences of speech, such as getting fired from your job for being racist on the internet, which isn’t how free speech works. This is the same kind of logic that leads people to those conclusions.

Milo Yiannopoulos is a misogynistic, transphobicopportunistic  douchebag with shady business dealings working for an extremely unethical “journalism” website. Deciding to follow this dude, retweet him, or take his work seriously is a pretty big sign that even if you aren’t an outright misogynist, you really don’t give a shit about women, because this guy is awful about us. But even if you don’t care about sexism for whatever reason, he’s an unethical, shitty dude with really bad opinions who hates gamers, and both his jokes and his rhetoric are pretty stale, so it’s kind of a sign that you have pretty bad taste and/or judgement, which is a good enough reason to unfollow/block you.

The idea that a piece of technology that allows individuals to not have to block every gamergate sea lion and his 100+ sockpuppet accounts is comparable to McCarthy-era blacklists is ridiculous.

In any event, good-bye 2,355 gaming twitter followers whom I shall miss.  I will happily be buddies with all of you again, but I won’t unfriend anyone, to be a friend of yours. And I would never ask you to do the same.

It is a perfectly reasonable request to ask that people stop being friends with your abuser and to choose not to keep people in your life if they will not do that. GamerGate is an abusive movement and Yiannopoulos is one of its ringleaders; he has helped create and foster that culture of abuse.

I skimmed a bit more of Mancil’s blog and Twitter: unsurprisingly, he identifies as a libertarian, loved American Sniper, and I think it’s possible that The Scarlet Letter is the only book he’s ever read. His ex-followers aren’t gonna be missing much.

GamerGate doesn’t want games to be art

So I realized something today that probably should’ve been obvious before, but here it is anyway: GamerGate doesn’t want games to be art. (For those of you new to this, here’s a primer on GamerGate.)

I mean, there’s a lot of other stuff going on with GamerGate: gaming is full of misogynistic pissbabies who are angry that women are interested in video games and are attempting to make their shitty clubhouse as awful as possible so we do not want to go into it, and also they hate transgender people a lot. Those are the bigger things going on.

But when you look at the stuff they’ve actually said about games journalism, they really, really don’t want any kind of subjective critique to exist, and when you look at the game developers they’ve targeted, they really, really don’t want challenging or interesting games to exist.

There are a lot of really interesting games that’ve come out, particularly in the last decade, that challenge ideas about what gaming is about, what gaming is for, and what qualifies as a game. Sometimes there are interesting little parts in big game titles that do this, where you get the moral questions in Dragon Age and other games like that, but usually it’s indies that are managing to do this, developers with a handful of supporters, companies with only a small number of employees, doing things that can afford to be experimental in ways that other games just can’t.

It’s not just that they’re failing to go after the big developers and their swag gifts to journalism and those shady areas where journalistic integrity and whether or not critique and reviews can be trusted, it’s that instead of going after journalists at all they’re mostly going after targets making interesting, challenging games that might actually have a chance at changing how people think of video games. They’re not getting the support and protection they should be getting from the big names in gaming, either– in fact, I keep seeing prominent GamerGaters recommended for me on the front page of Steam, which is a major (if not *the* major) game distribution hub.

It’s not just the “art” label that they’re rejecting– if you’ve ever seen the scorn a lot of gamers treat “casuals” with, you’re familiar with the attempts at gatekeeping that try to keep any gaming that’s actually accessible to people who don’t identify with “gamer culture”. I just think it’s interesting that the “big controversy” in gaming in 2015 is, in its attempt to throw women (especially trans women) out of the clubhouse with as violent means as they can get away with, has made its attempts to prove games are art a decade ago look a bit ridiculous– how could a community so dedicated to stifling creativity and critique be seen as a legitimate art form?

Demoridroids: A cyberpunk/sci-fi mook concept

The Demoridroids are a concept for an army of mooks/minions; they would be used as a cheap alternative to human guards. They are, in most ways, indistinguishable from other battle robots or droids; the only difference is that they have an added function that attempts to demoralize their human targets.

The Demoridroid project started with the idea of scanning the huge volumes of existing data produced by humans in an attempt to find the most stressful phrases that can be uttered; they found data relating to human reactions to certain phrases and found the ones that caused the most fear and anxiety; they also measured stress-based psychosomatic functions, like nausea. They assumed that the bots would then end up finding the best battle cries, but they actually ended up with a very different phrase list, leading to the creation of a group of droids that went into battle blasting phrases such as:

  • We need to talk.
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • What is your greatest weakness?
  • So, what do you do?
  • Your rent is due.
  • The results were inconclusive.
  • Your card was declined.

The Demoridroid 1.0 would occasionally combine phrases if they were damaged, leading to dying robots crying out phrases like “We need to five years mother declined,” and though this was not a common bug, some viral videos of the Demoridroid 1.0 caused a dramatic decline in sales of new units and they were discontinued.

The Demoridroid 2.0 had far more advanced software to find information about its targets; it was able to use a scan of their appearance to get demographic data in order to find phrases that will affect people like them specifically, and they could be paired with in-house security systems that scanned any identification chips, RFID tags, and visible products, creating either a working model of the target or accessing public information about them; because of the sheer amount of information available on social networking sites, the Demoridroids were now able to narrow down their demoralizing phrases much more specifically.

This instantly led to many corporations buying the Demoridroids for security, but video of them soon leaked that found that the phrases that they indicated as stressful for many demographics tended to be overwhelmingly racist, sexist and homophobic: the most stressful phrases for members of marginalized groups often were a mix of casual microaggressions, explicit use of slurs, and other forms of harassment. A particular video of a droid yelling “Hey, (sexist slur), turn around, I’m talkin’ to you!” followed by a series of sexually explicit and threatening statements ended up with millions of views and was shown on several national news broadcasts.

This led to a call for the total cessation of the use of Demoridroids, and while some celebrities have attached themselves to this cause and a couple of corporations attempting to keep a “clean public image” have removed them, the anti-Demoridroid factions have so far had little success.

(The Demoridroids concept is free to use non commercially as long as you let me know if you decide to post any variations on them. If you’re a game master and you use them in a game, I’d be interested to see how you stat them, too!)