some similarities between #GamerGate and the “War on Christmas”

There’s probably a name for the thing where a bunch of members of a sociological majority group develops a weird persecution complex over attempts to:

  • recognize existing diversity and be more inclusive
  • be less socially harmful by promoting marginalizing narratives
  • make more money by expanding your demographic to include marginalized people who might want to see characters like themselves
  • recognize an existing demographic that already is consuming your product and try to make it more friendly to them
  • otherwise not be so much of a misogynist/racist/religiously bigoted/transphobic/ethnocentric/etc dickbag

but dang does this happen a lot.

I’ve been thinking about the thing that Fox News types do every year where they flip their shit over the “war on Christmas”, as if attempting to be religiously inclusive is an attack on them. It’s this weird thing majority groups do where they co-opt a bit of social justice stuff and act like not being the only group being catered to is an attempt to persecute that group. I’m pretty sure it’s disingenuous; the alternative is that it’s just plain ignorant.

Anyway, if you hadn’t figured it out, I’m talking about how #GamerGate and its ilk react to cultural criticism of video games and video game companies choosing to make more diverse games. They do it a bit differently than the War on Christmas types, who lose their shit in somewhat different ways, but it’s a very similar conservative backlash. The War on Christmas people claim that they’re being religiously oppressed because their faith isn’t catered directly to; the #GamerGaters claim that they’re being oppressed by female characters who don’t all have improbably large breasts without support. War on Christmas people pretend that calls for inclusive language are government censorship; #GamerGate does the same thing.

It’s possible that #GamerGate is better at harassing its ideological opponents (IE, people who are reasonable and think that their terrible opinions are awful) and threatening them into silence, but I’m not sure exactly what the backlash ends up being on people who get called out on Fox News by one of their popular pundits than what happens when TotalBiscuit or Adam Baldwin does the same thing on Twitter; the bigot backlash is clearer on Twitter since the hatemongers and their mobs are using the same medium as their targets, and they’re able to coordinate more effectively. But it’s still a pretty similar type of conservative backlash that happens when people have their privilege challenged, and it’s depressing that it manages to claim so many adherents who fuck up so many lives.

“Intimates”, sexualization and actual intimacy

Sociological Images has done good writing before on how when companies make gendered versions of a product, that is, one for men and one for women, they tend to assume the male version is functional but the women’s version is sexual. A friend of mine pointed out today that the women’s underwear at Target is listed as “intimates”; they were looking for underwear and felt uncomfortable with the idea that underwear has to be “intimate”: maybe they didn’t want to do anything sexual in their underwear, or maybe they just wanted functional underclothes.

target

“Intimates”, of course, also includes teddies and a handful of bustiers and corsets, a sort of sexy middle ground between sleepwear and underwear, clothes that are really only meant to be sexual. (In fact, the “unsexy” underwear, such as sports bras, gets relegated to the “athletic wear” section.) This doesn’t exist for men except in a few specific concepts, many of which are coded as gay, and none of which are sold at Target.

The idea that all of womens’ underwear is “intimate” leads to some practical problems– the fact that one can’t find a multipack of breathable cotton underpants in black that won’t visibly stain if your tampon or pad leaks is one of them. Another is the prevalence of “sexy” unbreathable underwear that can lead to yeast infections.

The big thing I’m thinking about here, though, is socialization, and the word “intimates” being a descriptor for all of women’s underwear sexualizes the female body; it implies that our underwear is primarily there to be titillating (presumably for men), not to, you know, cover our butts/pelvis and/or stabilize our breasts. But the word “intimate” being used for a sexualized consumer product is also a part the way we socially construct relationships; “intimate” can mean a lot of different kinds of closeness but this connects it specifically to romantic or sexual relationships.

This societal prioritization of sexual and romantic relationships, and the presumption of heterosexuality in them, can really skew our priorities It ends up looking “weird” when people choose to have their most important relationships be with friends or family members and not romantic and sexual partners. It marginalizes asexuals and aromantics. It exacerbates societal problems that already exist around friendships, especially among men.

I’m obviously not saying that Target has some hidden agenda in calling women’s underwear “intimate”, but the social narrative that defaults the word “intimacy” to “sex” is one that dismisses other kinds of intimacy, and the coding of all womens’ underwear as titillating or sexual not only makes it harder to find more functional underwear but also contributes to the sexualization and objectification of all womens’ bodies; it would never explicitly put a sign on a woman that says “this, too, is for consumption”, but it helps people come to that conclusion on their own.

Mages, social justice, and morality in the Dragon Age series

It’s obligatory, I think, for any fantasy fan who plays video games to do a post about the mages in the Dragon Age series. This post has major spoilers for the story of the first two games, Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) and Dragon Age 2 (DA2), and some minor ones for the world building revealed in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dragon Age, it’s a series of roleplaying games (RPGs) in a high fantasy setting. It’s put out by Bioware, a game studio also known for its shooter/RPG space opera series Mass Effect. Bioware games are famous for good writing (most of its dialog and plot would make a totally fun and watchable TV show)  their good characterization, and their embracing of social justice related themes, particularly in their attempts to include people of color and gay/bisexual characters. This hasn’t always been popular, and they don’t always manage to do a good job, but they seem to get a little better in every game.

Though the series’ stories deal with marginalization in a lot of ways (including institutionalized oppression of elves, the plight of refugees fleeing something between a war and a natural disaster, and the split between aristocracy and commoners), the biggest issue that we see is the issue of what to do with mages. In the world of Dragon Age, mages are born with magical power; mages tend to have mage children but they can appear in any bloodline, and they can be extremely dangerous if they aren’t trained. “Mage” is the game’s stand-in for what would be called witches or wizards in stories like Harry Potter; they possess the unique ability to cast magical spells, which are generally used for healing and combat.

A big spiky monster.

A mage that has been possessed by a demon and turned into an abomination; this one is being possessed by a demon of Pride.

Mages have a marginalized status because there are significant institutions in place to impose control on their magic and because they can be a danger to the public if they lose control of their magic. From the way the characters talk about it, mages have to practice serious self-discipline in order to keep themselves from becoming possessed by demons or turning into “abominations”, where a demon takes them over and turns them into rampaging monsters.

The institutions that keep mages “under control” are called Circles of Magi and they seem to vary in the levels of freedom given to the mages in their care. Some act as a sort of magic school that it’s illegal to leave, others are more like prisons. The fact that they’re under the purview of the church, with a sort of order of religious knights (called templars) who act as guards and hunt down all mages outside the Circles, just complicates matters and makes them more problematic. Over the course of the game series you find similar atrocities committed by the templars on their mage charges/prisoners to the ones you see in real world prisons, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

There aren’t really any game mechanics that show that mage player characters have many issues with self control; almost all of the “bad guy” options where you can perform various acts of cruelty and human sacrifice in order to get more powers in the in-game combat system are available to all character classes. This might be an issue of game/story segregation, but it does call into question how easy it is to be possessed; it is entirely possible, given the information you get in the games and the experience of playing them as a mage character, that demon summoning and possession are less a common danger faced by mages and more a last-resort lashing out of an oppressed group without other options, and that the in-game characterization of it is similar to the real-world characterization of rioting by the media and pop culture.

Obviously, mages have unique magical talents available to use when they’re pushed to their limits, but we often see other groups getting access to other, related magical resources. However, the way the game treats mages acts as if they are the only people who have magic available to them. They are the only people with an inborn ability to cast spells, but again and again we see characters who are not mages but who tamper with magic anyway and end up summoning demons, going mad, getting possessed and/or gaining abnormal and uncontrollable magical powers:

  • A warrior protagonist of DA:O is able to desecrate a sacred religious artifact in a way that allows them to draw upon their own life force to damage their enemies, similarly to how mages using forbidden “blood magic” are able to draw from the life of themselves and others
  • Sandal, a savant enchanter of magical items, is a dwarf; dwarves are supposedly resistant to magic and cannot be mages, but exposure to the magical rocks known as lyrium seems to have taken some of his mind and given him the ability to make both items that help the main character and the magical equivalent of small bombs
  • The templars themselves eat lyrium and in using it get special magical powers that allow them to more efficiently hunt rogue mages; this actually induces a lifelong addiction that guarantees that they are unable to leave the order unless they can find a supply of the stuff on the black market, making it a sort of combination of magical amphetamines and the Spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune 
  • Anyone who messes with red lyrium (a corrupt form regular lyrium) gains magical powers and usually goes mad; the main villain of DA2 loses her mind, becomes enraged and starts bringing statues to life for the final battle of the game
  • The heroic warrior order that the protagonist of DA:O belongs to, the Grey Wardens, gain their special powers by drinking the blood of the darkspawn, the monsters whom they are sworn to fight. This is not commonly known by characters in the game because it would likely cause controversy and because it kills a large quantity of the recruits upon ingestion; characters who survive this ritual are generally rendered sterile and have their lifespans significantly reduced. In fact, Wardens generally only live about thirty years after this, and they usually commit suicide by entering darkspawn-infested caverns, choosing to die in combat instead of succumbing to a slow and painful death
  • Protagonist characters of all classes (that is, both combat and magic based characters) playing an optional quest in DA:O are able to “enhance” the powers they received from the blood-drinking ritual; it is clearly stated that the magical research that came up with this ritual was incredibly unethical
  • Probably a lot more I can’t think of right now.

So we have people born with the ability to use and control magic as a subjugated class, but it’s entirely possible for non-mages to seek out and use magical power, and when they do, they seem to lose control of it more often than not.

Additionally, we have the issue of other mages: the nomadic Dalish elves teach their mages through an apprenticeship model, which seems to work most of the time (though the major exception to this did unnaturally extend his lifespan and create werewolves, so the consequences are fairly dire when it fails).

The methods for controlling mages can be particularly horrible: when a Circle mage is deemed unable to control their magic, they can be made Tranquil, which basically makes them soulless automatons with little free will or feeling. The Tranquil make excellent researchers and servants and are used as such; there also has been at least one Templar who uses the fact that they cannot fight back to sexually abuse them. They are basically made into the perfect slaves, and generally end up working for the Circles, so there’s a heavy incentive to create more of them, since they not only reduce the mage-watching workload of the templars but also are free, uncomplaining labor.

There’s an interesting contrast between the Circles and the way the Qunari, a group of giant horned humanoids who mostly follow a highly strict religious code, treat their mages. The Qunari actually sew their mages’ lips together and force them to walk around in a sort of armored cage; they are kept from rebelling or acting against any religious tenants with the use of what looks to be a magic torture wand.

a humanoid grey creature in chains casting a spell

A qunari mage. Note the chains and sewn shut mouth.

Additionally, we hear a lot in the story about Tevinter, where mages rule, strange and horrific experiments give non-mages awful powers, and slavery is commonplace. I don’t doubt that it’s an oppressive, horrible place, and the fact that there’s one major country where slavery is legal creates a huge human (and elf) trafficking problem worldwide. But we don’t know that this is because it’s a magocracy, and both of the main alternatives given– physically restraining and torturing mages or putting them in Circles and turning the dangerous ones (including, often, ones who are merely politically dangerous) into Tranquil slaves– are ugly enough that it seems risking another Tevinter might actually be worth it in order to break that kind of power structure. (The Dalish method is never seriously offered as a mainstream solution; one assumes that no one believes it would scale.)

There’s a couple of ways this seems to relate to the real world, and it asks a lot of questions based on actual social justice issues. First of all, the comparison of the two main ways of “controlling” mages is an interesting one, because it’s clear that no one outside the Qunari would accept the way that they treat their mages. However, they mostly seem fine with the Circles and with Tranquility; Tranquil mages often run public-facing shops, so they aren’t unknown to the general population, and the tight connection between the Circles and religion means that accepting it is a part of their faith. Tranquility– a sort of spiritual lobotomy– unlike the Qunari cage-and-torture method– is sanitary, and the Circles are respectable; the propaganda issued that says that they are necessary is powerful.

I made the connection to riots earlier, but I want to make it clear what exactly I was invoking: in the real world, what is and isn’t called a riot is political and definitively racist; the reactions to Ferguson were characterized as a riot and many people in the media used that as an attempt to add to the racist characterization of Black people as aggressive and out of control. When a mostly white group does the same thing– generally for much more trivial reasons, including sports and pumpkins— it’s not characterized the same way, and it’s not used to make the same assumptions about that group of people.

This is, of course, a part of the narrative in which the actions of individuals who are part of a minority group are taken as representative of the group as a whole, often in a way that misses significant context; it also manages the marginalizing double-whammy of characterizing a group with perfectly justified anger as threateningly angry or aggressive and adds to negative stereotypes about that group as a whole.

I’m not equating these two situations, obviously. Mages aren’t real, Dragon Age is a fantasy video game, and the actual struggles that the definitional issues of what constitutes rioting are not something that those effected by it can make go away by turning their game off. Also, I’m only speaking to the power of these narratives from an outside perspective– I’m white and can’t speak to the experiences of Black people with racism. But these are common narratives in marginalization, and video games are a part of a pop culture narrative that effects how we see them.

There are some pretty clear ways that Bioware is invoking political issues in the Dragon Age series, particularly with its use of terrorism in DA2 and the obvious questions about religion it poses in regards to pretty much every fictional religion in the game. But it’s also bringing up some serious moral issues, and the fact that over the course of the series we find that many of the set-in-stone ideas about history are wrong or misleading makes readings that question the accuracy of the in-game lore potentially quite valid. I’m also hoping that looking critically at the way these stories are shown in the media that we consume might tell us something useful about the culture that produced and consumes these games.

SIDE NOTE: I want to provide some context for what I’m talking about regarding rioting and social narratives, but I’m not qualified to do so (both because it’s not something I feel like I’ve studied enough and because I’m white and so don’t have the specific experience to speak usefully on it anyway). If you want pieces on the subject by people who are way smarter than me, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jay Smooth, Austin C. McCoy and Juan Thompson.

Tumblr is great

Every few days, I see something on Tumblr that fills my heart with joy.

People get really caught up in making fun of Tumblr culture, as if a bunch of harmless 13 year olds figuring out their gender identity in ways that wouldn’t even be possible a generation ago is some kind of terrible thing. And don’t get me wrong, there are some problematic things about Tumblr as a system– it’s bad at dealing with abuse in the same way Twitter is and it allows a lot of really hateful blogs (stuff by neo-nazis, etc) to stick around– and the community has many of the flaws that social justice focused communities with an overwhelming amount of young white people have, especially with race.

But it seems like there are constantly great things coming up there, both in social justice contexts and other ones. People racebending and creating diverse fancasts (fan-made ideas of which actors would do well playing fictional characters onscreen, such as Gina Torres as Wonder Woman), high school kids talking about sexism, rape culture and dress codes, a 90,000 word Steve/Bucky alternate universe story taking place in a suburban high school and based loosely on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, warnings about the safety hazards of official 50 Shades of Grey merchandise, etc.

There are entire communities, which I won’t link to here, dedicated to, at best, making fun of “Tumblr culture” and, at worst, organizing harassment and doxxing of its users; it’s not at GamerGate levels right now but it can still be pretty bad. Additionally, there’s an attitude I’ve seen on many websites full of people who should know actually unironically use terms like “Social Justice Warrior”, a derogatory term made up by anti-Social Justice people that we managed to co-opt pretty quickly with “Social Justice Rogue”, “Social Justice Paladin” and other RPG class based jokes (there’s even a Greenlit game on Steam).

I think it’s important to recognize problematic aspects of your favorite things (doing what Tumblr would call “your fave is problematic”), but I think that the garbage people are eager to heap on Tumblr is rarely because of its problematic aspects, and tends to be one of the many ways that people are eager to shit on the hobbies of women and girls. It’s the same narrative that devalues work that’s seen as “feminine”, but applied to the hobby sphere.