Tag Archives: video games

“Why Do You Have to Make Everything Political?”

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Quote from the artist Ai Weiwei (source: @aiweiwei_art)

“Why do you have to make everything political?” This is a common question my fellow white people like to ask when someone offers a cultural critique of a popular musical, film, video game, or TV show. “It’s not political! It’s just a cute story about a boy and his dog (or whatever)!”

All theatre is political theatre. All films are political films. All games are political games. All TV shows are political TV shows. Let’s break this down.

What does it mean for something to be “political?” Let’s start with the obvious: the dictionary definition is useless for navigating complex social issues. Dictionaries are written by people, not by Lexica, Infallible Goddess of Language, and are updated all the time as usage changes. Dictionaries are vital and have important uses, none of which include wielding a dictionary definition as a sword to demarcate the limits of a complex social issue. I love you, dictionaries, but for this, I need to set you aside and dig deeper. I need to look at context.

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Lexica has better things to do than write your dictionaries, mortals (photo: ela-e-ele.com)

When people say “Why do you have to make everything political?’ they’re using “political” to refer to the social messaging that’s inherent in any work about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, size, class, religious minorities, etc. Let’s cut to the chase: They mean, “I do not wish to examine the ways in which this work depicts and/or impacts marginalized people in our culture.”

All plays, films, games, and TV shows are political because they are about people in relationship to each other and to their social context, and because they are created within a social context, not in a vacuum where symbols and metaphors are wiped clean of all meaning. All works contain messages about privilege, about marginalized people, about who is important and who is not, about who we should take seriously and who we should laugh at, about which issues facing our culture are serious and which are easily dismissable or even comical. Social messaging is inescapable in the narrative-based work of theatre, film, video games, and television, whether you choose to examine it or ignore it.

In order to ignore the social messaging in a work, you have to be able to ignore it and willing to ignore it.

A film that people consider “universal” and “apolitical” is a film that neatly and seamlessly reinforces dominant culture and privilege. People with privilege see depictions of that privilege as “normal,” “wholesome,” and “apolitical” in ways that it’s impossible for people without that privilege to do. There is no “apolitical” work; there is only work that reflects the world view of cultural privilege back to those with cultural privilege, who see that as “normal” and unmarked by any particular political point of view. Those without that privilege hear the political messaging loud and clear.

Is the Harry Potter series “apolitical”? Why was the character Lavender Brown cast with a Black actor in every film, then recast with a white actor when the character became Ron Weasley’s girlfriend? People make all sorts of excuses for that (“They had to recast when the part had lines and they just happened to cast a white actor”), but I have 20+ years experience in casting, and I know that excuse is nonsense. More importantly, the casting of a tiny character might seem like a minor detail for white people, but you aren’t the young Black girl in the audience picking out the few Black faces in a film series that you love, only to see her replaced by a white girl when she finally becomes part of the main story.

Why do people claim that Disney films have recently “become political,” decrying the supposed “liberal messaging” in films like Zootopia, Frozen, and Mulan, but are just fine with the sexist messaging of older princess films (“Your happy ending is to marry some dude; no other plans or ambitions you have matter enough to mention”). Little Mermaid is considered “apolitical” but contains an uber-sexist narrative where a young woman must remain silent in order to “win her man,” and the “happy ending” is leaving her home, family, culture, and entire lower half of her body behind to be some douchebag’s wife. That is obvious political messaging, but messaging that supports the male cultural privilege we consider “normal,” so we don’t read it as such.

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Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher at Star Wars Celebration in 2015. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Was Star Wars truly apolitical before The Force Awakens‘ Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) sparked male outrage about “feminism taking over Star Wars“? Because I seem to recall mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess (played by the late great glorious giver of no fucks, Carrie Fisher) grabbing the blaster out of Luke’s hand, flatly stating “Somebody has to save our skins,” and ordering Han Solo “into the garbage chute, flyboy,” then killing Jabba her damn self with the chain he used to enslave her as a bikini-wearing sex doll. Yet the original trilogy centered around a straight white male, Luke, so the films still read as “normal” and “apolitical” to white men, despite many young women reading that message loud and clear. But it was the 70s and early 80s, so, despite the obvious feminism baked into the character of Leia, her strength could be read as just another part of her allure to men as she was detoured into a romance with Han Solo and stuffed into an objectifying gold bikini. (“Keep fighting against that slave outfit,” Carrie Fisher told Daisy Ridley.) Rey and Jyn are standing on the ground that Leia broke. Neither one is detoured into a romance or forced into a bikini (so far, at least), so there’s no way to silo them into the archetype “Hero’s Girl,” making the internet’s various fuckboys very angry while most men were, evidently, thrilled by both films.

“Why do you have to make everything political?” comes in various specific flavors, one of the more popular being “Why do you have to make everything about race?” The same principles hold; race is an aspect of every social encounter and every work of art is created within a specific cultural context– films are created by specific people, not found on the forest floor during JJ Abrams’ morning constitutional.

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“Holy shit, dude! Is that Episode 8?!” (source: nonabrooklyn.com)

If you are white in the US, chances are watching an all-white film does not register to you as “political,” but people of color will notice they have been completely left out. White people react with anger upon the release of a single Black-centric superhero film yet see no problem with the dozens of superhero films that leave out people of color or relegate them to minor roles. Those nearly all-white films did not register as anything but a realistic depiction of the “normal” world to those white people, yet the Black world of Black Panther– the fictional African nation of Wakanda– is “too Black” and therefore “too militant.” The trailer is typical superhero film fare, just with Black actors as the heroes. See for yourself:

It’s impossible to imagine what is “militant” about that trailer unless you believe every other superhero film is “militant.” It’s impossible to say that a film with Black leads is “too Black” unless you see the world as normally white, unless you see heroes as normally and naturally white.

“Why do you have to make everything about race?” Because WE make everything about race by creating, spreading, and aggressively protecting the racist idea that “white” is the world’s normal, default setting, and that anything else is special, distinctive, and added to a white world by white benevolence. When a box standard superhero film that runs on the same kind of ass-kicking imagery every other action film runs on is scary and “militant” because the good guys are Black, you are making it about race. People of color think about race all the time because of the shitty, racist ways we treat them, not because they had some secret meeting one day in 1953 and decided to invent identity politics to vex us.

I’m not here to snottily insist that “your fave is problematic.” I am right there with you. My faves are problematic. But instead of getting defensive, we need to be realistic about the ways in which media carries narrative and shapes our culture. No one is proposing detonating every existing copy of the original Ghostbusters or melting every copy of GTA into a gigantic plastic statue of The Spirit of Feminism. What I am proposing is that we be realistic about the impact that the works we consume and create have on marginalized people, that we listen to marginalized people when they talk about this rather than get defensive and argue, that we commit to getting better at this the way all artists are already committed to getting better at our art in every other way.

Tl;dr: “Why do you have to make everything political?” “Why do you have to make everything about race?” It already is. We’re just pointing it out. Don’t blame the person pointing at the pothole for the pothole’s existence. Instead, let’s work together on building better roads.

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Do Black Lives Matter at Your Theatre? In Your Films?

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Philando Castile in a yearbook photo. He worked as a nutrition services assistant for the Saint Paul Public School District.

I had intended to write about the Philando Castile verdict. Philando Castile was murdered because an officer claims he believed Castile was reaching for his gun when he was reaching for his ID as instructed. That officer walked free. Had Castile been white, I believe that officer would have heard and believed him when he said he was reaching for his ID, and my plan was to write about the narratives we put into the culture that created the officer’s belief that Castile was dangerous.

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Charleena Lyles, in a photo released by her family.

Before I could even sit down to write the piece, Charleena Lyles was killed, and Seattle police responded by issuing a statement bragging about their “deescalation training,” as if to say, “We tried deescalating, but it didn’t work! We simply had to shoot and kill a tiny pregnant woman holding a knife. We were scared for our lives!” Yet somehow, when it’s a white woman with a knife– or a GUN– officers aren’t scared at all. Billings, Montana. Chattanooga, Tennessee. What creates that difference?

Radicalized white men are one of the most violent groups in the US, yet violent white men are routinely deescalated. Take a look at this photo AP released, taken at a white supremacist rally in 2015:

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A protester confronted a man– a man at a white supremacist rally celebrating the Confederate flag, so basically a hotbed of radicalized white men– and the white supremacist reaches for his gun. The officer’s reaction? Look at his face. He seems to be saying, “Whoa there, buddy. Calm down, sir.” The officer clearly believes the white supremacist poses no immediate danger. A white man literally reaching for a gun does not alarm an officer, but a Black man reaching for a wallet does. What creates that difference?

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Tamir Rice in a family photo taken shortly before his death.

Tamir Rice— a child with a toy gun in a park near a youth rec center– was gunned down by an officer within two seconds of police rolling up. Two seconds. The officers did not take any time whatsoever to find out what was going on, let alone deescalate. It’s pretty hard to be an active shooter when your gun is a toy, and Ohio is an open carry state, so he had every right to hold a gun in public. Then those officers let this child bleed out on the ground while they chit-chatted and waited for the ambulance instead of providing the medical assistance that could have saved his life. Those officers walked free without even so much as a trial, even though the entire incident was videotaped. The person who called 911 told the dispatcher that the gun was likely a toy and that Tamir was likely a juvenile, but as soon as the dispatcher heard “Black male,” she categorized it as an “active shooter” and gave it the highest priority code. Why did the dispatcher automatically assumed “Black male” meant “DANGER,” and why did the officer gun down a child in cold blood before even taking a second to assess the situation? The answer is of course “racism,” but where does that racism come from?

Every time a Black person is shot by police, even when the Black person is unarmed, complying, has their hands in the air, or is just going about their business, the officers say they “feared for their lives.” Look again at the officer in the photo above apparently saying, “Whoa there, calm down, buddy” to the white supremacist. Why isn’t he fearing for his life? Why do officers routinely fear for their lives when faced with a Black person but so seldom fear for their lives when faced with a white person?

 

Our culture is saturated with the narrative “Black = DANGER.” As content creators and gatekeepers, white people used that narrative to justify slavery (stating that if slavery ended, former slaves would erupt in bloody uprisings and chaos), and after the passing of the 13th Amendment, which limited slavery to convicted criminals, we use it to justify the mass incarceration of Black people. We flood our culture with these narratives, either through the content we create or through the content we choose to produce. It is one thing when a Black person writes a song that speaks the truth of the violence in their own lives. It is entirely another when a white gatekeeper gets wealthy by producing only songs that depict Black men as dangerous. White people have profited both culturally and financially from the brutalization and murder of Black bodies for centuries, and we have created and carefully maintained a narrative superstructure to justify it.

It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as “natural.” Spinning out from the narrative trope “Black = DANGER” are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people.

When a police officer makes a split second decision whether to fire his weapon or to say, “Whoa, there buddy,” he has to deal with a lifetime of inundation with the trope “Black = DANGER,” as well as a lifetime of inundation with the trope “white people are basically OK,” which not only dictates how Caucasian-appearing people are treated but also fuels white resistance to our complicity– all our complicity– in the systems of oppression that maintain white supremacy.

My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.

When Tim Burton cast his film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he cast all the roles with white people except the villain, who was Black. There was an outcry, and the predictable fragile white reaction– “It’s just a movie,” “He should have artistic freedom.” Of course he has artistic freedom. We all do. But don’t we also have a responsibility to understand and control the messaging we put out in the culture? We vet our work in every other way, so what makes race different?

We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It’s not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.

Native American people are murdered by police at an even higher rate than Black people (as a whole; Black men 15-34 are killed at the highest rate), a direct result of the centuries of dehumanizing stereotypes we put out specifically to ease our consciences about treating Native American people like vermin to be exterminated or expelled, like savages to be civilized, like magic spiritual conduits that exist for the benefit of white people. From Moby Dick to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the trope “I exist to take white people on a journey TO THEMSELVES,” centering white people in Native lives, has permeated our culture. And in the case of TNG, it pains me to relate, the Native character below (from the 1994 episode “Journey’s End”) was a white guy in disguise all along! The white actor playing The Traveler (Eric Menyuk) soon replaces the First Nations actor, Tom Jackson. This example is the ultimate in cultural appropriation– a white dude appropriates a Native body and Native culture to bring another white dude spiritual enlightenment, then they both abandon the Native village in peril, because it’s “not their fight.” I love you, TNG, but this was egregious, even for 1994.

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Shut up, Wesley

The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. I wrote this earlier, for my article about Tim Burton, and it still applies:

When we talk about police “retraining,” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives – which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before Black people with their guns drawn.

As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better.

Narrative is the most effective way to create cultural shifts, which is why it’s the favorite tool of politicians. Our narrative-based industries are the biggest bats and loudest loudspeakers in our culture. We are numerous and powerful. All we have to do is agree to approach our work with intentionality.

Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. Who are you hiring? Who are you casting? What stories are you telling, and how? Whose work are you choosing to support?

We examine our products and our processes in every other way. We always create with intentionality, so adding “examine messaging about race (and gender, ability, etc)” isn’t burdensome. We have the power to change the culture; in fact, nothing else has ever done it. Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they’re there, whether you examine them or not.

 

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Everything You Needed to Know About the “Alt Right” You Could Have Learned From Gamergate

Remember when Gamergate was happening? All those online attacks, threats, and harassment by the “alt right” pretending to be about “ethics in games journalism” but really just attacking, threatening, and harassing women and people of color for discussing the portrayal of women and people of color in video games? And everyone was like, “Oh; it’s just a minority of people doing that– just a fringe group” and “Well, some of them really do care about games journalism,” and “It’s just online harassment. Just ignore trolls!”?

Now people connected with the “alt right” are going to be in charge of the government. The man who was one of the unofficial heads of Gamergate, Milo Yiannopoulos, writes for Steve Bannon, at Breitbart “News.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s White House Chief Strategist, supported Yiannopoulos throughout the entire Gamergate debacle, and (just before his leave of absence to work for Trump) through the massive sexist and racist attack campaign Yiannopoulos led against Leslie Jones, the final straw that got Yiannopoulos kicked off Twitter because he finally attacked someone with enough fame and power to get people to pay attention.

Even those within Gamergate who insisted throughout that it was about “ethics in games journalism” still defined those ethics as keeping cultural criticism out of gaming. As video games became more and more complex, creating scripts and animation to rival major studio films, games criticism began to include the kinds of artistic considerations we within the arts are well used to. Critics began to consider the social context of games in addition to their basic functionality, sometimes critiquing games for their sexist portrayal of women, or for their lack of diversity. Even if it were about “ethics in games journalism,” Gamergate was defining “ethics” largely as “never talking about sexism or racism in games.” This is an important point, as there really are ethical considerations in games journalism, all of which Gamergate completely ignored in favor of sending death threats to a woman who creates videos about sexist tropes in games and an independent female developer who wrote a free game about her struggle with depression, among others. The “alt right” movement Gamergate considered personal attacks, harassment, and threats an appropriate response to arts criticism— led in part by Milo Yiannopoulos while he was supported and employed by Steve Bannon, soon to be one of the most powerful men in the world

One of the most important things to note about Gamergate is how often they threw around the term “free speech” to defend attacks, threats, and harassment meant to silence discussion around sexism and racism in the video game industry. One popular talking point at the time was the fact that Anita Sarkeesian had turned off comments on her video series critiquing the portrayal of women in video games, Tropes vs. Women, both on YouTube and on her website, Feminist Frequency, when the attacks, threats, and harassment began, which was characterized as an attack on their “free speech.” This is important to note– they felt so entitled to attack, threaten, and harass this woman that they claimed it was a violation of their free speech when she refused to personally create a space on her website for them to do so.

One of the most important things we can do as citizens is connect the dots between events. Steve Bannon paid Milo Yiannopoulos while he led attacks, threats, and harassment against people advocating for feminism and diversity AND claimed it was a violation of free speech when special space was not created for these attacks to occur. When Yiannopoulos was booted from Twitter for violating their ToS in leading the sexist and racist attacks on Leslie Jones, the movement howled that Yiannopoulos’ “free speech” was being violated. Bannon paid Breitbart writer Jack Hadfield to write an article for Breitbart claiming Yiannopoulos was a “free speech martyr.”

 

While women and people of color are the canaries in the coal mine of shitty American trends– if bad things are coming down the pike, they’re going to hit us first– it’s also important to note that Gamergate was, at its core, a fight over arts criticism. While people are quick to dismiss art as “just a game” or “just a movie,” art is where we, as a culture, decide who we are, who we want to be, what we fear, what we value. Art is where culture is made. So it’s no surprise to me that this “alt-right” movement in part coalesced and gained popularity around two movements angry about the inclusion of women and people of color in art and arts journalism– Gamergate for video games, and Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies for SciFi/Fantasy.

Yet the response to these attacks and their alarming ideology at the time was a collective shrug of the shoulders. The most popular response was “just ignore the trolls.” This piece of advice could not have been more dangerously wrong.

We should have listened to women and people of color when they first began reporting these attacks. We should have responded robustly and clearly: No, this is wrong. Instead we shrugged our shoulders and told them, “Just ignore the trolls.”

We could have learned everything we needed to know about the “alt right” from Gamergate, and instead here we are, once again, telling each other to “ignore the trolls,” telling each other to discount Trump’s outrageous attacks on free speech when they’re on Twitter, as if they weren’t part of a larger world view that seeks to limit free speech (here, here, here, here, here), as if they weren’t coming from a man we’re about to put into the most powerful position in the world with Steve Bannon at his ear.

When Steve Bannon paid Milo Yiannopoulos to write articles that aided Gamergate and its horrific personal attacks against people who dared to openly discuss sexism and racism in the games industry, that should have been enough right there to make everyone terrified of handing Bannon any sort of political power. Now he’s about to have more political power– unaccountable political power, since he’s in an appointed, not elected, position– than nearly anyone else in the world, aiding a presumptive president elect who attacks free speech relentlessly. The “alt right” has openly fought against free speech for years. The question is, Have we learned anything from it? Or are we just going to keep saying “ignore the trolls”?

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“Artistic Freedom”: The Lie We Use To Defend The Indefensible

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“Leap into the Void,” Yves Klein (photographed by Harry Shunk), 1960

When I write about diversity in representational media (theatre, film, TV, video games), often the white anger (and there is always white anger) uses “artistic freedom” as its battle cry. “Artists should create whatever they want, without restrictions,” or “Total artistic freedom is sacred. Telling artists they must include diversity is wrong.”

The secret is: Every professional knows there’s no such thing as “total artistic freedom.” We always must work within certain parameters. At least half of the artistic process is finding artistic solutions to technical problems. 

The space you’re working in has physical constraints. The budget has limits. The contracts you’ve signed with the company, the playwright, the actors, the techs, all limit what you can add (or subtract) from the text, how long you can rehearse, even what can and cannot be done on stage. Props don’t work the way you imagined. An actor can’t perform the blocking you’ve set in the costume you approved. You discover three weeks before opening that the set you approved is over budget and needs trimming. The incredibly important piece of specially-designed tech hardware is stuck on a truck with a broken axle four states away and the earliest it will be in house is now Sunday afternoon. Maybe. When it shows up Monday at 10pm, it doesn’t work. Your lead actor’s visa wasn’t approved and she’s still in London. The suits show up to a late rehearsal or a shoot and demand a change. The studio has paid for product placement, and now you must work SmartWater into three scenes.

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Subtle. 

This? This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a magical day when everything goes according to plan and no changes need to be made.

The idea behind “artistic freedom” is one of the best ideas ever: Artists should be able to engage with the world around them without constraints such as censorship. Artists with artistic freedom create better, usually more impactful and important, art under those conditions. But those conditions always exist within a given framework. Some constraints are practical (time, space, and budget), some are legal (the law, your contracts), some are ethical (best practices), some are artistic (imposed on the artists by the director or producer, or just by the basic parameters of the project), and some are social (updating outdated topical humor, avoiding lines, characters, or narrative tropes that would be considered racist, etc). Although not every artist recognizes or follows every constraint every time– sexual harassment is a huge problem in all these industries– artists as a whole work within these constraints without questioning them.

The social constraints we work within are never questioned, and usually framed in terms of audience response– a joke your audience won’t find funny, public controversy that could impact sales, or a scene that evokes a hostile audience response, which is entirely dependent on your social context. I’ve staged plays in Berkeley without an iota of controversy that later were picketed elsewhere in the country. Conversely, I’ve been sent plays whose entire plots centered around the Horrible! Revelation! that Someone! Had a Same Sex Affair! In College! My Berkeley audience would laugh out loud at the idea that anyone cared about your same sex college fling; such a play is unstageable here no matter how well-written because the premise is nonsense within our particular social context.

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Land that I love. (Source: berkeley.edu)

So when we talk about the need for increased diversity (or the need to examine how various types of people are portrayed) in the theatre, film, and games we make, why is that seen as a massive, impossible imposition on an artist?  We’re already working within a number of constraints and considerations, and, frankly, removing race as a primary consideration, instead using just type, talent, and skill set, doesn’t seem much of a constraint at all to me. All it takes is stating in calls (or instructing your casting people) that you’re open to actors of all races and ethnicities, and suddenly your hiring pool is expanded, not constrained.

That said, if you believe your work demands an all-white cast, no one is restricting– or can restrict– your right to use an all-white cast. No one can stop you from casting every lead with a white actor for the entirety of your career. So what, exactly, upsets people so much about calls for more diversity? Why is there so much angry backlash to discussing diversity in art? What people are upset about is that now consumers and critics are complaining about it. They don’t just want the freedom to use all-white casts, crew, and/or writing staff–they already have that. They want the freedom to do so without criticism.

This, by the way, is what they mean by “taking America back”– back to the days when shutting out people of color was completely uncontroversial.

Due to this desire to create all-white art without criticism, there has been an immense backlash, especially from the alt-right, about the very concept of using social criteria like diversity or the portrayal of women to evaluate art. They claim that this is a new development brought on by “political correctness” run amok, and that in the golden past, before feminism or Black people with twitter accounts, art was solely evaluated as art, and critical discussions of its social messaging were nowhere to be found.

This is, of course, bunk.

For centuries, art has been evaluated, formally and informally, using social messaging as part of the critique. In 472 BCE, Aeschylus was publicly criticized by Aristotle, who claimed Aeschylus’ play The Persians, about the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, was too sympathetic to the Persians. Playwrights in Renaissance England went to great lengths to hide their critiques of the  church or the government in metaphors that would get past the censors. When Paul Robeson played Othello in 1930, reviewers criticized the choice to cast a Black man instead of a white actor in blackface. One wrote: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man for Falstaff.” There are literally thousands of similar examples from the past.

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Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Paul Robeson as Othello in the 1930 Savoy Theatre production. 

There are, of course, nearly as many examples from the present as well. While the right (alt and otherwise) bitterly condemns using diversity and other social justice-based criteria in evaluations of art, they themselves do this all the time. The right’s response to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance is an excellent example. Her performance came under fire solely for its pro-Black social messaging, which many on the right took to be “anti-white” and, somehow, “anti-police.” Ads for Old Navy and Cheerios featuring interracial families came under fire from right-wing racists for their social messaging alone. Evidently “interracial families eat breakfast and enjoy Old Navy 30% off sales” was a bridge too far for them. In 2012, the wildly popular, highly rated video game Mass Effect 3 included same sex relationship options (as they had throughout the series), but really came under fire for including a bedroom scene that many homophobic players complained bitterly about. (Of course, those of us who played through the game knew you had to click through many conversations with that gay character, continually taking the obviously marked “romance” option, to trigger that scene, or go out of your way to seek it out on youtube. But that’s none of my business.)

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Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3, who lost his husband to a Collector attack.

While some people do not wish to be told that people would like to see more diversity, they clearly have no problem telling us that diversity is, in essence, wrong.

There’s only one conclusion to draw here, and it’s not about “artistic freedom.”

For those of us who work in representational media, and must work within constraints both out of our control, like physics and budget, and well within our control, like personal artistic goals and vision, “artistic freedom” can be a touchy subject. We want as much artistic freedom as we can get, in part because we know that in reality, our freedom is constrained in multiple ways. Those of us calling for increased diversity (and equity) in film, theatre, TV, and games are simply asking our fellow content creators to consider diversity an important artistic criteria that exists alongside  all the other self-imposed artistic criteria we all have.

Making a commitment to diversity is actually reducing your constraints, because it widens your hiring pool. Once you make the decision that a role can be cast with an actor of any race, or a show can be directed by a person of any race or gender, suddenly your hiring pool becomes much wider. Making a personal commitment to diversity increases your artistic freedom because it gives you far more to work with.

There is no true “artistic freedom,” including the many constraints artists put on themselves as they strive to meet (or exceed) their artistic goals. Encouraging others to make personal commitments to diversity– and holding them accountable when they do not– increases the artistic freedom both of the individual artists who would be widening their hiring pool considerably, and the artistic freedom of the industries as a whole, that would have a wider variety of artists working within it, which we all know is a massive strength.

So don’t believe anyone who tells you that calls for increased diversity or using diversity as a criteria for evaluation is limiting “artistic freedom.” We know better.

 

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Why the Hatred of Video Games is Ableist

Humans love games. Some of our earliest cultural artifacts are game pieces. The modern world has several massively lucrative industries around games. People will dump half a week’s salary into two tickets to a professional sports event (make that a whole week’s salary if you each want a beer). We take activities like cooking, fashion, singing, trivia, drinking, and even theatre and “gamify” them by creating gaming structures around them. If there’s one thing people love, it’s a way to score more points than someone else.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. I love games as much as the next human. But for a game-loving society, we spend an inordinate amount of time hating video games.

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Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, created by Bethesda Softworks

We claim they are dangerous to developing brains, cause people to be more violent, prevent people from forming healthy human relationships, are rife with sexism, racism, and homophobia, and we have the studies to “prove” it. Yet we romanticize sports and excuse its negative aspects– its shockingly high injury rate (including brain injuries); its continuous problems with sexism, racism, and homophobia;  and a culture of bullying and hazing that permeates and poisons athletics, particularly K-12 and college athletics– because we believe that games you play with your body are intrinsically, even morally, better than games you play with your mind.

Video game culture is no better than sports culture in any of those respects save injuries, but we treat it as if it is intrinsically, morally lesser, and that engaging in a game you play with your body is somehow morally superior to engaging in a game you play with your mind.

It’s an ableist position to take.

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Destiny NPC Cayde-6, voiced by actor Nathan Fillion. Destiny is created by Bungie.

We frame physical activity as the best of all possible choices for filling free time. An hour with a book or a video game is “indulgent,” but an hour of cycling or basketball is “healthy” and “making good choices.” We worship the body and what it can do, granting the highest cultural status to people with able-bodied, thin, athletic bodies. We even describe them using the word “fit,” as if people who are disabled, fat, or unathletic are “unfit.”

Because our culture worships the body and ignores– even denigrates— the mind, we’ve elevated physical games over every other kind of game and created a vast cultural mythology around pretending physical games are moral and good and healthy while video games are destructive, bad, and unhealthy.  People whose bodies allow them to play physical games have access to a level of cultural privilege denied to those who cannot. People whose bodies cannot play physical games but who still want to game have more options open to them than ever before, yet all of them are considered morally inferior to physical games.

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Facing off against a pride demon in Dragon Age: Inquisition. The Dragon Age series is created by Bioware.

But video games are violent! So are sports. The difference between violence in video games and violence in sports is that physical violence in video games is pretend and physical violence in sports is real. Violence during games is an ongoing problem at all levels of athletics. Sports has immense bullying problems; sports fans are notoriously violent during victories, losses, and even just in the stands. Even little league parents get violent. Off the field, college athletes are more likely to commit sexual assault than other students and less likely to be convicted.

If you wish to extend “violence” to harassment and bullying, and I absolutely do, it’s undeniable there are violent aspects in video game culture, but sports culture is no better; in fact, statistically speaking, it’s clearly worse. Yet we frame sports as inherently wholesome, marred by a few bad apples, and video games as inherently worthless, alleviated by a few wholesome bright spots, simply because we value the body and its abilities, look, and “fitness” more highly than the mind.

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Civilization V is a massive, complex strategy game from Firaxis wherein you must build and maintain your civilization from prehistoric times through the future.

But video games make people more violent! The problem with that notion is that violent crime has actually reduced since the introduction of video gaming, leading to the logical conclusion that video games do not “cause violence.”

The problem lies in the studies themselves. When you structure a study around video game violence, you don’t send researchers to sit in 2500 rooms for 100 hours each to watch 2500 people make their way through the Dragon Age: Origins narrative, wherein the player’s character is centered as a hero saving the world from monsters, or the Fallout 3 narrative, wherein the character must survive in a nuclear war-shattered wasteland and fight to realize the character’s father’s dream of bringing clean water to its people. The most common studies involve measuring aggression as relates to non-narrative contexts. The resulting data is completely meaningless. It would be like comparing the way people feel after watching a sophomore player on an underdog team score a game-winning touchdown in a bowl game and then immediately kneel down and propose to his girlfriend, the head cheerleader, and the way people feel after being forced to watch footage of sacks over and over and over without context.

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The Hearthfire expansion in Skyrim allows players to design and build their own homes bit by bit as they acquire the resources.

The idea that video games are somehow more dangerous, more prone to generate violent acts, than physical games is ableist nonsense that comes from romanticizing and valorizing the body while minimizing the mind. Sure, we talk a good game about the mind, education, and intelligence, but all our attention, money, and concern are focused on the body. We pay university sports coaches huge sums of money while we pay university lecturers below the poverty level. Schools REQUIRE students to participate in physical games and BAN playing video games on campus.

One of the most powerful cultural myths underpinning the hatred of video games is the longstanding fear of technology. We have feared and mistrusted every technological advance ever, from movable type to the internet. The absolute silliest argument is that analog games such as board games are healthy, but video games are dangerous, as if the screen itself has some kind of magical power to render the game’s benefits inert. This fear and mistrust of technology are themselves arguably aspects of anti-intellectualism– fear of what the “eggheads” have unleashed upon us. Fear of science, technology, and new knowledge have been encoded into our culture at every level, from the Garden of Eden to Faust to Battlestar Galactica. Pushing the limits of what the body can do is prized and treasured as a measure of humanity’s highest worth. Pushing the limits of what the mind can do in the form of new technologies, inventions, and discoveries is deeply mistrusted, with each new advance meeting a screeching wall of resistance based on its supposed “dangers.”

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The main antagonists in Bioware’s Mass Effect series are the Reapers, a sentient race of synthetic-organic starships.

The truth is, playing video games is as good, maybe even better, than playing sports. Video games– even violent shooter games– exercise your mind in the same way that physical games exercise your body.

Video games are elaborate puzzles, often within complex narratives with far more narrative content, and more complex narrative content, than a book or a film has room to hold. There are many games where the mythopoeia alone could fill several volumes.

Video games make players better problem solvers, as well as boost memory and cognitive skills. Gamers are helping scientists solve complex problems. An enormous number of modern games track a player’s in-game choices, changing the way NPCs (non-player characters) interact with the player based on the morality of their past choices. Two of many examples include Dragon Age: Origins, where NPCs on your team gain special skills as you gain their trust and friendship, and Fallout 3, where high karma results in NPCs giving you gifts and the in-game radio DJ, Three Dog, singing your praises on the air. As in life, often the morality of in-game choices is unclear, and players must live with the consequences of their actions long after it’s too late to go back and change their decisions. Many games tackle complex social and historical issues. The Bioshock series, for example, has been ruthless in its criticism of American nostalgia, juxtaposing gorgeous vintage imagery with the brutal reality of our racist, classist, and unregulated capitalist past, leaving the player to draw their own conclusions about the present.

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Bioshock Infinite (from Irrational Games) confronts America’s racist past in multiple ways both in the world-building and in the central narrative.

The idea that a teenager who plays video games after school is somehow wasting his time while a teenager who plays football after school is an American Hero reflects our characterization of the body and its achievements as the most wholesome, most moral, most admirable aspect of human life. This is ableist nonsense that reserves the highest moral position in our culture to people whose physical bodies meet or exceed arbitrary standards.

“Can play football at a mediocre level” is somehow framed as morally superior to “Has beaten the Heroic King’s Fall raid on Destiny.” While I can only dream of EITHER, in theory my disability does not prevent me from completing the King’s Fall raid in the same way they prevent me from playing sports, yet my human brain still craves the complex problem solving, action, and competition of game play.

There’s nothing wrong with playing sports, but let’s step away from the silly– and ableist– notion that playing video games is morally inferior.

 

 

 

 

 

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Your Hypocrisy About Video Games Makes Me Want To Punch A Wall

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The wrestling scene from my production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at Impact Theatre. Stacz Sadowski as Charles the Wrestler and Miyaka Cochrane as Orlando. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

It’s been ages since I’ve blogged, I know. Being an actual theatremaker has gotten in the way of blogging about being a theatremaker. My show previewed last night and I can finally reallocate time away from frantically acquiring last-minute props and crying over the fact that V.4 needs to be reblocked at the last minute. My cast and crew are amazing, and this show has broken all records for advance sales in our company, so I’m exhausted but happy.

During the past few weeks I’ve been slowly trying to work my way through Dead Space 3, carving out bits of time here and there because NECROMORPHS DO NOT KILL THEMSELVES (for the most part). And during this time I’ve seen approximately eleventy scrotillion people shoot their mouths off about the EVIL DANGER that is violent video games. The thing that’s RUINING OUR CHILDREN AND SOCIETY is something humans have always loved to talk about (unmixed wine, polyphony, reading the Bible in the vernacular, reading at all if you’re a girl, jazz, comic books, rock and roll, television, rap, etc), and gaming is just the latest installment.

I’m not going to link you to the many fine articles that discuss in detail why video games do not lead directly to violence, or why the studies that say they do are deeply flawed (you can’t compare random, extra-narrative violence to, say, saving a town from an invading horde of darkspawn). YOU’RE ALREADY ON THE INTERNET. I’m sure you can handle it on your own.

No, I’m speaking directly to something particular that chaps my hide each and every time this issue is discussed, because COME ON.

Do you hate violent video games? Oh, you do? Well, do you eat meat?

EXACTLY.

I’ve been a vegetarian for over 20 years. I’m not an angry, shamey vegetarian– the only people I lecture about food are the people who came out of my uterus. Eat whatever you want. If you’re polite about my vegetarian ways, I’ll be polite about your Sandwich of Cruelty. (Haha, kidding, I know you only eat meat from animals that committed suicide in a field of daisies after a long, happy, fulfilled life of published books and TED talks and Pulitzer noms.)

But where I draw the line is right here: People who flip directly out about violent video games but feel perfectly justified in killing and eating an animal for no real reason other than they feel like it. No one *needs* to eat meat. I know people like to say, “I just get so [adjective] without meat. My body NEEDS it.” I respect the fact that you believe that, and I’m not going to get up in your face about it when you’re ordering (or ever, actually), but, physiologically speaking, you’re wrong. Should all the meat in the world disappear tomorrow, you’d be fine. I don’t doubt that you crave it, but I assure you that you don’t physiologically require it. Your resilient human body is just not that delicate. You eat meat because you want to. That’s OK. Own it.

When I’m playing a video game, I’m killing PICTURES of monsters and bad guys. When you eat meat, you’re killing an actual, living animal smarter than your dog, with as wide a range of emotions.

When I’m playing a video game, I’m wrapped up in a narrative about saving people, or myself, or about struggling to survive in harsh conditions. I’m killing pictures of fictional vampires with a fictional sword because they’re threatening the village where my fictional children are sleeping (Whiterun FTW). When you eat meat, you’re killing an actual, living animal who can see, feel, hear, love, and fear because you’re slightly hungry and can’t be arsed to have a PB&J.

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What I’m shooting in Dead Space. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t shoot the fuck out of this if you saw it running at you.

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What you killed to make your sandwich.

I’ll never get in your face for eating meat. It’s a personal decision that I’m not qualified to make for you. My husband eats meat and the amount of shit I give him about it is zero.

HOWEVER. If you’re planning to stomp around accusing my gaming of creating violence in the world, I’m going to have to ask you to TAKE A SEAT if you’re a meat-eater. When you’re done being ACTUALLY violent, we can have a chat about my PRETEND violence.

So eat your meat. Create violence in order to create your food. Kill animals and devour their flesh. I won’t judge you, I really won’t, until you start asserting that your real-world violence is in any way superior to my imaginary violence. Eat all the meat you want, and we’re cool. Just don’t try to pretend that you’re somehow better than someone who spends an afternoon shooting a fictional gun at pictures of monsters.

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