And Then There Were Bears

I count myself as one of the “online family” JaquelynHeat describes here. I’m quite gratified by the turnaround she engineered online.

I don’t have to wait long for the opening I want, however. Less than a minute later, the same guy calls BigCountry a “homo”. I’ve got a shot. I’m taking it.

(The following is paraphrased from memory)

EVE RADIO IN-GAME TEXT CHAT:

Jexit > Why are we accusing BC of being a homo like it’s a bad thing? BC would be an awesome homo if he were one.
PlayerX > BEAR!
PlayerY > Good point!
PlayerZ > He’d totally be a bear!

ON THE AIR:

“Listener Jexit in the in-game chat makes a good point here. She says, ‘Why are we accusing BC of being a homo like it’s a bad thing? BC would be an awesome homo..’”
“If I were one!”
“‘…if he were one.’”
“I totally would be!”
“BC would be a great homo!”
“Listeners are saying you’d be a bear, BC.”
“I’d be such a bear!”
“Total bear!”
“I couldn’t deep throat, though. I have a terrible gag reflex.”

I’m hearing a lot fewer, though not none, uses of “faggot” in corp chat and voice than I did during my previous stint serving on the Gulag, as Meclin calls it. Many of the EVE players have been playing for a long time, and are now perhaps older and wiser. That’s good news.

I’ve Seen the Future and it’s Furry

Here’s a look at the two characters (and the world in background) used for the Everquest Next preview.

Character renderings from Everquest Next

Their names are Jalena, who is a human female who does magic casting thingys, which is all I can call them because, as we shall see, there aren’t supposed to be character classes as such. The big one is Kesar, who is a Kerran male, wears armor and he likes getting in the face of bad guys and smashing them. Here’s another shot of the two of them. This one comes courtesy of mmosite.com.

Everquest next characters rendered in underground scene with lava.

This is a far cry from both Everquest and EQ2. There are several things to note here.

The art style backs off on Everquest 2′s attempt to be “realistic”. Lots of aspects of the characters are exaggerated. Kesar’s armor is reminiscent of WoW armor. The size difference between human and Kerran is much, much more than it ever used to be. Everything looks just a little bit like it’s been painted. I think there’s both a practical reason for this and an artistic one.

The practical reason is that, as we discovered with Blizzard, low system requirements mean that more people can play your game, and thus, more people will play your game. Also, the game is going to be free-to-play, though it’s far from clear whether “free-to-play” will mean like Guild Wars 2 and DDO, which I like, or like Everquest 2′s FTP model, which I hate. And a more painted-like style allows for lower polygon count, lower res textures, etc. On top of that, computers and graphics cards are much, much more powerful now than at EQ2′s launch.

The artistic reason is drama. For people who want to play someone who’s big and strong and wears heavy armor, you have to make them look big and strong and like they are wearing heavy armor. If you were in the same room with someone who was big and strong and wore heavy armor, you would have lots of cues that are missing from a videogame. The armor would creak a little. It would affect how someone moves, even the biggest and strongest. It would affect how their footsteps sound, even when they are sort of standing still. Lots of that sense is lost when you have to look through a glass monitor at the character, so the artists exaggerate other aspects to signal that truth about the character.

Which gets us to Jalena’s boob window.

Let’s not kid ourselves, SOE is not above providing a little fan service. But of course, this is concerning to any woman who plays the game, who all must be wondering, “Will I be able to wear something that doesn’t have a boob window?” I think we are all aware that most women, at some time or another, want to show off a bit, and show some skin. In point of fact, there are some men who want to do that, too. Just how often and how much varies a lot with the individual. But I think the primary concern is “Will I have a choice about how I look?” I sincerely hope so. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t always do so well with all races and classes. Some of them have very limited options when it comes to deciding how much skin a female avatar will show.

That said, artists who make figures of women are presented with a problem. I think most people playing a female character want other players to notice that they are female. Just as people playing a male want that to be noticed. There are a few races in a few games where the difference is subtle (Lizardmen come to mind, just as in RL). And that’s a thing too. Sometimes we have people in the mundane world who don’t want to present either male or female but something else They might want you to use the pronouns “they” and “them”. The key is that they want you to recognize what they perceive about themselves. They want to signal their gender.

And like with being big and strong, a lot of gender signals get dropped on the floor when you are dealing with a virtual world character. Pheremones, to pick one. The subtle differences in posture and mannerism, too. I’ve observed this in miniatures for a long time. When you are dealing with a figure an inch high, if you give it accurate proportions, the gender signal becomes drowned out. And so they get exaggerated.

Now historically, most sculptors and artists have been male, and have focused on two or three physical characteristics to signal gender: breast size, hip width, and length of legs. The length of legs thing is odd, since it isn’t a gender signal in the real world at all. Women do not have proportionally longer legs than men, as far as I know. But women often, as a fashion choice, do things to make their legs appear longer. Things like wearing heels, and wearing things that draw attention to the line of the legs.

But there are other ways to signal gender. The cat race of Guild Wars 2, the Charr, uses very unorthodox methods to signal gender. The rumor goes that the lead designer refused to put breasts on female Charr, noting that if they forced her, she would put six of them on, since that’s how it works for cats. Nevertheless, there are gender-signalling differences, just not the normal ones.

Back to Everquest Next, one other signal seen in the character design above is size. We think of men as being larger than women, and in a statistical sense, this is true. The largest humans on the planet are, by and, um, large, male. But the smallest humans? Not necessarily female. And there is considerable overlap. Mmos have actually given a lot of scope for men to express this variability. You could be a giant barbarian or a tiny gnome, or a sturdy dwarf or a slender half-elf. (Also, you could be an elf with a keen sense of fashion and fabulous red hair, but I digress.)

So costumers and character designers of Everquest Next please give people a choice about how they look in the game. Players are not scenery. In many ways, this game appears to be granting far more agency to players than we have seen in MMO’s before, don’t neglect the agency of people playing female toons.

The Face is the Most Important Part

I just finished reading the best post ever about female plate armor, a topic of long-standing interest here. It’s written by someone who makes armor. No doubt for SCA. Via the most-worthy tumblr Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor.

Here’s a taste:

Any artist working with human subject matter will tell you that the face is the most important part of the character. A headshot by itself can tell you everything you need to know about who a person is and how they feel. Sex appeal can come entirely from a beautiful face, the body doesn’t need to be naked as well.

I argue that this:

is more appealing than this:

The bare chest and boob plate add nothing to the femininity, sexiness, or appeal of the character. Focus on the face for character appeal, let the armor be a reflection of the setting and her role within it.

Well, that’s kind of hyperbole to make a point. I wouldn’t say they add nothing. But the face and the eyes, as he says, rule.

And the red hair. I’m just saying…

So, the question I’m pondering is: If it doesn’t add anything, why do we keep doing it? Is it because the artists/medium in question can’t do the former?

In Praise of Pink Sneakers

Amina Mae Safi wrote a guest post at Geek Feminism Blog about having a Ladies D&D Night.

Last night, we had our first meeting. We began the processes of picking out our characters, and, obviously, learning much about one another in the process. We drank cheap wine, discussed who we’d take to the Yule Ball, made esoteric references to Tim the Enchanter, got excited about speaking Draconic and hacking shit up in dungeons, all while feeing free enough to admit excitement over planning our characters’ costumes and buying pretty dice.

No one derogatorily accused anyone of being “girly” the entire night, despite swooning over a couple notable nerd-girl heartthrobs (Han Solo, Sirus Black) or waxing nostalgic on old boy band crushes. It was the most comfortable I’d felt around a larger group of nerds in years. I was free to be a girl, in my own sense of the word, and free to be a nerd, in my own sense of the word as well. There were pumpkin Rice Crispy Treats and there was a suggestive drawing of Matt Smith on the walls.

What I’m trying to say, rather wordily, is that I felt actually a part of a community for the first time in my geeky life.

I love geek women. I’m married to one. She probably likes playing D&D more than I do. She doesn’t make Rice Crispy treats, and she isn’t all that fussy about clothing, either. She does, however, get excited about speaking Draconic, hacking shit up in dungeons, buying cool-looking (“pretty” doesn’t really enter her vocabulary) dice, and Sean Cassidy (We have to count him in the category of “boy bands” don’t we?). I think she leans to Han in preference to Sirius, she tends not to like facial hair. Although head hair of the fabulous red persuasion is quite to her liking. However, she’s taking ME to the Yule Ball, thank you very much.

For some reason, I associate geek women with pink sneakers. Not the really fashionable ones, but the big clunky ones that go up to your ankle. They are meant for srs bznss! If you are woman and a geek, and you don’t wear pink sneakers, I’m cool with that too. I’m sure there are lots of you, I’ve worked with many such women. Pink sneakers take something which seemed to denote a “boy”-hightop basketball shoes – and claimed it for girls, too. In my mind, it’s simultaneously a stupid, gross oversimplification, and a fun metaphor. And for the record, I don’t think Mrs Darkwater has ever worn pink sneakers, but I could be wrong on that.

I played one long tabletop campaign in the Call of Cthulhu system with four women, one of which was only there for part of the time. There were three other men playing, too, and the GM was male. We each had multiple characters, typically switching between them depending on which part of the plot we were advancing. One of the characters Mrs Darkwater played was male (we call that “gender bending”, it’s been part of my RP since the beginning.) Another woman also had one character who was male.

We once spent one entire run in Paris in 1926 while the women characters in the group stopped and shopped. The male characters represented the patient and the impatient. One of the women players had some books of fashions in that day, and we had a glorious time. The run ended with one character, the young actress, missing the train (The Orient Express, of course) and having to hire a motorcycle with a sidecar to catch up to it.

That run turned out to be one of the most memorable of the entire seven years the campaign ran, even though there were no cultists, aliens, or dark gods to be seen. Those would come later.

I would say that I don’t understand why any man would not want women at his RP gaming table, but I think I do know. At least, I think I can think of at least one reason.

To be a man is to have your masculinity always in question. People will be eager to tell you that you aren’t a “real man” and that they can show you how, for a small fee. Or if you will do their dirty work, that will make you manly, too.

This masculine insecurity drives men to find activities that signal that they are men, rather than “not a real man” (I don’t really think that “not a real man” is synonymous with “woman” by the way.). One of those activities might be Dungeons and Dragons. It’s happened that way for a lot of men, I think. They first played in their youth, when most activities were gender-segregated because of, “OMG COOTIES”.

That wasn’t what happened to me. I first played D&D in grad school, with a woman GM, and a group of male players that flipped a coin for each character to determine its gender. (At least one of those players, I found out later, was gay as well.)

We had a rocking good time. The GM had some romance subplots, but they weren’t front and center during the run. When we played women characters, we tried to make them as believable as we could, and we were probably about as successful as we were with the male characters.

But we had fun. For me, fun with D&D and later with MMORPG’s has always involved women. Sometimes, sexual feelings do come up, and I’d bet that that’s true for women, too, in most any mixed group. Sometimes.

But that wasn’t the point of our group, so that stuff didn’t get any oxygen during our sessions, out of respect for our group. (I know of several relationships that started over D&D or MMORPGs).

To me, its fun to have different viewpoints at the table, and the true joy of tabletop RPG is getting into a group head space. It’s like a great big canvas that the GM has sketched an outline on, and we’re all filling it in and embellishing it. And I mean that not just in terms of character, but in combat, too. Combat is character. (If you don’t know what I mean, try watching “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” again with this in mind.)

Sometimes, other players will bring in some twist that will take everyone’s breath away. You can almost think of it as a derail, but really, we embrace it as an embellishment. This requires a DM to be pretty flexible about plots, though.

And so, people who are different than you are become an asset. As long as there is accord on the basic social contract of the campaign, diversity adds to the enjoyment of the game, it doesn’t subtract.

So men, relax a little. Brace yourself to ignore the catcalls of “not a real man”. If anyone tries to shame your masculinity, give them the Braveheart treatment (shown above). Well, at least in your imagination. You’ll feel a lot better. They have an agenda, and it isn’t to your benefit, count on it. They are trying to drive you away from something that you love! If there are women at your table, DO NOT hit on them, not there, not during the session. That breaks the social contract of an rpg session, which is to focus on play. It will irritate everyone else. And don’t shame them for doing stuff that you wouldn’t do. There might be consequences, it’s true. Know that the consequences might make the story more interesting.

To women, I say “show up”. If you’re new to the game, listen and read. Ask questions. There’s a lot going on, and some of the advice you’ll get is really useful, others not so much. But feel free to play your character. Don’t worry about “being a woman”, be yourself, and know that it’s ok. A little mental Braveheart for you might be good, too.

What everyone needs to do is find some accord on the basic social contract of the game, and that goes for all groups, not just the mixed gender ones. The group needs a few ground rules about how the game is going to work, and logistics. A few such possible rules:

  • Explicitly say that you’re going to let players make mistakes and have failures. You can expect them to learn from these, but have a good time with it. Laugh when things go wrong. It makes a better story.
  • It’s probably best not to bring sexual material into the game unless you are really, REALLY sure that everyone’s ok with it. I mean REALLY sure. No, not that sure, even more sure than that.
  • Don’t allow unlimited cross-table advice during combat. We use a mechanic called “idea roll” which is INT based if someone wants to suggest a course of action. Or they can shout out something short ON THEIR TURN. Otherwise, they can shut up. Maybe the new girl (or guy!) has a dumb idea, but maybe it isn’t that dumb after all.

Finally any group needs a shared goal or focus that will pull the characters together. It might be rescuing kittens, it might be toppling evil overlords (Did I say “overlord”? I meant “protector”!), it might be pulling a heist. As long as everyone is on board with this, the group can tolerate an enormous amount of diversity. The way RPG’s usually work, as long as that stubbled-cheeked, cowboy-boots-wearing, mass-murdering psychopathic lunatic is helping you, they get a pass. Why shouldn’t the same go for the bubble-gum-chewing, pink-sneaker-wearing, fashion-conscious psychopathic lunatic?

He Stood Up, and We Count Him

A message from Blizzard president Mike Morhaime:

Dear members of the Blizzard community,

I have read your feedback and comments about this year’s BlizzCon, and I have also read the feedback to the apology from Level 90 Elite Tauren Chieftain. I’d like to respond to some of your feedback here.

As president of Blizzard, I take full responsibility for everything that occurs at BlizzCon.

It was shortsighted and insensitive to use the video at all, even in censored form. The language used in the original version, including the slurs and use of sexual orientation as an insult, is not acceptable, period. We realize now that having even an edited version at the show was counter to the standards we try to maintain in our forums and in our games. Doing so was an error in judgment, and we regret it.

The bottom line is we deeply apologize for our mistakes and for hurting or offending anyone. We want you to have fun at our events, and we want everyone to feel welcome. We’re proud to be part of a huge and diverse community, and I am proud that so many aspects of the community are represented within Blizzard itself.

As a leader of Blizzard, and a member of the band, I truly hope you will accept my humblest apology.

- Mike Morhaime President, Blizzard Entertainment

Well said, sir.

Via gaygamer.com with a tipoff from Wilhelm (presumably of TAGN) in comments of my previous post.

UPDATE: Fixed link to The Ancient Gaming Noob (Linking again for karma.)

Stand Up and Be Counted

Blizzard, I expect better of you. You are the company that challenged the great gamer/nerd prejudice that orcs are bad. To you, orcs were kind of cool. And then undead and trolls, too. But, apparently, not gay people.

Well, I’m sure you’re happy to have gay people work for you and play your games. I bet you’re a pretty progressive employer.

However, at the end of the latest Blizzcon, you showed a video featuring George “Corspeater” Fisher, from Cannibal Corpse talking about his love of the Horde, and also his hatred of the Alliance, which was described using homophobic language. If you follow this link, you will find a version of the video shown. If you watch it, be warned, it’s so very, very NSFW.

What did you expect from a Death Metal head? It’s pretty clearly meant to be a joke, just way, way too far over the top. But some people aren’t going to be able to take it that way. There are lots of instances of that, and I’ve been on the other side, attempting a joke that others found hurtful.

And George clearly ascribes to the idea that if he doesn’t use the word “fuck” or a derived form twice in a sentence, he wasn’t being “authentic” or something. He’s clearly of the “don’t use a normal word when I can say something offensive” school of thought.

The video was bleeped out, but they showed it anyway. Does that make sense to you? How was this decision made? Let’s offend over half of your audience? I can appreciate how someone just thought it was funny, and kind of mocking. There’s a thread of self-mockery in George’s tone, it seems to me.

But would someone who has been beaten for being gay hear that? Or someone who has been humiliated repeatedly for being not quite “manly” enough?

I’m not sure Blizzard has made an official response yet. It seems to me the Blizzard is a fairly progressive employer and fosters a gay-positive workplace. But WoW players, and particularly raiders, use some of the most vulgar language out there, including homophobic slurs. So, will they affirm their own values when doing so might upset some of their best customers?

I expect them to stand up for what they pretty clearly believe in.

Mass Effect 2: When the World Doesn’t See Your Gender

Slowly catching up to the MMO world, Mass Effect 2 allows players to customize their avatar – Shepard – with a variety of looks and either gender. Here’s a YouTube video paying tribute to FemShepard:

Lesley of Twowholecakes.com writes about what it’s like to play Mass Effect 2 with an avatar that’s a lesbian woman of color.

When Brown Lady Shepard is rude, or curt, or dismissive, the reactions she receives from others are not to her gender or her race, but to her words. Why? Because the character was written with the expectation that most people will play it as a white dude, a character for whom reactions based on gender or race are inconceivable. He’s “normal”, y’see. In real life, and in most media representation, we are culturally conditioned to respond differently to a big ol’ white dude with no manners than we do a woman of color doing the exact same thing. The white dude is just a jerk, but there’s often a built-in extra rage factor against the woman of color, for daring to be “uppity”, for failing to know her place. This distinction is often unconscious and unrecognized, but it’s there. In Mass Effect, no matter what my Shepard says or does, not only is the dialogue the same as it would be for the cultural “default”, but the reaction from the other non-player characters is the same. (The only exception to this is the handful of times that Lady Shepard is called a “bitch” — I suppose Dude Shepard may get called a bitch too, but I doubt it. I find it fascinating that they would record specific name-calling dialogue in this way.) Brown Lady Shepard waves her intimidation up in a dude’s face and he backs the fuck down, just like he would if she were a hyper-privileged white guy. My Lady Shepard faces no additional pressure to prove herself because of her background; if she is dismissed, it’s on the basis of her assertions, and not because she’s a queer woman of color from a poor socioeconomic background — even though that’s exactly what she is.

There’s a joy here that I find very appealing. This is the joy of liberation. I would take nothing away from this, but I have one thing to add: the “big ol’” part of “big ol’ white dude” matters.

I’m a white dude who is decidedly not “big ol’”. I still enjoy male privilege, but people feel a lot more free to let me know they don’t like what I’m doing than they would someone a foot taller than me. Of which there are quite a few in the world. I would like to, you know, feel that I exist.

Tall guys make more money and have more sex. You can manipulate how aggressive people are in the ultimatum game just by altering the size of their avatar in a virtual reality. You can put numbers on it.

Actually, it’s even more subtle. Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailensen manipulated a virtual reality so that subjects thought themselves to be taller than their counterpart, even though their counterpart in the ulitmatum game percieved them as the same height as themselves. Under these conditions, the subjectively taller person would make more agressive splits, and reject unfair splits more frequently as well – just because they perceived themselves to be taller.

Yee and Bailensen make no report on the effects that having fabulous red hair might have, however.

Biology isn’t destiny. Napoleon and Jet Li come to mind. As a martial artist, I have physically dominated men who were much larger than myself. It was in training, but still, some of these men had a serious mental block about whether I could do this, even as I was doing it. This experience is not that dissimilar to the experience of some women martial artists I know.

Anyway, I don’t play many console games these days. But I’m really getting tempted by Mass Effect 2.