RANTS AND RAMBLES

Because sometimes, things just need to be said.

Why #Gamergate Matters to More Than Just Gamers… And Why There’s Hope

TRIGGER WARNING:

The following includes discussions that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence and harassment.
Please be advised. 

I’ve largely stood back and listened as the Gamergate controversy has unfolded. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy gaming, but I wouldn’t call myself a “gamer.” It’s not that I wasn’t sympathetic to the work being done by advocates, but not being fully immersed gamer culture, I’m very aware that my opinion is probably not productive in circles where “outsider perspectives” have already become a rallying point against the advocates. So I’ve stayed quiet… until now.

For those unfamiliar, the Gamergate controversy erupted over persistent efforts to combat sexism in the gaming industry, from representation of females in games to the way female gamers were frequently treated by their male counterparts. One needn’t be a 24/7 gamer to recognize the validity of their arguments; indeed, they became hard to deny post-2014.  Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian, most notably, garnered significant attention as their efforts were met with misogyny and, ultimately, threats of violence. What started as a hashtag on Twitter from gamers angry about the advocacy moved to spaces like 4chan and Reddit, where threats of rape and assault rose to terrifying levels. At one point, one of Sarkeesian’s speaking events was cancelled due to threats of a mass shooting in retaliation.

In much the same way that rape culture is dismissed as nothing more than anecdotes, critics have argued that the claims being made are unfounded. In reality, the arguments being made do have standing, going beyond personal laments and backed by lengthy, pain-staking research. Even if that weren’t the case, the vile reactions and behavior of those gamers who have attacked women speaking out is evidence of a problem in and of itself. Nonetheless, the call for better representation and treatment of women in the gaming space was transformed into an ugly monster of a thing, with GamerGate proponents calling foul on what they deemed to be “angry feminists” and “unethical journalists” trying to “ruin video games.”

Nevermind the fact that I still can’t understand why treating women like people with agency on and off the screen is going to ruin video games (seriously, when has that ever been the case with any other medium that appeals to this demographic – Joss Whedon, anyone?), there may be significant consequences for far more than today’s gaming enthusiast without some realignment on issues of gender.  Why? Oh, you mean aside from the fact that this treatment of women is utterly reprehensible? Ok, let’s go.

For starters, gaming is the likely future of education. This is not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination. The military uses it to train their service men and women. Political science courses use State Craft to help students understand real world applications of the theories they study in a controlled setting. Teach with Portals is one of the many groups looking to develop more educational gaming tools for future use, but textbook heavyweights like Pearson are also (yes, terrible pun intended) getting in on the game. Some primary and secondary schools are embracing the trend. My daughter and her classmates play educational games to improve their math and reading skills. Other schools have gone whole hog with it; Quest to Learn is just one example.

Why bring gaming into schools? Well, really, why not? In an era where we’re striving to keep students engaged and hungry about learning, packaging information in format with which they’re already familiar and already like is a great way to meet them on their level. But perhaps the most poignant observation comes from Henk Rogers, founder of Tetris Online:

The time for computer games to be a waste of time or pastime is passed. One hundred years ago, people played sports to prepare for a life of physical activity. When we play games, what are we preparing for? Most of what we do will happen in virtual worlds. We are preparing our children for a lifetime of virtual labor.

And why does any of this matter in the context of Gamergate? Let us count the ways.

Rampant discrimination against and harassment of female programmers leads to less female influence in a space that has long been dominated by the straight, cis male demo – the same folks who don’t think it’s important for women to be represented as, ya know, PEOPLE in their worlds. If this demo is going to be taking the reigns in developing games my daughter is going to play, I’m a little nervous here. It’s not that I think we’ll see GTA level violence against women in a first grade classroom, but there are valid reasons to be concerned about the potential for artificial gender binary construction. I don’t want my daughter taught any of that nonsense, and I have to battle those tropes enough without gaming in the mix.

Even in a world where the educational games get it right, they have the potential to fuel a big surge in broad interest in gaming. Generally speaking, I think that’s awesome, but if the gaming options available degrade women and the culture of players is as misogynist and vile as what we’ve seen through Gamergate, we’re thrusting an entire generation of young women into the proverbial Lion’s Den. One need only listen to some of the exchanges found on Xbox Live while playing games like Call of Duty to understand what I mean when I say the climate is openly hostile towards women.

And let’s take a minute to realize that the gamers leveraging this violent rhetoric towards advocates do not exist in a bubble. It may be easy to shrug off the horrific threats being made as jerks on social media, but those same jerks have jobs and coworkers, hire people, teach our kids, police our streets, run for office, and so on. If they think it’s cool to threaten a woman asking to be treated as a person with rape, what do they find acceptable in their day-to-day interactions with the world? That’s not to say all misogynist gamers are out there acting on their threats, but in a post-Elliot Rodger era, virtual misogyny translating to real-life violence a legitimate concern. Even without physical violence, the mindset manifests in behavior and decision making. Even if it’s “just words,” harassment is a terrifying reality for so many women.

I could go on. The lit base here is fascinating, and I’m privileged enough to know some pretty amazing academics doing research in this space. One thing is for sure: gaming is making its way into our schools, which makes Gamergate more than a feminist movement with which I can sympathize. Between my daughter’s love of her Wii games and the likelihood of future immersion into the gaming community, this is personal.

All this said, there are lessons to be learned and hope to be embraced in the fight for gender parity in the gaming space. Progress is slow (and the harassment still unrelenting), but it’s coming. In a nod to the argument that it’s not all gamers participating in such culture, more and more, the gaming community has grown uncomfortable with the level of sick that Gamergate proponents have used in their attacks against women. Advocates have rallied around some of the more diverse representations in games, pointing out the fact that said diversity certainly did not “ruin” them. Some developers have even begun to move towards creating more progressive story lines in their games. There’s a long way to go, but things are moving. Nobody – but nobody - wants their name associated with the filth that the Gamergate saber rattlers have come to be.

And this, ladies and gents, is where we find a lesson in optics that everyone can learn from. Time for a story.

DC Comics recently ran headfirst into the Gamergate controversy with a variant cover of Batgirl #41. The story in the issue focuses on the sexual assault of Batgirl, and the proposed artwork looked like this:

coverart

The gory, helpless depiction of a female hero who has since been transformed into a symbol of strength didn’t sit well with some fans who had gravitated toward the story because of said transformation. As the site Bleeding Cool explained:

The concern is that a book that has become totemic for a certain fresh approach to superhero comic books was getting a cover diametrically opposed to that approach. While some may have still had problems with the cover, it might not have been as concerning to some if it had been published a year ago. While variant covers often bear no relation to the comic they are attached to, this seemed opposed to what the comic has been trying to accomplish. And there was an understandable emotional reaction for those close to the new path the comic has taken.

At the time of the article, the “nays” had the numbers. Why? Because Gamergate proponents had jumped on the bandwagon. Ignoring the fact that no one was asking for the story line to be altered retrospectively (though the backstory on how that story came about is chilling) – just for a more appropriate depiction in light of the example the story had come to set – they started ranting and raving about how “villains are villains” and lamenting the purported desired erasure of an arguably powerful story. Ill-informed complaints from Gamergate proponents aside, women expressing frustration over the big step backward in what had become a more progressive representation of Batgirl were hit with an onslaught of threats of violence over their statements. In some ways, that’s not surprising; gaming and comics often share very similar demographics, so Gamergate folks piling on might be expected. But what came next was pretty awesome.

The artist responsible for the cover, Rafael Albuquerque, issued this statement:

My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favorite of many readers. ‘The Killing Joke’ is part of Batgirl’s canon and artistically, I couldn’t avoid portraying the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker.

For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character’s past that I was able to interpret artistically. But it has become clear, that for others, it touched a very important nerve. I respect these opinions and, despite whether the discussion is right or wrong, no opinion should be discredited.

My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art. For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled. I’m incredibly pleased that DC Comics is listening to my concerns and will not be publishing the cover art in June as previously announced.

With all due respect,

Rafa

DC Comics had this to say:

We publish comic books about the greatest heroes in the world, and the most evil villains imaginable. The Joker variant covers for June are in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the Joker.

Regardless if fans like Rafael Albuquerque’s homage to Alan Moore’s THE KILLING JOKE graphic novel from 25 years ago, or find it inconsistent with the current tonality of the Batgirl books – threats of violence and harassment are wrong and have no place in comics or society.

We stand by our creative talent, and per Rafael’s request, DC Comics will not publish the Batgirl variant.

What can we learn from this tale? First, Rafael Albuquerque has gained at least one fan in me, and I’ll be seeking out his work, because taking a stand like that is pretty bad ass. Second,  whether you agree or disagree with the cover itself, DC Comics, by refusing to tolerate the rhetoric it spurred, made a strong statement about the state of affairs here: the current Gamergate tactics are gonna backfire. Arthur Chu was on point with his take:

ACCURATE. And if there’s any justice in this world, it’s a trend that emerges in other realms, too (seriously – when are people going to start being scared of the GOP brand of crazy?), because the third takeaway is that this sort of advocacy is working. And with more notable figures like Ashley Judd pressing charges against those who have made explicit threats of sexual violence against her on Twitter, maybe – just maybe - we’ll finally start seeing some real consequences for assholes who think that shit is cool.

Ultimately, the moral of the story is this: Gamergate is disgusting, and its implications matter in ways we can’t yet fully tabulate. But the Gamergate misogynist troglodytes are also on the losing side of this, and the voices raised against them matter deeply.

To all the courageous women out there stomaching the fallout, this Mama Bear offers her gratitude and support. We need you.

Fair Warning: The comment section on this post is not going to become a platform for Gamergate defenders. The devil has enough advocates; I won’t be joining their ranks. You’re welcome to try, but such comments won’t be seeing the light of day. 

In Defense of Trigger Warnings

I see it all the time. Complaints about how neutered academia has become. Laments about how hypersensitive Millennials are. Talk of how coddled and incapable of facing harsh realities society is. The proof positive? The rising prevalence of trigger warnings.

If you read much at all about social justice issues, you’ve probably seen a trigger warning. Hell, if you read this blog, you know I include them when I can. The warnings can relate to all manner of disturbing content: assault, rape, torture, racism, sexism, mental abuse, and more. The intent is to make sure the reader or viewer knows that sensitive content is contained in whatever media they’re about to consume.

The idea of a trigger warning may seem relatively new to those not paying attention, but we’ve been labeling media according to its content for decades. What do you think a movie rating does? They slap a label on content to let you know what age groups it might not be appropriate for, and why. Pretty basic stuff.

Trigger warnings as used verbatim have become particularly wide spread in the blogosphere, and have been gaining ground in academia. They’re a little different than movie ratings, of course. It’s not about age appropriateness, but subject matter. Also pretty basic stuff.

Those who decry trigger warnings as liberal hysteria or feeble-minded conflict aversion don’t get it. Why should they? These warnings are not for them. These warnings exist to help those who are grappling with trauma – be it due to diagnosis or experience – better navigate the world around them. It’s about helping people make healthy choices for themselves. Sometimes, that means they don’t consume certain types of content. Sometimes, those warnings simply allow individuals to brace themselves as they confront something that could cause them damage if they don’t see it coming.

The simplest way to understand why this matters is to consider trigger warnings for a survivor of sexual violence. Think about the novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The story famously contains an immensely graphic rape and subsequent revenge scene. For some survivors, for whom the trauma is too raw, reading such a depiction could be enough to bring on flashbacks associated with PTSD, intense panic attacks, and more. For some survivors who have had time to process their trauma, reading it may still be an option, but they need to know what they’re getting into; a sudden confrontation with an echo of their past may produce the same experiences that a new survivor endures.

If you’re teaching a course on gender and literature and choose to include The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – not a far-fetched concept, given its pervasive feminist themes – it would be grossly irresponsible to not warn a class of what would often be primarily women (though props to the guys partaking!) about the pending sexual violence. When the statistics tell us that one in four women will be the victims of sexual violence in their lifetime, failure to include a trigger warning means you’re gambling with the mental health of a quarter of your students because YOU haven’t had to deal with that kind of trauma.

That’s not academic honesty. That’s not integrity. That’s not educational. That’s callousness. That’s cruel. That’s privilege. Just because your experience has been different from someone else’s does not make their experience – and the subsequent ways they interact with the world – any less valid. For you to argue that everyone should interact with the world the same way as you do ignores the diverse populations included in the conversation, and excludes those who have lived a different life than you have.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: the people who NEED trigger warnings are the people who want them the LEAST. What I wouldn’t give to be able to turn on a show or pick up a book without worrying that it might trigger a panic attack or tip me manic. I’m not the only one who hates needing to ready myself for an assault on the senses. The examples are many and varied. But I also know that if I don’t take care of myself, I’m not of much use to anyone. Part of taking care of myself has become a vigilance about the media I consume, be it a function of leisure of work. I still read (and write) about a number of issues that are intensely triggering. Trigger warnings are part of the reason I’m able to do so. And I can promise you – there is nothing soft or weak-minded about forcing yourself to confront material that you know could destabilize you. That’s courage. Being careful about it is called wisdom.

Which is why laments about trigger warnings in an educational realm are particularly infuriating. Educational settings are intended to help people learn and grow. Forcing students into a situation that you know, full well, could potentially cause damage to their mental health without prior warning because YOU don’t need warning is not about growth; it’s about ego. You wouldn’t accept hate speech in your classroom, because we recognize that as damaging. Why would you accept the blindsiding of people who are already suffering with traumatizing materials?

It’s not about neutering our curriculum so that everything is “safe.” It’s simply having the humanity to recognize that you don’t know what the people you’re teaching (or writing for) are going through, and having the decency to let people know what they’re in for, just in case.

In some cases, students coping with trauma may not be suited for an educational setting at all. That’s rarely the situation, but it happens. If they choose to go through proper channels, there are protections for those students. Otherwise, I understand that it’s up to the teacher to make a call about what they will or will not accept. I can only hope that if a student comes up to you and says that she’s trying, but she cannot read a graphic depiction of sexual violence because she was raped three months ago, you don’t say she can’t pass the class unless she subjects herself to trauma in an already fragile state.

That’s your choice if you do, of course. Just not one I could ever respect.

47

47 sitting U.S. senators penned a letter to a foreign government with the explicit intention of subverting ongoing diplomatic efforts to address a global security threat.

I still can’t wrap my mind around it. Truthfully, it sounds more like a plot line from House of Cards than real life… if the series jumped the shark. This is no shrewdly calculated move. Tom Cotton is no Frank Underwood. He’s the guy Frank plays.

If you haven’t read the letter (or, if you, like me, find yourself needing to reread it over and over again to convince yourself this is actually happening), here it is.

Let’s break this down for a second.

Cotton does not say anything that is factually incorrect in the letter. He states facts about the structure of the government. His understanding of the significance of the agreements he dismisses as functionally irrelevant is off, but even that’s not the problem; it’s all about tone. Cotton writes as though giving a group of first graders their first civics lesson instead of attempting to engage with the representatives of a sovereign nation. The equivalent of a sneer, his letter was a stunningly tone deaf disruption of important and already tense, diplomatic talks. It was Kanye-esque. “Imma let you finish, but Obama ain’t shit.”

If this man has any desire to hold a higher office or secure some sort of appointment in the future, may God have mercy on our souls.

Cotton is a freshman senator, and one might be willing to chalk this up to inexperience and hubris, but he wasn’t alone. 47 SITTING SENATORS SIGNED THIS THING. “Inexperience” doesn’t work as an excuse for McConnell or Graham or most of the names on the list. They should have known better. More to the point, they do know better. They just didn’t care.

The letter was an effort to undermine Obama’s credibility in the talks. The comments about term limits and erasing the work done with the flick of a pen made that clear. Fortunately, it’s not working. In fact, the entire charade is blowing up in their faces in spectacular fashion. One of the most gratifying responses came from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who made it clear that the Iranian government views this as little more than propaganda, NPR reports:

Zarif, noting that negotiations are ongoing and haven’t yielded an agreement, said the U.S. lawmakers’ “unconventional methods” show that they “are opposed to any agreement, regardless of its content.”

Saying he hopes to “enrich the knowledge of the authors,” Zarif said:

“I should bring one important point to the attention of the authors and that is, the world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by US domestic law. The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfill the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.”

Zarif also noted that many previous international agreements the U.S. has been a party to have been “mere executive agreements,” and not full treaties that received Senate ratification.

He said any deal on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program would not be bilateral; would require approval by the U.N. and the U.N. Security Council; and would not be subject to modification by Congress.

He added, “I wish to enlighten the authors that if the next administration revokes any agreement with the stroke of a pen, as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law.”

The whole reaction was pitch perfect. I applauded when I read it the first time around. TL;DR: you are out of your depth, senators.

Their ploy isn’t playing well at home, either. Only one week after Boehner’s similarly nauseating circus antics with Netanyahu, the behavior of the GOP has become indefensible. They’re not even trying to pretend they’re making decisions in the public interest anymore. It’s all about making Obama look bad. Republicans have crafted their collective identity in adversarial fashion, and, in turn, have put themselves in a strategically untenable position. Obama’s successes function as a direct indictment of that identity and the ideas that define it. If he wins, they lose. If he loses, they win. In the meantime, we all lose. It’s sick and twisted, frankly.

The public reaction has been beyond the predictable progressive rage, though. There’s a palpable feeling of disgust and embarrassment, politics aside. #47Traitors quickly started trending on social media as the anger hit its boiling point. It was enough to spur a We the People petition insisting the signatories be prosecuted under the Logan Act — a law from 1799 that bars unauthorized citizens from engaging with foreign governments in an attempt to influence them on matters related to tensions with the U.S.

Before your blood pressure spikes, know this won’t happen. The law is archaic, vaguely written, and — as much as it might make us feel better to see this group of senators taken to task for humiliating their country — disrespected by members of both parties on the regular. As Salon pointed out:

Public figures who’ve been accused of violating the Logan Act over the years include Sen. George McGovern for meeting with Cuban officials, Jane Fonda for her famous visit to North Vietnam, civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael for his trips to Vietnam and Cuba, Ross Perot for his efforts to find missing U.S. servicemen in Southeast Asia, former House Speaker Jim Wright for his relations with Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson for his freelance diplomacy with the governments of Syria, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Even Richard Nixon was accused of violating the act with a post-presidential trip to China. After each of these cases, critics suddenly rediscovered the Logan Act, but none of the alleged violators was ever formally charged.

More recently, Republican Rep. Steve King accused former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of violating the Logan Act by meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the wishes of the Bush administration in 2007. (With the notable exceptions of Nixon, Perot, and the 47 Republicans, alleged Logan Act violators tend to be liberals and leftists.)

In other words, the Logan Act is little more than a rhetorical weapon; indeed, no one has ever been prosecuted under the law. And as cathartic as it might be to take the senators to task in court, the Logan Act itself is kind of crappy, and arguably an unjustified limitation on free speech.

That said, the Cotton letter stands out among a list of prior offenders. The efforts that have thrust the Logan Act into the spotlight in the past were largely additive in nature; someone was trying to help make a situation better by learning or raising awareness or offering support. The Cotton letter is none of those things. It insulted the other parties in ongoing negotiations and attempted to discredit the U.S. actors involved. The intent was not to make things better. It was to derail work towards what is – ironically? sadly? insanely? – an essentially universal goal.

Scope is another critical factor in all of this. There are most certainly cases in the past – like the Dear Commadante letter – that were equally deplorable. But for half of the Senate to attempt to disrupt ongoing negotiations on a matter with potentially massive consequences for the international community as part of a domestic political power play is beyond the pale.

Adding to the ick factor is that the letter is already becoming electoral fodder. 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls fell all over themselves in a rush to endorse the letter, including Jindal, Perry, and Santorum. Rubio has already turned it into a fundraising opportunity. The day after the letter was sent, Cotton addressed a conference for defense contractor lobbyists. And in response to the criticism being sent their way? Well, blame Obama. Because logic.

At least, I hope this is all a power play. Yes, you read that right. I sincerely hope that these 47 people have willfully abdicated their sense of responsibility to the public, that this is just a way for Cotton to become a household name, that they think their stunt will make them look like American heroes to their base. Why? Because the alternative is that there are 47 proudly ignorant and delusional people with an absurd amount of power trying to run the show on Capitol Hill, and we, the people, put them there. Maybe that’s less tin foil hat and more likely. I still don’t want to believe it.

Ah, hell. We lose either way. Maybe I’m really just hoping to wake up from this nightmare.

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