Hawt Grrls, Dick Pics and Sexy Beards

Triggers: online harassment, sexism, rape

Here is a snapshot of a chat I received in the League of Legends, earlier this week:

I often play as "Hawtgrrlirl," although the person sitting here typing this is a rather unsexy bearded male. I first picked the name almost a decade ago - in WoW - as a 23-year-old grad student. Not a few hours into that character, a charming paladin (10 levels higher than me) took me under his wing! Neat! He followed me everywhere, offering me gifts, killing all my enemies, never acknowledging that I really just wanted to quest alone, and only very occasionally making awkward commentary about his possession of me.

So, yeah. I'm well aware that the name invites a variety of interactions, from the weird and not-so-fun, to the amazing. When people ask if I'm "rly a girl?" I usually answer honestly, and say no.

Tonight's exchange was typical, and ended in literally adding a new friend:

Summoner1: Hey, so... Are you a hawtgrrrlll?
Summoner2: garen ban plz
Hawtgrrlirl: Nope.
Hawtgrrlirl: I'm a dude with a beard.
Summoner1: Sexy
Summoner1: This is better than i though
Summoner1: thought
Hawtgrrlirl: Right?
Summoner1: Can i run my fingers through your beard?
Hawtgrrlirl: I'd really need to get to know you first.
Summoner3: can i jungle?
Summoner1: Well let's go out on a date then
Summoner1: I'm cheap enough
Summoner1: You like italian food?
Hawtgrrlirl: More of a teriyaki guy.
Summoner1: I'm cool with that, i'll eat about anything
Summoner1: Know any good places?
Hawtgrrlirl: I know a couple.
Summoner1: It'll be a bromance
Summoner1: i think i get paid here soon, so i'll even pick up the tab
Hawtgrrlirl: Right on. It's a date.
Hawtgrrlirl: Bromance is on the menu.
Summoner1: Sweeeeet
Summoner1: Added broski
Hawtgrrlirl: Same deal brohanna montana

I used to want to say that, at least in League of Legends, I got classy, humorous commentary and solid banter far more often than trolls. I'm not sure what changed, or if it was a steady shift, but now over half (at least) of my games now have some kind of intense, deeply disturbing commentary that directly relates to the fact that a "grrl" is in the game.

It cues off awkward rape talk,

Weird anatomical remarks,

Hawtgrrlirl: lololaf
Summoner1: Do you have a hawt beard, like Olaf?
Summoner1: irl, of course
Hawtgrrlirl: i do
Summoner1: Nice
Hawtgrrlirl: though its not red
Summoner1: Long as the carpet matches

And sometimes acts as a lightning rod for hardcore raging, blunt force ignorance, or the persistent homophobia:

Summoner2: i mean like
Summoner3: plz ban fagits
Summoner2: are you gonna play for real
Summoner3: ban all the fagits
Summoner2: or are you gonna be a little crybaby
Summoner2: if you are for real
Summoner2: then we can fuck them up
Summoner3: im down for mid or support
Summoner2: and maybe make babies
Summoner3: but I can fill if needed
Summoner2: if you are a fagit then we cannot make babies
Summoner1: are you really a hawt girl
Summoner2: ya seriously tho
Summoner2: whats open
Summoner2: besides hawtgirls legs
Summoner2: hohoho
Summoner2: see what i did tharrrrx2

And on and on. But back to subject 1: "nude for a dik pik"

After the GDC's brilliant talks this last week, by Brenda Romero, Jennifer Allaway, Zoe Quinn, Nika Harper, and many others, I have decided to start calling out other players, when their behavior gets weird, or violently discrimanatory. Regardless of whether it costs me games, goodwill, or even jobs.

This was what I said to the kind offer of "nude for a dik pik:

It's not perfect, but there's not a great script for this sort of thing. 

It's a work in progress. 

But let's do this thing. If legitimate harassment is happening - especially if it's not to you - speak up. 


hath no bottom

If you dumped LAX in with the highrises of downtown Los Angeles, surrounded that with two miles of California barrens, then circled that with Compton, you’d have something approximating Coronet City. I showed up close to midnight, on the home planet of Han Solo; heavily armed pimps, strippers, and Wookies barreled into one another drunkenly, their dutiful droids whirring by at polite following distances. No matter where in the city you go, Coronet sounds like the inside of a factory that makes dying refrigerators. Wandering anxiously, I occasionally glimpse up at the skyline, black and neon. The hydraulics on the next interstellar transport fire off somewhere behind me, in the punchbowl center of the starport.

Magni Jormund was supposed to be waiting.

He’s not. Instead, some horned alien with a leather jacket and facial tattoos inches towards me, holding the same icy expression and body language for several minutes. His clothes look bloody, with a mean-looking energy rifle slung out in front. I sidle away slowly, but not carefully. Before I’ve figured out how my legs work, the mysterious force called lag has me suddenly out into the dark barrens between Coronet and Coro-Compton. The gnarled rifleman might not have killed me for fun. The weird animals out here?

Magni finally sends a text. Says he’s waiting on another planet. Talus, not Corellia. Of course.

He and a few online friends just lured me onto the Sony/LucasArts game Star Wars Galaxies. It’s mid 2003, back on Earth, now midnight, and I just spent the last hour fine tuning the facial coloring for the half-man, half-fish I’d masquerade as for the next year or so. If you know Star Wars (but not Galaxies), the game was set after the destruction of the first Death Star, and before the icy battle at Hoth. Vader, Luke, Leia, they’d make appearances. Jabba and the Sarlacc? Ayup.

Back on Talus, what would soon be my home world, Magni missed the interstellar transport that comes once every ten Earth minutes. So he’s tussling with Imperial Stormtroopers, and I’ll need to find my own way. First, he text-talks me out of the barrens. Next I'll need to find the spaceport, ticket console, spaceship, then ticket collector. Then, on Talus, find the map feature, the planetary shuttle, the booking agent for a flight to the player-created city of Ba’aar.

Total simplicity.

Only, after winning the scavenger hunt, the automated ticket console politely reminds me I have no money. No problem, says Magni. Think you could work the email console? I’ll drop some credits in escrow.

Early SWG tossed new players in with naught but the clothes on their backs, so it was a good thing I had Magni. He got those credits into that escrow, and I got that ticket. With its mean-looking players, their flurry of textboxes filled with ALL-CAPS product advertisements, and gangs of lady aliens on humming hover-bikes, this world was starting to make sense. Not quite natural, yet. SWG – Coronet in particular – was notorious for lag, an experience not unlike attempting to walk mid-seizure.

Once I’d gotten the hell out of Coronet – an entire planet away, in fact – machines politely informed me it'd take another 300 credits to get to Ba’aar. Without another thought, and partly because lag was no longer at brain aneurism levels, I walked. Despite Magni insisting that he was actually pretty close this time.

A few minutes later, completely lost atop the mountains of Talus, I had my first truly magical moment in an MMO. It was Magni’s turn to ask where the hell I was. My only reply was to inquire as to how the discerning semi-aquatic gentleman might photograph what was on his screen. Having walked a sheer mountain ridge and evaded violent mountain Ewok creatures, as well as Stormtroopers, I came across a huge, peaceful, brontosaurus-like reptile. It casually defied laws of physics, strolling along a near 90-degree slope. Think David Bowie in Labyrinth, sashaying up the side of a wall. The info bubble let me know it was a vicious huf dun. I wanted to pet it. No command for that. Instead, I figured out how to take pictures, learned the technical commands necessary to smile, and captured the moment. The screenshots are still floating around on old backup disks, and I still can’t look at the things without a grin.

Not long after, Magni pulls up in his X-34 landspeeder.

“hey babe,” he says. “want a ride?”

Back in town, Magni sets me up. There were the little details: admission into his guild: Self-Righteous Paladins, joining the Rebel Alliance (requirement to join The Good Guys? Kill a few dozen Stormtroopers!). There were basic items: a jet bike, Ubese armor, a black T-21 rifle, finding the marksman trainer. Finally, the deed to a small house. With permission from the mayor of Ba’aar, I dropped my new home in view of the sea. No furniture, decor, or house pets, yet, but in this world I'd carved out a space of my own.


Back to chapter introduction

Next: Embodiment>>

Intro to Pt3: Engagement



"The most important Manhattan Projects of the future will be the vast government-sponsored enquiries into what the politicians and the participating scientists will call "the problem of happiness" -- in other words, the problem of making people love their servitude."

-Aldous Huxley, from the 1946 foreword to A Brave New World




In her well-known GDC talk on Train, Brenda Brathwaite describes hearing Mary Flanagan, another designer, refer to a game as, "my work.” That the subtle change of language brought on a weird transformative moment, helping to further shift how she thought about the medium of games. Not long after, at Ian Bogost's tenure party, she's having the standard games industry conversation, 

"So what are ya workin' on?" 

"Can't say." 

"Yeah, me neither." 

But, this time, Brenda was working on some board games because she wanted to, because she could. Trying to use games to capture the difficult emotions open to other mediums. Trying to see if that's possible.

"So, what are your games about?"

She'd made one about the Middle Passage, called The New World. One about the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland. And just then she was working on one called Train, about The Holocaust.

"But, Brenda," says this industry person, "That's not fun."

Was Schindler's List fun? Is fun what makes blues music compelling? Brenda started to question whether fun had anything to do with meaning. That of works most likely to move us, and stay with us, some (if not most) deal with human pain. With suffering. And that under the worst atrocities in humankind, Brathwaite says we can always find a system. And with a system, designers can make a game. If we care to treat games as emotionally complex experiences, as mediums for big, moving ideas, then we need to look past the fixation with pleasantries.

This is where the word “fun” starts making no sense at all. If we’re talking about the most atrocious in life, about pain, it’s time to call it something neutral – probably “engagement” – though even benched standbys like “delight” or “reinforcement” are better (if only marginally). Anything but fun. Friends pleaded I not call this a language of “fun,” but this is where I’m finally convinced. The draws to gaming are too complex, and “fun” is a nearly ghastly word to use if we’re talking about Train, Black Dog Game Factory’s Charnel Houses of Europe: the Shoah, or any work that deals with those elements in life that we’re meant to challenge.

In the past, if I was being belligerent enough, I’d argue that holding a newborn baby has resonance, a first kiss has resonance. You could call those “fun,” but they sit more at the fringes, they ask fun to grow up. And much to the chagrin of those around me, I probably can’t grow up completely. I like engagement as a more neutral term, but I’m not giving up on fun. This chapter, and the next, are about the same fundamental concept that underlies fun and engagement, but at some point I gave myself permission to keep both words. I decided that I didn’t have to decide. And yes, I am fully aware that at this point most casual readers will probably be saying,


But this matters. This is a book about words, okay?  As long as we realize that it evokes a rich rainbow of meanings, and that sometimes engagement makes more sense, I’m okay with fun.

Some fun might just be icing, but style can help great ideas stand out. I think that up till now, the stylistic ordinance of games originated at the simple delight of them. Gamers frolicked in dreams, in ways not possible a generation ago. Of course these worlds would catch the eye. When The Great Train Robbery's highwayman pointed his revolver at the audience and fired, at the turn of the 20th century, some members of the audience literally ducked. We don't do that anymore. Novelty eats itself.

Fun still comes first. Some of what raised up great works of the last three millennia was decorative -- the arresting styles of Bram Stoker or Van Gogh; historic shifts in skill and execution brought out by Jimi Hendrix or Imhotep. It makes a difference, in the final product, but it's also a mistake to confuse it with substance. In every creator just named (and, sure, it's my subjective opinion) style and substance came together. The language of fun only takes us so far.

It’s also, sometimes, enough to carry us away.

And always a little fun to say.


Back to chapter introduction

Next: Chapter 3, Engagement

Or start reading from the Introduction to In Play 


(3/12/2014) There may or may not be an update next week, since I haven't decided if I want to stash the craptop in my hostel at the GDC. Ping me if you'll be there and want to say hi!

The Wolf Was Here

One exceptional gentleman would occasionally burst in, rescuing me from the accumulating stank of Counter-Strike and Baldur’s Gate II. Blonde and tall, he gallivanted around campus in a German officer's coat, calling himself “an elitist” and “The Wolf,” unapologetically quaffing as much of my rum as he could get.

The Wolf had a knack for making sumptuous, stunning websites. He had grown up using Photoshop, writing poetry, and coding clever little experiences. I remember opening up his personal website, alone one night in my dorm room. His rambling blog (a word that wasn't yet in common use) spoke like Kerouac, but was backed in explosive, Picasso color. You could tell it was The Wolf. It made eye contact. Compare that to 2013, where two-thirds of the population of the United States shares their lives in the same homogenized blue-white dentist office waiting room called facebook. I guess that layout shouldn't surprise anyone, Zuckberg's parents are dentists.

If The Wolf had never shown me how elegantly individualized websites could be, I might've been just as content as the other billion members of McFacebook.

I had this professor at the same time, Dr. Aaron Delwiche, who'd been teaching us Wolf Skills. He made the point then – and has since made it in a TED talk – that if nobody knows how to program for themselves, if everyone starts believing that only men in white lab coats can do it, then we're essentially leaving the internet to folks like Zuckberg. We'll pour in the words and pictures that make up our lives, just so that a billion dollar company can own those. In 2001 Delwiche made a pretty straightforward affair of helping 20-year-old, caffeine-addled students (like me!) pick up basic HTML, CSS, ActionScript, Photoshop, and so on. With that literacy, I'd start adding my own color and voice to places I'd only been an observer, or a player. I'd held up The Wolf – who'd known how to work most of this since the seventh or eighth grade – as a true-to-life Wizard.

I'm not convinced I was wrong, not completely. As much as the fear of programmer magic might be out of proportion with the reality, as much as I'd love to see more color and voice online, most people do blithely settle for boring, banal shit. With everything, they take it in every other part of their lives. Why not online, too? For now, people like The Wolf are Wizards. They might wear German Officers Coats, or black turtlenecks, or lab coats. The magic comes from a desire to express themselves – to do more than just sit on their asses playing, watching, or reading.

All this, sadly, never really clicked for me in college. Play, for better or for worse, had me locked in its spell. I didn't even see the magic in The Wolf's site until he drowned. When his real, vibrant, stick-thin body slipped under the cold waters of Greenlake one night, was not retrieved in time by any of the poets or artists he’d been with. The last time I saw him, a couple days prior, I'd cruelly denied him a second glass of my rum, straight-up.

I skipped the funeral, avoided the poetry slam he’d been organizing (now dedicated to his memory) and in both cases sat alone in my dorm room, finally seeing his website. I just stared. It was just The Wolf. Just there. And very, very occasionally, just staring back.



Easy Nukes

I’ve been playing the Civilization games for nearly twenty years. You select a nation, and a leader (say, Russia, with Stalin, or America, with Washington). Different versions of the game let you select certain social policies (in Civ IV, slavery has its benefits). Some let you raze enemy cities, essentially allowing for ethnic cleansing (though you only see basic icons for things like cities, ships and armies). When Civ V came to PAX 2010 – especially offering an, “Addiction is Uncivilized” full-sized poster for visiting their preview – I had to see it. I waited in line with a buddy named Jamison. It was Sunday, the show was nearly over, so the line only took a few minutes. Once inside, I immediately disliked the PR douchebag up front. His script involved showing us how clean and pretty the animations were, when armies attacked cities, and armies attacked armies. At one point, with a city under siege, his script had him call on an ambiguously Asian woman to drop a nuclear bomb.

Everyone in the room gives a fake plastic chuckle, or head lilt. As if to say, you're so funny, PR Man, now give me something nice to take home. The woman playing gives the practiced but tired smile you'd expect after rehashing her script dozens of times in the last few days. We’re all so completely disconnected from the meaning behind these semantics, that nuclear war gets a chuckle.

Maybe it means we’re all cosmopolitan enough to understand our human history of nuclear detonations in a hip postmodernist sense. This room full of slightly overweight white American guys, with their hoodies and neckbeards, we all hate war and suffering, man. And like, in games, breaking taboo is totally the point. Each and every one of us is a reasonable adult, so bring on the fuckin’ nukes already!

Judge me as you will: I’m okay with that view, if that’s the reasoning.

Civilization is a game about war, culture, politics, and the systems behind them. Nuclear war is part of that, and it belongs in that kind of game. There are games, say the Saints Row franchise, where you get naked and car-surf in traffic. Both have Interesting Things to Say (SRIII is a good comment on the impunity of fame). It’s just, Civilization leaves a lot to the imagination. In previous Civ games, nukes left all kind of obnoxious cleanup. They were mechanically interesting, but neither giving nor receiving them was ever very fun. At this PAX, nuclear war was clearly just a laughable commodity, a weapon we launch for giggles. A weapon we launch to launch a game. So the script went on, the maybe-Japanese woman clicks to launch nukes at the bidding of this professional salesman. And then he'd tell the same two empty jokes about how funny that was. I guess I was being a bad fucking sport and a buzzkill when my gut churned. It’s just, I wasn’t convinced that my fellow nerds had actually read into what the game meant. The problem with Civilization is that – after enough bombs have dropped, enough tanks have rolled, and you’ve presumably reigned supreme – the player may or may not recognize the cost of their victory. The implied cultural, racial, religious, and idealistic annihilations. Winning the game is triumphant, but almost always a little tragic.

In games, I’ve cut down thousands of folks heedlessly, with lightsabers, AK-47s, coat hangers, whatever was handy. My fission nukes in Alpha Centauri – a sister game to Civilization – had killed billions in a single strike. Dropping nukes is bad news in almost any playthrough of Civ. This hired actor seemed oblivious. This setup was completely disconnected from the essence of the game. It was a release meant to bolster the stock prices of the company 2K Games, and we all smiled like good little Oppenheimers so we could have our pretty “Addiction is Uncivilized” posters.

If a game developer can draw oppression in sharp relief, evoking the difficult emotions and situations involved, then great. Good job, game developer. Whether it’s torture, slavery, rape, genocide, gross appropriation, institutionally-sanctioned violences – or any of the other shit inflicted out of the ignorance of privilege – games have unique, novel gifts to give these dialogs. Unfortunately, just as often they take.

When a work uses oppression as a scintillating zing, a tool to move product, it’s attempting to profit from the anguish, dehumanization, and/or wholesale murder of others.

Unique identities and weird shit? Great. I’m not saying life ought to be the some curdled bottle of homogenized milk, toning it all down at all times on the fear of offending groups we don’t know anything about. Artists have enough filters to worry about, like “what’s going to get me banned at WalMart?” Maybe even, “What’s going to feed my two-year-old?” Cultural and intellectual diversity, like genetic diversity, gives the human race a broader toolkit for surviving the universe’s fickle apocalypses.

Just, you know, listen. Now and again. Listening may or may not be, as Jesse Schell suggests, the most important skill for a game designer (though I suspect that it is). It just behooves every human to be aware of our natural proclivity for fucking each other over. We do it, it follows a few patterns, but can always come in new and unique flavors. It’s right to challenge this when we see it, and be aware of the tremendous amount we’ll be blind to. Even those who understand the value of empathy will be completely oblivious now and then.

bell hooks wrote of her Ain’t I a Woman?, “Although the focus is on the black female, our struggle for liberation has significance only if it takes place within a feminist movement that has as its fundamental goal the liberation of all people.”

Games – at the very least – could be safer places. We could do that.


Start reading from the introduction to In Play


(skip it)

Sometimes, one group of human beings will murder another on a mass scale. We call it different things: ethnic cleansing, holocaust, genocide. Compelling writers account for it. Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is the tale of a Polish Capo, one of the prisoners who aided the Nazis in the extermination of the Jews in World War II. Amy Chua’s World on Fire attempts to theorize on the structural causes of more recent genocides: in Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe.

What matters is that we have the capacity for this, as a species. As individuals, we have the capacity to quietly condone it, to ask for it, to joke as we burn the bodies. The recipe is never exactly the same. It usually involves minor distinctions between one group and another, usually in physical appearance. Simple othering. Combine that with economic inequalities between the two groups, a dash of ignorance. Let it simmer.

Even today, these ingredients exist in abundance. They aren’t going away any time soon.

Genocide will happen again.


Back to chapter introduction

Next: Easy Nukes>>

The Red Cross of Azeroth

(trigger warning: torture, medical torture, genocide, The Holocaust) (skip it

The International Red Cross wasn’t too happy with the Warcraft expansion Wrath of the Lich King. There were two quests in the newly-revealed locations where advancement meant the light application of torture. I mean, to be fair, one of them involves a rotting undead psychopath giving the implements of torture to a “Death Knight.” Whose base of operations is the evil floating citadel Naxxramas, which looks like a spider made from frozen-together kitchen knives. You’re slaughtering peasants and priests. You’re killing former best friends.

What’s a little torture?

There’s probably some segment of the League of the Concerned Adults worrying it’s their kids clicking some big, red “torture” button that Blizzard has made conspicuous in the game world. But if they’re already not sure what their kids are up to in some online community, then their kids are probably the unchained terrors going on about wet farts and their recreational drug regiments. So yes, concerned adult, please remove said child from my gaming experience. Games aren’t babysitters, and parents who treat them like one aren’t doing themselves or their kids any favors. They aren’t doing me any favors.

Parents who actually do play with their kids often hit these quests first, and either help their kids to sidestep them, or they prepare for one of Those Conversations. Which might be interesting, come to think of it. The Red Cross – whose mission is to protect human life, ensure respect, and reduce suffering – cares about war crimes in games because apparently 59% of all American 12-17-year-olds think torture is okay. Two-fifths of American children think we MUST keep landmines from getting banned. Landmines. The anti-personnel balls of evil that feral armies sprinkle over fields in wartime, only so other 12-17 year old foreign kids can run over them when they’re out playing tag, a few years down the road. These are either some hardened, embittered 12 year olds with badass vengeance on the mind, or critical conversations aren't happening.

So I don’t know, honestly. Maybe we do need a big conspicuous torture quest.

I’m not a child psychologist, keep that in mind. Just playing these games, it struck me as creepy that these quests were positioned alongside “gather 12 furs,” and “rescue 5 slaves.” These quests come in chains, so if you don’t finish the torture part, then later on you might not have access to the part where you get to save a basket of adorable kittens. You click to apply a neural needler to a prisoner, then click again, as he’s whispering for you to stop. You click about six times, and then he’s dead. Move onto the next quest. Get the next patch of experience. Level up.

The Red Cross developed out of the need for a neutral party to provide aid in war zones. Its creation would lead to the first Geneva Convention, in 1864, and later amendments dealing with the treatment of naval forces and POWs. In the wake of the Second World War, however, we heard accountings from concentration camp inmates. We learned that German doctors had been performing tests on civilian and military prisoners. They had attached objects to bone and tissue in operations without anesthesia, they exposed victims to mustard gas, they experimented on children, they sterilized millions. They employed a variety of tortures, medical and otherwise. These prisoners had no say in what was done by doctors and guards. At Geneva, in 1949, the major powers of the world met and agreed to condemn the torture of civilian and military human beings. Furthermore, any kind of experimentation involving human subjects would require informed consent. People needed to freely agree to it before anyone could cut into their bodies.

Cheap experiences may not hurt reasonably functional adults, and I'd be skeptical of anyone who comes anywhere near saying that. But they don't teach us anything. There are conversations that we as a society, especially with our children, we need the bravery to engage. If we get that from Vette the sex slave, a Dickwolf, or some fickle torture quest in the Northrend area of Warcraft, then so be it. It's not the job of a game to care for our children. And it’s not that children are completely unable to form their own opinions about the world. We are moral agents, but trite experiences only have value if someone can add it.



(trigger warning: infanticide, torture, institutionalized rape) (skip it)

History has its share of examples where, especially once an entire people are branded as enemy, mentally inferior, or any of history’s myriad examples of othering, they are enslaved. This explicit removal of freedom, when condoned by whole nations and cultures, invites startling dehumanization and depravity. Vette, Star Wars’s fictional videogame character, pleads that the player’s tortures and degredations have her, “rotting from the inside.” If Sicart is right, and those ugly actions help us to focus our moral thinking, then that’s sort of good.

But it’s not the same as having context for the actual evils that privileged, ostensibly “educated” classes inflict when slavery is openly institutionalized. One of the hardest accounts for me to read came from bell hooks’ explanations on how the Middle Passage was especially brutal for women. This from her classic on the black woman’s double-bind of racism and sexism: Ain’t I a Woman?.

Often the slavers brutalized children to watch the anguish of their mothers. In their personal account of life aboard a slave ship, the Weldons recounted an incident in which a child of nine months was flogged continuously for refusing to eat. When beating failed to force the child to eat, the captain ordered that the child be placed feet first into a pot of boiling water. After trying other tortuous methods with no success, the captain dropped the child and caused its death. Not deriving enough satisfaction from this sadistic act, he then commanded the mother to throw the body of the child overboard. The mother refused but was beaten until she submitted.
An important part of the slaver’s job was to effectively transform the African personality aboard the ships so that it would be marketable as a “docile” slave in the American colonies. The prideful, arrogant, and independent spirit of the African people had to be broken so that they would conform to the white colonizer’s notion of proper slave demeanor.

Once landed in the colonies, black women were staked to the ground and flailed, for burning the edges of their master’s morning waffles. It was more or less assumed that young white boys would lose their virginity to the “savagely sexual” black women. Slaveowners encouraged this practice, and other institutionalized rape, as mixed “mulatto” children often fetched a higher price, once taken from their mothers and sold. In general, “breeding” female slaves could fetch roughly a 1/6th higher price, when sold.

It’s not lightly that anyone should throw around examples in how far a group can go towards dehumanizing another, especially once a society throws open the floodgates of brutality by normalizing slavery. Nor is it something to brush off as inconsequential and worth forgetting, from an evil, but finished time. These patterns have a way of recurring, in ways we may not wholly expect.


Vette, Who You Can Marry

(trigger warning: torture, sexual torture) (skip it)

In ESRB T-for-Teen-rated Star Wars: The Old Republic, Vette the slave is one of the first companion characters available to the Sith Warrior. And one of the first decisions you make, while out and about in the galaxy, is whether to remove her shock collar. None of my Sith buddies have. Vette asks for freedom from the collar now and again; one of your responses is to give her a fast backhand slap. She cries. Signs point to most players merrily joking over internet forums and youtube commentary about how much fun it is to get to -1000 reputation with Vette, just by just torturing the hell out of this standard-issue Twi’lek. Lest you think this outrageous, tender reader, it's just that same, lovable gamer graveyard humor. There's plenty of light slavery and torture in Teen-oriented television and literature. I think.

In our first encounter with Vette, she’s being tortured by a Gaoler, as he says things about having his fun while he can, and having one for the road.

“Take this shock control collar,” says the Gaoler. “I’ll set it to a high level. Use it enough, she’ll show you the back door to ‘er mother’s house.”

After offering to help our character unlock a tomb she says, “So we’re clear, I’m officially on strike when it comes to domestic duties.

“Well let’s give this higher setting a test run.” The player can say, before shocking Vette.

“Uhhhg, Ahh! Okay that’s worse. Stop.”

Youtube also instructs on the proper mix of dark-side, along with many light-side choices a player can make to win Vette’s heart, ultimately paving your way to marrying the Twilek. You do elect to remove the collar. Despite living as a Sith, you lead her to peaceful, forgiving decisions toward others, people who may have harmed the blue humanoid and her family. She eventually even jokes about bringing the shock collar into the bedroom.

“You wanted to talk?” Asks the player. 

“More than talk,” she says. “I told the crew to get lost for a few hours. Just you, me, and an empty ship.”

“What were you thinking we might do in those hours,” says the player, adding the obligatory, “wife?”

“I might surprise you. I found my old shock collar the other day… come on.” And things fade to black for a few moments. When they come back she says, “So worth the wait. We’ll have to set aside a few hours every day…”

Players ultimately choose whether they want the torture or the romance. Unlike, say, Samuel L Jackson torturing a captive in the movie Unthinkable, not everyone has the same story. You can control a little, through the writing of a game like SW:TOR, though a lot of the pacing, choice of gore, a lot of that can’t be controlled. What’s more, the player receives certain bonuses for building up either Light Side or Dark Side points. If they need the Dark Side to progress, then electrocuting, slapping, and berating their slave might be less about what they want. More about the points they feel they need.

Miguel Sicart, author of The Ethics of Computer Games, has argued that games which reward unethical behaviors can be the most revealing. When, for instance, a few salubrious rounds of torture are all that's standing between a player and a few hours of otherwise unnecessary work (this brings to mind a Warcraft quest chain involving a “neural needler” and a restrained prisoner) the human, internal conflict can itself become a turning point. Players aren't mindless, says Sicart. They're moral agents. At certain ages they may not yet be geared for certain moments, but they do see the discrepancy between morality and what the system rewards. These queasy “ick” moments bring about what Sicart calls Ethical Cognitive Dissonance. The thought of torture curdles my blood, and yet I might rain down war crimes on my digital foes – anything the system asks – if it means saving two or three hours.

George Lucas’ works are known for throwing morals up on the screen, quite literally in works like the Clone Wars cartoons: don’t do what’s easy do what’s right, in war truth is the first victim, friendship is magic, whatever. So I’m curious if these outcomes do lead to deep moral thought about slavery, especially some of the implied sexual exploitation of Vette. In one scene, a wealthy trophy wife approaches your character after plenty of flirting. Vette asks to be excused, but is told she’s not allowed to, “leave your side.” And maybe it’s a mark of good character writing that we feel for Vette. Maybe it’s also telling that the brutal character choices you’re making come off as so bland. At an extreme point of torture, Vette will say,

“Okay, I can’t take this anymore. Look I throw myself on your mercy or whatever. Please, just please remove this collar.”

“You must learn to accept your situation,” says the player.

“But I’m gonna die from this. Don’t you understand?”

After a moment, the player says, “Make your case, quickly.”

“What? I… okay, I know… I know I’ve been lippy but I’m not that strong. I can’t take living like this. I feel like I’m rotting from the inside. Like I can’t feel anything anymore that’s not this collar.”

“You are weak.”

“I never knew evil was so petty until I met you.”



(trigger warning: extreme online harassment, torture, rape threats) (skip it

A smart researcher with a 2.5 million grant once asked me why women don’t play videogames. My first reply was that plenty do. That women, especially women over thirty, were shown by Nick Yee’s and my own demographics to be more active players, with more high-level characters in MMOs than men.
My second response was, “Fat, Ugly, or Slutty.”

Fat, Ugly, or Slutty is a website which collects all the random bullshit women endure in online games. The title comes from the general assumption of internet cretins, that any woman who would deign to game surely must be fat, ugly, or barring the first two, slutty. One of my very best friends, whose career involves studying these sorts of anomalies, has suggested such gamers must hate women.

He’s not wrong, but I think it’s more fundamental than that. I think that the men who say this stupid shit, as well as the women who go along with it, just haven’t spent much time around women.

Cultures, American and otherwise, do a little of the work of separating men and women. It’s maybe not bad to have a tiny touch of awe associated with romance, but dear God. Some of these guys are like unsocialized dogs, barking at every dog, person, and vehicle to pass within fifty yards. It’s a circular problem. Any sane woman who, after her first game, sees messages like,

“get back in the kitchen please. thank you.”
“am sorry 4 asking this but would you send some pics of your bare feet and would you like to see a big cock”
Or a line of messages starting with,
“your nans dead bcz I face fucked her
And ending with,
“ima rip your neck open and fuck the gaping hole ald finish off in your eyes”
Or just
“wet?” Will understandably close the game, ne’er to return.

Also, I think I was wrong. These fucking insane gamers probably do hate women. I’m not sure how else we get to the point of casual remarks on ocular penetration.

Right, and, segregation isn’t great. Whether or not it’s institutionalized, it does less than nothing to help us reconcile the wild-ass myths that spread in the absence of actually meeting – let alone being around – another group.

Whether we play with dolls and tea-sets, or Nerf guns and LEGOs, may have something to do with whether caregivers imagine us as future trophy wives or legendary engineers. And there are plenty of men who probably needed to spend more time playing “house” rather than dreaming of building their very own ham-like Schwarzenegger biceps. Women have enough societally-enforced bullshit to deal with, without gaming dudes who feel entirely entitled to inquire as to the penile readiness of their vaginas.

Which is too bad for we, the regular gaming folk, who enjoy diverse company. It makes gaming homogenous. It means an even higher likelihood of encountering prepubescent psychos, over sane human beings.



Most towns still have a “wrong side of the tracks.” Maybe a feral cat or seventy. Various severities of homelessness.

City administrators try to keep those cities nice and safe, with regular garbage service, good road signs, but that takes revenue. Occasionally they get really lucky, maybe with a cute little town square. Maybe a nice restaurant moves in. Maybe it’s decent antiquing. A few young, cash-drenched professionals arrive. They spiff up local houses and pay higher taxes, that’s good for everyone, right?

Those poor people in the area should be grateful for the privileged newcomers, willing to cast off life’s luxuries and slum it. Except, as tax income increases, so can rent. So can the prices of certain amenities. Some residents can’t afford to stay in the place that was theirs, scrappy as it might have been.


Electronic Arthouse

It's 11PM the night before PAX, and we've accumulated an ungainly entourage, including a three-man film crew, belligerently drunk lawyers, one famous game designer, and a high-ranking Electronic Arts executive. We can’t find our way to the party.

“I crush dreams for a living,”

Says the EA exec, still merry despite having gotten us lost in our own city. The Space Needle is close, but eerily out of sight. Hobbling-drunk and gratuitously praising our shoes, I'm not sure why we followed him. Maybe it's his cheery nature, or that he was scattering corporate secrets like Johnny Appleseed, saying,
“Gentlemen NDA, of course!

“No, really though. We buy these studios, we give them our money, and sometimes they just don’t work out. They expect us to put out this absolute crap. Really, I know. It’s mean. But it feels so good to say this. It’s just crap. Indie games are harder than people expect. A lot of people do it, and to some degree it’s random who lives and who dies.

“Gentleman NDA! NDA, Gentlemen!

“But really, really, it’s like I’ve been asked to catch a unicorn fucking a narwhal. EA is calling it their,” He waves his hands majestically, “Electronic Arthouse.”

Money is great for like, eating and stuff. But the point of an indie scene is to do something outside the established, safe boundaries usually set by big publishers. Like him. The game in question, Shank, sucked. And not just because it technically functioned as smoothly as a junkyard moped. It sucked because the game was just another side-scrolling platformer, and Mario Bros. is – as an idea – only thirty years old.

Since its release, Shank competed on the same field as completely scrappy, unfunded indies. Shank took up space in the coveted Humble Indie Bundle packages, which sometimes means tens of thousands of much-needed dollars for artists whose three other jobs might still pay the bills. That’s not cool, Shank. That’s not fucking cool at all.



Appropriation isn’t just the assumption that a work is for our benefit, it’s the active claiming of another group’s cultural artifacts by a privileged group. It might be for pleasure or danger. The less privileged group might bend to that commercial demand and actively offer their culture, if it’s lucrative. Langston Hughes reflected on the social situation of 1920s Harlem, after the fact, in his The Big Sea,

“White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage, unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles…So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community. Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after Sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers – like amusing animals in a zoo.”

The blacks weren’t even allowed in the white clubs, they couldn’t have done the same. “But they didn’t say it out loud – for Negroes are practically never rude to white people. So thousands of whites came to Harlem night after night, thinking the Negroes loved to have them there, and firmly  believing that all Harlemites left their houses at sundown to sing and dance in cabarets, because most of the whites saw nothing but the cabarets, not the houses.”

He wonders whether this didn’t cause the end of the Renaissance. Whether all that pandering didn’t leave the “fine things” to disappear, “like snow in the sun.”

Blacks still had their own whist parties “in small apartments where God knows who lived – because the guests seldom did – but where the piano would often be augmented by a guitar, or an odd cornet, or somebody with a pair of drums walking in off the street. And where afwul bootleg whiskey and good fried fish or steaming chitterling were sold at very low prices. And the dancing and singing and impromptu entertaining went on until dawn came in the windows.”

Appropriation can the theft of painting, poetry, and sculpture, or the subtle elements of a style. But 20s Harlem, in some cases the people themselves became a spectacle to be consumed.


dys4ia Wasn't For Me

Anna Anthropy’s game dys4ia starts with hot pink, pixilated chunks of text which strobe at the player like sirens beckoning gamers to the rocky shores of their first epileptic seizure. After you click “down,” and some strange voice says, “zzziiiip,” The player sees the text, “This is an autobiographical game about my experiences with hormone replacement therapy. My experience isn’t anyone’s else’s and is not meant to be representative of every trans person.” And then we can advance to Level 1: gender bullshit.

We try to fit an oblong block through a single wall of a maze, and we don’t fit. We attempt to block projectile feminist commentary with a pong-style paddle. We walk down a street where everyone calls us “sir.” We move a razor over our face, but inevitably cut ourselves shaving. We attempt to infiltrate a woman’s bathroom, by moving our character around other women.

Level 2 is medical bullshit, where we jump through hoops; there is a game where we literally navigate our character through large yellow hoops. But in the different mini games, we do find a clinic willing to give us hormone therapy. Level 3, then, is hormonal bullshit. Taking estrogen pills begins dealing percentage-based damage to our liver, so we get, “PRO-TIP: LET ESTRADIOL DISSOLVE UNDER YOUR TONGUE.” We must navigate a set of breasts around scratchy asterisks, with the text, “My nipples are incredibly sensitive.” The final level, Level 4, is it gets better? The games we’ve been playing change. The mechanics change, the aesthetics change. In some, there’s the sense of a real transformation. In others, the games are the same as before estrogen therapy. It feels unique, and personal, because it’s you who just played through it. dys4ia is built out with the kinds of experiences we can only get when we press “play” ourselves.

Anna Anthropy has written that dys4ia is for trans women, by a trans woman. It’s about that experience, in the medium that deals best with experiences. On her blog she writes,

dysphoria is looking in the mirror and not recognizing what stares back at you. it's the layer of static that obscures your reflection. it's the laughter you wait for when you walk down the street, the fear that keeps you from stepping out the door wearing the clothes that you want. it's the way you look to the side when you pass a stranger so they won't see your face straight-on. it's listening to a recording of your own voice and hearing crumpling aluminum. it's looking at a photo of yourself and feeling like a lie. it's the half-hour you spend shaving every morning. it's the five times you redo your make-up during the day. dysphoria is the feeling that your identity is a cardboard cut-out, that you see through your costume as easily as everyone else will.

Anthropy mentioned frustration, over her twitter, when a journalist from a well-known national newspaper started making obvious mistakes in characterizations of trans people. She wrote, on twitter, “and fuck that, no, not all games are designed for you. I made dys4ia for other trans people, not to help cis people relate to me.” She was especially concerned with the attitude, especially among white men, that these games were made specifically to help them to better understand trans women. As a sort of primer, purely for their benefit. So they could learn to treat transgender people like people. “that it HAS, according to some cis people, helped them better relate to me is cool, but it was a side-effect, not my objective.”

Without that strong internal voice, it would not have been the same game.

Hers is a voice that’s acutely aware of what games are capable of. In Anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, she uses Tetris, SimCity, and a talk by game dev Greg Costikyan, to say that these experiences teach us how different parts of the world relate. Tetris may not hook directly into complex social situations, but SimCity has obvious pointers on zoning, taxation, and the general economics of city planning.

Though that may not stop Tetris from becoming a revealing experience. Anthropy writes, “…the player places all the pieces herself. Every player will place the pieces differently, will play a different game, but experience a similar result. The same holds true for any system of rules, as simple as Tag or Tetris or as complicated as SimCity. Games have a lot of potential for examining the relationships between things – or, rather, for allowing the player to examine the relationships between things, because the player does not merely observe the interactions; she herself engages with the game’s systems.”

The games journalist Jenn Frank remarked on this passage, “…in a game where you are its player, every revelation can be personal, rather than having the moment explained to you in some cinematic cutscene. There are all these panels in any given story, and then there are the spaces between the stages and…!

“Anthropy’s book is about everything!”

dys4ia might evoke a certain response among privileged folks, and Anna is fine with that. It’s still not what she had in mind. It wasn’t the inspiration. She made the game for transgender people, and that’s what gives it an almost violent strand of identification, that misery and that daybreak of joy at the game’s end. That’s only my interpretation, but I moved the pieces in my own way, and came into it with my own assumptions. dys4ia wasn’t for me, and I’m fine with that. I liked the game, and I suppose Anthropy is probably fine with that.


Oppression and Privilege

Oppression is when othering becomes institutionalized, that is when a culture, social structures, or any prevailing entity, starts to enforce patterns ranging from segregation, to ethnic cleansing. Privilege is freedom from oppression. They’re reverse sides of the same coin.

You don’t typically notice privilege until you’ve lost it. In geek terms, the Game of Thrones fan that can’t afford HBO, or the gamer with no money during the big Summer Steam sale. Slightly outside the padded world of geekdom, privilege refers to anyone with the monetary, social, or other resources to not worry about details like your next meal, or paycheck, or rent check. Perhaps the culturally enlightened vegan, backpacking through India. They’re a tourist to poverty. They get to go home. Those chronically undereducated kids, starving on the hot pavement or barking about their trinket stalls, they are home.

Recognizing privilege can be a subtle shift. The American architect with three kids, who finds himself in his third year without steady work. It can be sudden. The Greek banker who had steady work for three decades, washed into the tidal wave of a countrywide depression. Only so much can come from empathy. If you only ever live on the white side of town, only ever go to good colleges and get good jobs, never travel outside your wealthy country, or your medium-wealthy area, you can be blithely unaware just how differently other people live.

Ignorance over oppression, especially willful ignorance, is a certain brand of privilege. While some will violently defend their rights to that ignorance, that works contrary to the listening which averts tragedies that are – especially for the privileged – stunning in both their horror and magnitude. It also averts the bland, everyday gaming banter that’s been stale for awhile.



It’s a foundational element of social and evolutionary psychology that we sort ourselves into in-groups and out-groups. We’re more likely to ascribe positive traits to “ours,” and see the “other” as not only more negative, but more homogenous, “all the same.” Psychologists suggest that it’s entirely natural, and adaptive, if we’re living in the Stone Age. We take care of our own first, and if an outside tribe threatens ours, we can be savage. These days, this othering feeds into racial, gendered, national, and ideological hate. It’s the switch, that humankind sometimes flips, which allows individuals to condone war, torture, genocide, and apathy during disaster, famine and economic downturn.

Understanding this holdover, in our common human wiring, has become central to the laudable goal of not being a tremendous asshole.

Sometimes, when a culture enjoys a little bit of memory loss about the imagery and language it’s used to dehumanize and other, pushback can be a surprise. As when the Japanese-made game Resident Evil 5 released an early gameplay trailer at the E3 convention, featuring a burly white man shooting down crazy mobs of black men and women (as they threw whatever weapons were handy: hatchets, spear-like pitchforks).

After seeing the trailer, an African American journalist working for Newsweek, N’Gai Croal, wrote, “What was not funny, but sort of interesting, was that there were so many gamers who could not at all see it. Like literally couldn't see it. So how could you have a conversation with people who don't understand what you're talking about and think that you're sort of seeing race where nothing exists?” Across the internet, Croal was being called racist, for simply seeing race. Yet, the imagery framed in the RE5 trailer did bear almost uncanny resemblance to two specific stereotypical images used to dehumanize blacks during slavery and segregation: the pickaninny and savage.

We see one black male, presumably a child or young adult, stare up from the shadows with no small quantity of malice. He could be a reference shot for the “pickaninny,” a common depiction of black children often shown looking up from shadows, eating a presumably stolen watermelon. In the first few minutes of the actual game, the comically muscled white character, Chris Redfield, walks by blacks savagely beating one another, blacks beating flailing hemp sacks, and blacks dragging struggling bodies out of view. They aren’t exactly zombies. They stare either dimly or violently as he passes, matching historical imagery of the “brute,” or black man as savage.

Croal writes that the Resident Evil 5 villagers are othered, “They're hidden in shadows, you can barely see their eyes, and the perspective of the trailer is not even someone who's coming to help the people. It's like they're all dangerous; they all need to be killed.”

The media theorist Henry Jenkins would later analyze the exchanges between critics and an upset internet. For one, the game was Japanese. What did the Japanese know about American racism? Maybe not much, answers Jenkins, but then reminds us, “as if Japan has no history of its own racial and ethnic constructions.” Ignorance isn’t bliss for the person who personally experiences dehumanization, and Japan should know enough about race hate to anticipate that a white guy shooting a bunch of “infected” blacks might be worth researching. Especially if they wanted to, you know, sell a few copies.

Jenkins writes that “The discussion is itself an example of a great deal of discussions about race in the U.S. - people mostly talking past each other with a distinct lack of empathy.”

Because on the internet, you can’t see who is listening.

People who’ve been privileged enough to never have to deal with race, they sometimes take that invisibility to mean that we’re living in a post-race wonderland where even the crudest jokes are A-OK.

The internet only vanishes race for people who couldn’t see it in the first place.

It may seem inconvenient, or unnecessary, but those who really care about things like being “post-race,” will recognize that othering is something that human beings do all too automatically. It’s a nice, safe defense mechanism. One that a fellow gamer may have had been on the receiving end of, earlier that day. They might really want not to think about it, as their teammates drop racial epithets with merry abandon. But it’s rare that they’ll bring it up, since the reactions are typically on the order of what Croal encountered.

Jesse Schell said that the most important skill for a game designer is listening. It’s more than just a tool for game design.


Back to chapter introduction 

Next: Oppression and Privilege>>

Intro to Pt8: Challenge


Trigger warning: this chapter deals with nearly every PTSD/anxiety trigger. This is not an overstatement. I tried make it easy to skip certain sections, should readers wish. Please let me know if I've missed anything (and my sincere apologies, if I did).


- 1% of the internet, constantly.”

-Helen Lewis

“Don’t be a dick.”

-Internet Proverb


(3/7/14) So. Well. Where to start? 

Posting this section of In Play - in its entirety - has been a nagging compulsion for a few weeks now. Last night I finally decided to give in. 

I'd been working pretty nonstop (GDC, yaknow?) and wanted a couple salubrious rounds of League of Legends. I wanted to relax. In League my visible name is, "Hawtgrrlirl," a big advertisement that there's a 'hot girl' playing. It's not true, I'm a young white guy, but as an academic working in games for the last decade, it's made for a lot of valuable conversation-starters. And not so valuable ones. I answer player inquiries in at least an entertaining fashion, which may or may not typically include mention of my luxurious beard. 

Last night, three games in a row, players did a lot more than inquire. My nonexistent vagina was scrutinized in some of the most violent, excruciatingly sexual language I've ever seen. And yo, I can dumpster-mouth with the best (or worst, if you prefer). But this? These gamers were talking to a total stranger. This wasn't a fucking comedy tour. All these people knew about me was that I'd chosen to point at my actual person and call it the attractive variant of female. 

And I had absolutely zero power, in that situation. Whether in the pre-game banter, or the games themselves, my teams brought me every brand of verbal and actual in-game abuse. Because they thought it was funny to treat a woman that way. 

Meanwhile, in every one of those games, there were silent people. In one game, when I spoke up, a silent person decided it was time to chime in. They told me to shut up and let the troll have his way with me. Because if a troll doesn't feel utterly in control, as League players know well, the troll may decide to leave the game, feed, or find even more abusive ways of causing you to lose (and this is ranked, dammit, this can damage your standing in ways that take hours upon hours to fix). 

Just shut your mouth, and let the troll have his way with you.


You think your ranked score is worth that? 

Riot, you're a big enough game that YOU NEED TO FIX THIS. You've done a lot. You've made some of the best strides of any similar online game. But don't just give us the illusion of improving the community. You need to make your tools real enough, and responsive enough, that we are protected from racially charged, homophobic, sexually violent, and other abusive trolling. We need to know that both our mechanical progress, and that the emotional atmosphere is safe from the whims of some racist highschooler. You then need to be unafraid to MEANINGFULLY punish players. You need to give us tools to report these pieces of human garbage in every area of the game (that INCLUDES champion selection). 

Gamers, you are smart enough that YOU NEED TO FIX THIS. The language of oppression does not belong in games. The only people who don't deserve to feel safe in games, are the arrogant, selfish ogres who seek to make other people feel unsafe in games. 

I'm not advocating we all have paper-thin resistances to BS. I'm saying that at the threshold of hate speech, at the point where the talk in-game, every game, literally breaks the federal law of the United States (and is directed at utterly random individuals) that anyone who does not speak up, anyone who does not immediately call out trolling, is an enemy of fun. 

I had a couple paragraphs about how calling out your friends, on trolling, would do them a lot of good.

It surely could, except I'm done caring about the well-being of a troll. 

I care about the people targeted by a troll's shitty campaigns of bullying and psychological torture. If you've got any shred of decency, you will stick up for your fellow human beings, no matter whether they want to identify as male or female. No matter their race, nationality, religion or sexuality.

Let me show you how:  

"That's not cool, insert name of troll here.

"Chill the fuck out, insert name of troll here.

"Just FYI. Riot employees are watching my stream, insert name of troll here."

And if you don't agree, well, neat. Enjoy the smell on troll island. 

But if you want safe games, then stick the fuck up for the people getting trolled. And tell the trolls to sit the fuck down.


Well that was a rant. Here's a link to the Dickwolves bit, which is the beginning of this chapter. 


Exogenous Value

Game designer Greg Costikyan originally brought the term Endogenous value to games, from biology. That said, I think Jesse Schell explains it the cleanest, in his Art of Game Design. “…it means “caused by factors inside the organism or system,” or “internally generated.”” Schell’s example is that Monopoly money only has meaning in the context of playing Monopoly. You can’t take it to the bank, unless you’re looking to prank some bedraggled teller.

Though even that isn’t completely satisfying, since Monopoly gets a lot of that context from how we value money elsewhere in life.  While we can get some satisfaction from knowing how to get what we want out of Monopoly money, or chess pieces, or the local bar on the night of the big football game, internal meanings can be at the bleeding mercy of external ones. And that’s everywhere, the effect isn’t exclusive to games.

If it really is game night, and that’s what the crowd officially wants at O’Malley’s Pub, then the conversing human beings, the beer, the loud smoky atmosphere of O’Malley’s, might just become secondary. Brawling frat boys might catch your attention, in the brief moments before an enormous red-haired bouncer throws them out by the popped collar. A juicy conversational nugget may catch your ear, especially if the game is on a commercial break. That particular bar’s atmosphere might have been why we chose it, over another bar, or a someone’s couch. The game imbues that place with an extra reason to show up. Sometimes an experience works better when it references an entirely separate reality. Fun can absolutely be about the obnoxiously wordy exogenous value, caused by factors outside the organism or system.

Our knowledge of sporting events does the same for certain videogames. FIFA and Madden are game franchises worth hundreds of millions, and certain players choose them over things like BioShock or Warcraft or FarmVille not because FIFA and Madden are heart-stoppingly innovative. They buy the games because they understand and enjoy Soccer and NFL Football, respectively. That exogenous value references familiar players, rules, and teams.

Which can add a layer to fun.



In music, unity is Tom Waits’s gravelly voice, singing about grit and death and life. In writing, unity is Cormac McCarthy’s mix of the harsh and beautiful, to capture a blood-drenched Old West. Unity is similar in other genres as it is games, though there are differences.

There’s a less-than-obvious systems layer. It’s probably best described by Ian Bogost, with one of those onerous automated telephone systems. You know, “press 5 to get another set of options, which may or may not include speaking to a human being.” Games are like any other art, but there’s a navigable system underneath. We try to make them more engaging than an automated telephone system. Not always with success.

Games literacy is more than just knowing that the underlying systems exist. Robert Frost once wrote that, "No poem is intelligible except in light of all the other poems, and the poems that were ever written. So you better get about them, circulating among them." Part of a being literate means knowing how weird or unique or common systems worked in other games. Today’s indie games poke fun at staples like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario, partly because their mechanics (jumping, collecting coins) are so simple.

Matching up the systems with everything else – the visual aesthetics, writing, and subject matter – that takes literacy. Pulling it off gives a unified experience, but flying in the face of it can be just as good, if done well. “Press 1 for a transcendental experience.”

One of my best examples of Unity – a strongly-designed link between the system and its aesthetic experience – is a game about spaceships and death. In Brendon Chung’s Flotilla, you’re put in charge of a flotilla of spacefaring warships and told you have seven months to live. Healthy combination. As you travel through space, you will sometimes come across Rastafarian cats, or celestial phenomena which forcibly remove your pants. Sometimes one must battle insane space hippos, or fowl space pirates.

You’re given a three-dimensional version of a chessboard, in which you can move your ships like pawns and rooks. Then you hit, “Go,” wait for thirty seconds, and listen as Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude plays. Beautiful piece, by the way. Very soothing, in a 2001: A Space Odyssey kind of way. Hopefully that didn’t really make sense, on the first read through. Because those are the aesthetics of the experience, and they are wonderfully strange. While cavalier on its face, at its core the game is tragic. Occasionally, while the ships are moving, your battleship will be cut to shreds by enemy beam weapons, sending sizzling chunks of its carcass into the dreadnoughts and fighters that you won in fondly-remembered vodkahol-fueled karaoke contests, and by spelunking into ghost-infested ships.

But now they’re gone, blown to pieces.

And all you can do is watch.

For thirty whole seconds. A lifetime, in the world of twitchy Counter-Strikes and immersive Baldur’s Gates. In being a participant, drawn into that system, there’s a very certain experience to be had. I really don’t know if Chung intended it, with his game, but at a certain point I got it. Everything clicked. There was the flotilla captain’s impending death, the devil-may-care silliness of the story, and the fragility of your ships, accentuated by an elegant piano sonata.

And then there was the system, the process. Once you set your ships to move, you could only wait. Only watch. You had to let go. Where so many games are about inflicting your will on a system, Flotilla was about letting go. Everything in the game reflected it, all in Chung’s quirky personal style. Flotilla was the first game I ever saw with true unity.

It’s one of a handful I’d consider truly beautiful.

And you’ll never understand why, without procedural literacy.


Loving the Devil

Counter-Strike, for instance, was a good place to be. Especially when you were skilled enough to dismantle whole teams with novelty firearms.

The Devil and I continued to merrily MAC-10, TMP, and UMP others, and one another, day to day, week to week, until shit-talking and trolling blossomed into something more. He wound up being Cameron, a high school junior living about four hours away. A decade later I have a spare key to his apartment. I don't think there was any single moment where friendship “happened.” It went from sharing a few rowdy in-game conversations, to sharing emails and stories, to then – in Counter-Strike and beyond – sharing adventures. When all I knew, at first, was that a serial UMPer probably wasn’t pretentious, only worried about maximizing their chance of a win. They were my brand of ridiculous. My brand of fun.

Games and the internet – somewhere along the way – became just more places in the world. Some of them gorgeous, hand-crafted and surprisingly social. Others, gaping abysms of antisocial desperation and rank odor.

It would be long years before I cared to learn the difference.



Anthropologist Thomas Malaby has said that games are, “approaching the texture of everyday life.” And the combination of rowdy assholes in a never-ending action movie? One that feels, well, pretty viscerally real?


There’s a certain pleasure to be taken, in building up your abilities in a game. In something like Baldur’s Gate, there’s a slow bootstrapping process while you pick up crappy “level 1” swords, hats, and pants. They’re enchanted, sure. They make you slightly more powerful. But it’s a few hours before you get the “level 15” hat. And a few more after that to get the +5 swords of righteous dragonsex, or whatever. The slow build of aiming skills, in something like Counter-Strike, and the slow build of gear in something like BGII, both are a kind of subtle internal grin that we might call pride.

Game developers enjoy calling this, “Fiero,” the Italian equivalent. Sounds fancier, and I’m sure there are minor cultural variations, but cazzo. Lo non parlo l’italiano. In the interest of being understandable, I’ll stick with the ‘merican term pride.

Pride also refers to the, “big win.” Author and researcher Jane McGonigal has some great screen captures of gamers’s “fiero faces,” after they’ve just climbed some daunting Everest or another. She talks about them pumping their fists, screaming, and describing an intense rush. To look at them, I just hope they had a change of undergarments nearby, and also hope that I never get caught making a fiero face.

This is made all the better, of course, by sharing a prideful place with other live miscreants. Especially one with the “texture of everyday life.” Between the presence of being inside a new space, and the display of your skills to other people, pride is amplified.