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. 



(trigger warning: rape) (skip it)

I vaguely remember dinner with Corvus Elrod, a smart indie game developer who sports a monocle and finely-waxed mustache. More than that, I remember him getting hit on by a muscular African American transvestite while waiting to be seated, outside the Taphouse Grill.

“Got any coins for Hot Chocolate?” Asked the transvestite, referring to himself in the third person. 

After Corvus politely deferred, Hot Chocolate could not help but persist.

Hot Chocolate whispered, “I want to see you twitch.”

Neither Corvus nor his wife, present, obliged Hot Chocolate. This left me with the impression that if something were to get under the skin of this man, that it’d need to be pretty fucking bad.

Enter the Dickwolf, a fictional wolflike character with phalluses for arms and legs. In an otherwise incisive comic, making fun of the sorts of quests which only allow heroes to save five slaves, though there are clearly more, we’re presented with the “sixth slave.”

“Hero!” says the chained slave. “Please, take me with you! Release me from this hell unending!

“Every morning, we are roused by savage blows.

“Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.”

The hero looks anxious. “I only needed to save five slaves. Alright? Quest complete.”

“But…” Says the slave.

“Hey. Pal. Don’t make this weird.” Says the hero.

The response, via Twitter, tumblr, and other social media, was enormous. In a large part, because this wasn’t just some backwater webcomic making rape jokes. This was Penny Arcade, the franchise responsible for what gamers saw as one of the theretofore safest, most inclusive gamer gatherings: PAX. Where for four days, almost a hundred thousand gamers flood downtown Seattle. To address that, the next comic featured Penny Arcade’s two main characters, Gabe and Tycho (meant to represent Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the cartoon’s artist and writer) sitting, talking about Dickwolves.

Gabe says, “We want to state in clear language, without ambiguity or room for interpretation: we hate rapers, and all the rapes they do.

“Seriously, though. Rapists are really the worst.”

Tycho says, “It’s possible you read our cartoon, and became a rapist as a direct result. If you’re raping someone right now, stop. Apologize. And leave.

“Go, and rape no more.”

Some responses were deep, thoughtful, and academic. Even the most disappointed critics seemed to care deeply that these gaming icons (who sponsor a float in the Seattle Pride parade, and run a massive charity for sick kids) understand what was at stake. Maddy Meyers probably best captured why the response comic was so awkward, writing “It’s almost impossible to tell Penny Arcade’s apology from a parody of an apology.”

Not everyone on the internet was so calm, and things escalated. One Twitter user posted, “A Funney Joke: Go to Mike Krahulik / @cwgabriel ‘s house, Literally Murder His Wife and Child #jokes #funny #murderwolves”

Fresh from the death threats, Jerry Holkins posted his On the Matter of Dickwolves. He cites a talk given by the science fiction author Philip K. Dick called How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. Jerry suspects that no conversation is possible because, “The perspectives in play, the lenses, are too different.” Holkins’ frame is that of the creator, “…that when it comes to expression nothing is off the table. It is the creator’s prerogative to create something - even something grotesque - out of anything they can find.” Philip K. Dick’s thoughts do work for that, sort of.

Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. And that led me wonder, If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn't we really be talking about plural realities?

Philip K. Dick, in How to Create a Universe, ultimately decided that, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

One in thirteen college-aged men report committing rape, or attempted rape. Read that twice. One in thirteen. In 2012, the FBI tracked 84,376 reported rapes in the United States, though even the US National Crime Victimization Survey (which was shown – in late 2013 – to be undercounting) estimated 346,830 rapes and sexual assaults in 2012. We can say this chilling pattern of human indignity exists in a bizarro dimension that doesn’t affect reality, that the perspectives and lenses “are too different,” but that sounds suspiciously like an excuse not to listen.

If you want us to respect your creative rights, respect our reactions. Melissa McEwan, on the feminist blog Shakesville, writes, “To say, “I was triggered” is not to say, “I got my delicate fee-fees hurt.”. . . A survivor of sexual violence who experiences a trigger is experiencing the same thing as a soldier who experiences a trigger, potentially even including flashbacks. Like many soldiers who return from war, many survivors of sexual violence are left with post-traumatic stress disorder. Unlike soldiers, however, they are not likely to receive much sympathy, or benefit from attempts to understand, when they are triggered. Instead, triggered survivors of sexual violence are dismissed as oversensitive, as hysterics, as humorless, as weak.”

The second comic leaves a weird aftertaste, for we gamers who hear the word thrown around nightly. By dilapidated trolls who aren’t plying any constitutionally-protected art. In the heat of the win, when passion and adrenaline are running at peak levels, there’s apparently no word more potent, more devaluing of another player, than “rape.” I was surprised, at one academic conference, to hear it defended by a well-respected, middle-aged woman who works as a games professor. She took a break from signing her textbooks, and came to sit outside the USC Film School with our group of younger educators. She claimed that it was part of our culture.

Saying with a grin, “I rape my husband all the time, the noob.”

The games journalist Patricia Hernandez, a rape survivor, discusses an evening in an online shooter game in her incisive piece Three Words I Said to the Man I defeated in Gears of War That I’ll Never Say Again.

She writes, “Once the pre-game banter made it obvious that I was a woman, it was like Sam, my character, now had a bullseye painted across her forehead.”

They didn’t just force her teammates out, and then kill her.

“When you don’t fully kill someone, they go into a state called ‘Down But Not Out.’ This state is when a character model goes on all fours…a new, unintended dynamic arose in multiplayer: players would take down characters and pretend to rape them.”

They tried to get her to leave, sent taunting messages. See, the more players they could wedge out, the more the game would replace them with mindless AI, easy kills to make their scores look great. A tidy reward being assholes. Their ringleader sent Hernandez an audio message of himself cackling. She focused up, found him, “and, screw it all, I wanted to make it clear to him that he would not hold power over me. I downed him, and instead of mercifully killing him, my character raped his.”

Alone, she won the match.

“I raped you. I fuckin’ raped you.” She said.

They just laughed. As if for them the word, seeing it acted out, had no weight at all.

Gamers often wonder aloud whether the word ‘rape’ is worth enshrining as an indispensable cultural artifact, elevating it from out of the muck of private conversations and the routines of crass comedians.

The answer is no. This word represents one of the most caustic, dehumanizing acts that can be inflicted on a person short of killing them. If you’re raping face all over your husband, in the privacy of your own home, I have no beef. In random rooms, where you could be playing with just about anyone? Hell no. It’s the last thing we need to normalize. Nobody has carte blanche to flaunt words – whether racism, sexism, or homophobia – which will trigger some players. That makes games less fun.

To say nothing of what it does to games gatherings.

In the midst of the Dickwolves debacle Corvus Elrod wrote, in his Yes Virginia, There Are Nice Guys, that, “the majority of rape isn't done by raving lunatics in alleys. And that makes it tough. Tough to be a nice guy? Perhaps. But even tougher, for a rape victim, to accept nice guys at face value.” Conferences like PAX, where words like rape get thrown around with casual ease, are consequently not easy.

So-called Nice Guys know that they aren’t rapists, so they don’t understand the big deal with making the jokes. In fact, as a matter of personal freedom, they feel a certain obligation to make them as loudly and as often as possible. I suspect such champions of artistic freedom have never comforted their female friend, or sister, or girlfriend, or wife, when she’s asking questions like, “Do I get a rape kit?” or “Do I go to the police?” Though a number of women I’m close to have been raped, their stories aren’t mine. I just sit on the sidelines, hearing about the incurable STDs and the anxiety.

It’s not just that the first comic used rape as a humorous zing. The second Dickwolves comic very personally pokes fun at readers for reacting a certain way. A reaction they cannot help, and whose catalyst was chosen for them. This in an atmosphere saturated with gamers who are quite attached to throwing the word around, because it has shock value.

Gamers need to realize that for a large, often silent population, the voltage is too high. They turn off the game, or stop reading the comic, and feel unwelcome to enjoy a thing that had figured into their identity. Whether or not a joke perpetuates rape isn’t knowable. What’s completely fucking obvious is that it makes games, and certain games gatherings, less welcoming places to be.

That’s the reality. That, even if you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.

(2/26/14) I'll post most of the chapter where the above appears, eventually. I wanted to post this out of order, and early, because I still hear it in games once a week. Used lightly, by perfect strangers who think it's 1000% hilarious. If asking them to stop isn't yet a thing, it really should be.

(3/7/14) Gee, I happened to rant about just that in the chapter introduction. And all it took was a few straight hours of abuse. Go figure. 


A Wild Book Appears!

Print copies are here: https://www.createspace.com/4617177

And on Amazon in 5-7 days. 

And the kindle copies are here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00I3X7MRK

Crossing the Ts and dotting the Is took, like, effort.

(edit) Happy birthday to me, rohoho. The paperback is up on amazon! The LOOK INSIDE even shows the back cover's clever red devil.


Breathing Machine(s)

Reading early responses to Leigh Alexander’s Breathing Machine, it looks like a lot of folks couldn’t help but reminisce.

It’s the mark of a particularly powerful work, like a dish whose heady spices remind you of childhood.

Invoking things like HyperCard, and mazes of twisty passages, she mentions a “primitive voice program” on an old powerbook. That certainly shakes the rust off the old memory machine. I think of 7th grade typing class where I fed some boxy school mac a spontaneously-concocted and hugely offensive story, then set it to play during “quiet typing time.” I remember Mr. Frank (with his horrible lisp) infuriated, demanding to know “Whosse responssible for thiss?” And everyone shamelessly points to me.

I laughed most of the way to the principal's office.

In places, Breathing Machine feels like a book typed in a haze, when suddenly out of the mist Alexander’s surreal half-memories give way to vividly-painted “cool” disc jockeys and porn site promoters. It's part of what makes the book evocative. For me, that adolescent internet fog blends together like so many nights in bars. It is, I suspect, a mix of fog and memory that defines childhood for so many of us.

Too few books talk about that, let alone capture it.

Back then they really were breathing machines, for some of us.

AOL had a button to randomly contact any other user. And it was not completely unexpected or unwelcome to get such a message. One night you could be telling flirtatious Australian ladies that you were a 24 year old hunk (with a monstrous and efficacious… pickup truck) the next a New York poker champion just rarin’ to give a 15-year-old The Lady Advice. It was in that atmosphere, and on the clunky Mirabilis chat program “I seek you” that I fell in love for the very first time.

And so, because of Leigh’s book, I thought I would share that story with you now.

Then I thought again. 

I was struck by the imagery, from her book, of sushi being served from the torso of a vivisected woman, who blushes. We're handing out our stories like so many ice-bathed kidneys, and I already plan to put plenty of my life on the rotating sushi bar of this new internet.

So I'll keep that one to myself. 

But thank the book, for a healthy little stroll down memory lane. 


This is happening

Why, hello!

I'm Neils.

Over the last three or so years, I have been quietly writing a second book. It's about videogames: weird adventures inside, and little conversations about what those taught me. I'm calling it In Play: Tales of the Gaming Netherworld. 

I sort of wish that I could just write blogs, and articles, and sell those like a normal games journalist. That's hard for me. Like, my brain literally doesn't function that way. I need to see the whole system. Writing one part of this book fundamentally changed other parts, for instance taking a few months to study oppression, or having studied compulsive gaming for the last decade.

This ultimately became a sort of letter, to my younger self. Things I wish I'd known, and stories that I hope will resonate and entertain.

I've had an interesting time trying to sell it. While I'd love to find an agent, for The Future, right now my plan is to release most of it on my blog over the coming months. This also lets me offer a print version, maybe with a few exclusive choice bits, for the price of inexpensive (something Game Addiction's publisher would never even dialogue about). But for whatever reason, I'm really excited about putting most of it up for free, at least for a good while.

I'm also semi-tempted to - at some point soon - make a pdf available for a few hours. Mostly for the friends who've snuck me into expensive conferences, given me places to stay, and generally make this book worth writing.

So, yeah!

Dear God I need some kind of elevator pitch!


Let's Talk Balance

(here's the slides PDF: Tools to Keep Play Balanced!)

At this last PAX I got to sit next to a clinician who I have tremendous respect for, (the very soon-to-be-Dr.) Anna DiNoto, and we got to tell a room of gamers some of our tools for balancing play. I thought that I would share that talk with you here.

We forward the whole thing by making it clear our talk isn’t about addiction, or “Internet Gaming Disorder,” as it’s labeled in an appendix of the DSM-V. We just wanted to cover tools, simple things people could do, if they were playing and/or internetting a little more than they’d like.

step one: assess

The first thing you’ll want to do is assess your play (or internet use, if that’s your deal) as accurately as possible. It’s not easy. In going back and forth about this, we talked about some tools we could use, and I made a handout which basically tracked the duration of your stay in these places. I think it’s slide 8/37. It lists maybe “facebook from 5:55 to 7pm,” then “Skyrim from 10pm to 1:13am,” and so on. Then we mark how intense it was on a scale of one to ten, one being that you were mostly focused on something else, cooking dinner, some paperwork, scintillating television drama. Ten would be that you were so focused that you left a pizza in the oven for roughly two hours.

I have some funny stories about burnt pizzas.

This is a good place to mention (again, I know) none of this piece is clinical advice. In person, Anna is extremely good, really professional about making that clear when she speaks. And I’m not a mental health professional; I’m just a gamer. I co-wrote a book on gaming addictions, but don't have treatment experience.

Back to tracking your play, and tracking that every day. Keyloggers might help, roommates might help (though some of us get defensive). You need to figure out where you’re at, so you have an accurate idea of what you’re trying to balance.

Next, before doing anything else, figure out where your stress is. If we notice that arguments with the husband usually lead to longer sessions of play, useful info. Sometimes games stress us out. The point here is to figure out what our “triggers” are. Figuring out what cues us off is essential to “hacking” those patterns, and being able to eventually redirect those to something we’d rather be doing.

(to jump ahead here: Post it notes are Anna’s go-to. If you interrupt your usual patterns with post-it notes, say one near the hook where you set your keys, or on the kitchen counter, you can stop your usual routines. Put one on your laptop, on your bedroom door.)

step two: plan

After assessing play, the second step is to make a plan. There are three kinds of plan, in general. Abstinence is breaking from games, temporarily or permanently. Harm reduction is switching to games or behaviors that might be less problematic. Play reduction is taking a favorite game – say League of Legends – and playing it less.

I actually do enjoy the occasional abstinence from games, altogether. Sometimes, when I have a big project or just need a break, I’ll drop games voluntarily for awhile. Hilarie Cash mentioned that at ReSTART, she typically sees even the worst withdrawal symptoms wash off of hardcore gamers after a few weeks. Abstinence can be useful, but Anna was quick to point out the number of times a parent would decide it was time to simply remove a game (without understanding why they’re playing it – it’s just a game after all). The graphic descriptions she’s given me of the consequences are startling even for me (she changed identifying patient details, exactingly, every time – she’s a pro). But we’re talking hundreds of thousands in dramatic property damage, and some pretty tragic self-damage. Just throwing that in there.

Harm reduction is pretty easy. If you like the vast landscapes of Warcraft, try playing Proteus, or maybe Dear Esther. If you’re a hardcore raider, try switching to anything else. Convince your raid friends to come with you, if you can. Raiding – in my research – held one of the few statistically significant connections to patterns we didn’t actually enjoy very much, the job loss, sleep loss, depression, etc. Addiction, in other words.

Some games have play reduction tools built in. Warcraft’s parental controls have it. The Xbox has it.

As you start to plan, make a boredom list. A list of things – besides just the games that make you stumble – you like doing. Creating nontoxic food and getting sleep were on mine, though Anna rightly reminded me that at that point I’m going past “simple balance.” Still, taking walks and cooking well, shopping for good food, that sort of thing, I’d say that they fit. When you do start to decrease how much you’re playing, there’ll be a void in your schedule. There are a lot of good basics to fill that time with, and there are some great ones.

Writing, drawing, and the myriad forms of making art. Getting involved in city government. Designing your own games. Taking college courses on topics that interest you, be they marine biology, architecture, or (yay!) games.

We can use timers – whether it’s an egg timer, alarm clocks that shower the room with puzzle pieces, or the color-coded Time Timers – to make ourselves more mindful of how much we’ve played. To become aware. In general, following the plan should help you get to be more aware of how you’re using your time. The point is to build a general mindfulness. I’ve learned a lot of good things in all this time gaming, but mindfulness was one of the most important.

step three: maintain

The third step is maintainance. To hold your progress in the long term, you need to reinforce your progress in the short term. In other words, don’t forget to treat yourself.

You want to give yourself “dings” for your real progress at keeping things balanced. Even better if you can apply meaningful fun and engagement, to keep yourself to the plan you want. You can also take cheat days. Like, with most successful diets, there’s usually a day out of the week where you can have pizza and beer with some good company.

I do, anyway. I’m still working on all this, but I still enjoy games for longer than three hours at a time. I just – far more often than I used to – get meaningful things done at work, at home, or for my bad self before those mini-binges. Those sometimes turn into missed bedtimes and some mild regret, especially when I’m not with my good gaming buddies, so I have to be careful. Still it’s been awhile since I’ve vanished for a month straight. So that’s good.

step four: revise

Finally, remember that you’re human. This shit is a challenge if you haven’t exactly been the balance king, in the past. If that’s the case, some professional help, with a solid local therapist? Highly recommended.

You’ll need to reassess your plan, as life changes, and having someone whose job is to help you, is sort of like having a professional gamer coaching your gamerly prowresses. Most clinicians just charge a lot less than, say, the pros at Curse Gaming.

Anyway, those were a few suggestions we threw out, to deal with keeping things sane to begin with. I’m not a therapist, and I don’t know what you’re going through, but I do want you to be able to keep play balanced with everything else. Hope it helps.