Drowning in fiction and fantasy

Fair warning, a lot of personal stuff here. I try to separate this out from the regular fare. I even considered not posting this since I wrote it during one of my low points, which seem to come in regular patterns. But then I didn’t write anything in this that I think is untrue or dishonest. Anyway, don’t hesitate to skip it if you’re sick of my shit, because you won’t be missing anything important.

A few weeks ago at the time of writing, journalist Tae Kim at Bloomberg posted an article titled “Video Game Industry Struggles to Shake Sexist Attitudes”. In this piece, Kim lauds Sony for pushing what he sees as a positive depiction of a female game protagonist in Aloy, the lead and player character of Horizon Zero Dawn and its upcoming sequel Horizon Forbidden West. Kim contrasts Aloy with Bayonetta, Lara Croft, and characters in Genshin Impact (whose names I don’t know because I haven’t played it — I’ve had enough of gacha for one lifetime) criticizing the latter depictions for being overly sexualized. He also criticizes the industry for continuing to ignore women’s voices and for the bad practices (to put it far too mildly) of some leading developers, most notably Activision-Blizzard, Ubisoft, and Riot Games.

Mr. Kim’s article caused a minor shitstorm on Twitter, one that a lot of us in the game blogging sphere got swept up in, myself included. He was dogpiled for his article, a dogpile I joined in, mainly for his takes on Bayonetta and other examples of games that caused him to “cringe” and that he felt he couldn’t play in front of family and friends. I believe most of us stuck to criticizing this particular attack, though I and others also complained about game journalists in general and how they approach this matter — and I’ve done that here too, so it’s nothing new for me.

However, some others took issue with all this criticism, and I had a few interesting discussions that day with people with differing opinions. So I decided to write something on the matter. I wrote out a rough draft, in fact, but I’ve since deleted it.

There are two reasons behind this decision. The first is pretty simple: I’ve already written about my thoughts on the matter of sexual depictions in games and other media several times, from both legal and moral angles — you can find all those posts in the pretentiously titled “Commentaries” tab above. Admittedly I haven’t taken on a feminist perspective in any of them, but my only comment on that is that I don’t really have any problem with the depiction of Aloy in Horizon and feel that there’s plenty of room in this massive industry for all sorts of depictions and art styles, whether of female or male or any other variety of character. I just prefer anime-influenced styles that some people take issue with for sometimes being sexualized — for examples I’ve praised that occasionally get criticized for similar reasons, see the work of Nan Yaegashi (Senran Kagura) and Sayori (Nekopara). I’ve also talked up a couple of artbooks full of ecchi art featuring almost entirely women, and I follow plenty of such artists on Twitter because I like their work. But that’s a personal preference that I don’t think affects my stance in this case.

The second reason is more complicated, and it’s also the real reason I’m writing this post instead. As far as I can tell, Kim’s position is that games with art styles and character designs such as those found in Bayonetta and the other games he brought up should be discouraged and the type found in Horizon Zero Dawn and similar games encouraged. I’ve said before, and I continue to say, that all art must be open to criticism. However, Kim’s argument seems to go beyond criticism for the purpose of expressing what he likes and dislikes (which is how I believe I use it) and into criticism for the purpose of pushing a change in artistic norms.

I understand that the argument supporting Kim’s position for this change is directed at a perceived social problem — the problem of how women are perceived in games and in media in general. And the simple fact is that I’m not well-suited to write about purely social problems. I can write pretty well about legal problems because law is my profession, and I can write about political and historical questions because I’ve always had an interest in those subjects and have studied them. And undoubtedly social questions are mixed up with legal, political, and historical ones.

But I can’t write very well about purely social issues because I’m pretty far removed from society, or at least as far removed as possible while still being attached enough to it to live a more or less civilized life. That removal started when I was still young, and I dealt with it largely by burying myself in books and video games. After high school things got a bit better, and I managed to have something like a social life, along with extremely poorly matched and conducted relationships each of which ended in a complete wreck. But for as long as I can remember, up until today, I’ve always felt like a misfit. I can get along well enough now, and I take part in society just as much as I think I have to for the sake of my professional life, but my personal life is undoubtedly a mess. Unrelated to all that, I now have to live in a way I dislike, carrying out family obligations that I had no part in creating (short of being born, which I certainly had no say in) but that I have a duty to carry out anyway.1

I used to despair over all this, but you can only care so much before you lose that ability. I went numb more or less after finishing at law school, which was a good time to do so considering both the change for the worse in the political culture in the US and the hellfire and bullshit most newly minted lawyers have to go through.

After saying all this, I realize now that I’d be ridiculous to even try to convince anyone else of my way of thinking about a purely social issue. I’m not a role model; just the opposite: an example of how not to live. The only success I’ve had in life so far has been professional, and that success came almost entirely by accident and after a long series of stumbles caused in part by my addiction to alcohol, and which drove that addiction that I was only able to truly get free of in the last couple of years. The fact that I’m even still here is perhaps some kind of miracle, and I should be thankful for it.

A more reasonable person probably would be thankful and would do their best to be an active member of society with a positive impact. I certainly don’t want to have a negative impact on society, and I’d like to use my skills to help those in need with pro bono work once I have a freer hand. But if I magically came into massive wealth, after making sure my immediate and extended family was enriched and giving to charity enough to satisfy my conscience, I’d use it to isolate myself as far as possible from society, probably by building some kind of fortress. Maybe on an island in the South Atlantic, one of those really remote ones.

It’s probably more realistic for me to hope that I’ll be able to escape someday, at least for a few hours at a time, into some sort of hypothetical full-dive VR world where I can live out my fantasies well away from the irritations of real life. This possibility has been talked about a lot lately, even if only because of Facebook’s extremely shitty-looking Meta setup. But it’s still a possibility worth talking about, assuming the technology is feasible in the form I’m thinking of, and as long as it’s provided by a service more trustworthy than Facebook — which is to say trustworthy in the slightest.

So you see what sort of person I am. I don’t think I’ve ever made much secret of any of these feelings, but they seemed relevant to write about more fully here. You might say all of the above makes me a monstrous cynic, which I honestly don’t want to be, but you may be right about that anyway. You might also say that I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face in thinking and acting this way, which may also be true. Or you might say I’m being selfish in my desire for near-total escape from life, and I’d completely agree with you about that.

But I’ve come to an age now where I don’t think I can change anymore. Over two years of sobriety has certainly helped me out, but mostly only with regard to my physical health, which is shockingly somehow still pretty good — my liver was sturdier than I thought, or maybe it’s spent the last two years repairing itself, and thank God that either or both are true. Otherwise I’m still just as bitter and depressive as I ever was, and I still have the same desire for escape as I ever did. It even seems to me that my mental and emotional health may be getting worse, though nearly two years of COVID isolation may also have to do with that.

Either way, I’m done writing about such issues unless something specific comes up, probably with legal significance, that I can actually address. My stance on art and its potential effects on society has been and will always be that people should be able to freely access and enjoy whatever they wish, of course with appropriate age restrictions in place, and assuming nobody is being harmed in the creation or enjoyment of said art. That said, I do agree that it would be good if positive depictions of sex, relationships, and gender roles in general are advanced by developers and publishers. Quite a lot of depictions that people like Mr. Kim look down on (like Bayonetta for example) I see as positive myself, but we’ll never agree on that point, so there’s no point in talking about those any further.

But as far as supposed negative indirect influences go, to be blunt, I don’t give a damn about them. It’s far too easy to draw any connection you like between some bad act and the artist or work that supposedly drove it. Without specific evidence linking scantily-clad women in video games to sexism in real life, I’m inclined to treat that claim in the same way as the also unproven but constantly cited theory that violent video games contribute to violence in real life. There’s clearly a problem with sexism among some game developers as we’ve seen — perhaps Activision is just the most obvious and outrageous case. And there are absolutely sexist elements among gamers as a whole. Both of these need addressing. But I don’t believe a cause-and-effect pattern between racy female character designs and outfits2 and real-life sexism has been established. As I’ve seen it, the claim is always made without support, as though it’s self-evident. I don’t believe it is. I know people I very much respect who I disagree with on this point, and there seems to be an unbridgeable gap between us.

But then, again, my opinion on this issue might not be worth considering for the reasons I’ve set out above. At this point, I only want to be left alone to drown in the kind of fiction that can nearly transport me out of reality, at least for a while, while the rest of the world goes to hell as it is currently doing. That’s probably reason enough to ignore my opinions on purely social matters, given my warped view of society and my self-destructive tendencies.

Anyway, sorry for the mess yet again. My next post will have less of a “manifesto written in a log cabin” quality to it, I hope. It just seems to me based on my experience that hard work, honesty, and even good luck aren’t enough to live a decent life — you also need at least a somewhat positive attitude, which I obviously don’t have and can’t seem to find.

This is somewhat related to one of the next anime series I’ll be writing about, so you can look forward to that. How’s that for a segue? Until next time.

 

1 To be clear, it’s completely possible to appreciate these kinds of games with lewd elements and to also be socially well-adjusted. The fact that I’m not socially well-adjusted is unrelated to my enjoyment of those specific games, though I think it is related to my plunging into games and other media in general as a form of escape.

2 This is also assuming that every instance of sexualization in a game is bad, which I obviously don’t believe. It certainly can be bad depending on how it’s handled, but as always, context has to be considered. But I’ve written about some aspects of the issue here and here, and I don’t think I have anything to add to those posts unless anyone feels like attacking my arguments in them. Despite what I wrote above, I’m happy to deliver a rebuttal in that case, but no more than that.

5 thoughts on “Drowning in fiction and fantasy

  1. The article you bring up is an interesting one because I do think the author is touching upon a legitimate problem. However, I think the issue is that he and people who write articles like that tend to approach that problem from the wrong angle. They tend to go in hardcore against mainstream productions when it would be far better to show support for the indie scene, which is generally more progressive, liberal, and open to challenging social norms than the notoriously stodgy North American AAA developers. Yes, the problems Mr. Kim highlights are real, but it’s ultimately better to provide constructive solutions to these kinds of problems instead of destructive ones. I kind of get why they only talk about mainstream productions because the publishers of which have significantly more reach, but promoting open-minded new talent is a far better long-term way of combating these problems. If they did it consistently enough, the lack of reach indies have is a problem that would solve itself.

    And I can understand not wanting to write about these topics. I did for awhile before I realized it’s more productive to establish an actual ethos than it is to try to rebut half-baked, if well-intentioned takes. That inability to stay out of internet squabbles is entirely the reason why I can’t take critics like Bob Chipman, Lily Orchard, and MauLer seriously; their takes are primary motivated by petty one-upmanship. When you hear what a critic has to say, you should be asking yourself how they came down to their conclusion, and not who managed to upset them this week. Now, that’s not to say that you should form your opinions in a vacuum (in fact, there’s another critic, Mr. Enter, who showcases how badly your opinions can turn out when you’re curmudgeonly, 29-year-old hermit), but they also shouldn’t be formed just to get the last word in some argument nobody else will care about.

    • You’re right about the angle Kim and other journalists like him take. One of the problems common to these kinds of pieces is that they totally ignore everything outside the mainstream. Indie games deserve all the support they can get, especially against the creatively stagnant American AAA industry. And certainly Kim’s issue with our AAA industry is a legitimate one. I just wish these journalists would be more creative in their approach to those problems. Their negative approach is really what irritates me as well, especially since it’s often directed against games and styles I like and that I think are sometimes misinterpreted or criticized on a surface level.

      And yeah, even if it got me a large audience, I’d never want to base that popularity on those sorts of petty internet fights. I’m not too familiar with western animation critics on YouTube, but I know a bit about people like Mr. Enter and Lily Orchard. And of course Mr. Chipman is rightfully infamous. If a critic is making the argument more about themselves and their own issues than about what they’re arguing over, they’ve failed. Granted this whole post was very personal, but that’s just the reason I’m staying out of these messes in the future. I’ve already made all my own arguments anyway.

      • Yeah, if it’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that they tend to be especially critical of any game not made in their approved styles, which means international efforts tend to receive the brunt of their criticism. Ironically, this makes them come across as rather jingoistic. Granted, I think it’s more likely that, because Western publishers fund them, they tend to overhype domestic efforts, which is another problem entirely. It’s difficult to accept a critic’s word when it has been bought by publishers. Say what you want about film critics – at least they’re not sellouts. Their overhyping of contemporary indie films is misguided, but that indicates they do care about highlighting new talent.

        And I honestly have to say that Mr. Enter is worse than Bob Chipman or Lily Orchard. All three are thoroughly unpleasant people who are outright tautological with their opinions, but Bob Chipman and Lily Orchard have fairly decent politics. Mr. Enter doesn’t even have that; he’s your garden variety insecure conservative who claims to be a centrist to avoid the stigma attached to what he actually believes.

        I actually watched Mr. Enter’s reviews for awhile because I thought he offered well-argued opinions that went against the grain in interesting ways. But, it wasn’t to last, and I watched him age about forty years in the span of five. When he made a video attacking state governments for lockdowns and mask regulations along with Black Lives Matter protests for spreading the virus, I realized he was too far gone. My assessment turned out to be correct when he ended up making a video about what he considered bad PSAs. In reality, he just decried kids shows for having the audacity to teach a new generation about important issues such as racism for about an hour; it is incredible how ignorant he manages to be on those topics.

        He actually attempted to get an animated show of his own off the ground, but it turned out to be a nonstarter, and he has become noticeably angrier and more belligerent with each passing year since its inability to reach its crowdfunding goal. In a way I kind of liken him to Spoony in that they both had potential before going completely insane. Granted, he never quite reached the same heights as Spoony (probably because he rose to fame making angry reviews in 2014 when angry reviews were starting to fall out of fashion), but he did have potential that he then proceeded to completely blow by courting the far right. Courting the far right, a faction infamous for their creative sterility, is just about the quickest way to kill your imagination – short of having the entire right side of your brain removed. It was especially baffling in his case because his most persistent detractors are far right ableists; it wasn’t really until that COVID video that the left rightly (heh) turned on him.

        In a lot of ways, I feel pity for him because I think he got a raw deal in life, and he has only gotten worse with age, but as Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”.

      • Very true about professional game critics — it’s hard to trust that their judgments are fair when their employers have close ties to the publishers. I get the feeling that a lot of these sites rely at least in part on hateclicks, which might also partly explain the inflammatory nature of some of their post titles and writeups on Twitter. Clicks are clicks, at least according to that school of thought. Otherwise, I don’t know anyone who reads these sites to decide whether to play some game or other. Not sure how long they can sustain that model.

        Thanks for the take on Mr. Enter as well. I didn’t know he’d gotten into politics. My impression about western animation fans active on YouTube, Twitter, Reddit and elsewhere is that they tend towards the left, so being a right-winger in that sphere already seems like a hard spot, but it’s hard to feel bad for people taking such stances even if they are sincerely held. I can understand some traditional conservative values, even if I don’t agree with them personally, but I can’t say the same about the new right at all. Especially with regard to their anti-science views, but the fact that those are mixed up with anti-democratic views make them all the more potentially destructive (and not just potentially, looking at last administration’s performance, its gutting of key regulatory agencies, etc.)

        One other thing I’m certain of: I’d never want to be compared to Spoony past his prime. What a waste. It seems like he had some issues as well, seemingly psychological (though I don’t want to diagnose or anything, I can’t do that) and if so that’s rough. It’s rough for anyone who has to deal with those. But Sartre was certainly right about that. This is a quote I should take to heart as well.

      • That’s certainly one reason Mr. Enter’s turn to the right makes no sense; animation fans tend to be fairly liberal. Then again, the same is true of artists in general. The good ones push boundaries, after all. There are a few right-wing artists, but they are invariably burnouts or has-beens whose last strokes of brilliance/days of relevance are well behind them (e.g. Ethan Van Sciver, Ted Nugent, Adam Baldwin, et al.).

        The other reason it doesn’t make sense is because he has been the subject of a rather extensive harassment campaign. And when you think of the people behind those campaigns, they don’t tend to be liberals – quite the opposite, in fact. He rants about the evils of cancel culture, yet he takes his anger out on the left when the far-right has been trying to cancel him for years. The thing people like Mr. Enter tend to overlook is that the right tries to cancel people all the time; if anything, they are far, far, far worse about it because they’re the ones who tend to resort to homicide to get their point across. Yet, Mr. Enter spends most of his time blaming liberals for everything. It’s like watching an abuse victim adopt traits from their abuser.

        As I said, I still feel some pity for him because there are objectively worse people who don’t get nearly as much heat; the far right picks on him less because he’s just that bad and more because he’s an easy target. Indeed, as a neurodivergent individual, he was never going to get far echoing the rhetoric of ableists. That’s why after he released his now-infamous COVID video, his viewership didn’t recover. And again, it wasn’t until he started making actively illiberal statements such as condemning Black Lives Matter while supporting anti-maskers that the left actually turned on him. Meanwhile, the types who prop up those talentless, far-right YouTube talking heads were never going to lend someone like him their support, and that miscalculation on his part will likely prove a fatal one in the long term.

        So yeah, he may not be as unproductive as Spoony (which, given his viewpoints, is actually a worse thing), but he is every bit as guilty of wasting his potential as he did. And while he has had many misfortunes inflicted upon him in his life, he brought a decent amount of them on himself. Total shame, really.

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