Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How a feminist video game critique won me a Game Boy Advance & exposed my areolae

When I was in high school, I entered a contest on Bonus.com and won a fun prize package that included a Game Boy Advance, a copy of Metroid Fusion, a Bonus.com mouse pad, and a Bonus.com T-shirt made of material so thin that the slightest perspiration resulted in my man-nipples being visible for all to see. (I wore the T-shirt all of twice before it earned a spot at the bottom of a forgotten drawer.)

This triumph isn’t as impressive as it sounds (and I say that fully aware of the fact that it doesn’t sound impressive at all)—Bonus.com was a website containing dumb little Macromedia1 Shockwave games aimed at bored kids aged eight to ten, and the contest was a writing competition. Entrants—who, again, were mostly kids in elementary school—submitted a 100-or-so-word review of their favorite video game, and each week for ten weeks, the Bonus.com judges picked the best one to reward with the prize-package.

So, yes, I totally kicked the ass of some eight-year-old who thought he could win a video game, and I’m obviously a terrible person, because: Hah hah, no brand new Game Boy for you, loser! Try again when you’ve mastered subject-verb agreement!

In my defense, most of the other reviews sucked. I mean, I know there’s only so much you can do in 100 words, especially when you haven’t reached puberty, but, c’mon. Look at this winning review:

Metroid Fusion.... how I love thee.... your graphics are so crisp, your loading speed incredible, and your controls second to none. But neigh! Thy be flawed! Thy map is annoying, and thy enemies basic and non-diverse! And, lo-and-behold, thy experience to quick and easy.... but wait! There is redemption! Boss battles are huge and amazing, and thy save system is spectacular! Thy can also be slow and boring at times..... but the 60% percent of game time whereupon action is constant, thy is fast and furious, without a hint of the Devil's slowdown. Metroid Fusion... how I love thee....... 9/10

Okay, let’s ignore the inexplicable use of archaic English to review a futuristic science fiction game. In fact, let’s ignore the fact that he’s inconsistent about it (“your graphics”?) and he seems to think that “thy” was an all-purpose old-timey pronoun (“Thy be flawed”).

This kid reviewed Metroid Fusion for a contest whose prize is Metroid Fusion. That means he presumably already owns this game and just wanted another copy of it for no reason at all. What a selfish bastard! He’s almost as big a bastard as some high school kid crashing an elementary school kid contest!

So, here was my contribution, posted under the username BigDog345:

Super Metroid for the SNES is one of the greatest games ever created. It focuses on Samus Aran, a bounty hunter who must travel to a variety of different worlds, battling aliens with an array of different weaponry. Blasting aliens becomes an addiction, as the vividly colored locales and easy to learn controls made the game come alive. 
But the most impressive part of this game is that Samus is a girl. Video games are generally sexist; most games feature the guy saving the helpless girl. Metroid served as an inspiration to female gamers that girls can do more than just be rescued.

Oh yeah—BigDog345 going for the feminist representations in media angle! And not with an ounce of subtlety, either.

In any case, Bonus.com decided that there wasn’t anything amiss about a kid writing a gender-egalitarian critique of a game released in 1994, and shortly after having A Parent or Guardian fax a prize claim form to Bonus.com headquarters (under “Age,” I checked off “12 or older”), my areolae were unwittingly on display to all who chose not to avert their gaze.

* * *

I will admit that using feminism to win a contest is more than a little cynical, kind of like how Dove pretends to care about girls’ self-esteem while trying to convince girls that buying Dove products will make them prettier. But I also really meant it—when I was growing up, the video games I played rarely featured women as anything but objects to be retrieved or prizes to be won. On the rare occasion that they weren’t, they were generally scantily-clad with sizable polygonal whatnots.

Even Samus Aran, the aforementioned female bounty hunter protagonist of the Metroid video game series, isn’t exactly the perfect standard bearer of forward-thinking female representation in video games. In Super Metroid, after all, the player’s “reward” for beating the game proficiently enough is seeing Samus in a bikini.



And that’s got to be a bummer for any girls looking for video game heroines—Samus is Nintendo’s first truly badass female character, and her body is just reduced to a prize-cum2-masturbatory aid for gamers who can get off on pixelated, 16-bit breasts.

* * *

One of the stranger things that #Gamergate revealed is how much pushback the idea of depicting women in a more meaningful way gets among self-described gamers. It’s actually kind of bewildering, because I can’t figure out what the opposition to that idea really is, besides a knee-jerk opposition to oh-no-terrible Social Justice Warriors or a genuine belief that women in video games should only be sexualized, victimized prizes to be won or ogled.

That’s bad for all the usual reasons. It reinforces an image of women that’s already pervasive in all manner of other media. It objectifies women and presents them as mere plot devices or eye candy in the service of men. And if it’s men who are, over and over again, the rescuers and women who are the rescued, it creates a messed up definition of what roles each gender are “supposed” to be, especially among younger gamers.

But it’s also bad for a reason that’s a lot simpler: It really sucks if you’re a girl who’s into video games to be implicitly told that video games aren’t for you. And make no mistake—if, in video game after video game, the characters who are like you are constantly the ones whose clothes are getting stripped off or constantly the ones who are helpless without someone to take care of them, that’s a pretty clear message that you’re not really welcome. Or, perhaps, you’re welcome as long as you’re willing to dress up like a sexy Raccoon Mario3 so that dudes can bank you for their alone-time fun later.

"Hey girl, if you're supposed to be Tanooki Mario, then why am I the one who's as hard as stone?"
is an example of a thing that should never, ever be said by anyone.

It’s tempting to just roll your eyes at “gaming controversies” as the firstest of First World Problems and think, haters gonna hate and nerds gonna nerd. But video games are a pretty effective gateway into interest in STEM fields—fields that aren’t just male-dominated but frequently female-hostile in both the academic and professional arenas. If you can’t get behind helping a little girl realize her dream of becoming a kickass engineer (which you totally should), then take the more selfish route: too much talent and great ideas are lost when women en masse (half the population!) are discouraged from getting into STEM disciplines, and we ought to do what we can to reverse that.

Because if it turns out that the woman who could’ve invented the FTL drive or holodeck or time machine or whatever decided to go into marketing instead, and the fact that Princess Peach once again couldn’t outsmart a big, dumb turtle in any way played a role in that, then that’d be pretty shitty.

In any case, it’s kind of sad that “women should be positively represented in video games” was a novel and controversial enough of an idea to win a contest in 2003. In 2014, it’s fucking pathetic.


1Back when it was Macromedia, because I’m old. I also used Winamp and RealPlayer, so get off my lawn.

2I’d say “no pun intended,” but who am I kidding?

3I’m not going to front—she’s obviously sexy, albeit in a ridiculous way, and I’m a little worried that that picture just awakened something in me. But it’s more than a little disturbing that seemingly the only women embraced by so-called serious gamers tend to be those that give them the weirdest boners.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How to be reflexively dismissive of a woman who says she was raped, in a flow chart

With the allegations of Bill Cosby being a serial rapist propelled into public consciousness due in no small part to a devastating Hannibal Buress bit that went viral recently, it's fascinating -- in a horrible way -- to see how reflexively some people dismiss women who say that they've been raped.



Obviously, we should take women who say that they've been raped seriously. Rape is underreported, false accusations are rare, and given the skepticism and abuse that's often thrown at women who do come forward, how we react to any particular allegation affects whether women in the future feel safe reporting rape. The way we treat a rape victim in the present redounds to countless more rape victims in the future, and it's important to create a future where rape victims aren't afraid or ashamed to stand up for themselves and seek justice.

Similarly, we should take those who are accused of rape seriously when they say they didn't commit the crime. Although false accusations are rare, they're not unheard of, and if a man is the (statistically unfortunate) victim of a lie, it can destroy his life -- a cloud of suspicion can follow him, even if there's an official exoneration. Though it's not at all comparable to being a victim of rape, being a victim of a false accusation of rape is still terrible and its own sort of tragedy.

Saying "take the accusers and the accused seriously," of course, is nice and pat and somewhat unrealistic. Everybody has their own experiences and gut instincts, and jurors in the court of public opinion aren't bound by any legal standard on which to base a verdict. ("Presumed innocent until proven guilty" doesn't apply out of a courtroom, after all.)

So when some people recoil at the idea of a beloved figure like Bill Cosby being a rapist, it's not exactly surprising. (Look at a supposedly progressive MSNBC host named Joy Reid and her guest discuss the allegations -- not with concern for the alleged victims or the problem of rape, but by fretting over how Cosby's legacy is on the line and how he can manage the crisis, because, you know, journalism.) What's decidedly not okay is when the recoiling takes the form of automatic, knee-jerk dismissals.



Women who come forward with rape allegations are often put in a no-win situation, where every action or inaction is "proof" that they're lying or crazy or greedy or attention-hungry. Nobody is saying we have to automatically believe every rape accusation with complete certitude irrespective of the evidence and circumstances, but we shouldn't automatically disbelieve every one, either.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dear Tombstone Pizza

Dear Tombstone Pizza,

I know you mean well and all, but if I have had the sort of day in which cramming a frozen pizza down my gullet seems like a reasonable nutritional choice, it is highly unlikely that a salad will be a part of my culinary experience.

Love,

Joe

P.S.: "1/4 = 1 SERVING"? That's cute.

Two stories about high school Valentine’s Day fundraisers

One Valentine’s Day, our student government decided to sell cans of orange soda as a fundraiser. Students would buy a can of orange soda for their loved ones, and we’d deliver the cans to the lucky recipients with a note saying, “Someone has a CRUSH on you!”


Unfortunately, midway through the fundraiser, we discovered that some of the orange soda we bought were not cans of Crush, but rather Sunkist. (On one hand, orange soda cans look a lot alike, so it’s understandable; on the other hand, when a fundraiser is predicated entirely on a pun, it probably makes sense to double-check the brand.)

This led to a hasty re-writing of notes saying, “You’ve been SunKISSED!”—which, as a student government whose sole accomplishment was the purchase of completely unnecessary picnic tables, was probably our most brilliant moment ever.

Also, I seem to recall discussions that selling orange soda in a majority-minority school as a fundraiser could be construed as somewhat racist. This led to someone adamantly insisting that the stereotype was grape soda, not orange, and therefore the fundraiser could go forward; someone else pointed out that the confusion likely stemmed from Kenan & Kel. Truly, we were the leaders of tomorrow.



* * *

For another Valentine’s Day, the drama club sold roses to raise money for a trip to New York. In the days leading up to February 14, students would pre-order a rose and sign their name and their recipient’s name in a log book. On Valentine’s Day, somebody from the drama club wrote all the names in little “To/From” cards, and somebody else delivered the roses during lunch.

The first sign of trouble was in the case of a girl named Katie Smith1. Katie had a crush on a boy but was too nervous to tell him. So, when she filled out her entry in the log book, she said she wanted her rose to be anonymous; the drama club kid taking the orders told her to put her name down as “Anonymous,” which she did. The drama club kid then wrote “(Katie Smith)” next to it, presumably for record-keeping purposes.

Unfortunately, the log book keeper didn’t communicate this to the card writer, who then proceeded to write “From: Anonymous (Katie Smith)” on the card. At lunch, Katie was horrified as she watched the boy get the rose and ask, “Who’s Katie Smith?” Horror quickly turned into humiliated heartbreak when one of his friends pointed at her and he glumly said, “Oh, the fat one?” Oooof, that kid was a dick.

But that wasn’t even the biggest problem with the fundraiser. The pre-order system was designed specifically so that the drama club could place a discount bulk order with a flower vendor with the exact number of roses they needed. It’s a smart idea—unless the kid placing the bulk order miscounts how many roses were needed by a couple hundred.

And so, with an already razor-thin profit margin, several members of the drama club were forced to go to the store on Valentine’s Day to buy comparable-quality roses to satisfy the remaining orders at full retail.

I wasn’t in the drama club, but the reason I know all this is because I reported on the fundraiser—which was among the most successful fundraisers in our school’s history in terms of units sold—for our high school’s online newspaper. And this is the headline I chose for the story, because I was an asshole:



“Drama club V-Day fundraiser raises over $6.” And yes, when it was all said and done, their net profit was indeed $6.47.

That story, incidentally, caused the online newspaper to be temporarily banned, supposedly for painting the school in a negative light. But to be fair, we were already on thin ice for our breaking news coverage of the time some kid defecated into a urinal2.


1Not her real last name. Actually, I don’t even remember her last name, but I don’t think it was Smith.

2This was completely true. We seriously got three teachers on the record to confirm the story. God, my high school was messed up.

AXA’s fascinatingly bad TV commercials: ruminations on gender, fate, and love

Come with me as I way overanalyze a pair of insurance and retirement commercials!

* * *

Here’s a TV commercial for AXA, an insurance and financial services firm, that’s pretty lame, but benignly so.


A man at an airport so absorbed with the Financial Services Fearmongering app on his tablet that he doesn’t even notice a fellow businessman who sat down next to him, leaning over with a big, expectant grin. They have the same tie, and the businessman wants to make small talk!

But alas, he’s so consumed with the “LIFE INSURANCE: Do you have enough?” question that he ignores the businessman. The businessman is so disappointed and so frustrated at this failed attempt at human connection that, a mere ten seconds after sitting down, he dashes off to find another seat—because, you know, screw you for not noticing me even though I didn’t even say “excuse me” and can clearly see you’re engrossed in something. An on-screen graphic delivers the devastating news: “That was a $40 million dollar deal.”




To emphasize how big of a missed opportunity this was, they redundantly include the word “dollar” in the graphic—that was a forty million dollar dollar deal, damn it.

The voiceover brings it all together: “We all think about life insurance. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on the things that matter today. At AXA, we offer advice and help you break down your insurance goals into small, manageable steps, because when you plan for tomorrow, it helps you live for today.”

And indeed, we’re shown that in the alternate universe where the man saw an AXA advisor, he would’ve (1) been so worry-free that he doesn’t even wear ties, yo; and (2) noticed that he and the businessman have matching socks, with all the smiling and chuckling and surprised finger-pointing that that entails.



And boom—40 million double dollars, here we come!

* * *

Here’s the other AXA TV commercial in this campaign, which is lamer still.


A woman sitting in a coffee shop is reading the legacy media version of the Financial Services Fearmongering app (“RETIREMENT: Will your savings last?”) while a sketchy-looking dude is drawing a picture of her1. Sadly, she leaves the coffee shop without even noticing him, which is a tragedy, because—“That was her soulmate.”



Look at his face there: “I tried everything—creepily staring at her from afar, surreptitiously drawing a picture of her—and nothing worked! Ugh, women today can’t appreciate a nice guy.”

A voiceover once again offers an explanation for what we just witnessed: “We all have to plan for retirement. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on what matters today.” And had the woman seen an AXA advisor who would have helped her live for today, we see that she and the dude would’ve spent so much time at the coffee shop that the lights are off and everybody—including the staff—is gone. And then off-camera they presumably rob the coffee shop to finance his career as a sub-mediocre sketch artist.

* * *

The obvious critique is a feminist one: when AXA wants to talk to men about missed opportunities, it’s about financial deals; when AXA wants to talk to women, it’s about soulmates and true love. And it’s a fair enough critique; women are actively engaged in business and have concerns that extend beyond finding Prince Charming, and these two commercials juxtaposed against each other suggest that AXA doesn’t look at its potential female clients as serious-minded about finances. (Although, to be fair, the man in the life insurance spot does meet with a female AXA advisor, so there’s that.)

What’s kind of neat about these ads is that, somehow, AXA (or, more specifically, its ad agency) found a way to construct a pair of possibly mildly sexist ads that somehow become worse if they’re gender-swapped.

Let’s say it were two businesswomen at the airport with matching scarves. One woman tries and fails to get the other’s attention and, afterward, huffily finds another seat as the “That was a $40 million dollar deal” graphic appears. I can see myself offering two critiques: Is AXA trying to say that women are so shallow that they’d base a $40 million deal on clothes? Is AXA trying to say that women are so sensitive that they’d get upset because they couldn’t get someone’s attention after only a few seconds?

And if it were a man who narrowly missed his supposed female sketch-artist soulmate, complete with a “That was his soulmate” graphic, it’d look objectifying—as though a woman is comparable to a business deal, just another thing to win or acquire.

A better fix would be to simply switch the graphics—the woman at the coffee shop missed a $40 million deal, and the man at the airport missed his tie-and-sock sharing soulmate. Because, seriously, look at their eyes.



The only business deal that went down that night is a horizontal merger, if you know what I mean2.

* * *

On the other hand, is it even really sexist? Everybody talks about how we need to find a proper work-life balance and how your job shouldn’t be the totality of who you are. And most people will likely agree that love and family is more important than work and business. So isn’t AXA showing that the woman (who’s concerned with finding someone to love) has better priorities than the man (who’s concerned with a business deal)? Isn’t the ad really sexist against men who don’t understand what really matters in life?

Maybe! But probably not.

Obviously, women have historically had a much tougher time being taken seriously in business and money matters, so, even if we’re being extremely charitable with AXA’s intent, it still isn’t helpful in knocking down some stereotypes. And in matters of love and family, it’s generally been women who scale back on—or entirely give up—their careers and business lives, and these AXA commercials subtly reinforce that cultural norm.

A less comfortable possibility: Maybe we really don’t think love and family is more important than work and business. Think about how much time we spend at work, or thinking about work, or trying to find better, more lucrative work. It’s probably more time than we spend on “love,” right? And hey, I’m not judging—who are any of us to say that anybody’s priorities are better than the other?


* * *

But really, what’s most fascinating about these otherwise unremarkable ads is how they play with the notion of fate: If you’re not in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, and in exactly the right mood, you might miss out on a business deal! Or a soulmate!

And I know it’s just a silly pair of ads, but that’s kind of a pernicious mind-virus with which to infect your audience, because that way madness lies. Literally everything is the product of such a precise set of circumstances that it can be brain-bending to think about it too hard—if I left work a few moments earlier, I wouldn’t have gotten into that car accident; if I hadn’t stopped to get a cup of water from the water cooler before leaving, I wouldn’t have left work those few moments later; if I hadn’t eaten pretzels as a snack, I wouldn’t have been thirsty for water; if I had enough change for Oreos, I wouldn’t have gotten pretzels from the vending machine; if I hadn’t given some of my change to that homeless guy on the corner, I would’ve had enough change for Oreos. ERGO, I AM NEVER GIVING MONEY TO HOMELESS PEOPLE EVER AGAIN.

Of course, that’s ridiculous to conclude. And imagine if, say, you were planning on stopping by a convenience store on your way home, which, obviously, you don’t because of the car accident. And let’s say that that convenience store was robbed by a violent gunman3 who shot and killed everybody in the store—what then? Did your car accident save your life? Do you eat more pretzels now? Do you give more money to homeless people?

So it’s strange for AXA to make a pitch of, “Use our services to make sure that a precise set of mostly uncontrollable circumstances align properly so you don’t miss out on something!” I doubt anybody would take these ads quite that seriously, but still, it’s kind of a mean-spirited albeit metaphysical fear-based appeal. (Plus, using the ad’s own logic: who’s to say that, by talking to $40 million deal guy, you missed a chance to talk to some other dude who had, like, a matching suitcase who would’ve given you an $80 million deal? What then, AXA?)

* * *

And finally—“soulmate”? Really?

This is neither here nor there, but I think the idea of a soulmate—or The One, or your lobster, or whatever—is depressing. There are a lot of people on the planet, after all, and if there’s only one soulmate out there for each of us, then guys—we’re probabilistically screwed. Our soulmates might not be on the same continent. They might not be born yet, or they might have just died.

Or what if, by some odds-defying stroke of luck, your soulmate happens to be in the same city as you are and you just happen to be on the same bus, but they’re busy on their phone. Or they’re in a bad mood. Or they just got into a relationship, or just got out of one so they’re not ready to date. Or maybe they’re just too preoccupied planning for retirement. What then?

A belief in soulmates is either a belief in abject despair, or it’s a belief that the universe loves us so much that it’ll bend the laws of statistics and probability to accommodate our hearts’ desires. And honestly, I don’t think the universe even really likes us as just friends.

Plus, believing in soulmates can be kind of dangerous, especially if you genuinely believe you’ve met yours. After all, it’s harder to get out of a relationship—even a toxic one—if you believe that your partner is your one and only. And “soulmates” talk often ignores the effort that goes into successful relationships in favor of an assumption that everything will just fall into place.

So basically, BOO AXA FOR PROMOTING UNREALISTIC NOTIONS OF LOVE. And also, for making me put in way more thought into your commercials than I’m guessing anybody involved with making them did.


1See what I did there? It’s funny because he’s sketching a picture of her, and it looks like he’s been sketchily digging through her garbage to find her old pantyhose. I’m kind of an expert at puns, you see.

2Sex.

3Or gunwoman! I just talked a big game about possible sexism, and here I am, assuming ladyfolk can’t be robbers. Shame on me.