Bad Romance: Dragon Age’s Celene and Briala

I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face, but writing women characters well in videogames does not mean making them pure paragons of perfect morality. Indeed, it often means the very opposite, as the case of Dragon Age’s Empress Celene Valmont and Ambassador Briala illustrates in deeply sanguine colours.

Dragon Age: Inquisition’s aptly named main quest, “Wicked Eyes, Wicked Hearts,” sees your character visit the Orlesian Imperial Winter Palace in a bid to stop an assassination attempt on Empress Celene I, to thwart the plans of the game’s antagonist and prevent Thedas’ most powerful nation from sliding into chaos.

Here you dive into a well-designed thicket of political intrigue at a masquerade ball-cum-peace conference between Celene and her foe in the Orlesian Civil War, Grand Duke Gaspard, who seeks the throne for himself. A third party is also triangulating at the ball from the perch of a grand balcony, Ambassador Briala who speaks for the Elven rebels who had been harrying both sides in the civil war.

Yet so much more is going on behind all these wicked eyes, as you quickly learn that Briala and the Empress have no small amount of history.


Briala was once Empress Celene’s personal chambermaid, who acted as her eyes and ears–and even her blade– in the palace, in the slums of Val Royeaux, and further afield when it was required. As you collect rumours and gossip from the prattling guests at the Winter Palace, you also learn that she and Celene were once lovers. In your explorations of the off-limits parts of the palace you can find a storeroom where Celene has kept an Elven locket and use it to confront both Celene and Briala with the rumour, to which they both admit (why hide such a thing from someone called ‘the Inquisitor,’ after all?).

Orlesian custom is a spiderweb of decorum, metaphor, and implication, and I realised this when both women discussed how they “parted ways” in very gentle, almost unassuming terms. Celene says that Briala “wanted change [for the Elves], and thought I should be the one to deliver it.” Even though she expresses regret and says she should’ve “dared more,” she steels herself beneath her mask and insists the locket meant nothing to her. Briala, for her part, is shocked that Celene kept the token, which she had long ago gifted to Celene in honour of her coronation, but her thoughts immediately turned to how impolitic and un-strategic it was for her to keep it.

That Orlesian understatement, however, hints at something far greater and far darker.

Briala and Celene 7


Bioware writer Patrick Weekes tried his hand at writing a Dragon Age novel, the first penned by someone other than David Gaider, and acquitted himself mightily with “The Masked Empire,” the backstory behind everything that came to a head in “Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts.” In the process he provides a blueprint for writing queer women as believable, flawed, and troubled people.

This book is where it all began, over a year earlier: the civil war, the Elven rebellion, Gaspard’s ascendancy, and Celene and Briala’s breakup. Briala herself is brilliantly portrayed as a permanently compromised woman: an Elf with the ear of an Empress, using her not inconsiderable influence to steadily improve the lot of her people in a kingdom that despises and ghettoises them.

Every day she lives with the conflict of knowing she is an Elf, and at once more powerful than most of her people, yet still subject to the Empress’ whim. She knows the alienage of Val Royeaux well, yet stands as a woman apart from its residents, better dressed and infinitely more privileged from them, above their quotidian struggles. Neither is she of the purist, nationalist ideology that pervades the Dalish clans who roam the countryside, trying to live in accordance with an ancient culture that humans long ago destroyed.

Despite it all, and despite all the rumours and sniping from the shadows, she strives to use her position to improve the lives of Elves–getting them admitted to Thedas’ Oxford, the University of Orlais, for instance, or allowing Elven merchants to sell wares outside the slums and alienages to which Elves are normally confined. This life of compromise, of being the outsider insider who runs between worlds and belongs nowhere, is a brilliant picture of what it means to be a relatively privileged and fortunate member of an otherwise marginalised group–forever caught between the conservative tendencies of power, and the radical will of the oppressed who want (and need) change right now.

Briala and Celene 5

Celene, meanwhile, is the perfect portrait of the moderate liberal, whose desire for progressive change is sincere but mired under layers of old prejudices and imperial disdain for those she sees as beneath her; Briala knows that as much as they love each other, Celene still sometimes sees Briala as “one of the good ones,” a thought that guts her.

I won’t summarise all the events of the book, and instead rush to spoil the main bits. Due to political manoeuvring gone awry, Celene violently puts down an Elven rebellion in the city of Halamshiral murdering hundreds or even thousands of Elves, just as Briala was attempting a more subtle, targeted solution that might have calmed everyone down. Celene justified this as an unavoidable response to the Elven rebellion, and a necessary evil that would prove her tough enough to keep the throne and making small, incremental change. Despite herself, over the course of a long journey through the wilderness, Briala seems to forgive Celene and commits herself to getting her love back to Val Royeaux where she can reclaim her throne after an ambush by Gaspard drove her into temporary exile.

Later in the book, Celene’s champion, Michel, duels Gaspard honourably for the throne of Orlais; Gaspard loses and bares his neck to the blade of his opponent. In that precise moment, Briala calls in a favour that Michel owed her. The favour? Yield and allow Gaspard to live. For those who played Inquisition, the ramifications of that decision are clear.

Had Gaspard died, there would have been no civil war; a throne war requires a usurper, after all, and Gaspard’s cult of personality drove the revolt against Celene’s supposedly weak and effete rule. Instead, Briala took away the very thing that mattered most to Celene: the stability of her empire. She lit a fire before Celene and walked away from her, the palace staff, and her old life in Val Royeaux. Both women were heartbroken, but Briala did what she needed to, even after she and Celene had burnt down a Dalish village where they were being held prisoner. Briala did it both because she had lost faith in the Dalish, who she now saw as the enemies of her people in Thedas’ alienages for their aloof scorn of their ‘flat eared’ kin, and to help Celene. Celene did it for herself, to make her escape back to Orlais proper–only for Briala to stop it all and give her benediction to a civil war that took away nearly everything Celene wanted, including the love of her life.

The blood on both women’s hands is undeniable and without measure, each chasing after a distant moral goal and ruthlessly compromising whatever it took to reach it, convinced that they alone knew what was best for the millions who milled in the world beneath them.

Briala and Celene Inquisition_-_Quest_-_Wicked_Eyes_and_Wicked_Hearts_-_Court_Disapproval

Two of a Kind

“Sitting on my throne, I see every city in the empire. If I must burn one to save the rest, I will weep, but I will light the torch!”

~Empress Celene, The Masked Empire

Briala became a revolutionary for her people, but could never quite admit to herself that she saw “little people” in much the same way as Celene: chess pieces to be moved in a grand game with grander goals. Neither, of course, expected the chess pieces to understand their motivations. Briala and Celene both were convinced that their actions, however violent, were in the ultimate service of a better society–and indeed they were hemmed into that terrifying calculus by the very brutality of Thedas itself, a murderous world where one lives and dies by the sword, and where Elves are treated like game animals by humans; Briala knew some compromise was necessary.

Such compromise would cost her in the eyes of some of her own people, including those she sacrificed so much to help. In Inquisition, you can find an Elven servant who despises Briala. “Now she wants to play revolution. But I remember. She was sleeping with the empress who purged our alienage,” she seethes, scorning her as “Celene’s pet.”

Briala, in her more unassuming guise.

Briala and Celene, despite existing at opposite ends of a power spectrum, were more alike than either cared to admit. It is telling that Briala’s act of vengeance against Celene for Halamshiral was political rather than something purely personal. She met Celene’s burning slum and raised her a burning empire.

It was a terrifying, bloody dance that only these two women in love could perform. If you bring Sera along with you to the Winter Palace, upon meeting the bitter servant and hearing her confirm Briala and Celene were lovers, she remarks “Knew it! I did. And I bet the hate made it feel real good.” She’s perhaps more right than she knows.

Briala was resented as a ‘flat-eared’ Elf by some, seen as a ‘knife ear’ by humans, and too privileged to understand the alienages by others. She preached the gospel of compromise even as she struggled with terrible existential questions. How far do you “sell out” before the bad outweighs the good? What is worth sacrificing now for gains down the road? When do you fight prejudice and when do you grin and bear it?

Celene, meanwhile, compromised from the other direction: how radical could she be without ceding the very power she needed to enact change? How many nobles could she turn against her while still saving lives? One is left to wonder how much of this terrible conflict both women worked out upon each other.

The Perfect Videogame Protagonists

Briala’s mother framed the mother of another servant girl in the palace to position her daughter beside the young princess who would be queen. Her whole life was a series of dances in Orlais’ deadly Game, the often deadly political intrigues that serve as an unintentional metaphor for videogaming if ever there was one. Celene and Briala are both the stars of their own stories, with everyone else, even each other at times, a supporting character to be set alight if expediency to the win condition demands it. They’re the ultimate videogame protagonists in that way–your Inquisitor, who already cut a bloody swathe through Thedas by the time “Wicked Eyes, Wicked Hearts” begins, is no different. But Celene and Briala’s tortured love for one another provides an especially twisted reflection through which to understand this phenomenon.

Briala and Celene 5
Empress Celene

Where did the revenge end and the revolution begin, for Briala? After she let Gaspard live, after all, she took over a network of eluvians (ancient Elven mirrors that allow for instant travel over vast distances), inaugurating a spy network and rebellion that actively prolonged the bloody civil war Briala started. All this in the name of creating space to help the Elves of Orlais’ slums and alienages. It’s hard not to wonder if Celene wouldn’t have been proud behind her anguish. Both women, after all, saw the world from ten thousand feet; both were master strategists who were not above sacrificing what they saw as pawns on a grand board.

At the end of “Wicked Eyes” your Inquisitor can choose to reunite Briala and Celene, while Gaspard is finally put to the sword that Briala had mercifully spared him from a year earlier.

In that event, Celene keeps her throne, and Briala becomes the Marquise of the Dales, the first Elf to hold a noble title in Orlais. Fitting that it should occur in Halamshiral, where the two lovers set both their lives aflame not long ago; the only way they could truly reconcile was through a night of deadly political manoeuvres that saw everyone from nobles to Tevinter mages to servants die in the palace’s gilded halls, a bloody game that both women knew could end with one or both of them losing for the last time.

As they give their victory speech, the gathered nobility listen while Celene talks about the “cornerstone of change” being laid, and Briala speaks rousingly of how the night’s events are a “triumph for everyone,” in keeping with the way Elves and humans alike fought against the ancient Tevinter Imperium centuries ago. Pitch perfect politics, and Briala reveals herself as every inch the equal of Celene, even when delivering an historic speech for the benefit of the entire nation.

What the crowd did not see was the blood that trailed behind both women as they held hands in the dark.

The Philosopher Queen of the Night: On “Hate Plus'” Oh Eun-a

(Note: This essay contains spoilers for both Analogue: A Hate Story and its sequel Hate Plus; in addition it assumes knowledge of the game and its story.)

"She seems ...well... like one of the most amazing villainesses I've ever encountered."
“She seems …well… like one of the most amazing villainesses I’ve ever encountered.” (Pictured, Oh Eun-a. The one with the cursor on her face is *Hyun-ae).

“I just can’t believe a woman is responsible for all of this!” exclaims *Hyun-ae as you finish reading the most revelatory letter in all of Hate Plus’ archives. Her fury boils over—the regressed patriarchal nightmare that had taken hold on her colony ship, the Mugunghwa, the ninth circle of hell she had awoken into when her stasis pod was shattered by a feckless noble in want of a marriageable daughter, the same man who would steal her voice with steel—all of this was sired by a woman who made of her ideology a terrifying suture to bind the wounds of womanhood.

Oh Eun-a, no less an emancipated woman than the President of Mugunghwa University herself. She was the architect of the neo-Confucian patriarchy that the Mugunghwa degenerated into.

If pressed to name my favourite character in the series, I would—to no one’s greater shock than my own—have to name Oh Eun-a, however. In a game series that is an epistolary tableau of complex and intriguing characters, she manages quite the feat by standing out the most. Oh Eun-a is perhaps most easily described—and effaced—as a mad social scientist. But she is so much more than this sideways twist on a hoary old cliché; indeed, she reveals both the impossibility of womanhood under patriarchy and the terrible burdens of idealistic scholarship. Continue reading

But For the Grace of Tuche: Why Writers Should Avoid the Temptations of Caricature

An earth like planet set against the deep of space with two yellow suns glowing in the backdrop.
Alpha Centauri’s title screen.

It is an indispensible commonplace of feminist criticism to say that prejudicial archetypes are not only socially harmful but make for bad storytelling. We are not just saying that to be diplomatic, however. It reflects a truism of narrative art and characterisation themselves: the easy catharsis of cardboard-cutouts is alluring but a dead end in terms of artistic staying power. Making a character a lazy stereotype may plug a gap in your story, but ultimately leaves it hollow and unaffecting. To use such stereotypes ensures art that merely goes through the motions without actually taking us anywhere.

Original characterisation, and its delightful conveyance of the player to another world, have never been a monopoly of so-called “high art.” After all, the best popular art can manifest that quality as well: to be memorable precisely through avoiding the paint-by-numbers of stereotypical characters. The Mass Effect series does this spectacularly well. But I think a good example that has precious little to do with the so called “identity politics” issues that get peoples’ backs up would suffice for an exploration of what I mean here.


Any account of my often lonely childhood would be incomplete without the chillingly ethereal soundtrack of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri backing it. As a classic 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) game in the tradition of Civilisation it hardly seems like a goldmine of characterisation. But, freed as it was from the constraints of a game with actual historical figures, Alpha Centauri’s speculative sensibility allowed for “faction leaders” for each nation you could play that had their own fully developed philosophies, ideas, personalities, and histories. What resulted was a diverse pantheon of leaders who taught me more than a little about the political tapestry of our world.

And the developers did so while avoiding easy, popular caricaturing. The game was suffused with quotes—every time you built an improvement to one of your cities, or researched a new technology, or built a new secret project, you were treated to an extended, illustrative monologue of some sort, richly voice acted. Sometimes they were quotes from historical works of literature or philosophy, but other times they were the geniusical science fiction writing that gave life to the fictitious world leaders of an alien planet.

A screenshot from Alpha Centauri showing a panel superimposed on the game screen with portraits of the seven leaders, each with a glowing "Yay" "Nay" or "Eliminated" beneath their names; this is the game's diplomacy screen.
All seven of the playable factional/ideological leaders from the original game.

The genius lay in their seduction—every philosophy, be it radical environmentalism, uncompromising scientism, religious fundamentalism, or collectivist authoritarianism, was given a worthy exponent who argued for her or his cause with unparalleled skill. They were credible as world leaders and philosopher monarchs ruling kingdoms that orbited distant suns. They made you believe in their causes—or seriously consider it.

What’s more: they stayed with me. One character in particular would slip under my radar and influence my thinking years after I upgraded my computer beyond any operating system that could run the game without some serious fixing.

Sister Miriam Godwinson, the leader of the Lord’s Believers faction, would be easy to caricature as a malevolent, mad religious zealot who is laughably irrational and mindless. Instead, the writers gave us a character with discomfiting subtlety who forces those of us inclined to the realm of reason to confront what it is about faith that draws so many.

The narrative filaments of the game are thin; you’re building a civilisation, not playing an RPG. But there is a story of technological development that laces through your march down the game’s research tree. As this is a game set in the 22nd century, it’s only a matter of time before you discover AI and nanotechnology, and only a matter of time before these things facilitate rather ugly forms of social control.

It is Miriam Godwinson who pens a work of philosophy entitled “We Must Dissent.” Attending one secret project video, which shows graffiti-painting dissidents being slaughtered by an AI security system, is Godwinson’s stern voice intoning “will we next create false gods to rule over us? How proud we have become, and how blind.” The “zealot” becomes the curious voice of reason in this new age of progress, challenging us technophilic players to wonder at the moral and ethical implications of that inexorable march.

It’s that bit about “false gods” that chimes with an especial resonance, because this game furnishes us with some rather compelling thoughts about faith and divinity.

A video still showing a concrete wall, at night, with "We Must Dissent" spraypainted on it blue paint, the spray can sitting on its side in the foreground.“God” as a metaphor has always fascinated me, and AC plays with this idea with astonishing facility. The planet this game is set on (creatively called “Planet”) is described as an “awakening alien God” because of its psychic native life that act like antibodies to human colonisation, Sister Miriam talks of how “God” was quite a bit more clever than scientists thought, or averring that humanity is trampling in the garden of an angry God.

Miriam speaks literally, of course. As a Christian, she quite literally believes in God. But if you see God as a metaphor her words ring truer than they might otherwise, and suddenly all this talk of God sending Man [sic] forth from the garden of Eden (the quote from Genesis that acts as an epigraph to the game) begins to make a bit more sense.

If one sneaks past Miriam’s literalism to get at the germ of the insights she drops throughout the game, you are treated to a perspectival shift about just what this thing called “society” is and what our universe is relative to the humble efforts of sapient beings. It goes back to an idea I never tire of citing from Martha Nussbaum’s magnum opus, The Fragility of Goodness; the ancient Greek notion of “tuche.”

Tuche, a very distant ancestor of the word “luck”, is a much broader concept than that in the cosmology of Greek antiquity: it essentially means all the grandiose, macro-level forces that bear down on human life but are woefully out of anyone’s control. It is luck, yes, also Fate, but also nature, society, the wrath of the gods, or the crushing weight of historical events in motion. Although techne–as opposed to tuche is used to describe the artefacts of civilsation made by humans, I’ll argue here that society itself is bigger than our technological achievements and acts as a force of nature unto itself.

If we think of Miriam’s “god” as tuche, suddenly her insights can teach you something more interesting than “religious zealots are backward, irrational Luddites.” That stereotype would no doubt be satisfying, but it is nowhere near as memorable (or didactic) as what Miriam ultimately became.

“Men in their arrogance claim to understand the nature of creation, and devise elaborate theories to describe its behavior. But always they discover in the end that God was quite a bit more clever than they thought.”
— Sister Miriam Godwinson“We Must Dissent” 

It’s easy to read this as a neo-creatonist screed; but as a sociologist I found something in this that was all too familiar. Take “creation” as the metaphor it’s often used as (“I looked for her all over creation”), and then consider the long and troubled history that we in both the social and natural sciences have endured as we try to explain what we as human beings have wrought. In sociology alone, the unyielding march of theory after theory to try and grasp the totality of civilisation, explain it, and render it predictable, has always been stymied by the way that tuche surprises us, revealing yet one more variable in an already impossibly lugubrious equation. Marxism, functionalism, constructivism, neo-institutionalism, conflict theory, sociobiology, neurosociology, middle-range theory, psychoanalytic theory, structuralism, post-structuralism, and now (Goddess save us all) postmodernism; we try and try so very hard to get it all into one theoretical framework that reveals the mechanics of our world, but our god (society, history, culture, civilisation) is always quite a bit more clever than we had hoped.

Even postmodernism—that cynical reaction to past-failures, an abjuration of our ability to explain matters empirically—is thwarted by society’s continued, insistent existence and its halting explicability. There’s always enough we can explain through a gesture to “social structure,” enough to make a mockery of mircological cynicism—but never enough to satisfy the grand theoretical projects that are every social scientist’s wet dream.

All of these thoughts, and quite a few more than I have space to explore here, were sired by a few lines from a game I played when I was fifteen years old. Such thoughts come about because each voiced character was given a personality that not only transcended stereotypes but also challenged them; it forced little-me to confront the fact that I could learn something from people I disagreed with—things that neither they nor I would have expected.

In this way of looking at things “Miriam’s god,” referenced in her various quotes, is a heady combination of everything that humans, in our herculean individualist mode, cannot control: the undulating tides of society, the totality of nature, the screaming silence of the universe (“is nothingness any less a miracle than substance?”). And from that perspective comes a kind of reverence that anyone, from atheists to the devout, could appreciate.


From the delicate strands,
between minds we weave our mesh:
a blanket to warm the soul.

–Lady Deidre Skye, “The Collected Poems”

Four organic towers, each with synthetic discs jutting out up and down the length of the natural skyscrapers in a step-like pattern, set against a glowing orange sky and sunset.
Artwork of a Gaian City, from the game.

I never played the Believers, I either played as the Peacekeepers (liberal democrats), or the Gaians (ecological democrats); the latter being led by Deidre Skye. As I grew older, her thoughts on society were of more than a little interest as well. Her poem, cited here, is about a telepathic matrix—technology that allows for direct communication between human minds. But once again, metaphor serves us well; the poem can be read as a description of community at its best. The game taught me to go beyond the literal and identify the thoughts (”our mesh,” perhaps) that underlay a variety of different ideas, and how to find precious perspicacity amidst the small world of my adolescence, all in what looked to my parents like some silly video game with unusually good voice acting.

You can do a lot with a world that avoids easy stereotypes or cardboard cutouts. You can grace the nimbus of art’s highest purposes, no matter its genre or medium, and realise you are flying.

Eternity lies ahead of us, and behind. Have you drunk your fill?

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Conversations With Planet”, Epilogue

Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism

A landscape image of Shodan, a feminine face made up of green digital characters against a black background.
Digital Shodan by Chris R (

To all new readers: I’ve written a follow up to this article.

Not long ago my partner and I were seated in her car discussing the arbitrary nature of certain holidays and I opined, perhaps halfheartedly, that New Year’s was a worthwhile holiday simply for it being a useful vantage point for reflection, however arbitrary. It provides an overlook whence one can see a year of one’s life and world. A recent tranche of writing by several prominent members of the trans and queer feminist gaming community has renewed my faith in that idea– with the overleaf of the year we suddenly find a great deal of penetrating insight into activist discourse and the risks incurred by our silence about certain excesses that have come to define us too often.

The wages of rage in our communities, and the often aimless, unchecked anger striking both within and without have created a climate of toxicity and fear that not only undermine our highest ideals, but also corrode the comforts of community for the very people who most need it. One of the most leaden wages of that culture of rage is, indeed, fear. I have been praised for my voice by many in this community and called “brave” by more people than I can name, count, or thank; and yet sitting in my My Documents folder is a number of articles, some finished, others not, that are “on ice.”

When I mention the icebox of unpublished posts and articles to friends and colleagues, I do so with a forced smile, pretending that it’s a heady combination of academic perfectionism and fear of being attacked by bigots that leads me to suppress them. There is more than a grain of truth to this. As many of my friends, loved ones, and sisters in struggle have demonstrated and written about, there is a lot to fear from the 4chan-esque world of angry young men with ample resentment towards those of us they perceive to be purloining some birthright of theirs. My academic work is devoted, in no small measure to explaining their behaviour (more on this in a bit).

But I am lying when I say they are the sole source of my hesitation.

The rest, often as not even the lion’s share, comes from fear of something with the power to cut even deeper– my own community. I fear being cast suddenly as one of the “bad guys” for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication. In other words, for making an innocently ignorant mistake.

An image of a dark haired and light skinned woman, eyes closed with two fingers pressed to her temple as she is surrounded by a number of holographic images.
Woman’s place is on the internet– and it’s our responsibility to make it safe for each other. (Artwork from Eclipse Phase by Tariq Hassan used under Creative Commons).

The Tumblr-isation of Activism

I have feared stumbling over the Tumblr trip wire and falling into the abyss of “call-out culture” to be discredited with every slur and slander in the book by the people who I ought to be able to trust the most. This stays my author’s hand as much as anxiety about being attacked by, say, the same crowd that bedevils Anita Sarkeesian. I fear the moment I get tarred as a “collaborator,” “apologist” for privilege, or a “sell out” (to women, to Latin@s, to working class people, to trans folk). Equally troubling is the fear of my loved ones being caught in the mammoth whirlpool of Twitter/Tumblr Justice and tarred for their association with me.

Fear of this sends me, yearning, into the oblivious embrace of silence.

I have written about this in the past, obliquely, and spoken in either couched or very specific terms about my feelings on this matter, which have haunted my thoughts for some time. So much online social justice activism has become hyper-vigilant against sin, great or small, past or present. That sense, that even the smallest, meanest revelation of past transgressions would come back to haunt me, inspired this paragraph in an old article I wrote about the painful contradictions of feminist activism:

“The pressure for me has always been to aspire to that feminist Madonnahood, and the perfection this demands is rigorous indeed. There is a strangely Catholic quality to the demand I often hear to show my scars, to prove I am a woman by showing how I have been hurt, to prove that patriarchy can wound me by showing how it has.

For there is something very odd about what the perfection my activism and my internalised sense of morality has demanded of me. It is not only that I show my scars but that I, paradoxically, testify to my permanent perfection from birth. In this world where patriarchy has scratched, burned, and tortured me- and where proving this martyrdom is a requirement of feminist perfection- I must also somehow be unblemished by patriarchy.”

I stand by this, but I deliberately left enough spaces for readers to assume that I was speaking about white cis middle class feminism, the dreaded “mainstream” variety that it was more acceptable to criticise. I was, but I was also speaking about the wider activist enterprise upon which many of us are embarked. This includes the world of online social justice activism, trans politics–indeed, the radical left as a whole. We must paradoxically be “oppressed” and yet bear none of the markings of that oppression upon our consciousness; we can never bear baggage or scars; as people of colour we can never show our veil of double consciousness, per W.E.B DuBois. It feels, sometimes, as if we must arrive fully formed to the world of activism, the perfect agents of change, somehow entirely cognisant of the ever shifting morass of rules and prescribed or proscribed words, phrases, argot, and thought.

But this also presumes that there is some kind of Platonic perfection to which we must unproblematically aspire. There is the lingering but important question of disagreement; identity does not fully contain humanity, and there are many of us who are women, and/or trans, and/or people of colour who have good faith arguments against dominant strategic paradigms, or dominant cultures, norms, and rules. Time and again, I speak to people of my background in the whisper filled shadows of corners and corridors, quietly fretting about “getting it wrong” or being accused of collaboration or being a sell-out for voicing such criticisms. Even when such whispers have the audacity to become a loud conversation (behind locked doors) they rarely grow into public debates– too many of us fear we’re alone.

Identity and Politics

In a characteristically elegant act of rhetorical artistry, scholar Edward Said used his article on William Butler Yeats and colonialism to find insights about the entire colonial/anti-colonial enterprise. Said took the cultural ferment that he argued gave rise to much of Yeats’ oeuvre and used it to elaborate on both the triumphs and follies of decolonisation– to brilliant effect

Yeats, in being a tribune for Irish liberation (albeit a rather problematic one, as Said explains elsewhere), wrote poetry that was not only about Ireland and Irishness but also poems that held,

“…a good deal of promise in getting beyond them, not remaining trapped in the emotional self-indulgence of celebrating one’s own identity. There is first of all the possibility of discovering a world not constructed out of warring essences. Second, there is the possibility of a universalism that is not limited or coercive, which beliving that all people have only one single identity is… Third, and most important, moving beyond nativism does not mean abandoning nationality, but it does mean thinking of local identity as not exhaustive, and therefore not being anxious to confine one’s self to one’s own sphere, with its ceremonies of belonging, its built in chauvinism, and its limiting sense of security.”

“Nativism” is Said’s word for nationalisms that trumpet a reversal of colonialist hierarchies, exalting rather than denigrating the purported essence of the colonised. This, Said argues, leads to a “metaphysics of essences” that then begets an “unthinking acceptance of stereotypes, myths, animosities, and traditions encouraged by imperialism.”

So, what does this have to do with us and online activism? Said was speaking to vexations that have bedevilled every liberation movement, and used art to elucidate what is a fairly common struggle: how do we continue on the path to the promised land without taking perpetual detours in hells of our own making? How do we avoid the pitfalls created by the very fires we use to emancipate ourselves? And most pertinent for me: how do we do activism without taking too much of patriarchy for granted?

I have long argued (privately) that our current phase of online activism is very much hobbled by the logic of neoliberalism and its emphasis on the individual, in ways that many of us are completely unaware of. Much online activism exalts the particular at the expense of the collective, rewarding individual episodes of catharsis and valuing them with considerably higher esteem than the more hard-nosed and less histrionic work that sustains a community. This is the dark side of the anxiety over the “tone argument.”

The Uses of Anger to Late Capitalism

Odds are if you belong to marginalised group, you are saddled with a stigma against being angry. Women, people of colour, people with disabilities, trans people, the poor and labouring classes, all face various and specific stigmas for being “too loud” or “too angry.” There are paradigmatic stereotypes in the particular, as well, “Angry Black Wo/Man,” “Angry Tranny,” “Feisty Latina,” “Dragon Lady,” “class warrior,” and so on, with which we are all painfully familiar in one way or another. It was with noble intentions that many of us rallied around the idea that “tone policing” was an oppressive construct meant to deny us the eminent humanity and cleansing fire of anger. We had a right to be angry, as surely as anyone else; moreso, even. Oppression ought to make one angry.

But in the process, “the tone argument” came to be understood less as a complex piece of social machinery than an easily identifiable trope; it then became a badge that could be waved at will in any discussion to absolve one of responsibility for their words. Even though we as leftists quite literally wrote the book(s) on why and how language matters, we suspend that understanding when it comes to our own community members because we have come to value the sanctity of their anger over the integrity of the wider group. Some of us excuse this on the grounds that we provide the only safe place for certain people to express anger without being shamed for it, and that living with oppression leaves us with pent up rage that demands expression.

The individual catharsis, then, comes to matter more than the collective, and responsibility to a wider community is blurred, if not quite lost.

It’s why it was difficult for many in the trans community to challenge the #DieCisScum hashtag, for example, because any who questioned it would be charged with “tone policing” and denying the community’s right to be angry. But the problem always was that this pseudo-therapeutic exercise in catharsis only made a few people feel better while starting a violently unnecessary and unhelpful discussion with hordes of cis people who laid their own hurt and anger at every trans person’s door. It took a tarring brush to the entire community for next to no meaningful gain, other than sticking it to “our oppressors” for the benefit of a handful.

This is where we return to Said and his argument that nativism operated under colonialist logic; in addition to the emphasis on individual catharsis, the culture of unchecked rage that sometimes wracks us is also an artefact of patriarchy itself and its lust for competitive, often violent contest. Much ink has been spilled on the masculinism that infects activist discourse, leading to delightfully snarky epithets like “Manarchism,” but we ignore the fact that white cis men are not the only people perpetuating this; it’s a culture, it does not dwell only in those with a perceived “essence.” We often unthinkingly accept and venerate the modalities and methods that patriarchy most favours; rage fuelled, unempathetic, us-versus-them politics is an ideal fit with the political hellscape of modern, neo-liberal patriarchy. It is a world that prizes the atomised particular over the powerful but compromising collective.

Your rage fuels the profits of every major website on the internet; be it Facebook, Twitter, Fox Nation, the New York Times’ comment sections, blog comments, Reddit, Tumblr, or Slashdot, your rage gets others angry, committing them to call-and-response threads hundreds of comments deep, which keeps them coming back to threads obsessively, which generates pageviews, ad impressions, and more revenue for the interested parties.

Activist rage is linkbait.

The isomorphism between the particularly fiery posture of some activism and the weeknight lineup of American cable news ought not be lost on us. If we can recognise the latter as a cynical sop to capital that is degrading our discourse, then it might be time to acknowledge that, at least sometimes, we are pressed into a similar role by the cultural logic of our society. Rage seduces us all, no matter what our background, and its sirensong will always be in the language that most appeals to us as individuals, regardless of our politics.

An image showing two wire mesh human faces staring at each other in an amber/orange field of numbers.
I imagine queer cyborgs might look like this, only cooler.

Ethics for Queer Cyborgs

This past year I began to outline a theory of online behaviour, entitled Ethics For Cyborgs, that explained why we ought to go beyond blaming anonymity for the rash outbreaks of prejudice and mass cruelty that predominate online– what is sometimes erroneously called “trolling,” and what too often becomes a very material threat to one’s life and livelihood. I argued, in brief, that although anonymity was a part of the problem, it has been vastly overemphasised in popular and academic discussions alike, and that taking it away would not bring us to a significantly better place online, free from prejudice and the oppression of privilege’s collective soft power. Instead, I said it must be defended as a common human right for us all online, and that we must look instead to the fact that the internet is presented to us as a mobius strip of reality and unreality– real when it’s convenient, unreal when it is not, and that the cultural conceits educating us into thinking of cyberspace as less real than “meatspace” make inhumane behaviour inevitable. This is a new medium for human interaction, and one where our socialisation for it has been decidedly faulty, laden with the false conventional wisdom that our eyes deceive us.

This argument was presented as one that chiefly explained the well-known behaviour of prejudiced people who would form hate mobs directed at outspoken women and queer people. The hate mail, the organised campaigns, the rape and death threats, the pornography, the organised and well-marshalled targeting of people’s homes, families, and loved ones, would be, I argued, more intelligible within this framework.

What I did not foreground, however, was the fact that this theory– that we are socialised to believe the internet is less than real, and that this makes belligerent behaviour more likely and more defensible– also explained the less violent, but still worrying behaviour of some social justice activists who delight in vitriolic attacks against their own when they are perceived to have erred. The fusillade of expletive laden insults and cruelly-cast public aspersions by our own are equally explicable by that theory. We ourselves fail to keep sight of the fact that the people we attack are human beings, and that our words have power.

My friend, activist Kat Hache, spoke about this phenomenon in her own article on activist rage:

Anita Sarkeesian’s TED talk touched on this sort of performative cruelty, where targeting other individuals online has gained somewhat of a competitive aspect, similar to that of a video game, with a rewards system that reinforces toxic behavior.  I have to say, as much as I’ve seen directed at me that mirrors exactly what she describes in the threads about me on 4chan, I’ve seen a disturbing amount within the social justice circle.”

I find myself reminded of the time when I was a tadpole trans woman and mere neophyte blogger, when I was raked over the coals by a woman who damned me for defending a cis friend who had made a mistake on trans issues; not only was I torn into, but another woman even wished death to that same friend when I (ill-advisedly) brought up her terminal illness. My interlocutor hoped my friend would die sooner, she said.

It is an extreme example but one that is nevertheless entirely too common, and one that I came perilously close to taking as a model. There was a time in my life where I took pride in being a “social justice warrior” on Reddit, ticking the boxes of others’ mistakes, missteps, and misspoken words, cruelly scolding people, looking for those who were “doing it wrong” as a means of validating my own sense of integrity as an activist, as if each person I roasted would be a talisman against the same thing happening to me ever again. It was only when I discovered that I had made someone cry for hours that I took a long step back and asked myself if I was really making the world a better place by doing this.

I had at last allowed myself to acknowledge that this was not what I wanted to do as an activist.

A poorly drawn castle on a floating island in the middle of a starry sky with a poorly drawn crescent moon above it.
My old “castle in the air” drawing– it was one of the first things I drew for blogging that symbolised my aspirations

From Here to Eternity: Concluding Thoughts

At its best, activism is not merely opposition to what is, it is also constructive of what will be. Ours is not a utopia of negatives– a world without this, without that, and so forth– but also a world of affirmatives and possibilities. This swirling gyre of rage and ressentiment is a terrible artefact of oppression, and one we ought not consign ourselves to. It is not a wormhole to liberation, however much we may wish it to be.

What aroused my concern was the fact that there are too many people, in the trans community alone, who feel like they are unable to call it their community and find shelter there because the tenor of discourse is so corrosive as to be just as stressful and antagonistic as the outside world. I hear this from a number of people who are close to me and have contributed mightily to activist communities with labour, art, and struggle– and I hear it from neophytes and outsiders who wish to join but find themselves put off by the rancour they hear from within. One example of the latter was a trans woman named Deb who commented on an article I wrote criticising the culture that led to the vicious online firestorm surrounding Carolyn Petit and her review of GTA V. Deb worried that that same “poisonous attitude” was creeping into “otherwise nice places,” going on to cite examples of speech in queer communities that troubled her. My reply was at pains to draw a clear distinction between oppressive speech and counter-oppressive speech, and to assert that the difference in power between the two was not trivial. Nevertheless, her core points could not be denied and so I addressed those at greater length. What I said there is, I think, a good way to close:

“It is not reasonable to compare the angry speech of a powerless minority to the “hate speech” (in the legal and sociological sense of that term) of a privileged group, but there is an ethical argument to be made. We may not materially disadvantage cis people when we speak in such overtly aggressive ways, but we do something equally bad– and you exemplify this– we isolate our community members and corrode the very community that is meant to be a shelter for us against an often uncaring world. I do not wish to be in a community where spite and anger are the prevailing emotions, however justified they may be in some cosmic sense. More than cis people, we owe it to each other to make our community more productive. The simple and ineluctable truth about our corrosive call-out culture is that it’s part of this larger problem I addressed, where we use the unique nature of the internet to do harm. People saying that others should commit suicide, die in a fire, or making death threats are not acceptable– whoever says them. And as feminists and social justice activists, we must make that clearer without indulging in the overused and disingenuous argument that oppression makes that sort of expression valid.”

We must remember that considering the impact of our words and the register in which they are spoken is not genuflection to the oppressor, but love and respect for our peers.

I would now take this one step further to say that while sheltering our community members must always take priority, we must also challenge ourselves to be merciful to those who make themselves our enemies, and keep their humanity in sight even as they denude themselves of it with petty hatred. We can do more than simply meet their cruelty with ineffectual rage, and we can do more than simply shelter in place from their privilege. It is time that we took our convictions to their logical conclusion and set our sights higher than the call outs of particular points of failure evinced by some hapless individual; it is time we took the next step so many in our communities are already taking, to a social justice activism recommitted to changing social structures and not just creating echo chambers to declaim against what we have. In Mattie Brice’s words we “need to keep in mind that we’re fighting the system that uses people to marginalise others, not the people themselves.”

Throughout this piece I have, likely to the consternation of some, been less careful with my uses of the terms “anger” and “rage” than some of the other critics and activists I have cited. I did this in part because I think it can be healthy to be critical about what we admit as “anger” and thus acceptable under the dominant paradigms of activist discourse. One can take the excellent tack that Aevee Bee took in her article and say that “anger isn’t abuse and abuse isn’t anger,” recognising that abuse is not something we should excuse with the ennoblement of anger that we indulge, but we can also think about the efficacy of even “acceptable” forms of anger. Why? Because I believe that lack of circumspection is at the heart of the problem. We allow important activist insights to metamorphose into inflexible rules, rather than useful information to help us make sense of an ever-undulating landscape. Yes, anger is useful and sometimes vitally necessary. But we can hold onto that while judging activist tactics on a case by case basis. Rather than applying blanket rules (“all questioning of anger is tone policing”) we can be nimbly thoughtful in our assessments and recognise that not every problem we face is the nail to anger’s hammer.

Justice does not take the shape of punishment eagerly dispensed. Let us recommit to the just creed that has summoned us to this work: a clarion call that resonates with our shared humanity and compels us towards a more compassionate and merciful understanding of justice– surely we owe it to ourselves.

Crowds Are Calling Your Name

A young feminine person with light skin, a tattoo of a skull on her right shoulder, long pink hair and glasses, wearing gloves, a collar, and a corset, looking at a glowing tablet.
Rui, technical genius and cyber-revolutionary, from “Gatchaman Crowds.” We’ll get to her in a second.

“As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy.”

–Christopher Dawson

The cyber conflagration that began with Bachelor producer Elan Gale’s live tweeting of his “epic” takedown of fellow airline passenger “Diane” has now metastasised into that most schismatic of internet events: the hand-wringing-cum-bacchanal with outposts in Salon, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and beyond, either celebrating or decrying the episode. It is easy to roll one’s eyes at this—whether “this” is Gale’s own immaturity masquerading as street justice (aisle justice?), or the proliferation of articles on the subject (my own included).

But I would not be so quick to dismiss this incident as insignificant piffle, or a joke that got a little out of hand. Nor does it really matter if Diane didn’t exist, as some have suggested. Elan’s behaviour itself, even, matters less than the true acme of our problem: #TeamElan.

By now we have already been witness to several worthwhile treatments of Gale’s little crusade and its many moral deficiencies. Two wrongs don’t make a right, et cetera, et cetera.

What is much more troubling to me, and what has been under-explored in the wake of these online histrionics, is what all of this says about the wider moral landscape of our cyber society and what is increasingly coming to pass for “justice” on the internet. I have long said that relativism and its attendant maladies must be resolutely resisted by anyone interested in making the world a better place, and that we must be unafraid to judge the moral failings of others rather than cower behind a vacuous un-philosophy to justify inaction and neutrality. But when one becomes a judge, she is not entitled to be the jury and executioner; it is one thing to use your moral faculties to identify and name vices and evils, it is quite another to then take it upon yourself to mete out what you consider a just punishment.

These two very separate tasks have become blurred in the information age, whose technology has become an unwitting adjunct to the parallel age of cynicism that is now wracking latter day liberal democracies.

What Gale did was wrong, not chiefly because he denied the humanity of his target in his misbegotten revenge fantasy-made-flesh, but because of what it summoned up online. It was an accelerating catalyst to the unchecked spirits of vengeance that are already animating far too many disaffected individuals online who believe that all means are permitted to avenge whatever one perceives to be an injustice; that one must be judge, jury, and executioner. It suggests that as soon as one comes to the conclusion that an individual they are judging is one of “the bad guys” then the gloves can come off and any punishment may be dealt to them because they “deserve” it. And this is okay, because only “bad people” will suffer these punishments; never mind the frightening opacity that occludes the moral math here. There is neither transparency nor accountability for the process through which one decides who needs to be punished.

Nothing is Unethical; Everything is Permitted

But what exactly did Gale summon up? Consider the following comment on a Los Angelista article by Liz Dwyer that was critical of Gale’s behaviour and suggested that if Gale had been black or Middle Eastern in appearance the response to his actions would’ve been less than sanguine:

“To the writer of this article. You are a joke. The problem with society as a whole is that here are not enough Elans out here being honest. No body [sic] would have given a shit if this was a black man or woman or Hispanic or Asion [sic] or cat or dog… it would have still been funny. Freedom of speech? ‘Eat my dick”. If this comment + Elan being a white male made this somehow more offensive… do the world a favor and go kill yourself please. #TeamElan”

Apparently, in the quest to get people to “act like adults” it becomes necessary to tell people to commit suicide for disagreeing with your methods. Even if Gale’s livetweets documented nothing more than a concoction of his imagination, as some allege, responses like this empowered by what Gale claims to represent are quite real.

The forces at work here are not new; we’ve long been bedeviled by the ageless conflict of means and ends. Depending on how we juggle those interests, we may find ourselves forgetting that the enemies of our moral crusade of choice are human beings. We have been here before. What is new is the way this is all-too-cosily imbricating with the anarchic spirit of the internet, epitomised by groups like 4chan, that enlist any and everyone to traipse in this timeless ethical quagmire. Uniting all of these incidents—including sexist campaigns like those directed at Adria Richards, Anita Sarkeesian, Jennifer Hepler, and other women in the tech industry deemed to be “villains” by certain precincts of the internet—is that sense that no rules need be observed when “punishing” people deemed to be in the wrong.

Diane acted entitled and spoiled with her flight attendants, therefore any and all means may be employed to punish her—including enlisting those same flight attendants in the attempt and putting them back in her line of fire for facilitating the “punishment.” In so doing, Gale seeks to marshal us to a lofty calling:

“…it’s OUR job to tell every Diane to shut up.

It’s OUR duty to put the Diane’s of the world in their place.

We need to REMIND them about the way of things.

We outnumber them.”

We must force the people to be free, one supposes. Or at least force them into their place (as judged by our infallible individual faculties). Note that his credo here is about defeating the enemy, as if we are the last defenders of Middle Earth athwart the Orcs and Goblins. We must tell the bad people to “shut up” and “put them in their place.” We do not need to persuade them, teach them, show them the error of their ways, empathise with them, et cetera. They are implacable foes who can only be dealt with by force. It is a classic pitch for pitchforks that merely summons more entitled, aggressive behaviour into the world under the guise of ending it.

Mob rule through a smart-phone is still mob rule.

Updating the World

The recently released anime Gatchaman Crowds is a rather surprisingly fruitful mirror held up to our society, in this regard. It is perhaps one of the most interesting and well-told cyber-morality tales of our time, and one of the few contemporary television programmes to get the internet “right.”  The show is set in a near-future Japan dominated by the social network GalaX, which rewards people for using their talents to help others. GalaX is a kind of augmented reality Facebook game/network—if there’s a car accident, people nearby are “scrambled” to assist if, for instance, they have medical or rescue experience, changing the bystander dynamic irrevocably.

It is the brainchild of Rui, a cryptic idealist who believes the world needs to be “updated” and that technology can facilitate the creation of a truly just society. It is no coincidence that her solemn belief is that things must be “updated” and not “rebooted”; peaceful, incremental change through democratising technology is her highest goal here. This dream is eventually corrupted by long-time users frustrated with the slow pace of change who want to use the immense power of GalaX to effect a much more immediate and violent metamorphosis, and they are co-opted by the main villain of the season (who, unsurprisingly, wants to destroy the world). There’s more to it, of course, but this is the salient bit that illustrates with its beautiful, almost satiric lens, our present quandary.

A screenshot of the GalaX world from Gatchaman Crowds showing several cute avatars wearing masks gathered around a virtual table and having a meeting.
The Neo One Hundred.

The rogue users of GalaX, known as the Neo One Hundred, are motivated by high ideals; they too wish to make the world a better place. But so wracked are they by cynicism towards the powers that be, as well as what they perceive to be Rui’s naiveté, that they believe the only way forward is through violence—particularly against the state, no matter the cost. As the show climaxes, their reign of terror sees Japanese government buildings laid to waste and civilians forced to evacuate in their thousands to flee the devastation that begins to inevitably spiral away from state targets.

It is a parable for our time, complete with clear jabs against a certain nameless, masque-wearing group of cyber revolutionaries, and the ethic of terror shared by some of their number. As the show’s heroes fight the Neo One Hundred and their new dark patron to save both Rui’s affirmative vision and the world, it would be hard to mistake which side #TeamElan might be on. The show’s climax is the perfect illustration of what lies at the end of Gale’s road; the logical conclusion is terror, justified by the idea that the result will be worth the cost. As always, however, such reckless confidence lacks a fail-safe. There is no provision if one’s judgement happens to be wrong.

We do indeed live in a society where traditional order is at best unreliable and at worst outright corrupt, bigoted, and oppressive. The mistrust thus engendered will manifest differently depending on where one stands on the social ladder, but manifest it will. That cynical posture feeds the arguments of those who say only more anarchic solutions can prevail against the petty, quotidian injustices of everyday life. When combined with the power endowed by online interaction, crowdsourcing outrage and street justice is easier than it has ever been in human history—with devastating consequences to match the expanded horizon. The allure of Anonymous-style politics as evinced by Elan Gale is that any of us can dispense justice if only we disabuse ourselves of a few useless niceties. Neither responsibility nor humility need apply.

Anonymous is indeed instructive here as the variety of actions that have passed under that franchise name illustrate both the rich possibilities of anarchic collective action, and the dark potential therein. Some Anonymous actions represent the resurgence of a collective moral fabric that enshrouds and protects those left behind by the sclerotic structures of state and corporate enterprise, such as their instrumental roles in bringing the horrors of Steubenville to light, or shielding women who fought back against Hunter Moore’s misogynist virtual crusade. What these actions have in common is that they were initiated after it was clear civil society had either failed or simply did not meaningfully exist for the people in question; there were people who had committed clear crimes but who had, due to the Byzantine and opaque interactions of the virtual world with older civil institutions, slipped through the cracks. Far from slandering the innocent or inviting cyber mobs on the heads of others, there was a peaceful effort to protect, shield, and cast light upon what others had left behind.

There was no call to dispense extra-judicial “justice,” no call to mobs to attack and put these bad men “in their place”– although limited action was taken against Moore, to be quite sure, and I can hardly condone the publishing of his parents’ information. The clarifying, disinfecting light of their work instead compelled accountable authorities to do what they ought to have done in the first place; in these cases, those calling themselves Anonymous knitted society back together. They did not put out a call to arms to torch what was left.*

Elan Gale, however, took the Neo One Hundred route, demanding that people punish rather than restore– that they bludgeon someone with a torch rather than merely shining a hopeful light on a moral failure.

The approbation Gale has received, even from many on the left, should be nothing short of alarming. It presages a world with no meaningful court of appeal save the ravenous appetite of public opinion; woe betide you if the crowd calls your name and finds you wanting.

This is not the apotheosis of democracy; it is its ultimate perversion.

*The original version of the article was productively critiqued by several friends who encouraged me to expand on, and make more nuanced comments about Anonymous, which I have tried to do with this update; the affected paragraphs are in the final section.

**It was indeed a hoax. Though, as I said in the article, that’s immaterial to the larger point being made. The response Gale summoned up online was decidedly real.

Amber Scott’s Sword of Burning Gold: Inclusion in an Incursion

A decidedly dramatic painting of a crimson demon, wielding a titanic sword slashing at a baying white dragon; in the midst of the carnage, some adventurers-- two women and a man-- fall through the rubble of the building the falling dragon shattered, tumbling into an abyss below

This article is crossposted from my latest feature for the Border House; that version can be seen here.

What is staggering about much that passes under the banner of “fantasy” is how decidedly narrow its escapist vision tends to be. In both fantasy and sci-fi, far from transcending the fetters of real world limitations, we see our own world with its myriad failings reinscribed in uncritical verbatim form with only a smattering of chrome, Medieval grit, or magic to poorly disguise the copy. Dungeons & Dragons, long the towering mainstay of fantasy roleplay whose name is synonymous with its genre,  has at times been either a magnificent carnival of fantasy or a pitiless mire of the same tired clichés about gender, race, and sexuality that bedevil so much of nerd culture. This schismatic approach to its material is, I believe, a psychic scar left by the culture wars of the 1980s when D&D was accused of various and sundry evils; all ranging from reefer madness with dice to charges of blood drinking Satanism. The game remains gunshy about introducing content that might be deemed something less than family-friendly. Even its excellent Book of Exalted Deeds compendium—a supplement geared towards elaborating the concepts of virtue and divinity in D&D—came with a “Mature Content” warning sticker. The offending content was, well, a boob, along with a frank discussion of torture (and why it was morally unjustifiable).

This flinching instinct on the part of D&D’s inheritors, Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast, has kept LGBT characters far away from public acknowledgement in the game’s content. “Family friendly,” that delightful euphemism for wilful ignorance of and prejudice against sexual minorities, has become the catchphrase of the granddaddy of RPGs.

While my love for D&D was immense and filled with innumerable fond memories, many immortalised on a shelf groaning under the weight of 2e and 3.5e books, I lamented the fact that such a fantastic genre should be hamstrung by senseless timidity. It was not just the issue of LGBT inclusion, of course; the writing had ossified, the taken for granted dimensions of the setting had become set in stone, routinized and underdeveloped. Flashes of brilliant creativity were smothered in the gloom of playing it safe as the controversial Fourth Edition went to press.

Enter Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder. For years I’d ignored it blithely, thinking it was a low rent, grittier D&D that had nothing new to offer, save a nostalgic continuation of the 3.5e ruleset. How wrong I was. The long, in-depth second look it deserved from me was occasioned by a friend’s breathless Facebook post about a trans woman character being introduced in the game’s latest adventure module.  A lesbian trans woman, married to a half-Orc Paladin of a Lawful Good goddess. My attention was well and truly piqued.

From Representation to Creative Flourishing

It is a common complaint amongst those determined to preserve a patriarchal status quo that characters ought not deviate from a white/male/hetero/cis norm unless there are “good narrative reasons” for doing so, whatever those might be. Curiously, nothing ever seems to fit the bill for such people; any deviation from that norm immediately occasions passionate metaphors about shoving things down throats and other vaguely sexual musings. But for those of us who, in good faith, worry about tokenisation occasioned by well-intentioned efforts at inclusion, there is a legitimate concern about ensuring that, say, LGBT characters are drawn to be people first and queer second, lest they be defined entirely by one facet of their identity.

Paizo gets this balance just right, in my view.

An image showing the cover of The Worldwound Incursion. A green Orcish woman with short black hair, wearing resplendent gold armour and bearing a sword and shield dominates the cover, while in the background a white dragon fights a red demon in a dramatic battle.The 73rd issue of their Adventure Path modules—self-contained cycles of adventures that provide detailed information about settings and campaigns a DM can use to start a plot for her players—The Worldwound Incursion by Amber E. Scott might well serve as both illustration of inclusion done well and an example of what that inclusion can look like in the specific medium of a pen-and-paper roleplaying game. (Cover at left; art by Wayne Reynolds).

The eponymous Worldwound is a scar in the world of Golarion, spewing forth demons and other hellish beasts who break like a tide against the increasingly beleaguered defenders in the nation of Mendev. Divine wardstones help keep the fiends at bay, but when one of them is sabotaged, one of the great citadels of the nation—the crusader city of Kenabres—falls to the horde. It is into this maelstrom that your adventuring party is thrust. Spared from the invasion by a virtuous dragon’s last minute intervention, your party and a few NPC citizens of Kenabres awake in an underground cavern—you must find your way back to the surface and do what you can to ease the fate of the fallen city.

One of these NPCs broke her leg in the divinely cushioned fall from the surface, Anevia Tirabade, a forthright rogue of a woman who served the city as a scout and archer. The story from here on out is very well treated by Ms. Scott; Tirabade is one of three NPCs of varying strengths and personalities with whom your party must work, negotiate, and assist. The mechanics of this, and the story possibilities that emerge, are a delight to read; one’s imagination really takes flight with the help of the complicated entanglements Scott writes for each character— the other two are Aravashinal, a blind wizard whose membership in a secret society drives a subplot, and Horgus, an arrogant noble whose gossipmongering about the other two could bring about the downfall of the group.

The genius of this module, I believe, lies in its strong emphasis on relationships and the deep elaboration that Scott gives to the myriad ways they impact the story, even as Kenabres crumbles. Rare is the writer who captures the fundamental humanity of apocalypse (beyond clichés about survivalism, at least), and Scott certainly rises to that challenge. The depth of these relationships, the conspiracies, triumphs, and tragedies they all entail, emerge as rewards for good investigative roleplay—and it is only here that Anevia’s story emerges.

One discovers that Anevia Tirabade is a trans woman who is married to a Half-Orc Crusader named Irabeth. Irabeth Tirabade is, in this campaign, helping to organise the resistance against the demonic horde. There is a beautiful and romantic story behind Anevia’s transition that is inextricably bound up with the love shared between the rogue and paladin, there for the taking if one wishes to learn it. But it is neither the focus of the story nor Anevia’s raison d’etre for being in it. Like Amanda Downum’s Savedra Severos, Anevia is a trans woman who is many years post-transition and whose role in the present story is akin to that of her cisgender counterparts—being a person of some power and influence in Kenabres pitching in after its destruction.

Anevia’s story is presented neither as a joke, nor as the driving motivation of her character. Like all trans people, her transition was merely instrumental in helping Anevia live a liveable life; her true adventure lay in the work she did for her adopted hometown, and the labours she would come to share with her wife. She is now part of the resistance and thrust into the epicentre of a renewed crusade against the forces of Hell, all of which are entirely orthogonal to the fact that she happens to be a lesbian trans woman. This is inclusion done well; Scott’s backstory for Anevia does not render her invisible as a trans person, but it also does not centralise that aspect of her as being the only worthwhile or interesting thing about her. Instead, it threads through her life in a seamlessly realistic way.

Anevia Tirabade, a human woman with short dark hair, sporting a wounded cheek. She wears brown leather armour, and has a bow with a quiver full of arrows slung across her back and her a sword in her left hand. She walks with cane made from a gnarled branch, and her left leg is in splints. She looks quite determined.
Anevia Tirabade, being awesome, as is her wont.

She grew up as part of her mother’s criminal gang, dysphoria leading to asociality on her part, even as she both learned to pick pockets and escape into art about strong women heroines. When at last the forces of law broke up the gang, Anevia’s mother sent her away to a temple of Desna, where a priestess would raise Anevia as her daughter—initially as a disguise, albeit one rather eagerly donned by the young Anevia. Her foster mother let her set off on an adulthood of adventuring, like the women from the stories Anevia so loved, with her blessing for this new life. On that long series of adventures in which she lent her services to other temples of Desna, she would meet Irabeth and fall head over heels.

I shan’t indulge in telling the whole story but it’s very sweetly written (aside from pronoun mangling when discussing the pre-transition Anevia, but it’s a forgivable lapse considering the audience; it’s still a dramatic and graceful step in the right direction).

The one artistic suggestion I might make is as follows. After falling for Irabeth, Anevia, according to the text,

“had revealed herself to actually be a man… but this didn’t matter to the paladin, who had learned to value a companion’s personality over her appearance. In fact, Irabeth had spent a fair amount of her personal wealth (including selling her father’s sword) to fund the purchase of an elixir for Anevia, one that would shift her physical gender to match the rest of her.”

(Okay, so maybe I will recount a bit more of their adorable love story). But the point is that it is rather unfortunate to recycle the “actually be a man” language which, although well intentioned in its use here, probably engenders more confusion than not amongst those unfamiliar with trans people. Generally speaking, any talk of ‘actually’ being one’s birth sex tends to be the spearpoint of a lot of transphobic arguments, and it’s best not to legitimise that.

When I have written trans people into my sci-fi and fantasy settings, I’ve always made sure to give them a unique name (“transgender” and “transsexual” being too deeply ground in our own world’s political and medical rhetoric to be truly distancing). One Pathfinder playing friend, writer Katie Berger Tremaine, suggests calling trans people “Arsheans” after one of the empyreal angels devoted to, amongst other things, diversity of gender expression. (That angel, Arshea, is another of Ms. Scott’s inspired creations and merits their own article).

The Fundaments of the Inclusive Adventure

One of the more darkly hilarious criticisms levelled at Irabeth and Anevia was that they were improbable due to being “too many identities at once.” This bizarre charge, being the inverted version of the vituperatively bigoted joke that says one must be a “disabled black lesbian Muslim” to get ahead in the world, is merely another irksome spasm of privilege and the myopia it inculcates— but it merits special comment nevertheless.

Behind the slur lies the idea that such people do not exist—that one might be a lesbian, or trans, or biracial, but surely not all at once; that is merely a fantasy of leftist diversity maniacs, after all. Yet, we actually do exist. As I joked more than once on Paizo’s forums to people making such prejudicial criticisms, Anevia and Irabeth’s story is actually all the more affecting because it maps onto the contours of my own life. After all, I’m a lesbian trans woman in an interracial relationship, myself. And given Irabeth’s biracial heritage as a half-Orc who struggled against racial prejudice and aspired to fit into human dominated institutions—she is also someone in whom I saw a rather lot of myself. It’s the kind of story not often enough told, and Ms. Scott captured it with aplomb.

It is here we return to the question of creativity in writing and the benefits of artistically-crafted diversity (as opposed to hamhanded tokenism): it makes stories better, more original, and more interesting. While transphobes were attacking Anevia simply for being in the story, and Irabeth for simply being a lesbian—occasioning all manner of scrutiny not given to Worldwound Incursion’s several straight cis male characters—they ignored how much lore and roleplay grist each woman added to the tale. The Worldwound Incursion is remarkable for its emphasis on the many social relationships—be they interpersonal or at the level of organisational conspiracy—that make up a city, even one smouldering in ruin amidst a truly hellish war. Unlike many adventure modules, Pathfinders’ as a whole place a good deal of emphasis on fleshing out the NPCs who are a setting’s truest ambassadors, imparting the living and breathing soul of a fantasy realm.

In this light, Anevia and Irabeth are, in their ways, part of Kenabres’ essence; each woman and her history says something about the hopes and failures of their adopted homeland, and their love is a perfect symbol of the virtues they tirelessly defend from the Worldwound’s spew.

What the critics of these two characters miss is how elegantly Amber Scott drew their fundamental humanity (with apologies to Irabeth’s Orc-ness, of course). Diversity does not just exist as a discrete property of a person fully coterminous with one aspect of their identity. There must also be diversity within a character. Anevia is not just a transsexual woman; she’s the crafty child of the streets who speaks forthrightly to all, regardless of rank, and who fights back the memories of her scarred past, trying to live in the here and now. She’s the Worldwound scout who found love on the edge of the abyss and who, at the present point in this campaign, limps her way through a cave with several strangers on her way into a strange, new adventure that has turned that world upside down.

Well done, Ms. Scott.

Concluding Thoughts: To Tell The Untold Story

The adventure module itself is also a testament to everything Pathfinder is doing right as a roleplaying game; rich in lore, technical rules that intrigue but don’t bog one down in math, an epic story that drops level 1 players into the midst of an incredible tale, a lavish gazetteer for the city of Kenabres, a short story, and some unique monsters thrown into the fray—there’s a lot to keep you busy. My personal favourite detail has to be Scott’s exalted magical sword, Radiance, (which inspired this article’s title); it was the sword of an outspoken crusader, a woman named Yaniel, who witheringly condemened her superiors’ negligence and took the fight to the demons. The weapon, in the hands of a virtuous paladin, can ‘level up’ with you. From Amber Scott’s fast paced and captivating plot, to Jerome Virnich’s evilly cute Sin Seeker monster, the module presents a peerless toolbox for adventure. If Pathfinder excels at anything it’s finding ways to tell stories that fantasy RPGs haven’t before.

I’m going to have to resist the overwhelming impulse to make a cheesy pun on the RPG’s name by saying something like “there’s a new path being found in roleplaying games!” and instead simply say that Pathfinder’s latest books merit a closer look. Paizo’s Creative Director, James Jacobs, has gone on record to say that LGBT characters exist in the world of Golarion and that all freelance writers are advised of this canonical fact. The iconic Cleric, Kyra, has been officially revealed to be a lesbian woman, and we can—apparently—expect more ‘out’ NPCs in the near future. It is no less worth mentioning that Pathfinder has overtaken D&D as the world’s bestselling PnP RPG: it’s yet another nail in the coffin of the dreadful cliché that “diversity doesn’t sell.” Wizards of the Coast might do well to take note.

*The banner image and Worldwound Incursion cover art are by Wayne Reynolds; the art of Anevia is uncredited in the book but I will add a name as soon as I can find one.

“It’s Just a Game”—The Discursive Construction of the Virtual

Visual metaphors! M.C. Esher! Giant ants! This picture has it all! (Giant ants– at least I like to pretend they’re huge– walking around a wire-mesh mobius strip).

It’s been quite a while since I updated here. I’ve been exceedingly busy working on a research project in my sociology department and with some of my other commitments as well as a few personal problems I had to overcome. But, I’m back, and I thought that in the wake of Anita Sarkeesian’s struggle with a cavalcade of trolls over her proposed webseries it’s worth digging up a recent piece of writing I submitted as a final paper in one of my classes (Gender and Geography). This paper sought to chart out the geographic dimensions of cyberspace, particularly gamer subculture, through the lens of “the space of exception”.

I’ve excerpted a part of the paper that I think is quite relevant to what had just transpired with Feminist Frequency. In a section entitled “It’s Just a Game” I describe how the “unreal” nature often imputed to gaming space gives licence to abuse that would be intolerable outside of it. This “unreality,” I argue, is on the flip-side of a pleasurable “reality” that also manifests in gaming culture. It feels like the real world, and yet isn’t; because of this, many  gamers feel able to express themselves in a deeply violent and prejudicial way. It feels like reality, and thus being a bigot provides all the perverse pleasure that asserting dominance over another person often provides, but the “unreal”/”fake” virtuality of the space provides moral and ideological cover for this behaviour. What follows is my attempt to draw together various sociological, geographic, and philosophical ideas to provide a thumbnail sketch of how all that works.


Gaming cyberspace provides a virtual refuge for a certain kind of masculinity, and one that is consciously constructed in defensive opposition to a rapidly changing world. Sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that for modern young heterosexual men “the fantasy world of media is both an escape from reality and an escape to reality,” capturing the dualism that defines a space of exception. He goes on to point out that this “reality” is one that “many of these guys secretly would like to inhabit” and that video games “provide a way for guys to feel empowered,” (Kimmel 2008: 150). His analysis of men’s relationship to virtual space concludes that these men feel “it’s nice to turn back the clock and return to a time when men ruled—and no one questioned it” (156).

It is hardly surprising that some men wish to perceive this as a “virtual men’s locker room” threatened by the presence of women. It is often constructed as a refuge for hegemonic masculinity, particularly as expressed through technological mastery. Connell identifies two hegemonic masculinities that she argues have diverged and are sometimes in tension with one another: dominance-based masculinity, and expertise-based masculinity (Connell 2000: 194-195). It can be theorised that gaming in cyberspace folds these two back together with a violent world of hierarchical rankings, which allows for the virtual embodiment of conquistador-style masculinity through the mastery of technology, thus reuniting two patriarchal symbolic universes. The conflict between these two masculinities may play out more widely in the physical world, but in the space of exception furnished by cyberspace they combine to form a unique but also familiar expression of gender

But it is here that we come to a very critical distinction between the space of exception constituted by, say, the [internment or prison] camp, and the space of exception the virtual world represents. The marked difference between “exception” and “normal” is important for all such spaces, but only in the virtual world is there an equally clear, aggressively policed, distinction between “real” and “unreal” that constitutes both cyberspace and its social practises. This is a nontrivial distinction, but also a connection between the two– cyberspace and social practise therein. The purported exceptionality of time and place surrounding the internet as a whole gives licence to the abuses within, and the ostensible unreality of gaming, more specifically, licences abuse within its boundaries.

Continue reading

Immoral Women: Why We Need More of Them

This article is due to be published on Border House this coming Tuesday. In case its raging nerdular nerdence doesn’t give it away, it’s about video games specifically. Enjoy!

One of the most irksome things I hear when I make arguments for ‘good/positive portrayals’ of characters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds is that my interlocutors immediately assume I’m calling for portrayals of moral paragons. They seem to think I’m saying “if you write a gay male character, he must be the most righteous dude ever.”

In a word, no. That’s what today’s article is about, particularly with regards to women characters.

The reality of the situation is that the portrayal of women as pure, stainless alabaster icons of virtue is a huge problem that arises from cultural stereotypes of women. The notion that women are inherently more virtuous, kinder, and so on is part of the limiting and fetishising pedestalisation that serves to fence us off from being thought of as persons. Human beings are flawed characters with failings and weaknesses; angels are not.

When I call for ‘good portrayals’ I do not mean that all women should be virtuous. On the contrary, I actually want to see more women as villains, or as morally grey/dubious characters. The simple reason for this is that such figures can be fascinating, merit much discussion, and are  fully human. Think of your own interests in fiction: what characters do you love to hate? Who is your favourite villain? What character could keep you up for hours at night as you discuss their philosophy and the writing behind them? Which characters have you debating their morality: good, evil, anti-hero? We all have answers to these questions, and that alone tells us why ‘good portrayals’ include morally flawed/villainous characters by necessity.

My objection to femme fatale villains is not that they are villains, but that women’s agency is always reduced to sexuality in such portrayals. Consider the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons, for instance. The women are defined by rampant, unchained sexuality that is used to literally dominate men. There’s nothing interesting in this, save as a rather specific form of pornography perhaps. Moral weakness, failure, compromise, and villainy are about much more complicated motivations than luring men to their dooms with T&A.

Kreia Being Awesome. (Older woman in Jedi robes, pallid with long pigtails, and three purple lightsabres orbiting her).

My favourite character of all time is a woman who is widely considered a villain: Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. My love letter about this character can be found here, but for the purposes of this article the main points to raise about are these: her character is defined by a philosophy, she is not reduced to sex, she is an agent whose motivations are complicated, her morality shades into a good deal of grey.

It’s hard to peg Kreia as pure evil. She isn’t. Her overarching, long-term goal is ultimately a positive one: she wants to eliminate the new Sith threat as much as you do (if you’re a light-side character), but for her the ends justify the means. Throughout the story you’re treated to many examples of Kreia’s richly self-justified taint manifesting itself in odious actions that service the greater good she has in mind. She is utterly driven by hard-won truths in a life that has been struck by torture, betrayal, and the harshest kind of learning. It produces a figure who is conscious of how far she has fallen, but will use her last gasps of energy to train someone who “may yet be saved.”

If you are a moral idealist, as I try to be, her incredibly well-written dialogue will force you to account in detail for why you believe what you believe. You may disagree strongly with what Kreia does, but you cannot deny she has her reasons—reasons she’ll talk about at length which define her character.

This is far more interesting than what we usually get.

Another example of such a character comes to us in the form of Dragon Age 2’s Knight Commander Meredith. She is horribly undermined by an ending that, in my view, reflects lazy writing and was perhaps the game’s worst moment, but you are otherwise shown an equally morally compromised woman who struggles mightily to do what she feels is right. Machiavellian evil is fascinating because it most closely imitates the evil we see in the real world. Most people are not Snidely Whiplash-esque moustache twirling sociopaths who do evil because it’s funny to them. Evil manifests itself in our world mainly in the form of people who are utterly convinced they are doing the right thing. Morality is rather tricky like that.

"Do not brand me a tyrant!" What I also find interesting about some of these characters is that they are portrayed as being older-- lines of middle age are visible on Meredith's face, for example, and Kreia is older still. It's a positive image for older women, to say the very least.

Knight-Commander Meredith is one such person. She is introduced to you quite forthrightly, her sword running through a powerful Mage on the verge of killing you. But she quickly evolves into an adversarial force. Meredith is a holy Templar commander driven by her desire to ensure that the Circle Mages under her command in Kirkwall are kept under control and do not become blood mages or abominations. With this in mind, she justifies increasingly onerous restrictions on their freedom. A literal red scare takes hold of her city as she sees the dreaded “blood mages” around every corner, purges becoming a regular feature of life in the city of Kirkwall. But through it all it’s impossible to walk away feeling Meredith has not thought this through. She commits moral wrongs in the name of moral rectitude; her convictions are deeply held and premised on fear of Mages with freedom causing widespread destruction. Meredith has considered all the arguments against her ideology. She is, you learn, painfully aware of the hurt she causes but believes strongly that she is resolutely holding back the tide of a greater evil.

To challenge her is to only compel her to stand her ground, and in a stentorian voice that feels like living scripture, she enjoins you to give her a better solution to this Gordian knot of a crisis between Templars and Mages. If you cannot—and indeed your character cannot—“then do not brand me a tyrant!” she thunders.

This is how you write a villain, and this is how you portray a woman as a human.

The most compelling characters make you think, and sometimes the most intriguing villains are those who are not outright evil, but who are morally compromised. Good people corrupted by the difficulties they confront, who convince themselves that the ends they envision are worth wicked means.

Other examples include Mother Petrice from Dragon Age 2, a quietly zealous manipulator who, again, is committed to doing what she sees as right. In a beautiful moral contest, Grand Cleric Elthina—her superior— can be shown chastising her for her radicalism, telling her “Eternity is long enough that we do not need to rush to meet it.” Elthina’s moderation contrasts with Petrice’s blossoming zeal. The struggle here is not one of cattiness, nor does it revolve around a man, but around a profound theological rift that each woman has her own struggles with.

Lord Zash, forcing someone to pay the price for their lack of vision. (Red robed, light skinned woman shooting lightning out of her hands.)

Moral complexity is wonderful, but you can also write complicated, interesting out-and-out evil. The Old Republic has a woman villain who, in an MMO with an enormous cast, manages to stand out: Lord Zash. While her physical beauty is occasionally remarked upon, what drives the story of the Sith Inquisitor class are Lord Zash’s manipulations and a carefully planned game of chess that testifies to a truly devious and thoughtful mind. A scholarly genius and an intelligent (rather than brash, impulsive, and childish) Sith Lord, she plays a long game leaving you to wonder if you’ll be ensnared next. Her evil is not the showy, infantile evil of your usual hyper-macho scarred Sith Lord (with the way some talk, it’s not hard to imagine some go out of their way to kick puppies and steal candy from babies). It is, instead, the evil of careful, strategic planning born of a true intellect. Each strike is the solution of an equation, a carefully calculated blow rather than an impulsive iota of violence-for-the-sake-of-violence.

Speaking of such, I’m making a note here to say that GLaDOS was a triumph (if ever there was one).

There are many ways to write such characters, of course, but careful attention given to motivation ensures that a character’s humanity—rather than a fetishised gender/race/sexuality—is what defines them as a narrative figure. Kreia is motivated by a drive to stop the Sith from using an ancient evil to consume all life in the galaxy, and by a long nursed hatred of the Force itself, as well as a desire for her as a teacher to have a successful student. Knight-Commander Meredith sees herself as the woman who must make painful choices to ensure peace and order in Kirkwall, and to stop Mages from becoming abominations that threaten the lives of all. In the name of all the above, they will commit to doing repulsive things.

At no point do we find ourselves harping on their looks, their sexuality, any femininity they may possess, or any other fetishised quality. Neither is turned into a man-hating caricature. And neither is a fundamentally morally righteous person; instead, they are human beings whose profound flaws are a part of their characters. What constitutes their “immorality” is also, crucially, not at all related to their sexualities.

Consider my title here: “Immoral Women.” Even now it conjures images of promiscuous, ‘loose’, or otherwise proudly sexual women, which is a testament to the suffocating and dehumanisingly limited framework with which women are saddled. I want that notion of immorality to be expanded to be something more fully human.

Speaking of fuller humanity there is another note that must be made, one of great importance when it comes to conceptualising “women”– it is a reminder that the category “woman” includes women of colour. I adore all of these characters, and am always grateful I have all these examples of great morally compromised women to choose from… and yet also dismayed that they all are, or appear white. Everything I’ve said hitherto applies just as much if not more to the lack of morally compromised, strong women of colour in games. Isabela from Dragon Age 2 is not a villain but as a rogue/pirate/renegade, definitely skirts the outer limits of ethics– and her struggles therewith define her character well. But it’s hard to think of many other women of colour with Kreia-level thought invested in their characters, regardless of whether they’re heroes, villains, or anything in between.

This brings us back to the beginning: the role of moral diversity in character portrayals and my sincere desire to see more women (all-inclusive) as villains and compromised figures. Perhaps part of the communication problem I have is that I use the word “good” when I say “good portrayals,” which leads people to think of it as a moral proposition. What I really mean is “well-written.” This includes the full spectrum of morality, it includes amorality, it includes immorality, and everything in between and beyond. Humans are flawed, and humans are capable of that full range of emotion, motivation, and morality.

No human is a true moral paragon of perfect righteousness. This is not a pessimistic statement about human nature, far from it. It is merely recognition that many people have intricate characters to some degree, and that because women are human, we can commit great wrongs as well as do good. What influences our sense of ethics is a complicated melange that no Madonna/Whore dichotomy can ever hope to capture.

The key to getting past stereotypes is recognising this.

I’m Being So Sincere Right Now: Gaming as Hyperreality

Sisters of Janus: Therese and Jeanette Voerman from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Both blonde haired, pallid women, one wearing a dark grey business suit and black rimmed glasses, the other wearing a stylised schoolgirl's outfit, bra and thong visible, and a blood red choker. She also wears deep makeup.

When I play certain video games I get the strange feeling of wandering through the weird and lurid landscape of a Dali painting; beholding the familiar, albeit distorted in the strangest of ways.

One might expect this. After all, video games are not supposed to be realistic by default. They operate on their own internal logic, their worlds hewn out of something called ‘game design needs’ rather than say billions of years of geology and thousands of years of culture and history, for instance. But I came to realise it was something beyond that point which I could comfortably suspend my disbelief and immerse. What jarred me out of, almost consistently, was the fact that many games have had the pretension of being representations of the real.

A artificially warped landscape is a good and interesting thing so long as one does not purport that it is, in fact, akin to a photograph.

Rated M for Misconception

Whenever one hears the word “gritty” or “grimdark” appended to other adjectives used to describe a video game, you’ve likely stumbled on a game that does what I’m going to discuss in this article: promote a rather cliched perspective as ‘real’. Various other euphemisms for this include ‘adult’, ‘mature’, and the like. Let’s take Kieron Gillen’s review of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines for Eurogamer and allow it to speak for itself:

“Bloodlines has the best script I’ve seen in a videogame since… well, since ever. In recent times, Planescape is probably hits the same peaks that Bloodlines does, and has the advantage of mass of words, but in terms of writing a modern, adult videogame, no-one’s come near. No-one’s even tried.

It makes cultural references with the casualness of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about – there’s a particularly memorable off-hand gag about fetish slang which dazzled me with the skill, audacity and comfort it showed. Where most games that try something similar come across as callow posturing, this was done as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It deals with the big adult topics – sex, death, whatever – in truthful and honest ways. It has characters who swear as much as anyone out of Kingpin – but they’re characters who swear rather than an attempt to turn the game into a noir thriller by lobbing a few four-letter words into the mix. Conversely, there are characters who have perfectly civil aspects. Troika has done the writerly thing – that is attempt to write people rather than ciphers. I can only applaud.

So ‘truth and honesty’ are themes in this game, apparently, of a rather dramatic sort. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is a roleplaying game set in a deeply noir Los Angeles, replete with weakly flickering neon, smoky back rooms, and the thrumming bass of rebellious club music set to the jingling chains of the mosh pit dancers. This game is nothing if not deeply possessed of atmosphere. You wander about as a newly initiated vampire in this world, a creature of the night learning the true meaning thereof in a fast-paced auto da fe of supernatural life. Aside from the cool colours of night and the chiaroscuro template of Gothy dusk that define the game’s palette, the other is of course red. A crimson that splatters many a wall.

VtM:B is a passionately violent game complete with murder, dismemberment, exploding bodies, torture, flesh eating, and, of course, rape. For how could one find true verisimilitude without sexual violation?

All of this begins to dissolve into the usual narrative that can be reduced to the following equation: “There will be blood, there will be tits; therefore there is maturity and realism.”

Continue reading

In Faith, I do not Know Thee by Thy Name

In my recent article for The Border House I took on a number of the arguments made by a few starry eyed technophiles in favour of ending the practise of online anonymity. This is a significant issue for me that, in its many facets, presents me with the ultimate intersectional landscape on which to grow my ideas about interpersonal politics. In other words, it is very easy to talk about sex, race, power, class, and a range of issues surrounding both individual and group behaviour (group psychology and sociology), identity, and just plain old techno-geekery. It touches on a myriad of issues that are important to me.

What follows is a refinement of what I wrote for The Border House and an expansion of it.

I.- Setting Information Free(?)

It is very much worth mentioning that the central idea behind the anti-anonymity advocate’s vision is the firm belief that the death of anonymity will allow information to flow more freely. The reality, however, is that the end of anonymity means a significant lever of personal control will be wrenched away.

To explain what I mean by this I should go into greater detail about the nature of the information being hotly debated at the moment. Invariably the two pieces of information most prized by the Zuckerbergs and their ideological fellow travellers are, in order of importance: legal names and recent, tasteful photographs. This is what I’ve long referred to as “driver’s licence info” and it is information of a very particular and discrete (if not discreet) type. Driver’s licence information actually has very little to do with your personality and who you are as a person. Such information can, in the case of some, affirm who they are (such as in the case of us trans folk) but even that is only the result of the primacy placed on this otherwise relatively un-telling data.

The reason it is so vitally important, the reason it is fought over like the bloodied scrap of earth it is, is because people in power have made that information a matter of life and death.

A name is what you decide to call yourself, and secondarily what others agree to call you. The ‘legal’ codification of it was merely a forerunner to the 20th century invention of serial numbers which are used to ‘identify’ us ever more finely as the owner of a legally sanctioned identity. Legal names are the foundation of this particular form of identification and are the essence of it. Their legality arises from governmental sanction, but it says nothing immediately genuine about who you are. The reason my own name speaks so powerfully to me is because I chose it. I sought to have it legally recognised because in our society where legal names are gold standards and wherein we must all have one, I felt the most self-empowering thing I could do would be to choose it. So indeed I have and my name is now recognised at various levels of officialdom.

But it was no less mine and no less true to me when it lacked legal recognition. It was my name from the moment I chose it in the company of a dear friend as I tepidly set out to claim a name as my own for the first time in my life. If anything my old legal name actually signal-jammed a good deal of truth that may have eminated from me years sooner, and equally blocked a lot that I might have otherwise taught myself. Obviously my old name was not solely responsible for this– a welter of other social conditions played their parts– but it had a starring role to play. We can discuss and debate the particulars but the fundaments of the matter are these:

My old legal name hid far more than it revealed, hindered more than it helped, and stifled far more than it liberated.

In other words it was actually an impediment to the free flow of information for it to be known and in the public record. It was an obstacle to me forging my own identity, right up to the multiple legal rigamaroles I had to endure in order to change it publicly.

Forcing me into a particular ‘legal identity’ closed doors, it did not open them. Who, precisely, is Mark Zuckerberg to adjudicate on which name is a person’s true name? These legal names are important, yes, but only for the same reason that, say, the institution of marriage is important: so many unjust privileges are bound up in it that we cannot help but pay close attention to its use. For precisely that same reason control of that information must remain in the hands of those with the least power. More broadly, it should remain in the hands of those who are the rightful adjudicators of such information: the people themselves.

Continue reading