Digital Changeling

August 19, 2010

The Response of Penny Arcade to Criticism

Filed under: Comics,Feminism,Games — Eva @ 1:19 am

(Trigger warning: There are triggers throughout this post and in many of the linked pages.)

There’s a whole firestorm going on across the blogosphere about this Penny Arcade comic. If by some chance you haven’t heard about it, there are a number of interesting pieces covering it. The PA guys have made two responses: one comic and some blog posts.

There are a bunch of factors colliding here and that various people are upset for various reasons. It’s really sad that the PA folks have chosen the path of responses that they have. They’re good people who have done good things for the world. They set up Child’s Play, an awesome charity that has encouraged people to donate to children’s hospitals all over the world. They created Pax, which I’ve heard touted as one of the most female friendly cons around.

I can see the argument that the internet is vast and that free speech protects dark humor, even morally. I respect that they have a right to create things that I may not like. I still think they responded poorly. It is possible to explain yourself while still apologizing, acknowledging the issues you inadvertently tread on, and treating others’ concerns with respect.

While I fully support their right to free speech, which includes the right to saying things other people find offensive or distasteful, other people also have the right to criticize them. Freedom of speech is a two way road and we don’t have to be assholes about it in either direction. We can have different opinions, different interpretations, and hold different issues as more or less important without being dismissive or rude.

The part that makes me really sad is, PA don’t seem to understand the insidiousness of how they’ve casually dismissed the criticism. It implies that they don’t see a deeper issue. It is just a joke to them and the “complainers” are silly to suggest the whole topic should be treated any more seriously.

There are several problems with this. One is that casually dismissing criticism with hyperbole is a common technique used to silence feminists. Think along the lines of “What are you getting upset about? This is no big deal, stop being so hysterical.” This means that the way they’ve approached the criticism resonates even more painfully with the people they’re addressing. This was a bad call on their part. It will only hurt and alienate more people. As one of my friends put it, it makes the original comic look a lot worse.

Looking at actual content, the idea that a slave might be raped is not a new one. But for many people in America, that idea is so far removed from modern reality that it only exists in fantasy books and video games. They may know in the abstract that there’s slave trading in the modern world or that there are people who are forced into prostitution against their will, but it’s not part of their reality. It has no actual impact on their instincts or fears. They see no real threat that it could happen to them or to anyone they love.

I would urge you to go take a look at the story that started Love146, a charity that is working to end child sexual slavery. I think it’s important that the issue is real to you. It’s less important that it changes how you think about the PA comic, and more important you have a gut understanding that real slaves are being raped.

As I see it the problem now becomes, people read the joke in the comic and if they lack that gut understanding, the joke will further distance them from seeing the rape of a slave as reality. The over-the-top humor relegates the act and the situation even further to that world of fantasy and fiction. It makes the victim of the crime even more of a faceless, theoretical person who exists only in jokes and video games.

If there isn’t a systemic problem, a joke like this isn’t a big deal. In the case of rape, there is a systemic problem in our culture. One tiny chip at a time, jokes start to slowly turn people into that hero who walks away, because they don’t believe the crime is happening (or could happen) to a real person.

Yes, I’m being a little over-dramatic here. But no, I’m not kidding. I don’t think PA committed some sort of mortal sin with their original strip. I mostly thought it was a kind of tasteless joke when I first read it. They made things much worse by dismissing the whole issue so quickly and crudely.

Like I said before, I respect PA’s right to say what they want in their comic. It’s a shame they aren’t taking the issues behind the criticism of their work more seriously. There is a lot that could be learned and a lot of good that could be done.

August 16, 2010

Investigating in Cthulhu Mythos RPGs

Filed under: Games,Mythos — Eva @ 1:41 pm

This year at GenCon I had tickets to two Trail of Cthulhu games. I also played two Call of Cthulhu games. I enjoyed all four games and the contrast between them made me think a lot about game design and about how to present mysteries.

Trail of Cthulhu has a couple of design motivated decisions regarding how you find clues. Basically, if the clue is something that you need to advance the plot, and you have the relevant skill, you find it. No roll. You just find it.

There are more nuances for using skills to find more information and accomplish things, so this isn’t the only mechanic in the game. It is the mechanic that’s most relevant to how you investigate mysteries. The decision to handle evidence this way was described to me repeatedly as an attempt to avoid having to fudge rolls to “give it to you anyway” or risk the story running into a brick wall.

I realized while I was trying to describe the games to my friends that in the two CoC games I played at the con, exactly that situation happened repeatedly. The Keepers struggled to find plausible justifications  to tell us things, or fudged rolls, or gave us all a chance to roll, raising the probability that someone in the group would succeed. It was often silly and frequently not convenient for the Keeper or good for the story.

In those games, two Keepers were fighting the system to run the kind of game they wanted to run and two were not. This suggests to me that the ToC solution is the right one, at least for those four games.

A few months ago I read Justin Alexander’s essay describing the Three Clue Rule. I really like this essay. It describes some of the issues that arise from the failure of clue finding in mysteries and offers a different strategy to cope. The fundamental premise is, Game Masters are too clever when they plan mysteries. We should be including many, many clues for the players to find, at least three for each revelation they need to make to move forward in solving the mystery. Players will miss or misinterpret some, but they will eventually get where they need to be. I like this idea and it’s helped me in my own games.

There’s one thing in the essay that I don’t agree with. He mentions that the ToC system (GUMSHOE) lets you apply skills to just get deductions and use mechanics to solve everything. Possibly the Keepers I played under were doing it wrong, but all three times that I’ve played all we got was clues. How we parlayed that into solving the mystery was up to us.

We didn’t apply Collect Evidence in ToC and get the killer’s name written on the wall in blood, we got something like a bizarre painting, a strange black feather, a crumpled paper bearing a telephone number, or maybe even an invitation to a “church” party the next day. ToC guarantees that you will find clues to move you forward in the plot. They don’t have to lead you to understanding or solving the mystery.

I actually saw a failure of the three clue rule in one of the ToC games that I played. The Keeper gave us plenty of clues that kept us moving and discovering new things. However, there was a crucial thing we needed to realize in order to end the game in a “win” state and we did not get three clues for that crucial insight until it was too late. We weren’t screwing around. We were trying to stop bad things from happening. We just didn’t have the information we needed, so we did the wrong things.

ToC mechanics didn’t protect us from that failure. The Keeper is still the one who needs to have insight about which clues to provide to the players so they have a chance to solve the mystery.

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