Digital Changeling

June 12, 2013

Can We Stop Talking About “Strong” Female Characters Please?

Filed under: Angry,Games,Video Games — Eva @ 1:51 pm

Edit: I figured I’d need to revisit this at some point, but I think Sophia McDougall has covered the core of why “Strong” female characters drive me mad in other media far better than I ever could in an article very appropriately titled I hate Strong Female Characters

Can we stop talking about “strong” female characters please?

I hear a lot of appeals for strong female characters and I think we’re asking for the wrong thing. The gaming world is full of strong characters: they can fire hundreds of rounds without so much as putting the gun down, run for miles without sleeping, kill thousands of monsters with their bare hands, and climb tall buildings without pausing for breath. These physical strengths are ubiquitous because of the kinds of stories we tell and the sorts of mechanics we have in modern games.

Most of these characters also happen to be male.

There’s a separate phenomenon where many female characters in games are rewards, goals, background motivations, or set dressing. A lot of these women are not strong because it’s not narratively necessary. Often they’re overly used as “damsels in distress” for male characters to protect and save. Male protagonists have to do everything for them because otherwise the game makers don’t have anything to make the player do as the male protagonist.

There are two problems here: women don’t get to be competent in games and women don’t get to have agency in games. They physically can’t do things and they aren’t allowed to do things or make decisions.

When you say “strong” maybe you’re saying you want physically competent characters who could do things. That doesn’t mean they’re interesting. It doesn’t mean they have the agency to make their own choices. It doesn’t mean they’re well rounded or developed as people with motivations and stories. It doesn’t mean they’re main characters or playable.

I don’t want “strong” female characters who are physical super-people. I want competent female characters who are three dimensional and who are allowed to control their destiny. I want some of them to be playable.

When it comes down to it, that’s what I want for male characters as well. I want competent, believable male characters who are three dimensional. I’m sick to death of super-people. Men aren’t super-people in reality any more than women are and presenting them as such is increasingly boring with every similarly unrealistic game I see.

Can we change the dialog? Can we ask for competent female characters who are allowed to do things and make choices? Can we ask that characters be three dimensional, with interesting backstory and believable motivations (hint: because I’m evil isn’t a motivation for villains)? Can we say that we’re tired of fridging and damseling and otherwise using secondary characters of any gender as sacrificial narrative gimmicks?

“Strong” doesn’t mean those things. It means able to lift things. It means physically powerful. In gaming it often means “super-person with no basis in physical reality.”

Let’s be specific instead of using a word that doesn’t mean what we want.

January 15, 2012

GenCon (and Gaming) Belongs to Me Too

Filed under: Angry,D&D,Feminism,Games — Eva @ 11:28 pm

One of the most heartbreaking moments of my life was the GenCon the first year after my wedding. I was starting to truly grok feminism and for the first time I walked the exhibitor’s hall with my husband, Alan, and paid attention to how people treated each of us.

I made eye contact. I smiled. I asked vendors leading questions about their products like I always do. I found that in a minority of the time they treated me as if I knew nothing about gaming even when I said that I played RPGs. I’ve had people do this to me before. I look really young for my age, so I normally don’t mind letting them just assume whatever and go on with their job. The pitch is usually much the same, it just includes more intro and layman’s terms. This time it was different, because I realized that they weren’t making these kinds of assumptions about Alan.

There was one booth we stopped at where Alan was supremely uninterested and I thought the setting looked kind of cool. I picked up a book and skimmed the back, looked up at the nearest guy in the booth (there were three, all male, sitting around not doing anything), smiled, and asked some trivial question about the setting. The booth guy, instead of answering me, literally turned to Alan and answered my question. I was so shocked I just kind of stared at him. Alan was pretty startled as well.

There were other incidents, but that was the worst, the one that stood out above the others. I left that con feeling for the first time in my life like I did not belong. It hurt so much I couldn’t even express it.

When I was a kid GenCon was the one place outside my home where I felt totally accepted. I’ve attended almost every year of my life. I literally said my first words in a GenCon. Now it felt like the con had rejected me.

Soon I got angry. The man in that booth, he was probably half again as old as me. The chances are I’ve been to more GenCons than he has. I’ve been playing video and board games since before I started pre-school. The chances are I may have been gaming as long as or longer than he has. Fuck him. Fuck him and fuck his sexism.

GenCon doesn’t belong to just him. It belongs to all the gamers and geeks who attend. I attend and it belongs to me too. I sure as hell want the other people who attend to be less sexist, but even if they aren’t, I belong there and it’s also mine.

I’m not going to let prejudice drive me away from a hobby that I love.

December 7, 2011

Baby It’s Cold Outside: Or How an Idealized Story Can Train You to Commit Rape

Filed under: Angry,Feminism,Reviews — Eva @ 11:53 pm

I was linked today to this defense of the song Baby It’s Cold Outside by feminist Slay Belle. It’s a well thought out article and if you’ve got the patience to read a few pages go look at it now. If not, the summary is, people have been complaining about one line in the song and Slay Belle thinks that’s silly. She sees the song as a story about how the female lead is being held back by society’s expectations (ie. disapproval of “good” women having sex) and the male lead is giving her the excuses (encouragement to stay, reasons not to leave, etc.) she needs to make the choice to have and enjoy sex. Unfortunately the author has utterly missed the part where this story trains people to commit rape.

The song Baby It’s Cold Outside is creating a myth, a sort of idealized view of a romantic relationship. In this particular myth we’re told the girl resists the boy’s advances, saying no, possibly giving excuses of several sorts, but since the boy is persistent, the girl gives in and they’re happy. The important thing is, she gives in because she really does want to, she’s just worried about what people will say, so she needs to “put up a good fight”.

If a man buys into that pattern of romance, he really should badger and push his girlfriend for sex over and over, no matter how much she says no. Because she wants to have sex underneath, she just can’t admit it, or she won’t be a “good girl.” Now her boyfriend can’t tell sincere no’s from “coy” no’s and may be coercing her into sex (which incidentally is rape). Still he may honestly believe that she doesn’t mean what she says because he’s been taught this false model of how women act by popular culture.

This is the problem that I have with Baby It’s Cold Outside. “You should pressure her because she really does want to, even when she says no” is not a message I find acceptable. No means no and yes means yes. Teaching people that they’re interchangeable if you push is a nasty slippery slope. That slope is exactly where popular culture was standing when Baby It’s Cold Outside was written in 1936.

July 2, 2011

Qualifying a Geek

Filed under: Angry,Games — Eva @ 11:35 am

Recently a friend directed me to this article titled Girl Geek Week: Top 20 Signs You Might Be a Prima Geek-a. Being my normal angry self I read this once and immediately spewed all sorts of complaints at him on twitter, which he rightly pointed out did not belong on twitter. So instead here’s a blog post.

Here’s a line by line of why this made me go rage twitch stabby.

20. Just because I know how to pronounce/spell the names of the elder gods (and care) doesn’t mean I have to be a mythos-nazi.


16. Claiming that video games aren’t games doesn’t make you a geek it makes you an asshole.

13. Liking cute things and loving mythos are in no way exclusive. This point is either silly or pushing some sort of gender stereotype about cute as feminine and mythos as masculine that I don’t want to think about.

10. WTF? There are many more notable RPGs than this. How about about Ghostbusters, Pendragon, Dallas, Bunnies and Burrows (the original not the Gurps version), White Box D&D, First Edition HKAT, Amber, or an early version of Traveler.

8. You can simultaneously love reboots and originals. Having a stick up your ass doesn’t make you a geek it makes you a jerk.

5. Er… did you mean Underworld? Since that was the movie White Wolf sued over? They had a decent case that Underworld was infringing on a specific story they’d published, but it got thrown out, basically because of this, and rightly so.

I get how geek cred works. We all get wrapped up in our own hobbies and we value different things over other things based on what we love and geek out about. That doesn’t mean putting down other things to make you feel like a ‘better geek’ is the way to go. It’s still callous and cruel and reeks of elitism.

I doubt the author intended to hurt anyone when she wrote the original post, she probably was just listing things she liked. It angers me that geekdom becomes an exclusionary thing though and I find it hard not to say something. I may not value Street Fighter the RPG but if you love it more power to you, just don’t try to use it to measure how good of a geek I am. There’s a lot of aspects of geekdom neither you nor I can possibly know all of them.

November 19, 2010

Dear Mediamum

Filed under: Angry,Feminism — Eva @ 8:57 pm

Dear Mediamum,

I recently read your post about why tech women should “stop whining and nurture their own“. As a woman in tech who spends some of her time writing about feminism, I wanted to write back to you.

I’m not responsible for being the change that you want to see. Each of us has different career goals and desires. There’s no one path that all tech women should follow to promote the cause of having more women in technology. Also, calling my writing “whining” is not what I would call “nurturing”. Even if you don’t respect my path, I would appreciate less name calling.

Everyone experiences discrimination differently. Your experience is not representative of every other woman in a tech job. There are many tech jobs that rarely if ever involve glamorous things like conferences. The world needs women at the IT support desk as much as it needs women at conferences and female CTOs.

Your privilege is showing a bit. You might want to tuck that back in before you embarrass yourself further.


P.S. I agree with Gina Minks, you need to mind your language in the future.

The TSA and Responsiblity

Filed under: Angry — Eva @ 4:57 pm

I have to fly for work in January. I’m already dreading security. My choices don’t feel all that good at the moment. My life has given me some practice with personal indignity, so I’m sure I’ll manage in the end.

I found this account of how some TSA screeners feel while I was reading Schneier’s summary of the whole scanner issue. Most of you who have seen me interact with anyone who’s working a low wage job probably know that I try to be unfailingly polite. It’s rare that I get angry or annoyed and it usually has to do with misconduct on the part of the company or employee. I do feel for these people. They’re in a bad situation in a bad economy and it’s a shitty job.

But hiding behind what authority tells you to do does not excuse you from the consequences of your actions. One of the TSA screeners comments:

Do people know what a Nazi is? One can’t describe me as a Nazi because I am following a security procedure of designed to find prohibited items on a passenger’s body. A Nazi is someone with hatred and ignorance in their hearts, a person who carried out actions of execution and extermination of those based on their religion, origins or sexual preferences.  I work to make travel safer, even if I do not agree with the current security procedures. Further more, I am Jewish and a TSA Transportation Security Officer, an American Patriot and to call me a Nazi is an offense beyond all other offenses.

Do you know who else could be described as a Nazi? Every single man who fought in the German army during WWII. Did all of them agree with the Nazi party? Did all of them want to do terrible things or inherently hate those that they were harming? I think it’s unlikely.  Psychological experiments have shown over and over that you can get good people to do horrible, evil things by taking away their sense of responsibility. The authority of others excuses so much in our minds. It may be natural and it may be human, but it is still wrong.

I don’t think the TSA screeners deserve to be treated like shit. I do think they need to consider that they are still responsible for what they do, whether someone else set the “policy” that told them to do it or not. If their job sickens them, maybe there is something morally wrong with it, and they should be filing complaints with those above them.

Frankly, it sounds like the policy they’re being forced to follow boarders on sexual abuse for them as well, since their only choice is “do it or lose your job” and at least those that were hired before the policy came into effect did not sign up for this level of physical contact or emotional abuse.

October 12, 2010

What does Bechdel really mean?

Filed under: Angry,Books,Comics,Feminism — Eva @ 11:43 am

A friend of mine recently posted a rant about how the Bechdel Test was BS. She pointed out that there’s no reason women shouldn’t be allowed to talk about men in movies. It can be a topic that develops their characters and has a valid place in moving the story forward. She thought it was stupid that female characters had to stop talking about men to pass the test. This is my response.

The Bechdel Test is not about women talking about men. It’s about women talking about nothing, but men. So long as they also have a conversation about something else they pass.

For a long time the test really annoyed me too. I mean really, really annoyed me. Once I knew about it, it was often in the back of my mind when looking at other things like books and comics. Several works that I really loved didn’t pass it and one that I adore passed like 10 pages from the end. The whole thing made me wildly unhappy because it seemed so arbitrary.

Then I started looking at it the other way around. What do male characters talk about when they’re alone? They talk about women sometimes (it depends on the story how much). They also talk about all sorts of other things: the weather, the road to X city, where the suspect lives, how to recover the data from this damaged computer, the list is endless. Most male characters have a neutral role in plots that lets them deal with all sorts of things that are not cross-gender relationships. Even male characters who are immersed in romantic plots, often have some other goal they’re pursuing during the story.

Then I thought, well, there weren’t that many women in X or Y so I can see why they never “got around” to having neutral conversations. It didn’t seem wrong at the time that there weren’t more women in there. But, isn’t everything that happens in this story something the author chose to happen? Why did the neutral roles need to go to male characters?

So I went back and started examining the roles the male characters took. The number of those roles that had no link to gender, that could have been changed with nothing but different pronouns, absolutely appalled me. I was forced to wonder, why weren’t women cast into some of those roles? Why didn’t I find it strange that women weren’t cast into any of those roles? What has my culture made me blind to?

In the real world, women do all sorts of things, many of them practical normal things, not related to how we deal with relationships (with men or women). I don’t spend my day chatting about my husband. I write software, read email, learn new programming languages… if you wrote my story, would I just be replaced with a male character unless I needed to be a romantic foil? Why? What’s the point of not letting women also do normal things in stories?

The conclusion I came to was, the Bechdel Test is not about men. It’s about clearly highlighting a lack of women. It’s about token women in only romantic roles and constantly casting neutral characters as men, when there’s no reason they need to be.

At it’s core it’s about seeing women as nothing beyond partners for men. We fill no other role in many stories and that’s really sad. I have no problems with having characters (of either gender) in a story for purely romantic reasons. There should also be characters of both genders that move beyond that role and the gender balance shouldn’t be the mess that it is now.

I struggled with this revelation. I know it sounds stupid simple, but when you’re reading or watching an actual story, there seems like there’s always a plausible reason for the characters to be the way they are: the order of sword-mages is all male, well he’s a janitor, it’s just one more hacker guy, this scene is handled by the romantic male lead. I forced myself to remember that each of those reasons is a choice the creator made. They could make different choices and often the work would be just as compelling. The order could be mixed gender or all female, janitors and hackers can be women, and there’s no reason why the female romantic lead couldn’t push that part of the plot forward instead.

Everything in fiction is the way it is because someone made it that way. They can choose to make it a different way. Despite what some high-muckety mucks think, having more female characters won’t drive audiences away. Having more women in the world certainly doesn’t make men hide in underground bunkers.

If you want a view of this from a different angle, I’d highly recommend Katie’s article on the Reverse Jane Austin Principal. It captures part of the phenomenon of “rewriting stories to include romance” and it’s alarmingly apt.

July 29, 2010

Some Thoughts on 4th Edition D&D and Trash Talking

Filed under: Angry,D&D,Games,Reviews — Eva @ 12:25 am

Last year I attended a panel that was ostensibly about D&D 4th edition. I say “ostensibly” because of the people who sat on the panel, one had played 4.0, one had read it, one had skimmed it, and one just wanted to share his opinions. The person who had actually played 4.0 was the most rational person there. She was a bit misinformed, but she was trying. The other three… I’ll just say that I spent that panel boiling with a desire to stab them in their faces.

They essentially repeated a bunch of uninformed trash-talk. I’d heard it all before on the Internet, but I didn’t expect people to actually sit in front of me and repeat it while claiming to be some sort of authorities. Their statements were rife with misconceptions and factual inaccuracies. It was clear that the three of them were so committed to hating 4.0 that they didn’t really care what the game was actually like.

Here’s a sample of the sorts of things they said:

  • It’s just a MMOG. The inclusion of cards means that WotC is telling you to never roleplay.
  • It’s just for hack-and-slash. There’s no support for anything else.
  • The “loss” of the magic system has destroyed wizards. There’s nothing interesting you can do with them now. Tactically they’re exactly like everyone else. (This was harped on at great length.)
  • The fact that classes have “roles” means it must be a MMOG.
  • All the classes are identical now.
  • It’s not possible to make characters with multiple classes anymore.
  • There’s no support or encouragement for storytelling.
  • The rules are simple and boring.
  • WotC is trying to bring in all “those kids” who play card games (they may have mentioned Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon). It’s too childish for “serious” gamers.

I hope that at this point it’s clear why I wanted to start with the face stabbing.

I’ve been playing roleplaying games since my early teens. I was exposed to them much earlier, but I preferred board games and tactical miniatures games when I was young. I played 3.0 and 3.5 in various settings for years. I never really liked combat. It was slow and tedious. I saw it as a necessary evil that I’d occasionally have to sit around doing nothing for 4 hours, taking brief 2 minute turns. Some days I brought knitting so I didn’t fall asleep. I frequently took the role of the cleric (because no one else would), which didn’t make it any less tedious. I far preferred sessions where I got to talk to NPCs or do interesting non-combat things like exploring or figuring out puzzles.

When I sat down to play 4.0 for the first time, I hadn’t heard much about it. It was very new. There were vague rumors, but fundamentally I guess I didn’t expect it to be all that different from 3.5. I was hoping for something a bit more streamlined in the same way that 3.0 was less bulky and painful than what came before it.

4.0 was different… far more so than I had expected. Combat was fast and intensely tactical. The world wasn’t just a featureless plane with a couple of immutable stone walls. You could interact with the environment and actually use it to your advantage in a fight. The characters were built to encourage people to fight together instead of being a pack of lone wolves. It was amazing.

It felt like the first day that I won a game of Puppy Pounders and the first time I played Second Edition D&D (and used up every spell on the sheet the GM gave me in a creative way) without any of the slow, boring bits from either one.

Yes, my powers happened to be on cards. Yes, that first game, the Keep of the Shadowfell, is all hack and slash. I still thought it was awesome. I played the cleric. I healed my friends, and I still got to play a real part in the battles!

Here’s my rough response to the trash talk above:

  • The classes are more balanced now. Everyone bring something tactically unique to a fight and everyone has their own weaknesses. It is still possible to build a more powerful character with careful choices, but the individual classes have pretty equal susceptibility to munchkinism.
  • Different classes with the same role, and even different builds of the same class are unique. They have different strengths and different strategies that they excel at. If you want nuanced mechanics and tactics to dig into, they are there. If you don’t, you have a general role. If you get the idea of the general role you’ll do just fine.
  • The game doesn’t start off “slow”. Fights and stories can be interesting, complex, and fun from the beginning. There’s no reason to start PCs off at level 4 because “those first few levels suck”. (I know multiple people who did this in 3.x.)
  • Things like magic can still be used in creative non-combat ways. You’re limited by what applications/effects your GM allows, just like you were in other editions. There are a lot of cantrips that have explicitly non-combat uses. There are also a huge number of Rituals, which are much larger non-combat magical spells. They’re expensive, slow, and sometimes hard to find, but they’re also powerful. Properly used Rituals can seriously alter the course of the game. They also make great hooks! :)
  • You can create characters with multiple classes. The related material had been released for quite a while at the time of the panel, so I don’t think they had much of an excuse for not knowing this.
  • The skill challenge system has plenty of issues, but it’s still very useful. It gives GMs a framework to support other kinds of success behind the scenes in a mechanical way. This can mean the end of needless flailing and meaningless skill checks that lead to nothing and the beginning of an era where the effects the PCs have on the world around them make sense.
  • Skill challenges help tremendously when you have a complex system that you want to model. Even when you have to ad-lib some, you have that framework and you have thought about how it works before the players start poking it. From a player’s point of view, something really complex has the potential to feel more consistent and realistic without driving your GM to madness.
  • In the same way that 4.0 combat allows for all sorts of environmental interactions and improvisation, skill challenges are more than tests of pure mechanical skill checks against target numbers. A good GM gives players leeway to tackle problems creatively using the resources they have at hand, whatever those may be. Smart players will be able to think of many ways to bend the situation in their favor, to tackle the problem using their own strengths, and to work together to solve problems. The system encourages this creative behavior rather than just “I roll diplomacy to convince the king,” which you may have seen previously.
  • The mere existence of skill challenges telegraphs to GMs that players should be doing things other than fighting. They’re a concrete way that WotC is telling you that your game can have more than hack-and-slash.
  • The monsters are simple. A monster is just what a GM needs. Less paper, less reading, less confusion and delay during combat.
  • The monsters that WotC releases have a really cool array of powers that make combat tactically interesting. They’ve been designed to work together in certain ways so that a GM can build an encounter easily. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out a monster’s basic tactics or who it would work well with.
  • As a PC there are also clear mechanics for figuring out about monsters IC (during combat), so you don’t need to memorize the compendium or metagame to get insight into their powers and likely tactics.
  • There is a huge amount of support for GMs who are learning. The various DMGs and D&D insider are peppered with ideas in chunks as large or small as you want. You can read guidelines, advice, and suggestions, or lift whole adventures. WotC has gone out of their way to hire some very good writers and it shows.

I don’t think 4.0 is some sort of shining star or the best game out there. I do think it’s a roleplaying game with a generic fantasy setting that supports fast, interesting tactical combat. If that’s not what you’re looking for, there are probably systems that are better suited to your needs.

In the past I’ve been terrified to run anything more mechanically complex than BESM. I hated learning new rule sets. There are a lot of edge cases and a lot of nuance in 4.0. That scared me tremendously when I set out to run a game. The resources available and the simplicity of the basic combat principals meant that I could handle learning the simple stuff and slowly building up my specialized knowledge. I still screw up edge cases, but I have the 98% I need to be functional.

No one is ever going to convince me that having enough rules to choke a rhino is a good feature in a game. I really appreciate the fact that new players can sit down and play by just reading their character sheet and learning a handful of basic things. Teach them about movement and basic combat turns, give them a reference sheet for status effects, and they’re ready to start having fun. They’ll find out later that there’s more to the game.

I don’t think gaming should be some sort of exclusive club. I like being able to introduce new people and hook them quickly. Everyone should be here at the table, having fun now, not having fun after they finish reading 200 pages of rules. This is not a college physics class. It’s a hobby. You shouldn’t need to suffer to join the club.

I think it’s especially disingenuous to to imply that getting kids into gaming is a bad thing. A lot of us got started in this hobby when we were young and have fond memories of “finally belonging” at the gaming table.

I love roleplaying. I love tactics. I love great stories. I can get those things from 4.0. I can create those things in 4.0. As a gamemaster, I have control over the proportions; the rules are supporting me rather than limiting me. If my players wanted more of a talking heavy epic saga, a super crunchy game, or even something more old-school, I would be able to provide it.

I get really sick of the trash-talk. Don’t get me wrong, if you love 3.x or Pathfinder, that’s cool. If you’re having fun, you’re doing something right. I have nothing against people with taste that differs from mine.

But, if you feel the need to trash-talk, please play the game you’re trashing. Try to look past claims like “It’s a MMOG!” and “OMG Yu-Gi-Oh Players!” and focus on understanding what the system actually is before you close your mind.

You might discover that it supports the kind of games you love even better than the system you were clinging to.

May 6, 2010

My First Post Shouldn’t Be About How Much I Hate Your Software

Filed under: Angry,Programming,Reviews — Eva @ 12:45 am

Seriously, I know you get what you pay for, but my experience with setting up WordPress is still leaving me with a desire to stab people in the face. I haven’t even written my own theme yet.

I have so many things I want to  say about people not understanding how other people use technology, or how non-tech people look at things. I shouldn’t need to be a computer scientist to set up this blog. I shouldn’t need to know two other computer scientists to ask questions about it either. (I probably could have gotten it working with just my two friends, being a computer scientist mostly meant I understood a lot of what I was seeing… and it made me very sad.)

Just as a general thought on technical writing: Please be able to identify the words you know which people outside your group/culture/company/job/skill-set/ninja-clan will not know the definitions of. Define them before you spout them off willy-nilly.

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