They’re Not Dolls. They’re Action Figures.

My wife and I were recently visiting with my family, and in the course of conversation the respective childhoods of my little brother and I came up. Mom reminisced how my little brother enjoyed playing dress-up and role-playing, while I liked playing with toy trucks and action figures (anecdotal evidence of how gender is a fluid social construct and not innately biological: my little brother grew up to develop the more classically masculine traits despite enjoying stereotypically feminine childhood play). She recounted how I would get upset if somebody called my G.I. Joes, Ninja Turtles, and Transformers “dolls.” I reminded her that there is indeed a difference.

While we didn’t get into it at the time, there really is a difference between action figures and dolls. Action figures are conceptualized to approximate physical conflict. Their design is typically fantastical in nature, with an exaggerated militaristic aesthetic akin to science-fiction, fantasy, and superhero media. Dolls usually approximate social and cultural interactions, with a more realistic design drawing inspiration from real-world communities and domestic norms. If we accept the fact that toys are narrative media much like books or films (and I submit that they are, as the characters depicted usually have their own unique backstories and the toys themselves are used to create and/or recreate narratives), then action figures tend to tell stories that deal more with warfare, crime, or martial competition while dolls tell stories of household dynamics, the pursuit of an education and career, and social communities.

Of course, this is only an examination of the context in which the toys are designed and marketed; it is no way intended to be a support of the archaic and silly idea that action figures are for boys and dolls are for girls. Gender doesn’t enter the equation, nor should it, as children should be allowed and encouraged to pursue the narratives which appeal to them most, and thus the implements used to create and tell them. It’s only sensible that a girl with aspirations to join the military would be more attracted to G.I. Joe and a boy with an interest in fashion design would want to play with Barbie.

Beyond the artificial constraints of gender, however, toys are interactive narrative media and thus it is ultimately up to the person playing with them to determine the stories they tell. If a girl is given a Bratz doll and she decides that the fashion-forward socialite persona of the character is just a front for their role as a highly-trained assassin employed by an off-the-books blacks ops government agency, that’s perfectly acceptable–just as there’s no problem with a boy deciding that Batman and Captain America have fallen in love, gotten married, and adopted Diego from Dora the Explorer as their son. Toys are removed from any pre-existing canon and exist in their own alternate universe the moment they are removed from their package. Thus every story told through them is valid.

So while there may be a conceptual difference between action figures and dolls, that doesn’t mean that they should be seen as a sort of “separate but equal” accommodation, given that their use is defined exclusively by the child playing with them. Thus, such distinction should only matter to enthusiasts, collectors, and certain academics, not to parents and children, except to match a child with their preferred interactive content. After all, when there exists action figures that are designed primarily for display in the toy aisle at big box retailers (such as the Star Wars Black Series and Marvel Legends 6-inch line) and toy collecting continues to be a hobby indulged by adults, even the traditional boundaries of age appropriateness start to break down. This is fine by me, given that I’ve been stuck in an existential crisis of wanting to balance the freedom of adulthood with rejecting the responsibilities of my current age and recapture the joy and wonder of my childhood for the past several years and have bought toys of various kinds, from a big bin of LEGOs to a Hot Toys Boba Fett figure (it’s a premium collectible for adults, thus totally justifying the price tag).

Toys are wonderful things that unlock a child’s imaginative potential and allow for them to explore concepts and experiences beyond their current capabilities. While it’s important to understand how toys are designed in order to relate to their intended audience better, what really matters is whether or not a child is having fun with them. So while there may be a difference between action figures and dolls, that doesn’t mean that they should be restrained by artificial social barriers. Just let kids have fun.

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Everybody Gets Offended (Yes, Even You)

If you follow video game news at all, you’ve likely heard about Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, YouTube’s biggest star and one of gaming culture’s most recognizable faces, losing a contract with Disney and having his show on YouTube’s premium service dropped after a report by the Wall Street Journal chronicled Anti-Semitic humor in some of his videos. The chief catalyst for this act appears to be a recent video where he paid two Indian men to hold up a sign that read “Death to All Jews.” Kjellberg claims that this was meant to be satirical–a stunt to demonstrate the ridiculous things people would do for money.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Kjellberg’s claim. Despite the jokes that he may have included in the past–and even inclusive of this most recent one–I don’t think he’s Anti-Semitic so much as he’s tone deaf. It didn’t register with him just how poorly communicated his intent would be, and how hurtful and aggressive the stunt would come off without any kind of context. You could extend the same defense to his previous humor. Now, if he continues with these ridiculous stunts and cheap laughs for pure shock value, that defense will start to lose merit. He needs to learn the lesson this experience should teach him.

Of course, the mere existence of a defense doesn’t make this act excusable. Kjellberg took advantage of two men’s poverty to make a poorly executed joke, turning them into a punch line and possibly exposing them to the same fallout he suffered. This is, at best, an act of questionable ethics. There’s nothing he can say in defense of himself when it comes to the execution of the prank, even if some marginal defense of its intended nature can be articulated.

Nevertheless, Kjellberg is unlikely to suffer any lasting personal or financial damage from this. He still has more subscribers than anyone else on YouTube, and his fans have rallied around him to the extent that they are personally attacking other YouTube personalities who dare to criticize him. Amid all of this, yet another iteration of free speech as it relates to comedy has kicked up.

As can be expected, there’s a sizable portion of the gaming/comedy community that believes nothing is sacred, and anyone who takes offense at any joke is just an overly sensitive SJW who lacks a sense of humor. There’s a noticeable overlap between this community and those who decry safe spaces on college campuses (or anywhere else, really). It’s ironic to the point of hilarity that, for these self-styled free speech crusaders, the only acceptable response to offensive humor is silence–that they should be allowed to make whatever jokes they want (or make any inflammatory statement they want) without repercussion or interference. The same people who mock safe spaces want a safe space set up for them, with that safe space being the entire Internet and all of society.

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The patron saint of self-styled free speech crusaders everywhere, all because of one line which they totally took out of context: “Why so serious?”

Traditionally, safe spaces are designated communal areas that are meant to be a place of free expression exclusively for a defined demographic. They are not places people can go to escape new ideas or having to defend their own opinions and beliefs; they are places where people of like experiences and shared values can discuss those experiences and values without another group hijacking the conversation and making it about themselves. The most readily available example would be a safe space for black students on a college campus. In that safe space, they could discuss their struggles with systemic racism without a white student jumping in with a statement that likely begins with, “Well, not all white people,” thereby inverting the conversation so that’s not about how black people struggle with issues of race but how white people struggle with issues of their perceived vilification.

 

It’s easier for a group of black  or transgender students (or any other marginalized group) to discuss the issues they care about when they don’t have majority groups constantly trying to defend themselves (especially when the defense is only against a perceived attack and not an actual one) or questioning the validity of their arguments. I’ve been in far too many discussions about racial issues when a white person chimes in wanting to know why it’s “always all about race;” it’s impossible to discuss those issues with someone like that, because they’ve already convinced themselves the person who made the initial complaint is the real racist. It’s easier to strategize activism and find common ground when there’s no concern that such a person will be participating in the conversation. That’s why safe spaces–and their exclusion of majority groups–are necessary: they serve an identified, meaningful purpose.

But humor that is offensive purely for the sake of being offensive serves no purpose whatsoever. It doesn’t bring attention to social injustice or seek to enlighten the uninformed. Blatantly offensive jokes exist merely to offend, and can have the unintended (or intended) effect of strengthening the evils they turn into humor. Racist jokes only perpetuate racism. Rape jokes only belittle the horrific act of rape. Jokes portraying gay men as effeminate and submissive dandies obsessed only with fashion and design equate those characteristics with homosexuality, pressuring straight men with those characteristic to constantly assert their masculinity and possibly do things physically and emotionally harmful to themselves and others.

That’s why people in minority groups (and those who sympathize with those groups) find such humor offensive, and the only defense people engaging in this humor can offer is that “it’s just a joke.” Which, of course, is one reason why they want any criticism of their humor silenced and any actions against them (such as a boycott, or loss of employment) to be shamed and protested. They have no legitimate counter-argument to the takedowns of their humor, so ad hominem attacks accusing an offended party of wanting to steal all joy and whimsy from the world is what they resort to.

The safe space these people want are not meant to empower groups that are at a disadvantage, but to give groups with distinct advantages even more influence and authority. Even when allowed their offensive freedom, privileged groups engaging in disrespectful expression are hyper-sensitive to criticism, reacting with a level of (for lack of a better term) butthurt rivaling that which they accuse “snowflakes” to express. If you expect offended parties to just stay silent when confronted with offensive material, then you are all but explicitly asking for an environment where you can avoid ideas and opinions that challenge your world view and personal sensitivities: you want what you accuse others of feeling entitled to.

Tensions In Baltimore Continue To Simmer After Days Of Riots And Protests Over Death Of Freddie Gray

This is what the First Amendment was established to protect. It was not established to silence critics of sexist and racist humor.

What we’re seeing here is a lack of sympathy and/or empathy: those who peddle in offensive humor fail to see the weight of their words while over-exaggerating the impact of their critics, equating negative reactions and economic backlash with active suppression of thought. Lacking sympathy and empathy is one of the defining criteria of sociopaths and psychopaths. Do believe that every edgy comedian, elitist gamer, or any other “free speech warrior” is a sociopath or psychopath? Absolutely not. Do I believe that every edgy comedian, elitist gamer, or any other “free speech warrior” should be expected to act less like a sociopath or psychopath and more like a citizen under a social contract that demands they conduct themselves with a certain regard for the mental, emotional, and physical state of others? Absolutely. At the very least, if you’re going to peddle in shock and offense, own it. Instead of telling your critics to shut up, actually deliver on your bravado and shrug it off when somebody calls you out. At least then, you won’t be a hypocrite.

 

After all, it’s not as if everybody wants comedians and other entertainers to only engage in “nice” humor. There are plenty of comedians out there who openly engage in highly-sensitive subject matter. Both Iliza Shlesinger and Jen Kirkman have made jokes that imply that street harassment is acceptable, even encouraged, under certain circumstances. Shlesigner explicitly said that being sexually harassed by an attractive man is “just flirting” in her Netflix special Confirmed Kills, while Kirkman advised men to cat call a woman’s fashion sense in her own special, Just Keep Livin‘. While on the surface these bits may be dismissive of the very real and harmful epidemic that is street harassment, they also brought attention to a larger, more sympathetic theme: we all want to be seen as beautiful and desirable at times, but we want to define our terms and conditions for that admiration instead of having it shoved on us by unwelcome strangers (plus, the sarcasm–or least exaggeration–was evident in both comedians’ performance). There was a depth and meaning in the humor.

There was no depth to Kjillberg’s stunt. He was not communicating a universal truth or sympathetic experience. Sure, there was an expressed intent behind it, but that intent was purely communicated at best and openly mocked a disadvantaged person at worst. It was in the same school of hurtful and harassing humor that is racist, sexist, and homophobic humor even if it doesn’t serve as an extreme example. To his credit, Kjellberg apologized, but he worked in a rant about a grand media conspiracy against him as part of that apology and his legion of fans have turned him into something of a martyr. I’m not sorry for this man. He published offensive humor to the most public and open platform there is, that humor was discussed in the mainstream media, and his employers took action. That’s what happens when grown-ups make mistakes. The world is not his safe space.

Playing at the Next Level

I recently had the chance to review Playing At The Next Level by Ken Horowitz from McFarland. If you’re a big Sega fan, it’s definitely worth a read. Even if you’re not, this is a great inside look at the video game industry in the ’90s, when the Console Wars were at their most heated.

Sega is one of the most storied companies in video game history, starting out as the chief competitor to industry leader Nintendo and eventually forsaking their hardware development to focus on creating games for multiple platforms. This book is a concise, highly-readable documentary of Sega’s story, from the founding of the company to the development of their charismatic mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, to dedicating itself to making games and forsaking the game console market. For gaming enthusiasts interested in the creative and business aspects of game development and publication, this is an eye-opening narrative that testifies to the challenges of making it in the video game industry. While the structure of this book is largely linear and straightforward, excerpts from interviews and a sampling of photos help bring clarity and variety to a Horowitz’s easily digestible writing. While those who are not huge fans of Sega, interested in career in video games, or have a curiosity about the inner-workings of major video game company will find much to enjoy here, the ever-growing population of games and gamers who want to know more about the companies that create their favorite diversion would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate and approachable volume.

“I am Batman. I am suicide.”

Before reading this post, I highly recommend you track down issue #12 of the current Batman volume from DC Comics. In fact, read the entire arc from #9-13, entitled “I Am Suicide.” Your friendly local comic shop should have them, but if you’re in a fix you can get the whole series in digital form from Comixology. Still buy stuff from your local comic shop, though. They need your support.

After reading this issue, head over to i09 and read James Whitbrook’s commentary on it. That article informs a great deal of what I’m talking about here.

Batman is one of the most meaningful superheroes because he struggles with mental illness, not of the over-the-top variety usually seen in comic book characters (typically villains, but also with the occasional hero such as Moon Knight and Deadpool), but a more grounded and relatable mental illness: depression. He also exhibits traits of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, and the occasional bout of adjustment disorder; however, the disorder plaguing Batman the most is the same one that affects 3.4-9% (depending on severity) of American adults.

I’ve written before about how Batman relates to mental illness and the coping mechanisms he uses to ugly through his emotional and physical struggles, but this issue of Batman is the first one I’ve seen where a knowledgeable reader can point to a specific passage and say, “Yep. There’s the proof. This man is not well.” Granted, the evidence has always been there, but never so blatantly presented.

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Delivered within the context of a goodbye letter to Catwoman, intended for her before she is moved from Blackgate Prison to Arkham Asylum to serve her sentence for a heinous crime, Batman admits to having attempted suicide when he was 10 years old. Overwhelmed by grief for his parents and a crushing survivor’s guilt, young Bruce Wayne attempts to slit his wrist using one of his father’s own shaving razors. The attempt is (obviously) unsuccessful, but it leads him to realize that the identity he previously held onto is gone, and that he must create a new identity to carry on–thus, Batman is well and truly born. The trauma of that moment, however, never goes away; it manifests as Batman seeing his life as disposable, and thus better used for fighting back against evil.

Fan reactions to this revelation has not been wholly favorable (case in point: check out some of the comments on the above-linked article). Some readers see this as writer Tom King needlessly changing the mythology of an established character such that it devalues the self-sacrifice and nobility of their quest: since Batman sees himself as dead inside and his life is meaningless, then it’s less meaningful when he puts himself in harm’s way.

But the fact that Batman sees his life as worthless speaks to just how much he does care for other people and how badly he wants to rid the world of the oppressive figures that would do them harm. He accepts the risks of vigilantism because, in his mind, it’s okay for him to die. No one else should have to carry that burden because their life has meaning and purpose, and they’re worthy of time, attention, and love. This feeling of worthlessness while elevating the value of others is a classical sign of depression, and the official rendering of Batman’s affliction with the sickness makes him a more humanized, tragic figure. He’s no longer just an eccentric billionaire on an idealistic quest–he’s also a broken man who is already dead and is just waiting for the funeral.

This doesn’t mean that the character of Batman is completely unchanged, but having him changed is not necessarily negative. Young Bruce’s despair and Batman’s acceptance of it enriches everything about him.  His obsessive, furious devotion to fighting crime speaks of a need to find fulfillment and purpose. Batman’s friendships and romances, few they may be, are desperate attempts to be loved and accepted–even if he rejects that love and acceptance. This in turn leads to him presenting a persona that people find off-putting, which just makes it worse for him. In fact, in my mind, Superman has always had a positive relationship with Batman because he’s sensitive to his emotional struggles, while the rest of the Justice League (with the exception of maybe Wonder Woman) just sees Batman as an aloof neurotic at best, an obnoxious asshole at worst. The Robins have been Batman’s trainees and partners, but even as he prepares them for a life of fighting crime he’s fiercely protective of them, wanting to help them overcome their pain and loss as opposed to constantly using it as fuel for their mission.

No one can relate to having superpowers, so we look for other ways to relate to our favorite comic book characters. I love Superman, but I can’t relate to his unshakeable nobility and constant moral righteousness, because sometimes I’m a horrible and selfish person. I love Spider-Man, and I can relate to being an awkward, geeky teenager–but once that science nerd gets a redheaded girlfriend with the body of swimsuit model, I’m completely lost. It doesn’t help that Spider-Man hasn’t been that lovable loser in ages, and is now currently a slightly more tame Tony Stark.

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I can’t relate to  Bruce Wayne’s billions, or his bulging little black book, or his peak-human physical conditioning, or his genius-level intellect in software development, engineering, and criminology. I can, however, relate to the dark, secret pain of feeling like your life has no meaning, that nobody really loves you so much as they just tolerate you, and that you’re nothing more than an empty husk desperate to find some way to bring joy to your life. I can relate to silently calling out for help to everybody who will listen and adopting others to try and help them avoid the emotional pitfalls you keep falling into. I even know all too well the feeling that you’re just a waste, and everybody is better off without you. Because I can relate to those feelings, I can relate to that character, and while I won’t be punching out any psychopaths or saving the world from alien starfish, I still feel more inspired by Batman’s victories because I know he’s able to achieve them even while carrying the heavy weight of psychological torment.

Representation matters. It’s why there’s been a push for more characters representing gender identities other than cisgender, sexual orientations other than heterosexual, and races other than white in all forms of media for the past several years. Representation (or the lack thereof) is why #oscarssowhite was a thing. The desire for greater representation is why it’s such a big deal that our current President’s cabinet is whiter (and richer) than Cold Stone Creamery’s Oreo Crème ice cream. However, as we’re (rightfully) advocating for greater diversity of gender, sexuality, and race, it’s also important to advocate for more representation of people with less-than-perfect mental and physical health. It makes for more meaningful stories to more people, and shows that the true victories we should celebrate are the victories over our own mind. Beating up bad guys is easier than not getting beat up by yourself, after all.

Critical Hits and Misses

I gave a presentation on Feb. 6 at the Carolina Games Summit on the elements of an effective video game review. Above you’ll find my slide presentation.

I chose to present on this topic for several reasons. First of all, I’m an avid gamer and the critical study of video games interests me not only as an academic, but as somebody who strives to advocate for the artistic and narrative worth of video games. Second, I write video game reviews as part of my column for Library Journal, so the ideal structure of a review and the elements it should address are of a professional interest to me. Finally, I read many video game reviews and enjoy advising gamers on which games they should pursue playing, so it only makes sense that I would want to steer gamers to effective reviews.

My thesis for this presentation was that an effective video game review examines the narrative, technical, and design elements of a video game using both qualitative and quantitative measures. I also addressed to what degree social and cultural issues (such as depictions of race and gender) should be addressed in a video game review.

When examining the three base elements of a game, the reviewer should address the relevant questions and points for each. For example, when addressing narrative elements, the reviewer (or critic; I tend to use the terms interchangeably) should examine the originality of the story, the level of impact the player has on it by their narrative choices, and the quality of the voice acting present. The technical aspects are of the “nuts and bolts” variety: precision and ease of controls, stability and elegance of the game’s programming, and whether the game runs reliably on common hardware (especially for PC games). Design elements are where the actual “game” aspects of the media are critiqued. These elements include the ruleset of the game, logic and aesthetics of character and level design, and balance of difficulty.

Ideally, a review will focus most heavily on design elements, with significant attention paid to technical elements and minor attention to narrative elements. Design elements are indeed what make a game what it is. A board game is, after all, largely devoid of narrative elements and reliant only on technical elements insomuch as the quality of the physical components. While technical elements of a video game are more important to the quality of the overall package, narrative elements are less so, and thus attention should be given to them in proportion.

While there are some objective truths to a video game review (the game’s best genre, for example), for the most part an objective review is impossible to write. Gaming is a personal experience, and a truly objective review would strip the experience of that personality. Instead, gamers should approach a review with a focus on qualitative (to what degree excellence is shown) and quantitative (the frequency and degree of certain measureable factors) aspects of a review. Qualitative measures are largely those of narrative and design elements, while quantitative measures are mostly for technical elements (though there is some crossover–a quantitative narrative element would be typical game play length, while a qualitative technical element would be stability of online modes).

Finally, it’s important to note that video games, like all other media (novels, music, films, comic books, TV, etc.), do not exist in a vacuum. They are a reflection of the culture in which they are created, and society tends to have a response to the way it is depicted in media. Thus, it’s perfectly reasonable for a reviewer to examine social and cultural elements of a game’s design, especially considering that we’ve already established that reviews are inherently subjective anyway.

A critic brings into their criticism their own experiences and values, and that does indeed color their review. However, it’s important to remember that criticism of the way a game portrays people of a certain race/gender/sexuality doesn’t always necessarily mean that the critic is lobbying for social justice; it may be a criticism of the game’s lack of originality and a missed opportunity for different narrative experiences. Why does every game (seemingly) have a cisgendered, heterosexual, brown-haired, blue-eyed white male as the protagonist? Why can’t developers exercise greater creativity in their cast of characters? Those are valid questions without necessarily being cries for so-called political correctness. Also, often critique of a character’s design is rooted in pointing how illogical that design is within the context of a game. While pointing out that a female warrior dressed in a bikini top and loin cloth while her male counterpart is wearing full plate armor is an example of objectification of a female character, it’s also pointing out how ridiculous it is for a character who engages in melee combat with heavy bladed weapons to go into battle with a swimsuit or lingerie as their physical protection.

Video game reviews are helpful consumer guides while also being valid artistic criticism, but since they are impossible to be objective, no one review should be held as authoritative. Gamers would do well by reading multiple review sources (at least one being from a source they routinely dislike so as to maximize their perspective) and take into account how each critic weighs and measures each element of the game. Gamers are a vocal and opinionated audience. This is a benefit for game reviews, as it allows for multiple points-of-view and lively critical discussion. That can only be a good thing for the art form and the culture that surrounds it.

To Be Dishonored

Dishonored 2 is on my Christmas list, so I decided it was high time to finish the original game. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve started it; it’s probably the best game I’ve never finished. Each time I get into it, I start thinking about how things would have been different if I had played differently early on. My most recent restart was because I wondered if I had tried to find an extra rune power-up and upgraded one of my powers, would I have an easier time sticking to the shadows and thus had been able to avoid some particularly tough combat encounters that sapped most of my resources. The answer was yes.

It doesn’t hurt that I never mind revisiting the gothic steampunk game world. Dishonored really does capture my imagination the way only the best games can. This game doesn’t feed you exposition dump after exposition dump; it places you in sprawling levels marked with a unique art design, then allows you to explore the lore on your own via in-game text, character interaction (either direct or observed), and environmental exploration. Most individual named characters have brief screen time, but they’re still well-developed and unique; Granny Rags tells us so much about her backstory simply with creepy, insane ramblings and Sokolov’s eccentricity soon proves to be frightening megalomania. Even characters we don’t see, such as Dr. Galvani, have fully realized stories that we only know if we’re paying attention–which means that gamers who just want to play don’t have to be burdened by lengthy cut scenes and dialogues. It really is the best of both worlds, and gamers either concerned or disinterested in narrative alike can fill in the gaps with their own interpretation and imagination.

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It w0uld be easy to say that the player-character, Corvo Attano, is flat and uninteresting, but doing so misses the point that this is–despite not being a role-playing game–one of the best role-playing experiences you can have in a video game. Corvo is a blank slate, true, but the player forms him into a fully-realized personality by way of their play style. Is Corvo cruel and vengeful, not caring who stands in his way as he seeks violent revenge on those that wronged him? Does he respect that some soldiers and police are just doing their job, and avoids rendering lethal justice except to those who are truly corrupt and overzealous? Maybe Corvo feels that the best form of revenge is to bring shame and suffering to those he would otherwise execute.

I’ve played Corvo as all of those and a combination of them, settling for a reserved character who only kills in self-defense or to defend the innocent (such as when he sees guards harassing a civilian, knowing that if he spares them they will only harass others). He doesn’t hesitate to end the lives of criminals, and has no interest in dealing with them honorably when he does have to ally with them for his own benefit. Finally, while his allies (which I’m not convinced are my allies–it’s tough to avoid spoilers for such an aged game!) seem to want everyone to die, he instead opts to condemn those who framed him for murder to a life of torment. I even shamelessly indulged in growling “Now you will know what’s it like to be…DISHONORED!” to High Overseer Campbell as I branded him with a heretic’s mark to bring about his fall from grace. I felt no shame. Games are supposed to be fun.

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The real meat here, though, is the game play. Stealth in this game is better than even in the Arkham games, which all-too-often felt scripted even if they were exciting and imaginative. Sneaking into a mansion, stealing something of value, and slipping out  without setting off an alarm even once leaves you with a real sense of accomplishment. Teleporting behind an enemy and severing his jugular, then turning to his companion and shooting his whiskey bottle, setting it aflame and watching the fire consume him as you make an escape is morbidly satisfying–almost as much as throwing a grenade between two enemies and watching it dispatch them, all without ever being seen. When your well-thought-out plan does fall apart and you have to fight face-to-face, combat is intense, fast-paced, and gritty; there’s no elaborate counters or dance-like choreography here–just accuracy, instinct, and reflex.

If you haven’t played Dishonored, you should. I’m looking forward to playing the sequel on Christmas Day, if I don’t restart the original another ten times.

 

So, I’m writing a novel.

 

I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve tried it in years past, and got maybe about 3,000 words in before I abandoned all hope. I’m off to a good start this year, having gotten over 6,000 words in just the first two days.

Will I finish? I certainly hope to. After all, I wrote a 100,000+ words for a first draft of a novel earlier this year.

I wanted to be a writer. I suppose I still do, but at some point I gave up on that dream. In my most cynical moments, I’ve even cautioned other people that we all wake up from our dreams eventually. I was convinced I wasn’t good enough to make it; every short story I sent off was rejected (save for one that I wasn’t paid for), and every query I sent off for the (actual pretty bad) novel I wrote during and immediately after college got was equally poorly received. My low point came when I received a rejection from a literary agency that was typed out on a strip of paper. That’s right; the most crushing moment in a young author’s early career was typed out en masse and cut into strips as to help conserve our natural resources.

I always regretted giving up, and always wanted to try again. Earlier this year, I did. My wife encouraged me and stood beside me, which truly made the difference. School was cancelled for several days due to weather (this was January after all), so I made use of that time by pounding out a Western that had been swimming in my head for a long time. I finished it, and revised it, and revised it again, and then I was burned out. I had thrown myself into writing and didn’t come up for air.

I took a months-long break and got back to it. Now, I’ve done three revisions on my novel and–emboldened by my achievement–am attempting another one.

If you’d like to support me, here’s a link to my fundraising page. Please help other aspiring writers find their voice and give them a platform. That’s what matters most when it comes to writing: knowing that somebody is listening.

The Reason Why We Fall

One of the reasons I have come to love Batman so much is that, while he is an empowerment fantasy of superhero awesomeness, he also deals with emotional and mental pain constantly and manages to triumph over it. Fans, critics, and academics ascribe his mental and emotional state to the loss of his parents; but, for us long-time readers, we know that was only the first tragedy in Bruce Wayne’s life. From losing Jason Todd to failing to save Barbara Gordon to simply seeing dangerous criminals he put away walk free from a prison that might as well be made of tissue paper, the man’s life has been nothing but loss and struggle.

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But, he always breaks through the dark. My favorite Batman moments are the ones where he, on the verge of being broken, finds the will to survive. There are three that come to mind: the scene from the animated series episode “Nothing to Fear” where he overcame Scarecrow’s fear toxin by sheer will alone (“I am vengeance! I am the night! I am Batman!”), fighting his way out of the Court of Owl’s labyrinth in issue #7 of the New 52 Batman comic, and in the movie The Dark Knight Rises where Bruce Wayne climbs out of the prison.

As a kid, I don’t remember too many times when I saw my favorite superheroes completely lose it. They were always strong, determined, rock-steady champions. The most emotional they may have gotten was a show of anger, but despair and a broken spirit never entered the equation.  In “Nothing to Fear,” that all changed. I saw Batman being taken to the limit of his sanity. After having his mind attacked relentlessly by Scarecrow (he would become my favorite not-the-Joker Batman villain), he soon gave in to fear. It wasn’t a fear of an outward threat: Batman feared failure. He feared failing in his quest to bring justice to the city he loved and to not living up to his family’s memory. This was heavy stuff for a kid, and it really affected me on a deep level, so deep that I wouldn’t realize just how strong of a reaction it solicited until I would rewatch this episode as an adult. But Batman punched through the darkness. He found within himself a confidence that didn’t rely on the approval of his parents and an acceptance that as long as he was fighting, he was winning. Sure, he may have punched out Scarecrow in the end, but Batman won this fight by tackling the depression and trauma that had followed him ever since childhood.

Scott Snyder managed to reach peak Batman in a way unseen since Grant Morrison, yet in a far more relate-able and gritty way. Issue #7 of Scott Snyder’s Batman run (you really should read the whole thing, but if you only read one arc, make it the Court of Owls arc) saw Batman held captive in a labyrinth by a villainous secret society who was working to tear Gotham City apart from the inside out. Their strategy was to weaken Batman physically and mentally by forcing him to wander their labyrinth and experiencing horrifying visions of his failures and being tortured by their chief assassin, the Talon. They never managed to break Batman, however. Even at his most beaten and weary, he hangs on to the mental control and defiance for which he is known, even pointing out flaws in his enemy’s plans, such as changing the cameras they are using to monitor him.

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Batman taunts his foe, not only anchoring himself in sanity but even goading his unseen enemy into attacking him further and with greater intensity. He does this because he thrives on the path of most resistance; Batman so adamantly refuses to give up that he finds strength in making his struggles harder. And when all seems lost, he finds the strength to fight back both in both body and mind, beating the Talon to a pulp while insulting his methods and adequacy.

 

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The third example may be my favorite. Bruce made many attempts to escape the prison Bane threw him in  by climbing the wall of the pit that was the prison’s sole entrance while wearing a life-saving harness; it kept him from hitting the concrete and stone below, and thus the only risk was failing the jump to the final ledge from which he could reach the exit. There was no fear to overcome, thus the jump simply became a task–a physical obstacle that could be conquered with repeated attempts. It was only after removing the harness and instilling in him the fear of dying–the knowledge that he only had one chance to make it–that gave Bruce the strength to finally make the jump.

Regardless of your opinion of the movie (I feel about it like I feel about Return of the Jedi–sentimentally, it’s my favorite of the trilogy it’s in, but I’m well aware that it’s the least technically sound), you would be hard-pressed to deny the beauty of this scene. Hans Zimmer really doesn’t get enough credit. The simplicity of his compositions bring a sense of raw emotion to every scene, and none more so than here. The crowd chanting, Christian Bale’s very real look of fear and determination, and the pacing all click together to give us a segment that is pretty much perfect in an otherwise flawed movie.

Cinematic beauty aside, this scene is a perfect illustration of tackling fear head on and thriving on it. He accepted the reality that he may die, used the energy and desperation of the moment to give him courage, and ultimately prevailed not because he ran away from fear, but because he tackled it head-on. It’s a moving and cathartic illustration of what so many people, especially the mentally ill, go through every day: having to face down their own obstacles and not finding a way around them. Batman does this and is victorious, thus he inspires us–and nothing makes one a hero, fictional or otherwise, more than the act of inspiration.

I’ve had a rough few weeks. I’m determined to not let my depression and anxiety get the best of me. I’ve been taking my meds, but as anyone who has had a long-term medical condition can attest: the meds just make it easier to manage the symptoms. They’re not a cure, you’re still sick, and sometimes it’s harder to fight the illness than it is to deal with giving into it.

This scene–and the character of Batman as a whole–does inspire me though. It shows me that it’s okay to be afraid, because fear keeps us aware of the dangers around us and prepares us for them. Another expert on fear–the Doctor–probably said it best when he told a scared young boy (who would grow up to be a soldier, no less) that fear was a superpower. So, maybe we’re all wrong when we say that Batman doesn’t have a superpower–he’s one of the few superheroes (at least in the DC universe) that has a reason to be afraid, what with no bulletproof skin or mythic strength and speed to save him, and thus he has the superhuman ability to harness his fear and convert it into action.

Image by Marvelous Murals.

More than anything, though, I’m reminded of Thomas Wayne’s words to a young, scared, and injured Bruce from Batman Begins: “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” It’s okay for me to have bad days or even weeks. It’s okay to not be able to hold off the sadness and confusion from time to time. I’ll make it through, and eventually I may be able to take whatever jump is in front of me, perhaps even without the rope.

Citing Twitter

Last night was the third presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Twitter was afire with commentary from all points on the political spectrum. There was mean-spirited snark, angry outbursts, and coldly logical fact-checking all at once–not unlike the research artifacts from the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Today, we use the political cartoons, newspaper articles, photographs, and propaganda material to study the cultural climate, causes of, and reactions to major political and cultural events. Will we one day use Twitter as well?

I’m attending this year North Carolina School Library Media Association (NCSLMA) conference, and today had the privilege of going to the pre-conference session on primary sources offered by the Library of Conference via their online collection. It was an informative session that gave me a good working definition of primary and secondary sources (one that students who have little or none research experience will understand) and gave me some great ideas for teaching primary sources and how to use them. Anne Marie Walter, the session presenter, really has some brilliant ideas on how to instill in students the research skills they need, and her enthusiasm for using and analyzing primary sources shows.

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Back in 1887, a mustache knew how to be a mustache. From the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection.

I especially enjoyed the first group activity we did. On each table were a stack of pictures. Each person had to choose one picture from the stack, then find those who had pictures of a similar subject matter. Once in groups, everybody discussed their pictures, examining their similarities and differences and the relevance of the visual data in each one. They then presented their material to the whole audience. Walter combined inquiry with primary source analysis with another activity. She gave us each a picture, and gave us a worksheet where we had to record the visual data in the image (observe), make hypotheses on what the picture was showing and interpret the context of each piece of data (respond), then identify what we needed more information, or sought to learn more, about (question). Afterward, we were given bibliographic entries on the pictures so we could compare and contrast our hypotheses with the facts and, hopefully, find answers to our questions (or at least how to get them). It worked equally well as both a solo and group activity.

A lesson plan was writing itself in my head wherein I had students complete the observe/respond/question activity to warm-up for the large group exercise. I can’t wait to put it into practice.

But how long until students analyze social media posts to glean the same information as we did from analyzing visual data? I can easily see students analyzing tweets to determine point-of-view (we did an exercise on point-of-view as well, essentially asking analyzing a political cartoon from multiple points-of-view) and as forms of satire. The downside is that people are startlingly blunt nowadays, so such an exercise will be easy. The upside is that the world is full of witty people who are skilled at tying multiple subjects and commentaries together.

Take this tweet for instance:

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I nearly dropped my phone laughing when I read this.

Think about everything this tweet says. Sure, it’s a scathing cut against Trump, his supporters, and American values. But think about the analytical questions we could dig up about this tweet. Is this person justified in their criticism? Why or why not? Is there any hard data that backs up the widespread lack of common sense and self-preservation cited here? Is this satire?

That’s just one drop in the ocean of social media content there is. When you consider public Facebook posts, Instagram galleries, blogs, Pinterest pins, Tumblrs, YouTube videos, and the endless volumes of comments and forum posts along with countless other content sources available online–and the fact that the majority of these are, by defintion, primary sources–students will have an endless stream of sources to interpret and investigate in new and exciting ways.

I can already hear them weeping and gnashing their teeth over making sense of it all–and wondering just how messed up their grandparents’ generation was.

Destiny, where have you been all this time?

I skipped out on Destiny when its was released for two reasons: Activision didn’t release it for the PC, and I didn’t want to buy an eight-gen console just yet. Sure, I could have played it on my Playstation 3, but I wasn’t optimistic about what the player-base on that platform would look like within a few months of its release. Not to mention that I had nothing but bad luck with Sony’s network: failed and timed-out connections were the norm for me. Granted, I didn’t have the best Internet connection, but Xbox Live was (for the most part) smooth and consistent, so the blame wasn’t entirely on my ISP.

So for two years I read about Destiny and followed its development, watching it improve from the lukewarm reception it received upon launch (which helped my decision to sit it out). Eventually, it seemed to turn in to the game it was promised to be, so when I finally got around to getting an Xbox One, it was one of the first games I picked up.

I’ve never been more excited to be late to a party.

I rolled an Awoken Hunter: an Awoken because he looked cool, a Hunter because it sounded the most shooty of all the classes. When you’re playing a shooter it’s more fun to shoot things than it is to stand there and soak up bullets or hang back and just kinda wave your hands about. Within minutes I was hooked. The controls are some of the tightest I’ve experienced in an FPS for any platform, the level design is custom-built for intense firefights, and the enemies are visually interesting and scary-smart (for the most part; Fallen Dregs are more than a little dumb).

Many players aren’t happy about the lore system in Destiny, with having to look up story entries on Bungie’s website and all, but I actually really like it. Having to read Grimoire cards outside of the game not only encourages me to do so (because who’s interested in story when there are things to shoot) but also keeps me connected to the game even when I’m not playing.  Plus, instead of having to sit through info dump after info dump, I’m trickle-fed hints of story here and there which reveal the mythology of the world little by little. Experiencing the narrative this way leads to some fascinating realizations, such as just how far into the future this game is truly set.

The sum of all this is that the game appears light on narrative, and that’s not an untrue statement when you consider the software doesn’t offer up much narrative content. What keeps me playing, then, is the same need to scratch the same itch in other MMORPGs: getting that sweet, sweet loot, which in this game can be a mixed bag. As with every RPG ever made, I get lots of junk, which I can instantly trash for in-game currency (glimmer). The glimmer you get for trashing gear is slight. While I appreciate that you don’t have to visit a vendor to convert armor and weapons into funds and parts, I’d rather put a legendary pair of boots up for auction and make more than 117 glimmer. It’s just too bad you can’t, because there’s no way to trade items with players and there’s not even an auction house. With this game being in its second year and a sequel on the horizon, I doubt we’ll see player-to-player sales and trading now, but my biggest gripe is actually with how the game treats item drops.

Like most RPGs of its kin, Destiny uses a color-coded rarity system for gear. Unlike similar games, enemies don’t drop gear directly. They drop items called “engrams,” which have to be decoded by a vendor before you receive a piece of gear. The color of the engram represents the maximum rarity level you might achieve, and its entirely possible you’ll only get crafting materials. While I’ve gotten, more or less, items that are of the same rarity as their decoded engram, I’ve also picked up an engram for legendary chest armor and gotten currency. A fair chunk of it, mind you, but not the high-level armor I was hoping for. The fact that you can gain reputation with numerous NPC factions and then gain access to higher-level gear through their representatives helps, but such gear can’t be bought with glimmer; it has to be purchased with “legendary marks,” which are far more rare without participating in high-level challenges, and advancing your reputation is an arduous process.

It took them the better part of two years, but I can fairly say that Bungie has streamlined the progression system sufficient that I don’t have to get into it in too much depth. It’s enough to know that your character level dictates what gear you can use, and your gear determines your “light level” which determines how capable your character is at conquering certain challenges. Of course, this being a shooter, it all comes down to player skill in the end.

I bought this game initially just to play with a friend, but I’ve invested many hours into it just on my own. It’s fun, has just the right amount of story delivered in just the right way as to not distract you from the game play,  and aside from one maddening design flaw is fairly close to presenting an ideal set of mechanics for an action-RPG game. It’s well worth getting into, even this late in its life cycle. Two character level boosts (one for max level and one for just over halfway there) certainly helps if you have friends you’d like to play with. It’s too bad you only have three character slots, but your character’s abilities are largely modular, being determined by their gear for the most part, so it’s possible to have several types for each class. You might as well roll one of each.

You can pick up the entire Destiny collection for the price of one new game right now. It will be $60 well spent.