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.

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.

 

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.