Moving Forward

(or, Concerning the Worries of a Budding Novelist)

I’m not going to lie to you – this article is about to drop some truth on you.  Heavy truth, the kind that comes out when you’re philosophizing with your best friend at 3:00 am after a night of heavy drinking.  Hopefully, that means it will be a therapeutic, inspirational kind of truth as well, not kind that will result in us going comatose and waking up the next morning with regrets.  It concerns moving forward in pursuit of a dream.

Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Winner-Campfire-Circle-BadgeCamp NaNoWriMo has finally come to a close, and it is with great pride that I announce I have reached my word count goal!  Well, my adjusted word count goal of 25,000 words, anyway.  I admit this is far from my original goal of 50,000, but 25,000 words is still nothing to sneeze at (unless, of course, you’re allergic to this much raw, unbridled progress!).  I am making significant headway with my novel, and for the first time in my life, I feel like I might actually finish a book.  Maybe I have what it takes; maybe I can succeed at a life goal I’ve had since I was a child.  I’ve written so much and I’ve learned even more, maybe these dreams are possible.  Maybe I can throw everything I have – all my focus, my energy, my extra time – into becoming a writer rather than just one who occasionally writes.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

You see, I felt this way once before, years ago when I had dreams of being a video game designer.  I did my research, I enrolled in classes, I made plans and worked what jobs I could to get by, and I worked harder than I’d have thought possible trying to make that dream a reality, barreling forward with what felt like supreme clarity.  Then, I got tripped up.  A financial screw-up left me with an extra heap of student loans but no qualifications to show for them, and my situation was worse than when I started – certainly no closer to my goal.  I had to surrender then or dig myself into a deeper hole without even the slightest promise of being able to climb out again at the end.

The experience of hitting that colossal roadblock still haunts me today, and it makes it difficult for me to readily commit to another leap.  This time, I don’t need an extra degree, I don’t necessarily need documents saying I’m qualified to do what I do, and I don’t really need to make a monetary investment in order to proceed.  But I do need focus.  I’ll need to set the things I dabble in aside while I dive deep into this one pursuit.  I’ll need to see that my paying work doesn’t interfere with my writing and vice versa.  I’ll need to write even when I don’t want to, and I’ll need to risk making myself hate the thing I love.  I’ll need to face rejection and failure as well as the possibility, years down the road, that I’ll look back and see all of this as wasted time that I could have spent trying to get a fancy job that would let me get a fancy apartment of my own.

I could just continue as I have been.  I love writing; I could easily keep it up as a hobby.  This book has been on my mind for the better part of three years now, and if I’m lucky and still quite diligent, I could finish the first draft within the year.  But then, for the second draft, how long would that take using just free moments here and there?  How many edits will I go through?  How long will I search for a publisher?  When will I start the next book I want to write?  What happens if I meet someone in the meantime, suddenly taking up rock climbing in a blind fit of infatuation?  What happens if there’s an alien invasion?  Will I wake up one morning, grey-haired and tired in the service of our alien overlords, still wondering if I’ll get published someday?

That may be a bit over-dramatic, but it illustrates my concern.  I know from experience that when I hedge my bets, I stay safe, but I go nowhere.  I keep doing art, writing, random job searching, and intermittent studies, always in spurts, never committing myself in full to any one pursuit lest I miss an opportunity provided by another.  However, by doing this, I fail to improve any one skill to the point where I become extraordinary.  I know I’m capable of charging ahead toward a single goal like an unstoppable force, but I don’t have enough faith in myself to know that the goal I choose is the right one – the one that can make me happy and keep me out of the poor house, more or less.  Maybe that’s the main thing that needs to change.

I will see this story finished, one way or another.  Whether or not it will meet the world at large one day is yet to be seen, but I hope it will.  Maybe it’s time for me to just give in to that tricky little can-do feeling and shut out the naysayer within.  My instincts were wrong once, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?  Besides, if you don’t try, if you don’t give it your all, then you can’t rightly weave a touching cautionary tale from your failure, can you?  If all I’m destined to be is the master of feeling sorry for myself, I might as well earn those laments!

Every celebrated author was once a struggling, aspiring author.  They were all the way up until the day they were not.  Some may have suffered less than others, some may have had extraordinary luck, some may have been identified as geniuses early on, and some may have gotten more recognition than their mediocre writing deserved, but there was a time for each when success was uncertain.  For whatever reason, they plugged on – maybe in wild, inspired bursts, maybe in a long, drudging crawl.  And then, one day, it all became worthwhile.  I don’t think I have it in me to fail utterly, completely, and permanently, not yet.  So, by my humble reckoning, it seems the only option left is to one day succeed.

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In Defense of Girl Gamers

(or, Why Aisha Tyler May Be My Newest Hero)

I admit, I wasn’t always a gamer.  As a very young child with an all-pink bedroom and more stuffed unicorns than any sane person could imagine, I was told by society that video games were for boys.  Yet whenever I was visiting friends or cousins and the boys broke away to play their games, I always wanted to watch, even if it meant bailing on the dress-up sessions and playing house, earning me the momentary scorn of my female companions.  But I was a girl; the boys usually wouldn’t let me play, and no one got game systems for me for Christmases and birthdays.  Luckily, my sister went through a full-on tomboy stage during the SNES era, and through her constant begging, pleading, and demanding, we finally ended up with a system of our own.  That was when the obsession took hold in earnest.

I loved to play video games, and I was very good at many of them.  Unfortunately, I had almost no friends who played at the time and my sister’s interest wasn’t as ravenous as my own, so I had very little guidance in finding and playing the gems of that era.  It wasn’t until high school, when my circles of friends expanded and I started doing more research on my own, that I really became game savvy.  Though it affected how “current” my gaming experiences were by starting a trend of going back to play old games I’d missed at the time of their release, I was never entirely out of the loop.  By my senior year, I was even employed at a video game retailer, surrounded by games and news and experienced players and soaking up all the delicious video game exposure I could.

For the most part, my being female elicited positive or neutral reactions from people who learned I was a gamer.  My guy friends thought it was cool, some of my female friends were able to share their own closeted love of video games, and guys who saw me working at the game store would react with anything from indifference to ecstatic surprise.  There were a few detractors here and there, as I mentioned in my last article, but for the most part I felt like my supposedly rare identity as a girl gamer was considered a good thing.  Rather than being ostracized by other girls for liking non-girly things, as I moved from high school through college, I found myself surrounded by people who embraced my geekdom and thought positively about me because of it.  It felt wonderful.

Of course, there have always been people who rag on geeks in general; male or female, gamer or bookworm, sci-fi geek or fantasy buff.  That strange desire of human beings to tease and ostracize people with different looks, beliefs, interests, and so forth always crops up in one form or another.  In the eyes of a self-defined “normal,” there’s often no difference between a gamer who plays passionately as a part of their normal life and a hikikomori who locks themselves away with their games, replacing all normal social interaction with their fantasy worlds.  Gamers have to fight hard against the stigma that society has built up against them even as games have become more and more mainstream.

That is something I can accept, even if it is senseless and degrading.  The thing I have a harder time accepting is something I’ve only noticed in the last several years: the “hardcore” geeks and gamers turning against the rest.  I was guilty of this myself once, harboring resentment toward “casual” gamers for causing the proliferation of simple, gimmick-based games while grander projects and RPG opuses seemed to be languishing.  However, I soon learned that my reasons for disliking them were foolish.  A casual gamer could easily be introduced in stronger titles over time.  Little browser games and mobile apps can be like gateway drugs to more serious games, assuming we take all the negative connotations of that analogy and completely disregard them for the sake of me making a positive point.  As such, since I love games and want to share that love, there should be no reason why I would want to discourage or detest the playing of casual games just because they’re not to my taste.  If it shows someone, particularly someone who thinks negatively of video games in general, that games can be fun, where’s the harm in that?  Besides, with the money that some casual games make, their developers can afford to take on bigger projects and produce new, exciting, and more in-depth gaming experiences rather than Farmville and Bejeweled clones.

Unfortunately, some people aren’t learning similar lessons.  As geekdom and gaming have become more mainstream, there has been a lot of pushback from people who “were gamers before it was cool” or some such nonsense.  I see a constant struggle to establish “nerd cred” that not only alienates people with new-found or casual interest, but also reflects even more negatively on the people whose nerd cred is established, given the persisting stigma.  A strange cycle emerged where game publishers and similar organizations hire beautiful women to talk about and advertise their media in order to target a male audience, but in turn, real women and girls who love games, comics, and so on get labeled as fake and brushed aside.  Yes, there are some few women out there who capitalize on the trendiness of geekdom, but they do it for their jobs, to make money.  What reason does a girl have to claim she loves video games in her everyday existence except if she genuinely loves games?  Now, I love my gamer guys, but I can say from experience that those who tout their nerd cred as a sign of their soaring superiority are likely not as great a catch as they think they are.  A self-respecting girl or woman is not going to fake her interests just to get with them, and if she does, they should be respectful of the fact that she likes them so much that she wants to, heavens forbid, learn to share their interests.

It’s insulting and perplexing to me how this bias has developed.  How female gamers are subjected to derision and rage by their male peers rather than being accepted and loved for what they are.  It saddens me too, because even in a case where someone may not be as into or knowledgeable about something as you, there is so much potential for good times and bonding as you teach each other, good times you’ll never have if you just accuse the girl of being fake and move on to bask alone in your self-glory.

This is where Aisha Tyler comes in.  If you don’t know who she is, she’s a comedian, a gamer, a feminist, and an all-around awesome lady.  Last year, she was a host at E3, and for some strange reason, that earned her a lot of ridiculous hate.  Her response to this hatred, however, was brilliant.  This excerpt shows her point beautifully:

“I go to E3 each year because I love video games.
Because new titles still get me high.
Because I still love getting swag.
Love wearing my gamer pride on my sleeve.
People ask me what console I play.
Motherfucker, ALL of them.

I get invited to E3 because real gamers know I’m a gamer.
I don’t do it for the money.
I have plenty of money.
I don’t do it for the fame.
Fuck fame.
I do it because I love video games.

[…]
I don’t give a shit what you think about my gamerscore.
I don’t play to prove a point.
I don’t play to be the best.
I play because I love it.”

It all comes back to love, and we need more of it, both in the gaming community and the geekosphere as a whole.  We label ourselves as gamers because we love games, not because we crave status (at least, that’s true for most of us).  We are girl gamers, and we are here to stay, because we love games.

For one last affirmation of why Ms. Tyler is awesome, read this interview here where she discusses the post-E3 incident and sexual harassment in gaming.

Girls, keep gaming!  Keep talking about games, keep trying to get jobs making games, and keep trying to make games better!  I think it won’t be too long before we have brilliant female game developers standing alongside their male peers and making games so spectacular we could hardly imagine them now.  And remember when some  insecure hater out there tries to belittle or objectify you, you need only be true to yourself, nerd cred is meaningless, they are totally and unjustifiably in the wrong, and their judgments do not matter.  Stay strong, and do what you love.

A Matter of Perspective

(or, When Did Game Publishers Forget That Women Are People Too?)

I’ll start off by admitting that I have a massive backlog of articles and videos in my browser tabs and bookmarks that make great, salient points about sexism and video games.  I’ll probably write about or link to many of them, old and new, over time, because this is something that matters to me very much.  Today, I want to talk about this:

 

Long ago, I worked my very first job as a sales associate at an EB Games.  One day, a guy came in looking for recommendations.  He didn’t seem entirely pleased that I was the only one available to help him, but he asked anyway.  At that time, I had just finished playing Beyond Good & Evil: to this day one of my favorite games and one for which I am still waiting on a long-promised sequel.  I began describing the game as I went to find its case on the shelves, saying, “You play as a photographer who is helping to uncover a military conspiracy.  A large part of the gameplay is stealth-based, but there is combat and strategy and even racing as well.”  However, by this time I had reached the case and handed it to the young man.  He immediately interrupted with, “Whoa, wait … is this a girl game?”

I wanted to say, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” but I was a consummate professional, so instead I replied with, “The main character is female, if that’s what you’re asking.  Other than that, there’s nothing inherently girly about it.”  He just said, “Never mind,” and wandered off without so much as a “Thanks for your time.”  As I’m sure you’ve gathered, it was memorably irksome.

I knew that there has always been a degree of resistance against featuring strong, complex, fully-developed and humanized female characters in games, but the statements highlighted in this video show a degree of misogynistic immaturity that I find deeply disturbing.  This isn’t to say the sentiment is universal by any means.  There are a lot of good people out there making and talking about games, promoting women’s equality both as gamers and as game characters.  Unfortunately, many of the clueless folks seem to have meandered their way up to the top rungs of the corporate ladders, controlling the publishing titans that determine whether or not many games ever see the light of day.  That is not ok.  When the most powerful voices in game publishing are motivated by money, and they believe that money comes in the form of testosterone-laden protagonists and women as sex objects, there’s a problem.

As a lady gamer, I’m completely accustomed to playing through male avatars in my games.  With precious few admirable female protagonists taking lead roles (Jade from Beyond Good & Evil being one of them) and only slightly more games giving you the option of making your character female if you really really have to (Skyrim included, as my deft Bosmeri archer lass can attest to), sometimes there’s not really much choice.  Playing as a male character who interacts with female love interests has never made me uncomfortable or insecure, either, unless she’s being thrown at me like a hunk of meat.  In fact, if that female is also a strong, developed, or otherwise likable character, I can appreciate why the male character might be drawn to her, and I want to see them happily together.  I don’t understand why it would be the expectation that a reasonable male with even the slightest bit of maturity could get freaked out by playing as a female who likes men.  How do the game publishers so grossly underestimate the cognitive and emotional capacities of their audience?

Yes, there are bad examples out there, as there are in any sub-group of humanity.  But I know a lot of men who are able to appreciate a character and a story as just that without feeling the need to be pandered to with manly avatars and fan service.  To say that making a man play as a female character would make him feel “weird” is to imply that he has such a fragile ego stretching thin over his vast chasm of personal insecurities that to call his masculinity into question in any way could cause him to implode into an inconsolable fit of identity crisis, and more often than not, this is not the case.  The injustice and insult being committed here is not just to women, but to men as well.  No one comes out of this situation looking good.

The good news is that things are always slowly getting better, one baby step at a time (even when some jerk comes along to bring us two steps back).  More women are playing, talking about, and working to develop games than in the past, and more people love and care about games enough to push them to be better than they were.  Sexism in games will probably never go away entirely, but one day it could be the exception rather than the norm.  While playing Skyrim as a female, I encountered a woman in Whiterun who told me, “It’s not easy being a woman in Skyrim, I know. But stay strong, men will come to respect you, and maybe even fear you.”  It’s a little thing, that inconsequential line of dialogue, but it keeps me hopeful.  We will stay strong, and we will be respected, and that will show in the medium we love.

On Love

(or, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?  No, for I Spent It Indoors Playing Video Games.)

It’s no secret that I enjoy my video games.  But for me, many games inspire something greater than enjoyment.  They inspire love.  Not a creepy kind of love, but the kind that is moved by beauty and virtues to admire from afar, like some sort of gaming Don Quixote.  There is something very special about the artistry and storytelling of games, and when done well, it’s completely moving!

I recently started playing Skyrim.  Yes, I know, that came out a while ago.  I’m almost constantly broke, so I almost never get a game when it comes out.  Needless to say, by the time I got my hands on this title and started playing it, people seemed to have formulated all the opinions they were going to form about it and slathered them all over the internet.  I came to expect something vast and epic, though perhaps lacking some emotional depth.  After a slow start and some fumbling with the controls (first-person can be my utter nemesis), I was on my way.  That first majestic vista you encounter after leaving the caves; that breathtaking view I’d heard so much about?  It didn’t do much for me, and at that point, I began to wonder if this game was simply overhyped to the point where I could never fully enjoy it.  I spent a couple game days running around on beginner errands, for some reason perpetually drowning in fog and rain, and I was almost ready to call it quits.  Then suddenly, one evening as I was walking into town, the sun set, the moons rose, the sky cleared until it was scintillatingly sharp and bright, and a magnificent aurora borealis struck out across the sky.  The scene took my breath away, and I just stood there for a moment, looking up.  It happened so suddenly and without warning, and somehow it conveyed to me all the depth and vastness of this world I was about to explore.  That was the moment I fell in love.

oooh … pretty …

It got me thinking about what moments like that made me fall in love with other games.  Was it the first time I stood before the Great Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time?  In Bastion, was it the first time I touched the ashen figure of an old friend and watched him crumble to dust?  Did Final Fantasy VII have me by the opening cutscene?  It was this and more, absolutely, but there is always that first moment.  Something beautiful or tragic or humbling takes you, and you lose yourself in the moment.  Maybe it’s something you want to explore, or something you want to protect.  Maybe it’s something you want to avenge.  Or, maybe it’s something you just want to sit and absorb into the recesses of your memory.  Whatever the scenario, games present it to you like no other media can, and that is why I love them.