Reflections on Graduate Life

When I applied for graduate school in the now Digital Media field, I had done so on the basis that I’d read some James Gee and liked it and that videogames might actually be a source of good in the world. At the time, I was hopping around minimum wage jobs that held no great future for me, nor did I desire one from them. I had no inkling of what I was getting myself into otherwise, really. My parents didn’t go to graduate school (hell, not even undergraduate school). My friends didn’t go to graduate school. Implicitly, I figured (see what I did there?) that I would be able to survive graduate school as I did undergraduate, which is to say that I would read and write when prompted and fulfill criteria until someone would give me another degree. Yes, as an undergrad I read and wrote with aplomb and sought out whatever knowledge I could that would help me in my future, but it didn’t prepare me very well at all, not even for graduate school.

The reason is that graduate school really isn’t much like undergrad at all. Even in my philosophy courses, most of the exams were about reproducing knowledge that was laid out for you. Here, you have to actually understand styles of writing and develop theories and apply them practically—you know, the stuff that we’re supposed to know according to our bachelor’s degree. Before, I could manage getting by without getting to know my professors. Now, professors are both fonts of information and good advice, they are allies in trying to come to understand the how and why of the world, and they are relationships that you need to maintain in order to get along and get out in the world. Most everything done is to build a curriculum vitae, which usurps a résumé in breath and depth. A grad student’s position is at some points authoritative and at others submissive: to people, to ideas, to systems. I don’t want to say I learned all this the hard way, but I learned all this in the thick of it.

I mentioned last week that I have an agenda. Well, when I think about it, I have a lot of agendas. In Making Modern Lives, McLeod and Yates summarize their points in part that schools have values, take positions, and these can play out tumultuously in the lives of the students. They echo Gee when they mention that students embody portfolios rather than degrees. Now when I read this “shape-shifting portfolio person” idea before returning to the university, I liked the idea and thought it to be true, but I had no idea what it was to embody this. I’m impressed that the students in Making Modern Lives were able to adapt as they did in part because of the way a school positioned the students in the (problematically named) “New World”. I’m in part impressed because I’ve just hit 26 years and feel like this portfolio person is a novel idea.

My agenda is in part to expose and resolve problems in the design of curriculum and instruction, but these problems don’t just affect the unfortunate marginalized other. I came to the university because it holds the promise of a better future writ large, but this better future didn’t come until I better understood the world and my position in it. I’m a white straight dude who went to a great university and really tried to engage in my courses and learn valuable things and still I fell on my face. As McLeod and Yates state, “debates about schooling and research on schooling take place as if schooling is basically a technical and managerial operation, as if young people are not complex subjects, but bundles of effects whose causes can be experimentally determined.” We place our trust in education to result in valuable, creative people. The technical and managerial approach hurts everybody, including the relatively privileged. If I can, I want to change this, fix it so schools and universities do the job we expect and need them to do. Of course, however we go about this is an entirely different agenda. But capable people lost and wanting because they haven’t been told how the world works is unacceptable.

Reflections on Teaching

After tutoring a Wright Middle School, I was at least familiar with the idea of a school ethos. I believe theirs at that time emphasized “respect”. There were certain ways that Wright tried to impose (for lack of a better word) ethos: banners strewn across hallways with “RESPECT” all across, the distinct lack of hall passes that were a staple of my middle school, the allowance of free time for the students to utilize constructively as they saw fit. But it wasn’t until I started to teach to come to understand how an ethos can really be hammered home.

You see, our course spends a lot of time focused on the ideas of James Gee. We begin, sure, with his “learning principles” and comparison between educational and videogame design. But these ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. There is nigh-moral imperative—if schools don’t use these instructional and assessment elements, we’ll be leaving good, fun learning up to the militaristic neo-liberals! There is discourse of course—most schooling today reifies the values and ways of being of the white middle-class. There is elements of this “New World” as McLeod & Yates put it—the argument that one can no longer trust the degree or the university to do the cultural capital thing and magically poof a bachelor’s degree holder with a middle-class wage; one needs to now be this “shape-shifting portfolio person”.

This stuff is controversial to most, but to Gee it’s obvious. As an instructor, I struggled at first to do justice to the theories of the man and the subjectivities of the people in my discussions. I remember my first semester having impromptu debates with my students about market forces and the whole “rising tide makes all boats float” idea. I felt (feel) Gee is right but also was certain that stipulating this as plainly as Gee does wasn’t the right way to go during something that’s called a discussion.

So, accidentally, I tried to develop an ethos. I would expose my students to videogames that were far away from the normal shooters and jumper one thinks of when they think videogames—stuff that interrogates capitalist-created inequalities, autobiographical videogames about hormonal treatments, videogames that challenge you to live on minimum wage. I would give mini-lectures on the history of American schooling and about who has and who doesn’t. You know, all the stuff that student teachers tend to miss out on, all the stuff that implicitly benefits many of the students at this campus, but we never talk about because we never think about it.

These choices that an instructor makes in how they do what they do has a huge effect. I can happily say that students this semester were recommended to take my sections in particular, because previous students found it interesting and enlightening. What a feeling. And now McLeod & Yates state that the ethos of a school is a potentially big factor in learner’s subjectivities.

It feels a little dirty to shape students knowingly, to try to develop in students the foundational core of of Curriculum & Instruction, through pedagogical manipulation no less! To convince student to strive for shape-shifting social justice selves. Thinking about it now, I don’t feel like I’m respecting them and where these student come from. I’m not sure if I care. I have an agenda.

Maybe This Is It

Videogames meant a lot to me growing up. I remember lying in my bed refusing sleep to imagine myself as the proud owner of my very own monster, as the hero Maxim does in the videogame Lufia II. I picked the flute to play in the marching band because that’s what the hero Link does in the Legend of Zelda series of games. I read books on the Battle of the Bulge in order to better understand how to play my favorite shooter game Battlefield 1942. For much of my experience with videogame, they were a call to action; as Caughey is quoted to say in Holland et al. (2001, p. 49), these games “inspire(d) new actions,” actions that I may not (who knows?) have otherwise thought possible.

Caughey, to be fair, is talking about imaginary worlds, not fictional videogame worlds. I don’t really see the difference. What is Mordor, Hyrule, or a “Galaxy Far, Far Away” if not an imaginary world? They may be more tangible than the worlds of Vygotsky’s children at play, but these examples too once just a flicker in the creator’s mind.

When I applied for Digital Media, it was with the conviction that these worlds can be harnessed for educational purposes. Initially, I thought of “what ifs” like, “what if we developed a game world that situates the player as someone from another real-world culture?” Now, well, I still believe this is true, but this is the small stuff. Why not a videogame that puts players through “philosophical labor” as Graham Harman suggests? Why not a videogame as empathetic autobiography, as the game Dys4ia might be? Such games aren’t educational, or just educational, but productive, liberating, emotive.

When we play a videogame, “(p)ersons look at the world from the positions into which they are persistently cast” (Holland et al., 2001, p. 44). Moreover, I say that the actions people take and the experience people have in videogames “become available as mediators to change oneself and others, and perhaps even the figured worlds in which one acts” (p. 46).

Videogames, not specific ones but the medium itself, mean a lot for me still. I lie awake at night just thinking about how to discuss the medium and its’ potential in a way that academia accepts. I clatter upon a keyboard because my words have the chance of being the stuff that I can trade for (moderate) wealth and (social) power. I read abstracts, articles, and books in order to better understand how people understand, understand the world, understand others, and understand themselves. Games continue to inspire new actions from me.

These figured worlds, the ones that Holland et al. describe, they might be the linchpin to my validating my gut feeling in the academic world. I’m excited. Also, nervous. But excited!

Late Modernity & the University System

This comes then as a little bit out of context, but thoughts about the university’s role in facilitating healthy self-images came up while reading Côté & Levine’s Identity Formation, Agency, and Culture: A Social Psychological Synthesis. It’s not fully explained or referenced as is the nature of thought papers, but I feel it’s worth putting up somewhere.


As we’ve really only just begun discussing late modernity and identity in this course, I can’t conclude whether I buy into the idea (which I think is very late modern of me, ugh), but it feels like solid theoretical ground for my frustrations with the current state of an undergraduate bachelor’s degree at this university, more so when coupled with Erikson’s ego identity (here just identity). Having taught an education course for undergraduates for almost two years now, I’ve become intimately acquainted with the ideas of James Paul Gee, Ken Robinson, and others. I’m now realizing that Gee’s idea of the “shapeshifting portfolio” is highly correlated with the late modern idea that social and personal identities are managed and image-oriented, respectively (Côté & Levine p. 124). To this end, the current baseline university experience is designed to uphold the early modern idea of the “accomplished individual” which is no longer useful for healthy identity construction. Perhaps the university believes that coursework and classroom interactions suffice to provide young learners enough experiences to develop a proper identity, but when it’s oriented towards the degree (an accomplishment) rather than one piece of a “managed” portfolio, an inadequate structural worldview is thrust upon the student. A bachelor’s degree only indicates that a person has had a chance to become a contemporary, experienced individual. It is my experience that most alumni find a shrug waiting for them if they make an appeal of adequacy based their degree. The late modern question is “what are you working towards now?”

This factor combines with the outmoded cultural idea of a career as a job, which results in an identity fracture that’s not easy to overcome. For example, post-graduation I was able to claim that had a degree with distinction from a fine university, but I was unable to spin it into any good job prospects. My actions were oriented as a self based upon my accomplishments when it needed to be positioned as an aspiring, capable, flexible (read: shapeshifting) self. In effect, the idea that I was “looking for a job” hindered my ability to get one, as a job in this era is but a part of one’s career. A career is now your life project which is part of your image which you manage and put on display. Even if this is granted, who explains this to you at any point of an undergraduate tenure?

Moreover, this capable self is first a tool of influence on others who need convincing of one’s capabilities, but successfully pulling this off is an extension of one’s agency, which is required for establishing a healthy identity. Mind you I’m mostly okay on this front; I got a lucky break to come to graduate school where I could learn and teach about such issues. Now my students on the other hand, by the time most students enroll in my course, their time at the university is almost up. They need to find new social and cultural resources to help them manage their self. As my students and I move through such issues in our discussions, there’s always a few who have a flush realization that there’s more that needs to be done for their future success and identity health, but they just don’t have any more resources.

The university is place well suited to be a moratorium for the self but is not is not well structured to be that safe place. The wide diversity of opinions, clubs, organizations, as well as the relative safety of campus life, all of this lend to exploring experiences that may become part of a coherent self, but these are optional and implicitly devalued by the tremendous course load that is imposed upon undergraduates via their majors. Sure, one might think that sustainable urban agriculture might be really cool, but participating in the practice is a time commitment that saps often necessary study time for the six classes that s/he’s enrolled in. I can’t mean this more; coursework is demanding on the body (via stress), but rarely constitutes the rigorous identity work that young people need. If the university is to do right by its patrons, the demands on student time and money (another issue needing of more space than I can afford it now) needs to avail itself towards self-discovery and orient coursework towards a late modern management of self.

Wild ARMS Finale

Months ago I started playing Wild ARMS curious how the videogame has managed to build the respect of one of my favorite YouTubers. I have defeated the last of the storyline bosses and watched the final cutscenes, so I’d like to spill some more thoughts on the game, the first in series that’s but a minor player in JRPG history. These thoughts do consider Wild ARMS in their place in videogame history, yet I’m not judging this game as if I were playing it when it came out, but rather what it is like to play it now. Ultimately, seeing Wild ARMS through wasn’t about the design or the themes, but what it means for me to play a videogame just because.


I’d heard the music and felt I had to try the game out. I hadn’t grown up with a PlayStation and I was sure I had missed a lot of gems, this perhaps being one of them. Poking around forum showed that fans compared the Wild ARMS series to the Lufia series, which is among my personal favorites. The start of Wild ARMS was promising, with a cast of characters that exhibited signs of forethought. Each of the three main characters is revealed through a personal vignette defines the game as character-based as opposed to gameplay-based or otherwise. Each had personality quirks that endeared me to them and piqued my interest further. I was excited for what lay ahead.

Now, after spending thirty plus hours with Wild ARMS, I understand why these moves were made—the gameplay isn’t complex nor engaging. The thing about a character-based game is that those characters need to be gripping through their complexity and growth, but Cecilia, Jack, and (holy shit) Rudy are hollow and their motives are otherwise unclear. Shit, unclear isn’t the half of it when it comes to the game’s themes, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Yet I’ll say this: for as bad as it was, I played Wild ARMS through and enjoyed it. I’m trying to figure out what drove me.

I didn’t push through because of Lufia. For as intimate a knowledge as I have of Lufia, Lufia this game ain’t. Lufia II was a special game due to the quality translation of a decent story and the complex puzzles that barred access to dungeon bosses. Wild ARMS features neither of these. The translators knew the key to the game was to inject personality into the characters and at various times their efforts show this. Cecilia loves hamburgers, while Jack tends to be cocksure and act before he thinks. Still, these characters don’t have the same impact that you’d suspect as what’s established in the beginning isn’t threaded through the entire game. The character’s flaws are apparent at the beginning but only resolved thirty hours later with loose nods towards minute character growth throughout. For example, Cecilia frets that her royal position makes her a both unapproachable and utterly responsible for the lives of the world—she is Atlas holding up the world. As the game progresses, she continues to feel pained by the burden that she believes that is hers alone. Only in the final couple cutscenes does she relinquish this self-imposed weight when it is clear that she’s not alone in the fight. Christ’s sake, there are two people next to you in every damn fight that are slaying for the sake of peace! Over the course of thirty hours, these traits should have long since been honed and new personal dilemmas developed, but the pacing of the game crawls.

WARudy

Rudy is a turd.

Moreover, there’s many times where the attempt at a quirky tone falls flat. Motivations for individual comments are often left to “I didn’t understand what to do, so I just worked hard!” which may be a character trope in popular anime and manga in Japan, but comes across as silly or stupid to an American reader. The mouse Hanpan is totally underused as a comedic foil for the bumbling Jack and Calamity Jane’s bombast contrasted with Rudy’s muteness only shines a putrid light on the silent protagonist staple. Reading up on the efforts that modern publishers (Nintendo, Xseed, Atlus) take in order to make videogames appeal to an American audience suggests that Sony either didn’t have the money or the time to provide for a quality Wild ARMS translation. This, to be clear, is not judging the past by the present; Natsume did an incredible job with Lufia II and Working Designs was killing is with Alundra and (from what I’m told) the Lunar series. While JRPGs have their wealth of blah-dy blah “spoony bard” bits, Wild ARMS came out in 1997, the same year as Final Fantasy VII. So-so characters with little development over the course of the game spouting stilted dialog as they conquer foes with unclear motives shouldn’t have hacked it then and doesn’t stand up well today. The poor translation is a bitter, bitter pill to swallow.

The puzzles of Wild ARMS also pale next to its contemporaries. Much of the latter challenge in the game comes from simply navigating the confusing dungeon layouts, as paths cross to and fro with little to differentiate them. The characters are given multiple tools but often only used in very specific circumstances, such as the water jug to put out very obvious in-the-way fires. I wouldn’t say the game has more than a handful of events that actually call you to use your noggin, which is a damn shame given the toolset that is available. How about use the water jug to fill containers that need to weigh different amounts? What if you needed to run water down select tributaries? Maybe you might throw some water on the face of a passed out prisoner? Anything other than just put out small fires. That’s just one item. The game manages the staples of battles in JRPGs, but even that isn’t done well. Every one of them is “find the weakness, heal the damage.” Each character has one action unique to them, only one or two honestly useful spells. The only thing that is remotely clever is how devastating the “sleep” affliction is in Wild ARMS, but once you’ve got that figured out, there’s not much left. No hidden conceits beyond “sleep.” Simply spam high attack power non-elemental spells and never looking back. Nothing about the game is engaging, which is a plus for many action games—I often play Super Mario when I just want to tune out for a while. I don’t think I’m alone though, that a JRPG should engage me. That’s why people are in love with the Job system in JRPGs. That’s why people are digging Bravely Default. The battles are a big part of what makes the Mario & Luigi videogames so fun. The systems in Wild ARMS are so damn boring.

But I played it through. I’m thinking back and there are so many good videogames I’ve left half played. What is it that drove me through it? Part of my initial curiosity with Wild ARMS was with the “environmentalist themes” that are claimed on the series’ Wikipedia page. How does Wild ARMS show the theme? Is it like Final Fantasy VII, with a mega-corporation that sucking the planet dry of life? No, because metal demons really want to watch the world burn. What a joke. The ecological framework of the story is scant. Sure, the world has a lot of desert and the world of the Elw is more lush than the human world of Filgaia, but the people are never made to seem lacking for it. Nary an important character claims that they have to go hungry with a root cause of non-arable land. The state of the world has been desert-y since the last struggle of good and evil caused a cataclysm a thousand-some years prior and the reason the planet hasn’t been restored is because the humans of Filgaia just don’t have enough hope? Hope? That’s it? Not hard work? Not clean energy sources? Not window fucking farms? Just hope? Well shit, I’ve learned so much. I don’t want to blame a JRPG from 1997 for lacking conviction, but it’s contemporaries do demon tales better and ecological broadcasts way better. Wild ARMS tries to be both quintessential in play design and modern in thematics and fails at both.

I don’t hate Wild ARMS though. I think I even like it, though I wouldn’t recommend it to a friend. Hell, I’m currently playing Wild ARMS 2. So here’s my best stab, though it’s a digression and deserves a greater focus, perhaps in a future piece. I used to really like some of the RPG writers for Joystiq and Kotaku. They would write about their favorite games and what made them great, which I could often relate to even if it wasn’t a videogame I had previously played. But now so many internet folks talk about the problems with modern games, with remakes of their favorites, and with deviance from the classics of the genre. I’m not so sure that changing the sprites for the mobile remake of Final Fantasy VI is the worst thing ever. If I want to relieve the exact same experiences, well, the closest thing I’ve got is amply available. I could play my old copies of the game. I could emulate it on my phone. If a company wants to change things up, that’s on them to decide and me to choose whether that’s worth my cash and time presently.

chronocamp

It won’t be the same if you go back, but you’ll always have those memories.

I can’t buy that experience that I had when I was a child. The time when I could spend an entire month playing a videogame, devoting myself sleeplessly, feverishly to it is not something that I can manage as a working adult. I’ve got papers to grade and write, friends to hang with, relationships to keep. Videogames are now something I’m driving towards as a profession and that relationship requires something different than the adoration that I felt for it as a kid.

Maybe though, maybe I can approximate it. If I don’t retread the same videogame grounds again, but keep the spirit of the game there, I can find some of that joy that brought me to love the videogame medium so damn much. I look at Wild ARMS and all I see are flaws, but I like it. The terrible characters, miserable translation, boring gameplay, and poor integration of theme don’t matter to me if I can capture a little bit of that magic. Playing through it took months due to a life where you scrape for minute with a videogame, but those minutes were hunkered before a CRT TV with the mindspace devoted to the videogame and only that. It was good, old fun. The fun I had as a child, not filtered through rose-color as it might be with nostalgic games like Lufia or Final Fantasy. Not diminished by the designer’s lense I’m honing in my graduate studies. Not expecting this game to be exactly as I remember it, because I don’t. I could just play a game and experience it in the moment I played. Despite the flaws, the experience was good. Goo-oo-ood.

I hope Wild ARMS 2 treats me so well. I feel though that, even if it’s as flawed as the first one (which it seems like it will be, ugh), I’m gonna enjoy it. It’s no Lufia, but it’s a gem. A bright glowing, busy adult gem.

Wild Arms: Initial Thoughts

A long, long while ago, while going through SupraDarky’s excellent vidcon music playlists, through which I’ve learned about many a game, I first learned about the underdog RPG series Wild Arms. Looking into it, I was intrigued by the series’ supposed environmentalist theme, as most fantasy games hardly mess with any themes outside of good versus evil. With this in mind, I picked up the first two games in the series to see these themes in action for myself. What follows are some first impressions after having spent about fifteen hours playing the game. I hope to do a more in depth discussion of the game and the Wild Arms series once I’ve completed a few of them, but that’s quite a project, and will be discussed down the road.


The score of the original PlayStation release of Wild Arms are quite good. It’s no surprise that many of the game’s themes have a place on SupraDarky’s esteemed list, with a personal favorite being the introductory theme that both sets that corresponds (a bit – more on that) with the visual theme and pumps me up for some typical JRPG tedium/gameplay.

Unfortunately, the game’s visuals, both in quality and theme, seem to be lacking compared to other games of that era, even with the occasional flair. This isn’t too surprising – I doubt Wild Arms had the same budget as Final Fantasy VII, but even the art direction lacks full faith in the Wild West theme. While the concept art and opening anime cinematic display the Old West theme handsomely, the game itself loses much of that unnecessarily. Take a look at games such as Sunset Riders and Wild Guns – made for older systems yet indulged thoroughly in the western flair. Instead Wild Arms looks much like JRPGs of the era, with the magic-y, European Middle Ages aesthetics of the Abbey and Adlehyde. Sure, it’s clear that the developers never intended to go that deep into the western visual design, but a little more would have shown some faith in the unique setting for a RPG. There are a few sequences that look good; I like the way that floor panels twist as they fall beneath the main characters, and I like the Elw Pyramid transitions, as the characters become energy and bounce off of satellites to traverse the world. These moments do not outweigh the otherwise unremarkable graphics of the game.

The main characters show flashes of style but are otherwise just vessels to move the plot. Cecilia is a strong female character gameplay-wise, which I always like to see in games, and has a nice touch here or there (the hamburger obsession could be played up a bit more), but even after fifteen hours, I hardly know anything about what her motivations are beyond a brief idea that she struggles to be loved for her deeds. Jack is a borderline dumb jock stereotype, but is struggling with a rage versus courage problem that could build nicely as the game progresses. Plus, I always love to see small animals who live on the bodies of people (here: Hanpan). Unfortunately for Rudy, these other characters, as minimally as they’ve been developed, make this silent protagonist look like a piece of shit. His animations are all about showing off his gun, which is prima facie lame, and there’s a brief nod towards sadness about being an outcast, but this is only very briefly mentioned. The rest of the game he’s pulled around by Jack who says such things as “I know Rudy agrees”. Even the demons have more personality (a particularly memorable moment is when Belsek chides the heroes claiming that he’s got better things to do than destroy Adlehyde). I’ve never been a big fan of the cypher for the main character in these games (even though they appear in some of my favorites), and this game takes my disdain to a new level. Seriously, fuck boring, slow, underpowered Rudy.

The narrative fairs better than the characters but only barely, and barely discusses any of the environmentalist themes mentioned on Wikipedia that drew my interest. Demons, Guardians, and world destruction are all on order instead of wholesale Greenpeace-ry. There are hints of environmental issues, they are few and secondary to the typical good versus evil plot, even after fifteen hours of play. NPCs do discuss the decay of the world, the transition from vibrant continents to giant deserts, but this never sniffs at our heroes motives, as they’ve got demons to fry. The closest we get to discussing this blight is in Baskar Village, but these folks are just minor characters in the plot. They speak about trying to live in peace with the land while showing devotion to the old gods that are largely ignored by greater society (even though they appear to be very much real as they interact with the heroes). The Baskar mention that they only take from the land what they put into it, but it’s never juxtaposed in a way that makes any claim about how one ought to engage with nature. According to the Baskar, the problems with the environment are attributed to a lack of faith in the gods of the world, not how the citizens of the world use machines, farm, or anything that might relate to real world environmental issues. There’s plenty of game left for them to make an issue of this real world crisis, but so far it seems that Wikipedia has lead me astray, at least regarding the first game in the series.

Another thing to note about the Baskar people is that they shun goods from outside their village, materials you can (and should) make use of. By making these items available to the player and useful, the interpretation reads that while the Baskar may have some good sense about how to live in harmony and save the world (they aid the heroes in the quest to stop the demons), they also don’t hold all the answers, since these heroes, not the Baskar, hold the key to saving the world. Not necessarily a thing that the designers/writers did unintentionally, as this could be the beginnings of a move towards some sort of “harmony isn’t just what the Baskar’s do nor what the rest of the world does, but in between,” but I doubt it really. I’d guess that this was merely a visual design decision that wasn’t matched up in any way with the corresponding general game design – these sorts of things aren’t often considered today, much less back then when design was far less formalized.


So, I don’t know when I’ll update this again, but I’ll try to discuss the development of theme, plot, characters, and gameplay (especially this one) in a future installment. But for now, suffice to say, I’m underwhelmed. This is a 1997 game that plays like one from 1992, and I’d still rather play Final Fantasy IV. I expect things to get shaken up soon in the narrative, and hope that future installments of the game prove to be more engaging out-of-the-box than Wild Arms has proven so far.

Frequent Failures in Videogame Representations

As Anita Sarkeesian began releasing her videos on videogames’ use of gendered tropes in their narratives, I began fielding unsolicited questions from friends who, understandably I suppose, figure me to be on top of such things. As we approached the issues discussed in her series, I struggled to get a charge out of her argument as so many others did online. Like, yeah, of course videogame portrayals of gender are highly problematic. This, I thought, was clear to anyone who plays videogames and takes a moment to think about it. But throughout these various discussions, there was latent expectation that I challenge the ideas to which she speaks, and I’m not sure why.

If you watch Ms. Sarkeesian’s videos, she lays out plenty of examples of how gender exists in games – as jokes, objects of desire, failed attempts at role reversal, and so on. Videogames may draw from fairy tales for inspiration, but it’s tough to justify those nowadays, now that new technologies and dispositions allow amplify the voices of those otherwise marginalized. We can subvert those played-out fairy tales but videogames disappointingly often fail to do so, even in the indie scene, as shown in the third episode of the series.

Yet for the most part Ms. Sarkeesian focuses on game narratives as divorced from the gameplay. Videogames that do justice by the female characters, such as Beyond Good & Evil (so far as I remember), are solid portrayals of not-white-straight-males not only because they show the heroes/ines as true actors in their videogames, taking heroic stands and thinking about others besides themselves. As Austin Walker discusses in his piece on Bioshock Infinite, not all empowered videogame characters are actors, e.g. Elizabeth simply drops in and out to serve as a visual representation of actions that would otherwise take place at a non-diegetic level. Good representation of characters in the videogame world are those that do rather than represent doing. Bad representation come across uncanny, in the “valley” sense of the term.

Recent videogames such as Telltale’s popular The Walking Dead do doing well, but let’s take a different approach with a fairly recent example; Nintendo’s Metroid: Other M. This is another game I’ve stood up for over the years, as it was panned by many who played (or did not play) the game. I struggle to see how people get off saying that Other M is terrible; you as Samus go around a sprawling area and do Metroid things, such as blow up alien life, collect energy, and fight Ridley (which is a pretty fun boss fight). What’s terrible about the game is the disconnect between what you can do as Samus and how the story portrays Samus. Metroid players have had multiple opportunities to travel the galaxies and kick ass, which has defined who Samus is as a person – ass-kicking bounty huntress extraordinaire. For Nintendo to have signed off on some bossy father figure and have Samus sheepishly travel about the space scared out of her wits doesn’t match with the badass chick players had gotten to know over the past 20+ years. At one point, there’s a cutscene where Samus explains her intense fear of Ridley, yet you/Samus follow that with a complete Ridley ass-whooping. Overcoming fears doesn’t match up; the tepid boldness with which fear is overcome isn’t represented in the gameplay one lick. Only ass-whooping.

I believe that this discontinuity between narrative and play has been coined ludonarrative dissonance, and thus even when videogames aren’t positioning women (and other non-white-straight-males) as objects, they’re stifling the ability of such videogame characters to be as the (typically) white straight males counterparts are. The videogame authors position their worlds within the false social confines of a sorta Puritanical 1950s, perhaps to ease their players into the videogame world. This said, isn’t it obvious that not all intriguing, engaging differences between our world and those of a videogame need to be so wild as “evil aliens are up to no good and you gotta stop ‘em”. This is just plain overdone. Some disjuncts may just need to be that women, transexuals, whoever, are beings to exist to do things outside of being representative of a woman, transexual, whoever.

So if Ms. Sarkeesian’s argument feels so obvious, so non-controversial to me, why not to my friends? Was it due to the somewhat understandable yet false notion that feminism is somehow anti-male, and identifying as a male I should take feminism as problematic? Just curiosity, wondering whether there was any grounding for the attacks made against her? Perhaps I’ve just taken a moment more to think about these issues than most? Yes, no, maybe, I don’t know. Hell, maybe I only think I know shit about this gender issue stuff. Sure, I’ve been reading about these issues voraciously for the past few months, but I am that cisgender that is known for missing the mark on these issues. All I know is it bothered me that I ended up defending Ms. Sarkeesian, by which I mean it bother me that I was positioned to take the woman’s side of the issue when there shouldn’t be a side at all, ever. I don’t know who’s perpetuating “sides” but shit needs to stop.

Me, Predator? No, although…

I was recently directed to an article on the dangers of “demonizing” male sexuality and it brought out an icky feeling regarding a conversation I recently had with a stranger. While traveling, a guy, early 20s, was candidly offering up discrete-but-revealing details about his sex life. Divulging where he’d been and going, he’s traveling among American cities job hunting, shacking up with girls from coast to coast.

I typically let strangers say their piece, accept what they say as true in the moment. For the sake of polite conversation you know? I couldn’t easily let this one go however; I was curious how someone manages fly-by-night sexual engagements. Still I phrase my words leadingly, as to not make things uncomfortable, and state something like, “so long as all parties involved know what’s going on…”. Of course he says they do, why wouldn’t he? Hell, it may even be true. But there was just something about the conversation that threw me, stuck in my craw and all that.

This “Danger in Demonizing” article claims quite rightly that male predatory sexual behavior is not the norm. At least in my experience, we’re all neurotic when it comes to sex and relationships, straight or gay, in a way that has us losing ourselves. If we’re interested, how do we show that? Are we forward or do we play coy? At what point should we expect a return on our emotional and attentive investment, positive, negative, at all?

The catch is that I’m speaking broadly about people with whom I’m close. Publicly, I’ve always felt a pressure to tell tales wild and promiscuous, and I’ve seen people do the same. To Royse’s quote of Superbad, nobody wants to be “that mistake”. And I don’t think that any sane person wants to look like a predator either. Unless you claim to be in a stable relationship, there’s some expectation that you’re playing fast and loose, and if you’re not, you’re a loser, justifiable on those grounds. We can blame it on media and how that’s perpetuated by consumers, but this is chicken/egg. Who knows where it comes from, but this isn’t a healthy position to take. But I can’t expect sweeping, wholesale thoughtfulness; change comes from individual acts, an individual’s act. Which I didn’t do.

When the jet setting Don Juan said, “how about you?” I hee-d and haw-d. I claimed neither that ladies need to watch out nor come off as a pansy, because both would have been greatly uncomfortable. I’m still uncomfortable though. Out of author’s five-point list, sound by my standards, I match up pretty well. But in this moment, I failed to be an ally in an effort to preserve masculine pride (bogus) and maintain proper social decorum (also bogus). I could have interrogated his sexual flippancy, but no. Didn’t do it.

The other parts of Royse’s argument are dead on. Demonizing or not, focusing on how to dissuade would-be sexual partners is bound to muddle up potential positive sexual experiences. Guys have to stumble their way to sex, hoping their proposition doesn’t sound like those boys that the girls are warned about. I don’t ask that we forget informing kids about dangers, but refocusing sex education on what a good relationships looks like rather than marginal maligned ones would be way more helpful to all parties; this comic comes to mind.

Isn’t this a valuable lesson too?

Yet this article attends me to my mistakes. I’m feeling guilty and to blame, flattered yet undeserving.

The ‘Math War’ is Ridiculous

So I’ve been catching up on some reading these past few days and one of the recent Stone articles (I do make sure to check those out always, though they’re not always interesting) spoke about what they termed as the “Math Wars”. I’d heard of this before briefly from a co-worker, but never termed as a “war” or anything like that.

What I took from the history the authors sketch of this conflict is between folks who advocate teaching and designing for “numerical reasoning,” which entails that learners navigate numbers and techniques in ways that work best for them (the reformers), and those who advocate for teaching the common methods used most universally throughout the world (the traditionalists). The article makes some claims that I agree and disagree with, and I’d like to address a few of them in relation to the things I’ve picked up about education in the past few years.

There’s certainly a great deal to which I sympathize with math traditionalists. There’s a great degree of utility to common language – thinking of the nervous attempts at German I’ve mustered throughout the years with native speakers brings to mind the comfort English speaking affords me in my day-to-day. This presumably extends to math as well, where I can conjure up two individualistic math-speakers who just can’t wrap their minds around how the other came to their numerical conclusions. Additionally, I agree with the authors point that teaching common algorithms leads to mechanical thinking. What one might attribute mechanical thinking comes from a weird perspective (so it seems to me) that on one hand hypothesizes the brain and the way humans think as analogous to computer processing while on the other hand believing that this sort of computer-like thinking is wrong and detrimental to some sort of true creativity. It must be hard to sleep at night for folks who hold this view, as they’re trapped into believing that the way humans think is fundamentally wrong. Getting back to the matter, what appears to be mechanical thinking is really just mastery, which is a beautiful thing I believe. It avails us a level of “yes, I got this!” while freeing us up to do other rad things with our time.

Beyond this, I’m reminded of the notion of power (I’m going to throw this term around quite a bit, bear with me?) and how it relates to all (I think I can be broad here) forms of knowledge. We ought to afford learners the chance to understand and interrogate X structure from the empowered position, whatever its’ form, with the terms and logic that that power engages with X. Again, this is to say that we should empower learners with the knowledge to critically evaluate things, most definitely including mathematics, in the ways that the current power does (critical anything is super important yet difficult to define, so just go with your favorite understanding of critical). This doesn’t mean that learners all have to truly, I don’t know, buy into those terms and logics, no, rather they should have the opportunity to understand them and be free to conjure alternatives.

This being said, the would-be imposed methods of teaching and learning math of the reformers certainly carries merit. With mastery comes a blindness to ways of determining solutions outside of those already known. Yes, traditional mathematics isn’t “creative” and neither are other potential ways as advocated or permitted by reformers. What exactly constitutes creative I couldn’t say, but at the very least, calling out traditional mathematics by opening up the discussion to new mathematical processes is less likely to make the learner “blind”. The authors put forth that learners “need to master bodies of facts,” in mathematics as opposed to other content areas, but positioning facts in that way is problematic. I say who gives a damn about facts in any subject, whether it’s math or history. Facts should become apparent to learners as they master useful ways of thinking about things. Knowledge of these mathematical facts have to be contextualized through the processes that use them so that the learners don’t, or don’t have to, take the facts for granted, but see them as tools for conversing in a particular way around a subject. The ways of thinking should be emphasized over the facts, which will be picked up as one gains a handle on the field.

On one hand, I feel as if I’m trying to refute the authors by simply stating the side their arguing against more loudly (and I’m trying to avoid their weak point about math books and rote learning), but by stating that the traditional methods of learning mathematics are (most elegant and powerful), you end up defining mathematics by it’s past rather than it’s potential. I don’t believe that reformers are actively against teaching traditional methods, but I would argue that it’s a matter of attempting to unhinge math from its’ roots with the hope that learners see math-as-we-do-it as a culturally mediated practice instead of universal and fundamental fact. In math and elsewhere, learners are often (in my experience) acquainted with the ambiguity and malleability of knowledge after hearing for years that “this is the way the world is”. This is bullshit. Christianity isn’t just the Holy Trinity, Islam isn’t just the Five Pillars, math isn’t just FOIL, computer science isn’t just java and so on.

We absolutely should avail learners of the traditional methods of numerical reasoning because it provides access to ways of understanding the world as it has been constructed. Without this way of thinking, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to critique or creatively outdo traditions when they ought to be. But like hell we should limit them to that, and the only way that we’re going to expand the horizons of mathematical knowledge is if we open up our curriculum to reasoning that removes traditions from the gravitational centerpoint.

Stray Thought on Gender & Thinking Equally

I haven’t updated this in a long, long time, at least not in earnest. I wanted to create an outlet for my thoughts as many do, but so much can happen in a year that this blog, along with a number of other things in my life, fell to the side. It’s past due to make an effort again to put some thoughts on a screen, and although I’m starting out without a coherent effort to promote some sort of idea, I’m made to feel okay by this notion. A recent essay on the Stone has given me a new perspective on why we ought to write essays, or at least made a case for not always making a case. It’s more important to try out an idea, let it stretch a bit through the written word, than to always make a bold claim about the nature and state of things. It’s unsurprising that we promote at universities and elsewhere that the academic work we do make a case of some sort, because good essays clarify the utility of intellectual endeavors, but it’s a trifle to do this all the time, especially when act of writing is a key tool in helping to sand the rough patches of the cases we wish to make.

And so it’s time to play with some ideas rather than worry about whether they’re right or wrong, strongly or weakly put, whether they’re of value. I’ll never make any case about the state of things without writing a whole lot of garbage. If this has an audience for some reason, I would ask that the audience take what’s useful for them out of anything I say and not spend another moment with ideas that end up unfounded, boring, stupid, or confusing. What you’re reading at any given time is me, at that time of writing. It probably bears a great resemblance to me in the now (as in, when you’re reading this) and will have something to do with future-me, but the best course of action to get to know me is just send me a line.

Anyways, let’s get to it. It being something other than psyching myself up to write something.

This other article in the Stone along with this post has me thinking about how gender is often portrayed in videogames. I’ll start off by saying that I don’t know shit about gender anything, I’ve only started to get interested in the topic since playing the wonderful Dys4ia, and beyond that finding myself in the position to discuss the non-controversial (by my account anyways) analysis of Anita Sarkeesian. It seems to me that one’s identified gender is something akin to the performance described in the Stone piece above, and while playing a male role (I’m cis), I’ve more than once fretted the follow-through of some such heterosexual act. The context which the Stone article speaks to might not be analogous, but it makes me think that, when placed next to gender issues, that sometimes we ought to hold up on acting and think about the implications of our actions and what they mean in terms of how they relate our position on gender issues. As the article states, there are times where we so-called “overthink” that are just examples of us not being trained (or being improperly trained) on how to think.

For instance, I had this chat with a friend about a year back that really made me feel like shit for all the right reasons. I told a story of a friend of a friend who ended up dropping off a woman he met at a bar at a battered women’s shelter after having a one-night stand with her. Now, when I’m thinking about it, of course equality reigns, but when I told the story, the way I told it made it seem as if there was something unsavory about the woman, and my friend thankfully called me out on my shit. Notions of equality never permeated my thoughts in a way that would actually have me act in a way that promotes equality as such.

When coming to the topic of games, gender is often binary and used mostly cosmetically, based upon biological gender. Let’s just take this as the case, though I’m sure there are games out there that use gender in unique ways (I’m just not super familiar). This game mechanic, or variant, whatever you wish, is part of what people typically think of when they consider gender (once again, my experience, let’s take it as the case, et cetera), and it really shows in the latest Animal Crossing game, as the game presumes gender based upon whether one thinks of X as cute (female) or cool (male). To be honest, I’m not sure what point Anna is trying to get across… I may be fudging her point all up by putting things the way I have just above. I think what I mean to say is that when we’re craft a videogame world or characters, especially ones for classroom use, if we’re trying to leave things open so that the player can fully build their digital cypher (as in, not be “making a point” with the way the game characterizes and guides gender), then we need to consider gender beyond initial mechanical/cosmetic decisions. How players may interact, from dialogue, clothing, quests and so on, needs to react to the player’s input by offering a wide variety of input. One game I have high hopes for in this regard is Barkley 2, which may be a game that (might) expose how gender is more complex than what most games afford (whether consciously or for entertainment value I couldn’t say though).

I have more thoughts on these issues, but they’ll have to wait – I’ve got a barbeque to attend.