It's been two and a half years since my last post. But sometimes 140 characters aren't enough.
Yesterday, Twitter (at least my corner of it) caught fire with discussion about a new game. The game is called Hey, Baby.
Along with the game came an article by Leigh Alexander, titled "You Look Nice, Miss".
The Twitter discussion went poorly for me - one of my personal heroes was quite angry at me, there were followers being blocked, comments erased - the normally enjoyable discussion around games turned into a real source of unhappiness. So today I want to lay out my thoughts, hopefully with a clearer head, and see if I can really concretely get across my stance.
I think there are three parts to this whole brouhaha, which I will tackle one at a time.
First, there's the post by Leigh. It's obviously intensely personal, well-written, and eye-opening, especially for men. I don't feel qualified to discuss it heavily, as I have no perspective on catcalling - I've never done it to anyone, and only had it happen to me once. And I'm not a woman, so I can't comment on the culture of dominance and sexual aggressiveness that Leigh feels around her. All I know is that the piece was moving, and would stand well on its own merits.
Secondly, there's the game itself. This is where I begin to differ from Leigh and Kieron Gillen (His followup article on RPS is here, and the original post is here). The game, to me, is interesting only in the conversation it has started. To my view, it looks like a simple revenge fantasy; the only message being "Wouldn't it be neat to hurt people who are not very nice to you?" Which is valid as a cathartic tool, but isn't a very new statement, and is on the face of it sort of disturbing. It's certainly not a message I hope we would carry over into our lives. The analogy that rings most true to me would be a game about killing school bullies - like many geeks, I was bullied as a kid, and I often fantasized about what I would like to do to the perpetrators. And then Columbine happened, just over the mountains, and I realized that some people carried that fantasy into reality. I have a lot of sympathy for what people who are bullied went through - but I'm really not sure that a game where you kill your tormentors is a healthy response on any level*. Kieron talks about the existence of the game giving us an idea of how women feel - and that's valid. But it's not a very interesting expression, nor does it offer much idea of how to actually deal with the problem. In fact, as one of my coworkers pointed out, it really seems to suggest that the best response is to take out one's aggression on virtual cat-callers, rather than approach the problem in any other way.
So what would an interesting, thoughtful game about this subject look like? The game that sprang immediately to mind, for some reason, was The Path, by Tale of Tales. It's been claimed that the game is about rape, although the creators deny that. Still, the heavily metaphorical look and feel of the game really says much more to me than the simplistic punching-bag-with-a-face-drawn-on mechanics of Hey, Baby. It's much easier to identify with the characters in The Path than the nameless, faceless, voiceless woman of Hey, Baby, and thus empathy is possible. Perhaps Hey, Baby is aimed solely at women who already know what this situation feels like, and want to work out their aggression - but in that case it's a failure at teaching the rest of us how it feels, and altering the behavior of the men who act in that way. I talked to several women about their reaction to this game, and Leigh's response was certainly not universal. One thought the game was "just like any other game in that vein", and another (my wife) was disturbed and upset by the idea of Hey, Baby, just as I was. So at the least, Hey, Baby is limiting its audience to a subset of women, and almost certainly excluding men from its message. If the game is aiming to change behavior and promote a great discussion of this issue, then, it could do much better.
The third thing, and honestly the part that made me most unhappy, was the response to my and others' criticism of the game. Both Leigh and Kieron made statements effectively saying (to my interpretation) "Don't discuss this game or post if you're going to disagree". Here are their statements as I saw them, so that I'm not unintentionally misrepresenting what they said:
Leigh: yeah pretty much i'm blocking anyone who finds http://bit.ly/9N2Q9i a point "open to interpretation" in any way. [It's unclear here whether she's talking about the article or the game]
Kieron: I'm disappointed by RPS' readers. They should read Leigh on Hey Baby: http://tinyurl.com/2uqxnzl And if they want to argue, they shouldn't. [This is maybe more clear - He only posted about the game on RPS, so the commenters were only talking about that, not Leigh's article.]
So anyway, yeah. Why do I find this part most saddening? Firstly, I'm a huge believer in free expression of all kinds. In an argument, listening to an alternative point of view is often the only way to arrive at the truth of the matter - even if that truth is one's own original opinion. As John Stuart Mill says in 'On Liberty', "If there are any persons who contest a received opinion, or who will do so if law or opinion will let them, let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is some one to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we have any regard for either the certainty or the vitality of our convictions, to do with much greater labor for ourselves."
There is also the fact that both of these journalists posted stories about a controversial game - and then seemed to expect no controversy. I can't believe that either of them really felt that would be the case. It seems a stunning intellectual weakness that, rather than present their thoughts on the matter in a way that will win over the critics, they instead attempt to shame them into silence. This is one comment that was deleted from Leigh's blog. Perhaps this guy is wrong. It's not as though he's a troll, though. This is the post of a man who is willing to learn, and is willing to have a conversation about the topic under discussion. Deleting a polite, well-written attempt at understanding your point of view is only likely to make people think you're over-reacting to the original issue, as well. I don't think this would be his response, but I could easily see the deletion of that comment leading the writer to think, "Well, these women are obviously overly sensitive about this whole issue! If they get angry at my post, why should I take them seriously when they complain about catcalls? Perhaps someone just politely commented on their clothing, and they overreacted there, too!" That would be an incorrect response, but silencing critics almost never leads to them listening and conceding your original point. To be fair, rational discussion rarely leads there either, but at least it has a better chance of engaging those with whom you disagree.
So, silencing a discussion is wrong for basic reasons of free speech. Mill again: "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
Silencing a discussion removes your and everyone's opportunity to discover the truth - perhaps someone on the fence will be convinced of your viewpoint only by reading the poor arguments of your opponents, rather than your stunning reasoning.
And lastly, silencing a discussion in this way leads to resentment, anger, and possible dismissal of your point by those who dissent. I have read both Kieron and Leigh's writing eagerly for years, and I know they are well able to defend their own ideas in the court of public opinion. It's a shame they both felt they had to silence a healthy, valid conversation on this topic alone.
Obviously this post is not as personal, as affecting, and as moving as Leigh's original article. And I hope by discussing this in my own rational analytic way (the only way I can ever discuss anything) I'm not seen as detracting from her feelings, her suffering, and the validity and artistry of her writing. But because I believe there's value in any discussion, and because my own mind was in a disturbed turmoil all day and night, I felt I had to write this.
* The "You Look Nice, Miss" article of the Columbine shootings was on Slashdot, appropriately, and titled "Voices from the Hellmouth". It spoke to me quite a bit at that time in my life.