...And all the men and women merely players.
A blog about the state of gaming and technology

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Hey Baby

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]

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.


Tom O'Bedlam said...

Excellent article, you've expressed exactly what I wanted to say about this issue. The main complaint I've had is the "You can either agree with me or be wrong" line.

Rakysh said...

Surely there is a time and place for discussion though? And I think (hope) that you've merely fallen at cross purposes with Leigh and Keiron. From what I gather, you're saying "the game is shit, and so misses the point". What perhaps the other side is hearing is "the game is shit because of the subject matter." (and that is indeed what a fair few people are saying. Moderating quickly becomes really, really boring when a lot of people are being stupid, and sometimes sensible things get lost in the purge-which is what I hope happened to the comment you cited.)

Alternatively, I think that blocking comments is absolutely the owner of the blogs right, and isn't so much stifling discussion as creating a safespace. In Leigh's comment thread a large number of people seem to be empowered by the game and the post, as well as profoundly affected. If that thread became full of people complaining about the game then perhaps that would ruin that safespace feel for many people. RPS on the other hand has a reputation to maintain. They tried to give the comment thread a chance, and when the level of stupid overloaded (which it did, people were talking about this being equivalent to a game about lynching), they gave up, because having their site’s name dragged through the mud and associated with the sort of things that were being said is of no benefit to them at all. This meant that the discussion that could have been had was lost, as you said, but I think the fact that the internet is not exactly devoid of soapboxes and forums for discussion makes it hard to feel ignored. Those who really wanted to learn I assume can easily find some people who share Keiron and Leigh's view somewhere else more appropriate to talk about the issues raised.

Perhaps a metaphor. The abortion debate is an important one to have. However, going into a church and having it in the middle of a service perhaps is not such a good idea. It’s a crap metaphor, but I hope I can make myself clear.

I apologise for the scattergun nature of this post, and if it makes no sense please do say- the fault will be my own (and this ridiculously small comment writing box).

Sredni said...

i think you misunderstand what was meant by those 'don't disagree' type comments. i believe they meant 'don't be a misogynist because it is wrong.' its like saying 'don't kill people because it is wrong.' i would class the hatred of a gender amongst those universal human wrongs such as theft, murder, discrimination, etc (note that i don't put them all on the same level - just in the same category of morally wrong).

the john stuart mill quote is absolutely terrible and clearly taken out of context. do you honestly believe he meant that we should be thanking people who send emails entitled 'ABSOLUTE PROOF THAT BARRACK HUSSEIN OBAMA IS A JEWISH NIGGER FAGGOT FROM IRAN!!!1!'? no, of course not. similarly, we shouldn't be thanking those people who choose to disagree with respecting women, because it is equally stupid and invalid.

your point about columbine is seriously ridiculous. this game isn't a revenge fantasy, it is a statement about the power relationship between men and women. it is intended to challenge norms and make people think about not just catcalling but the rough deal women get generally. if feminism makes you uncomfortable then i am very sorry for the women in your life.

Tom O'Bedlam said...

@Snedri Actually, I think Mill probably would have been ok with that manner of nonsense. In 'On Liberty' he explains the tyranny of the majority and censorship pretty explicitly by saying we have no right to silence anyone, no matter how hateful and vile their cause, right up to the point that they endanger someone's well being. So you can stand on a soapbox and rant about what an awful sod some is, but you can't stand out side his house rallying a mob.

Mill didn't exactly mean we should thank people for their loony opinions, but more that we should abstractly feel glad that their lunacy exists in order to better understand what we believe.

Rakysh said...

There's a difference between censorship and refusing to provide a platform, though. I don't see anything wrong with the second one.

SVGL said...

When both Kieron and I came out to talk about the game, what we received was a bunch of comments to the effect of "women actually like being catcalled" "women are too sensitive" and "how the heck am I supposed to talk to a girl, then?"

Those are the kinds of things that were not welcome to be discussed. You're right; the game was just a catalyst, and the conversation taking place hinged heavily on the nature of street harassment and whether there are any "gray areas" on the moral issue.

There aren't. Anyone who saw a gray area in my post or thought I might be wrong to be aggrieved, I blocked on Twitter. It's not up for discussion.

Why do I make a post if I don't want to debate? Much of the time, I have my query and discussion period before writing. Most of the time, once I commit words to "paper", that is my firm opinion and I'm not interested in revising it. So I don't really care about discussing it at that point.

I didn't enter my field because I was interested in having arguments and discussions with people. To me, once I hit publish, the issue is closed for me and belongs to others.

However, I did not delete any comments from my blog. I blocked a few people on Twitter, but I'm not sure someone would say why they had their comment deleted when it wasn't.

Brer said...

I just wanted to make a tangential point. You mentioned Columbine High School, and the idea of the revenge fantasy against bullies made real. There's a problem with that though. That had nothing to do with Columbine, and NEVER DID.

The image of Harris and Klebold as low-on-the-totem pole social outcasts and geeks is one created after the fact, and has more to do with movies like The Basketball Diaries than reality. Harris was actually fairly popular, got invited to parties, and so on. Klebold was a second-stringer, a follower of Harris', but by dint of being that follower was also far from socially isolated. Finally, neither of them were ever the target of harassment or bullying at Columbine (though Klebold may have been earlier in life before he met up with Harris. Which doesn't much matter when the impetus for the shootings was Harris).

For the definitive article (short of reading the actual FBI report on the subject, which is available online) on the ACTUAL psychology and motivation of the shooters, go here: http://www.slate.com/id/2099203/

Anonymous said...

This has definitely been the best written piece on the game in my opinion, thanks for writing it up.

Johnnemann said...

Thanks for clearing up that you didn't delete any blog comments, Leigh - I'm not sure why that guy thought his comment had been deleted from your blog.

Sredni - Mill actually claimed we had an obligation to listen to alternative points of view, and believed in a fairly radical idea of free speech. And yeah, on some (ideally metaphorical) level, we should be thanking people who believe absolutely crazy things. It helps us calibrate our own craziness, you know? And perhaps the game isn't a revenge fantasy - others are calling it satire. It's possible I missed that reading :-)

Brer - Thanks for your point and the information about Columbine. All I had known previously was the Slashdot take, which I guess was incorrect.

Rakysh - I think you're right about a lot of what you say. And in fact, I've had even more time to think about this, and I understand more fully now why Kieron said the things he did, and why Leigh felt the way she did. A safe space is a good thing to create, especially in the context of Leigh's personal blog and the article. I still see the game as a valid topic for discussion, of course, and I still think it's fairly worthless as anything else.

Brer said...

No problem, John. I just wanted to comment since that particular narrative about Columbine has become accepted and repeated as the common wisdom in the years sense, and it's a bit frustrating since A) portraying that way can feed into the backlash you talked about, and B) it distorts the actual problem (which in this case was "simply" an undiagnosed psychopath and his depressive follower).

On topic, I don't really see a problem with games that use dramatic acts of fictional violence as catharsis. Is it a missed opportunity for addressing the topic with more emotional maturity and depth? Quite possibly, but if you make that game you're missing out on the catharsis. Everything's trade-offs.

It comes down to a decision about what you want your game to do: provide a cathartic outlet for your own emotions on the issue (and for the emotions of other women who've struggled with it?), or as outreach to men and women who are ignorant about it? I don't think you can do both at the same time, at least not well. The game's author said she saw it as a "conversation piece" if I remember correctly, but it's not clear to me if she meant to spark a broad and general conversation, or to spark conversation and bonding specifically among women who are already personally familiar with the problem.

Stephen said...

I absolutely agree. I think it's not a very good game and if it's to be considered any good it's not going to be for its gameplay value. If you're not going to at least discuss what it talks about what is it really good for?

I'm settled on the whole if it's ok for strangers to shout things at people (in all seriousness men don't like it either) in the street issue. I went to a private school with a uniform in a rough town and I got stuff shouted and thrown at me when I walked home, I hated it and no one deserves it. It's an unpleasant experience.

But even despite having that experience and agreeing with RPS's general position on it I took the whole "if they want to argue they shouldn't" side of things to mean if you even want to argue about this you shouldn't feel that way. I agree with Tom that this is my main complaint too.

I'm not even sure how else I was supposed to take it, I thought that was just the natural meaning of the words and it doesn't sound very promising. I just don't like being told not to argue about things and I imagine it rankles with a lot of other people. In fact, humans are naturally contrary enough that when someone tells them "this is true, don't think otherwise" they instinctively say "no, I won't clean my room".

I would like to think that if catcalling is the horrible experience that I think it is, and have even known it to be on occasion, that comments on a blog wouldn't change my mind.