About Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

Pocket Lint #16: put down your milk for a moment

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“Firstly, you must buy a scratchcard only as an impulse, when buying other things. Arriving one day at the checkout, with your hands full of milk, bacon, chilli-coated peanuts, you will glance absent-mindedly at the stand of colourful cards and be immediately shaken with the intense feeling that you are alive and that nobody can stop you from winning everything. Although, that is not to say you feel confident. This is a feeling more wistful and playful in nature than confidence. It stands to reason that what you are feeling is a sense of fatefulness. If you are an atheist, this is the closest you will ever come to detecting providence in your life. Put down your milk for a moment.”

America’s first female astronaut: ‘Tampons were packed with their strings connecting them, like a strip of sausages, so they wouldn’t float away. Engineers asked Ride, “Is 100 the right number?” She would be in space for a week. “That would not be the right number,” she told them. At every turn, her difference was made clear to her. When it was announced Ride had been named to a space flight mission, her shuttle commander, Bob Crippen, who became a lifelong friend and colleague, introduced her as “undoubtedly the prettiest member of the crew.” At another press event, a reporter asked Ride how she would react to a problem on the shuttle: “Do you weep?”’

Mansplaining explained: not just old-fashioned sexism, but also systemic differences between typical male and female communication styles.

America, a review: “What the characters lack in consistency, they make up for in body weight, lingering racism, and inconsistency.”

Everything is wrong with the Lord of the Rings films, and John Dolan would like to tell you about it. (h/t @adambrereton)

“But the syllable is only the first child of the incest of verse (always, that Egyptian thing, it produces twins!). The other child is the LINE. And together, these two, the syllable and the line, they make a poem, they make that thing, the—what shall we call it, the Boss of all, the “Single Intelligence.” And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.”

Arthur Miller on what life was like before air conditioning. “The men sweated a lot in those lofts, and I remember one worker who had a peculiar way of dripping. He was a tiny fellow, who disdained scissors, and, at the end of a seam, always bit off the thread instead of cutting it, so that inch-long strands stuck to his lower lip, and by the end of the day he had a multicolored beard. His sweat poured onto those thread ends and dripped down onto the cloth, which he was constantly blotting with a rag.”

There are family trees, and there are trees from hell that are filled with snakes.

The sigils of 90 demons, in case you need them.

Tumblr of the week: Owl Turd, because of this heartbreaking comic, We Go Forward.

Poem of the week: The Mutes, Denise Levertov

Game of the week: Coming Out Simulator 2014

Pocket Lint #15: fear and loathing

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Ghosts of the tsunami.

“Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering. But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can’t help them. You will never change their world.

What can “Leaning In” do for us when once we do succeed by its metrics, unending public abuse awaits us? What happens when we finally establish ourselves on platforms, and then are chased from them? When success means needing security? When we are punished mercilessly for the very representation we are told to seek? When “representation” is what we need, but “visibility” destroys us?”

Prey is an astonishing, brutal, beautiful piece of writing about one woman’s experience of rape, her reactions and the subsequent trials where she was a witness.

No one is coming to take away your shitty toys: “The rise of mature games that don’t feature shitty characters and situations does not diminish your supply of immature shit in any way. It caters to a growing market of consumers who have just as much of a right to play a fucking videogame as you do, and doesn’t harm you at all.”

As flies to wanton boys are we to Facebook.

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

This place is not a place of honour: how to keep people away from nuclear waste in 10,000 years’ time.

Tumblr of the week: Postapocalyptia.

Poem of the week: Emptying Town, Nick Flynn, with thanks to Leigh.

Game of the week: The End, a game about philosophy and death.

Ralen Hlaalo is a cupboard

This was written for June-July’s Blogs of the Round Table, on NPCs in video games.

Perhaps you’re meant to have meaningful, deep interactions with characters in games that can actually speak. But they’re all just robots. Interact in a certain way, as a blank avatar, and they will love or hate you regardless of who you are. They are obviously a series of lines responding to inputs.

Or, if my avatar is a specific character, they’re responding in a story that I don’t feel is mine. I don’t have intimate relationships with characters in books either. I might like them, or admire their actions, but I don’t have deep meaningful interactions with them.

Ralen Hlaalo is different, because he is a cupboard.

Balmora, with some pretty textures.

Balmora, with some pretty textures.

Ralen Hlaalo is dead, to begin with. He lived in Balmora, a town on the south-west side of the island of Morrowind, to the north of Vvardenfell, where the Dunmer live. At the beginning of Morrowind, the third Elder Scrolls game, you arrive by boat in the tiny township of Seyda Neen. From there, you’re directed to Balmora, which is – if you want it to be – a hub area for at least the first few levels of your game. It has a Mages Guild, a Fighters Guild and a Thieves Guild; it has good transport connections and is conveniently located for exploration.

It’s also the ancestral seat of one of the three families that rule Morrowind: House Hlaalu. They’re into diplomacy and trade and sneaky business. They’re also mega-rich, which makes them targets. Ralen Hlaalo has been murdered, and his body lies face up on the carpet of his luxurious home west of the river. His maid stands in her room, waiting for you to pick the locks or acquire the keys to the house and ask her about what happened here.

Later, when your Sneak gets high enough, you can probably pilfer the contents of her jewellery box and her copies of Vivec’s sermons off her shelf, and then shut the door again, knowing she doesn’t need food or conversation or even the little luxuries the game originally gives her.

The Hlaalo manor is one of the better options for a starting house, once you can get into it. It contains a vast array of containers – crates, barrels, chests - and a bed where you can sleep in peace; it has a wall of excellent shelves you can use, if you’d like, to display the many treasures you’ll acquire over the course of your time in Morrowind; it’s full of stuff you can just take right now and fence to the Khajit down the road, and no one will stop to ask what you’re doing with all those glass bowls and tableware that used to belong to that nice Mr Hlaalo, so recently murdered. You can get a decent start in life from Ralen’s end.

But even after you’ve stripped the clothes from his corpse, his body will remain. It will be there forever. Later on, you will come to realise it is a more powerful asset than almost anything else in the game when it comes to boosting your income. Because Ralen Hlaalo is an infinite cupboard.

I've seen this guy a few times.

I’ve seen this guy a few times.

A few words on how Morrowind’s encumbrance and travel systems work: they are designed to frustrate you. They are designed to be difficult to navigate. Morrowind is a walkable game, made before “walking simulator” became a term of vague disapproval. It wants you to walk between travel points, not bamf around a map with fast travel. It wants you to plan journeys. It wants you to discover familiar paths and shortcuts, to get to know the landscape intimately, to be excited about the first time you travel somewhere. I have walked south from Balmora so many times I could do it in my sleep. Whenever I move house in the real world I start a new game of Morrowind so I can walk from Seyda Neen to Balmora and from Balmora to Hla Oad, just for the familiarity.

There are a few systems for fast travel. There are boats in seaside towns, each one of which visits a limited number of locations; you may have to chain trips together. There are silt striders, tall weird insect buses that visit a few landlocked cities each. There are Mages Guilds, each one of which has a teleporter inside to access all the others. Then there are teleportation spells: Divine Intervention, which will transport you to the nearest Imperial Cult shrine, and Almsivi Intervention, which takes you to the nearest Tribunal temple.

The map that came with the game, which is the only real way to find out about the forts.

The map that came with the game, which is the only real way to find out about the forts.

And there is a network of forts littered around the landscape, not one of which is ever relevant to the story, each one containing one teleport pylon that can take you to two other forts, and one lockstone that opens it up as a destination. Also normally they contain significant numbers of orcs. Opening them up is the sort of quest that matters only because travel is a limited, finite resource. It makes Morrowind feel incredibly dated. It is also one of the reasons why it has stuck with so many people as a game with such a powerful sense of place.

Encumbrance is a problem. A lot of the best loot in Morrowind is heavy – raw ebony, raw glass, Dwemer pots and scrap metal – and the average dungeon is large and contains many shiny things that, if you are a looter like me, you will itch to possess.

You don’t just slow down when you’re carrying too much loot for your character’s stats: you stop completely. You can’t drag yourself out of the dungeon to the teleport. You can’t do anything. You can swing your sword a bit but that’s not much good. You can’t take it all with you. You have to unpack.

But there is one other option. There is a pair of spells that you can use to actually go where you want to go, without needing to walk when you get there. Mark lets you pick one point on the map, just one. Recall lets you transport there instantly. Regardless of how much you’re carrying.

What happens at the other end? You have to unpack immediately into chests or crates or boxes, but those things themselves have a finite limit on how much they can contain. You can’t put all your things in one cupboard, because the cupboard is just not big enough. Unless the cupboard is Ralen Hlaalo.

Ralen can take as much ebony and glass and assorted swords and bandit armour as you can loot. He will even obligingly cover his nakedness – assuming you have stripped him to sell his expensive clothes – with whatever arms and armour you happen to have looted. He does not rot. He does not require gifts or moral decisions or tribute. He will not send you on a quest, beyond avenging his death, which you’re free not to do with no consequences. You can set your Mark spell within reach of his glassy eyes, load him up with your spare things on arrival, then jaunt down to the pawnbroker where you originally sold all his fancy glassware and, in a few trips with some awkward 24-hour rests in the middle, be significantly richer for little extra effort. He is obligingly calm the entire time.

A talking mudcrab.

A talking mudcrab.

In one game, I appreciated his use so much I summoned him a giant talking mudcrab friend – the mudcrab is the richest merchant in the game, and normally lives on an inconveniently distant island to the east of a Dwemer ruin, but you can use the console to position him wherever you’d like.

It is the only time I have ever cheated in Morrowind. I’d like to tell you it was so that Ralen wouldn’t be alone. Honestly: I did it all for the gold.

A cupboard.

A cupboard.

But by that time, I didn’t need the gold. I had more than 300,000 gold. There is nothing in Morrowind that costs even half that much. I had crates of alchemical ingredients and the skill to create any potion I wanted in qualities better than I could buy. I had one of every helmet in the game, carefully displayed on one of the sets of shelves. I had all 36 of Vivec’s sermons, stacked on the long dining table. I had Azura’s Star and Mehrunes’ Razer and the Fork of Horripilation. I had stacks of legendary weapons and the best light, medium and heavy armour in the game. I was the leader of the Mages, Thieves and Fighters Guilds, the head of House Hlaalu, one of the highest ranked members of both the Temple and the Imperial Cult, well on my way to being declared the Nerevarine. I had a giant, talking mudcrab filling half the space in my hallway, occasionally obstructing the door and making weird chittering noises, because I wanted more gold. My best friend was a cupboard.

Ralen Hlaalo didn’t judge me.

Ralen Hlaalo is the only NPC that I can recall having a relationship with that was sustained, reinforced, by the game’s systems. I return to him time and time again, every time I play Morrowind: I loot his house, I steal from his maid, I sleep in his bed, I strip his corpse. He is not a cipher or a character. He is a system. He is a cupboard. He is the most memorable NPC in my twenty-odd years of gaming, because he is the only one that never pretended to be human.

Facebook, let’s talk about harm

In news-that-ought-to-be-satire-but-isn’t, the AV Club reports, via New Scientist, that Facebook has been manipulating users’ feeds in order to test whether they can manipulate their emotions. 689,003 users, to be precise.

The full paper is here, and makes for interesting reading. The researchers found that, yes, emotional states are contagious across networks, even if you’re only seeing someone typing something and not interacting with them face-to-face. They also found that people who don’t see emotional words are less expressive – a “withdrawal effect”.

Where things get rather concerning is the part where Facebook didn’t bother telling any of its test subjects that they were being tested. The US has a few regulations governing clinical research that make clear informed consent must be given by human test subjects. Informed consent requires subjects to know that research is occurring, be given a description of the risks involved, and have the option to refuse to participate without being penalised. None of these things were available to the anonymous people involved in the study.

As it happens, I have to use Facebook for work. I also happen to have a chronic depressive disorder.

It would be interesting to know whether Facebook picked me for their experiment. It’d certainly be interesting to know whether they screened for mental health issues, and how they justified the lack of informed consent about the risks involved, given they had no way to screen out those with psychiatric and psychological disorders that might be exacerbated by emotional manipulations, however tangential or small.

The researchers chose to manipulate the news feed in order to remove or amplify emotional content, rather than by observing the effect of that content after the fact. There’s an argument here that Facebook manipulates the news feed all the time anyway, therefore this is justifiable – but unless Facebook is routinely A/B testing on its users’ happiness and emotional wellbeing, the two things are not equivalent. Testing where you click is different to testing what you feel. A 0.02% increase in video watch rates is not the same as a 0.02% increase in emotionally negative statements. One of these things has the potential for harm.

The effect the researchers found, in the end, was very small. That goes some way towards explaining their huge sample size: the actual contagion effect of negativity or positivity on any one individual is so tiny that it’s statistically significant only across a massive pool of people.

But we know that only because they did the research. What if the effect had been larger? What if the effect on the general population was small, but individuals with certain characteristics – perhaps, say, those with chronic depressive disorders – experienced much larger effects? At what point would the researchers have decided it would be a good idea to tell people, after the fact, that they had been deliberately harmed?

Pocket Lint #14: human machines

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Tiny letters are what blogs used to be: “a not-quite public and not-quite private way to share information”.

David Sedaris gets a Fitbit. Contains cows giving birth, kidney stones, litter-picking, and a stream-of-consciousness antidote to the anodyne vision of the quantified self.

If this toaster doesn’t like you, it will leave you for somebody else.

“Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature. Every age also has a theory about the past and the present, of what was and what is, a notion of time: a theory of history… our era has disruption.”

An interview with the creators of ClickHole: “We believe every piece of content that goes up on the Internet deserves to be clicked upon, skimmed, shared, and rashly commented upon by millions of users.”

The internet comment apocalypse inspired by a recipe for rainbow cake.

Shaka, when the walls fell: how one episode of Star Trek traced the limits of human communication and suggested an alternative. “If we pretend that ‘Shaka, when the walls fell’ is a signifier, then its signified is not the fictional mythological character Shaka, nor the myth that contains whatever calamity caused the walls to fall, but the logic by which the situation itself came about. Tamarian language isn’t really language at all, but machinery.”

Tumblr of the week: White men wearing Google Glass, and its counterpart.

Poem of the week: Having a Coke with you, Frank O’Hara.
“and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank”

Game of the week: Arpeggio. Play it with your eyes closed.

Games journalism is a broken business

There’s been a huge, intricate, messy, interesting conversation on Twitter over the last few days among games writers. It’s been sparked in part* by Maddy Myers’ superb excoriation of the games journalism industry, and the place that freelancers and those peripheral to the few big outlets now occupy, especially minority writers.

I have no idea how anybody else survives in games journalism. Well, actually, I do know now. It’s that other people just get day jobs. They do what I’ve done. If they’re lucky enough to find one that they can do in addition to journalism without wanting to die all the time. Maybe they just give up and get a full-time job that has nothing to do with journalism at all.

It’s a great piece. Go read it. And then go read Jenn Frank, talking about why she writes:

I am answering this question at a strange juncture in my life, you know. I am almost 32, I hope to start a family, I live in a city of 15000 people, and it has become impossible for me to imagine a life where games writing, or any writing, is a real possibility anymore. So now I’ve arrived at a stage in my life where, instead of waking up each morning and picturing what I’ll write, I try to picture *not* writing. Instead, I try to think of, literally, anything else I could be capable of doing.

These are brilliant women, writing about how writing has become impossible for them because it does not sustain them as a career. The conversations on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere are all about the money: there’s not enough to go around. Publishers don’t pay enough for writers to actually do the work, especially for freelancers; staff jobs tend to go to the people who can produce a lot of words for very little cash consistently, and those people don’t tend to be established games critics. They certainly don’t tend to be minority critics whose public work intersects with social justice issues.

Most of these people don’t believe, on any level, that they’re owed work. But they do believe – with justification - that they’re owed a fair price for the value of their work, which is specialised and difficult and time-consuming. They don’t need to pitch more, they need to be paid properly for the pitches they land. They don’t need bootstraps, they need a fair system.

There isn’t enough money. But that construction elides the fact that publishers aren’t making enough money, which elides the fact that journalism’s business model on the internet is completely broken and games outlets are struggling just as hard as everyone else when it comes to actually making money from the online economy.

It’s hard, as a business, to admit that your commercial team isn’t operating well with the realities of the internet. But for many journalism businesses it’s the truth: newspapers and magazines alike are struggling, and specialist and enthusiast subject publishing as much as generalist. It’s not just that print revenues are falling, for those businesses with a print arm; it’s also that the link between increased online readership and increased revenue is incredibly tenuous if you’re relying on traditional banner ads, particularly if they’re all served through Google.

It’s possible to make money online, even in the middle of all this disruption. But the sad fact is that most games publishers are not very good at it, and they pass on their commercial failures to their writers, because that’s the part of the business that can be squeezed the most without squealing.

There isn’t a simple solution, because it’s a systemic problem, and because if there was a simple solution then the problem would already be solved. The low pay and precarious situations of games freelancers mirrors freelance journalists in most consumer-driven niches, all trying to tackle the biggest upheaval in publishing since publishing became a thing. No one in publishing has the answers, here. Games journalism doesn’t even seem to be able to articulate the problem: the race to the bottom for writers is driven by lack of revenue and lack of innovative commercial approaches, at least as much as it’s driven by writers willing to write for free.

One truth remains: if you can’t afford to pay writers what they’re worth, then you’re not making enough money; that problem lies with you, not with the writers.

* Edit: @RowanKaiser points out on Twitter that @KrisLigman’s tweets and his own blog post announcing his Patreon came ahead of @samusclone’s piece, saying “I think what happened was that several simmering pots boiled over concurrently”.

Pocket Lint #13: Bloody Mary

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Periods don’t have glitter in them.

Occasionally, about once a year, I reread Myths over Miami. It’s a fascinating story very well told, and I am immensely grateful that the internet lets me keep coming back to it, long after the print paper it originally existed within has been forgotten.

“I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be clinically insane. I wonder how aware you might be of your own insanity. I wonder if it happens so gradually you don’t notice, or if it’s sudden, like a light switch being flicked from off to on. Can it be flicked back, or is it irrevocable?” Possibly the best depiction I have ever read of what it’s like to live with chronic mental illness of the type I experience.

When my son was born, all of my questions suddenly had a very basic answer. I would love for him to grow up as I did, enjoying shooting but understanding that every gun is loaded and you never touch one without an adult and you don’t point it at anything you don’t intend to shoot. But more than that, I’d love to believe that he’ll have no mischievous accidents, no suicidal depressions or homicidal rages, no moments of weakness or fits of pique or questions that can be answered by the pull of a trigger. As with all the other scenarios in which I’m the good guy with the gun, I can never be sure. I carry my permit, as I always have. But now all my guns live with my father.”

“Martin Amis’s book is also the reason I keep saying I am sexist and not that I was sexist. I will have to keep fighting this thing about myself. I will make mistakes along the way – my id will take over and I’ll say the wrong thing from time to time. This is an article about acceptance, not a self-awarded pardon.”

Tumblr of the week: Olivia When, which is full of beautiful animations of people stealing dogs. Olivia is the person who made this gif about accepting compliments in the style of a superb bird-of-paradise.

Poem of the week: The Practice of Magical Evocation, Diane DiPrima

Game of the week: A Dark Room, also on iOS - strange, saddening, compulsive, unfolding like a very creepy flower.

Pocket Lint #12: service industry

If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish email on Fridays you can sign up here. Future Pocket Lints may come with more analysis, more chat and/or more personal elements in them, as I carry on experimenting.

This title doesn’t work, but you’ll click on it anyway.

“Really, freedom of speech is beside the point. Facebook and Twitter want to be the locus of communities, but they seem to blanch at the notion that such communities would want to enforce norms—which, of course, are defined by shared values rather than by the outer limits of the law.”

The only way to keep user information safe is not to store it.

Relevant to the Assassin’s Creed: Unity controversy this week over the lack of women: “what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?”

This is the Blue Shell of collapse, the Blue Shell of financial crisis, the Blue Shell of the New Gilded Age. This is the Blue Shell in Facebook blue, where anything you’d do with it already will have been done anyway on your behalf without you knowing it.”

On Matter, here’s an incredibly long interview with Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti, which you won’t read. On sites that aren’t Matter, here are a couple of good summaries, which you probably will. Serve your readers, or they’ll go elsewhere.

Tumblr of the week: When Women Refuse

Poem of the week: And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

Free game of the week: The Last Tango

 

Assassin’s Creed: women in games are not a technology problem

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is not going to have playable female characters in multiplayer, because it’s too much work. As per Polygon:

“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,” Amancio said. “Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.”

Here is an incomplete list of things that Ubisoft decided, as a company, were less work than playable female avatars in multiplayer:

  • Two special missions, only available as pre-order bonuses.
  • The ability to render AI crowds of 5,000 people.
  • Customisable assassins, but only male ones.
  • A 1:1 replica of Notre Dame cathedral.
  • A crouch button.

This is a tongue-in-cheek list, of course, because the allocation of resources doesn’t work like this, and if it was the multiplayer team’s job to make multiplayer on a budget then it’s their budget from which multiplayer assets must come. The idea behind the four-player co-op mode seems to be that everyone sees themselves as the main character from the single-player game – Arno, who is male, obviously, because it’s not like playing a female assassin in the French Revolution would be an excellent and historically-relevant choice - and their three friends are his male buddies.

Which leaves open the question of why, exactly, two of those friends couldn’t be female, if the team had decided that was a priority? Or why all of them couldn’t be female? Why not cut Arno from multiplayer, or design a multiplayer system that works without him? Why not, if you have to, take the FemShep approach and make masculine women, acknowledge the problems with their animations, and say that you thought it was more important that the game had playable women than that the jiggle physics was perfect? And, most importantly, why wasn’t making it possible to play as a woman in the game a core goal for the multiplayer team, instead of a nice-to-have extra that got dropped?

To be fair, we don’t know yet whether any modern-day assassin elements are going to star a woman. But the fact that Ubisoft has cheerfully announce beard-filled multiplayer without mentioning the possibility suggests either the modern-day office-wandering secretarial bit isn’t finished yet – in which case there might be a sudden reverse ferret and a female avatar might suddenly appear, rendering all excuses about the difficulties of rendering women completely null and void – or that it’s not going to hold many surprises on that score. Or that they’re dripfeeding PR to provoke, of course, which I guess we can’t rule out, because that’s one of the more unpleasant ways the games PR machine works.

Meanwhile, apparently Far Cry 4 came “within inches” of a playable female character. Which is not good enough; the dev says they “did their best” but that older assets, studio culture, planning and technology got in the way. Goddamn technological women, with our complicated hips and our weird walks and the way we’re just so difficult to model that a 1987 NES game has better gender representation than this next-gen console one can apparently manage.

Look, technology is not the problem here. Thinking of male characters as “default” and female characters as “extra” is the problem, as is a history of poor representation in games meaning there are fewer existing assets that can be reused. You fix that by recognising that it’s not a tech issue. You fix it with planning, with remedial work so that you have as many stock female assets as stock male ones, with processes that don’t place the ability to fiddle with a character’s weapon loadout ahead of their gender. You can’t fix that with polygons. You fix that with people.