Pocket Lint #15: fear and loathing

If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish email on Fridays you can sign up here.

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.

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.

The nature of madness

A lot’s been said about the killing of six people by a man, possibly mentally ill, certainly with a gun, certainly with a deep hatred of women and a deep anger over what he sees as their rejection. I don’t want to go over old ground; here are a few excellent pieces that are worth reading on this whole sorry mess.

What is worth saying, though, and what I’ve not seen said elsewhere, is a little about the nature of madness, and how it might apply here. It is pointless to go over whether the killer had a diagnosis, as that diagnosis cannot hope to explain his actions, any more than a diagnosis of OCD can hope to explain why a particular person might scrub their hands raw rather than compulsively locking doors, or a diagnosis of schizophrenia can explain why a person believes they have magical powers that control the weather rather than believing the NSA is stalking their every move. The differences have their genesis outside a person’s brain chemistry, in their society, their upbringing, their present situations, the elements of their obsessions that are permitted space to grow unchecked.

The specifics of madness are not so closely linked to diagnoses as most people would like to believe. One cannot simply write off all delusions as madness, nor all violence, nor even all shooting sprees, because madness is not a sufficient explanation. Even if we know for certain that a shooter is diagnosed as mentally ill, what we do not necessarily know – and what we must ask – is why their illness has taken that particular form. Why women? Why people of colour? Why sex? Why entitlement?

Madness is born in sanity. It is born from society. It does not spring, fully formed, from the brain in isolation: it is defined socially, it is constructed socially, it is through the establishment of social norms that abnormality is recognised and regulated. Mental illnesses grow like weeds; the nature of the weed is dependent on the soil, the light, the water. Sometimes the only thing that makes a weed a weed is the fact it is appearing in a neatly manicured bed of some other flower.

The California killer’s mental illness was not madness, when it was limited to posting on forums about how much he hated women. It was not madness when he spoke online about his fantasies. It was not madness when he suggested women deserved to die for rejecting him. If he had only killed one woman, an ex-girlfriend or a prospective partner who said no, a great deal of evidence suggests it would still not be judged as madness; this happens every day, and society rarely says it is insane.

Sanity and insanity are two ends of a spectrum, not distinct states, and there is a great deal in the middle that is murky. It is frightening that such hatred, such aggression towards women, such entitlement and anger, is only murky.

Why does society call angry, threatening young misogynists mad only after they have pulled the trigger?

Pocket Lint #9: outsiders

Back after a short break: here’s a pick of the most interesting things I read this week. If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below.

Nate Silver and the diversity problem
“What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.””

Do psychiatrists think everyone is crazy?
“Though many object to psychiatry’s perceived encroachment into normality, we rarely hear such complaints about the rest of medicine. Few lament that nearly all of us, at some point in our lives, seek care from a physician and take all manner of medications, most without need of a prescription, for one physical ailment or another. If we can accept that it is completely normal to be medically sick, not only with transient conditions such as coughs and colds, but also chronic disorders such as farsightedness, lower back pain, high blood pressure or diabetes, why can’t we accept that it might also be normal to be psychiatrically ill at various points in our lives?”

Why personal change does not equal political change
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

The era of Facebook is an anomaly. The idea of everybody going to one site is just weird. Give me one other part of history where everybody shows up to the same social space.

5 myths about how we use the internet

An illustrated book of bad arguments

A preliminary phenomenology of the self-checkout

Frog Fractions 2 has a Kickstarter, which promises not to give you the game until someone works out what it’s called.

Tumblr of the week: Animals Sucking At Jumping

Poem of the week: Shrinking Women

Free game of the week: 2048, which is essentially Threes, only more so.

powered by TinyLetter

 

Trigger warnings: a broken system with good intentions

This is an interesting thing: a New Review post that looks at the history and present of trigger warnings, and how they’ve moved out of communities online and into public life and spaces. If you don’t know what a trigger warning is, it’s essentially a note indicating that you might be about to encounter something upsetting, something that could negatively affect your psychological wellbeing; they’ve grown out of supportive communities in which people needed to carefully negotiate conversations about subjects that need to be spoken about, but that also could prove detrimental to readers’ health. The roots, however, aren’t quite as simple as the New Review piece paints it them:

Initially, trigger warnings were used in self-help and feminist forums to help readers who might have post traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks. Some websites, like Bodies Under Siege, a self-injury support message board, developed systems of adding abbreviated topic tags—from SI (self injury) to ED (eating disorders)—to particularly explicit posts. As the Internet grew, warnings became more popular, and critics began to question their use.

It’s rare to see an article on trigger warnings mentioning Bodies Under Siege, despite its early adoption of warnings as a way for its users to safeguard themselves. It’s a shame, then, that the piece skips over the ways trigger warnings were used there in the late 90s, when I was an active user. They were not a way for users with PTSD specifically to avoid harm; they were for all users – including those without mental health issues – to avoid subjects that could trigger them into unsafe behaviour, or that they didn’t have the mental energy to tackle. They were carefully considered and carefully enforced alongside a list of verboten things that mods would delete on sight: discussions of weights, calorie counts, numbers of self-inflicted wounds, images. Those things were not done lightly. Bodies Under Siege was a community of vulnerable people struggling with mental illnesses of various degrees, and it was built entirely around recovery and support. Trigger warnings and removal of things that could prompt ‘competitive’ behaviour were not courtesies. They were absolutely integral to the community’s existence.

I used a couple of other forums for people who self-harmed, in my teens. BUS was the one that did not make me worse. There’s a direct analogy between one of those forums and pro-anorexia communities; at its worst, it provided encouragement to hurt yourself, and at best it was simply reinforcing the behaviour, a reassurance that self-injury was an OK thing to do. It was not a healthy space. The second, though, tried to be about recovery, but allowed images and discussions of self-injury particulars. It was a deeply conflicted space, as a result: if you were feeling OK, you could quite easily end up feeling worse after a visit. If you were already feeling bad, you went there knowing it would most likely spiral downwards, playing Russian roulette with your feelings. You would, almost without doubt, stumble across something that would likely tip you from ‘maybe I could hurt myself’ into the act.

Trigger warnings on BUS made it safe from that concern. It was a place you could go while feeling awful to try to be strong. It had thread after thread of distraction games, little time-wasting things you could do to stave off the need to self-injure. It had questionnaires to fill in before you did it, drawn up by users and psych professionals, and questionnaires to fill in afterwards. It had resources for asking for treatment, for dealing with emergency care, for supporting others. It had safe spaces for parents, partners, carers to socialise. It had diary threads you could post in and read, if you were well enough, and those diaries came by convention with warnings about the content. If you didn’t want to engage with the illnesses of others, for fear of worsening your own, you did not have to.

Words cannot express how valuable trigger warnings were to me, or to many of the other users on BUS. Not just those with PTSD, or anxiety disorders, or specific trauma-related illnesses; not even just those who self-harmed or those with eating disorders; all of us who used that space benefitted from its policies on keeping us safe.

Trigger warnings on the web were born in communities trying to balance the need to speak with the need not to hear. Those communities were closed, or at least only partially open; LiveJournal communities where membership rules could be enforced, forums and BBs where mods had control over members’ posts. Trigger warnings do not translate well to public spaces – Tumblr tags, Twitter, even Facebook groups, or some of the real-life scenarios mentioned in the New Review article – because those needs are different for the wider community. Interestingly, some Tumblr tags do take content warnings well – conventions have grown up around those tags, and those who transgress those conventions are essentially moderated out by the existing users. But there’s no system to support that, nothing to stop a sustained invasion, no way to organise that space to support that use.

But just as it is inadvisable to add trigger warnings to everything based on the possibility of harm, it’s just as inadvisable to remove them from everything based on disbelief in their effectiveness. In communities focussed on mental health and recovery, trigger warnings are absolutely necessary for users. Whether college classes, campuses or the Huffington Post need the same level of consideration is a valid question, for sure, but it’s one worth asking. If you want people with disabilities to be able to participate fully in your spaces, you’d better be thinking about accessibility in terms of triggers and mental wellbeing as well as wheelchair ramps and sign language. And that doesn’t always need to be in formal language: sometimes it’s as simple as editing a tweeted headline to include the word ‘distressing’, to give your followers the choice about what they click on.

The New Review piece concludes:

Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

There is no way to stop every vulnerable person from coming across things that will make them more vulnerable. There is, however, courtesy and consideration, and a need for equal access for those with mental health issues. Those are not small things. There is a valuable, important baby being thrown out with this bathwater.

Pocket Lint #8: things that live under bridges

If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below. I promise not to spam you.

Where have all the workers gone?
“Whether as victim, demon, or hero, the industrial worker of the past century filled the public imagination in books, movies, news stories, and even popular songs, putting a grimy human face on capitalism while dramatizing the social changes and conflicts it brought… With work increasingly invisible, it’s much harder to grasp the human effects, the social contours, of the Internet economy.”

Netrunner as life hacking for perfectionism
“It was Netrunner that crystallized for me the uncomfortable fact that in real life I’ve always run away from any space I couldn’t see completely, from any challenge I might not be able to win, and from any situation where I struggled to succeed.”

The Blood Harvest
“Each year, half a million horseshoe crabs are captured and bled alive to create an unparalleled biomedical technology.”

Do invertebrates feel pain?
“We know next to nothing about whether or not these animals – or invertebrates in general – actually suffer. In Elwood’s experience, researchers are either certain they feel pain or certain they don’t. “Very few people say we need to know,” he says.”

The internet is fucked (but we can fix it)
Forensic look at what’s wrong with the internet in the US.

Partners as patrons
“I am essentially “sponsored” by this very loving man who shows up at the end of the day, asks me how the writing went, pours me a glass of wine, then takes me out to eat. He accompanies me when I travel 500 miles to do a 75-minute reading, manages my finances, and never complains that my dark, heady little books have resulted in low advances and rather modest sales.”

This machine kills trolls
Anti-vandalism bots on Wikipedia: complex tech solutions to complex human problems.

Remember the human
“Try to be courteous to others. See someone having a bad day? Give them a compliment or ask them a thoughtful question, and it might make their day better. Did someone reply to your comment with valuable insights or something that cheered you up? Send them a quick thanks letting them know you appreciate their comment.”

Tumblr of the week: Things Called Jazz That Are Not Jazz

Free game of the week: Into The Box

powered by TinyLetter

The generosity of governments

It’s not possible to make an infallible system.

If you support the death penalty in practice, on some level, you have to decide that a certain number of innocent lives are a price worth paying for the state to kill guilty people. You can support the principle but oppose the practice – as some do – because it is impossible in practice to create a system which only, ever, executes the guilty and spares the innocent. The more you try to ensure the innocent are spared, the more guilty people also avoid punishment. A perfect system of perfect judgements is impossible in the real world.

No system can sort with 100% accuracy between the deserving and undeserving, either for assistance or for punishment. There will always be borderline cases, those attempting to cheat the system, those whose circumstances are not neat or clean. Most systems are set up to assume a certain leeway, with the exception of those systems set up by states to help their people – or those wanting to become their people.

In the UK, the government has decided that no level of assistance should be given to anyone who does not fit increasingly strict criteria of need. It does not matter how many people with genuine needs are hurt in the pursuit of its desire; if one person who might just about be able to cope without benefits receives benefits, that is one too many. No matter that by tightening the system the government is actively hurting many, many times more people than it’s justifiably excluding from assistance – that is, fundamentally, the point. And the war of words in the popular imagination is won by convincing people that there are so many more undeserving than deserving welfare recipients, and that the pain is therefore proportionate.

But of course it is not. In striving to ensure that only people who most desperately need help ever receive it, the government cuts programs that help everyone. It sees the extra help given to disadvantaged people as an unequal and unnecessary expense, and so guts programs designed to ensure equality of opportunity. It is OK to hurt people who need help, the reasoning goes, so long as you don’t accidentally help anyone.

In Australia, the war is over asylum seekers. On one hand, there are supposedly queues of people waiting to get into Australia; asylum seekers with the proper documentation, who board planes and wait patiently for their chance to come here. On the other, there are people so desperate that they board unseaworthy boats run by people smugglers in the belief it would be better to drown than stay where they are. We are meant to believe that by punishing the latter, the former will benefit. We are meant to believe that it is not worth helping a single person who has come by boat. We are meant to believe that state assistance is a zero sum game, that what’s mine is mine and asylum seekers are Others. We are meant to believe that the country is giving something away when it takes in those desperate enough to risk drowning to live here, not gaining something. We are meant to believe that the only choice is between deaths at sea and deaths in detention, as though stopping the boats is more important than stopping the suffering, the desperation, the human misery that lies behind every journey to these shores.

I don’t think I am useless to Australia. Australia doesn’t think so either; I’m one of the good ones. I’m a temporary economic migrant, not a permanent refugee. I have knowledge skills that this country thinks are worth the cost of my admittance. I don’t really need to live in Australia. So the government has made it remarkably easy for me to choose to do so. It makes sure I can have my husband with me. It offers me healthcare arrangements, because my home country would do the same thing. As long as I am working and do not need further help, Australia is very happy to have me.

Of course it is, because I don’t need help. There is no room in this equation for political solutions that admit the possibility that it might be OK to help a few people who are two degrees above the breadline, if it ensures that a greater number of those below the breadline get that help too. There’s no room for generosity or for compassion, no room for the idea that it is better to make it easy for those who need help to get it than to make it hard for those who do not. And so, slowly but surely, governments act more and more like banks offering loans. They offer assistance only to those who can prove they do not need it, and leave those who need it most to drown.

Pocket Lint #7: glitch mobs

If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below. I promise not to spam you.  

We have known boys, but none have been bullet-proof
“We are replanting our underripe fruit, graveyards becoming our gardens, and tending far more memories of boys than moments with full-grown men.”

The founder of 4chan on anonymity
“It’s incredible what people can make when they’re able to fail publicly without fear, since not only will those failures not be attributed to them, but they’ll be washed away by a waterfall of new content.”

Twitch Plays Pokemon, in which 80,000+ people simultaneously play the same game of Pokemon Red, creating a sort of giant ongoing metaphor for the evolution of internet community. And the miraculous progress of Twitch Plays Pokemon, which explains the importance of the Helix Fossil.

How the potato changed the world

The construction of a Twitter aesthetic
“You’re trying to find a way to state contradiction. You’re writing a cartoon caption for a cartoon that doesn’t exist”

For 700 years, the people of Geel have taken in people with psychiatric illness and cared for them as family members
“My father always said, ‘These are the best children. They must sleep in the center of the bed.’”

Dismantling the five silliest responses to calls for more women in videogames

Games by humans
“If a games journalist is interviewing a developer about a game, they typically only have access to the lead developers, the ones in charge. Usually, the journalist’s access to these developers is through the publisher that is bankrolling the game. The dozens or hundreds of men and women actually making the game are hidden from the public behind the doubly thick wall of their employers and their publishers. We can’t speak to them and, more often than not, their employment contract means they can’t speak to us.”

A worldwide registry of roller derby names

Finishing, beating, playing through, bursting out: worldwide ways to talk about completing games

Automatic Guardian comment generator

Tumblr of the week: Sorry, Asylum Seekers

Free game of the week: You Have To Burn The Rope

powered by TinyLetter

Pocket Lint #5: snowsight

If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email you can sign up here or using the form below. I promise not to spam you.  

The Empathy Exams: deep, long read from a medical actor. Anything I say here will under-sell it.
“Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries. Sadness becomes a seizure. Empathy demands another kind of porousness in response.”

What snow tells us about creating better public spaces

Poverty in academia (and other places)
“If we are a collection of our experiences, can you imagine how difficult it can be then to sit in polite conversation and try and engage about childhood holidays, where you learned so ski, and how to fit orchestra practice in around your job?”

The power of Flappy Bird
“Finally, and most importantly, we should learn once and for all that we will never really know what ‘the people’ want. The screenwriter and novelist William Goldman famously suggested that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything.” The success of Flappy Bird is above all a reminder that this maxim is as true in game development as it is in movie making.”

In defense of Twitter feminism
“In a world where the voices of white middle-class heterosexual men and women are privileged, it is striking that Twitter, one of the few spaces that allows for counternarratives and resistance, is now facing a barrage of criticism.”

A linguistic analysis of the language of doge.

Game openings are important
What’s wrong with the first 300 seconds of Bioshock Infinite

FLUSHED!, a zine exploring the intersection of gaming and toilets, is out now. Go get it.

A newsgames hackathon is happening in May. If you’re like me you might want to apply.

Tumblr of the week: Deep Dark Fears

Free game of the week: Candy Match Forever

powered by TinyLetter

Pocket Lint #4: edgewise

If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email you can sign up here or using the form below. I promise not to spam you. Sometimes there are special bonuses for people who get the email. Today it’s excellent cookie recipes, which I can’t currently eat.

When mainstream media is the lunatic fringe
“Mainstream media cruelty is actually more dangerous, for it sanctions behavior that, were it blogged by an unknown, would likely be written off as the irrelevant ramblings of a sociopath. Instead, the prestige of old media gives bigoted ranting respectability. Even in the digital age, old media defines and shapes the culture, repositioning the lunatic fringe as the voice of reason.”

Davos to Detention: Why I hate coming home to America
“The last four times I’ve traveled abroad (to Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon and Switzerland), Homeland Security has detained me upon arrival.  It’s as frustrating as it is ironic, because although in Arabic my name, Ahmed, means, “blessed,” each time I land at JFK airport, I can’t help but feel somewhat cursed.”

It is expensive to be poor
“If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.”

How long have I got left?
Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.

readme.txt
Readme files in game mods: a feminist perspective

Unfinishable games
Let’s stop pretending that “done” is an aspirational state.

List of animals with fraudulent diplomas. Related: Sir Nils Olav, via @mildlydiverting

The Bloodbath of B-R5RB
The tale of the largest and most destructive battle in gaming history.

Downworthy, a browser plugin to moderate hyperbolic headlines

Tumblr of the week: Dimly-lit Meals For One

Free game of the week: Chancery Lane – analogue board-game Mornington Crescent

powered by TinyLetter