The Human vs. The Gamer, part II: This time it’s personal

Falling out with Fallout 4.

So last time I talked about ludo-narrative dissonance. Or the inner struggle between the human and the gamer.

For me this was most obvious and jarring in Fallout 4. (Warning, spoiler territory up ahead. Nothing major, but still).

The game starts out well enough – on paper, at least. You get to spend some time with your allotted spouse (in my mind, it was an arranged marriage because at no point did this “role-playing” game ask me if I wanted to play the role of a dutiful 50s wife, but whatever). Then there’s the kid. Now, I don’t know what it is with children called Shaun in videogames, but oh blimey do they get kidnapped. Fair warning to all prospective videogame parents, if you don’t want your kid to get abducted, don’t call him Shaun.

And while I’m at it, let me just… Shaun! SHAUN! SHAAAAUUUN! (You don’t even need to have played Heavy Rain to know what I’m talking about.)

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Then hey ho, the bombs drop, the wifey/hubby gets offed and the Shaun (SHAUN!) gets David Caged off the stage in a rage, but without Ellen Page. I’ll stop now. The problem is, it all happened too fast and felt a bit rote. Even the scene where the spouse dies. There’s a bit of a running gag in the games industry, that the only way to elicit an emotional response out of gamers is to kill off a character – or a dog. That’s part of the reason I never took Dogmeat with me… I know what happened in Fallout 1, you ain’t doing that to me again, game. Well, in this case, your randomly assigned 50s spouse (in my case, the husband… was it John? Jack? Nathan? I never loved him anyway), gets the axe, or the .45 round to the head. To be fair to the game, the scene (locked to first person), was harrowing and emotional. But here’s the general problem with this scene and other times the game tries to engage the player at an emotional level… it hasn’t earned it.

One can draw a good parallel with Heavy Rain. For those of you who don’t know, David Cage, the French Kojima, released Heavy Rain, an “interactive drama” type videogame where a boy called Shaun (SHAUN!) gets abducted and you play an ensemble of characters, including the father, the cop, the private dick and the token female journalist (don’t get me started), to try and uncover the mystery and recover the Shaun (SHAUN!). Both games start with a scene in a completely different colour palette – bright, vibrant, happy colours in the intro. You get to play the part of the happy family. But whereas Fallout breezes through the whole shtick, with Heavy Rain you get to actually, properly play the part of the father – you play with the kids, you get nagged by the wife, you do a bit of work. Heavy Rain let me be the character, I grew attached to the kids (but not the wife… again, don’t get me started), in Fallout the interaction is limited to “press X to coo the baby or comment on the Nuka Cola in the fridge”. For the first 15 minutes of the game (after the two hours of designing her look), my character was a walking billboard for all things 50s America loved. It was so odd, I had this theory that she had been brainwashed as well. Then the bombs drop, the drama happens, Shaun (SHAUN!) get whisked away and you’re thrown into post-apocalyptic Boston and an open world.

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White picket fence and everything.

And then you craft settlements, pick tomatoes, save people, fight Deathclaws and Raiders, there’s a thing called the Institute and they’re bad, there’s the Brotherhood of Steel and they’re cool, the Railroad are interesting and the Minutemen… fuck the Minutemen. Fuck Preston Garvey and the defenceless settlements of Boston. The fighting Irish my clover-shaped… ahem, anyway. Ah, wait, there’s something I’m missing here. I know I didn’t come to the Wasteland to paint my power armour pink, there was a different…

Oh, right… the kid. Who cares about the kid anymore? Eventually (spoilers!), you find him. I won’t go into details, but my character was in tears. She was in tears because I chose the dialogue options that I knew would lead to that. Because it’s what my character would have done. But the person behind the controller wanted to mash the “Sarcastic” dialogue option and tell Shaun (SHAUN!) to git gud and stop being such a baby. Even though he was a baby the last time I saw him.

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My character in Fallout 4. She’s having another moment of “Why the fuck do I care, again?”

But that’s the problem. The story, on its surface, should be emotionally engaging. It’s an abducted child, for crying literally out loud. You play the mother (oh, and videogame mothers… alright, I said I’d stop, but seriously, this needs to be talked about), or father if you prefer. But I played the kid’s mother. In the game world, that ungrateful little rugrat came out of my womb (it feels so weird to write that), I gave his polygoned arse life and yet… I’d rather go talk to Preston Shit-eating Garvey about another clucking settlement that’s been raided.

There’s nothing, no feeling, no tug on the ol’ heart strings. Nada.

And don’t tell me Fallout doesn’t do emotions or that the game format won’t allow it. To Fallout fans, all I have to say are a choice few words: Boone, Bitter Springs, Veronica and the Chains that Bind (that went S&M really quick, didn’t it?). Those were engaging stories, they made me feel for the characters involved. It made me want to reach through the screen and hug Boone and Veronica. Arcade, Raul, all of them needed a hug, come to think of it. Except Benny, he needed a bullet. And he got it.

I won’t say Bethesda don’t do good writing. They do fantastic writing. And you can’t say that open-world games don’t lend themselves to great stories either. The best example of this to me is Fallout 3 and Liam Neeson as your character’s father. Oh, did that get me right in the feels.

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I… sniff… I just need a moment.

I love Liam Neeson. That voice like melting butter, oh dear me… And having Oskar Schindler play your loving father, and by all accounts a fantastic father figure at that… oh, Bethesda, you plucked them heart strings right, you did. But it’s not just that. The writing is great, but the gameplay enforces it. Much like in Heavy Rain you get to spend the intro with your family. And you meaningfully interact with them. You literally take your first steps as a baby in front of Papa Liam. You get a birthday party with your friends and your adoring father. You take part in the Vault equivalent of a bar/bat mitzvah when you receive your Pip-Boy. Some criticised this as “slow” gameplay, but it was well worth it, because it paid off later. When you leave the Vault, you get a message from dear dad before he buggered off (tree, meet apple). I refused to play it… I still hated him at that point. Then, when I was in Minefield, fearful for my life, I finally decided to play Dad’s last message. And it brought me to tears. You don’t get this kind of emergent gameplay anywhere else. Eventually, the two get reunited, and in my case, he told me how proud he was of me that I had saved Megaton… Do you have any idea how wonderful it is to hear Liam Neeson say he’s proud of you? Because if you don’t, you need to stop what you’re doing right now and play Fallout 3. Do it!

I didn’t get that with Fallout 4 at all. And I can’t fault the characters. They’re some of the best written NPCs I’ve had the pleasure to engage with since… well, since New Vegas (or Mass Effect, but again, don’t get me started). Hancock, MacCready, Piper (yes, Piper, shut up), even Danse if you get to know him. Hell, all I have to say is Nick Fucking Valentine (the sound you heard there is the mic being dropped). And here’s something Bethesda did very well… they got rid of Karma (controversial, I know, but that mechanic belongs in the 90s), and instead they gave us characters who reacted to our in-game actions. I genuinely felt bad when Nick told me he hated something I’d done. And I couldn’t care less when Danse went on about blah, blah… until the tough macho guy opened up to me and I nearly cried.

But did I get that with Shaun (SHAUN!)? No. I turned off the game and went to listen to Liam Neeson’s recorded message again.

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Why am I doing this again?

The gamer had been asleep at the wheel. The gamer in me wanted to complete the story AND do all of the fun bits in-between. But when I got to the pay-off – meeting the kid – the human in me rebelled. This is bullshit. I feel nothing. I no longer have anything invested in this story. Leaving aside some of the criticism (hah, “some”) with regards to the gameplay, Fallout 4 is a great game. Fallout 4 has a great story. It’s just a shame that the two don’t mix.

I’ll see y’all on the Strip in New Vegas. You’ll find me playing Blackjack at the Tops.

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Some people just want to watch the world burn.
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The Human vs. The Gamer

The Prince and the Tomb Raider

Videogames, it can be argued, were never meant to be cinematic, much as David Cage would like to pretend otherwise. It can be said that the work of auteurs such as Hideo Kojima (a man I both respect and loathe), has pushed the medium further into the realm of cinema – for better or worse. Say what you will about pervy uncle Kojima, but he does a fantastic job in the direction department. Like him or no, he’s contributed to pushing the medium further towards being recognised as a true art form. At the same time, the hour-long cut-scenes and the opening credits on every single mission make it clear what the creator’s intent was: recognition by way of imitation. Likewise, playing Cage’s Heavy Rain is like watching an HBO drama unfold where you’re being constantly asked for input. Rather repeatedly and annoyingly, at times.

But this isn’t what Pong was about. It was about moving a simple pixel from one end of the screen to the other. It all went downhill from there. The more sophisticated videogames grew as a medium, the more we players felt like we could relate to the increasingly detailed stick figures on screen. We even started creating our own stories around some of them; creative minds filled up the gaps where we felt they needed that added narrative that the game itself either didn’t provide or was found wanting. It may or may not have been the creator’s intent, but people are an imaginative bunch – as hard as that is to believe at times. Since childhood we’ve been used to this. Give a kid a pair of sticks and by the end of the day you’ve got a veritable telenovela unfolding.

And I know I’ve just written a post about Lara Croft, but…

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Yup. Lara Croft again. Deal with it.

At this point, I have to bring up that word that some people who write videogames seem to hate so much… ludo-narrative dissonance. That’s two words, but fuck it. It’s a good pair of words. It describes what happens perfectly and efficiently. It is a real and present issue in the writing and execution of videogames and their respective stories (if they can be bothered to have one). Sometimes, it’s not a problem. If you’re playing a shooter and you’re told to shoot people, then that’s your lot. You get what you pay for, well done. Sometimes, it goes into the weird… why is a plumber jumping on mushrooms and turtle things… don’t think about it too much. But when games profess to tell an engaging story, a human story and try to make that jive with the gameplay, it will happen that it’s just not going to dance to the beat that the writers envisioned.

That’s the best part, the gameplay reinforced the story perfectly. The Prince starts as a runny-nosed little twerp of a royal kid who just wants to impress his dad, and still manages to be a spoiled brat while on a clucking military campaign, Zarathustra grant me strength. As the narrative progresses, you unlock new skills for the runt, the combat (such as it is) evolves, you get new abilities, and the Prince himself evolves as a character. He matures literally overnight (in terms of the game’s timeline), and he becomes wiser and a much more likeable character in the process. Visually, this is represented by the wardrobe change. Rather amusingly, the Prince loses bits of his garb the whole way through. It’s justified by what’s happening (the man’s taken a beating), but it’s still a bit of cheese (or, I guess, beef), and by the end he’s a bare-chested, scarred and grizzled veteran… and still a hunk. Ah, remember when male characters were objectified as well? Maybe that’s a topic for a different article. But I digress… point is, the new gameplay elements back up the story’s arc expertly, and the two are in lockstep the whole way through. Masterfully executed. And oh, sweet daeva, that soundtrack… did I mention the soundtrack?

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Would you just look at that slab of man-meat?

Then there’s Tomb Raider. A story about a girl growing up, similar to the Prince (notice how many of these games are really about puberty? I should stop planning my future posts…). On top of that, you get an arc about sisterly love, in place of your usual throw-away love interest. And the story was wonderful, it actually had me in tears. And this gets mentioned a lot, but that’s because it illustrates the point so well, there’s this scene where Lara tearfully kills a deer in order to survive (something you never have to do again, by the way)… and then proceeds to gleefully murder her way through an entire island’s population, because I guess, videogames.

Had the game been more of a platformer than a shooter this would have worked. Had Lara’s story been more like Kate Walker’s (see previous post, yadda yadda, shameless self-promotion), this would have been perfect. If it had given me no combat but the boss fights, maybe one or two fight scenes (or the one with the wolves), I’d have been satiated. I wouldn’t have even complained if they were mostly quick-time events. As it stands, though, I have to say Lara’s got a bit of a Jekyll/Hyde thing going on. There’s the writer’s Lara who is a beautiful, human character, and there’s the gamer’s Lara… an unstoppable, petite murder machine.

And there’s the rub. The real dichotomy isn’t between game and narrative. At the player’s side of things, it’s between the human and the gamer. See, the human in me wants Lara to be the character in the deer scene. I want her to be kind and emotional, I want to feel what she feels and get that cathartic ending where she overcomes her demons (and those of the island). The gamer in me wants to finish this bloody 60 dollar product I bought, and there’s a heap of gameplay between now and the ending I want. Then there’s the collectibles, and the secret bits on the map, so the completionist in me wants that 100% badge. That’s where the immersion breaks, the 4th wall implodes in on itself and I stop caring about the STORY and just want to finish the GAME. In other words, the human element is played down and the gameplay takes prominence.

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And that just gets me right in the feels.

This isn’t always the case. It’s not a given that videogames can’t tell a good story. Just look at Prince of Persia, or Heavy Rain to name but a few. Most of Bioware’s RPGs are famous for good writing. But good writing isn’t the issue. It’s marrying the writing to the gameplay and telling them to see the Rabbi before they decide to split. Then you have to argue about who gets to keep the kids and who gets the cat, it’s all just a mess, really. Why get into it at all? Why can’t we just get along?

But isn’t that just the cliché. There you are, a sensitive, well written story and you know what you’ve got to offer… a nice, tried and true linear structure with a dramatic build-up and a great pay-off at the conclusion. Then you meet this wild child… a real rebel, with that mischievous look that promises exciting action, pace like a Formula 1 race and all the spectacle you can… spectate. They lure you in with violent violins, mellow cello and a brass section that makes Hans Zimmer go “wait a minute…”. It’s never going to work, is it? You know it, they know it, but there’s that twinkle in the eye, that little guilty spark that makes you think… hey, maybe we can swing it. Sure enough, it doesn’t work and it ends in tears, as it was always going to.

But sometimes you don’t have a choice. Your mum makes you get with the bad boy with the bad temper but the good finance. Or you get paired off with the shikse whom you know is too good for you, but hey, you can show her a good time. Ok, this metaphor has gotten away from me now.

Point is, sometimes you get a well-written story that gets paired off with unsuitable gameplay. Either you’ve got a massive company with two completely different teams working off the same whiteboard but reading completely different things into the same game plan. Sometimes it may very well be just cynical corporate execs telling the “artsy types” to suck it up and give the gamers what they want. And that’s the one that grates my cheese the most. “Give gamers what they want”.

You hear that bandied around a lot. Some call it pandering, some call it marketing. But that’s not the part that bugs me. It’s the notion that “gamer” somehow implies your typical, basement-dwelling, Doritos-munching, Mountain Dew-soaked, pockmarked teenager with a boner for violence, disproportionately chested women and the shooty-shooty bang bang. Somehow, despite a medium that has given the world The Last of us, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Life is Strange… there’s still this stigma that gamers will not or can not appreciate a well-crafted story that isn’t paired off with a Michael Bay level of spectacle.

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To illustrate my point about gamers, here’s concept art from the Prince of Persia sequel.

Those can be fun too, I wouldn’t imply otherwise. But you can’t give the mechanics of Battlefield to Syberia’s Kate Walker… and, as it turns out, you can’t even trust them with a story of World War 1, but more on that some other time, maybe. The gamer in me will always appreciate fun bits of gameplay, but the human in me can’t stand to see a good story waste away in a bad pairing.

I’m soft like that, I guess.

Speak no evil

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Charlie Chaplin in the Great Dictator – Wikimedia Commons

Lately I’ve been thinking about words we use and why we use them. The whole point of words – at least in my view – was to convey meaning. Of course, in today’s technologically advanced world, the means to do this have exploded: long letters or e-mails have given way to 140-character texts or tweets, or the even subtler dick pic. It’s worth a thousand words, innit? Communication is as much an art form as it is a skill and universal agreement is a myth, especially when it comes to the meaning of words. Communication in English is even more problematic considering the monstrous blob of vocabulary and influences that the language has accumulated over its many centuries of haphazard evolution. This Juggernaut of an international lingua franca continues to absorb the world’s vernaculars with all the Sturm und Drang and to grow with panache, running amok on the internet and through other means we use to convey – you guessed it- meaning. And this sometimes leads to conflict – try telling an American that you’d like to bum a fag and see how they react. Seriously, do it.

When it comes to words, without getting too technical, there are two main “meanings” to look out for. What’s called “denotation” (the literal sense) and “connotation”, that is to say things what you might refer to using this word. That could cover innuendo, figurative speech, or sarcasm, and any feelings or ideas related to that word, what have you. Essentially, it’s a complex system to navigate when trying to get your – an I keep using this word with all its connotations – “meaning” across. If you catch my drift.

I’m in the camp that advocates use of the literal sense of words (like, literally), depending on context, of course. It has become my belief that if we use something too much – be it a word or a tool, for instance a spade – without knowledge of its original use or purpose or intent, it detracts from any (forgive me for this) meaning that tool might have. I mean to say meaningful use (if it bothers you, let me know. I mean well, I promise.) So, let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? Because prior knowledge grants you the unique ability of knowing exactly what the fudge you’re talking about, savvy? Again, I stress – depending on context.

I mean

Granted, it might not always do you much good to know that tampons were originally intended to keep machine guns from going damp during WWI before their more common use today. But you might learn a thing or two about the priorities of this world and, all in all, it will be a more enriching experience. And it might not make you feel any better to know that “mortgage” literally translates as “death pledge”, but then again, you may think twice about getting one. I did find it enlightening, however, to know that “macabre” comes from “maqabir” which is “cemetery” in Arabic. That explains the literal definition of the word, and shows its origin. Its connotations may be plenty, but essentially, it means “related to death”, which may be spooky, but doesn’t need to be.

While linguistics is not my main training or area of expertise, I do fancy myself a cunning linguist (hee hee). But seriously, it does seem to be increasingly important to mind what you say. To quote a poem I like: “To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it.” It is, therefore important, how you say what you mean, not just in intonation, but also through your choice of words.

I have decided, therefore, to stop using certain words, idioms and phrases because, while they are common enough and their connotations may vary and even be useful, I find their denotation distasteful, wrong or just not suitable to my needs. I’m not advocating anyone do this, by the way, but if you take one thing away from this post, let it be this:

Think before you speak.

So, the main offenders are:

Gay” – with the connotation that it’s something bad, wrong or – ahem – “queer”. It bothers me whenever I hear a friend say “that’s so gay”, with the implication being negative more often than not. Occasionally, when I look upon a rainbow coloured sparkling statue with an erect male member the size of one’s own envy… sure, then I might say “that is so gay” and mean it. But with the baggage that this has right now, I feel that people like myself – straight, white males – should stop using the term and let the right demographic claim it for themselves, if they so wish.

Remember when gay used to just mean “happy”? Me neither.

Pussy” – as in “coward”. I nearly forgot about this one because I never use it anymore. But really, how can you possibly use this word with that meaning and not admit that you’re sexist? Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Shame on you. Yes, you.

Cocksucker” this would be just one of the long list of expletives that, in my book, should be discontinued. It is related to the first entry, in that the implication here is that anyone who dabbles in the occasional practice of fellatio is, for that reason alone, a person with whom we do not wish to associate. Setting aside your personal feelings about sex, the male genitalia or its relationship to other people’s orifices, it really is time we stop judging people based on how they shag. Otherwise, how long before we start using “missionary” to mean “boring”? The problem I can see with this dreadful word (no, not “missionary”, the other one) is that it’s so often used that maybe to your regular cis, straight males or females, it doesn’t seem that bothersome to call someone (particularly a male) a penile aficionado – I mean, we’ve always used that word in that context, what’s the harm? If you stop to think about it, you’re implying that someone is equatable to, say, a rectum (i.e. an asshole) because of their sexual preferences. And that, quite frankly, is barbaric and stupid.

For that matter, and speaking of the missionary, let me add to this list a few words I just remembered: “pedestrian” and “prosaic” to mean “boring”. As a fan of both walking and prose, I’m offended.

Jesus”, or “oh, my god” or “for god’s sake” or any variation invoking some deity or another. Yours sincerely happens to be an atheist. I’ve even given up on calling myself agnostic, I just don’t buy it, any of the mysticism. Setting aside the benefits or pitfalls of this belief, I did find it rather silly to hear myself shouting “Jesus Christ”. Admittedly, I considered myself safe from eternal damnation, and wasn’t too nervous that I’d blasphemed. If you don’t believe, then that shouldn’t bother you. But if you don’t believe, why are you calling out the name of a deity you’re convinced doesn’t exist? What’s the point? I might as well go around screaming “Oh, great Kukulkan” or “by Odin’s beard” or “Sweet Harry Krishner!” for all the good it’ll do me. Or “Hastur, Hastur, Hast-”

Nevermind.

The list goes on. Actually, it might do to write these all on a list – I mean, literally – but for now I’m content to just think before I speak. More research would be required and I’m fully aware of the fact that I use some words without thinking twice about their meaning. I mean, for Thor’s sake, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, by Jingo. I caught myself the other day saying something was very gauche, and despite being right-handed myself, I can’t fault someone for favouring the left (political or otherwise). And one may wonder why it would matter what this word or that meant at a different time as long as we understand what the other person is saying when they use it. Fair point, but if we use words without sparing a thought to what their original point and purpose was, then the term “meaning” loses all… well, sense (thought I’d use that other word, ha?). Then words become not the conduit for our message, the tool for communication, but merely the empty shells we throw into enemy trenches to explode like so many china pots. Or like empty chairs we try to rearrange on the deck of the Titanic.

I mean pointless.

Meaningless.

P.S.: That poem I mentioned –

“Google it”

OR The anti-social media

The human mind is capable of giving birth to some pretty ugly words and sayings. Contrary to that old saw, words can actually hurt. Or at the very least, annoy. And these days, few phrases annoy me quite as much as these three words: “just google it”. Not on their own, and not all the time, understandably, but within the context of a conversation wherein one party wishes to suss out a bit of information and the other, quite simply, cannot be bothered to give any answer other than “Just google it.”

“To google” has made its way into the English language, along with a million (no exaggeration) other words, such as “selfie” or “bouncebackability”. I shit you not. I remember fondly how in 2012 the Oxford dictionaries word of the year (for the UK, at least) was “omnishambles” from “The thick of it”, a show that I really liked. And it was followed the very next year by “selfie”, at which point I had – as the popular saying goes – lost all faith in humanity. It’s a funny thing, faith. If Facebook is anything to go by, it is lost and found easier and more often that a smoker quits and subsequently picks up his habit again.

Now, say you wanted to know which was the Oxford word of the year in 2012: what would you do? You could ask a friend, either on your messaging platform du jour or face to face – but that doesn’t happen anymore, does it? And your friend might say “oh, in 2012 it was omnishambles. The word was invented for that BBC show, ‘The thick of it’. And it was in a line delivered by a character called Malcolm Tucker – a man so verbally violent, his full name is Malcolm F Tucker. I’ll let you guess what the F stands for.”

But more likely, they’ll say “Just google it.” And you might feel annoyed, even angry, you might feel as if you’ve been punched or spat on – especially if you’re in that rare instance where you’re standing right next to them – I won’t say “face to face” because they’re probably just muttering into their chin as they’re in the midst of sending their thousandth text of the day.

And that’s where the problem is.

The act of conversation is not just the passing on of information. It is not simply a mechanism by which we transfer one bit of data from one brain to another. We are not computers. We are human beings, damn it! And we need social interaction. If someone is asking you where to find a good Indonesian restaurant, don’t say “Google Maps”. Engage in conversation, swap stories from your favourite restaurants, discuss your taste in spiced noodles, argue that chicken saté is either the best way to prepare chicken or just a hipster fad. Even if it gets you nowhere, even if you don’t actually find an Indonesian restaurant and eventually wind up googling it anyway, at least you will have spent time actually talking to another human being. Enjoy that rush of endorphins!

This is the great irony of the internet and, ultimately, social media: a tool that was designed and meant to bring us together, only serves to set us further apart. Because absent of actual tragedies, there is nothing sadder than failing a fellow human being because you were too busy playing Candy Crush. In a time when it has never been easier to reach out and talk to someone from across the globe, it is yet so easy to shut people out.

I once read in an article that people who are systematically shut out by their peers, who suffer from being constantly ignored and told off – denied basic forms of social interaction – these people suffer an acute form of stress akin to combat fatigue.

I’d tell you what that article was. But you know what?

Just google it.

The legend of inclusivity

Or Korra and the struggle for more inclusive writing.

Recently, Dark Horse have announced a comic book series continuing the stories of Avatar Korra, focusing on her relationship with Asami (here‘s the Mary Sue article for more details). Now, if this sounds like gibberish, I’ll explain. The Legend of Korra is the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was a 2005 TV animated series that some people liked. Vague? Alright. It’s basically Kung Fu meets magic in Mysti-China. A world inspired by various Asian mythologies that featured a cast of ethnically diverse (but predomninantly mystic-Asian) characters (who were played by a bunch of white guys, but we’ll get to that in a minute). It touched upon topics of spirituality, peace and loving the environment. At the same time it was essentially an American coming-of-age story starring the most white-American mysti-Chinese character I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, it captivated audiences worldwide and inspired a lot of people to… do Kung Fu and love nature, I guess?

I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t watch the original series until much later. Oh, what’s that sound? It’s my geek cred slamming against the floor. Bear with me. I actually watched the original series only after having watched the sequel, The Legend of Korra. The peer pressure finally became too much so I agreed to watch “that silly cartoon”, but I guess the female protagonist just appealed to me more.

Fast forward to 2010 and the film of roughly the same name (The Last Airbender) was – what’s the polite way of putting it? – not well received. It featured a cast of mostly white people in mysti-China which already looked dumb. They threw out a lot of the mystic and spiritual topics in favour of shadow-punching and choreographed Dung Fu that looked plain silly. I love M Night Shyamalan and generally think he gets too harsh criticism on most of his films, but I can’t defend this one.

Hope seemed lost until two years later when “Legend of Korra” hit the screens. And Holy Shyamalan Shaolin, Batman, was it good. Alright, I’ll admit, I thought the first season (or book, whatever) was quite… what’s the word? Meh. The second one was ok… ish. We were still dealing with a white-American coming of age story, only this time of a girl from an Inuit-like tribe who really, really liked sports. Hold on, Nickelodeon, I’m not giving you points for originality just yet.

It was nice to have a female protagonist in a children’s cartoon, since, well… we really should. Right, that’s the end of that discussion, what do I talk about for the rest of this post? Oh, I know. The series, I felt, really came into its own when they ditched the boring romance that Korra (the protagonist) was in (hint: it’s with a sports jock, it was awkward at first and then they fought, then they kissed, then they broke up again… wow, so original) and turned the story over to some really interesting villains who pushed Korra’s limits. In the end, she won, but the main bad guy broke her. Bane vs. Batman style. In the fourth season (book, give me a break), she had to rebuild a Kingdom whilst thwarting its dictator all on her own. No pressure, Korra dear.

But that all pales in comparison to that last episode (and the build-up to it), and that scene between Korra and her friend Asami (who used to be her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend… talk about complicating things). In that scene, after they left a party together they… wait for it… they… still waiting… they… hold hands.

Yeah, I know. The writers later went on twitter to confirm that “Korrasami” (as fans have dubbed the relationship) was officially “canon”, otherwise known as “a thing” (See IGN for more details). And that’s… great? I guess?

Personally, I felt robbed. Like they didn’t go far enough with it. Here, we have a perfect story for the new age. A story of diversity, inclusivity and pushing boundaries. A children’s cartoon with a female main character who is not white and, in the end, a bisexual. This is so great. On the one hand, we’ve blown away the “white male” standard with an uppercut straight to its bearded hipster chin, and not only do we have a main character who is not straight, but she challenges the simplicity of “straight or gay” in terms of sexuality. So, why is my reaction to it lukewarm at best?

First of all, the shortage of minority actors. You could argue that it’s voice acting, so the colour of the characters is what’s important, regardless of the voice. Fair point, but allow me to expect more. Take the Southern Water Tribe from whence Korra came. It shows Native/First Nations and Inuit influences in its culture. It is a highly spiritual society with a deep connection to the spirit world (and in this Universe, that means something). Why not hire some Native actors to do the voice? I’m sure Adam Beach is dying to get another gig, or recruit others too (Sorry, Adam, you’re great, but you’re fast becoming the Samuel L Jackson to Wes Studi’s Morgan Freeman of Native actors, give others a chance, eh?). I guarantee you, an actor with that cultural background will bring a whole new dimension to the character that transcends the boundary of the TV screen, reaching out to the audience in a way that a white actor cannot.

But it’s not that the actor voicing Korra is white. (Way to create jobs for minority voice actors, Nick.) It’s not that it was yet ANOTHER coming-of-age story (like we don’t have enough of those already). But it’s that last scene. Them just holdings hands. I loved it the first time I saw it. I still do. I thought it was sweet, innocent and hinted at something great for children’s TV (i.e. no longer pretending like other sexualities are not a thing). But it was vague enough that it let “fans” take to twitter in a storm and say “no, she is not. I’m taking my strictly hetero marbles and leaving, yo.” But I wanted more. I wanted them to embrace and kiss while rose petals fell from the ethereal planes and spirits danced in a spiral around them, while violins played in the background and sparks flew. If you’re wondering where the sparks came from, it would be from the screens of all the homophobes watching. I mean, keep it PG-13, but give me something! Go full Hollywood with it, just to rub it in everyone’s faces. “Yes, she’s bi. Deal with it!”

I’m not blaming the authors. I guess what they did is already pretty bold by today’s standards (which is a sad statement in an of itself). I just want a bisexual non-white female character in a children’s TV show to be seen as something perfectly normal. Why? Good question, I don’t know, because… it is? I want that to be the shtick of a popular TV series and not cause a fuss. And I want to be able to stop praising people for writing “inclusively”. Because inclusivity implies that there is exclusivity to be fought.

The inclusion of a scene with two girls holding hands in a way that may or may not be romantic may be seen as a step forward from nothing. But is it enough? For me it was wishy-washy, non-committal, maybe-maybe-not-maybe-bother-someone-else. What I’m asking is… own it. Commit to it. Embrace it. Make sweet, sweet love to it and let it bear babies. Diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, polyglot babies who don’t go “ewwww” when they see two girls kissing on screen. A next generation of art that acknowledges that someone’s sexuality does not need to fit neatly in a box, that girls kissing girls is normal and that we’re all free to be what we want.

And, in the end, Korra and Asami are perfect together, and you know it!

On rainbows and empathy

It has been a good month for LGBT rights. Ireland votes YES (Cheers, by the way) and the supreme court apparently decided that everyone has the right to put a rainbow over their profile pictures on Facebook (don’t get me started on that).

However…

So recently the supreme court of the USofA has decided to join the 21st century and finally (FINALLY!) passed a ruling that guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. A decision which is, let’s be clear, nothing but good. Great, in fact. Finally, people are guaranteed a basic right and can avoid discrimination, at least in the eyes of the law.

Sweet, right? So let’s put on our rainbow T-shirts and wave our rainbow flags as we march down the street being happy – gay, if you will. But if you’ll allow me, I’d kindly ask that we take off our rainbow-tinted glasses off for a minute and take a good, long look at all the facets of this situation.

It has been a good month for LGBT rights. Ireland votes YES (Cheers, by the way) and the supreme court apparently decided that everyone has the right to put a rainbow over their profile pictures on Facebook (don’t get me started on that).

Yes, it’s great, but when what we’ve accomplished in the 21st century is to pass a law admitting that the Greeks were right over two thousand years ago, we haven’t really advanced as a civilisation. We’re just playing catch-up.

Speaking of Facebook, it was there that I proposed that straight people celebrating the victory of equal right (singular) for same-sex people might be a tad hypocritical and perhaps – dare I say it? – undeserved. Instead, I advocated humility and that we bow our heads in shame and apologise. I may not have said it in quite so polite a way at the time, but the idea remains the same. Instead of putting rainbows on Facebook as if we deserved it, let’s replace our profile photos of our grinning heterosexual faces with black, blank pictures in memory of those who died for us to come to this decision.

Call your lesbian friend and apologise to her. Walk up to the first transvestite you see on the street, give him or her a hug and tell them how ashamed you are to live in a world where it’s still ok to say on Television“that’s so gay” like it’s a bad thing. Seriously, do it now.

We – that is straight people – those of us who were born with our wires crossed in such a way that we are attracted to the opposite gender, we represent the privileged majority who have been guaranteed the right to get married since we were ushered into this world. And many of us will happily leave the way we came in – ignorant and ungrateful. How many people you know went down to city hall or literally down the aisle and put rings on each other’s fingers then said some malarkey about till death do them part, and never once spared a thought to the gay couple living on their street who couldn’t do that because some white dudes in unironically wearing black dresses decided that was offensive to their personal beliefs?

How does that not make you angry?

So congratulations to all my gay friends who can finally get married legally in the US and Ireland and everywhere else. But what do I say to those who still can’t? Better luck next year? Move to Ireland?

Are you fucking kidding me?

I’m sorry. I can’t be happy. I can’t afford to because I remember what happened up to this point and I know that this changes little. People will continue to discriminate because that’s what people do, and because they are taught to do so from early on. Religious parents will continue to terrorise their gay children with the wrath of some dude who couldn’t procreate except through parthenogenesis. I’m still going to have to tell children in my classroom that it’s wrong to call their friends “gay” like it’s an insult – only to have their parents berate me later because I’m apparently indoctrinating their children – and they will continue to bully that one kid who’s a little different. I cannot be happy because my own friend refused to tell me he was gay because he thought I wouldn’t talk to him anymore if I found out. I can’t be anything but angry because when I see pictures of lesbian couples holding hands in celebration of these decisions I am reminded of my friends who are insulted and spat on in the streets for doing the same.

I will be angry until this stops. I will continue to rage at the injustice and I will not offer a free pass to anyone because we, the straight people, are not off the hook. We do not deserve to pat ourselves on the backs and celebrate this victory because it’s not ours. A friend made a snide remark about empathy allowing them to be happy for others. Empathy is what makes me angry. Empathy keeps me up at night when I see discrimination. Empathy makes me want to walk up to the first white middle-class straight dude and punch him in the face. Even if it means punching myself.

Far be it from me to tell someone not to be happy. Be happy if it makes you happy. I’ll be angry for the both of us, then. I’ll be happy when I wake up in a world where discrimination has stopped stopping people from being able to live their lives – and yes, be happy.

Which means I will go angry to my grave, and that’s something I can live with.