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Saturday, March 7, 2015

People being stupid about Zarya

Sigh.


Guys, Zarya is a character in a video game. Not a real person auditioning to be your girlfriend.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Zarya

Today at PAX East, Blizzard revealed two new playable characters for its upcoming FPS game Overwatch, announced last November at BlizzCon. You can see a video of the entire presentation  here.

The two heroes announced are a futuristic outlaw gunslinger called McCree, and a Russian "tank" soldier called Zarya. Game director for Overwatch Jeff Kaplan introduced them, speaking with obvious enthusiasm and affection.

"There's a hero out there for everyone, and we all have different fantasies," said Kaplan as he
introduced the new characters. "Our goal with Overwatch heroes is that there's fantasy fulfillment for as many players as possible, to really deliver on that promise of a very diverse heroic experience."

With that, he announced the game's first female tank character, Aleksansdra Zaryanova, AKA Zarya:
She is a dedicated and loyal hero. Her goal in life was to become a championship weightlifter, and she was right on the cusp of fulfilling that fantasy . . . then strife broke out in her village, and she put all of that aside to defend her homeland. . . She's lawful good; she's who you wanna be when you grow up. 
But there's some other stuff to talk about, too. We've been hearing a lot of discussion amongst players about the need for more diversity in video games. And that means a lot of things. They want to see gender diversity. They want to see racial diversity. They want to see diversity along the lines of what country people are from. 
But there's also talk about diversity in different body types, and not everybody wants to have the exact same body type always represented. And we just want you to know that we're listening, and we're trying hard, and we hope Zarya is a step in the right direction to show you that we're paying attention. 
Kaplan obviously had some notes to which he was referring in this presentation, but it didn't appear to be scripted.

I'm honestly shocked to see such a frank acknowledgment that the desire for greater diversity in playable characters has made an impact on design decisions for this game-- and not just "diversity," but body diversity. In a game about futuristic heroes which features robots, a genetically manipulated gorilla, and more cyborg-esque augmentation than you could shake a stick at.

I think most character designers for video games might take pause at the idea of constructing
characters with special consideration to cosplay, but here are a couple of basic facts about cosplay:
  • It's an integral element of geek public life, omnipresent at cons, the foundation of many a livelihood, and the basis in which some practitioners find their best creative outlet, and also
  • There is a relentless and entirely understandable urge for cosplayers to have characters which look somewhat like themselves to use as inspiration. 
Zarya would make for some really fun cosplay. It's kind of funny how she's no less an example of physical perfection and beauty than any of the other female characters, but yet she's sexy and powerful and not bizarrely dressed for her role-- she looks like a futuristic soldier.

See? It's absolutely possible.

Props to you, Blizzard. We're watching, and appreciate it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Oversexualize? Overnope.

Last November during BlizzCon, I wrote a post critiquing the design of some of the female playable characters as compared to the male characters in the newly revealed but not yet released FPS game Overwatch. In it, I addressed the following comment made by Blizzard senior vice president Chris Metzen:
Specifically for Overwatch over the past year we've been really cognizant of that, trying not to oversexualize the female characters. I don't know if we oversexualize the male characters. But it's something we're very sensitive to.
I boggled at the idea of not knowing whether you oversexualize the male characters in your games, and concluded: No, you definitely are not.

Yesterday on that post, a commenter named "blank" asked:
My question to you is, how would YOU oversexualize a male character?
Here's my answer to that question: I can't. It is impossible for me to oversexualize a male character in a video game.

Here's why:

Obviously I am not any sort of game designer, specifically not a character concept artist for any video game, but let's pretend that I am.

Let's pretend that I have both unlimited funding with which to produce a video game, and unlimited creative control over its content. Let's imagine that having all of these resources and control, I decided to make the most sexual game possible involving male characters.

In order to maximize the sexualization of the male characters in this game, I would leave out female characters altogether. I would, effectively, make a gay porn movie in video game form.

In this gay porn game, because we're talking about the design of fictional characters here, I would exaggerate all of the sexual characteristics of these male characters far beyond what is possible in real life. I would exaggerate their secondary sexual characteristics as well, so that not only would these be the most well-endowed male characters ever, but they would also be the most unquestionably male. And they would be doing...well, what you'd expect to find in a gay porn movie turned video game.  That is the greatest extent to which it's possible for me, personally, to sexualize male characters.

(Would I then want to play this video game? Eh....no thanks.)

But that doesn't answer the question. The question was regarding what I would do to oversexualize male characters, and, as already stated, I can't do that.

That's because in this case, the "over" in "oversexualized" refers to frequency.

A trope is a device in story-telling which appears frequently. In today's usage in pop culture, it typically refers to such a device being used so frequently that it becomes hackneyed, cliché. That's the sense in which Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes v. Women in Video Games series is named, something which I've noticed seems to be all too often lost on its detractors. "She totally misrepresented the game mechanics in Hitman!" they will complain, as if such a gripe is devastating to the point of a video series dedicated to pointing out repeated use of depictions of female characters over time and throughout the industry, and discussing how the near-ubiquity of such depictions is bothersome and even harmful.

When Tropes v. Women says that women in video games are oversexualized, that's the kind of "over" it's talking about. Compared to that, my exaggerated gay porn video game would be a drop in the proverbial bucket. Maybe the non-proverbial pond, lake, or sea.

To ask how I would oversexualize male characters in video games is akin to asking how I would make America heterophobic. How I would make the country overly concerned about ending poverty. How I'd render the world's hungry overly fed.

It's funny to imagine, isn't it? But yeah, that kind of "over" is not gonna happen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Nothing more spectacular about him

The BBC has a profile on Omar El-Hussein, the man who carried out Saturday's killings in Copenhagen. He apparently was assisted by two other men, who have since been taken in police custody. They were charged with providing El-Hussein with weapons and helping him escape after the attacks.

We know El-Hussein was not an immigrant-- he was a native Dane. He first attacked a gathering of people discussing free speech and blasphemy, and then a synagogue, in what looks like a clear attempt to emulate the Charlie Hebdo masscre in Paris in January (Charlie Hebdo offices in that case and then kosher market). Lars Vilks told the AP that he believed the Charlie Hebdo attacks "inspired" the shootings in Copenhagen.

According to the BBC, El-Hussein had in fact just been out of prison for two weeks before Saturday's attacks. He sounds like a rabble-rouser and anti-Semite:
El-Hussein told psychologists he had a happy childhood and a good relationship with his parents and younger brother, according to a report obtained by Danish broadcaster TV2, but he failed to graduate from school or win a place at university. 
Classmates who spoke to the Ekstra Bladet newspaper (in Danish) remembered a loner with a hot temper who loved to discuss Islam and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He was not afraid to voice a hatred of Jews, said one. 
As a young man he was a criminal rather than a radical - reportedly arrested twice for possession of cannabis but let off with a warning. 
He took up kickboxing and began to smoke cannabis heavily. He was arrested once in a Copenhagen nightclub with a knife, and another time with brass knuckles - earning him a night in custody, according to Ekstra Bladet. 
But things took a much more serious turn in November 2013 when El-Hussein stabbed a 19-year-old man on a subway train. He evaded capture but was arrested by chance two months later in connection with a burglary, the Politiken newspaper reported (in Danish). 
He escaped an attempted murder charge, convicted instead of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to two years in prison. 
I'm sure the response by many Americans to this would be that El-Hussein just didn't sit in prison for long enough, but short prison sentences (compared to in America, that is) are normal in Denmark, and it has worked out pretty well for the country so far.

Rather, some people are arguing that the problem-- at least, I hasten to say, concerning last weekend's killings-- may have been that he went to prison at all:
Prison guards in Denmark fear Hussein, 22, was the latest case of prison radicalization — in which criminals become devotees of militant Islam. 
Union leader Kim Østerbye said that Hussein had been housed in Copenhagen's Vestre Fængsel alongside extremists including convicted terrorist Said Mansor, who had previously tried to radicalize other inmates. 
He said many young Muslim inmates at the facility were openly anti-Semitic and cheered in happiness at news of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January. He said they often chanted and called for the execution of cartoonists who depict the Prophet Muhammad. 
The prison service would not comment on the claims when contacted by NBC News. 
A reporter who covered Hussein's assault trial told NBC News that the young man had seemed liked "just a hardened criminal" rather than an Islamist extremist before going to prison. 
"Omar, at the trial, didn't seem religious at all. Almost the opposite," Jesper Braarud Larsen said earlier this week. "He just seemed like a callous, hardened criminal … nothing more spectacular about him."
Interesting phrasing there, when "religious" in this case means "interprets his Muslim faith to justify murdering Jews and blasphemers." That isn't the opposite of being a callous, hardened criminal at all, is it? That's being a callous, hardened criminal whose choices of worthy targets of crime have shifted to focus on perceived enemies of religion.

Or maybe it wasn't that much of a shift? The passion for Islam was already there. The anti-Semitism was already there. I can't seem to find any further details about the identify of the 19 year old man El-Hussein was imprisoned for stabbing, but if he had also been a blasphemer or Jewish (or both) it wouldn't exactly be incongruous with either El-Hussein's previous character or his post-imprisonment terrorism.

It's tempting to say that Larsen, the reporter, was valorizing religion-- claiming that religious people are somehow by definition not criminals-- but I think it's more likely he meant that they are not petty criminals. That "spectacular" Islamist extremists are a fundamentally different sort of person than thuggish pot smokers who carry brass knuckles to clubs.

I'm afraid-- really, this thought frightens me-- that they're not. That's the banality of evil for you.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Brief summary and context of yesterday's violence in Copenhagen

Yesterday a symposium to discuss blasphemy and the meaning of free speech was held at a cafe in Copenhagen called Krudttønden.

In attendance at this meeting was Lars Vilks, a 68 year old Swedish man upon whose head the Islamic State placed a $100,000 bounty for his 2007 depictions of Islamic prophet Muhammad as a "roundabout dog" (As a dog, basically. An Invasion of the Body Snatchers-reminiscent creature standing on four legs with a human head, bearded, wearing a keffiyeh).

According to the BBC,
A description of the event asked whether artists could "dare" to be blasphemous in the wake of attacks by Islamist gunmen in Paris last month against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In an indication of the threat faced by the cartoonist, a note was included on the website saying there was always "strict security" whenever he spoke in public.
Inna Shevchenko of the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN was reportedly speaking when the shots were fired. She said later:
I was talking about freedom of speech. I said that sometimes one has the illusion of being able to take advantage of this freedom, but it is an illusion and it is at this moment that we heard a burst of gunfire. 
 According to Jenny Wenhammer, who was in attendance [roughly translated]:
Gunfire when Lars Vilks Committee today held an international meeting in Copenhagen on "Art, blasphemy and freedom of expression". During the Femen International's leader Inna Shevchenko's speech for two hours, then were fired 20-40 shot outside the doors and all started running. The French ambassador was also there to discuss Islam. Vilks was able to escape into a cold room, and Inna fled with others out through the back door.
The French ambassador, Francois Zimeray, tweeted during the attack that he was "still alive in the room." One attendee, however, was not. The shooter reportedly fled the area in a black Volkswagon Polo while pursued by police, leaving behind one murdered civilian, Finn Norgaard, and three wounded police officers.

The shooter, identified later as 22-year-old native Dane Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein, wasn't finished.

A few hours later and some miles south in Copenhagen there was another murder outside the Krystalgade Synagogue, of a 37-year-old man called Dan Uzan who was a member of the local Jewish community and was guarding the synagogue while a bat mitzvah was going on inside. Two additional police officers were shot and wounded in their arms and legs.

Copenhagen police reportedly killed el-Hussein last night after he opened fire on them in the Norrebro district. The officers had been staking out the address they had identified as his, and when he returned home he pulled a gun and fired on them. They returned fire and shot him dead.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt did not hesitate to call el-Hussein's acts terrorism, saying
We will defend our democracy. When the Jewish community is attacked, the whole of Denmark is attacked. The Jewish community does not stand alone. We don't know the motive for the attacks but we know that there are forces that want to harm Denmark, that want to crush our freedom of expression, our belief in liberty. We are not facing a fight between Islam and the West, it is not a fight between Muslims and non-Muslims.
My friend and former colleague Anders Lisdorf, who lives and works in Copenhagen, had this to say:
Our company office is 100 meters away from where the "terrorist" apparently used to live and was shot. I have lived and worked in the area for 10 years. I like the neighbourhood a lot, so first of all I can tell you that most people are not terrorists, but in general very nice and decent people, so I am not afraid to go there tomorrow. 
I can also tell you that you cannot walk in peace with a jewish Kippa there, because you will be harassed by certain Muslim residents and violently so. The Mosques in the area have been known to preach a less than tolerant agenda. It is a poor neighbourhood with the typical problems of such a neighbourhood. The attacker was also involved in gangs and illegal gun possession. 
These problems are everywhere. In Norway it was a fundamentalist nationalist who was the terrorist (Breivik). The real issue is not the west versus Islam, I agree, but to protect tolerance and fight racism. We have to take issue with racists no matter whether they are Western Nationalists, Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Naming of names

At work the other day, we got into a discussion about names. Weird family names, bizarre nicknames, the difference (if any) between your given name and the name you have now, and how that came to be.

We talked about how it's impossible to find a name for your child that will ensure he or she won't get picked on in school, and went around the table talking about what horrible mutations of our own names we'd been confronted with in our childhoods.

When it was my turn, I was able to rattle of a list of what I'd thought would be obvious disparaging forms of my own name: Retchin', Witchy, Retch, Bitchy, Bitchen...and that's just for my first name. Coworkers, however, were surprised. Of course they were-- they're all adults. If it had ever occurred to any of them to call me by one of those names, they didn't let on.

Whenever I see someone I care about deliberately referred to by the wrong name, even if it's a variation of their actual name that they just don't use, I think of third grade bullies. That, to me, is the level of maturity displayed by someone who uses this tactic of insult. Frequently it meant just using the dimunitive form of someone's name without their consent-- Mike becomes Mikey, Tom becomes Tommy, Sophia becomes Sophie, Elizabeth becomes Lizzy, etc.

Nothing's wrong with those versions of the names, of course, and sometimes the dimunitive version is even someone's given name. In other case it's chosen as an alternative by the name's owner. The point is, that's the person's actual name. That's what they go by. That's what they expect you to call them.

Warping a person's name into something they do not go by is condescending at best. You know this-- you've heard the tone with which Bob becomes Bobby to someone who doesn't like him. But doing so as a deliberate insult is actually akin to bigotry, I think.

Strong claim? Oh, definitely. But here's something to consider-- your first name at least is, in most cases, a circumstance of bith. In the same way that you were born Canadian or Australian, male or female, white or Latino, ectomorph or endomorph, you are very likely to have been born Jamal or Harriet.

Turning you into Jabba or Hairy-It is, then, pretty much like calling you fat or a ginger, or making fun of your accent. It's insulting a trait that the person (likely) didn't choose, can't do much about, has lived with for his/her entire life, and most importantly has no moral quality whatsoever.  As circumstances of birth don't. If you don't like someone's name, that is an aesthetic judgment, a matter of taste. It says absolutely nothing about how good or intelligent or brave or educated they are. Or aren't.

It's funny that we call these things superficial characteristics, because in reality they go deep. Anything you've lived with for your entire life is going to be personal. Making fun of a lifelong "superficial characteristic" is trying to cut someone to the core over a thing unrelated to character, that they can do nothing about. That sounds an awful lot like bigotry, doesn't it?

That's why I don't think you should make fun of people's names. It's not because I'm opposed to insults-- not by a long shot-- but I'm opposed to that kind of insult.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Calling it justice doesn't make it just

Barack Obama shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's new king Salman
Credit: Jim Bourg/Reuters
Apparently in the uproar over beheadings committed by ISIS, some have noticed that America's ally Saudi Arabia has committed quite a few of them as well:
The escalation of the war against the Islamic State was triggered by widespread revulsion at the gruesome beheading of two American journalists, relayed on YouTube. Since then, two British aid workers have met a similar grisly fate. And another American has been named as next in line by his terrorist captors. 
Yet, for all the outrage these executions have engendered the world over, decapitations are routine in Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Arab ally, for crimes including political dissent—and the international press hardly seems to notice. In fact, since January, 59 people have had their heads lopped off in the kingdom, where “punishment by the sword” has been practiced for centuries. 
In an article published today, a representative of Saudi government actually attempted a defense of this:
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told NBC News that Saudi criminal punishments were legitimate because they were based on "a decision made by a court" rather than ISIS' "arbitrary" killings. . . 
"When we do it in Saudi Arabia we do it as a decision made by a court," he said. "The killing is a decision, I mean it is not based on arbitrary choices, to kill this and not to kill this."

ISIS regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law.

Al-Turki said that "ISIS has no legitimate way to decide to decide to kill people," adding that "the difference is clear."

 "When you kill somebody without legitimate basis, without justice system, without court, that is still a crime whether you behead them or kill [them] with a gun," al-Turki said, referring to ISIS' killings.
"Arbitrary" means "random, without reason." If ISIS "regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law," then ISIS's killing are not arbitrary-- they are based on Shariah law. When the Islamic State murdered French mountaineer Herve Gourdel in the mountains of Algeria, it was to threaten the French into ceasing airstrikes on the area. That is not arbitrary. When they beheaded beheaded Raad al-Azzawi, a TV Salaheddin cameraman, east of Tikrit in Iraq, it was claimed to be in retaliation for the TV station "distorting the image of Iraq's Sunni community." That is not arbitrary.

Is it legitimate? Is it just? No, of course not. It's barbaric and inhuman. But is that because it doesn't take place within a "justice system"? Within a court?

Saudi Arabia's "justice system," as it happens, is also based on Shariah law. As it happens, it also hands down brutal sentences.

Now, Mansour al-Turki does have a point-- when you kill someone without legitimate basis, it's still a crime regardless of how you kill them. Although in Saudi Arabia, it's not at all uncommon for people to be killed by the "justice system" without legitimate basis. But for just a moment, let's look at a case where someone wasn't killed:
A Saudi Arabian man suspects his five year old daughter of losing her virginity. He forces her to get an examination, then brings her home, where he repeatedly rapes her, and beats her to death with a cane and cables. He crushed her skull, broke her back, ribs and left arm, and burned her in several places. The Saudi royal family prevents him from being released after only a few months in jail and a fine, and a court eventually sentences him to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes. However, he pays her mother blood money ($270,000 – a boy would have been worth double that price), and is released after only a couple of years.
This case is intended to be in contrast to another case of another person who wasn't killed-- at least, not yet-- but has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes with a whip, for the "crime" of apostasy. Raif Badawi. According to Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme,
Badawi – who founded “Saudi Arabian Liberals”, a website for political and social debate – has been in detention since June 2012 on charges including “setting up a website that undermines general security” and ridiculing Islamic religious figures. . . 
“Raif Badawi’s trial for ‘apostasy’ is a clear case of intimidation against him and others who seek to engage in open debates about the issues that Saudi Arabians face in their daily lives. He is a prisoner of conscience who must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Barbaric? Yes. Inhuman? Absolutely. Exceptional in any way to Saudi Arabia's "justice system"? Nope.
Whatever the reason for the timing, the wave of executions at the same time as jihadis in Iraq and Syria were beheading captives has brought new scrutiny to the practices of a country whose values are so different from those of its Western allies. 
While Saudi Arabia has joined U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and has deployed its senior clergy to denounce militant ideology, its public beheading of convicts, particularly for non-violent or victimless crimes like adultery, apostasy and witchcraft, is anathema to Western allies. 
“Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
So if ISIS were to establish its own courts, and refer to the proceedings of those courts as "justice," and claim that this makes their own barbarism "legitimate," could we expect the Major General Mansour al-Turki to agree?  I suspect not.

I suspect that even he knows that.

Maybe somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knows that barbarism is in how you kill someone and what you kill them for.

That torture is barbaric regardless, but especially in judgment of the content of a person's speech.

That legality is not morality, and just because an appointed group of human beings in a particular society says that something is wrong, doesn't mean that it is. That appointed groups of people are not, all things being equal, necessarily any better arbiters of morality than any individual human being on his/her own-- and in fact, sometimes they're worse.

That enforcing religious rules as laws may not inexorably lead to barbarism, but it will always punish apostasy over immorality, and therefore the enemies of that faith rather than those of the state.

Okay, yes, he wouldn't agree to that. But nevertheless, the contradiction is clear. Don't even try to defend it, Mansour al-Turki. You cannot.

And neither can we Americans. If Saudi Arabia is our ally, we will be judged by the company we keep.