I want to see you happy, I want to see you shine… Why #EvPsych is #atheist fantasy #atheism

Pop-atheists have a problem with mental content.

Mind! (Ha) I don’t mean to say that they have a problem with their particular mental content (which is, coincidentally, wrong-headed), rather that they have a problem with mental content in general.  They don’t like it.

Here’s the puzzle: although I know that red light is a particular wavelength of light that hits my eye, bounces on to the optic nerve, then sparks up various neurons in my brain or whatever, I can’t work out from the knowing of that red light what the experience (what we call ‘qualia‘) of seeing that red light is just from the data about the wavelength.  Similarly, I can’t look at a brain scan and, using that data alone, know what it’s like to experience that brain state.  There’s a gap between the material interaction of the world and the subjective experience of the world.

And this spooks pop-atheists.

Pop-atheists really want to say that mental states are identical to brain states, but there’s no evidence for it.  And there’s good evidence against it.

There’s also philosophical problems with it, for example when we engage in mental content which is not coextensive with some physical content (abstracts and universals, for example).  I can think of the number two without thinking of any specific instance of two things, for example.

But pop-atheists are having a red hot go of trying to tame the world of mental content.  One way they’ve tried to do this is through a concept called ‘evolutionary psychology’ which tries to explain behaviour (a related group of ideas to mental content).  According to evolutionary psychologists and people who sit up all night editing Wikipedia articles, evolutionary psychology argues that behaviour is a result of psychological mechanisms and that these psychological mechanisms are the result of natural selection.

There’s a lengthy history discussing whether or not behaviour is a result of psychological mechanisms.  For the purposes of being charitable, let’s say that it’s entirely non-contentious that your behaviour is a direct result from your mental content.  The second half should interest us more: the psychological processes that go on inside your head are the result of natural selection.

Over in the quagmire of stupid known as FreeThoughtBlogs, one blog manages to semi-regularly escape the echo chamber of pop-atheism: Jen McCreight’s BlagHag.  In a recent post, she noted the theory’s unfalsifiability:

My favorite example of this comes from the Evolutionary Psychology class I took in undergrad. Now, I was originally super excited about this class. As someone who was interested in human evolution, behavior, and sex, I thought that evolutionary psychology was my calling. That was until we got to a specific lecture on human sexuality. We were discussing a study that was investigating patterns of human promiscuity, and the professor asked us to come up evolutionary explanations to describe the data we could potentially see. Most people came up with something along the lines of “Female humans will not be promiscuous because pregnancy has more cost to them and they need a monogamous mate to help rear the child, where men will be very promiscuous  because they want to spread their seed as much as possible.”

I’m sure you’ve all heard that argument somewhere before. But I presented an alternative hypothesis: “Female humans have cryptic fertility – it’s hard to tell when they’re ovulating – so they will be equally promiscuous, because then no man will know if the child is theirs so they will all pitch in to help rear the child.” I presented this idea because evolutionary psychology often looks to primitive tribes for its hypotheses, and we see my scenario happening in many tribes of South America.

My professor nodded and said that was a good alternative explanation. I asked how we would be able to distinguish between the two hypotheses, but he didn’t seem to understand why that mattered. He saw evolutionary psychology as being able to explain either situation, so in his mind it only supported the field of evolutionary psychology because it was able to explain anything!

But the ability to come up with an explanation for anything is not what makes something scientific. Creationism can come up with an explanation for anything – “God did it” – and that is not scientific. To be scientific you need your predictions to be falsifiable, and unfortunately right now evolutionary psychology is closer to creationism than it is evolutionary biology. [Source: McCreight, ‘Paleofantasy: When people act like cavemen because they misunderstand evolution‘, BlagHag]

I have more than a few examples of people on websites making all kinds of outrageous claims — the worst of which was used as a way of arguing that rape really wasn’t as big a deal as everybody intuitively believes it is — but we don’t crack open an issue by looking at it’s most stupid claims.  That would be like pointing to the most extreme religious fundamentalists as a reason to dismiss theology, and we will not be having Dawkins-like arguments here in this blog.

In ‘Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology‘, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides set out five basic principles to the evolutionary psychology argument:

C-1: Each organ in the body evolved to serve a function: The intestines digest, the heart pumps blood, and the liver detoxifies poisons. The brain’s evolved function is to extract information from the environment and use that information to generate behavior and regulate physiology. Hence, the brain is not just like a computer. It is a computer—that is, a physical system that was designed to process information (Advance 1). Its programs were designed not by an engineer, but by natural selection, a causal process that retains and discards design features based on how well they solved adaptive problems in past environments (Advance 4).

The fact that the brain processes information is not an accidental side effect of some metabolic process. The brain was designed by natural selection to be a computer. Therefore, if you want to describe its operation in a way that captures its evolved function, you need to think of it as composed of programs that process information. The question then becomes: What programs are to be found in the human brain? What are the reliably developing, species-typical programs that, taken together, comprise the human mind?

C-2: Individual behavior is generated by this evolved computer, in response to information that it extracts from the internal and external environment (including the social environment, Advance 1). To understand an individual’s behavior, therefore, you need to know both the information that the person registered and the structure of the programs that generated his or her behavior.

C-3: The programs that comprise the human brain were sculpted over evolutionary time by the ancestral environments and selection pressures experienced by the hunter-gatherers from whom we are descended (Advances 2 and 4). Each evolved program exists because it produced behavior that promoted the survival and reproduction of our ancestors better than alternative programs that arose during human evolutionary history. Evolutionary psychologists emphasize hunter-gatherer life because the evolutionary process is slow—it takes thousands of generations to build a program of any complexity. The industrial revolution—even the agricultural revolution—is too brief a period to have selected for complex new cognitive programs.

C-4: Although the behavior our evolved programs generate would, on average, have been adaptive (reproduction promoting) in ancestral environments, there is no guarantee that it will be so now. Modern environments differ importantly from ancestral ones, particularly when it comes to social behavior. We no longer live in small, face-to-face societies, in seminomadic bands of 20 to 100 people, many of whom were close relatives. Yet, our cognitive programs were designed for that social world.

C-5: Perhaps most importantly, natural selection will ensure that the brain is composed of many different programs, many (or all) of which will be specialized for solving their own corresponding adaptive problems. That is, the evolutionary process will not produce a predominantly general-purpose, equipotential, domain-general architecture (Advance 3). [Source]

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on evolutionary psychology breaks this down a bit further:

1. The brain is a computer designed by natural selection to extract information from the environment.
2. Individual human behavior is generated by this evolved computer in response to information it extracts from the environment. Understanding behavior requires articulating the cognitive programs that generate the behavior.
3. The cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations. They exist because they produced behavior in our ancestors that enabled them to survive and reproduce.
4. The cognitive programs of the human brain may not be adaptive now; they were adaptive in ancestral environments.
5. Natural selection ensures that the brain is composed of many different special purpose programs and not a domain general architecture.
6. Describing the evolved computational architecture of our brains “allows a systematic understanding of cultural and social phenomena” [Source]

But it’s based on a bigger claim:

Consequently, systems of complex, antientropic functional organization (adaptations) in organisms require explanation wherever they are found; their correct explanation (barring supernatural events or artificial intervention) always involves a specific history of selection in ancestral environments; and so the prediction, discovery, mapping, and understanding of the functional architecture of organisms can be greatly facilitated by analyzing the recurrent structure of a species’ ancestral world, in conjunction with the selection pressures that operated ancestrally. [Source]

There is a gap between ‘supernatural events or artificial intervention’ and ‘specific history of selection in ancestral environments’. Tooby and Cosmides jump from one extreme to the other because they’ve already decided that they’re not going to entertain the ‘blank slate’ theory of brains (where humans are born tabula rasa and their neural systems are conditioned and trained to work in a particular way as they grow up).  It is curious that evolutionary psychologists accuse critics of arguing strawmen when the evolutionary psychologists do it themselves…

Combining the two ideas, we become increasingly uneasy about what’s being argued.  Organs evolve to perform functions?  Brains are like computers (certainly not like today’s computers which process symbols)?  Brains retain and discard processes based on how well they functioned in the past?  And all of this is based on some specific history of selection in ancestral environments?

When you have to ignore a comprehensive body of literature proving that brains are not just like computers (as we understand them), you know you’re not off to a good start.

But, perhaps most importantly, there’s this: ‘The cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations.‘  There’s no evidence for this and yet we have a lot of evidence suggesting that we adapt our behaviour based on lifespan events.  I react with fear, for example, due to a certain stimulus (I have phobias).  We think this was the result of a particular event in my childhood.  But that would mean that the ‘cognitive program’ wasn’t an adaptation, but a development I didn’t inherit.  Like an ape reaching five years old and then adapting straight into being a human.

The response from the evolutionary psychologists: ‘No, no.  We’re not talking about specific behaviour based on specific stimuli.  It’s your reaction of fear that’s adaptive.’  Yet my brother’s behaviour (the expression of the cognitive program) in response to fear is very different to my own.  It would be like a hen giving birth to a goat and a turtle.

Perhaps he just inherited a different adaptation of the cognitive program for a response to fear (just as he has hazel eyes and I have blue)…

And so it goes.  More than just specific examples being unfalsifiable, as Creight claims, the actual project of evolutionary psychology is unfalsifiable because the goalposts keep shifting.  Not only do we lack any evidence that behaviour is the result of ‘cognitive programs’, we have no idea how such cognitive programs could be adaptive.  I might respond to fear in one way, all of my kids might respond to fear in a completely different way, all of their kids might respond to fear in an entirely different way again, there’s no selection pressure keeping the system regular.

So why are there so many self diagnosed ‘evolutionary psychologists’?  I suspect it’s because some of them have heard of Stephen Pinker’s book How the Mind Works and — like newborn chicklets that attach to whatever they first see as their mother — were extremely impressionable.  They were programmed that way.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect is the way that the pseudo-science is coopted for particularly foul political positions.

But perhaps the most baffling aspect is the way people who’ve read about evolutionary psychology in pop-science books respond to criticism.  Like many aspects of the pop-atheist corpus, you can’t challenge evolutionary psychology without a bunch of com.sci dudebros flaming you with incoherent babble about why guys like sex more than women or something (I — with absolutely no evidence to back me up — suspect that they’re trying to normalise their sex lives: they want it but no woman wants to sleep with them).  You don’t get heated flamewars about, say, string theory.  What is it about evolutionary psychology that makes people go completely batshit insane?  What specific history of selection in ancestral environments created this cognitive program?

A shiny penny to the reader who comes up with the funniest (and, therefore, most correct) theory.

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Let’s raise the bar and our cups to the stars… Why Disney Villains are better role models

While most of Gawker media’s outlets have deteriorated significantly in quality (I’m especially looking at you, io9 — although I still swoon over Esther’s articles), Jezebel is still worth reading.  On Saturday, they posted an article, ‘Screw Princesses — Disney Villains Are the Real Role Models‘.

Princesses are usually defined by their sexuality and fascination with pretty objects and cute baby animals. White Disney princesses wear puffy gowns with petticoats (Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, Aurora) and non-white princesses dress the same way sorority girls do for questionably-themed parties. (Jasmine, Pocahontas, even, to a lesser extent, Mulan.) I didn’t want to be saved; I wanted to drive the plot rather than be pushed into a happy ending.

So instead, I was fascinated by villains, particularly Maleficent, the self-proclaimed Mistress of All Evil. She’s cunning, she’s ruthless, and she has a sick wardrobe. Not to mention: DRAGONS. Maleficent demands respect, and I expected the same, which is why, as a four year old, I refused to answer to anything other than “Maleficent” for months. [Source: Baker, ‘Screw Princesses — Disney Villains Are the Real Role Models‘, Jezebel]

The article is great and discusses the Baker’s (the author) desire to grow up like a Disney villain instead of a Disney princess.  It’s great stuff.

But it also got me thinking.  Having had quite a bit of practice at reading waaaaay too much into things and a lifetime of mansplaining, I thought: ‘Why do we see the villains as villains in these movies?’

You might respond: ‘Mark, old buddy, there’s no extra level of meaning here.  Grimhilde tries to kill Snow White.  Maleficent tries to kill Sleeping Beauty.  Ursula tries to turn people into wormy things.  These characters are evil because they do bad things.  Open and shut.  Get back to doing real things.’

But I think you’re wrong.  You sort of knew that Grimhilde was evil long before she went all ‘Time to eat Snow White’s heart!’  Maleficent is clearly the villain of the play from the second she appears in an explosion of green smoke, long before she gave Aurora a pretty shitty birthday gift.  While Ursula is a bit more of the ‘Muahaha, I’m evil!’ type of villain, her big crime isn’t that sinister: allowing Ariel to enter into a contract when she’s clearly a minor.

I clang on a lot about the necessary laziness of storytellers.  For folklore and fairytales, you sometimes need shortcuts to point out to the audience who is the evildoer.  All too often, this requires the audience to fill in the blanks with their prejudices.

Thus, in an underwater world of slender Caucasian women, Ursula is clearly the enemy because she has darker colours and a BMI greater than 18.5.  Although having tentacles and two nasty looking eels doesn’t help her win friends, her legalism is also a sort of unnatural evil.  Resorting to contracts and legal negotiations is no place for a woman — even one with tentacles and ugly eels.  Women should be interested in thingamabobs, whozits and whatzits galore.  The final demonstration of her evil is that she wants King Triton’s symbol of power — the Trident.

And why freaking not?  Nowhere in The Little Mermaid does Triton explain why he’s the rightful ruler of his soggy kingdom.  But we take it on trust that he’s correct; after all, Ursula has darker colours, is a woman, and is a darker fat woman.

Maleficient also struggles against conceptions of the correct colour skin, but also against the idea of how women should behave.  Here are the fairy godmothers:

Sleeping Beauty movie image Walt Disney

Pinkish skin.  Pastel colours.  Not at all sexually intimidating.  Compare and contrast with Maleficent:

sleeping-beauty-disney-movie-image-maleficentA very different picture.  Green skin.  Black clothes.  Menacing looking bird for good measure.

The plot of Sleeping Beauty links again with these ideas of a woman being evil if she moves outside her designated space.  Sure, cursing an infant to die on her sixteenth birthday is a bit of a jerk move, but compare her with the heroine of the story, Aurora, and you start to wonder if Maleficent wasn’t doing her a favour.  Aurora is betrothed to some boneheaded prince for the purpose of uniting a kingdom which, for all you know, has a policy of stomping on kittens.  The movie plays on our intuition that unified kingdoms are Good Things and anything which jeopardises that Good Thing is a Bad Thing.

In seriousness, why do we think the kingdom is so great that an arranged marriage is necessarily a good thing?  Because the non-threatening little women in the pastel colours are in its favour?  They are here in support of the arranged marriage.  Their gifts are to be pretty and have a great singing voice.  These are hardly the feminist icons or progressive philosophers.

Maleficent is clearly a utilitarian, viewing the removal of one person (the infant) as a necessary step in dismantling this insane feudalistic backwater where women are property to be traded for geopolitics.  That, of course, is really why she is evil: she sees Aurora as a means to an end rather than as an end in herself, and all consequentialists are evil or ignorant when you think about it, and Maleficent does not seem ignorant.

But back to the comparison with Aurora.  Maleficent has awesome powers.  Aurora is pretty.  Maleficent has ambitions.  Aurora wants to fall in love.  Maleficent gets shit done.  Aurora falls asleep and is awoken by a sufficiently aristocratic suitor.

But Grimhilde from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was the first and set the template.  All Grimhilde needed to do was look in a mirror and we knew she was evil.

grimhilde

Where Maleficent was all about breaking down the power structures of an oppressive kingdom, Grimhilde is in the position of tyrant (implied to be an illegitimate hold on the power).  In many ways reflecting the attitude of some women in senior positions towards younger women, Grimhilde is trying to kill off competition.  Even before she gets out the box and hires a woodsman, Grimhilde is considered vain, has the trappings of power, and — most importantly — is not in the company of men.  Snow White, in comparison, sings about finding true love, hangs out with cute animals, and ends up hanging out with seven men as their maid.

This gets us back to the Jezebel article:

Villains are goal-oriented, while princesses are content with a puffball dress and Ken doll beau. Villains don’t put virginal love on a pedestal. One could even argue that villains provide an opportunity to teach your children about making the right choices. (For example, don’t be covetous/kill Dalmatians. Also, chill out if you don’t get invited to a party! That was Maleficent’s chief issue, which I’ll admit is a tad superficial, although I’ll argue that there’s way more going on beneath the surface. And DRAGONS.)

Princesses are only princesses because of who their parents are or the man they marry. Villains don’t get it that easy. Villains shape their own lives. [Ibid.]

Looking at these three examples and seeing the similarities: they are transgressive characters, they are active participants in their story arc, they happily trash gender norms when it suits them, and happily utilise them when it suits (further, they have three entirely different understandings of attractiveness).  More than anything else, they are intelligent — much more intelligent than anybody else in their films.  If I had a daughter, these are the sorts of traits that I wish she’d emulate — not the vapidity and vacuity of the protagonists.

I’d tell my daughter: ‘They’re not considered evil because they do bad things.  They’re considered evil because ordinary — very ordinary — people don’t like women being anything other than mediocre.’

I’d hide the spinning wheels, though.

The birds and the bees they hum along… Should @FemFreq mention female-positive games for ‘balance’? (Answer: No).

Feminist Frequency was the subject of a disappointing Kickstarter drama last year.  Wanting to produce a series of analytical videos about gender issues in video games, Anita Sarkeesian began a Kickstarter campaign to bankroll it.  Of course, a large fraction of the gaming community can’t handle the thought of women expressing views about gender, so the Kickstarter drama was more about the influx of trolls rather than the subject of women in gaming.

Fortunately, the drama might draw attention to her videos which (despite some tiny quibbles about presentation) are first class.  Here’s the first episode:

The reaction from the gaming community was predictable.  ‘Silly girl with your HARDCORE feminist friends, you have completely ignored all the examples of positive role models for girls in video games!’  Indeed, so common was the response that a friend of mine (an avid gamer) even threw down this magic card, using the word ‘balance’ to justify the position.

The view seems to be that the only way to tell if women are objectified by video games is to list all the games which objectify women and all the games which don’t — if the Good List is longer than the Bad List, then there’s no problem in the gaming community.

This is a rubbish view for two reasons.

The first is obvious: we shouldn’t be ‘balancing’ the two lists to determine the extent of the problem.  The problem is that the ‘Bad List’ exists at all.  As a straight white guy, I can’t think of a single game where my character analogue is anything less than a triumphant hero.  If we’re balancing the lists for single white guys, the Bad List is practically non-existent.  Yet when we discuss women in video games, we can’t criticise the Bad List without doffing our caps to the Good List?

The second is less obvious and something to which Sarkeesian alludes but doesn’t hit squarely on the head: guys are really bad at spotting gender issues.  The idea of comparing two lists of female representation assumes that we can objectively identify which representations go on which list.  Thus, one internet blowhard (who even went on to argue that Sarkeesian was censoring guys’ responses by disallowing comments to her posts…) listed Ms Pac-Man, Super Princess Peach, and Borderlands as examples of games Sarkeesian should have mentioned if only she’d done more research and wasn’t such a HARDCORE feminazi.

Ms Pac-Man, as we are all aware, is a complicated and multi-layered story about a young woman who eats giant dots and bits of fruit.  Women identify with Ms Pac-Man because, like them, they wear a red bow in their hair, have beauty spots, and wear red lipstick.  Here she is standing up against the objectification and sexualisation of women on the original arcade machine:

tumblr_inline_mikdxaMpKM1qz4rgp

Snark aside, ‘female Pac-Man’ in the gaming community meant ‘sexy Pac-Man’.  Further, the ‘Ms’ element is what we call in Aristotelean terms an ‘accidental attribute’ rather than an ‘essential attribute’.  This essential vs accidental issue is a complicated problem at the heart of representation issues in culture.  We see straight white guys as the norm, with each step away from that norm being a quirky twist.  Captain Smith is a hard-edged, no-nonsense leader of a group of space pirates… oh, and she’s a woman!  That’s what makes this series different to the others!  Woman!  President Jones is a kindly, gentle leader of the Free World… oh, and she’s a woman!  How will she cope with all of her women’s periods?

In the case of Ms Pac-Man, this was literally the case.  They needed a character who was different enough from Pac-Man to avoid a lawsuit but similar enough to be part of the franchise: thus, Pac-Man got some lipstick and high heels.

This might be dismissed as a trivial issue, but it has ‘real world’ implications (beyond telling the non-male gaming community that their identity is a quirky deviation from male greatness).  There are court cases where people have tried to argue that the judge was biased because they were not a white male.  White males are default neutral, anything else looks like bias.  Does popular culture have a responsibility to change attitudes?  Yes.

Super Princess Peach follows a similar argument but, this time, we’re talking about the story rather than the character.  Here, Princess Peach is the protagonist and must save Mario.  What reveals the gender issue lurking beneath the surface is that this is treated as a novelty.  ‘Hey, guys.  I’ve got this crazy idea for a new game!’ said one of the game developers, no doubt.  ‘What if it were Princess Peach doing the rescuing instead of Mario?!  Wouldn’t that be hilarious?!’

Super Princess Peach doesn’t mitigate the problem of gender in video games; it exists because of it.  If gender issues didn’t exist in gaming, nobody would have thought to make this game where the object of the series transgresses against conventions to become the subject of a game.

Finally, Borderlands.  My brother plays this game.  Here’s a woman from it.

1224287-madmoxxi_header

Time to call it a day, Feminists.  Borderlands has clearly demonstrated that women are represented accurately and in a non-sexualised manner in video games.  If those breasts don’t scream ‘progressive’, well…

Let’s go for another recent example of this (and one that I’ve already written about).  In Batman: Arkham City, Batman is aided by a paraplegic woman who communicates through radio, by a woman who breaks social conventions to become a sort of villainous hero, and by a woman with complicated links to one of the key antagonists of the game.  One of Batman’s adversaries is a fanatical woman who acts out of a perverse love for the Joker.

Although Batman allows guys like me to play out their power fantasies of being Batman (plus, Batman is the world’s greatest conservative hero, so I’m totally on board with playing as him), he’s put into a world where there are lots of opportunities for female characters to be on a near-equal ground with our hero.

Instead, the script — written by Paul Dini — turns Batman into more than a bit of a pig.  When receiving advice from Oracle, Batman acts like a jerk and rather unkindly reminds her which of the two is the Batman.  Catwoman, on the other hand, does little but make vaguely raunchy remarks.  Talia al Ghul, a woman who is presented to the viewer as a person Batman turns to for advice and guidance, is also presented to the viewer as a sexualised object.  The game takes on an aggressively hostile attitude towards women, with inmates (who, admittedly, are bad guys) frequently commenting on how various female characters are sexually desirable or bitches.

Nowhere was this attitude towards women more notable than in the transformation of Harley Quinn between Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City.

Here she is in Ayslum:

Harley-Quinn-in-Arkham-Asylum-Videogame-batman-7340341-1024-768

Sure, she’s probably not going to win The Germaine Greer Award for Feminism, but it’s still a garden mile ‘better’ than her appearance in City:

Harley-Quinn-batman-arkham-city-19841224-620-348

The new Harley had even fewer clothed on than before.  This, by the way, was the original appearance of Harley Quinn in the cartoons:

Animated-Series-the-joker-and-harley-quinn-19909447-400-387

That’s from the original Batman: The Animated Series.  The more recent Batman had her looking like this:

thebatman_harley02

Unless you count the face paint, neither version reveals any flesh at all.  Yet in order to be acceptable to the gaming community (and, fair’s fair, the comics community) she had to bare skin.

What we see is game designers pandering to what they think the market wants: scantily clad women.  In the case of Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul, &c., I still recognise powerful women, but I’m encouraged to look at the characters as objects of titillation first.  This is the problem we face when we ask guys to identify the good female role models for women: we have normalised the sexual component — fictional women are of course created for our visceral pleasure — so we can say with a straight face that these women are powerful, liberated role-models for women.

This, by the way, is but one of many reasons why I don’t think men can be feminists.  Admittedly, as a straight, white, conservative male, I’m not sure why anybody would care about my definition of ‘feminist’.

So let’s wind this back up to the start.  When we hear the complaint that Sarkeesian doesn’t acknowledge all the great female role models in video games, what we are actually hearing is the complaint that Sarkeesian isn’t viewing video games as a guy.  When she is confronted by images of women being objectified, we claim that her reaction is misplaced and that she should instead think of all the women guys claim aren’t objectified (like Ms Pac-Man).  What we are also hearing is that people like Sarkeesian have no right criticising males unless she acknowledges all the good things that guys do, like create novelty games for women such as Super Princess Peach.  In short, if Sarkeesian doesn’t play by our rules when she discusses video games (the rules which make guys feel better about themselves), then we simply aren’t going to enter into a discussion about her point.

The balance argument is particularly noxious when we consider Sarkeesian as something of a pathologist.  Here she is diagnosing a problem at the heart of gaming, yet her critics argue that she’s ignoring a perfectly healthy appendix.  Her patient (the gaming community) says, ‘I refuse to accept your diagnosis of my diseased heart, Dr Sarkeesian, unless you praise me for what a healthy appendix I have.’

I, for one, am looking forward to further episodes of her webseries.  I just wish she’d stop using French phrases followed by their literal English translation.  Seriously, it’s my one quibble.  If you need to translate the phrase immediately, then you don’t need to use the phrase.

No-one’s gonna bend nor break me… Review of #Batman #ArkhamCity

‘Damnit, Batman.  You’ve been kidnapped by a mystery figure with a mystery agenda which will climax in ten hours and you’ve been poisoned and don’t have long to live.  You need to hurry to find out what the mystery agenda is and to stop it and to find a cure for your disease…. Or you could play minigames.  Lots of minigames.’

Batman: Arkham Asylum was a magnificent game.  It balanced an action adventure game with a solid story.  Seemingly random events were weaved together into a rich tapestry, coherent and engaging.  The story made sense, with each part following logically from the part before it.  The writing was superb, beautifully acted.  Even though you could go hunt down little trophies and solve riddles, you knew where you were in the story and what you were supposed to be doing.

In fact, the game was so good that I wondered if I was misremembering how good it was.  Was I forgetting the awful camera?  Were the battles more repetitive than I recalled?  Had I glossed over my confusion about why Batman wouldn’t come more prepared with more than a Batarang or two at the start of the game?

Nope.  I played it again and it was as rich and enjoyable as I remembered.

So what the hell went wrong with Arkham City?

Arkham City is an incoherent mess of a game.  The ‘quickly! hurry up! rush! don’t delay!’ aspects of the game are so inconsistent with the sandpit environment that it is difficult to follow the story.  I suspect it’s for that reason that you’re treated to a series of panels explaining the game so far each time you load the disc.  Even then, the story is confusing.  There appear to be two plots in the main story, with throwaway lines to explain inconsistencies.  For example, the story says that the characters you encounter in Arkham City are all inmates.  So why do so many of the mooks have advanced weaponry?  To explain this away, one character, A, phones you up to explain that another character, B, has given them weapons.  Unfortunately, this explanation is entirely inconsistent with the plot relating to B, causing even more confusion.

Cameos are shoehorned into the game, resulting in random battles with no clear purpose.  One character asks for your help; Batman declines so the two characters fight.  When the fight is over, Batman promises to help the character anyway.

The game mechanics, on the other hand, are an addictive pleasure.  Despite disliking the game, I’ve spent ages flying around, punching mooks and solving riddles.  I’m glad I’m an insomniac; it would be easy to lose days to punching inmates.

Which, it must be said, bothers me a little bit.  The game indicates that Arkham City was a place to lock away criminals and psychiatric patients.  You don’t know which is which but you creep up behind them and punch them anyway.  I had this mental image of one of the mooks spending time with their therapist, noting that they’re really seeing some progress, only to be punched unprovoked in the back of the head by Batman the next week.

‘Why am I punching you?  Because you’ve been programmed to punch me.  We are both victims, but I will break your face.’

Meanwhile, just about every character is an expat of the Uncanny Valley.  Several of the characters note that they can tell how ill Batman is from a cursory look at his face.  I, on the other hand, had difficulty distinguishing his facial flaws — the mumpish, plasticy, weirdly-moving flesh — from that of everybody else in the game.  It made me wonder if I misheard an earlier exchange and everybody in Arkham City had been infected with the disease.  Did the disease make you look mostly undead?   Did it make your eyes bulge?  Did it make your lips curl back into your mouth?  If so, everybody’s showing symptoms…

But my biggest beef with the game is the treatment of women.  Every year or so, the comics industry tries to clean itself up and declare it a safe space for women.  It hires more women writers and women artists.  It writes women-friendly plots and treats the female characters like they’re worthwhile.

Then that all goes to pot because powerful females as soft-core porn is just too tempting and (apparently) sells a few extra copies (for further reference, check out the criticism of the rebooted Starfire by the seven-year old daughter of a fantasy author).

The gender politics in the game are painful.  Excruciatingly so.  It’s to the point that it is difficult for any person interested in the subject to enjoy the game.

It all starts with Catwoman’s dialogue.  There she is, captured by a villain, tied up, forced to endure his monologue.  How would an intelligent, crafty, independent woman respond to this situation?  If you replied, ‘With half-wit puns!’, help yourself to a biscuit.  Catwoman escapes (whoops, spoilers) only to have a lot of dialogue reference what a bitch she is

At first, I thought that it was just a problem with Catwoman.  It’s not long into the game that you realise that something is really wrong with the concept of women in the game.

Batman’s handy navigator is Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. ‘Oracle’), daughter of Jim Gordon.  Their interactions are mostly limited to Batman ‘mansplaining’ absolutely everything to Oracle.  When Oracle realises something and tries to give him advice, Batman responds: ‘This isn’t my first day on the job.’  Three-quarters of Oracle’s job is explaining the Batcomputer’s screen (reminding me more than a bit of Sigourney Weaver’s character, Gwen, in Galaxy Quest:

Gwen DeMarco: Fred, you had a part people loved. I mean, my TV Guide interview was six paragraphs about my BOOBS and how they fit into my suit. No one bothered to ask me what I do on the show.
Fred Kwan: You were… the umm, wait a minute, I’ll think of it…
Gwen DeMarco: I repeated the computer, Fred.  )

And then there’s Harley Quinn.  Harley was a highlight of Arkham Asylum.  She had amusing lines, she made most of Joker’s scheme work, she was an irritating boss.

This time ’round, Harley has lost all of her redeeming features, reduced to her most vapid aspects.  Being mere mortal and liable to fall, when Harley first appeared on the screen, I thought she was kinda hot in an extremely skanky, wrong kind of way (I know, I know.  I have a weakness when it comes to villainesses).  I was quickly made to regret the existence of my Id when several of the mook characters make reference to how hot she is and how they would like to [insert single entendre here], hurr, hurr, if you know what I mean.  The feeling of ‘Awwww, Harley.  I’d like to catch Stockholmes from you’ quickly turned to ‘I am a bad person; the mooks have made me feel like a bad person’.

But the low point was yet to come.  Later in the game, you’ll come across Harley bound and gagged.  Press A to ungag her.  Press A to gag her again.  I searched Google for an entrance into a room off this one (which, it turns out, was completely sealed off) only to find the discussion threads of guys gloating about how much fun they had pressing A over and over again.

It’s ‘fan service’ like this that makes us bad people and makes it difficult to shake off the criticism that video games are designed to indulge the crass fantasies of male gamers.  Shoot Nazis and dominate women, guys.  Enter the Konami Code to open a beer bottle with your eye socket.  If the industry is going to be serious about being inclusive of women, it can’t just be a part-time commitment.

The end result is a worry that the writer, Paul Dini, has some serious problems when it comes to women.  Which is a shame; the guy has written some amazing stuff.  Why he resorted to such low hanging fruit, I have no idea.

Arkham City is not even remotely in the same league as Arkham Asylum, which was clever, intense, and witty.  Once you finish the ‘plot’ (and I use that word loosely) section of the game, it becomes a thousand times better.  Hanging out, swooping on psych patients, solving riddles, performing daring feats.  That part is fun and the game pulls it off perfectly.  Such a shame it’s bundled with the misnamed ‘story mode’.

I know a place where the grass is really greener… Katy Perry lyrics used ironically in a post about women opinion writers

It certainly wouldn’t shock anybody, I think, if I let them know that I was in support of many kinds of censorship.  I don’t think that media/entertainment should be a free for all where anybody can produce whatever they like just because there’s a market for it.  Freedom of speech laws are far too often used to the detriment of the unprivileged, and most regularly used to defend the tasteless, tacky, and indecent.

But if we are going to have the system that we’ve got — where every halfwit gets to express ‘their opinion’ (often a very staged and crafted variant of it) — then the rules have got to be consistent.  At the moment, they aren’t: women opinion writers are overwhelmingly more likely to be censored than male writers. Continue reading

Open your eyes. I see your eyes are open… and now the Kobayashi Maru of Gender Problems

My car broke down last night during the rain.  I was about a fifteen minute walk from home and I had a brolly, so off I went.

The path home is not always particularly well lit and I’m a quick walker.  I’m also a quiet walker.  While overtaking a woman who was walking along the same road, she decided to confront me.

‘Are you stalking me?’

So much went through my mind when I was challenged with that.  On the one hand, personal security is a reasonable consideration for a woman walking home at night in the dark and wet.  On the other hand, what could I have done differently to stop this situation from cropping up?  My car had broken down and I was walking home; I had no idea that it would be unreasonable for me to use the footpaths in order to walk home.  And how do you escape from this Gordian Knot of social interaction?

As I wasn’t stalking her, the answer to her question would be ‘No.’  If I were stalking her, I wouldn’t admit it, so the answer to her question would be ‘No’.

So I figured the answer would be to make my actions predictable and let her know where I was going.  That way, she would know if I were an illegitimate traveller if I deviated from my established path.

It all seemed fairly reasonable.  She apparently didn’t seem to think so.

Is there a way out of this problem?  Or do guys have to decide between taking a cab or risk being accused of stalking?

A few years ago, I had cross words with a friend of mine when she indicated to a black guy that she was uncomfortable with him using the same footpath.  She thought it was great that he apologised and crossed the road.  I thought — and still think — that it was a crappy thing to do: in order to escape the stereotype that ‘All black guys want to attack white women’, he had to stop using the same footpaths as them.

This doesn’t seem like a reasonable outcome.

And someday you’ll see I only wanted to please… and I’ll play you this CD

There are some things in life when you think that something is going to be really, really good, and it turns out to be really craptacular.  The Phantom Menace, A Confederacy of Dunces, most films starring John Malkovich, the entire life of Neil Gaiman (including his ‘Hey, I’m sorry for upsetting people with my crappy behaviour, but you guys are a bunch of disabled feminists’ girlfriend, Amanda Palmer).

These things serve to remind us that we cannot take enjoyment for granted — the material world is a place of misery and disappointment created by a malicious deity who didn’t want humans to understand Gnosis.  Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.

On the other hand, there are things which do the opposite of this.  We come across them not expecting much and discover that they’re beautiful, wonderful, mysterious, and completely lovely.  There’s a richness to them which you’d never have suspected, and you feel slightly silly for having doubted how magnificent it is.

Of course, I’m talking about Monkey: Journey to the West. Continue reading

Are you dead or are you sleeping? … The TiVo wins again

Behold, dear Canberrans!  We now have 7Two on Prime.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit shit.  I was really expecting more.  I even had a bit of a whine that the start of broadcast was going to be significantly delayed.  Instead, it’s only showing the very worst of Seven’s mediocre line-up.  It feels like the channel of things which got bumped of the analogue station on account of being a little bit too crap.

6pm – Jay Leno Show

6:30 – Mother and Son

7:30 – Heartbeat

8:30 – The Benny Hill Show… and so on and so forth.

In fact, the only place it excels is with the so-bad-it’s-hilarious-stuff.  Today, TiVo decided that I might like to watch Power Rangers: Operation Overdrive.  Holy frijoles, it was bad.  So bad, in fact, that I’m going to watch it regularly.

I don’t think words can actually describe how excruciatingly terrible it was.  It was so terrible that it inspired the feeling that I was doing something thoroughly despicable by watching it.  Like watching a trainwreck.  My eyes could not believe that I was watching something this dreadful.

The acting was thoroughly horrible.  The only thing worse than the horrible acting was the girl who could act (whom IMDB informs me is Beth Allen).  As if playing a cruel joke on the audience, the producers thought that they’d put the girl who could act next to the single worst actor I have ever seen on a television show (whom IMDB informs me is Dwayne Cameron).  Honest to God, it seemed like the gap in acting talent merely amplified the atrocity that was his acting ‘skill’.

Nothing made any sense.  While that’s probably par for course with the Power Rangers franchise, I really don’t understand why the enemies become easier when the odds (theoretically) tilt towards them.  For example, four good guys were taking on an army of mooks.  Two good guys had to leave in order to do something or other.  The two good guys slaughter the mooks en masse.

But the very worst bit was the unintentional misogyny of the show.  It is probably for good reason that I can’t find details on who wrote the episodes.  Over on The Savage Critic(s), there was an analysis of the concerning gender themes appearing in Marvel storylines.  It’s a good read.

The obvious conclusion to draw from DARK REIGN: THE LIST– X-MEN #1 is that at the close of 2009, a woman with an appetite for sex is apparently the very definition of fear and horror for Marvel comic creators and their audience.

I would diagnose such a belief as gynophobia.

This is not a metaphor; this is not sub-text. This is the explicit text of the comic: “We’ve modified her to keep her perpetually in estrus which explains her rotten attitude… but the result is a genetic W.M.D.” This is page one. This is the establishing shot. Here’s a line of dialogue from page 2: “Her gonadotropic hormones make her so hungry she’s been driven insane.”

Later in the comic, the arrival of the giant vagina is heralded as follows: “There’s nothing to her but hunger and rage and… and hate.” [Abhay, The Savage Critic(s)]

The villain line-up on Power Rangers: Operation Overdrive consists of:

  • Flurious, some sort of ice monster.

    Flurious

    Flurious - Some sort of ice monster

  • Moltor, some sort of fire monster

    Moltor - Some sort of fire monster

    Moltor - Some sort of fire monster

  • Kamdor, some sort of evil robot

    Kamdor - Evil robot

    Kamdor - Evil robot

  • Miratrix, a girl

    Miratrix - A girl

    Miratrix - A girl

Yup, the scourge of the universe is a girl.  Beware, ye mostly male superhero crew.  Evil girls will beat you up unless you take out your swords and clobber them.  There is nothing Freudian about this at all.

In other news, tonight on SBS2 (8:30) is The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello.  It is a wonderful short film (I didn’t realise it was a part of a series.  Hooray for new knowledge!) which explores the nature of monstrosity.  It is an utterly splendid film and I cannot recommend it enough.

In entirely different news, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has launched a new statistical literacy website.  As the acronym for the Bureau is the name of a group of muscles, the ABS are able to do all kinds of funky cool things.  They introduced Creative Commons Licensing for the website content.  In theory, this allows people to do what they were already doing in practice (i.e. use the data).  Okay, it’s not leaps and bounds but it’s certainly a fascinating step into the world of interactivity.  Now it has blogs and online tutorials.  Verily, it’s a brave new world.