Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gender Rolls

Last Friday night, I was hanging out with my brother Eric and my friend John, playing some D&D. (Well, actually it was a D&D adaptation of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series, but that's beside the point.) Since The Wheel of Time deals a lot with gender, I decided it would be a good opportunity for me to try something I'd never ever done before: play a female character.

Afterward, I was struck by the fact that such a decision should not have been anything unusual. I've played dwarves, monsters, vampires, elves, demigods, and wizards. I've played people from other countries (both real and fictional); I've played as warriors and mages, saints and sinners, the faithful, the faithless, and even the insane. But despite my eagerness to learn about roles and society by playing them out, there was always a slight hesitation, a sense of unease at the thought of playing a woman.

Why should this be? I wondered. Am I afraid of showing any feminine qualities? Am I secretly sexist or something? (I do this to myself all the time. I have no idea why.)

But nobody I know (at least, nobody I play with) has ever, to my knowledge, played any character not of their own gender. In a game where you could play as literally anyone, become virtually anything, why is it that so many players refuse to step outside their own gender, when they would eagerly play a character of a different race, religion, status, socioeconomic background, profession, alignment, age, and even species? This seems like an odd line to be unwilling to cross.

(Maybe they just don't want to deal with
having to actually roleplay the clothes.)

Many players might argue that "I'm a man, and therefore I don't know how a woman would think, so I just won't play as a woman." Well, yeah, but you play as dwarves all the time, and no one knows how they think! They don't even exist!

Hang on, maybe I just hit the nail on the head.

Since no one knows how a dwarf would act, no one can accuse you of getting it wrong, or of being culturally insensitive. You're free to make it up as you go, rather than having to mimic reality.

Then again, maybe players are simply afraid of getting it too right. The players of tabletop RPGs are for the most part male, and dislike showing any side of themselves that might be labeled "feminine", for fear of setting off a wave of all-too-familiar hetero-normative panic.

A fourth option: most tabletop RPGs are created by male designers, with a largely-male audience in mind. As a result, RPGs tend (in both theory and practice) towards a male perspective and a male play-style. From a tween or teenage boy's perspective, a female character lacks the strength for how he wants to play (i.e., hack-and-slash), and her social skills would appear irrelevant and "lame" to him.

But I have noticed an interesting corollary to the above observation: playing a female character is not at all uncommon among the male players of MMOs like "World of Warcraft". Perhaps this is because online play tends to involve very little roleplaying, so boys don't feel like they're required to "act all girly" if they do choose to play a female.

Is this a sign that boys of today are more comfortable with female roles? Or does it suggest that our boys increasingly view women's bodies as objects, as pretty shapes to stare at while they run around an online environment?

Only time will tell.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Sorry, but the cure for cancer is in another castle!"

This Jane McGonigal woman (not to be confused with the Hogwarts professor of a very similar name) has been popping up all over the place in the past few days. I want to tell you a little bit about her, because what she has to say is important. It might not be a very popular stance (especially with parents of overweight children), though it's a stance that I feel has been gaining a significant amount of traction in the past few years.

McGonigal's book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, has at its core a thesis which is both unexpected and infectiously optimistic: that the person you become when you play a game is NOT a separate being, or even a secluded facet of your personality. The hero you become when you play games is an amalgamation of your best, most human qualities, including curiosity, optimism, problem-solving, persistence, imagination, and self-confidence.

McGonigal says, in her NPR Science Friday interview with Ira Flatow, that one of her favorite definitions of a game is "unnecessary obstacles that we choose to overcome" (emphasis added). Children who grow up playing games approach the world differently than those who don't; to them, no problem is insurmountable, with enough patience, cleverness, and teamwork. Their digital (and tabletop) alter egos flourish in the game-world, like plants in a sunny window. They're given permission, no, encouraged to see the world in terms of manageable challenges, missions, and levels. If you can't beat the problem now, just wait a while and come back when you're at a higher level, or when you've learned a new technique or picked up a better gadget.

In that same interview, McGonigal lists several free online games which are actually making measurable contributions to making the world a better place:

foldit - Protein chains are vital to the operation of all living cells; they transmit neural messages, break down nutrients, and teach your cells how to divide. Instead of remaining as long strings of molecules, they tend to clump together in predictable ways, which influences how they perform their various functions. If they fold up wrong, they can cause all sorts of problems, from malformed cells to cancer. Foldit allows you to simulate this process by designing your own proteins. If the protein you design proves itself especially resilient, then the scientists at the University of Washington will actually synthesize you protein in a lab and use it in the fight against cancer! How cool is that?!

EteRNA - Allows you to build and simulate your own RNA molecules, one of the most basic building-blocks of life. The user-interface is extremely intuitive, the "physics" are satisfyingly solid, and the overall mood is "curiosity rewarded by discovery." If my high-school biology class had involved playing a game like this... well, things might have turned out differently. Who can say?

Civ. D. - short for "civil disobedience," this game has not acutally been created. Yet. McGonigal proposed the idea at the D.I.C.E. summit last year; essentially, players would guide a peaceful revolution from start to finish, beginning with protests and sit-ins, right up through installing a new cabinet and drafting a new Constitution. It would be like Sim City meets Oregon Trail meets Tahrir Square. I see a lot of classroom applications for this one, if anyone ever gets around to making it.

But there is a caveat, a point of diminishing returns. Those who play a game they enjoy often do better at tasks they attempt in the following 24 hours, such as making a presentation or closing a business deal. But subjects who averaged more than 20 hours of games in a week received no more benefit than those who stopped before that point. In fact, after 28 hours of gaming per week, researchers found that those players actually performed worse in most social interactions, and were also found to be more depressed and lethargic.

Turns out that moderation is still the key to leading a productive, happy life. Who'd 'a' thunk it?

Addendum: All this talk of games that are good for something more than escapism has caused me to unearth an old gem: flOw, by Jenova Chen. This game was her graduate thesis for her degree in Game Design. It's totally sweet, wordlessly simple, and highly entertaining. I highly recommend it, even if you're not usually a fan of video games. This one might change your mind. So go ahead, give it a click.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ever Your Faithful Servant

The last five consecutive posts on my blog have been reviews, and almost exclusively of books. There's nothing wring with this per se, but I've noticed that lately, reviews seem to be all I'm writing.

Occasionally, in the past, I would use my blog as a personal soapbox, to proclaim to the world my views on a particular subject or issue. While this is the main reason that most people write blogs in the first place, it seemed after a while to be a little... hollow, I guess? Like Lear roaring at the heavens as the storm carries on, heedless of his cries.

Now, I'm not saying that I want to give up on reviews. Far from it. They're a useful service that I can provide my readers, and they give me an excuse to write regularly. Practice makes perfect, after all. And lethargy makes losers, as the corollary goes.

But I don't want to bore my readers with predictability by posting the same thing every week. I want to spice it up, throw in a little variety. The question is: What sorts of things would my readers like to see me post more of? News stories? Funny videos? Cultural analysis? Literary theory? Ideas for new monsters? Psychology? Philosophy? Dirty limericks?

The choice is yours, dear readers. Please leave your suggestions in the comments below. Remember, you CAN leave comments anonymously, so you are NOT required to have a Blogger account of your own if you want to leave me a message.

I'm open to all suggestions. Please, tell me what I write that would spark your curiosity.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Movie Review: "How To Train Your Dragon" (2010)

At first, I was tempted to review this film as a cynical adult; that's not just my duty, since I'm writing this review (presumably) for other similarly-cynical adults, it's also really the only way I can approach films anymore. I can't go back to the innocent days of yore, when anything with a dragon in it was considered praiseworthy. But I feel that writing this film off simply because it doesn't try anything new in the story department would be giving it short shrift.

How To Train Your Dragon never really attempts anything revolutionary, doesn't throw the audience any curveballs, but what it does, it does well. The animation is top-notch, and numerous times during the flight segments I was struck by an intense desire to see it in either 3D or IMAX. Both, if possible. Alas, the movie is several months old now, and the moment has passed. So it goes.

The story follows Hiccup, a young teen with an American accent in a small island village of Scottish-speaking Viking warriors. For some reason, the difference in accent is never brought up; in fact, all the kids in the village have distinctly American speech patterns. Maybe you need to get a permit for your brogue, to show you can handle the responsibility?

Hiccup is a scrawny, skinny boy, which is a common feature of YA protagonists, but somewhat unusual in a blacksmith's apprentice. His father, Stoic the Vast (voiced, appropriately enough, by Gerard Butler, that bearded Scotsman of 300 fame) is the chief of their village, which is pillaged on a near-nightly basis by marauding dragons.

During one of these raids, Hiccup is trying out a net-launching apparatus of his own design, when he gets off a lucky shot and snags a Night Fury, a mysterious black-scaled subspecies of dragon with incredible speed and firepower. Naturally, no one believes that such a loser kid could catch a dragon that no one's ever seen and lived to tell the tale. So Hiccup sets off into the woods to find his rightful kill.

... Only he finds that, when the dragon is lying helpless before him, he can't bring himself to kill it. He sets it free, but it's been too badly injured by his net to leave the box canyon where it fell. Thus begins a tale of friendship, prejudice, war, personal growth, and teamwork.

The dragon, "Toothless", is an impressive feat of CGI. He's tough and weighty without being bulky, powerful without being scary, and a weird fusion of reptile, bird, and dog. Best of all, he remains a convincing animal throughout the film. By this, I mean that the animators and writers never lose sight of his animal nature; even though he's friendly, he's not all sunshine and roses.

It's a fun story. It's funny. It's touching. It's even a little bit romantic (if you like girls who like punching boys). I'd say that it's worth buying a copy for your kids. Even if you don't have kids, you might want to check it out. You might find that what appeared at first to be distasteful is actually a lot of fun.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review: "The Illustrated Man," by Ray Bradbury (1951)

Overall, I have to say I'm a little disappointed in this book. Those of you who know me personally are probably aware that The Halloween Tree and Something Wicked This Way Comes rank among my all-time favorite books, so I felt very let down that the quality of this anthology was so spotty. I don't know what I was expecting, but the stories just don't seem to live up to the creepy grandeur of the aforementioned titles.

This is not to say that none of them do, or that the book isn't worth reading. The titular Illustrated Man is one of the most promising framing devices I've ever encountered; I sincerely wish I'd thought of him first. But the actual stories that play out upon his skin are... difficult to relate to. Part of it is the technological gap: Bradbury had no conception of the Internet, and his computers still use gears and punch-cards, even in the year 2155. Also, he has nothing but disdain for the common man and his interests, especially television, which seems more than a little hypocritical.

Another difficulty facing the modern reader approaching these stories is an affliction of fame: namely, that many of Bradbury's plot devices seem cliche to us, simply because his inventions became so popular after he invented them that to us, sixty years later, they appear so obvious and badly thought out that our initial reaction is to call him a thief, not realizing that he invented the damn thing. Though this does not really make it any easier on the modern readers to accept his plot twists as credible.

Bradbury's (or rather, 1950s America's) racism and sexism also forms a significant hurdle. In "The Other Foot," Bradbury imagines a post-nuclear earth reaching out to black colonists on Mars (who left 20 years previous to the story, to escape the Jim Crow laws). The black colonists are initially angry, and ready to treat the white colonists as poorly as they were treated on Earth, but thanks to the efforts of one peace-loving black woman, they learn to let go of their anger and let bygones be bygones. (Sounds like a nice story, until you realize that it's about white folk getting completely off the hook for their past atrocities, and getting to live as equals on a planet terraformed entirely by the effort of black people. Hmmmm...)

Another big offender was "Marionettes, Inc.", in which two men order some extremely expensive android copies of themselves to fool their wives so they can go to Mexico for a month. One does it because he can't stand his wife, the other because she's smothering him with love. Couldn't they just, I don't know, be adults and talk openly with their wives about their feelings?!

It's not all bad news, though, and I'd like to end on a good note:

Despite my endless whining and nitpicking, The Illustrated Man is worth a read, if you're a fan of either Ray Bradbury or classic science fiction. The first and last stories ("The Veldt" and "The Rocket Man") alone are worth the price of admission, and even the stories that I wasn't crazy about ("The Long Rain", "The Man", "To No Particular Night or Morning") gave me some very interesting food for thought. "The City" is extremely creepy, and contains some very disturbing visuals of bodily dismemberment; "The Highway" is simultaneously quite beautiful and quite sad; "Zero Hour" ends with a very creepy visual that almost makes up for the blindingly obvious plot-twist.

Like I said at the beginning, it's an OK book, a little careworn, but still serviceable for the most part. Take it with a grain of salt and you'll be fine.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Book Review: "Slaughterhouse-Five," by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

The last time I read this book, I think I was about twelve years old. My Dad wanted be to read it before I was old enough to actually fight in a war. I'm very grateful that he challenged me with this book when I was so young. I was amazed at how much of it had stuck with me through the years, and how deeply it had affected my conscience, morality, and worldview. I still remember most of the plot points, which is quite a feat, considering how convoluted the timeline of this book is.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, an American P.O.W. in World War II, who has become "unstuck in time... [with] no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next." Billy is captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and transported to Dresden, Germany, just in time to witness firsthand the two-day firebombing of "the Florence of the Elbe" by Allied planes. Roughly 135,000 human beings were killed in this attack. The vast majority were civilians, taking refuge there because both sides knew that Dresden held no strategic value whatsoever. For comparison, the bombing of Hiroshima killed 71,379 human beings.

By necessity, the book is highly convoluted, and swings unexpectedly from beginning to end to middle and back again, yet it somehow maintains a feeling of cohesion despite this. Or perhaps because of it. Vonnegut gives away the ending of Billy's life (though be doesn't die until many years after the war) and many of the important plot points early in the first chapters, so no event in the book can truly be said to come as a shock. It reads like a Greek tragedy; the reader feels a dread anticipation, knowing the terrible things that are about to occur, wishing to warn the characters of their impending doom, but finds themselves totally unable to affect the outcome.

That feeling of helpless resignation, tinged with a kindhearted remembrance of better days, is essentially the message of Vonnegut's work, which is heavily influenced by the time he spent as a P.O.W. in World War II. (Vonnegut makes no secret of the resemblance between his life and the life of his main character. Fiction bleeds into biography as Vonnegut makes several minor appearances as a fellow P.O.W. to Billy Pilgrim.)

To this day, I am still deeply distrustful of men (and it is always men) who talk about the necessity of war, the importance of striking first, the need to "fight them over there" before we "fight them over here." In the end, there may be a few, a scant tiny few who actually know the cost of war and want it anyway. Let them fight. Most human beings have no desire at all to be killed or have their families killed for any reason, and are more than content to let other, wrongheaded people go about their wrongheaded lives, as long as they are left in peace.

But we don't always have that option. Terrible accidents are bound to occur even in peacetime. Friends move away, family members age, lovers die. All we can do is remain conscious of the fact that the past is always there, and in a very real sense, they are always alive, always laughing in the past, forever "trapped in the amber of this moment."