Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Boiled Potatoes and the Analytic Method, part 1

I found myself in need of counselling last year. The counselling I received was extremely helpful, but it's only as, in the intervening time, I've started to study critical perspectives from gender and race discourse in depth that I've been able to understand the wider context of my difficulties. These approaches emphasise connectedness; the marketing of children's toys, for example, contributes to a domestication of women that in turn commodifies their sexuality and devalues their consent, leading to rape culture.

By contrast, the idiom of 'analytic philosophy', the tallest and remotest of the academic ivory towers, to which I've given a decade of my life and all my adulthood, puts detachment and abstraction foremost. It was detachment and abstraction - an overdose of both - that led me to counselling. What follows is a reflection on that journey.

As for what boiled potatoes have to do with anything? Wait and see...

Part 1: To Paint a Comfort Zone, First You Must Destroy It

First, the journey itself, or at least the closing chapter of it. This, by the way, is not a dramatic or melodramatic story. Probably it's quite underwhelming. It has no histrionics, no blubbering collapses, and the longest redemptive journey involved walking round the corner from my department building to the university's counselling service.

Proportionately to that, it starts with decorating. Having made this rather optimistic post about how my bout of decorating last summer might go, things actually went pretty well for most of the process. The schedule was met, and by the Sunday of the week after that posting, I'd finished all the decorating work. All that remained was the carpet, which was to be delivered and fitted, along with a carpet for the adjacent bedroom, on the Monday.

And then, about lunchtime on Sunday, we spotted that the boiler, which is in the other bedroom, had leaked a few spots of water from what looked like a badly-corroded valve.

Obviously, there was no way we were going to put a new carpet into a room where a boiler might need a valve replacing (where, indeed, the whole boiler might turn out to need replacing - it's a pretty old one, though - *touch wood* - still reliable). And it was a Sunday, so reaching the carpet fitter to discuss arrangements with him was going to take a while.

I can't quite put into words how I felt about this (more on this point in a later part). But to resort to tired metaphors, a stone sank into my gut. My chest felt tight, and I found my jaw clenching a lot. Even thinking about the emotional state I was in then is making me feel a bit hollow now. In retrospect, it should have been a warning, but I was a little too self-absorbed to notice (if that even makes sense - too self-absorbed to notice my own emotional state?)

But it gets worse, because I wasn't the person dealing directly with any of the people who needed to be contacted about the carpet and the boiler. All that was handled by one of my housemates, the one whose bedroom had the boiler in it. I tried not to pester her, I promise I tried, but it still got to the point that I almost drove her to tears by passing my stress onto her.

Perhaps oddly, it was the break in tension that brought matters to a head. When she finally managed to get confirmation from the carpet fitters that they would be happy to come and fit just my carpet on the Monday, and do the other one at a later date, it was my expression of relief that finally pushed her to tell me to back off.

I spent the next fifteen minutes shivering in my temporary bedroom, fighting off a panic attack. A mild one, by the standards of some I've had. It was half an hour or more before I even managed to apologise.

AND EVEN THEN, I was only thinking about maybe seeking counselling, not really sure what I should be seeking counselling for. Being a rationalist is no guarantee of always being rational; being a lover of wisdom is no guarantee of always being wise. These revelations have a significant role to play in what's to come, but for now suffice it to say that I was eventually convinced to make good on the counselling idea.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Everyday sexism (that I am guilty of) part 2

Actually, this time it's not just sexism - it's every other dimension of privilege as well.

I'm working on a lengthy and complicated thing about white male identity and 'gamers' - my identity, basically. What I'm trying to do with it is address self-identified gamers defensive of our identity on the grounds that it's the only thing we have. I examine why it's possible to feel this, and how to think more broadly about our identity.

But it's really hard to do that without feeling embattled. 'Gamer' is an identity with a lot of really toxic associations. 'White' and 'male' are even worse, both having a long history of oppression and brutality. The urge is always there to get defensive, to rationalise or try to explain away my association with those identities. It's the urge to mansplain, whitesplain etc. (I'm not sure that 'gamesplain' is a thing yet, or just regarded as a combination of 'all the above') -  call it xsplaing in general.

The problem with xsplaining is difficult to state succinctly. It's most problematic when a privileged person butts into a conversation about a problematic pattern of privileged behaviour to explain why - even if not done in an explicitly abusive way, this reinforces existing power dynamics by demanding that every conversation be limited by our comfort. It also equates our discomfort with the actual harm suffered by other groups, which is dismissive of their experience as well as flat-out inaccurate.

Another problem is in demanding 'they' solve 'our' problems - the attitude of 'if you don't like it, you tell us what to do'. We're adults. If someone criticises us, we've got to be able to take responsibility for that. Before demanding specific attention from someone - adding to the burden you've already imposed on them - do some googling, or at least some self-reflection, to try to understand the problem.

This goes doubly for issues of identity. The piece I'm writing is an attempt to collect some criticism of 'gamer' and develop from that a better model of the identity. I don't agree 100% with everything I'm quoting, so there is some editorialising, but my primary purpose is not to refute or dispute those criticisms; it's to identify what we can learn from them.

So I have to be very careful of where I'm pointing my arguments. How often do I have to check for xsplaining? Every. Damn. Sentence. That's really what I want to get at here (as with last time out); this isn't something to only worry about occasionally. It's not even limited to times when you're actively engaging with someone from a different background (though that's when it's at its absolute most important).

It's so hard to resist the urge to make excuses, to haggle, to move from addressing the problem to denying it. And this is in an article specifically addressed to our concerns - I'm not trying to join an existing debate (though I am responding to one). It's even harder when engaging with people 'live'. But you can't learn or grow while rationalising; xsplaining serves your ego at the expense of your mind - not to mention at the expense of other people's peace of mind.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Cultural Vertigo

A few weeks back, someone challenged me on Twitter to come up with a New Year's Resolution and I came back with 'Open some of the doors I've got my toe in at the moment'. That's a worthy, if slightly trite, answer, but since then I've come up with a better one.

I'll get back to that at the end of this post, by which time I think it will be obvious what I've chosen. I've had a year, particularly this final third of it, of learning a lot. There are personal and professional elements to that, but where I've learnt most, where I've been most challenged, has been from the Twitter timelines of people I've followed because gamergate targeted them.

Gamergate has been and remains terrible, but in listening to those fighting it, I've received a whirlwind tour of critical gender and race theories on a par with the experience I had a couple of years ago as an amanuensis on a university-level Special Educational Needs/Disability Studies course. It's forced me to reexamine a lot of my preconceptions about games, about feminism and civil rights, about myself as a progressive and a liberal, and about my species as a whole.

And I'm starting to realise that there's a characteristic emotional state that accompanies the best of this learning. It's not a pleasant one. It often hits when least expected - this piece challenging the player-centrism of established gaming, for example, challenged me much more than any number of pieces about how reprehensible gamergaters are (because its critique applies to games I love just as much as, say, Hatred). It involves a slight feeling of nausea, and a stronger feeling of panic, of being overwhelmed by how much change might be needed to accept the argument.

I think of it as cultural vertigo. It's one thing to say 'I support diverse perspectives in art!', and another entirely to actually look down from the cultural pedestal (or out from the cultural bubble) of being straight, white and male and catch sight of those perspectives for the first time. It has nothing, of course, on the terror and hurt that straight white men inflict on others worldwide, but those are terrors that I am unlikely ever to experience the like of.

Cultural vertigo isn't comfortable, but it can be inspiring, and it has been a pretty consistent sign of opportunities to make myself a better person. Since there's a lot of work to do on that front, my New Year's Resolution for 2015 is to seek out cultural vertigo as much as I can stand to.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Idiot Overload

It's been a truism of human society for centuries that it's easier to sound convincing than to be right - 'a lie has run around the world before the truth has got its boots on' and so on. I want to pick out one particularly egregious manifestation of this, something I've only taken conscious note of recently, though it's probably not new. There may be a 'proper' name for it, but for now I'm just going to call it idiot overload.

Idiot overload happens when there are so many errors, inaccuracies and other logical problems with a statement that it's impossible to refute succinctly. 'Succinctly' here means 'coherently and within the attention span of the relevant platform' - to use a pretty blunt example, most tweets are very difficult to refute in the space of a single reply. (Another example would be how hard it is to write a comprehensive reply to something in a blog comment before other commenters get in and move the debate along).

The sole intelligible claim to emerge from gamergate, 'Gamergate is about ethics in game journalism!' makes a pretty good example. As far as I can see there are at least five major objections to this statement:

1: gamergate more or less ignores actual serious breaches of journalistic ethics, like the review embargo on Assaassin's Creed: Unity that meant no reviews were published until 12 hours after release. Sure, maybe some gamergaters shouted about it briefly, but there's been nothing like the sustained campaign of anger directed at gamergate's preferred targets.

2: gamergate has yet to articulate a clear system of ethics of any kind. Ethics are systematic - not just a collection of arbitrary laws, but a coherent framework that allows the extension of those laws into situations unforeseen by their authors (again, unsophisticated example, but the provision of the U.S. constitution for later amendments is a version of this).

3: unethical behaviour in the promotion of an ethical system is hypocrisy, and self-invalidating. If your behaviour is unethical, you are not supporting ethics of any kind, no matter how you shout about it. The ethics of what is and isn't OK in acts of protest are complex, but without thoroughly engaging in a discourse on that topic you have to err on the side of caution - one thing gamergate certainly hasn't done.

4: game journalism is, by and large, critical journalism rather than reporting. It's not purely descriptive. In the early days of gamergate, there were attempts by various gamergaters to codify the journalism they wanted from the games press - focus on facts that could be presented honestly without or in resistance to financial/privileged incentives from the development side of the industry, the removal of opinion. The problem with this is that that's not what game journalism is or was ever for. Yes, factual journalism has always been a part of it, in reports and previews of what's coming up in the near future, and in discussions of hardware, but the majority of game journalism is reviews, and reviews are always going to be a matter of opinion. Want a broader perspective than any one person's opinion? Read a bunch of different reviews.

5: the feminism that gamergate actually spends most of its time fighting is itself ethics. What Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, Leigh Alexander et al have been campaigning for is more ethical weight in gaming. I suppose in that sense one could argue that gamergate is about ethics in gaming in that it's about keeping ethics out of gaming, but I don't think that's the claim gamergaters are making.

(sidebar: no, feminism is not 'an ideology', at least not in any sense that implies it isn't ethics. People describing feminism as an ideology are generally trying to paint it as a matter of opinion, when many of the most important concerns of feminism - rape statistics, wage gaps and so on - are matters of clear, repeatedly-proven facts. Just as human rights are an ethical system, not an ideology, so it is with feminism)

So there you go. It took me 473 words to give a (very brief) sketch of the objections to a 7-word statement.  I may be missing some objections outright, I'm certainly missing key details from all of those points (to say nothing of evidence and examples, but this is one blog post and I am only human). It's just not possible to give an organised, ordered summary of the objection to 'it's about ethics in game journalism' (at least, that provides any more detail than 'NO') in a short space of time - human beings don't read fast enough.

I don't have a solution to this one, I'm afraid. Other examples include 'if global warming is real why is winter still cold?' and 'evolution must be wrong, my grandparents weren't monkeys'. When there's just too much to argue against, you have to rely on the general audience understanding enough to enumerate the problems themselves, which has never yet been a safe bet (though of course we can work towards that in the long term).

Thursday, 18 December 2014


No-one who knew me during my first year at university, or to be completely honest at any point in the five-to-eight years before that, would be surprised to hear that I enjoy lecturing. During that time, I lectured indiscriminately and at length to anyone who paused to listen or gave me a reason to open my mouth.

The years (yes, all eight of them) have humbled me somewhat. When my head of department asked me back in August if I'd be willing to do some lecturing this term to fill a gap left by a departing staff member, I was paralysed with something quite a lot like fear. On the one hand, I knew it would mean more money, money I do still need to be quite careful about. On the other, it meant standing up in front of dozens of undergrads - any one of them potentially as uppity as I was at their age - and desperately pretending to be an expert.

I did not feel qualified to be an expert.

I also didn't feel that public speaking could be a strong point of mine. Historically, I've done a much better job expressing myself in writing than verbally (which, long-time followers of this blog will realise, implies some truly horrific moments of verbal misexpression). I'm not good at improvising and I know from long, painful experience that an over-planned lecture, particularly one with a tight, complete script, is a miserable waste of student time.

But in the end I took the job. I arranged my share of the lecturing so I wouldn't have to be the first member of the team to go in front of the students, did my best to prepare, and fretted until it was my turn. I felt certain that I'd panic, or stumble over my tongue and say something completely false, or that I'd do that thing nervous speakers do where they steadily speed up and up and up and turn everything into horrible run-on sentences that go on and on and on forever until you're really desperate for the end of this paragraph right now aren't you?

Suffice it to say, none of that actually happened. My lectures weren't perfect - I flubbed jokes, ran too long in some sessions and too short in others - but I've not seen a catastrophic drop-off in attendance and no-one's made a formal complaint against me, so at the very least there have been no disasters. And it's actually been quite fun. Well, not preparing Powerpoint presentations for each session, that sucks, but the rest of it.

Probably some of this is unhealthy - the gratification from playing the expert for an hour or two a week (sidebar: turns out that compared to people with a decade's less experience of philosophy, I am an expert and don't need to do much pretending) - but unless and until someone complains I'm not going to overanalyse. For the most part, I'm just pleased that I've now been asked to do more lecturing next term - though this does mean I'm going to be just as busy and thus have just as little time for blogging, which is why new content here has been a bit sluggish in recent weeks.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Everyday sexism (that I am guilty of)

I was walking across campus on Monday and it so happened that the person in front of me on the path was female and attractive. I made a conscious effort not to ogle, and yet, when she was greeted by a group of her classmates waiting outside a lecture hall, I still had this weird moment of cognitive dissonance. Suddenly, she was a human being interacting with human beings, rather than a shape taking up a central chunk of my visual field.

Was this entirely a sexist response? I don't know - it was, after all, Monday morning and I'd just been giving a lecture on semantics for quantificational logic, so I was a bit spaced out, and maybe there's an argument that I was just startled by the intrusion of voices in what had been a quiet environment - but I think I can tell the difference between sensory and cognitive startlement. My point is this: it's that easy (for me as a man) to dehumanise a woman, even despite a conscious effort not to. That's how insidious sexism can be.

Another example, this one perhaps a little less everyday, but more stark. Over the last couple of days, Crash, the dog belonging to game developer and favourite gamergate target Brianna Wu, took severely ill and died. Wu mentioned this on Twitter and was barraged with abuse in the form of mockery of Crash, photos of mutilated dog corpses, and at least one fake account for Crash proclaiming 'lol I'm going to die soon'.

All of which is horrible and reprehensible, but that shouldn't need saying. What does need saying is this: I felt a new level of shock and outrage at this kind of abuse, compared to the 'usual' abuse Wu has been receiving (threats of rape and murder against her, her family and friends, and her business, which among other things drove her from her home).

To put it bluntly: abuse aimed at the dog had more emotional impact with me than abuse aimed at the woman.

Perhaps it's tempting to say something along the lines of 'well, yes, but the dog's innocent, gamergate shouldn't be dragging a pet into this'. That's stupid, though, because it implies that Wu is in some way not innocent. That she deserves some part of what's happened to her, which is bullshit.

My point, guys (and I do mean guys) is this: these subconscious psychological mechanisms don't go away when we decide to try to care about other people. I don't know whether these two responses are things I've learned or are innate in some way, but they're habits of thought so deep that even when trying to be conscious of them I miss them working.

And they are responses I am responsible for. Even if I was born with the tendency to think about women this way, as long as it has the power to affect my behaviour, I am responsible for making sure that it doesn't. I am responsible for making sure that my poisonous habits of thought don't spill out into the real world.

That requires an effort of constant vigilance, regardless of whether it's Monday morning and I've just come from lecturing on difficult logic. And it really matters, because (for example) a huge part of the problem of stopping gamergate, and of taking it seriously as something that must be stopped, is a lack of empathetic understanding of what life is like for gamergate targets - of how damaging harrassment can be.

It's exactly the kind of empathy that I've failed at (at least) twice in the last week which we (men) most need in order to recognise, understand and tackle this problem.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Getting what you wish for

Back in early July I wrote this post, basically bemoaning the fact that video games aren't 'taken seriously' by our culture. Since then some very serious things have happened in gaming (i.e. gamergate), and so one negative element of gaming has come to be taken a little more seriously, but that's not what I'm going to talk about today. I refrain from talking about gamergate primarily because I've yet to think of anything I have to add to the discussion that hasn't already been said - I do, of course, wholeheartedly condemn gamergate itself.

Today, I have something rather more optimistic to offer. I'm now part of the planning process for a university-level 'gaming and interactive media' course (title not final) within the University of Liverpool's School of the Arts (backstory: UoL is my alma mater and now my primary employer; I lecture and teach in the Department of Philosophy, part of the SotA). We had our first departmental discussion of possible modules/topics this morning, and I got clearance to engage in some informal public consultation.

This is exactly the kind of thing I was yearning for when I wrote that post back in July. It's not a technical course - we're not expecting to cover programming, hardware design etc. though we may build links to courses that will - but a cultural/humanities one. The process will put gaming closer to film, television, theatre, literature and so on in terms of serious cultural consideration.

But this is a very new field, and if we're clear about one thing so far it's that we're not clear about much. I'm looking for suggestions of issues that a course like this - a humanities course, one approaching games as cultural artefacts - could or should address. If you're a gamer (either in the sense of 'someone who plays games' or of 'someone who identifies primarily as a gamer') what would you like to see discussed?

Some issues are obvious; for example, there's no clear definition of 'a game' or 'a video game', and phenomena such as augmented reality gaming and the gamification of education make the definitional question profoundly interesting. There are complex issues relating to authorship within videogames, too; who is the author of a narrative which is directed as much by the player (the audience) of a game as its developers? And, given everything that has come to the surface over the last three months, it would be negligent not to discuss feminist critiques of games (along with other dimensions of privilege - race, sexuality, ability etc.).

Not everything need come under the banner of philosophy. Our School of the Arts includes Music, English, Architecture and Communications/Media Studies, and there's a joint meeting in three weeks' time where we'll all be putting things forward. Any suggestions you can offer for what we should cover will be most welcome.