Butting Heads

There was an excellent blog post today from science fiction author Jay Lake, who sat down with himself recently to reflect on his tendency to argue with American political conservatives in public spaces, in particular on Facebook.

I reviewed his short list of hot button issues with some interest. I find myself in agreement with him on a number of important ideological commitments, particularly to the theory of evolution and to a profound distate for climate change denial.

Nonetheless…I do not bark all that much myself, these days. It is interesting to see the approach that others take to public debate, because it made me realize how much my own interest in such “debate” has waned in recent years. I have to admit, I seem to have lost the Quixotic bulldog stubbornness it takes to lock horns directly with another ape’s madness.

It’s not just that I passed all those low level courses in anthro and sociology where they teach you that opposition is the anvil of human identity. I do understand now that when people rail at me, the purpose of the contact between us is not to communicate–it is to harden our respective views. Human beings crash our foreheads together like bucks in rut because we use the impact to toughen up our beliefs. We fight to strengthen the sense of self that arises from the conflict, to make our opposition to one another more bitter, more sharp, more permanent…and to dig it in, to make it more deeply rooted in the firm belief that we ourselves are virtuous, just, and sane, while all who disagree with us on matters of public policy are evil, criminal, and psychotic.

Those classes were part of it, certainly, but really not the whole of it. I think that if I am really honest, my involvement with the Sword of the Stars franchise over the past several years has had a greater impact. The game is certainly not a crazy-huge media phenomenon on the order of Halo, Bioshock or other big budget SF console games. But it has an audience of many thousands, and I am the Lead writer on the series. I am solely responsible for the background fiction of the game, in particular the science fiction world-building. This puts me directly in the firing line, when the ideological content of the game is under review.

For the past seven years, my every idea and decision in creating this little SF universe has been subject to hostile interrogation by people with a variety of agendas. But as with any sniper battle, when people open fire, they often give away their own position. I have discovered that many critics are not standing on such lofty plateaus as they imagine, when they take aim on even as trivial an opponent as a video game. And on some occasions, the cross-fire has been so comically, cosmically absurd that I would not have believed it, if I had not been there.

Example: when the first Sword of the Stars was released in 2006, there were neo-Conservative critics in the fan base who complained bitterly about the “gloomy leftist” future which I had projected for the human race. Specifically, I had posited that before the 25th century, when the first FTL drive was developed, the human race would have gone through a good deal of ecological and political crisis, resulting in massive re-organization of political boundaries and a massive re-ordering of consumption and production strategies.

So…check. Ecological concerns, warfare and new borders for world government = “gloomy leftist”.

Within 30 days, however, the game was also reviewed by a critic affiliated with the Maoist Internationalist Movement. Strangely enough, the Maoist Internationalist critic didn’t seem to notice that I was a gloomy leftist! On the contrary, he concluded that the game was “a multicultural cover for fascist genocide”, and should be taken as evidence that there was no such thing as a “moderate Amerikan” (the fact that the game was made in Canada notwithstanding).

Joe and Adolph at the Sword of the Stars Summit

If this incident was insufficiently Kafka-esque to teach me a lesson, I would certainly have learned it after a few more years went by. With the first two expansions to Sword of the Stars, two new alien races were introduced. One of them, the Zuul, was deliberately designed to explore the problem of evil at the level of an entire culture or civilization.

To be clear: the Zuul were based on a number of models, including the Neo-Assyrian empire. I used them to look at the problem of slavery as an economic model; I used them to comment fairly extensively on patriarchy as an ideology and cruelty as a way of life. There were a lot of ingredients in the pot, and I did not spare the seasoning. Some of the words and phrases I used in the Zuul language were actually lifted directly from the Cambodian genocide; I’m quite interested in the anthropology of genocide, and my first thesis was focused on two massacre sites in my home state.

Let's Just Say I Wasn't TRYING to Be Subtle

I was quite surprised to see what “feminist” game critics took away from the Sword of the Stars universe. They announced that sexual dimorphism and the patriarchy of the Zuul were “creepy” (which was good, since I intended them to be)…but they then went on to announce that because the Zuul were creepy, that by extension the creator was creepy. Because I was capable of creating such a race for a game, I must be a dupe and a puppet of the Great Patriarchal Conspiracy who was completely blind to the ideological elements of her work.

Further hilarity ensued when a friend of mine linked me to the article and the comment thread to let me know that my “name was being taken in vain”. I surfed over, read a string of nonsense about my work and quite a lot of crude, stupid innuendo about my supposed religious, social and political positions with considerable annoyance. When I responded to the thread, however, to point out the number of statements that were completely fabricated or just offensively presumptive, my remarks were deleted. Instantly.

To make the incident even more grotesque and ironic, the entire editorial staff of a website which purported to be about women and equality in gaming made it very clear that they had no interest in anything I had to say, then or at any time in the future. Yes, despite the fact that I am one of the few visibly female designers and lead wrlters in an industry which is overwhelmingly male. Despite the fact that I was working successfully in a genre which is one of the last bastions of “Old Guard” style masculine privilege. Despite the fact that I had begun my career as a game reviewer and that I had been a “Woman in Gaming” since the early 1990’s.

Their refusal to allow me to speak in my own defense or explain the intent behind my work was a valuable lesson in many respects. It was a website and a community which purported to be about vocality and empowerment of women…and yet, this community and its administrators were not only tearing down a female creator in an incredibly sloppy and brutally personal vein “behind her back”, but also denying her the chance to respond to such attacks in a public space that THEY controlled.

“Vocality and empowerment”, in other words, were clearly not for ALL women. And when push came to shove, this “women in gaming” site and its community were not prepared to listen to a woman who could actually hold down a job in the gaming industry for any length of time. As Napoleon would say, “Some pigs were more equal than others.”

The incident taught me a great many things about a certain kind of feminism, and I’ve since learned to be wary of a lot of “Women in [fill in male-dominated media of choice]” websites, magazines and groups. More importantly, though, it cemented a lesson about agenda-driven thinking and public discourse.

My conclusion then and now is that basically, all those 100-level courses in Psychology and Sociology were spot on. When people are driven by powerful, consuming agendas, they are hyper-sensitive to any perceived challenge to the agenda. What’s more, they tend to ignore any data EXCEPT for the perceived challenge; it’s the conflict itself that they really need.

These people want to butt heads. But while they are eager to attack, they do so with very little real engagement. They are not really listening; they are not really communicating. Like Kurt Cobain, who used to lie on a riverbank and shriek at the sky, they are screaming just to practice screaming. Working to make their own voices stronger.

These days I’ve got better things to do with my time.

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About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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6 Responses to Butting Heads

  1. Dana Paxson says:

    Great posts! “These days I’ve got better things to do with my time.” Wow, does that ever sum up the attitude I have about contention, contentiousness, and contenders.

    Please, Arinn. Ignore them all. Let the plaque accumulate in their arteries and not in yours. When you’re busy reinventing the world(s), there is no time nor energy to be wasted.

    With respect and support,


  2. John B says:

    Wow, you got it from all sides. I’d vow never to to cause you distress again, but I don’t make promises I can’t keep. 😀

  3. Good stuff. At this point, I’ve become not-so-quick to spring to the retort, when someone on some forum says something asinine. It’s like religious or political debate. Everyone walks away with the same opinions they came in with.. when you’ve tried to have an open mind to all the counter arguments, and all the arguments sound the same, and aren’t productive for anyone.. why bother any more?

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  5. AlpsStranger says:

    Just don’t be disappointed if you find your ideological rivals with sharper horns and stronger lungs.

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