The Scary Truth of Dangerous Insecurity

Outdated ideas deserve an outdated reference.

Because outdated ideas deserve an outdated reference.

A few weeks ago I posted this piece discussing the fact that our fiction fails to reflect the continually-evolving state of gender relations in modern society, and alluding to the problems that logically could follow from entire generations of men being conditioned to expect to relate to women in an archaic way, and having the rug pulled out from under them when they find out the world doesn’t really work like that. I’d said my piece on that subject and was prepared to move on to other topics.

Then, not even a week after I had put up that blog post, the UCSB shooting happened. Elliot Rodger shot and killed six innocent people and then himself, and his own “manifesto” and YouTube videos revealed that he had done this to “get revenge” on the world because he didn’t have an attractive girlfriend (or any girlfriend, but he placed major emphasis on the “attractive” part), and he felt that he was owed one.

That, in the parlance of our times, is some spooky shit. Suddenly, and understandably, I think, I was less inclined to immediately move on from this topic.

After I wrote a blog entry discussing the problems that arise when entitlement and gun ownership collide, and as I did a little more reading on these subjects, I quickly found that Rodger was involved with the so-called “Men’s Rights Movement,” a group of loosely-connected (and often opposing) online communities who ostensibly speak up for men’s rights in a feminist-dominated world. Anybody with a basic knowledge of history will immediately understand why that mission statement is so absurd.

My previous experiences encountering this self-described “Movement” mostly amounted to running into one of its advocates on a message board or in an online comments section in a thread dealing in some way with sexism, or reading about them conducting cyber-attacks on feminist websites. I hadn’t fully realized the depth and breadth of this phenomenon. But after the UCSB shooting and learning of Rodger’s motives and who he was talking with online, I felt a need to dig deeper.

Apparently after Rodger’s affiliation with them came to light, the MRM forum that Rodger had been a part of, PUAHate (short for Pick-Up Artist Hate) had been shut down by their former webhost. Through doing some reading, I found this article by a woman who tracked down the new message board where the members of PUAHate had re-congregated. The writer created a profile and lurked there silently for eight hours, documenting the highlights of what she saw written by the community.

Fair warning, the article is a difficult one to stomach. For those who’d rather not feel like their brain needs a shower today, or for those who’d simply prefer to avoid giving a click to a Gawker site (understandable), I’ll briefly summarize the main “points” made by the PUAHate members below:

  • They believe that they are entitled to an attractive woman with whom they can have sex.
  • “Attractiveness” is apparently not in the eye of the beholder, but rather measured by a series of physical measurements and invented metrics that would be more at home in benchmarking computer parts than in discussing another human being.
  • If a woman is sexually active (or perceived to be sexually active), then she should be servicing all men everywhere. If not, she is a “slut” and “parading” her sexuality in front of lonely men.
  • Men who are not having sex (“involuntarily celibate” or “incel”) are an oppressed group, and the entirety of modern society is a feminist construction that exists for the purpose of cock-blocking them.
  • Rape is a dominant alpha male behavior, particularly date rape, and is to be encouraged and admired.
  • All men feel this way whether they’ll admit it or not, and killers like Elliot Rodger and Richard Ramirez are simply taking the next logical step and should be emulated.

To paraphrase Alan Moore, if that last bullet point fills you with an intense and crushing feeling of fear and disgust, don’t be alarmed. That indicates only that you are still sane.

PUAHate is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many forums out there just like it, separated only by the thinnest of ideological differences, and all of them spewing the same drivel and hate. All of them are full of lonely men who, rather than take charge of their own lives, accept responsibility for their own failings and becoming somebody worth loving and who can love in return, prefer to externalize their insecurity and self-loathing, blaming others for causing their problems and embracing hate instead of love.

And that’s all it is. In the entire ideology of the “Men’s Rights Movement,” there isn’t anything about what it means to be a man, about what men should be able to do, about fatherhood, about courage, about building and creating and growing. There is nothing but hate for women. It is misogynist in the truest sense of the word, and it all stems from these men believing they are not receiving what they are owed. They were taught that they deserve an attractive sexual partner, and they’re not getting what they feel they were entitled to.

This problem of perception is very real. It’s not going to go away on its own. And as long as it’s around, there will be more people like Elliot Rodger. More innocent people will die, and these “activists” will lurk in their dark corners of the Internet and cheer the killers on.

So I must re-iterate my call to action; writers everywhere, we need to make a change. We can’t, in good conscience, take part in warping another generation of men into these hateful creatures that applaud the deaths of innocents.

Our stories will teach the next generation, and we need to make sure they’re being taught better values than the belief that women are a debt that’s owed to them. We need to teach that worth comes from self-improvement, not the possession and destruction of others. And most importantly, we need to teach that hate is not a substitute for love.

Absolute Right?

...regardless of the cost?

…regardless of the cost?

As most of you are aware, last Friday a young man named Elliot Rodger went on a shooting rampage near the University of California at Santa Barbara–killing six innocent victims and then killing himself. This was the act of a deranged, hateful person, motivated by misogyny, racism and general misanthropy, and it resulted in a terrible loss of life.

People have different ways of grieving and dealing with terrible events like the UCSB shooting. Some have chosen to examine the killer’s motivations and discuss them in order to gain a better understanding. Some, like the father of one of the victims, Richard Martinez, chose to call for legislation and action to prevent more senseless acts of gun violence in the future.

And some, like former Presidential campaign prop turned political commentator Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, chose to write an open letter in response to Martinez’s heartbreaking plea to say “Your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.” Or no, actually, it was just him.

I deliberately chose not to link to Wurzelbacher’s letter itself, mostly because I don’t want to give it more clicks than it already received. Having read it myself, it’s honestly hard to tell if Wurzelbacher believes what he says, or if this is just him trolling in an attempt to exploit the deaths of several innocent young people to prolong his long-since-lapsed 15 minutes of fame.

He barely touches on his pro-Second Amendment argument before going off on a tangent about whether the shooter voted for Obama and complaining about media bias against “conservative Tea Party Republican Christians,” and implying that Martinez cares more about his political agenda than he does his dead son. Suffice to say, it’s one of the more ignorant, illogical and hateful things I’ve read on the Internet.

But for the purposes of this post, I’ll both assume Wurzelbacher is serious and focus on his briefly addressed and completely unsupported thesis, that the well-being of other humans is not paramount to his right, as guaranteed under the Constitution (or at least his interpretation of the Constitution), to own a firearm.

I wouldn’t even give “Joe the Plumber” the time of day if it weren’t for the fact that this argument keeps coming up over and over. Every time one of these shooting sprees happens (and they are frequent these days), a certain segment of the pro-Second Amendment crowd decries any discussion of gun control or restrictions of gun ownership on the grounds that the Second Amendment grants them the absolute right to own guns, in any quantity, quality or type they desire.

The problem with this argument is that there is no such thing as an absolute right. Every right recognized by the government of the United States of America, and by the United Nations, is qualified and modified by law.

Even though the First Amendment grants me the right to freedom of speech without “abridgment” by Congressional law, that doesn’t protect me from being criminally liable for damages, injuries and loss of life resulting from me yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. It doesn’t permit me to threaten people with violence, or print falsehoods about other people, or to practice a religion that involves human sacrifice. My rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of religion do not take precedence over the well-being of others who have done me no wrong.

What Wurzelbacher is arguing, and what everybody who repeats this claim is arguing, is that, though the very Amendment that guarantees their ability to say these ignorant, hateful things and rub salt in the wounds of grieving parents is subject to restrictions and limitations, the Amendment that protects their right to own a firearm is not.

That is horseshit.

A person’s rights, under law, end when they infringe on the rights of others. Even the right to life, recognized by both the United States government and the United Nations as a basic human right, is not guaranteed in the event that a person chooses to use their life to bring harm to another. This is the very cornerstone of law. It is the mortar that holds society together. If we were to adopt this attitude of doing what we want without any thought of the harm to others under every circumstance, the end result would be anarchy.

So what, exactly, makes the Second Amendment so special that the very precepts of law and human society, observed by every culture since the dawn of man, don’t apply to it?

The simple answer is, it’s not. Like every other right, the right to bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment is and should be subject to restriction and regulation. But Wurzelbacher and people like him don’t view the right to bear arms as a right. They view it as an entitlement, something they are guaranteed regardless of its impact on others, not unlike how Elliot Rodger shot innocent people to “get revenge” on the world for denying him what he believed to be his entitlement to an attractive woman to be his sexual partner.

Please understand, I realize that “Joe” and others like him aren’t speaking for every gun-owning American citizen. I understand that the vast majority of gun owners, and even the vast majority of NRA members, support gun control legislation. I imagine gun owners and non-gun owners have different ideas about what the details of that legislation should be, but that’s precisely why we need to have this conversation, and it’s a conversation that loudmouths like “Joe the Plumber” and lobbyist groups like the NRA aren’t allowing to happen.

The deaths of six innocent young people on Friday, May 23rd, 2014 were a terrible loss of life, and a horrible crime committed by a hateful, disturbed individual. The fact that we’re allowing people like Wurzelbacher and self-interested industry lobbying groups like the NRA to drown out the voices of the victims is a tragedy.

LINETS

Your participation trophy, sir.

Your participation trophy, sir.

Recently, my wife had a night out with some of our friends, and this event prompted a realization; of the women in our circle of friends, she’s one of the few who is married. And of our female friends, the majority of them are single. This observation was interesting both to her and to myself, since really, this is a scenario that, a generation or two ago, would have been surprising. We’re all in our late 20s and early 30s; in the mid-20th century and earlier, most of these women would have been married by now.

I started thinking about that change, and its broader implications, and I came to an interesting conclusion; in modern society, a woman no longer needs to be in a relationship with a man to function and thrive.

Now, don’t misunderstand me and think that preaching the “men are unnecessary” slogan. I’ve always been of the opinion that human society needs everyone to be on equal footing for society to function properly. All genders bring something to the table that the others don’t, and in an era where critical thinking and new ideas are becoming increasingly important, that’s incredibly valuable.

But prior the the last 60 years or so, a woman was expected to get married to a man and start a family, not to start a career and pay her own way. It simply wasn’t generally feasible for a woman to get a job that she could earn a real living at, due to wide array of social pressures and realities. But even though pay inequality between men and women hasn’t gone away and the “glass ceiling” still looms in many workplaces, that situation has changed. Women are not only able to earn their own way in society, they’re expected (and many desire) to make just as much as men do.

In other words, women no longer require a man in their life to be the breadwinner and provide for them just because they were born without a Y chromosome. A fundamental reality that characterized centuries of human civilization has, within our lifetimes, dramatically shifted.

My wife’s observation brought into focus a concept that had been rattling around for awhile: Why doesn’t our fiction reflect this change?

Pick any story off the shelf at random, regardless of the time in which it was written, whether it was written by a man or a woman, or what medium it’s conveyed in, and odds are the story you picked has a male lead and a female lead who fall in love and wind up in a relationship, if not married, by the story’s close.

It doesn’t have to be a love story, and indeed, the relationship between the characters doesn’t even have to be a key part of the story. This is such a common trope in fiction that a term has been coined to describe it: LINETS, or “Love Interest Non-Essential To Story.”

And it’s not just that the male and female leads almost always end up together, but these stories are mostly told from a male perspective, and the female has no agency in this relationship. She’s not another character who makes a choice or falls in love; she will be with the male lead. She’s a prize for reaching the end of the tale, a trophy for the hero. And as the old saying goes, everyone is the hero of their own story. This kind of thinking can apply to real life as well.

You may see where I’m going with this…

Fiction is many things: entertainment, an industry, an art form. But first and foremost, it’s a teacher. People tell stories because it’s one of the easiest ways to learn information. Our histories are constructed into narratives with villains, heroes and climactic battles, abstract concepts of mathematics and science are taught through simple stories, even simple bits of information from our daily lives are conveyed through anecdotes.

And perhaps most importantly, stories are how we convey our morals and social norms to our children. This is the reason that every religion has a canon of stories and parables associated with it; we teach our young by examples as demonstrated in stories, and children absorb what they see and hear. It shapes their understanding of how the world works.

So, we have an enormous, constantly-growing body of fiction, much of which is consumed by young boys, and almost all of which is telling them that simply for being what they are, the hero of their own story, they are entitled to, nay, guaranteed a woman to be their love interest. And boys are being taught this lesson in an era in which, strictly speaking, women no longer need a man by default.

There’s a lot of talk about what dangerous lessons fiction might be teaching our children. People worry about violent films, television and video games turning children into school shooters. Religious fundamentalists decry what they believe to be pro-gay messages that could turn their children into homosexuals, or books about magic like Harry Potter turning kids into Satanists.

But nobody seems to be talking about the dangers of teaching young boys that, when they grow up, they are entitled to a relationship with a woman by default. And to me that seems like a far more dangerous message, because it’s insidious.

Even the most forward-thinking young men, who support gender equality in every way possible, can fall prey to this misconception, because it doesn’t inherently conflict with a pro-feminist value system. After all, sticking up for women’s rights makes you a nice guy, a good person, a hero. And doesn’t the hero always get the girl?

It’s insidious because, even for writers, it’s hard to get away from. It’s everywhere. In many ways, it’s become as intrinsic to storytelling as the three-act structure. But like that structure, this trope of the woman-as-trophy can be subverted. It can be played with. It can be changed.

As writers, it’s our duty to do so. As society changes and progresses, so must the lessons we teach. A society should move forward because of its stories, not in spite of them.

Compulsive Storytelling

Nothing to do now but wait. *Sigh.*

Nothing to do now but wait. *Sigh.*

Recently, I started watching the anime series Attack on Titan, which just recently began its US television run on Cartoon Network…and by “started watching,” I mean that I shotgunned the entire first season on Netflix in about four days. Attack on Titan is one of the most compelling, compulsively watchable shows I’ve ever seen, and once I finished watching the first season, and after the realization sank in that now I was stuck waiting for the second season to be released when it hasn’t even started production yet in Japan, I began to think about why that is.

Even those of you who haven’t seen Attack on Titan yet (which you totally should) can probably relate to this. I think everybody has found a TV show they can’t stop watching, or a book that’s almost impossible to put down until you reach the last page, or even a video game whose story grabs you and won’t let you go until you finish all 30-odd hours of it. Every storyteller’s desire is to create a story like that; something that grips the audience all the way through and leaves them wanting more.

I’ve been to a few writing workshops with authors who shared their opinions on how to achieve that effect, but I’m not sure that there’s a magic formula to create that “can’t put it down” quality, so much as it’s the result of a kind of synergy, an effect of a work being greater than the sum of its parts. So here are my thoughts on the assemblage of individual parts that can combine to form a Voltron of an awesome story, just based on the works I’ve experienced this feeling with.

The first element of any show or book that grabs me this way is always the cast of characters. These compulsively-consumable stories, for me, at least, are always character-driven more than they’re plot-driven. They tend to revolve around an ensemble cast, all the members of which get enough time in the spotlight to be developed, all of whom have some room to grow at least a little, and all of whom interact in interesting ways. In some ways, this may be the easiest element to achieve; even stories that aren’t that interesting overall often have a solid core cast. As long as a writer doesn’t make his characters boring or unlikeable, this is very doable.

The second element that I’ve seen is having long-term questions that need to be answered over the course of the story. Now, I need to clarify this with a few qualifications. First, the number of questions needs to be fairly limited, typically to just a few items, or only to one. Attack on Titan has the looming question of what the Titans actually are, and a few sub-questions I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen the show yet. Firefly mostly deals with the ongoing question of what had been done to River and what the government wanted her for. The Dresden Files has had a series of these questions, introducing new ones as old ones are resolved. A long-running mystery gives the audience reason to get invested in the story.

However, introducing too many questions often results in a show where everything is a question, and typically means the writers haven’t bothered to figure anything out beforehand. The poster child for this formula is Lost, and many shows have tried to follow in that tradition. Typically this bogs down a show and results in a situation where nobody in the audience has any idea what’s actually going on, which I know is entertaining for some people, but many (including myself) find it incredibly frustrating and dull. I find that this works best when the number of questions is kept small, and when new questions are introduced only as old ones are answered, thus creating a sense of progression and deepening mystery for the audience.

Speaking of Lost, the second major caveat is that all the story’s important questions need to be answered at some point. Some ambiguity can be okay, but any major question that’s been driving the plot at any point needs a definitive answer. Additionally, the writer should know the answer to a question when the question is introduced. There are few things more frustrating than watching through several seasons of a TV show only for the overarching mystery to have an answer that the writer clearly pulled out of his ass at the last minute. A writer doesn’t need to outline his plots with a Dickensian level of detail, but he should at least have a general idea of where the story is going; it’s never a good idea to fly by the seat of your pants when writing a mystery.

Finally, the third essential element I’ve found to a gripping story, and perhaps the hardest of all to achieve, is pacing. The right pace to one of these stories will have an episode or a chapter leave the audience wanting more, but also make them feel like that episode or chapter wasn’t a waste of time. The story needs to move fast enough that things happen quickly enough to keep the audience from being bored, but not so quickly that not enough time is devoted to individual character or story elements. Also, there needs to be an incentive for the audience to keep going, an ending that has some resolution, but also leaves room for doubt and uncertainty.

A story that hits the sweet spot will have its audience saying, “OK, one more chapter before bed,” or “Just one more episode…” And really, I think that’s every writer’s dream come true; to create a story so good that the audience never wants it to end. It’s certainly a goal worth striving for.

Why Every Writer Should GM

It's dangerous to go alone. Take these.

It’s dangerous to go alone. Take these.

This past Saturday I ran a tabletop role-playing game session for the first time in close to four years. It was a session of the latest edition of the venerable cyberpunk/urban fantasy game Shadowrun, and it ran very smoothly. The adventure actually wrapped up more quickly than I was expecting, moved at a dynamic pace, each player got to contribute to the resolution of the session, and I think fun was had all around. I’m very much looking forward to our next game.

While the game went as well as I had hoped, I didn’t expect how fresh and new the experience would feel. Writing and running a tabletop gaming session after such a long absence (and after completing one prose novel and starting work on another), I was struck both by what a unique writing experience game-mastering can be, and by how many lessons can be carried over to other forms of writing.

The GM’s job in an RPG group is to write up scenarios for the other players to play through. And in many respects, this is very similar to writing other forms of fiction; the author either uses an established setting or creates his own, comes up with characters whose interactions drive the story, and creates a story that follows a basic structure with a beginning, middle, and end.

However, where tabletop role-playing differs from other forms of fiction is in its cast of leading characters and its audience, which are one and the same. The other players in the game each create their own character, including the character’s backstory, appearance, personality and skill-set, and control that character, acting as that character would act in the situation presented to them by the GM.

Returning to GMing after so long working in prose fiction, it really is striking how much of a difference not having control over the principal characters of the story makes. True, the GM does exercise a certain degree of control over what kinds of characters a player can bring to the game in the interest of making things run smoothly. It’s in everybody’s best interest for the GM to prevent a player from running a character who, by their very nature, is going to be arguing and fighting with the other player characters at every turn, or who simply doesn’t fit into the setting of the game.

But within fairly light restrictions, the players are otherwise free to create whatever kind of character they want. This leads to a story driven by a cast of main characters not of the GM’s own choosing, who are not at all in the GM’s control, and that’s a unique circumstance for a writer to be in.

Certainly it’s important for a writer to be true to his or her characters and in that sense a character can take on a life of their own; I think anybody who’s written fiction has experienced this at least once, regardless of how well they plan out their stories and think their plots through before writing them out. But that’s an entirely different experience from GMing, where a player character can do something that is entirely unexpected.

It forces the GM to try and anticipate what his players might do in a given circumstance, and even then, it’s unlikely that a GM can actually predict everything his players might try and how they might react to a given situation.

Case in point: in the adventure that I had set up the player characters were hired to investigate the disappearances of several missing girls, one of whom was known to work at a particular nightclub. The missing girls had all been kidnapped and forced into a prostitution ring run by the Russian mob, where they were surgically altered and brainwashed to be obedient replicas of famous celebrities. And the adventure was to conclude at the brothel where all of this was happening, where they would have an opportunity to rescue the girls and kill the mobsters, shutting down the whole operation.

The brothel had four potential entrances; the front, the back, a roof access and a basement access. When I prepared for the scene, I had planned on the PCs picking one of those four entrances and clearing the building of opposition, which consisted of eight mobsters and two black-market surgeons doing the “alterations” to the kidnapped women.

What actually happened was that the players entered the basement and ambushed the two surgeons. The noise from the ensuing gunfight got the attention of the mobsters upstairs, who headed for the basement. The team’s resident hacker, thinking fast, hacked the electronic lock on the door to force it closed.  Having dispatched the surgeons, the rest of the team got the kidnapped women (who were in the basement) outside and into the getaway vehicles. Then, rather than fight the mobsters head-on, the group laid a trap, using a fire spell to ignite the tanks of anesthetic gas from the surgical theater, which exploded right as the mobsters got the door open and poured down the stairs, ready to fight. The resulting explosion killed all the mobsters who had been operating the brothel, and the building itself caught fire and burned.

What I had thought would be a stand-up fight between the two groups that would take a substantial amount of game time actually ended in less time than it took me to write this blog post. The result surprised me (pleasantly; I like it when players think outside the box), but it also got me to think about why they had reacted the way they did. In laying out the adventure, I had the client who hired the characters say that she wanted them to make sure whoever was responsible “couldn’t hurt anyone else.”

The players, hearing this, responded by enacting a literal scorched-earth campaign on the brothel. To borrow a line from Aliens, it was the only way to be sure. Additionally, I had laid it fairly thick about the disgusting nature of the crimes these mobsters were perpetrating against these unwilling women.

And the players responded by showing no mercy to them; one of the PCs (the same one who cast the spell to burn the building down), upon taking one of the surgeons down with a lightning spell, pulled her combat knife and cut the unconscious man’s throat. This was in keeping with her character (who is more than a little unstable), but it also drove home to me just how much animosity I had instilled in the players toward these criminals.

As a prose writer, often you work on a piece for weeks or months before another person ever sees what you wrote and gives you feedback. In a table-top game, however, almost as soon as you read your work to the players, they give you instant feedback in the form of action. And it’s feedback that, as GM, you must react and respond to, even if it’s not in line with your expectations. There is no intellectual barrier, where the writer can wonder if there was any misinterpretation on the part of the audience; there is action and reaction, stimulus and response. And whatever the response, the GM must deal with the consequences.

I feel that every writer, even if it’s only once in his or her life, should GM a table-top roleplaying game. Because nothing else in the world will make you think about the relationship between a writer and his audience more than your words resulting in unexpected arson.

Creative License?

No. No, you're not.

No. No, you’re not.

Well, a new Captain America film has just hit theaters (I haven’t seen it yet, so no spoilers, please!), and once again I’m reminded that there are people out there who just don’t understand the character. It seems any time Cap is thrust into the limelight, there are people who, lacking knowledge of the character, just look at his name and how he’s dressed and assume that he’s some jingoist G.I. Joe type and dismiss him out of hand.

I guess that’s a natural consequence of having a character who’s directly associated with an entire government, and admittedly, Cap was created partly as a piece of wartime propaganda. As a kid, I was guilty of dismissing him with an eye-roll at first glance without really understanding the character, so I can understand the impulse. But Cap has really evolved since his early appearances. He’s not a blind patriot, willingly following any orders without concern for their moral implications, nor is he a product of the institutional discrimination of his time period.

Instead, he’s a hero who always stands up for his ideals, even when it brings him into conflict with the government and laws of his homeland. He respects men and women of all races and creeds, having led an amazingly diverse group of Avengers over the years. Indeed, Cap was a longtime partner with one of the first African-American superheroes, the Falcon, and shared billing with him on their comic book. In short, he’s not a slavish defender of America as it is, warts and all, but rather he represents America as it should be, and tries to inspire others to act on those ideals.

Thinking about this dichotomy and the way audience members can sometimes misunderstand a character made me realize something interesting. Superheroes are uniquely vulnerable to misinterpretation, in that they can not only be misunderstood by their audience, but also by the writers and other creators responsible for handling their stories.

Unlike many types of media, long-running superhero comics rarely have the same writer telling the story throughout their run, or even for very long; sometimes a writer’s run on a book can last as little as six issues, though more commonly a writer will stay with a particular book for at least a few years.

And writers, being people, will have differing opinions from one another. Sometimes this can be a good thing; it can lead to new and interesting takes on a given character or characters that can revitalize them and lead to new and exciting stories, while still remaining true to the core of who those characters are. The famous Iron Man storyline “Demon In A Bottle,” the gradual progression of Spider-Man’s character from a high school student to a married adult, the recent Wolverine and the X-Men series, and pretty much anything done with Deadpool from the late ‘90s onward are all excellent examples of how a different writer can advance a character while still being true to who they are.

However, there are many (some might even say far more) examples of the exact opposite scenario, where a writer who doesn’t understand a character is suddenly put in charge of writing them. This is most common with “Elseworlds” stories, which are non-canon tales where a “what if?” scenario is presented and played out with the established heroes of a comic universe.

And many times Elseworlds tales can be a fascinating way of viewing an established character through a new lens. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns spins a great story about Batman coming out of retirement as an old man and provides insight about the Dark Knight and his relationship to Gotham City. Kingdom Come explores the future that would result if Superman, Wonder Woman and other heroes actually did use their powers to impose their will on the world. Exiles, one of my favorite comic series ever, is nothing but Elseworlds scenarios, where a team of heroes dimension-hops through the Marvel multiverse to set things right.

But often these stories showcase a writer’s lack of insight into a particular character or group of characters. Spider-Man: Reign was a terrible attempt to ape The Dark Knight Returns, but only served to show how much that setup doesn’t work for a character like Spider-Man. JLA: Act of God demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of just about every character in the Justice League (with the exception of Batman), from the nature of each character’s powers, to the basis of Lois Lane and Clark Kent’s relationship, and having Wonder Woman convert to Catholicism despite the fact that she has met all the gods of the Greek pantheon!

Even Frank Miller, who arguably crafted the modern-day perception of Batman as a character, has used Elseworlds books to showcase his complete misunderstanding of almost all major DC superheroes (including Batman himself) in The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All Star Batman and Robin, which, in addition to portraying Batman as a murderous, child abducting vigilante, gave us the now-infamous “Goddamn Batman” meme.

The damage isn’t limited to Elseworlds books, though. Main continuity comics also fall prey to writer misinterpretation, leading to such character-ruining storylines as Marvel’s “Civil War,” which turned Iron Man into a pro-big government fascist, to the Spider-Man story “One More Day,” in which Spider-Man sells his marriage to the Devil in a misguided attempt to save Aunt May’s life, and to DC’s New 52 continuity, in which Superman’s marriage to Lois Lane has been retconned out of existence, and he is now dating Wonder Woman.

In fairness to the writers, all of these events were orchestrated by editorial mandate in an effort to drive sales, but the fact remains that the creative force behind these books thought these changes would be a good idea, and the resulting storylines alienated droves of fans who apparently understand these characters better than the people who are paid to preserve them and tell their stories.

I’ve always believed that superheroes are a sort of American mythology; bringing together aspects from different cultures’ ancient myths and folk tales, we created these persistent, god-like heroes who could serve the same function as these stories. And one of the qualities of any good folk story or myth is that it can evolve to suit newer time periods. Urban legends evolve to deal with newer, different modern fears. Ancient legendary figures see use in new tales and contexts that are more relevant to the modern era. I suppose it’s only fair that superheroes receive the same treatment; but the key is, these new tales, however they are updated, must remain true to who and what these characters are. To betray the core of these characters is to negate the entire purpose of telling their stories in the first place.

The Super-Conundrum

Recently, I was reading an interesting discussion thread on a forum regarding the recurring trope in Japanese popular fiction about “killing God” (or at least a powerful being claiming to be God), and I was struck by one post in particular. This poster explained that to him, the trope was about changing the status quo for the better. He stated that he disliked superhero comics because characters like Superman are defenders of the status quo and don’t attempt to change it, even though that status quo is flawed and could be made better through their power.

Now, this comment gave me pause. Obviously, I think about superheroes a lot. It’s kind of my job. But this was a viewpoint I hadn’t really considered before–and it’s a troubling one. I’ve always loved superhero fiction. But, in terms of my political and social views, I’m about as progressive as you’re likely to find. I’m all about shaking up the status quo in interest of finding something better. Had I been backing the wrong horse all this time?

At first glance, there’s a lot to support this argument. When you pick up a comic book, or watch a superhero movie, you might see Batman take down a mugger, or Spider-Man thwart a purse-snatcher. And while you can’t really argue that this is a bad thing, at the same time, most crimes are motivated by societal factors. Few people just wake up one day and decide to become thieves or drug dealers; most of them are pushed to do it by systemic poverty and a lack of opportunity.

So while the superhero’s actions have taken one criminal off the streets, they’ve done nothing to alleviate the conditions that created that criminal in the first place. Some other desperate soul is just going to take his place, and the cycle will continue. The superhero is thwarting crime, but crime is the symptom, not the underlying disease. By failing to change the status quo that gives rise to crime, are these supposed heroes in fact perpetuating what they propose to fight against?

Well, that might be true if that was all superheroes did, but that’s simply not the case. Many heroes are shown to be advocates for social justice and supporters of charitable causes, both in and out of costume. Green Arrow and Batman both donate money from their vast fortunes to help the needy. Spider-Man has exposed corruption as a photojournalist and helped shape the next generation as a high school teacher. Wonder Woman has served as an international ambassador of peace. The Avengers have taken public stands against racism and discrimination. The Justice League has devoted countless hours of their time to work such as aiding disaster victims and building housing for the homeless.

The key here is that, while superheroes do attempt to change the status quo, they do so from within the system. With the exception of fighting crime as vigilantes, everything they do to improve the world around them is something that an ordinary citizen might do, had they the means to do so. There are characters who attempt to force radical change on society in comic books; they’re called super-villains.

While many super-villains are simply run-of-the-mill criminals with powers or abilities that are out of the norm, others actively attempt to overthrow the current system of government or radically change it to right some perceived injustice. Magneto seeks to end discrimination against mutants. Ra’s Al Ghul and Poison Ivy want to end man’s destructive abuse of the environment. Sinestro and Doctor Doom seek an end to crime, starvation and societal disorder. But all of these characters, however noble their ultimate goals may be, seek to go outside of the law and impose their will on others using their superior might.

The distinction between them and a character like Superman is that Superman doesn’t simply use his powers to force an end to war, famine and pollution. Because in doing so, in imposing his will on others and opting for a “might makes right” approach, he would cause more harm than good. And ultimately, he wouldn’t solve the root of the problem; he would be forcing people to act differently under duress, not making them change their way of thinking.

That’s the issue with systemic social problems like poverty, pollution and discrimination; they perpetuate themselves because the majority of people find them, on some level, to be acceptable, or at least inoffensive enough that they can be ignored. They are the result of malign intent from a handful of individuals, and apathy from a majority of others. And until those who are apathetic decide that a change must happen and strive to make it so, the status quo will never truly change, no matter how much force is applied to make it appear otherwise.

And that is the most important function of Superman, and indeed, of all superheroes; to serve as dramatic examples to shake people out of apathy, to make them strive to be more than what they are, to be better and to do better, every day.

Bullshot

Last week, video game publisher Ubisoft released a new trailer for their highly-anticipated game Watch Dogs. Right away, a lot of the people who have been following news about this game since it was announced almost two years ago at E3 noticed something was wrong. For those who missed them, here is the reveal that Ubisoft showed at E3 2012, and here is the new trailer that Ubisoft released last week when they announced the new release date for Watch Dogs (the second page is in Italian; just scroll down to find the video).

Some of you may have concluded that the visuals in the first trailer look noticeably better than the visuals in the second trailer. You would not be alone in this observation, and this disparity resulted in a storm of complaints, accusations and questions regarding this apparent downgrade in the game’s graphics. Ubisoft, quite naturally, has denied that any sort of downgrade took place, but anybody familiar with Ubisoft probably knows that they have a history of doing this sort of thing.

Unfortunately, Ubisoft is not alone in the practice of showing gussied-up demos at trade shows and pretending that they’re representative of the final game that will ultimately hit retail shelves. EA, Sony and Microsoft have all been caught doing this, among many, many other companies. In fact, the practice is so pervasive and universally utilized as a marketing tool that game enthusiasts have adopted a term for it, one coined by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade: Bullshots.

It’s hard to say for certain when bullshots became a common industry practice, but most people seem to agree that they became prominent at the start of the seventh console generation, back in 2005. Krahulik and Holkins actually coined the term in response to EA’s then-latest installment of the Madden franchise, which had been billed by trailers and screenshots as being near-photorealistic, when the final product looked nowhere close to what had been advertised. The practice has its roots in television commercials during the fifth console generation, though, when Playstation games were advertised using pre-rendered CGI cutscenes from those games, rather than playable footage of those titles.

Because this practice is so pervasive, it’s very difficult to take advertising material for any video game without a heaping helping of salt. Even footage of people supposedly playing a live demo is difficult to take seriously, as there have been several instances of companies faking live demos by literally putting somebody onstage with an un-connected controller and “playing” the demo. Some companies have even built limited playable demos from scratch solely for the purpose of having members of the press play through them (with close supervision from company staff, of course), to get the press to validate their deception.

It’s not hard to see why this is a huge problem for the industry and for consumers. Graphics have long been the bellwether for advancements in hardware, and impressive visuals are now intrinsically associated with improvements in the games themselves. However, with these impressive visuals being faked, consumers are left feeling that they were lied to or sold on completely different product from the one they bought in the end.

This pattern can lead to consumer burn-out and mistrust, which in turn comes around to hurt the game companies themselves. Companies rely on this advertising material and these trade shows to build hype for their games, but if consumers don’t trust what they see, then they’re less likely to buy a game when it comes out and wait on reviews from trusted sources before making a purchase. This trend is a problem when skyrocketing development costs have made publishers increasingly reliant on month-one, or even day-one sales, and even one underperforming title can result in the closure of the developer who made it.

Although the cultural repercussions are less severe, the practice is similar to another dishonest form of advertisement, that of advertisers and magazine publishers doctoring the looks of models and actresses in Photoshop and using these images of women who don’t technically exist to sell their products. Thankfully, I don’t think that any cases of body dysmorphia or eating disorders can be attributed to bullshots, but the level of cynicism and mistrust fostered by these antics is similar, and is in neither case healthy for the consumer or for the company.

Unfortunately, like the doctoring of female models, bullshots are used so prolifically because they work. They do get people to buy into the hype and get excited for the game in question. And the only way we’re ever likely to see this practice end is if we can convince publishers it no longer works, that we’ve seen the little man behind the curtain.  And sadly, that means that we’re likely to see a lot of developers shuttered when people get wise to the practice, before publishers finally get the message that this sort of deception is unacceptable.

So vote with your dollar. Don’t give in to the hype. Send a clear message to publishers that, until you can believe what they show you again, you’re not going to be buying or pre-ordering any more of their games on blind faith alone. Because, like all corporations, money is all these publishers understand and respond to, and the only way to make them care is to disrupt their cash flow.

Connection Lost

Anybody who’s been paying attention to the progression of our society for the past ten years is probably already aware of just how integral the Internet has become to modern life. What started off as a series of BBSs for tech geeks to communicate with one another has long since evolved into the greatest means of mass communication currently available. It has become a repository of knowledge, providing the answer to virtually any question a person could ask for with nothing more than a few simple keystrokes. It has become an increasingly large and vital cornerstone of an emerging global economy.

The Internet has its frivolous side, too. It facilitates the playing of simple, time-wasting games, of passing cat and dog memes back and forth, of silly, pointless videos and entertainment. And it also has its seamier side, in the form of malware, scams, illicit pornography and piracy of anything that can be digitized. But I think most of us would be hard-pressed to make the argument that the Internet is unimportant, or that its negatives inherently outweigh its positives.

And yet, when Ookla Speedtest, whose name you might be familiar if you’ve ever tried to self-diagnose a network issue, conducted a global survey of download speeds, the United States of America came in 31st worldwide. In terms of upload speeds, the US only ranks 42nd.

One might wonder how this came to pass, but one would also likely be disappointed by the answer. As usual, this is the direct result of the US government’s ongoing abusive love-affair with corporations, specifically the major telecom companies. Back in 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, ostensibly with the goal of fostering competition.

However, the Act has had the exact opposite effect, with its provisions allowing major telecom companies to, through mergers and other business acquisitions, carve up the United States into a series of markets that individual telecoms run like their own personal fiefdoms. Most Americans have a choice between only two or three broadband providers, if they have a choice at all. This effective monopoly has both allowed telecoms to dictate the price of Internet service, and removed any incentive telecoms may have had to provide better service…including building out fiber-optic networks.

So, while companies like Verizon and Comcast have been able to sit on their laurels and opt not to build out their networks, citing the expense of laying fiber-optic cable, in other countries like South Korea, fierce competition between telecoms resulted in a massive fiber-optic networks being built throughout the 2000’s. This in turn resulted in faster Internet speeds for those nations, while the US lagged behind, paying more money for less speed.

While there are challengers like Google Fiber that appear willing to get their hands dirty and unseat Big Telecom in the process, in the immediate future, there is another looming threat to the average American’s Internet access, that being the end of Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality, in essence, is the principle that telecoms cannot artificially increase or decrease the access speeds for particular sites or content; every website, every business, has equal access. Or rather, had equal access.

In a shining example of jurisprudence, the Federal Appeals Court recently overturned the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules, enabling telecoms to doctor connection speeds however they please. The ruling came down in January, so telecom companies haven’t had time to roll out plans to take advantage of this, but at this point, it’s only a matter of time before they do so. This is serious stuff, so serious that even Netflix is condemning the decision for fear that it’ll affect their business.

The upshot of this situation is that the Court’s ruling is based entirely on the FCC’s decision not to classify broadband providers as “common carriers,” the way they classify telephone service carriers and all the other forms of vital communication we use on a day-to-day basis. All the FCC has to do is declare that broadband providers are common carriers, and Net Neutrality won’t even be a question anymore.

However, for whatever reason, the FCC hasn’t yet taken action to make this happen. So if you’re interested in keeping the Internet free from corporate meddling, please go here to find out what actions you can take and make your voice heard. Contact your representatives in Congress and tell them you want an end to telecom monopolies that will force them to compete again. Because we the people deserve better, and if our government won’t do what’s right on its own, we’ll just have to make them do it ourselves.

Default Settings

A few days ago I was browsing a video game forum when I came across a thread about this article suggesting that more video games should have female protagonists. It’s a rather well thought-out piece that addresses many of the common arguments that crop up when this discussion comes up, and as anybody who has spent any amount of time reading about “feminist issues” in games could have predicted, the response was immediate and highly polarized, though to their credit, the commentators did manage to keep it civil.

This back and forth got me thinking about many of the games that I’ve played over the years, and I began to consider, if one were to flip the gender of the protagonist, would it actually make any functional difference to the game? Would the story be dramatically impacted? Would the gameplay have had to be altered in a significant fashion? And in the majority of the cases I could think of, the answer was, “well…not really, no.” Some of the more story-intensive titles would require more substantial changes to the point where it might alter the creators’ original intent, but those were few and far in between.

In fact, in a lot of more open-ended titles today, the player is able to create their own character. They are freely able to choose whether said character is male or female, set their appearance to match whatever ethnicity they desire, and pretty much make any changes they want, since those factors are of no consequence to the story (at most, they might affect some very minor optional elements of the plot).

Many of today’s most popular titles take this approach; Bioware’s extremely popular Mass Effect and Dragon Age games all allow for character customization, as do Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles. Even Grand Theft Auto ripoff-turned-competitor Saints Row allows for custom characters, something GTA still has yet to do.

When I thought about these character creation screens, I had an epiphany. Even though these games allow you to create whatever character you want, almost all of them default to a setting that you then have to adjust. And that default setting is that of a man who is white. Meaning that, even in the minds of the people who design these arguably progressive systems, their idea of the “default person” is that of a white male. Anything else is a change that the player has to opt to make.

And that seems to be the prevailing mentality, not only among game designers, but filmmakers, comic creators, and to a certain degree, even prose writers. Unless a writer has a particular agenda in mind, the default practice is to make their protagonist a straight, white male. Anything else is viewed as a change from this “norm.”

The reasons for this are convoluted and run very, very deep. It’s not accurate to assume that this is a result of straight white guys dominating writing in all of these fields and simply writing from their own perspective; there are plenty of very talented female writers who write about male protagonists more often than they write about women.

You can’t argue that it’s because fiction that deviates from this “norm” doesn’t sell. The Hunger Games and (shudder) Twilight have both topped the best-seller charts at various points. The Resident Evil movies, despite mixed critical reviews, have consistently performed well at the box office. The Tomb Raider game series has consistently sold millions of copies per installment. And, as I discussed earlier, it’s certainly not because these stories could only be told with a male character in the lead.

Now, understand that I’m not trying to stifle anyone’s creativity, or promote tokenism. We shouldn’t expect writers to plead their case to feature a straight white male as a protagonist, lest they have to choose their protagonist’s identity by blindly throwing a dart at a venn diagram of gender, orientation, ethnicity and religion.

But I think it is important to get writers to recognize that they need to make a choice–that there is no “norm” for characters, and that audiences can appreciate and relate to protagonist that doesn’t fit into a narrow mold.

The issue of representation in fiction is one that is complex and difficult to unravel–I certainly don’t propose to do so in the span of a single blog post. But I think that if writers will stop and consider, as I did, the implications of this assumption of the “default” nature of characters, that would make for a good start.