Sunday, May 3, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

Age of Ultron is a movie burdened by its creators with the need to fix the flaws of previous Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, and it is nearly crushed under this weight. Director Joss Whedon has taken on a huge job, creating one of the most dense and complex films in a mid-point in the series. The film attempts to be a pivot upon which the other films in the series can move around, while also being a complete and satisfying entry in its own right. Perhaps the best analogy for this film is found in the film itself, with the new character Ultron.

Ultron, portrayed by James Spader in a role completely unencumbered by the computer generated artistry we see onscreen, is the latest mechanical creation of Tony Stark. An AI designed to protect the world from extraterrestrial threats, Ultron decides mere seconds after activating that the Avengers are standing in the way of humanity's progress, and must be destroyed utterly. As he learns more and has more experiences, this merciless outlook extends itself to the rest of humanity, as he plans to destroy human civilization and replace it with a race of superior AIs, in human/machine hybrid synthetic bodies.

The duality of Ultron's plan is mirrored in the movie's split goals: To retain everything we love about previous Marvel films while trying to satisfy the demands of its critics. Of course a house divided can not stand, and the cracks in the foundation begin to show as the movie goes on to check all the boxes that most film critics cite as problems with previous Marvel films.

No characters die in Marvel films? Well this time, one does. The series is cheap looking and sterile? This one is incredible in scope and theatricality. The villains of the series and simple and forgettable? Ultron is complex and intense, perhaps the best role in the film. Secondary Avengers aren't getting their due? We get so much time spent with Hawkeye, the Hulk, and Black Widow, it feels like core members Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor don't have enough room to breathe.

Age of Ultron does an admirable job trying to fix all the problems of previous entries in series, and does manage to tackle them without drowning out the things that have kept series fans coming back to the theater. However the question needs to be asked: Did some of these flaws really need fixing? There is character death sure, but it is unsatisfying, and feels more like we're losing an awesome character before he has a chance to really shine. The action is more cinematic and complex, but has simultaneously become harder to follow. Add to these weaknesses a pointless subplot starring Thor, and a little bit too much time spent on cameos of other beloved MCU characters.

The things that fans have loved and critics have cited as strengths in the series are still here though. The characters we have come to know so well are here in full force, everyone gets snappy one-liners and fulfilling character interactions that make these people a joy to watch together. The new characters step perfectly into place in this world as well, keeping pace with their more-established counterparts and leaving this fan wishing for more. The brisk pace of the film is its own salvation, keeping the movie's less solid elements from crumbling under more time spent load-bearing.

The simultaneous failures and successes of this film left this fan feeling somewhat unsatisfied coming out of the theater. Yes, the movie was a great time, and never felt slow or boring, but as some people have pointed out, it manages to feel too long and not long enough simultaneously. This strange feeling is the result of a movie that is just barely able to pull the disparate strings of its own goals together into a complete web. I feel sorry for all the friends and family of True Believers who get dragged to see this though. If you aren't already on-board for the ride, this film does little to entice you to change your mind or catch you up.

Like a superhero lifting a bus over his head, the sight of a film that is strong enough to carry all this and balance it all is impressive, but one has to wonder if future entries in the series will be able to do the same. The cracks are starting to show, and hopefully future "course-corrections" and balancing acts won't destroy future films as they attempt to build to new heights on this cracked but ultimately stable foundation.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Gamer Bill of Rights (Version 2)

Recently there's been some discussion of a Gamer Bill of Rights, to lay out the basic expectations for treatment that GamerGate members expect. I found some problems with it in a recent reading, and decided to lend my writing and critical thinking expertise to the GamerGate cause, and revise it into a concise 2.0 form. Note that I am perfectly qualified to do this, as GamerGate allows anyone to speak for them, all it takes is inclusion of a little hashtag. I chose to format this Gamer Bill of Rights on a document from a little nation you may have heard of, the United States of America. Enjoy!

First Article: For each genre of game there shall be a reviewer on each reviewing staff who is inclined to enjoy those games. Only a reviewer who enjoys Dynasty Warriors, for example, is truly qualified to judge a game like Dynasty Warriors in a legitimate way. Outsider opinions are damaging to the Sacred Industry of Holy Gaming, because low review scores of any game are an egregious offense to fans of that game, and whichever game has the best review scores is the greatest game of all time, objectively. A bad review of any game that any True Gamer enjoys is to be punished by expulsion from the game journalism industry.

Second Article: The game journalism industry shall make no choices, nor have any opinions, regarding the future direction the industry should go, or any way in which the industry might change. The direction of gaming is to be decided wholly by the gamers themselves, the true vanguard of the industry, protectors of the integrity and purity of gaming, and defenders of the holy priests of the industry: Publishers. Furthermore game journalists shall have no power to block, ban, downvote, or otherwise impede the free speech of any gamer. All pages which express an idea about gaming shall have a free and open comment section, only to be moderated by the community which chooses to participate in that comment section. Any person who has a problem with the content of said comment sections shall remove thyself from it and pretend it does not exist. Any curator or creator of content who's page is being discussed shall have no right to an opinion regarding the discussion of his content on his own page. Any action taken to stifle this discussion in any way, shape, or form, regardless of the damage done to the content it is attached to or the person it is directed at, shall be punished by expulsion from the industry.

Third Article: No True Gamer engages in harassment. Therefore any person found to be harassing any fellow gamer is to be shunned and banned from the community, but only if True Gamers decide that the actions taken constitute harassment. And if the person being harassed deserves it. And if the harassers commit the harassment while flying a gamer-related flag or hashtag. And if the harasser is not a prominent gamer themselves. And if the person being harassed is not already a person being targeted for expulsion from the gaming community. And if the person being harassed has expressed negative opinions of any kind toward any other group of human beings or games, ever. And if the harassment is followed by the actual physical harm. Only then will harassment be TRUE Harassment, and only then shall action be taken to stop it.

Forth Article: A Great Council shall be formed of all True Gamers. The purpose of this council shall be to police and punish all threats to gaming coming from inside or outside of the gaming community. A constant watch shall be maintained on all media for any sign of bias or corruption, which shall be punished immediately with public shaming, loss of employment, and expulsion from the gaming community, forever and ever. The members of this council shall not be dictated by any single entity, but rather it shall be a natural body of gamers formed by common goal and interest. Please note that this body is unbiased, unopinionated, and apolitical. Any appearance otherwise is an attack on this council and shall be met with appropriate punishment.

Fifth Article: Any power not delegated in this document to True Gamers is to be assumed to be delegated to Ttue Gamers anyway. Gamers are the alpha and omega of the gaming community. All indie developers, journalists, reviewers, editors, and the mainstream media all owe their existence to gamers, and will therefore only take actions or express opinions that are in line with the thoughts of True Gamers. True Gamers respect and value AAA developers, AAA publishers, and unbiased review outlets such as Game Informer who make gaming possible, and shall protect with their lives freedom of expression and from any criticism of their art.

Sixth Article: The enumeration in this Bill of Rights, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage any True Gamer of his or her rights. This document and the ideas within simultaneously represent the pure intent of all True Gamers and the intent of no single True Gamer. All critics of True Gamers shall respect each gamers' right to cherrypick which causes and beliefs to support at any given moment, and shall not disrespect any gamers' right to switch sides on any issue at any given moment. Any criticism of any gamer which does not come from a place of good faith and two-way debate is intellectual dishonesty, and shall be punished by ridicule and disbarring from the gaming community.

Note that this is not a complete list! This is a true work in progress, and it is certainly open any further Amendments. Please forward any such amendments or ideas for improvement to my twitter @andrewlion19. Thank you!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Five People You Will Meet in #GamerGate (And How They Are All Wrong)

Myself and #GamerGate

My first exposure to GamerGate (GG from here on) came largely through the wave of "Gamers are Dead" articles that were posted in the aftermath of some of the most serious abuse I've ever seen online. The history of the group is well documented at this point, I recommend this article if you want to get caught up:

I began trawling the hashtag on twitter, trying to see if these people were really as bold-faced in their defense of harassment as it seemed. My interactions with GG range from real debate and discussion, to common trolling, to mockery, to decrying, to just talking about games. The truth was surprising, with layers of depth and complication that I never anticipated.

What I Found There

GG is a strata of multiple people groups, all with their own beliefs and causes, all layering on top of each other in substrata that range from the naive and foolish to the insidious and hateful. How these layers stay distinct and interact as a functioning whole is fascinating, with a complicated system of sharing and disseminating information.These different substrata shift and pulse and retract when needed to aid the overall body accomplish its goals and maintain its desired public image. The most bizarre part of this entire mini-culture is the willful blindness that is necessary for the movement to continue functioning. At any given moment each substrata must be willing to ignore and decry, or signal-boost and support the others, all depending on what the goal is at the time. In essence, people in GG can be divided into one of five groups.

Substrata 1: Naive Young White Male

This is GG's footsoldier. The cannon fodder. They are by far the most numerous group in the movement. Much of this group genuinely believes the line about Journalistic Integrity. They see the problems that really do exist in game journalism and take up the GG banner in that name. These are hardcore gamers, people who live and breath gaming and have been for most of their lives, and often they have faced pushback from family or society for their gaming habits. The gaming landscape has been changing in huge ways since the start of the last hardware generation and the widespread adoption of mobile gaming, and this change is a colossal threat to their very self-identity. As game companies shift further and further from pandering to this section of game-consumers, they grow increasingly hostile and defensive of their "turf." Unfortunately these people also often cross over into other, more problematic groups, such as Men's Rights Activists, rape apologists, and anti-feminists. I believe their reasons for holding these beliefs stem more from youth and a lack of genuine social experience, much less experience dealing with women. Remember that most of these people are very young, and are not (usually) worthy of the kind of scorn some other, more aggressive parts of the movement are.

How They Are Wrong

Their willful (or unwillful, depending on how smart of a guy we're talking about here) ignorance is their downfall. Like I said, many of them genuinely want better game journalism, and they have a fair grievance. Unfortunately they seem to be  incapable of realizing their role in the larger picture of GG. They believe they are the ones driving the car, when actually they're just along for the ride.

Substrata 2: The Minorities

The layer of GG resting on top of this angry, white, young, male base is comprised of different minority groups, racial and sexual. These people are also hardcore gamers, and have been identifying with gamer culture their whole lives. They've likely had positive experiences in the past within gamer culture when other social groups have rejected them based on minority status, leading them to identify with it even stronger and in a more tangible way than substrata 1. This layer is one of GG's most relied-upon shields. GG can easily deflect criticisms about sexism or racism by pointing at this small group, shouting "If these minorities support us, how can gamer culture really be so bad?" As we will see later on, there is a truly vile and discriminatory layer at the bottom of GG, so how can these two groups coexist? This is where GG's other great shield comes into play, the common cry of "Those people don't speak for us! Of course there are jerks, all movements have jerks, we can't get rid of them! GG is a leaderless movement, I don't take cues from anyone!" And many of this substrata genuinely believe this, not seeing that they are being used as GG's shield against criticism. (Ironic, considering the #notyourshield hashtag they are so fond of.)

How They Are Wrong

I feel terrible for these people. Again, like the last group, they fail to see their place in the bigger picture, however the tragedy is multiplied tenfold. They are being manipulating into supporting a system that is rigged against them, and they are being manipulated with catchphrases like "egalitarianism," "meritocracy of ideas," and "equality of thought." I understand that they want to be treated as just another person equal to any other in game culture, but they think the way to achieve this is to support the status quo: a system that is systematically designed to trivialize and rationalize real-life racism and sexism.

Substrata 3: The Alarm-Ringing Policeman

This group primarily spends its time alerting other GGrs of when to engage and disengage in discussion. They will swoop into a any discussion using the GG hashtag that begins to stray from the group's desired public image, and begin shouting for pro-GGrs to disengage, calling the anti-GGrs trolls or "proven liars." They commonly use the phrase "don't touch the poop" to refer to this activity. Some frequent anti-GG users will even have extensive link and screenshot collections compiled on them for easy reference as to why they should not b engaged. This substrata is even more nebulous than the others, drawing members from other groups and dropping them at will. While there are some common faces doing this regularly, any member of GG can take up this function.

How They Are Wrong

One of the primary battlecries of GG is "No censorship!" However their definition of censorship boils down to "not being free to say whatever I want, wherever I want, without any flak or repercussion." Ironically this substrata functions to throw flak at those that engage GG in a way that might expose their own system of protection. GG seeks to end "censorship" by essentially "censoring" anyone who disagrees with them on their turf.

Substrata 4: The Common Troll

I found this layer to be surprisingly small. There are (relatively) few real trolls involved in the GG movement, and those that are involved are glaringly obvious. The reason for this relatively small population of trolls escapes me. Maybe GG is a cause that trolls take seriously. Regardless, there is not much to be said here about trolls that is new. They do it for perverse kicks. 

How They Are Wrong

Just ignore, block, and move on. Don't feed the trolls.

Substrata 5: The Insidious Core of GamerGate

The root of the problem. GG follows the will and word of an elite few. Rogue game developers, misogynistic gamers, minor celebrities, sympathetic journalists, and conservative bloggers, all the while denying that these people are "leaders" of their movement, or that their movement has a political leaning. "They don't speak for me, we have no leaders. Well of course we follow their work, no one else will post sympathetic coverage of us! We don't agree with the rest of what they say, just the stuff about us!" This is the way the lower substrata convince themselves that their cause is still righteous, while following their leaders down the path of their choosing. The true leaders of GG are invariably right-wing, anti-feminist, rape apologists. It began with a small group of people in gaming culture who genuinely hate women, and see the heaps of abused visited upon feminists as just. Then, other, sympathetic (and more experienced) anti-feminist groups saw in GG a group of largely privileged young people feeling oppressed, and as they have in other situations, they have swooped in to capitalize on it. All of these people have a vested interest in protecting and evangelizing patriarchy. When people say that GG is a conservative movement, this is what they mean. Note that much of the abuse and harassment heaped upon enemies of GG does not come from people waving the GG banner. Like a true shadowy overlord, the real abusers and harassers in gaming culture are frighteningly intelligent, and they use GamerGate as their cloak and shield, attracting the scorn of progressive members of the gaming community while they set about doing their true work.

How They Are Wrong

Fortunately this crowd is the easiest to defeat. Just Google their names. Milo Yiannopoulos, Adam Baldwin, roguestargamez, and Christina "Based Mom" Sommers are prominent examples. If their words and actions don't make your spine crawl, then you have a serious empathy problem. These peoples' hateful ideology is not hidden or secret, the display it proudly. This is why GG has the complex system of protections and deceptions to cover the overall group's allegiance to these bigoted people.

So What Can I Do?

Tackling GamerGate is daunting. As I have described, the movement is structured around defense of their own, making it very difficult to penetrate. Any attempt to call them out on their own hashtag, or to support someone else who is doing so, will inevitably receive twice as many replies back from pro-GGrs shouting you down. Repeatedly being exposed to their groupthink self-support system has a designed effect to break down opposition, leaving any attacker weary of the struggle and able only to make potshots at the group without engaging in real argument. How can a self-deceiving group that shifts and changes at the slightest pressure be tackled and wrestled down? The short and sad answer is, they can't. Engaging GamerGate in this way is ultimately a futile exercise, because while the movement itself is based in falsehood and deception, the feelings of its supporters are true. This sincere feeling, combined with a support system that is more concerned with defense of its own than the truth, is a potent and virtually unassailable combination.

The answer does not lie in direct confrontation with the group. Instead, game enthusiasts and developers who seek a better gaming culture have to redouble their efforts to create that better culture for themselves. Remember that GG has already exposed itself as nothing more than a very vocal minority among gamers. By fostering a positive and progressive movement in gaming, and by supporting creators who are assaulted by the insidious core at the heart of GamerGate, we can together create a gaming culture that is more thoughtful and welcoming to people of all kinds. This change will not happen soon. It will take years of hard work to supplant the harassment-enabler culture that is at the root of gaming now, but it is possible. Don't give up.