fuzzy notepad

[blog] Words mean things, unfortunately

I have some thoughts about some things that’ve been marinating for a while.

Play-Asia is a little online store where you can import Japanese products — most notably video games, but other stuff as well. I’ve bought from them a few times, and I would’ve naturally gone to them again next time I wanted to import something.

Last week, their Twitter account posted:

#DOAX3 will not be coming to the US due to #SJW nonsense. However, we will have the English Asia version available: http://par.bz/87f — @playasia

Well, alright then, I guess I’d rather not buy from you in the future. I couldn’t find a way to delete my account on their website, so I replied with merely:

@playasia hi please add a way to delete an account so i can use it, thanks — @eevee

A couple people replied to chime in that they would like to do the same.

And then some funny things happened. Someone who appeared to be from That One Group That Shall Not Be Named replied to the thread to laugh at how “offended” we were (?), which isn’t too surprising. But then Play-Asia retweeted it to their rapidly-accreting followers (many from the same group), which naturally brought a steady trickle of nasty people CCing everyone mentioned in the tweet. A truly bizarre way to treat a paying customer.

I tell you this story, dear reader, because of something incredible I discovered from that trickle:

None of them understood what my problem was. Every single one of them seemed to think I was objecting that Play-Asia was selling the game at all.

You see, DOAX3 is the latest in a series of beach volleyball games, moderately infamous for being not so much about volleyball as about the ridiculous boob physics on the all-female cast. I didn’t know there was a new one, or that it was or wasn’t being released in the US, or really anything about it. Because no one has been talking about it. No one seems to care. (It sounds like a pretty dull game, and there are probably easier ways to look at boobs, but please do import it if you direly need to play it.) But apparently the game’s Facebook posted this comment a week or so ago, responding to someone who wanted to know why the game wouldn’t be released in the West:

Do you know many issues happening in video game industry with regard to how to treat female in video game industry? We do not want to talk those things here. But certainly we have gone through in last year or two to come to our decision. Thank you.

That’s it. That’s all they’ve said. (Other people have pointed out that the previous game in the series only ever sold 250k copies worldwide, which seems… conspicuous.) I have yet to hear about a single person actually protesting this game in any way, but this was enough to convince Play-Asia’s spokesperson that the game was being suppressed by the SJW menace.

And that was my problem.

SJW” is a shibboleth, or perhaps more accurately a dog whistle. It’s a fluid and nebulous term that refers to whoever at the time is being slightly too feminist for the speaker’s tastes.

I’ve confronted a couple people about this before — including one of the randos Play-Asia led to me — and they’ve always protested that “SJW” only refers specifically to those feminists who use particular underhanded tactics. You know, the bad ones. These people are always curiously absent when I’m referred to as an “SJW” because I have pronouns in my Twitter profile. These people are also usually members of groups that use far worse versions of the tactics they’re objecting to.

Here’s another example, from noted clown I keep having to blog about, Eric Raymond. His recent masterpiece Why Hackers Must Eject the SJWs includes:

I’m not going to analyze SJW ideology here except to point out, again, why the hacker culture must consider anyone who holds it an enemy. This is because we must be a cult of meritocracy. We must constantly demand merit – performance, intelligence, dedication, and technical excellence – of ourselves and each other.

I cannot imagine a better example of the failure of “meritocracy” than this very paragraph: an inexplicably popular white guy telling his audience that a certain philosophy is the enemy, because he said so, no need to actually analyze it and determine its merits.

And how does he define the “SJWs”? He doesn’t. He merely alludes to them — saying that everyone knows who they are. And indeed, everyone does know who they are, because they’re anyone you don’t want to listen to at the moment. They are dangerous and insidious, with their tweets they make about codes of conduct, yet paradoxically they are so few in number that they can’t possibly reflect how the community at large feels.

(Here is a much better dedicated response to esr’s post, if you’re interested.)

I saw a related phenomenon in the aftermath of the Play-Asia affair: thousands of people celebrating a huge victory in a battle that, as far as I can tell, no one else was ever fighting. They forged a confrontation out of vapor and declared themselves the winners.

I only wish they’d put this effort into a good game. I don’t remember any cries of censorship when Ace Attorney: Investigations 2 wasn’t localized, or about the conspicuous lack of an official English Mother 3 release. But then, those games don’t focus on bazongas, so they aren’t good fodder for rallying against the phantom SJW Illuminati which I’m being told to emphasize is definitely not real.

The very word seems to foster these kinds of paradoxes. I had one person approach me to tell me that they would now be buying from Play-Asia and “SJWs don’t buy games anyway”. Let’s recap: I was asking how to cancel my existing account, and they were bragging about making one — so I had obviously bought from Play-Asia before, and they obviously had not.

This is what “SJW” means. Everything, nothing. A bogeyman, a strawman. And so the only thing it can really mean is an adamant refusal to consider a certain kind of idea — a staunch emphasis that a certain kind of idea is not even worth consideration. It’s a kind of shorthand for loudly and proudly sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears. It exists to save people the trouble of thinking; it exists to give people something to stay angry at.

SJW” is the ink used to draw lines through which a distasteful ideology need not pass. To put it bluntly, it defines the boundary of a safe space.

Perhaps you can understand how when someone uses it unironically, I have a hard time taking them seriously ever again.

My problem, then, was that Play-Asia’s tweet effectively said they were happy to throw a whole philosophy (and their customers, ahem) to the wolves, based on nothing. Possibly even for the sake of drumming up sales, because there are people who will rabidly buy into a manufactured controversy like this out of spite. (In which case, good for them, I suppose. Hey, did you know the SJWs are trying to stop you from pledging to my Patreon? It’s true. Are you going to let them tell you how to spend your money?!)

Yeah so I’d rather not do any further business with a company like that.

I use a shared blocklist. I didn’t, originally. I actually hated the idea of ever blocking anyone, because generally you block people over one particular thing they said, and people are more complicated than that, and you’d also be blocking all the other things they might have to say.

Then, last year, a friend made a mundane reply to an Intel tweet. Someone picked it up and paraded it around in front of a large group of people who were out for blood. The friend became the target of a brief crapstorm for holding the wrong opinion, despite never even having mentioned or interacted with this group.

I signed up for the blocklist immediately and have been blocking with wild abandon ever since. You can argue whatever point you want with me, but I have no obligation to humor you if you’re just here to be mean.

One thing I keep trying to learn from this ongoing slow-motion disaster is to not do all these things that look atrocious from the other side of the fence. I can imagine exactly how reasonable everyone thinks they’re being — clearly this person is an idiot, I’m just one joker, I’ll make my sick burn at them, whatever. But you multiply that by a thousand people and it becomes a massive deluge of aimless cruelty that you can’t really avoid or stop. So I try not to snark at other people just for the sake of being snarky, I try to shield people from getting direct responses when I criticize what they say, and I try not to inject myself into other people’s ongoing conversations.

That was a bit of a tangent, though. The other thing I keep learning is that no one knows what “censorship” means.

I get the feeling a lot of people just don’t want to talk about They Who Must Not Be Named. It summons a great swarm of people who have no interest in arguing, debating, or even talking — they just want to deposit an edgy image macro making fun of PTSD, for some reason. One of the other people Play-Asia cheerfully martyred doesn’t seem to use the blocklist, since they got well over a hundred people (they counted) approaching them just to be snide. The entirety of their offending tweet was: “same”.

I did engage with a few people who approached me and weren’t complete jerks right off the bat, and even that was exhausting — they came in with completely the wrong impression of what I was thinking, dead-set on telling me I was wrong for it. What useful conversation is there going to be when I have to spend a ton of effort just to steer us back to the baseline of “we’re strangers, what do each other think”? Honestly, just blocking them all would’ve saved us both a lot of time, and I don’t think anyone actually got what I was trying to say anyway.

Plus, this kind of crap drags down my Twitter experience, and I’m making an effort (not entirely successful as of late I admit) to be more positive on Twitter.

Right, so, people don’t want to talk about You Know Who. Where am I going with this? Well I’m glad you asked.

This booby volleyball game is being censored, you see. Target decided not to carry GTA 5, which is censorship. Capcom silently changed an animation in a game that’s not even out yet, but now it’s not as lewd, so that’s censorship. This is ridiculous. (Hmm. Weird how no one ever described it as “censorship” when that Final Fantasy guy had his costume toned down.)

Steam Greenlight doesn’t allow “porn, inappropriate, or offensive content,” so it disallowed the dating sim Coming Out On Top. Many retailers, most infamously Walmart, refuse to carry games rated AO (Adults Only), which is usually only awarded for sex rather than violence. You can bet a sexual game will never get approved for consoles or bumped to the top spots on phones, either. (It is, of course, utterly absurd that increasingly-graphic violence is just fine while sexuality is not.) In this environment, it’s very difficult to justify pouring much effort into a polished game where sexuality is actually part of the game, not just bolted on to give adolescent boys a cheap thrill. And that’s probably why about, uh, 0% of games are rated AO.

That’s an entire class of games that simply do not exist. And no one cries censorship over this. No one even thinks much about it, because the very idea is so well suppressed that it’s unthinkable, easily forgotten.

And that is what censorship looks like. Not the mild inconvenience of “I have to buy this game at K-Mart instead of Target,” but the complete erasure of an idea. It’s invisible and nefarious. (You know, exactly the same kind of force that feminism is usually trying to fight.) There are degrees, of course — I would absolutely still refer to the Chinese Internet as censored even though many people know how to get around it. But if you’ve already consumed some media, I have a hard time buying that that media is being censored for you.

I’ve heard shared blocklists referred to as “censorship” more than once, because they prevent certain people from talking to me. You know what sounds a lot closer to censorship is making people unwilling to criticize a particularly nasty group because they know they’re likely to have that group descend on them personally like a swarm of locusts.

Don’t be a group like that.

This isn’t to say that censorship is something totally avoidable, either. I’m sure there’s someone, somewhere in the world, who strongly believes that we should eat our children on their fifth birthday… but doesn’t say anything because there’d be a lot of backlash. Is that a form of social censorship? Sure. On the other hand, is anything important being lost as a result? Probably not.

And you know, there is always room for conversation about how corporate middlemen influence what media we can have. What products should a digital store with infinite room carry? Who should be at the top of search results? When is something universally appalling enough to be taken down? Those are hard questions without easy answers. But perhaps the conversation would be more productive if we didn’t cry thoughtcrime when one retailer decides not to carry one product.

But enough about video games.

Let us talk about sexism.

There’s a running theme here, so far: a tension between the visible and the invisible, between individual action and aggregate consequences. So I hope you can appreciate the following imaginary exchange between two strawmen:

A: I think sexism means “overtly hates women”, so this game is not sexist. B: I think sexism means “participating within a cultural system that advantages men over women”, so this game is sexist. A: No it’s not sexist weren’t you listening fuck you

Ah, damn, I guess we’re still talking about video games.

One of the people I spoke to showed me a montage of video game articles that had called the previous volleyboob game sexist or misogynist. He claimed that “sexist” is only used as an attack word, and thus calling something sexist is an attempt to destroy it, therefore the video game press is truly to blame for the game’s non-release.

Granted, the articles looked extremely cheesy and were trying a bit too hard. I don’t think we need too many thinkpieces explaining to us that maybe a plotless game which exists solely for its bouncing titty physics has a questionable portrayal of women.

In fact, I’d say both the articles and the person who showed them to me have kind of missed the point.

The common definition of “sexist” is, indeed, an overt hatred of women. So if someone comes up to you and says “women are inferior,” okay, that’s pretty blatantly sexist.

But even the people who actively believe things like that don’t tend to just say them. (Except on the Internet, I guess.) It’s fairly well accepted that that’s not cool, so they keep it to themselves. But they still think it. And they still act like it, more subtly.

There are, of course, also cultural biases that tip the scales towards people who are white or male or cis or whatever. But even if you don’t buy that, it shouldn’t be a stretch to think that there really are overt cartoon sexists out there in the world who are just not vocal about it. Some of them might be judges or managers or politicians. Some of them might even make video games.

You might think of them as weighted coins that always come up heads. And therein lies the problem.

You have 100 coins. You flip all of them. 60 come up heads. How many are weighted?

10, you might think. And you’d be wrong, because 60 heads is entirely possible, so you can’t actually be sure any of them are weighted! But there’s a much bigger problem: which 10?

Or, here’s a more concrete analogy. Imagine you are a games reviewer, and one day you review a game where the main character is named Todd. Who cares, right? That’s not remarkable in any way.

Now imagine you suddenly realize that half the games you play have a main character named Todd. You check out some other games online; many of them have a main character named Todd, too. Different platforms, different developers, different publishers, different genres, different audiences. But so often, Todd. It dawns on you that two-thirds of the movies you own are about a character named Todd. So are most of the TV shows you watch.

You might rightly think this is really fucking weird. But what are you going to do? Bring this up in every review you write? “Once again, the main character is named Todd, which is getting really old.” For people who haven’t picked up on this pattern, or don’t care about it, or are even named Todd themselves, that could sound like you’re picking on a game over some personal vendetta against Todds. Should game developers just avoid naming anyone Todd? Should there be a Todd quota? Some people just are named Todd, you know.

And some women are attractive but shallow, and some men are hulking beefcakes, and it seems reasonable that these kinds of people would show up in our media.


This is the conflict. On the one hand, you have people who see an alarming pattern of how marginalized groups are portrayed (or not portrayed at all), and who want to bring attention to it by writing and talking about it. On the other hand, you have people who are accustomed to this pattern (or benefit from it), don’t see what the fuss is all about, and are tired of what they see as individual petty attacks against things they love.

The latter people aren’t unreasonable, and in my experience they don’t even see what the former people are fighting against. And the former people often do a poor job of conveying it, because they rely on loaded shorthand like “sexist” that means vastly different things to different people.

I don’t like to label people or media as sexist for this reason — in a perfect world there would still be the occasional booby jiggle game, and the occasional corresponding thong jiggle game, and a whole lot of other games that have all kinds of interesting people and interesting things to say.

In fact the beach balloon game is probably the worst thing to focus on, because it’s completely transparent about what it is and who it’s for. It’s more helpful to examine things that are probably not deliberate. People naturally tend to make characters like themselves, for example, so if your dev team is all dudes then you might end up making a fighting game where all the playable characters are dudes. (This happened with an otherwise cool-looking indie game last year. Can’t recall the title.) Almost certainly no one intended for that to happen, and it’s not like some deep-seated artistic vision is being violated if they change a few of the characters or add some more. The only way to fix that is to bring it to the creators’ attention, to get it in everyone’s head that it’s something worth thinking about. Not for the sake of a quota, but to avoid falling into stale and easy patterns.

Because that’s the true universal problem with gendered tropes in media: they’re boring. We’ve seen them thousands and thousands of times. That’s why people groan and roll their eyes when your only important female character has J-cups and a latex suit painted on. It’s like finding out Ganon was the villain all along. Oh wow. This again. What a surprise. It’s just bad, lazy writing. And the more of it we have, the more future media creators will draw from it, creating even more bad lazy writing.

All I want is good writing. The rest will follow.

In the interest of intersectionalism (which, surely, should be called unionalism), let us actually forget about video games for a moment and consider racism.

Racism is a strange beast, because I swear I see far more examples of people who proudly act racist than people who proudly act sexist. I say “act” because it always looks like one — making a point of just how racist they are to impress their peers and shock everyone else. Also, I wish people I follow would stop tweeting screenshots of people who proudly act racist/sexist.

And I don’t get it. Like… I don’t. I can imagine how you might become an overt sexist, even — a common MRA theme is entitlement to sex. But even the worst MRAs aren’t as vocal about just plain resenting women as some people are about just plain resenting anyone who’s not white, and I do not get it.

But this isn’t about them. This is about America.

This morning I saw tweets like this one and this one float by. The gist is that news coverage of Michael Brown focused on demonizing him for smoking pot or whatever, whereas the white Colorado Springs shooter is apologized for as “adrift and alienated”. Commenters left nothing but scorn on a story about Brown’s mother, repeatedly calling him a “thug” and questioning her competence as a parent, but replied to a story about the Springs shooter’s mother with sympathy and comments about “a mother’s love”.

What the fuck.

It occurs to me that I’ve seen people accused of some racial bias in their reactions to these things before, and there’s always an excuse why this specific case in particular is different, not about race. Michael Brown was a terrible child because he yelled at a puppy once, and this new shooter is a misguided angel because he once helped an old lady cross the street.

The thing is, we’re really good at rationalizing. Really, really good.

We like to do a thing called affirming the consequent. It’s hard to apply rules of formal logic to something as squishy as opinion-forming, but the general idea applies well enough. It goes like this.

  1. If it rains, the lawn will be wet.
  2. The lawn is wet.
  3. Therefore, it rained.

Certainly, if the lawn is wet, it may have rained. That’s pretty good evidence. But it might be just as likely that the sprinklers were running, and without some kind of further information, we don’t know which it was.

The problem is that we conclude first that it rained. Then we see that the lawn is wet, and endorphins ahoy! We were right all along!

We do this a lot. We do this so much. We do it enough that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. It is so woven into our culture that we think Sherlock Holmes used deductive reasoning, even though his entire style was this fallacy. (To be fair, he tended to focus on details where the other explanations were pretty implausible — but that approach is extremely vulnerable to being deliberately misled.)

But how can you tease this apart? That’s really, really hard. It’s the same kind of problem as pointing out tropey stuff in our media, except it’s the beliefs of actual human beings, who tend to mutate when inspected. Some people may have reasonably and rationally concluded, based on whatever evidence, that Michael Brown deserved to die. It is entirely possible. On the other hand, when you zoom way out and see a whole lot of people of largely the same political persuasion all using the same dog whistle to refer to him, you might rightly wonder if some other factor is at play.

And alas, these are not the people who proudly act like racists; they are just average people who think they’re being rational. If only the world were so easy. I’ve even had people argue to me that “thug” is not in fact a dog whistle, but how do you prove something like that? I could show that every other use of it was racially charged, and this one stranger could still just say, “well that’s not how I mean it.” How do you point out patterns when we’re barely even speaking the same language?

Tragedies like these might even make things worse — because they hear about Michael Brown, and then they hear that he once found a dollar on the street and didn’t turn it in to the lost and found, and they have the same human reaction we all have: I was right all along.

Yes, all. It’s not like those are the only people doing it. I still remember how the Twitter coverage went. Security camera footage of Brown stealing. Oh, ah, hmm, I’ll have to think about that more carefully. Footage is not actually of a theft and store owner confirms. I was right all along!

We are hopelessly irrational. It irritates me to no end. All we can do is try our best, I guess.

Oh, right. Thanks to notorious cartoon villain Donald Trump, there’s been a recent surge of comparing violent crime committed by/against black versus white people. It struck me a couple days ago how, ah, interesting it is that we even think to arrange the groups this way. I wonder what would happen if we compared violent crime rates by class. I wonder if most crime is just committed by people who are poor. I wonder if making people less poor is easier than making people less black, or whatever Trump’s proposed solution here is. I wonder.

I was going to make some point about how I don’t like writing people off as “racist”, either, but I don’t remember what it was. Racial issues are orders of magnitude more depressing than anything else going on and now I don’t have the heart to nitpick wording.

This ending is kind of a downer. Sorry.

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(illus. by Rumwik)