Tag Archives: gaming

Customizing Your Junk In “Cyberpunk 2077” And The (Potentially Real) Possibilities It’ll Inspires

Technology has and will continue to affect our sex life, our love life, our social life, and everything in between. It’s unavoidable. Whatever new technology we create will eventually affect or be applied to our sex life. Whether intentional or unintentional, it’ll find a way. Human beings are just too creative, passionate, and horny.

I’ve explored some emerging technologies that could have a significant impact on our sex lives. Many people alive today are likely to feel those impacts at some point. For the most part, it’s difficult to imagine. We can only speculate. However, we may gain unique insights from unexpected places.

Decades ago, shows like “Star Trek” and movies like “Demolition Man” imagined technology like smartphones and tablets. At the time, they didn’t seem like huge leaps, but they still seemed futuristic. They also offered some insight into how technology might find its way into our lives. It may have been innocuous to the story, but it was downright prophetic in envisioning the real-world implications.

This brings me to an upcoming game called “Cyberpunk 2077.” In a year where so many things that we love are getting delayed or cancelled, this had video game fans of all types giddy with excitement. It’s already one of the most anticipated games of the year and I count myself among those who have already made plans to play it for hours on end.

This is no standard Mario game. “Cyberpunk 2077” is “Grand Theft Auto” meets “Skyrim,” with a dash of Keanu Reeves for added awesome. It’s a mature journey into a futuristic world full of cyborgs, outlaws, and bloody brawls. If you can’t find something to enjoy in that, then you’re just being difficult.

However, the appeal of game isn’t the primary issue I want to highlight. Recently, some new details emerged that could offer the kind of futuristic insight that even “Star Trek” was too afraid to address. Specifically, the game revealed an option to customize the genitals of your character. An article in Kotaku went into detail.

Kotaku: Cyberpunk 2077 Has First-Person Sex Scenes, Will Let You Customize Your Genitals

Players can select a gender and customize their character; customization can include depictions of breasts, buttocks, and genitalia, as well as various sizes and combinations of genitals. Players can encounter events where they have the option to engage in sexual activities with other main characters or prostitutes — these brief sex scenes (from a first-person perspective) depict partially nude characters moaning suggestively while moving through various positions.

Now, this feature isn’t exactly new. Other games have played with similar options, such as “Saints Row.” However, “Cyberpunk 2077” promises to take this option even further.

That makes sense in the context of the game. It’s a futuristic world in which the line between technology and our bodies is essentially gone. You can augment limps, organs, and various other features. It makes sense that this extends to our genitals. Conceivably, it means men can have vaginas, women can have penises, and those who prefer a more ambiguous kind of sexuality can mix and match.

The possibilities are vast, as well as sexy. To some, it’ll be disturbing. I’m sure the Rick Santorums and Jack Thompsons of the world won’t sleep well. At the same time, it provides some insight into the future of our bodies, our sex lives, and our love lives.

While the technology in “Cyberpunk 2077” is a long way off, some parts of it are already starting to emerge. From Neuralink to lab grown organs, the principle of creating new body parts and augmenting the ones we have isn’t new. It’s not some magical concept that requires that we break the laws of physics. In theory, this sort of thing is possible. It’s just a matter of time, investment, and development.

What games like “Cyberpunk 2077” promise is the ability to explore how society reacts to having the ability to change, enhance, or adjust their bodies at will. If you can have one set of genitals one day and another by the end of the week, what does that do for people? How does it affect the way they conduct themselves? How does it impact our notions of gender?

It would definitely change. That’s for certain. While it may be a novelty in the game, it could offer some insights for the real world. A while back, a study of players who played “Mass Effect” revealed that the vast majority of them preferred the path of a paragon hero over that of a renegade. Both options were available, but one appealed more.

I find that kind of insight powerful because, unlike TV shows or movies, video games are more engaging. People play an active role in both the plot of the story and how the characters conduct themselves. In games like “Cyberpunk 2077” when there are so many options for customization, the possibilities are even greater.

One day, people in the real world will be able to reconfigure and customize their genitals just like players can in “Cyberpunk 2077.” It’s hard to know what kind of impact that’ll have on the world, but “Cyberpunk 2077” should give us a tantalizing glimpse.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, futurism, gender issues, Second Sexual Revolution, sex in society, sex robots, Sexy Future, video games

What The “Mass Effect” Trilogy Revealed About Paragons, Morality, And Human Nature

I genuinely believe in the inherent goodness of humanity. I know that’s not a popular opinion, these days. I’ve even tried to remind people of it a few times. You need only look at the news, history books, or headlines from Florida to undermine your faith in human nature. I don’t deny that there’s plenty of bad, but there’s also a great deal of good. Sometimes, you find it in unexpected places.

In this case, the place is the epic space opera that is “Mass Effect.” It’s not just one of my favorite video game franchises of all time, which I often go out of my way to reference. It’s a game that dares to give players a choice in how moral or immoral they want to be. There are plenty of games out there that let you play virtuous heroes and deplorable anti-heroes. This game lets the player decide which path they want to follow.

In the original trilogy, it’s called the Paragon/Renegade system. Throughout all three games, you’re given choices on what to say or what to do in various situations. Some are inherently selfless and heroic, such as saving the Rachni from extinction. Others are just pure dick moves, like punching a reporter or shooting Mordin.

The path you choose doesn’t prevent you from completing the game, but it does affect the story. It also effects the endings of certain games and the plots of others. You can basically play the same three games and forge a very different story. You can be a pillar of virtue and nobility or you can be a total dick who still gets the job done. It’s entirely up to you.

I’ve played this game so many times that I’ve done both, but I prefer the path of the paragon. It just feels more rewarding at the end, even though it doing so does come at a price throughout the game. Recently, in an article by Forbes that featured one of BioWare’s developers, I found out that I’m not the only one who shares that sentiment. In fact, that sentiment is revealing in ways that go beyond the game.

Forbes: You’ll Be Surprised What Percent Of ‘Mass Effect’ Players Chose Paragon

The information comes from BioWare’s John Ebenger, who was retweeting a meme on Twitter about how devs give players choices to be evil villains in games, yet people always pick the nice options anyway. And it turns out that’s even more true than the meme suggests, as Ebenger laments that with all the work they put into the Renegade content in Mass Effect, that something close to a whopping 92% of players chose Paragon in any given moment.

Those bold parts are my doing. Regardless of your math skills, 92% is not a slim margin. That’s an overwhelming majority of players. Given the many stereotypes of gamers, it’s somewhat refreshing. When given the choice to be a hero or be a dick, they choose to be a hero.

That’s a profound notion because this is a video game. There are no real stakes outside beating the game. Players have no real incentive to be good or evil, but they still choose good. Even when making the renegade choices comes with legitimate advantages, players still go with the way of the paragon. I think that says more about people in general than it does about those who play games like Mass Effect.”

Say what you will about the genuinely evil people in this world. They exist. They make the news. They’re the kind of people we can’t overlook, but therein lies the critical context. We’re aware of such evil because it’s so rare. When most of the people are simply making paragon choices, it’s not noteworthy. It’s considered normal.

As someone who has faith in humanity and loves all things “Mass Effect,” I find that genuinely uplifting. It proves to me that most people are inclined to be good and decent. Even if you put them in a galaxy-spanning adventure against rampaging Reapers, they’ll still do the right things for the right reasons.

In a sense, Commander Shepard gave us insight into the nature of humanity and showed us that most of us have the heart of a true paragon. That’s something worth celebrating and cherishing.

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Filed under human nature, Mass Effect, psychology, video games

Five Video Games To Help Combat Boredom During A Health Crisis

I’ve been trying to avoid the increasingly bleak news surrounding the ongoing health crisis involving the Coronovirus/COVID-19. I tried offering a more optimistic outlook a while back, but that post has since aged like spoiled milk and rotting cheese.

Make no mistake. This is a crisis. Not even Tom Hanks is immune to it. As I write this, several areas near where I live have confirmed new cases. There’s talk of schools closing and major events being cancelled. After the NBA suspended its season, anything is possible at this point.

We may soon face the possibility of being stuck at home, frantically washing our hands and trying to wait out this crisis. After the disease, the biggest threat is the boredom that inevitably comes with being cooped up inside for too long. Having endured many blizzards in my life that kept me stuck at home for days on end, I can confirm that this is a real possibility.

Thankfully, I learned from an early age that video games are a great way to alleviate boredom. There’s only so much TV I can watch and so many shows I can binge. With TV and movies, you’re not always engaged. It’s too passive. It’s easy to get anxious and tense. With video games, you have to stay engaged in order to play. It’s a good distraction, as well as a good way to pass the time.

It also helps that games have come a long way since the days of Super Mario and Donkey Kong. The games I played as a kid got me through blizzards. For an extended quarantine, the might not have sufficed. However, games these days are bigger and more complex than ever. Some are so big that they become a massive time-suck. You could lose days on end playing these games and never know the snow outside had melted.

Since this crisis will likely take longer to pass than a blizzard, I’d like to offer a list of video games that should help pass the time and combat boredom. Please note that none of these games are MMOs or games that require a constant internet connection. That’s to accommodate those who don’t live in places with good internet. Some of these games are only available on PC, but most are available on consoles in some form.

We’re in uncharted territory with this crisis, but crippling boredom is sure to make it worse. While you’re waiting out the worst of this crisis, please consider using these games to tide you over in the meantime.


1. Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

The world of the Elder Scolls franchise is a vast, magical place and Skyrim is by far the most extensive. If you’re a fan of fantasy games, or the fantasy genre in general, you will lose yourself in this game for all the right reasons. It’s not just a game about slaying dragons and fighting monsters. That is part of the story, but there’s so much more to do.

There are side-quests galore. There are unexplored lands. There are magical items to gather, refine, and improve. There are personal connections to foster and develop. You never run out of things to do in Skyrim. It’s less a game and more a customizable fantasy world that you get to explore through a character you create. Such an immerse experience ensures you’ll have hours of fun. Just be careful with mods and cheats.


2. Mass Effect Trilogy

For fans of sci-fi, the world of Mass Effect is every bit as rich as Elder Scrolls. Specifically, I’m referring to the Mass Effect Trilogy, as a whole. I’d even throw in Mass Effect Andromeda if you want to expand it even more. Just make sure you get the version that patches the glitchy graphics.

I’ve mentioned Mass Effect before when talking about artificial intelligence. I’ve even cited it as having one of the best romantic sub-plots of any game I’ve ever played. Those are all great reasons to play this game, but there’s so much more to this world. I could spend days on end just writing about it and far longer playing it.

Mass Effect isn’t as much of an open world as Skyrim, but it’s so rich in scope and lore that you rarely run out of things to do. It’s also a game that isn’t linear in its story. There are many paths you can take, many choices you can make, and many passions to pursue. It’s a game with a great deal of replay value and given how long it takes to get through it just once, you’ll rarely be bored.

Also, it has Mordin singing. That’ll make any depressing day feel better.


3. Civilization Series (For PC Gamers)

This is a game for fans of real-time strategy, history, and fictional politics. It’s also one of those games that you don’t realize is such a time suck until you see how much you’ve played it. I know this because I spent an entire summer playing Civilizations III and it felt like the quickest summer vacation of my life.

Instead of shooting and adventure, Civilizations is all about strategy. You found a civilization. You build and grow that civilization from ancient times to the modern world. In the process, you try to dominate over other competing civilizations, whether through war or diplomacy. It’s a little complex at times, but it’s easy to get into. Before you know it, several hours have passed you by.

There are many entries of this franchise, but I would suggest going with Civilizations IV and V, depending on how good your PC is. Even without online play, these games offer a rich, rewarding experience that you’ll get lost in for all the right reasons.

Just be sure to keep track of time. Trust me, you’ll forget to eat or sleep if you don’t.


4. Sim City Series

This game has some personal weight for me. The Sim City franchise has always been near and dear to my heart. Since the days of Super Nintendo, this has been one of those games that offers something different. The goal isn’t to destroy or dominate. The goal is to build a city and make it the best damn city you can. It sounds dull, but Sim City makes it both fun and rewarding.

I remember spending hours on end, testing layouts and designs for cities. There are so many ways you can build your own city. Most versions of the games also have scenarios you can take on that test your ability to manage a city through a crisis. Given the recent news, it gives you a certain appreciation for what mayors and governors must endure.

Sim City might not appeal to everyone, but it’s a different kind of gaming experience that gets you engaged in a unique way. If you can get into it, you have something that you can enjoy for days at a time.


5. Grand Theft Auto 5

I know parents, politicians, religious officials, and people who just don’t like fun will hate this. However, when you’re stuck at home and fighting off boredom, there’s no getting around it. The Grand Theft Auto games are full of violence and sex, but they’re rarely boring. Grand Theft Auto V is, by far, the most comprehensive entry into the franchise and the game that will keep you in a permanent state of road rage for days on end.

There’s a rich story, but there’s also a vast world full of things to do. Many of those things involve sex, murder, drugs, and stealing, but that’s exactly why you play a game like this. It’s a dark fantasy world built on a foundation of heavy satire. When you need to blow off steam, there’s always a worthy target in the world of Grand Theft Auto.

It also has Trevor Phillips. If you can’t find entertainment value in playing Trevor Phillips, then you’re just being difficult.


I hope this helps anyone out there who is caught up in the worst of this crisis. Being cooped up inside for reasons you can’t control can be frustrating. No matter who you are, it gets to you after a while. There are many ways to cope, but if you have a computer or a video game console, you have options that should help tide you over. These are just some of them.

Stay safe. Stay calm. Above all, wash your damn hands.

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How I Learned A Powerful Life Lesson From “Goldeneye” (The Video Game)

goldeneyecover

I grew up during a strange time. I know every adult could make that claim with the benefit of hindsight, but I think I have some substance to back it up. It was a time when the internet barely existed, Saturday morning cartoons were still a thing, video games were still mostly toys, and MTV was the ultimate evil in the eyes of parents, priests, and teachers.

There were a lot of transitions that were just starting to happen. As a kid, I didn’t understand them. I barely even noticed them until years later. I still feel their influence and have learned many lessons as a result. Some lessons were more critical than others. I still remember the day I got my first email address and I made the password so easy that my little brother guessed it. That was a small, but critical lesson I had to learn.

Another one took place a few years before that and it involved a video game that is still near and dear to the hearts of many. That game is “Goldeneye” on the Nintendo 64. For some, just mentioning that game should bring back fond memories of countless hours spent in the basement, yelling at anyone who dared to pick Oddjob in multiplayer. Those were good times.

During that same time, I went to school in an era where things like the self-esteem movement and DARE were still a thing. It seems so archaic now, given how well-documented the failures of both initiatives have become in recent year, but it was a serious issue when I was a kid.

I remember seeing all sorts of platitudes and motivational messages on TV, in movies, and at school-sponsored events. They all conveyed the same sentiment.

You’re all special.

You’re all equally good at everything.

You can achieve anything if you’re determined and work hard enough.

It all sounds so nice, but there’s just one huge problem and it’s one my awesome, wonderful parents went out of their way to teach me. It’s not entirely true.

Yes, we’re all unique, which is not the same as being special.

Yes, we all have equal worth, but we’re not equally skilled.

Yes, you can achieve a lot with hard work, but you can’t achieve anything.

These all seem like rational, reasonable lessons to teach a kid. I’m certainly glad my parents made an effort to give me that perspective because it was hard to ignore the whole “you can achieve anything!” mantra that kept playing out every day. I admit I got caught up in it at certain times. I also got upset when I felt like I didn’t achieve something that I felt I’d worked hard enough for.

At some point, I had to learn that all this idealized encouragement was flawed. My parents did their part, but it took a particularly memorable experience to really hammer that point home. This is where “Goldeneye” comes in.

There was one summer in which this game basically dominated our entire day. I would wake up, meet up with my friends, and we’d start playing the game for hours at a time, much to the chagrin of our parents. These were good times. That, I cannot overstate. However, there was one issue that often came up over the course of that summer.

One of my friends, who I’ll call Shawn, was just too damn good at the game.

By that, I don’t just mean he won more multiplayer matches than most. I mean he always beat me. It didn’t matter which character I used. It didn’t matter which maps we played in. Aside from a few lucky shots, he pretty much kicked my ass every time I played him. Some of my other friends did challenge him, but he was still the best. That much, we all knew.

I thought he was good because he played more often than me. I thought I could eventually get to his level if I practiced enough. For a good two weeks in July, I essentially trained myself with match after match in “Goldeneye.” I tried to memorize every map. I tried to get a good feel for every character and weapon. I tried to hone my aim so that I made every shot count.

While I did improve, especially compared to some of my friends, it didn’t change the outcome. Shawn still beat me almost every time. It wasn’t that he played or practiced more. Shawn just had a natural talent for gaming. His reflexes were a lot quicker than most. He had a visual acuity that most couldn’t match. He could also concentrate in a way that was downright Zen-like.

To his credit, Shawn was humble about his skill. He didn’t brag or rub it in my face, although he certainly could have. He didn’t have to in order to get the point across. In certain activities, be they sports, video games, or underwater basket weaving, there are just people who are inherently more talented. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you train. You just aren’t going to reach their level.

I eventually came to accept that. It was the first time it really sank in. Hard work and dedication won’t help you achieve everything. It can help, but there are going to be people who just have more talent and you can’t always work around that. It was a hard truth that I’d tried to avoid up to that point, but after that summer, I came to accept it.

Coincidentally, this is around the same time when I stopped taking those self-esteem messages at school seriously. As I got older, my perspective became a bit more realistic. In the long run, that probably served me better than just blindly believing I could do anything if I worked hard enough. I genuinely worry how much I would’ve crushed my spirit if I had to learn that lesson the hard way later in life.

Again, I got lucky. On top of having two great parents who kept me anchored, I had a friend who was just naturally talented at kicking my ass in “Goldeneye.” While all those losses were annoying, they taught me a valuable lesson and one that still helps me to this day.

To Shawn, who I hope reads this one day, I sincerely thank you for that.

Also, I apologize for all those times I threw my controller at you.

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Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights, psychology, video games

The Hard Consequences Of Soft Censorship

internet-censorship

If you walked up to any random person on the street and asked them how they feel about censorship, chances are they would say they’re against it. Absent any context, most people equate censorship with tyranny and rightly so. Historically speaking, tyrannical societies are not beacons of free speech.

When you add context to that same question, though, then people are a bit more diverse in their response. They may say they’re against censorship, but they’ll also oppose hate speech and even support efforts to remove it from certain venues or platforms. It’s not the same as government-suppressed speech, but it’s still censorship on some levels.

A government’s effort to prohibit or punish speech is more daunting. That’s exactly why we have things like the First Amendment. Governments are big, powerful entities with armies and tax collectors. Their brand of censorship is a lot more concrete than others. That’s why such extensive legal protections are necessary.

When it comes less overt forms of censorship, though, the line isn’t as clear and neither are the legal protections. It can take the form of de-platforming a controversial speaker, which has happened on college campuses. It can also take the form of banning certain websites or certain subgroups within a website. These efforts aren’t usually called censorship. They’re usually referred to as preventing the spread of hate.

Personally, I don’t buy that excuse. As much as I abhor some of the things people say, both online and in person, any attempt to indirectly silence them is still censorship in my book. I call it “soft censorship” because it doesn’t involve government force. In many cases, it’s a grass roots effort to combat certain ideas that many find offensive.

That seems to be the most notable standard these days, the offensiveness of certain speech. That’s understandable, given how the world is more connected than it has ever been in human history. It’s now easier than ever for hateful, offensive speech to spread. Conversely, it’s also easy for the outrage to that speech to spread as well.

As a result, the forces behind that outrage are often the most powerful forces behind soft censorship. That outrage takes many forms too. It can be driven by political correctness, religious dogma, and general trolling. Censorship or suppression of speech is not always the stated goal, but it is often a desired result.

Given the ongoing changes to the media landscape, this brand of censorship seems to be getting more prominent than anything government effort. In fact, the reason I chose to bring this issue up is because of a few notable incidents that highlight the growing disconnect between free speech and movements to combat hate speech.

The first incident happened earlier this year and came from the gaming world, a domain that is no stranger to censorship and targeted outrage. The outrage in this case, though, had nothing to do with how beautiful women are depicted and everything to do with the policy of the popular Steam platform by Valve.

The particulars of the issue are simple. Valve was getting criticism for allowing too many violent, adult-oriented games on their platform, including those with overtly erotic themes. For a while, it looked like they would follow the same policy as Nintendo and Apple, who don’t allow anything that can’t be shown in a Disney movie.

Surprisingly, and refreshingly for some, Valve opted for a more libertarian policy. The standards are simple. As long as the content isn’t illegal or outright trolling, then it’s permitted. In the context of freedom of speech and creative freedom, this should count as a victory. However, that’s not how some saw it.

Almost immediately, Valve was heavily criticized for this freedom-centric policy and for all the wrong reasons. Some went so far as to call it irresponsible and cowardly, daring to permit games on their platform that might be overly graphic, crude, or sexy. Being a private company and not a government, that’s certainly their right.

Even so, it generated outrage. People didn’t see it as an act to promote free expression. They see it as a means of spreading hateful, offensive, sexist content and profiting from it. At at time when the video game industry sparks outrage every time it depicts a female character, Valve really took a chance by taking this approach and it’s sure to generate plenty more controversy, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Those same reasons showed up in another incident involving Reddit, a site on which I’m very active. Specifically, it involved a subreddit called KotakuInAction, which emerged in wake of the infamous GamerGate controversy in 2014. As a result, it has a reputation for being pretty brutal in its criticisms of regressive, far-left attitudes.

It’s oftent cited as one of the most “toxic” places on Reddit. There have been more than a few efforts to ban it. At one point, for reasons that I’d rather not get into, it was actually removed by its original creator. However, it was saved and put back up within less than a day, much to the relief of the nearly 100,000 subscribers.

Few will call that a victory for free speech. Those who criticize Valve and Reddit for permitting it don’t see their actions as suppressing speech. They see it as combating harassment and hate. Therein lies the problem with that effort, though. Harassment and hate are serious issues, but attacking only the speech is like attacking a single symptom of a much larger disease.

Even if Reddit had permanently banned KotakuInAction and Valve had opted to censor offensive games, it wouldn’t have made the ideas behind them disappear. Like putting a censor bar in front of female breasts, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re there and that they have an impact.

You could turn off the internet, burn every book, and shut down every newspaper tomorrow. That still wouldn’t stop people from thinking and feeling the things that lead them to want to say something offensive or create an offensive game. Speech is just a byproduct of ideas. Attacking the speech is not the same as confronting the source.

In fact, doing so can be counterproductive. There’s a real phenomenon called the Streisand Effect wherein efforts to hide, remove, or cenors something ends drawing more attention to it. The fact that Area 51 is a super-secret government facility that everyone knows about shows how powerful that effect can be.

In the context of combating hate, efforts to censor those behind it can end up elevating their message. When someone is censored, there’s an application of force implied. Whether it’s from a government or a moderator on a message board, censorship requires some level of force. Applying it to anyone is going to put them in a position to feel oppressed and that oppression tends to fuel hatred.

Harassment is different because when it comes to free speech, the line between discourse and threats is a bit less ambiguous. The Supreme Court has established a criteria for what constitutes “fighting words,” but it’s when things happen on a computer screen where it gets tricky.

Like hate, though, there’s a right and wrong way to deal with harassment. The right way to deal with a direct threat is to contact local law enforcement. The wrong way is to make it into a spectacle that requires that both the harasser and the platform they used to be condemned.

It’s an inescapable fact of life in any functioning society. The same platforms we use to interact will be used by others for disgusting, hateful, and offensive activities. We may feel disgust and revulsion for these things, but trying to silence both the people and the platform doesn’t make the sentiment behind it go away.

That’s the ultimate danger of soft censorship. It’s not like a censorship-loving government that can be overthrown or reformed. It’s a mentality that seeks to remove content from certain mediums in hopes that it will subsequently discourage the mentality behind it. Unfortunately, human beings aren’t wired that way.

That’s the ultimate danger of soft censorship. It’s not like a censorship-loving government that can be overthrown or reformed. It’s a mentality that seeks to remove content from certain mediums in hopes that it will subsequently discourage the mentality behind it. Considering the impact of the the Streisand Effect, it’s utterly backwards.

I’m all for confronting hate and combating harassment, but not through censorship, hard or soft. It’s hard enough trying to change someone’s mind in an era where they can customize their news feeds. At the end of the day, we can only truly affect someone’s heart and mind by focusing on the person and not what’s on their computer screens.

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When “Progress” Isn’t Really Progress

mass-effect-andromeda-0009

After I graduated college, I got my first full-time job at a software company providing technical support. Out of respect for my former employer, I won’t name the company or the type of software it made. I’ll just say that, like all software, it sometimes malfunctioned and users got really upset.

For the most part, those seeking support were polite and reasonable. I enjoyed helping them. It made the job feel rewarding, despite the erratic hours and mediocre pay. However, there were certain customers who, for whatever reason, just weren’t satisfied complaining about the product. They basically went out of their way vent all their problems on whoever was unlucky enough to get their call.

At my office, we called these people “rubber wall users” because they weren’t just an impenetrable wall of whining. Any time you tried to throw something at them to fix their issue, it just bounced right back at you. While we tried to be professional, there was an unwritten rule that even my supervisor understood. You say whatever you have to say to get that person off the phone and on with their miserable lives.

I’m sharing that story because it’s a fitting metaphor for a phenomenon we’re seeing more and more of these days. I see it in movies, TV shows, video games, and even novels, which especially concerns me. It involves pressuring artists, producers, and developers to be more inclusive and diverse with their media. Then, when it finally happens, that’s labeled “progress.”

With respect to the sincerity of those efforts, as well as the memories of some of the angry customers I dealt with, I disagree.

I’ve talked about progress on this blog before, mostly within the context of just how much the human race has made over the past century. You won’t find many people who celebrate that progress as much as I do. By nearly every measure, we’re far more prosperous, tolerant, and well-behaved than we’ve ever been.

That said, there are certain kinds of progress that shouldn’t count as progress. They’re only progress in the same way that getting an unruly customer off the phone with some moniker of professionalism counted as progress at my old job. It’s not motivated by a sincere acceptance of diverse opinions. It’s just a way to stop the whining.

Image result for SJW whining

For the past couple years, I’ve found myself wondering just how much of this false progress is being mislabeled. I’ve been seeing it in multiple mediums. Comic books, a medium for which I regularly express my love on this blog, is just one of them.

While I’ve avoided talking about such controversies, I have noticed the same trend that others have vocally criticized in other mediums. Major publishers, including Marvel, have been pushing for more diversity in their books, but their efforts haven’t always been well-received and the resulting “progress” isn’t necessarily cause for celebration.

Beyond the diversity push, Marvel even made an effort to de-sexualize their characters. While that’s only possible to some extent for overtly sexual characters like Emma Frost or DC’s Starfire, some of those efforts have had a noticeable effect on characters like Carol Danvers and Black Cat. It’s now much rarer to see female characters flaunt their sexuality.

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For some, that counts as progress. Specifically, for those who believe depictions of sexy female characters promotes misogyny and sexism, it counts as a victory. If it upsets the fans and robs an inherently visual medium of a unique form of beauty, then so be it. That’s the price of “progress.” If I could say that with more sarcasm, I would.

Again, I disagree. In fact, I would go so far as to say those efforts by Marvel backfired and not just because it cost their editor-in-chief his job. Marvel, like all media companies, is a business. Businesses need to please their customers. When certain customers are especially vocal, they have to listen to some extent, just as I had to listen to those customers.

It’s debatable how much those at Marvel actually bought into the “progress” that certain critics were asking for. I don’t doubt that some creators were sincere in their desire to improve diversity and expand the appeal of their comics. However, I also don’t doubt that a part of that effort was just to temper some of the whining by people who know how to be extra loud in the era of social media.

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While the impact on Marvel comics concerns me greatly, I noticed a much bigger effort late last year from an industry that has been prone to much louder criticisms. Specifically, it happened in one of my favorite video game franchises of all time, “Mass Effect.” Unlike what happened with Marvel, I’m not sure this beloved series will survive.

Prior to 2014, “Mass Effect” was the cream of the crop of video game franchises. It had a little of everything. There was action, drama, romance, exploration, insight, and yes, even a little sexiness. Characters like Miranda Lawson, Liara T’soni, Samara, EDI, and even the female protagonist, Shepard, had undeniable sex appeal.

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Then, in between the release of “Mass Effect 3” and the 2017 sequel, “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” a scandal broke out in the video game industry that involved everything from sexism to harassment to just how visible a character’s butt could be in a video game. I wish I were exaggerating, but it really happened and I don’t think the industry has fully recovered.

In the midst of that scandal, the demand for “progress” soared more than it did for most other mediums. Suddenly, the act of making a video game character too sexy was seen as contributing to a toxic culture of misogyny, sexism, and violence against women and minorities. It’s not like sex appeal had nothing to do with Lara Croft becoming so successful. Again, if I could say those words with more sarcasm, I would.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda” was developed in the eye of that storm. EA and Bioware couldn’t use the same approach they did with previous “Mass Effect” games. They had to be very careful with how they designed their characters, especially their female characters. One misplaced curve is all it would take to reignite a controversy that nobody wanted to deal with, given all the negative press the gaming industry had incurred.

As a result, the female characters in “Mass Effect: Andromeda” didn’t just dial down the sex appeal. In some cases, there was a concerted effort to make their female characters less attractive. This is best shown in the female model used for Sara Ryder, the main female protagonist. To say it didn’t translate to the game would be like saying drinking a gallon of bleach might make you a little queasy.

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Ryder wasn’t the only female character to have her looks tempered. Pretty much every female character, from the supporting cast to background characters, was designed with minimal sex appeal in mind. That’s not to say the game didn’t have some sexier moments, but compared to what other games attempted before that, it was pretty watered down.

That was just one of many problems that “Mass Effect: Andromeda” faced when it launched in March 2017. Now, games launching with bugs and glitches is nothing new. It’s standard practice for a game to get patched after launch. However, the extent of those bugs in “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” combined with unattractive characters, did not help the game’s reception.

I say that as someone who played the game and still loved it, for the most part. Since I love “Mass Effect” games so much, I found plenty of reasons to love “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” However, I found myself having to overlook more flaws than usual. I also found it hard to really admire the visual aspects of the game. Like comics, undermining that part of the experience can be pretty detrimental.

There were a lot of criticism levied against “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” Some are legitimate. Some are painfully valid. More than any other game, though, it was developed with the intent to promote a more diverse and inclusive product that appealed everyone and offended no one. As the sales and reception seem to indicate, though, even female gamers don’t like looking at unattractive characters.

As a result, nobody really hailed “Mass Effect: Andromeda” as progress. However, nobody staged a mass online protest claiming the game made its female characters too sexy and promoted toxic behaviors among its users. Some might count that as progress too. I am not one of them.

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In a sense, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” is a case study in a product where efforts towards progress just masked a desire to avoid outrage. Just avoiding outrage does not count as progress in any capacity. It just counts as a company trying to shield itself from bad publicity that might damaged its brand. Say what you will about corporate greed, but brand still matters to them, often more than money.

I don’t blame Bioware or EA at all for going that route, but simply avoiding outrage set the bar pretty low and it might have doomed “Mass Effect: Andromeda” before it ever had a chance. At the moment, the “Mass Effect” franchise is on indefinite hold because the response to “Mass Effect: Andromeda” was not what the developer had hoped.

Beyond the tragedy of damaging a beloved franchise, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” reflects a dangerous and potentially regressive sentiment in the industry. Rather than focus on pushing the envelope and doing something bold, artists and developers are more concerned with avoiding outrage. The actual quality of the final product can only ever be secondary, at most.

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There are a great many challenges facing the video game industry, as anyone who followed the news surrounding “Star Wars: Battlefront II” can attest. However, the precedent set by “Mass Effect: Andromeda” may very well be the most damaging.

Most agree that video games, like any other media, should work to appeal to a broad audience. However, as Marvel found out, forcing certain kinds of “progress” can have some pretty detrimental effects in the long run. It alienates consumers, frustrates developers, and limits the incentives to innovate and try new things.

At the end of the day, making female superheroes less sexy in comics and making characters in “Mass Effect” less attractive did nothing to reduce sexism, promote gender equality, or foster a more inclusive culture. All it really did was go out of its way to stop exceedingly vocal critics from whining.

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Bioware and EA didn’t suddenly become more enlightened about video games, female characters, and the impact of mass media. They simply took the path of least resistance, doing what would generate the least amount of outrage, at least in terms of sexist accusations. That’s not progress. That’s just frustration and, like my old job, very little good comes from it.

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Filed under gender issues, sex in media, sexuality, video games

Teaching About Sex, Consent, And Relationships (Through Video Games)

Let’s face it. Most kids aren’t that eager to learn about the stuff that their teachers, parents, and school administrators want them to learn about. They’re not interested in knowing the skills that will make them healthy, productive, tax-paying consumers who will keep society running. They’re interested in the skills that will make them popular and/or get them laid.

The deficiencies of our education system are many and I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the experiences I had within that system. However, I don’t want to dwell too much on that this time. Talking about how much I hated high school is rarely that sexy.

Instead, I want to focus on something that most kids are eager to enjoy and how some people are using that to improve their understanding of sex, sexuality, and relationship. What could kids possibly excite kids that much to learn about something that they would rather not learn from the same gym teacher that makes them run laps in winter?

The answer is more obvious than you think. It’s video games. Admit it, that almost makes too much sense.

There’s no question that kids love playing video games more than learning about quadratic functions. According to a survey done by the MacArthur Foundation, approximately 97 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 play video games. When it comes to statistics and surveys, you can’t get much more definitive without asking kids whether chocolate fudge tastes good.

Kids might not be able to agree whether Superman could beat the Hulk, which he totally could, but they agree that video games are awesome. So if kids love video games so much, why not use that love to teach them valuable lessons about sex, relationships, and consent?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m not being facetious either. It’s not about the medium or whatever asinine controversies it may have. It’s about working with what kids already love and using that to help them in valuable ways. It’s not that radical a concept. Hit movies have been made about it.

When it comes to teaching kids about sex, though, I wouldn’t expect Edward James Olmos to star in a movie about that. That doesn’t mean the concept is entirely flawed. Teaching kids about sex is hard enough. Teaching them in a way they’ll remember and take seriously might be beyond the power of Hollywood.

That still doesn’t stop some from trying. In a story by Kimberly Lawson at Vice, an associate professor of medicine at Yale University has helped create a game called PlayForward: Elm City Stories. It’s a fairly straightforward, two-dimensional role playing game that is less about killing aliens or Nazis and more about guiding players through a narrative, showing how their decisions affect them along the way.

That’s not quite as radical as it sounds. Role-playing games represent a large chunk of the video game industry. Major game franchises like “Mass Effect” and “Final Fantasy” are built around the idea of having players make choices and face repercussions of those choices. Take away the aliens and the monsters, though, and you’ve got a solid basis for understanding real life choices.

PlayForward: Elm City Stories plays less like Dungeons & Dragons and more like the classic board game, Life. In it, you play as avatar in a fictional, but fairly realistic city where you have to navigate a variety of activities and make choices along the way.

Some of those activities involve who you your friends are. Some involve going to certain events and parties. Some even involve whether or not to make out with a cute girl. It may sound mundane, but like most RPGs, the appeal is diving into the world of the character and leading them through it. Here’s how Vice describes the experience.

Players have to make important, life-changing decisions, including whether or not they should go upstairs to make out with someone, if they should use a condom or not during sex, and whether they should accept pills found in someone’s grandmother’s medicine cabinet. At any point, they can fast-forward to the epilogue to see what their character’s life looks like at 30, based on the decisions they’ve made.

Through that experience, players learn about more than just saying no to the guy on the street corner offering a free hit of crack. They experience both the short-term and long-term impacts of their decisions. Given the notoriously short attention spans and limited foresight of kids, that kind of insight in indispensable when teaching them about sex and relationships.

It’s no “Super Mario Brothers,” but the lessons it conveys are more valuable than any princess. It puts the players in a position to choose the right and wrong path. It shows them just how right and wrong those paths can be in the long run for their character and themselves, by default.

Beyond just consequences, the game gives players a chance to explore situations involving intimacy, consent, and relationships. Their choices help forge the relationships they have throughout the game. To get a better outcome, they actually need a better understanding of intimacy and consent. The fact that gives them tools to apply those lessons in the real world just a pleasant side-effect.

In a sense, PlayForward: Elm City Stories is coming along at the perfect time. We live in a world where sexual harassment and sexual assault are heated issues. We, as a society, are not as willing to turn a blind eye to these sorts of indiscretions anymore.

Just punishing the Harvey Weinsteins of the world isn’t enough, though. We need to teach the emerging generation that there’s a time and a place to show a beautiful woman your genitals. Knowing those circumstances will be the difference between having a great sex life and being sued into oblivion.

Kids aren’t going to learn those skills through lectures, after school specials, and cute puppets. Some of the most effective learning methods involve active engagement with real activities that offer real rewards. In that sense, video games are the perfect medium for that kind of teaching.

While I doubt that PlayForward: Elm City Stories will win any game of the year awards, it sets an important precedent that is worth building upon. Saving princesses and shooting killer aliens is still fun, but learning about relationships, consent, and sex will take a player much further in life.

Kids, and people in general, learn best when they don’t know they’re learning something. Video games may still have a nasty reputation in some circles, but it offers opportunities to teach valuable skills that aren’t easy to teach, especially to hormonal teenagers. We should take advantage of those opportunities and hopefully, PlayForward: Elm City Stories is just the beginning.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, sex in media