More Medieval Than Thou

King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 cover I just got my PDF copy of King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 a few weeks ago. I started browsing it — and I do not understand its problem with women.

Yes, yes, Greg Stafford makes efforts to open up character creation a bit for female characters. Look, I’ve been playing Pendragon for thirty years and I have made female characters under every rule set. Incremental change, yeah, that’s great, but still missing the point.

Arthurian romance and the roman courtois genre largely became popular in its time because women read the stories, or had the stories read to them. Fan favourite Thomas Malory came in on the tail end (no pun intended) in the mid-15th century with Le Morte d’Arthur but the really interesting materials were written long before, and among the authors were women. Marie de France was writing Tristan and Iseult stories in the 12th century, Christine de Pisan wrote Le Livre des Faits d’armes et de chevalerie just before Thomas Malory was born.

King Arthur Pendragon, 1st ed. coverEver since its original 1985 edition, King Arthur Pendragon classifies women characters from Arthurian romance into three tiers. Non-player characters include “ordinary women” and “important women.”

Ordinary women:

“fulfill all non-epic functions without complications. Their anonymous existence is implied or accepted through the feudal world. They remain faceless and nameless. Such women have no individual character sheets; they are all Gamemaster characters. These generally include the unplayed wives of player-knights.”

Important women:

“have some individuality. They usually have names, or are at least known as the daughters of their fathers. [They] are often widows, mothers of vengeful men, heiresses, or healers of note. They are commonly accused of or found to be using minor magic. They are often among the major Gamemaster characters that will interact directly with the player-knights on a regular basis. They generally do not have complete character sheets.”

Extraordinary women can be player or Gamemaster charaters.

Extraordinary women in Malory include Queen Guenever, the beautiful wife of King Arthur and head of the Courts of Love; Queen Margawse, widow of King Lot, a dabbler in witchcraft and the mother of Sir Gawaine and his brothers; Queen Morgan le Fay, the mistress of Faerie, an enchantress supreme who has a passion for Sir Lancelot, hates Guenever, and plots trouble for her brother, King Arthur; Lady Viviane of the Lake, who gives Arthur his sword, Excalibur, and is killed by Sir Balin; and Lady Nimue of the Lake, guardian of the High King’s court against wicked enchantment, once Merlin is gone.

It’s telling that we read this discussion for women’s characters but not men. It illustrates the fundamental thinking: characters are male by default, women are variants. After all, wouldn’t the three tiers — ordinary, important, and extraordinary — apply to male characters?

Moreover, the examples of extraordinary women provided in this discussion are restricted by the filter. The tales that Malory mined also offer Enide from Erec et Enide (Chrétien de Troyes) / Gereint ac Enid (Welsh romances); Iseult/Isolde the Fair, she of Tristan’s longings; Dandrane, Percival’s sister and herself a quester (Perlesvaus); Queen Ygerne/Igraine, Arthur’s mother; Laudine the Lady of the Fountain, and her clever maid Lunete; Olwen, daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr; etc. — none of which get airtime in KAP 5.2.

(By the way, the original romances also include a few persons of colour, men and women.)

Finally, we have substantial numbers of women among scholars of the Arthurian cycle (e.g., Fanni Bogdanow, Jill M. Roberts, Christine Ferlampin-Acher, Emma Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz) and among modern-day novelists who based new tales on the legendary characters (e.g., Marion Zimmer Bradley, Kim Iverson Headlee, Patricia Kennealy, Debra Kemp, Gillian Bradshaw.)

My point is, women were a key audience for the source material, were represented among the earliest writers we know of, were present as active characters in the tales, and have since spent a lot of time, effort, talent, study, and ink over these stories. Why is it so hard for a game writer who has been at it for over thirty years himself to notice all these women? To notice that women want to write, read, GM, and play Arthurian romances, not as quest objects or rewards, or as eternal support characters, but as protagonists?

Yes, I know an effort was made. I can’t but notice it since I am graciously told:

Generate a female knight exactly the same way you would a male knight. In the real world, women are statistically smaller and weaker than men by about 15%, but female knights should be allowed to use the same Attributes for men to generate female characters. […]

Oh, thank you, Good Sir! I will be allowed to play my 6th century knight in 15th century armour à la Malory and not be hosed by the game rules for playing a woman? Thank you, thank you!

And then the section goes on to inform us that female knights should be called “Sir”, not “Lady” or “Dame” because that’s something entirely different. Really! I assume that Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, at whose court author Marie de France sat, was called “sir” when she rode in armour with the Second Crusade?

[See also examples in http://www.tor.com/2017/02/23/five-amazing-women-warriors-of-the-middle-ages/]

Pendragon 5.2 does not in fact prevent you from playing a woman knight, nor add stat penalties. It’s just sanctimonious in a “We really should penalize you, but we’re so nice,” begrudging kind of way; and erases important female characters and authors from its discussion.

Greg Stafford answers a straw(wo)man version of the issue in his short essay “This is a Sexist Setting.” However, he phrases it as if the setting had an objective external existence and he was its defender. It’s important here to be clear on what “the setting” is. Are we talking about:

  • The fictional setting of the entire body of writing that is classified as Arthurian romance, from Taliesin to Sir Thomas Malory?
  • The historical context the stories are purportedly set in, around a late 5th century/early 6th century warlord?
  • The historical setting at the time the stories were told and written, primarily from the 10th through 15th centuries?
  • The fictional setting strictly as represented by Malory — who wrote at the end of the Arthurian romance period of peak popularity and furthest from the era it covers?
  • The fictional setting as presented in the various editions of the King Arthur Pendragon role-playing game, from 1985 through 2016?

My complaint is that showing women as full and empowered characters in Arthurian romance should not be an afterthought, but a key piece.

I’m tired, exhausted of the backhanded gifts, the grudging concessions, the caveats, the faux “realism,” the obliviousness to the existing, long-standing participation and contribution of women. Why are you trying to open the door as little as possible rather than throwing them wide open? Why do you not see the ample precedent you have in and around the source material to justify erring on the side of openness?

Citizen Pain is in da house

A production 24 years in the making… Citizen Pain! Yes, that’s how long I lived in the U.S. under work visas, then under spouse visas as a resident immigrant. Becoming American has never been something that appealed to me on an emotional level (I’m Canadian, I don’t have to fake it!)

But in recent years I have come to realize just how many rights which I thought applied to residents do in fact apply only to citizens: the right to legal representation, for example. And immigrants can get in trouble for a lot of legal activities, such as supporting civil rights groups, marching and protesting, or using certain privacy software like Tor or Signal. As my attorney and friend said, you can be right about the issue but you’ll still get in a mountain of trouble.

So this year I decided to bite the bullet, particularly since I was hoping to vote after over two decades of paying taxes. Unfortunately, a lot of immigrants had the same idea and my application, though sent in April, was not processed in time. But in the weeks since the horrible November 8 election, the Obama administration worked hard to child-proof the country, including processing as much of the immigration backlog as possible. It was my privilege to be sworn in today as a citizen, on the last tenure day of the president I admired so much.

The oath ceremony took place at the historic Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, and 1,240 new citizens from 91 countries were sworn in. (I understand that throughout the country, this week was a marathon of such events, thematically linked to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.) We were also able to apply for a U.S. passport and voter registration, so I took care of these items.

To be honest, the ceremony was a little odd, because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services personnel are trying to be nice, joyful, congratulatory — and until this moment, none of us applicants have seen them be anything but suspicious, stern, and disengaged. As my friend Sean Nittner put it, it’s like having the Department of Motor Vehicles throw you a party! Also, when they were listing the 91 countries of origin, they forgot Canada. Dudes!

After the ceremony and various paperwork, we moved next door to Tiera Mia Coffee for our first caffeine of the day. We took a table in a corner and were having a nice conversation between my husband Edmund, my friends Sean and Dorene, and me, waiting for another friend, Marc, to join us. But then a weird incident happened.

First, this tall guy approached our table and just loomed over us, staring at Sean who asked if everything was okay. The guy said yes, still glaring; Sean gave a few polite words (something like “Good, I’m glad. You have a good day, now.”) It was said in his typical courteous way, didn’t sound snarky in the least. The guy went back to his table and we forgot about the incident.

Then maybe 30 minutes later, he got up, marched to our table and shoved his sandwich (and knuckles) in Sean’s face, then flipped our table in Sean’s lap! Cups and plates went flying, we were splashed and so were our table neighbours, and we all jumped to our feet yelling “What the hell! Why did you do that?” Without answering, the guy spat in Sean’s face, twice! Then he grabbed his skateboard and stomped off, never explaining himself.

The cafe manager called the police and a couple of officers showed up a few minutes later, took down the stories, and viewed the cafe’s surveillance camera footage. The best we can guess is that it was a case of mistaken identity; the guy did not give the vibe of someone looking to pick a fight with anyone, just with Sean.

After some cleaning up and new drinks, and telling the whole story to our friend Marc, we moved a couple of blocks up the street to Agave Uptown, an Oaxacan restaurant where I had made a lunch reservation. Happily, we encountered no further weirdness, and all felt like we had had enough for a while.

As a newly minted registered voter, I plan to keep the phone red-hot with calls to political representatives. Until now my opinion has never mattered; if you’re not a registered voter, your signatures and calls don’t count. But I do plan on being counted now. And I know calls are much more effective than form letters and Internet petitions. So I will use my new citizenship, oh yes I will.

In which direction lies progress?

Autumn Leaves

I have not forgotten that I promised to go back over the “Two Minutes Hate” issue for the three-month assessment of its impact onto the tabletop role-playing community, and particularly the parts of the community centering on indie and small-press games. Since I started the assessment, I have tallied responses from a variety of threads online, and discussed with and interviewed many people closely involved with and/or affected by the events.

In short, based the evidence I collated I believe that after three months (I’ll get back to this in a moment), the impacts of “Two Minutes Hate” and its follow-up FAQ have been more negative than positive, and that the negative impacts are disproportionately felt by a few people who were already on the receiving end for frequent online abuse. The post failed to clearly convey Mark’s intended message and caused harm both directly and indirectly to people singled out as examples. I see the following as key errors:

Continue reading “In which direction lies progress?”

Did we see progress?

Trigger warning: Online harassment in the tabletop role-playing community.

Three-month check-in

depression_hurts_by_deadlywolfqueen-d50nfp0In late July, Mark Diaz Truman posted a reflection on his company blog (Magpie Games) about a perceived conflict in tabletop role-playing sub-communities, followed by a FAQ a few days later. I gave my own opinion back then when Mark asked, in response to my disagreement:

I’d also encourage us all (including me) to look at the effects 3 mo, 6 mo, and a year down the road.

It’s time to check in on the effects of the post after three months. Mark concluded his posts with:

I want to inspire conversation and self-reflection, and I believe that people have engaged in productive discussions both online and offline as a result of the post.

If you have been following the various conversations that Mark’s thoughts sparked, if you have some familiarity with the tabletop role-playing community and particularly with the subsets Mark focused on, OSR and story games, what if anything did you observe? For example:

  • Do you feel this has affected the way you post? If so, how?
  • Are any voices more frequently heard since these posts? Or less frequently?
  • Has the tone of community influencers changed in any relevant way?
  • Have certain frequent or prominent discussions changed in tone, style, or frequency?

If you can cite data, like Jessica Price and Jason Corley did last time, extra special thanks.


Credits: Illustration is called “Depression Hurts“, by Inkin Oddity; released under Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Who measures progress?

Context

abused-girlBrouhaha in small role-playing sub-communities, of little interest to most people but with profound impact to a few. On July 26, Mark Diaz Truman posted a reflection on his company blog (Magpie Games) regarding perceived abuse between two sub-communities of gaming, focusing respectively on OSR and story games. The comments on Magpie Games’ blog and Mark’s Google+ discussion thread numbered in the hundreds, and a myriad of additional discussions both public and private erupted. Today (July 31), Mark followed up with a FAQ explaining his position in more detail [Edit: with its own G+ thread].

I will let people slog through the discussions if they are interested but I will not provide a summary. If you know people involved you will probably form your own views; if you don’t, you probably don’t care. But I will provide my own opinions and then address an answer I received from Mark.

My take

(Adapted from comments made on various threads as well as directly to Mark.)

The original post

I love Mark’s intentions, as a community-builder and a peace-maker, but I believe his perception of the situation of the situation is incorrect on many points. In particular, I think he equates behaviours on the part of various individuals (the ones he cites in his original post) that are simply not equivalent at all. In doing so, he appeared to excuse individuals that have a long, well-documented history of online abuse while placing the victims of such abuse in a position of equal blame.

Second, conflating this with OSR versus story games is odd and confusing. The vast majority of indie/hippie/story gamers I know also play OSR games. However, of course there are  sub-communities within these small circles that are less friendly than others; but describing this as two communities at war is bemusing.

Third, I do believe that anger has a place in effecting change, and “civility” cannot be the sole, enforceable mode of discussion. Let’s be clear: for those of us who  feel invisible at times, deeper change is the goal, not fostering unity in a particular geek sub-community. Rejecting anger and its manifestation skirts too close to a tone argument for my taste.

I have a large number of geek women and non-binary people in my circles (there are more than most people realize and they are the primary targets of abusers.) I saw several privately posting their dismay at Mark’s post, which they perceived as gaslighting and support of abusers, despite Mark’s statement to the contrary. Several mentioned that they were venting privately to their select circles because they did not want to become abusers’ next target. Some were brave enough to post openly on public threads like Mark’s (my hat is off to the ones fearing but standing up!)

I also saw several public posts by known bullies and online abusers as well as their supporters crowing over this perceived vindication and use it as fuel to launch whole new attack campaigns at their favourite targets. I find it nauseating.

It’s worth checking who reports and to believe the women and minority gamers who report having been abuse targets. Again, the uncivil discourse from various parts is not equivalent. The problem is not general discourse, it’s about extreme edge cases. It’s about missing stairs.

I do appreciate Mark’s intentions and his appeal to being the best persons we can be by listening, apologizing and collaborating. I just don’t think the later is always achievable or even advisable.

The FAQ-Pology

Mark’s new post on the topic is intended to “both make some apologies and clarify [his] position.” However, as an apology it falls short of the benchmarks; one stalwart commenter pointed out that it fails to provide:

1. A sincere expression of regret.
2. An explanation of the circumstances that led to the mistake.
3. An explanation of how you’re going to try to not do the thing in the future.

After looking at the after-effects for the better part of a week, I believe Mark’s posts have caused more harm than good to the gaming community(ies) and particularly, as many have pointed out, sent the usual targets ducking for cover rather than providing them with support. When I express my sadness at this step backward, Mark answered:

I’d love to talk with you more about how this is playing out Sophie. I’d also encourage us all (including me) to look at the effects 3 mo, 6 mo, and a year down the road. This week has been hard, but I believe that many of the conversations I’ve seen have the potential to blossom into something productive. That said, I hear you! And I’m eager to discuss more and listen more.

And this is what moved me from sadness to anger.

Let me explain again what I’ve been seeing:

  • An appeal to polite conversation that equates the behaviours of victims and their known online abusers.
  • One-sided calling out of flimsy examples versus complete silence on long-documented bad behaviours.
  • Calling out of victims.
  • Proposal for action that is vague and non-measurable compared to the specific call-outs.
  • Agreement with the sentiments overwhelmingly from white males.
  • Significant disagreement from cis and trans women, non-binary people, and other marginalized groups.
  • Renewed abuse from the original bad actors, directed at their usual targets.
  • An apology that boils down to “I wish I’d said it more nicely.”
  • An invitation to let this ride for three, six, or twelve months and check back if things have improved.

Notice the problem? The same people always on the receiving end of the abuse are told to be civil for a while more, endure the abuse longer, and hope the conversations will “blossom into something productive.”

No.

It doesn’t work that way. No progress can be made this way because the pressure has been put entirely on the victims. Sure, they’re already disappearing from the public conversation and retreating in their makeshift safe spaces when they can. In three, six or twelve months the conversation will surely be more harmonious without their voices.

And how are we to measure progress in this blossoming? On one end, I can count participants, threads and comments. We already have some demographic glimpses from early counts by commenters. We have previously documented abuse we can compare to. These are metrics. On the other side, how will we assess progress? Will it be by this lack of participation from the marginalized voices?

I’m sorry, Mark and the rest of the great publishing team at Magpie Games. While I do want to work for a friendly, welcoming, civil community of gamers, I must stand with those whose voices are being silenced again.

All in one: Homophobia, Racism, Misogyny

pulseFirst, my deepest condolences to all those affected by the terrible murders at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. There is nothing comparable to the chilling, senseless grief left by such an event.

I woke up early this morning and saw the sad news about yet another damn mass shooting, this time targeting a gay bar on Pride Month. And I also was warned by the CNN headline that called it “terrorism” — I knew somewhere in the article I would discover that the shooter had brown skin and might have read the Quran at some point. Reading the article confirmed this, before any names or details had even been released.

A violent crime motivated by homophobia, and reported with blithely oblivious racism.

I went back to bed for several hours, knowing that today would suck.

When I got up for real, I checked the news outlets for details. By then we had a name, Omar Mateen, and selfies for the shooter, some background, and a body count revised horribly upwards.

We learned that Omar Mateen had worked as a licensed security guard and a guard in a juvenile detention center, had a concealed carry permit, and had obtained his assault weapon and handgun legally. But he also had a history of domestic violence — what a great idea to allow him to own firearms!

And a few hours later yet, the media have come up with their narrative: they’re biting hard into the Islamic terrorism meme because Mateen, twenty minutes into his hostage-taking and shooting spree, called 911 to claim his actions were in the name of ISIS/ISIL. Now they’re pulling on tenuous threads to weave a better connection, ignoring the massive amount of information we have that report him as a man with a fixation for wielding authority through force, the kind of man who wants to become a police officer for the wrong reasons and fails, the kind of man who uses domestic violence and destroys his marriage then becomes angry and resentful, a man who got agitated and angry just for seeing two men kiss on television.

But no, let’s confidently talk about connections to Islamic terrorism and not about the painfully ordinary tale of toxic masculinity, homophobia, and ridiculously lax gun laws. And let’s do it in a racist way, because terrorism can only be performed by brown people called Omar, not by white men from Indiana called James.

How to tell the candidates what to do

 BSanders-HClinton2Last night my husband and friends voted in the California primary in what was dubbed this year “Super Tuesday IV” of the U.S. presidential election, then we watched the returns with friends. (I don’t get to vote but my naturalization process should be complete in time to vote in the November elections.)

Early in the evening I started seeing acrimonious posts on social media between friends who supported Bernie Sanders and friends who supported Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination. Some are saying “It’s over, Mr. Sanders, get behind the presumptive nominee;” which really means “STFU Bernie supporters, support my candidate.” The latter answer with “Our candidate said he was in until the national convention in July, he’s not going to fold now,” which really means “No you STFU, I’ll support who I want to.”

I understand both sides and they both have good points, but I find the bickering infuriating. Besides, the votes and in the candidates have announced their decisions — social media rants are not going to change that. So I’m going to tell you what to do too, and it involves reaching out to your candidate instead of antagonizing your friends. Continue reading “How to tell the candidates what to do”

Women as Action Heroes: Supply and Demand

ST1

We’ve heard about a number of prodigiously insulting marketing decisions at the intersection of merchandising, pop culture and genre fiction, such as the disappearance of Black Widow from lines of Avengers merchandise and Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise. It’s been made clear that boys are the target market for toys. But do you ever wonder if it’s not also a deliberate ploy to manipulate supply and demand for price gouging?

We just learned that to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series, CBS has licensed toy company Mattel to produce a line of Barbie-style dolls based on Lieutenant Uhura, Captain Kirk, and Commander Spock. I immediately checked on Amazon, because I want Lt. Uhura on my desk! But I discovered that she’s unavailable, even though the other two can be purchased just fine for $34.99 each.

Uhura-doll

StarTrek50th-dollsWhat gives?

But Amazon went on to offer me other lopsided-deals on memorabilia Barbie-like dolls. How about Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman figures based on the recent movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Hey, good news: all three are available. And priced at…

Wait, what? Continue reading “Women as Action Heroes: Supply and Demand”

Core Memory

Inside-Out-Core-MemoriesA few nights ago I finally had a chance to watch Pixar’s movie Inside Out. (Pico-review: I loved it.) One concept it uses (not a spoiler) is that some of our memories are “core memories” that anchor our personality, things that become central to the person we are; they are not immutable but they are very strong.

I assume we can all think of a few moments that stay with us through life, to which we turn back repeatedly either to recapture them or with the burning wish to redeem them. I can think of several, but there is one in particular that for four decades has been central to me. It’s the one that I think reflects the best that is in me, that represents the person I want to be, I try daily to choose to be. (So yeah, it’s a core memory that makes me look good, but rest assured that I have some that are not as proud. Another day’s tale.) Continue reading “Core Memory”

Mini-review: Ex Machina (2015)

Up-front warnings: (1) This review contains spoilers. (2) I didn’t like the movie.

ex_machina_posterNot spoilers: The premise of this movie is that Main White Guy Character Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Antagonist White Guy Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test, charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence — Sexy Fembot Ava (Alicia Vikander).

[Edit: A couple of friends have told me that Oscar Isaac, who is Hispanic, doesn’t read as white to them. That really surprised me, I read both the actor and the specific character of Nathan Bateman as white, but you may have a different impression. I have to add that if Bateman is supposed to read as a person of colour, it doesn’t help the movie for me, on the contrary.]

The movie tries to be a thriller but all the plot twists are predictable for science fiction aficionados. Nothing you haven’t read elsewhere. It also tries to be visually stylish and to feel intellectual; your mileage may vary. Mostly, Edmund and I spent our time asking the characters on screen: “Really? You didn’t see this coming?”

But I’d like to focus on the things that creeped me out, and not in a good thriller way. Spoilers begin here. Continue reading “Mini-review: Ex Machina (2015)”