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Raising Adults to Children: How Animated Adults Became Man-Children

Baloo, Bullwinkle, and Behdeuce.

Baloo, Bullwinkle, and Behdeuce.

I wanted to do a piece about kids networks and recent rash of man-children cartoons for a while now – by which I mean, cartoons staring mostly adult-ish characters who have simplistic pleasures and seem more prone to skirt responsibilities in order to engage in juvenile behavior or activities. In some ways, the “man-child” has always been part of the animated landscape – Bullwinkle J. Moose is a fairly classic man-child – but it was tempered with a sense that the character, at least at some level, had a clear direction, an idea that he was doing something right, a guiding voice (in this case, Rocky), and a sense of logic that drove his actions. Bullwinkle was goofy, sure, but he was a loveable goof, loyal and passionate and at least somewhat-down-to-earth. Jay Ward’s titular cartoon was also loose and free with its characters, easily plopped into simple plots that doubled as smart-ass satire against current events. Other cartoons, too, emphasized semi-silly characters who were at least dedicated to their jobs – Super Chicken, Roger Ramjet, Dudley Do-Right.

AO Scott wrote this pretty interesting piece about the fall of adulthood recently, and while it’s a little rambling, it made me think about current cartoons today, particularly on Nickelodeon, and their emphasis on man-children adult characters. After all, Nick’s call for animation pitches only allowed for ‘toons with kids or man-children adult protagonists (mainly due to their research stating that kids today just want comedy). There’s really nothing inherently bad about the man-child adult icon, but the recent batch of cartoons with such characters helming the show are dialed up to eleven. These are not characters who enjoy their childish pleasures while working their way through their (often newly-earned) responsibilities. These are characters who thrive in their juvenile behavior, behavior that is encouraged and often ends up saving the day despite the fact that such behavior would be dangerous and/or illegal. This can only go so far before the true nature of growing up becomes muddled.

To clarify, the rise of man-child entertainment arose from three specific events: 1) the social embrace of “nerd” culture – things like comic books and cartoons, media originally created for kids, 2) the recession, which leaves the younger generation aloof from job/domestic responsibilities due to the difficulty and ambiguity of acquiring them, and 3) what can be described as the “new sincerity,”  which in some ways arose from “ironic culture.” [The best way to describe this would be to think about someone who enjoys something objectively terrible because of its terribleness like The Room, or Saved by the Bell; if there’s a certain self-awareness about liking something terrible, it’s ironic, but if there’s a fondness for that terribleness, its sincere. The line between the two is obviously muddled, but a lot of that tends to cleared up by how much interest in paid into the creation of the entertainment in question – the actors, the crew, the producers, the networks/studios, and so on. Liking The Mighty Ducks might be ironic if you laugh at its awfulness, but it may be sincere if you immerse yourself in Mighty Ducks lore, discuss the writing of David Wise, talk with animators about their time on the show, etc.]

Part of the appeal of the man-child (and a lot of the aspects of Scott’s piece, particularly with his sections on Beyonce and Taylor Swift) is the emphasis of the individual’s stake in his enjoyment. Pushing against the social tract that tended to instill adulthood at one’s mid-20s, which included marriage, kids, a home, a job, a car, and “most importantly,” the dismissal of all forms of children-marketed entertainment, man-children (and their female counterparts) thrive and proudly embrace their love of such pleasures, like video games, comics, cartoons, and young adult books. These are people who absolutely believe they can take care of their responsibilities along with loving what they love, even if such responsibilities will have to occur months or years later. And let’s be clear: these people are one hundred percent right, but there is an asterisk, as that passion can be all-consuming. Criticisms against such behavior and/or the juvenile media tend to come off as a personal attack, which can explain things like more aggressive sides of gamergate, the MLP fandom, and lovers of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.

Life’s always been about the balance between one’s responsibilities, particularly the ones associated with adulthood, and pleasures, although back in the day, the pleasures were always of the “adult-ish” kind: fishing, vacationing, playing a sport, reading. There was a distinct line between the two, too – there was a time for work, and there was a time for play. Blurring the line was a strict no-no. Ducktales and TaleSpin, for example, were clear to make this distinction. Scrooge McDuck was absolutely serious about his pursuit for business and financial deals; his pleasure, ironic enough, came from literally dipping into the money he earned. Scrooge has always been an “adult” in that way, and any sense of his business acumen as a symbol of being uptight and suppressed was rare. In only a few instances was his “greed” portrayed as a real issue for the character, and that greed was always set in some “character-removed” manner. In the “Treasure of the Golden Suns” saga, the greed was only a problem when he became fully afflicted with gold fever. Additionally, it’s in this five-part pilot that he gains a real family, the “other” mark of adulthood, emphasized later in “Once Upon a Dime.” Everything about Ducktales was built around characters being and embracing adulthood, and the insanity culled from it.

With TaleSpin, Disney is directly tackling the man-child idea, delineating the idea that pleasures are okay but only up to a point. Going beyond that point is more trouble than its worth, or prone to cause trouble. Baloo is a safe man-child, a lazy, baffoonish bear who thrives solely in his skills as a pilot. His juvenile behavior often masks his crippling insecurity, pushing him to levels of petty ridiculousness, like his conflict with Ace London in “Mach One for the Gipper,” or Louie in “For a Fuel Dollars More,” or even Becky in “The Bigger They Are, the Louder They Oink.” Yet that push also drives him to be level-headed at times and even heroic, like when he called out Becky’s reckless business behavior in “A Touch of Glass” or when he went up against Don Karnage’s laser gun in the pilot. TaleSpin shows often that while there’s a certain value to Baloo’s goofball antics (like in “My Fair Baloo,” where, it should be noted, that the goofball antics are tied directly to hands-on, working class intuitiveness), that there is a limit. When things go too far, things go bad; it’s only when you act like an adult do things fall in line. (Becky learns this lesson in a most serious way in “Her Chance to Dream,” dismissing the pleasure of leaving the stress of life behind in order to stay and raise her daughter).

The Disney Afternoon was emphatic on adults cartoon characters needing to act like adults, comic or cartoony-slant be damned. Gummi Bears was marred in the need to care for Gummi Glen. Darkwing Duck’s more ridiculous pursuits were tampered by his need to take care of his daughter (and his struggles with his girlfriend). Rescue Rangers overall was about its characters coming to terms with various degrees of adulthood – Monterey Jack tackled his addiction, Gadget confronted her insecurities multiple times, Chip often dealt with his role as a leader. Dale might seem the exception, but the show, like TaleSpin, delineates Dale’s behavior. When he goes too far, things go bad (and likewise with Chip, when his practical jokes go too far in “One-Upsman-Chip”). The show makes it clear that Dale’s childishness is necessary in the sense that its unpredictability gives the team an edge, and when it comes down to it, Dale indeed will pull up his metaphorical pants and get to work. (In truth, it probably wasn’t until Donald in Quack Pack did the Disney Afternoon push against the role of adulthood. Goof Troop and Bonkers, despite their problems, emphasized its characters attempting to be responsible grown-ups.)

Adult characters in cartoons were simply adults, flawed and broken of course, but not so much as the crazy world around them. Rocko’s Modern Life was perhaps the clearest example of this, the show about a young adult just simply trying to run his life, notably away from his parents way back in Australia. It’s the world that’s insane, not the character, and the comedy was in watching Rocko try to do simple, mundane, adult things, like the laundry or going to the beach or getting to work on time. Hefer, Rocko’s friend, is definitive the show’s man-child, and at no point does the show suggest that Hefer’s behavior is warranted or ideal. The show’s clearest direction of adulthood, oddly enough, is created through Philbert, the one who literally has to go on a pilgrimage to become “a dolt” (note the play on words here), and he’s the one who ends up getting married. Rocko gets a lot of discussion over the various ways it got away with adult gags, but it’s ironic that a show known for its juvenile gags masks its emphasis on maturity and growth.

Somewhere along the lines, the cartoon philosophy changed, and we can’t quite place the blame on Nickelodeon. CN brought us Johnny Bravo, starring a character epitomizing the worst of the man-child, a walking Dane Cook-esque “bro-seph” who only loves himself and treats women terribly. The show, of course, makes it clear that Bravo’s behavior is absolutely abhorrent, that his sexist actions result in him put through physical pain. Yet Johnny has no job and no prospects, and he lives with his mother (more or less), emphasizing his separation from adulthood. We are meant to laugh at Johnny and in no way look up to him.

Then there’s Spongebob Squarepants. I mean, it’s easy to just call this show as the catalyst for the man-child adult run in animation today, but Spongebob is a curious case. At least prior to the movie, Spongebob relished in his pleasures, such as blowing bubbles, jellyfishing, and karate, all of which are representative of his immaturity (in addition to his complete inability to get a boating license). However, Spongebob owns his own home and he works at a job that he not only loves but he’s actively good at. Spongebob engages in the things he enjoys, but even he knows when things go too far, and he always keeps his job (and taking care of Gary) first.

I think Nickelodeon took the wrong information from show’s popularity. Instead of observing the various components that made the show function so well – in that a character who enjoys his pleasures also is relatively dependable, to a fault – they saw “man-child adult” and doubled down on it. This in some ways explain Spongebob’s current failings – the character is a lot more irresponsible, dangerous, and stupid, like marrying Krabby Patties, and it also explains Nick’s current off-putting shows, like TUFF Puppy and Breadwinners.

The titular lead in TUFF Puppy, in contrast to Johnny Bravo, is supposed to be admired, I think. We’re supposed to laugh at Dudley similarly to how we laugh at Johnny, but while Johnny’s behavior leads to bad, comical scenarios, Dudley’s behavior is, at worst, a comic distraction, and, at best, heroic. The similarities are uncanny – both live with their moms, both are moronic to a fault, both wear black shirts – but while Johnny falls flat on his face, Dudley is rewarded with a new job, friends who tolerate (and accept) him, and amazing ass-kicking abilities. (Note how Johnny’s martial arts are a joke, hyperbolic posturing, while Dudley’s nonsensical movesets can handle all sorts of criminals). In a way, Dudley is more akin to Rescue Rangers’ Dale, but Dale, as mentioned, is distinctly tempered. Dudley, meanwhile, is free to go overboard, and the show goes along with him, with its criminals and fellow agents free to go ridiculous as well, consequences be damned. I’d argue that there was a minor attempt in the first season to bring some sort of pathos to its man-children setup, with the show attempting to establish strong if goofy relationships between Dudley and characters like Kitty, the Chief, and his mother. That pretense was dropped quickly, turning all the characters (even Kitty) into unrepentant goofballs. TUFF isn’t so much a crime fighting agency as an unsupervised playground; the show isn’t so much about balancing work and pleasure as its about unrestrained comic inanity.

Breadwinners, likewise, portrays its workplace and its workers as instruments of chaos. To Buhdeuce and SwaySway, delivering bread isn’t just a job they enjoy but a massive game to them, an endeavor that allows them to be wildly goofy and destructive sans consequences. Breadwinners has a slightly better handle on its character relationships – the strong bond between the main characters; the easy-going connection with their mechanic, Ketta; the tense relationship with the antagonist cop Rambamboo – but again, it’s all a means to an end, excuses to have its characters engage in juvenile behavior within (ostensibly) a working environment. There’s no meaning to their role as breadwinners other than it’s vaguely important, and, like Dudley, their chaotic behavior often saves the day more so than it ruins it. Notably, both Breadwinners and TUFF Puppy can’t define their workplaces or relationships with any clear-cut boundaries, since that would break the protagonists’ hold on their childish behavior. In other words, these are characters who can essentially do whatever they want; forces that try to tamper that down just don’t get it, despite such dangerous behavior. No one even questions it.

It’s sort of why the 7D never feels like it’s getting off the ground. Like TUFF Puppy and Breadwinners, 7D seems primarily concerned with its workplaces and relationships as excuses for its characters to be comically nonsensical. There’s little hint that the dwarfs’ mining or the queen’s ruling is other than a means for hilarious stuff to happen. And, like Kitty and Rambamboo, 7D’s Starchbottom (note the name) is the show’s stick in the mud, since he’s the only one who takes his job with any sort of seriousness. Locales and relationships, again, are ill-defined, since that would interfere with the joke-telling. Grim and Hildy, the show’s antagonists, are married, but there’s no sense that the marriage is anything beyond the comic scolding of Hildy’s aggressiveness to Grim’s submissive stupidity. In 7D, TUFF Puppy, and Breadwinners, (wo)man-children rule, with nary a thought.

There are two holdouts to this questionable trend. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, for its faults, is refreshing, since its six main characters have real, adult-ish roles and pursuits (even Pinkie-Pie, who pursues her childish passion for partying with an adult-level fervor). The world of Equestria is chaotic, but there are rules and limits, and the characters are forced to pay attention to those limits to thrive. Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness is wildly flawed too, but at its best, it strikes the right balance between Po’s love of childish things and the need to engage in responsibility. It does struggle with this at times, but it does showcase Po’s childishness within a “work” environment as problematic, not rewarding.

I’m ending this this piece by mentioning Wander Over Yonder, which is quite analogous to Rocky & Bullwinkle – a childish “adult” (Wander) who is guided by a more mature figure (Sylvia). Both shows are loose enough allow their man-children characters to behave chaotically unchecked, but, like its forebear, the show is loose enough to plop its characters in random scenarios to let the comic behavior breathe, and the episodes balance the sillier stuff within its own brand of satire (“The Hero,” “The Troll”), and again, it’s clear when Wander’s behavior goes too far or is portrayed as dangerous (“The Void,” “The Box”). Here, man-child behavior is celebrated but is distinctly curbed – there’s a time and place for it. That’s really the issue in a nutshell: the best shows embrace the enjoyment of adult characters and their “toys,” yet understand that there’s a time to put them away. THAT’S the lesson I fear is being lost.

 

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Project GeeKeR

Project GeeKeR was one of the coolest comic books ever that made the mistake of being a cartoon.

Logo for Project GEEKER

Can we truly separate the art from the artist? Or, more accurately, can we separate the art from the artist and live with ourselves?

Social critics, I think, have pushed that excuse heavily into the public to justify watching, critiquing, and enjoying certain works by controversial creators like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and (if the court of public opinion wins out) Bryan Singer. We might as well add Skyler Page to the list, as the show Clarence, while not particularly great, works on enough charm and innocence to skirt by as an easy-going show, despite the abhorrent behavior of its creator. I suppose this puts me into that category of social critics, particularly as I struggle through the output of Doug TenNapel.

TenNapel is by far one of the most entertaining content creators out there. He created Earthworm Jim, a smartly hilarious and surprisingly tough video game, and, along with animation writing vet Doug Langdale, turned it into one of the most funniest cartoons very created (I should write about it, but needless to say, it’s great, particularly with its fantastic cast of voice actors). He also created the well-known game The Neverhood and penned an episode of AdventureTime. He has a quirky approach to his output that easy to get into, and despite the weird and eccentric nature of his content, it’s clear that there’s a fun sensibility to it all. He’s also an outspoken conservative and homophobe.

It’s honestly a very tough idea to balance, a tough idea to accept – that one of the most creative minds out there can have such narrow, bigoted views (for a look into his mindset, check out the comments of this post, where he mixes it up with the commentary). It’s hard to rally for his creative endeavors while knowing he’s actively working to oppress a group of people. (Sad to say, Butch Hartman seems to be in the same boat). As mentioned above, we try to believe that there is a line between art and artist: that we, in our own way, are taking the art away from the artist and all that he or she represents, for when the art is released, it is no longer the creator’s content, but the public’s. But it is tainted, because those most influenced by the art were to seek out the creator and find that vitriol present, particularly if they were targets of that vitriol… I’m sorry, I’m not sure how to end that statement.

So it’s with this black mark that I tackle Project GeeKeR, one of the more stranger and unique cartoons to ever exist. I like to think of these projects primarily as Doug Langdale’s, as he was the story editor and main writer of the team (and likewise with the Earthworm Jim TV show). And even with its Blade Runner-inspired setting, its Poochie-fied character of a backward-cap-sporting T-Rex with a laser blaster, and its comic relief star as a goofy, random cartoon character come to life, Langdale infuses it all with a strict narrative focus and a knowing, self-aware sensibility. Project GeeKeR has its tropes and cliched characters, but carefully undercuts them all with pinpoint precision; it’s the most original comic book story ever brought to television. And being on television is exactly what hurt it the most.

Project GeeKeR asks, “What does it mean to be human?” It’s a question that has thematically dotted the landscape of both film and television, yet Project GeeKeR is poised to be the first kids show to bring that question to the forefront. It’s interesting to note that neither Lady Macbeth (a female punk with a cybernetic arm), Noah (a surprisingly calm T-Rex with a baseball cap), and Geeker himself are what you could fully call human – Lady Macbeth is the closest, of course, but her quick anger and difficult personality tends to keep her at arms length (pun, and symbolism, intended). The most human character in the show, Mr. Moloch (the villain), is purposely cold, calculating, and robotic – the most stereotypical of stereotypical villains. I will get into more about these characters, and how the show quite brilliantly handles them, but we need to keep in mind the question of what defines humanity. Is it looking human? Acting human? Being human? Understanding the full range of human emotions?

Project GeeKerR seeks to explore this question via Geeker himself. Geeker is both a fascinating piece of work, both as a character and as a construct. A genetic construction financed by Mr. Moloch himself, GKR (which stands for Geno-Kinetic Research) is a completely amorphous, pure being of limitless mass and energy. He literally can do anything and become anything – GKR is, quiet frankly, a god. Yet Lady Macbeth stole him by accident, prior to his final programming, and upon realizing Moloch’s true intentions, is forced to keep GKR out of his hands. But GKR (referred to as Geeker) is less concerned about being caught and more concerned about understanding what it takes to be a human.

What’s fascinating is how the show examines the various angles Geeker takes to be a real human. His initial thought is that he just needs to grow a fifth finger, which he just can’t do, which in its own way acts as a physical/mental representation to Geeker’s ultimate pursuit. Over the course of the show, he tries to connect with others at an emotional level, and even at a romantic level. He keeps a diary. He tries to establish a sense of independence. He desperately tries to win the attention and affection of others. But he’s always off – and not just because he’s a being of pure chaos. Geeker lacks a brain, but he can learn, and he has a heart; the strongest episodes showcase how, even in the midst of the insanity that is his existence, he can indirectly be a figure of hope – if not to the dystopian world around him, particularly to the two charges dedicated to protecting him.


Watch Project GKR 1: Destruct Sequence in Cartoon | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

The pilot establishes all of this, albeit in a generalized way. It grabs your attention with the plot itself, where Geeker is set to explode unless he returns to his creator to disarm him. There’s a lot of great stuff here, particularly with the action sequences, but also the little character moments that subtly but concretely reinforce the theme. Lady Macbeth exudes a tough-girl attitude, but it’s fairly clear that she’s a softy inside, yearning for some kind of genuine connection. Demanding people call her Lady Macbeth instead of Becky is her way to keep herself stoic and powerful, and she snaps and lashes out to maintain this facade (“If I wanted your opinion, I’d beat it out of you!” she yells to Noah at one point.) It’s telling, though, that she can’t quite find herself to drop Geeker, the experiment she stole to ostensibly sell. Geeker is an object that becomes a person to her, a “friend,” in that his inherent goodness and innocence touches her, seeing a beauty in humanity in Geeker that perhaps the world around her has never revealed to her.

The pilot delves lightly into other characters too, which are expanded on in unique ways through the show. The most “human” character, the character who tends to be the most level-headed and empathetic, is the dinosaur. Noah is a cool, strong character, completely opposite his vicious nature, prone to relaxing on his hammock and reading, which is as human as it gets. Episodes later on will push against this sense of humanity, when we see humans aggressively oppressing dinosaurs (“Geekasaurus”), and when a microscopic device causes Noah to revert back to his dinosaur roots (“Noble Savage”). Yet Noah continues to stand by her side, even as their trust weakens. Lady Macbeth sees Geeker as a figure of hope to be protected; she sees Noah as a partner and a brother-in-arms, two figures of sadness in a world they can never hope to belong in.

That’s because Mr. Moloch and Doctor Maston make it nigh impossible. Moloch is introduced in cliched fashion, speaking a cold, distant voice, seated in a massive chair, and ranting about global takeovers. Interesting, though, that’s no one is really scared of him; in fact, most people see his ultra-stoic attitude as confusing at best and ridiculous as worse. The show smartly calls out the cliche without diminishing his his threatening nature, mostly through Dr. Maston. A brilliant scientist and the creator of GKR, Maston sees his self-worth in his intelligence and the recognition of it, even going so far as be willing to die for it when Geeker is about to explode. It’s a surprising character moment, but the show smartly undercuts that as well, with a lot of Maston’s sly, self-aware comments, particularly towards Moloch’s more stereotypical behavior.

All of these characters exist in a huge world brimming with potential, with interesting creatures and surging with ideas. But… it’s a kids cartoon. It’s limited, not only because of ratings, but because of its 22 minutes, and its tendency to focus on stupidity for stupidity’s sake (mostly due to the lazier writers). The pilot had a shot of a man shivering and clutching himself while on the streets of this dystopia; clearly, he was on some kind of “medication”. Project GeeKeR can’t explicitly explore that though, for obvious reasons. Nor is it immune to cartoon writers’ most lazier habits. “Smell of the Wild” is hurt because the “broken Geeker” idea just isn’t strong enough for a full episode, where the titular character emits a terrible scent that he can’t control; the broad idea is copied in “Geekasaurus” when Geeker is stuck as a dinosaur. That episode is also hurt when it implies dinosaurs are being treated like second-class citizens by humans, but it can’t get into the utter tragedy of it all, and given that we rarely see normal dinosaurs beyond that episode, the true dinosaur situation is unclear at best, another issue that would’ve been explored deeper in comic form.

Yet even with its flaws and limitations, Project GeeKeR still manages to keep the question of the nature of humanity at the forefront. Whether it’s the abhorrent treatment of dinosaur citizens, or the trapped Larry in “In Space, No One Can Hear You Sneeze” – an antagonist forced by Moloch to find Geeker, but discovers a sense of freedom and friendship through the friendly creation – the show is interested in exploring the full nature of such a question. Is humanity defined by freedom, which Larry seeks? Is it acceptance – like in “GeeKMan,” where Geeker tries to win the admiration of the city by being a superhero (and subsequently failing)? Or is it love – like in “Thing Called Love,” where Geeker falls for a strange Siren-like creature, completely counter to the notion that Becky believes, that something like Geeker can’t possibly understand love? Maybe it’s raw intelligence, like what Maston believes, or perhaps its independence, as addressed in “Independence Daze”?


Watch Project GKR 13: Future Shock in Cartoon | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

Maybe it’s all of these things, or none of them. Maybe the nature of “humanity” is as nebulous as the full extent of Geeker’s powers. Humanity is what we make it. The last episode, “Future Shock,” suggests that nature of humanity is in hope. Future-Moloch (who, need I remind you, is the most “human”) has captured Geeker and become a god; upon seeing that, and his future, senile-self, Noah becomes depressed and gives up on his team. He sees the future as unchangeable, but Geeker absorbs some of the ranting elder dino’s words, using them to save the day, inspiring Noah to escape his depression. Perhaps its about fate, about knowing that humanity has free will and is in charge of its own destiny. Project GeeKeR wanted to explore all that, in a fun, subversive way, but was hindered by its medium and its network. It was cancelled despite being a hit.

Project GeeKeR was a smart, entertaining show held back by forces being its control. Maybe that’s what humanity is all about: pushing back against the limits and restraints of society, striving to be something better. It’s something that the show really could do on the comic pages; as it stands, Project GeeKeR is promising as hell, but just lacking in the things it needed to be truly human.

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Some Thoughts on Gamergate

My name is Kevin Johnson. I am a gamer. I am a feminist.

I have issues with gamers. I have issues with feminists.

I. A Case Study

Among the many, many things being tweeted and written about concerning #Gamergate, this was among them:

Brad_Wardell_tweet

Curious, I took a look at the so-called hit piece.

I’m not sure if the definition of “hit piece” changed over the years, but what I see is a pretty cut-and-drive piece of investigative journalism, exploring the fallout of a disastrous game release. It involves a lawsuit between Alexandra Miseta and Brad Wardell, of claims and counter-claims, of dismissals and motions to block them. It doesn’t make any side look too pretty, and most likely this information was discovered when Kotaku sought to investigate why this game failed so miserably. This is on par with investigations, really. Watergate, which Gamergate derived its name from (and so, so many other misguided large-scale scandals), began with two reporters looking into a really odd break-in.

If Brad’s response is true – and, for the full purposes of this piece, I will assume all accusations of rape and death as true – then already we see the trouble. It’s absolutely horrific, but characters of ill-repute and good-repute has gotten threats as well – Bernie Madoff, George Bush, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton.  All of these threats are indeed awful and should be treated with the utmost seriousness, but I noticed that Wardell’s wife received the rape threat, who, for all intents and purposes, is completely innocent of the lawsuit. Oddly enough, in this overall discussion about how much misogyny has to do with this scandal, many supporters of Gamergate circulate this tweet to support their cause. But right there, with the rape threat of a woman not involved in any way with this situation, pushes back against that argument. In addition, its probably safe to assume a “gamer” was the one who made that threat, by which I mean that a person who is familiar with Kotaku and the piece, and therefore has some intimate relationship with games. He is probably male, based on the idea that a woman threatening to rape another woman is rarer still, but I do not discount the possibility. In either case, a threat was made against someone, a female someone, far removed from the lawsuit, and by every journalistic definition, that Kotaku piece is far from a hit piece.

I’m also aware of Mike Bithell’s initial tweet. It’s not necessarily too hard to look for various places where death threats have been lobbied towards male writers, particularly when they review socially popular games and deem them less than perfect. And as Gamergate takes speed, there is a tendency for its proponents to focus solely on the initial harassment and not look, at least partially, in some of the more pressing issues that Gamergate supporters are concerned about – the overall improvement of game journalism (the core of which, to be clear, may be different than what most Gamergate supporters are actually advocating for).

This entire Gamergate situation, from the outside looking in, is vile and nonsensical, a “much ado about nothing” wave of gibberish among stereotypical gamers. Inside, however is a powerful stalemate of massive cultural forces, of gamers pushing against their stereotypes as typical male angry youths; fortunate game journalists’ defensiveness against a growing populous voice desperate to be heard; feminist forces demanding equal and improved treatment against a contingent of males (and females) who believe that such a thing is, and should be, no big deal. The civil voices trying to make some sense of it all are drowned in violent, sexist threats and the mass shunning of a culture who will not be shunned. And in the midst of it all, it’s gaming and gaming reporting which suffers.

II. The origins and fallout of Gamergate

Quinn_Depression_Quest

At this point it’s pretty much agreed what prompted Gamergate, but the overall response to that prompt is massively distorted. Zoe Quinn created a game called Depression Quest, which got generally good reviews from most gaming sites. However, it was revealed that she was dating a writer from Kotaku (information divulged from a ex-boyfriend), which prompted some concern from many readers of the site about biased reported. The Kotaku senior editor swore that no ethical injustice has occurred (and the writer was not the one who wrote the review on Depression Quest), but the flood gates had parted. I should also mention that there’s a sense among gamers that Depression Quest is actually not that good (or perhaps worthy) of a game, which runs counter to the reviewers’ high praises, and that seems to have caused its own bit of consternation.

Not quite related, but significant nonetheless, has been the most recent release of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency program, which discusses various sexist tropes in video games. I don’t one hundred percent agree with Sarkeesian’s points, but sexism in gaming, like most entertainment sources, comes from laziness more so than misogyny; the question she, and many others, are asking is why, when given the lazy choice, do we resort to utilizing women in half-handed fashion.

The combination of these two events created an flaming uproar, the fires of which was stoked by things like the JonTron vs. Tim Schafer argument on Twitter, and reports that both Sarkeesian and Quinn had to flee their homes and report to the police after some of the rape and death threats grown too close to home. A curious thing happened; after Sarkeesian made her report, she asked for a donation to her show. This seemed to be the defining moment that Gamergate went from a typical gamer rant against encroaching censorship into all-out war against game writers. The conflictual threat of fearing for your life followed by the request for money had many, many people calling foul. Now the argument was about game writers, critics, and journalists using their experiences and connections to make extra, easy, and manipulative money off corporate kickbacks and the hard work of gamers. There’s definitely an air of sexism here, but there’s a hint of social unrest, too – game journalists, who’s credentials as writers (let alone journalists) are questionable, sitting in their rooms or offices and playing games for free and writing opinions as law while gamers are shelling out $40-$600 or more bucks on games, software, hardware, and DLC to have their voices unheard. Sure, most game journalists aren’t paid that well, but they DO receive kickbacks, even if it’s in the form of free games and invites to events, and most gamers aren’t exactly financially well off. Nothing says this more than E3 coverage, which tends to have more people writing about HOW MUCH WORK THEY HAVE instead of actually working.

Like it or not, Gamergate is a thing. It’s lots of things, really, but it’s a lot of accusations and misunderstandings, not only of what feminism is, but what journalism is, what writing is, what “game culture” is, and what “game culture” means to millions and millions of fans. Times are changing, and how we discuss games is changing, but there are those on both sides of the aisle who refuse to budge; the gamers sick of the discussions of sexism, the writers tired of being lumped into the “gamer” stereotype, the gamers tired of being lumped into the “gamer” stereotypes, and everyone else trying to get in a word edgewise about minority/LBTQ representation, about labor issues and improving the overall game and game market, and about finding information on the next big game coming out. It’s that unwillingness to budge, that inability to acknowledge that there are serious problems with gamers, game journalism, and feminism, that caused Gamergate to reach this point.

III. The problem with gamers

Problem_with_Gamers

I am a gamer. I make no qualms or parameters on what “real” gaming is or what a “real” gamer plays. Gamers play games, no matter how hardcore or casual. I might say that gamers, at least somewhat, should be interested in broad gaming events or releases, but that’s hardly a qualifier. Gaming enthusiasts or gaming fans, on the other hand, I think should be interested in, if not the variable genres of games available, at least in the way we talk about and discuss games to improve them and their cultural cache. The question is how to do that, specifically, but the discussion is a good start. There are those who can discuss the specifics of multiplayer, or the details when it comes to glitches and graphical prowess. Those who do frame-counts in fighting games, and can argue to death how removing certain RPG elements from various RPG sequels were a good or bad move. And, as much as gamers loathes it, discussing the roles of females or minorities in gaming is part of that.

Feminist and social critiques are part of literature, theater, film, and TV, and if gamers are strong advocates of gaming as art, and I am, then you have to accept that element of criticism as, if not agreeable, than at least valid, as part of the overall aesthetic of gaming. If you aggressively disagree with the criticism, that’s fine. To deny it any sort of legitimacy is a problem, though, and decreases gaming’s role as legit art. To aggressively push tactics that threaten the well-being of such feminist critics, or even to go out of one’s way to name-call, or create games and videos that de-legitimize these feminist critics, is another matter entirely: it’s petty and vindictive, and has no place in any form of pop culture, let alone gaming. There are those who are there claiming such antics are in place to expose feminist critics as self-serving, false victims catering to a gullible audience to make money. The problem here is two-fold. 1) Ignoring the critique to attack the author does little to actually de-legitimize the critique itself (this form of attack is what is called “ad hominem”), and 2) misunderstanding the financial burdens of the (most likely) freelance writer; asking for money in a kickstarter/patreon world is a legal form of revenue, both by the state and the federal government. Gamers who understand the financial struggle in their daily lives seem uncomfortably upset with writers looking through other avenues to earn money, particularly on the backs of criticisms they heavily disagree with. Unfortunately for them, this is a free country, so capitalism told me.

What makes it hard to get behind the current role of gamers is how this attitude is more or less geared towards women. They will tell you to the death that it’s not, but considering that Gamergate began specifically with two incidents involving women, it’s hard for that argument to gain traction. Is there a male-based incident that is also riling up gamers concerned about journalistic integrity? Perhaps, but it hasn’t crossed my way, and I am open to suggestions. I suppose we could point to the JonTron/Tim Schafer incident, but that had been triggered specifically by a Sarkeesian video. What I’m asking is if there is a specific, male-based incident outside of any association with Quinn or Sarkeesian that also brings to light the corruption of games journalism. I’m curious to see it.

Gamergate supporters will often emphasize the fact that those people who have harassed Quinn, Sarkeesian, and prominent game critic Leigh Alexander (the subject of the above picture, where there seems to be a gross misunderstanding of Time’s Terms of Service, and a failure to note that Alexander’s piece is actually in the site’s op-ed section) are in the minority. In fact, with a bit of clever and distinctive use of carefully crafted screengrabs, they will declare any vile outburst against them as forms of harassment; that they are the victims, being stifled in their efforts for gaming journalistic transparency. This is fantastic work; Fox News is probably nodding in approval. As Don Draper said (a character whose entire life is constructed on a giant lie) once said, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the topic of conversation.” Which they did, quite swimmingly. There’s little concern over whether Quinn or Sarkeesian are actually okay after their harassment; instead, Gamergate supporters are demanding proof of this and the police reports that were filed (interesting enough, no one demanded proof of Brad Wardell’s accusations). Meanwhile, in an scenario where attitudes and sensations are already running high, outbursts where Gamergate supporters are being told to fuck off for being described as said, white, basement-dwelling men (more on this in the next section) is craftily retooled as examples of harassment of the opponents. Never mind the real fact that telling someone to “fuck off” is, legally and ethically, not harassment – simply provoking the opponent via seemingly harmless ways to anger, in order to utilize the angered response as the “real” attack, is political craftsmanship.

However, when there is overwhelming evidence of gamer harassment, like what occurred recently, when someone attacked Sarkeesian with pictures of child pornography, craftsmanship rears its head again. Still, no one asks Sarkeesian if she is okay. There is a demand for proof, followed by demand for the perpetrator’s name so they can bring him to justice, the implicit tone being that if she doesn’t “assist” the supporters, she’s still part of the problem. Never mind the fact that spreading child porn is flat-out illegal and demands police/FBI intervention; note the distinct divide here. The tone, specifically, was less “let’s work together and find this guy” and more “give us the name or is this yet another lie?!” Gamergate is many things, but primarily, it’s about controlling the conversation.

[An aside: how and why did harassment become some sick mark of honor? Instead of bonding together to stand up against harassment of all kinds, it seems that both Gamergate supporters and opponents are keen to prop up and point out their personal run-ins with harassers, as if to give them validity and their foes discredit. Again, aside from the fact that we’re really stretching the definition of harassment (there has to be relatively constant stream of attacks, or a threat against one’s well-being), this is an awful reaction to all of this, and doesn’t help either side.]

Then there’s #notallgamers – which, similar to #notallmen, and which gamers will insist, emphasizes that such examples of overwhelming harassment does not involve or include all gamers. The problem, again, is two-fold: 1) Of course such examples doesn’t refer to all gamers; not only is this known but its pretty much assumed by default (or it should be – again, this will be discussed later). 2) It is up to gamers to assume the role to directly confront harassers and be models of integrity against those harassers, not whine about the nature of being lumped into one terrifying stereotype. Believe me, I know: as a black guy, I completely understand the feeling of being part of a social group constantly misaligned because of a few bad apples. This is brand new to gamers, so they are struggling to handle this. My advice? Don’t play the victim, but be the light that shines on such vitriol and expose them. Don’t worry about the media never covering your more positive aspects. They never will. Just do good, and be positive about it.

Finally, there’s the question of exactly what gamers want with “journalism integrity”. This Vox article sums the entire thing up pretty thoroughly, and I would highly recommend this Medium article, because news journalism and games journalism do not occupy the same space, and there must be a general understanding of this fact before any type of real understanding can occur. Journalism in general is defined by writers building connections to expose real, in-depth truths about a subject; games journalism allows for more leeway in that fact because it is considered “enthusiast press,” not “news press.” Connections to game developers have always been part of the subject matter, even as game outlets indeed start to engage in real, investigative journalism, like Kotaku did at the very beginning of this piece. This is a fact. Ask any and all former and current editors of every gaming magazine/website ever. Add to this the fact that writers are relatively low-paid and are forced to find revenue through other means, including consulting gigs, it’s extremely important that gamers really understand the full nature of what it means to be a writer for an enthusiastic press before any real discussion over “corruption” can begin. (This Paste Magazine article is also a must-read; journalists are not a hive-mind of planners, but individual humans who err and function off subjectivity.)

There’s a lot here that gamers have to work through. Journalists, however, you are not off the hook.

IV. The problem with [game] journalism

Problem_with_Journalism

I am on record as saying I actually do have a problem with the current thrust of game journalism, and even though there are many issues that gamers need to work through, I do think the core of Gamergate supporters’ concerns has validity. This is actually very reminiscent of the viewers vs. critics fallout behind Girls, in which both groups aggressively dug into the sand and refused to give ground on the criticisms lobbied at the HBO show. Prompted by this random gag pic of the show’s poster, Girls became an unfortunate symbol of nepotism, racism, feminism, and sexism in Hollywood. Viewers insisted the show represented the terrible state of representations in television today, and critics seemed to… dismiss it? That may not be the word, per se, but critics definitely downplayed these legit criticisms, which infuriated viewers. In the end, viewers actually won, with the slow but steady increase of broader, more racially inclusive shows coming around, and critics being a little more receptive of such socially conscious criticisms. Game journalists, I suggest you learn from your TV bedfellows.

This Badass Digest article makes a great example, in which the writer tries to define the typical gamer and how they think, and this doesn’t apply to me and not to gamers any more. The effort is sound, and there’s a “correctness” to it, but with gamers increasingly identifying as women, minority, and LGBT, such broad, generalized statements on what gamers are and how they think are no longer valid. This goes double for the awful, awful “Death of the Gamer” pieces out there, which does little to actually address gamers’ concerns. Gamers railing against “corruption” may be fairly nonsensical, but thought-process in evaluating the transforming audience is a real concern. These are people with concerns that you need to address, and they are tired of the basement-dwelling stereotype.

Game journalism has become less inclusive. I don’t think I’d use the word “corruption,” but there is the sense that game journalists have gotten egregiously caught up in the world of gaming – its glitz and glamor, its access and swag, and yes, even in the discussion of social justice without putting anything truly behind it. It feels surface-level. Reviews seem to toss out vague statements about the poor treatment of women and/or minorities in games without quite understanding why that treatment is so problematic (which is why I appreciate Sarkeesian’s work even if I don’t agree with all of it). Journalists are constantly fickle with their grading systems, the over-enthusiasm of AAA games seem oddly dismissal about such games’ serious short-comings, and the pick-and-choose nature of which indie games are worth looking into wildly random. And yes, perhaps there should be at least some sort of disclosure of which writers, at the individualistic level, are connected with which game companies or services. (Although I don’t think this is as big an issue as Gamergate supporters do, since, as mentioned, most gaming websites have such close connections with gaming companies and services by default.)

But the bigger issue is that wall that game journalists (and, to certain extent, most prominent bloggers and writers in general) have built in front of their fans, which prevents them from seeing the audience and the dialogue around games changing. Sites like Kotaku, IGN, and Destructoid feel increasingly loud and flashy, by design, gearing themselves for the young white (basement-dwelling) male, the very audience that they seem to be actively excluding now (without even bothering to be more inclusive of broader, more diverse audiences). These are sites with few female and minority staff members, sites that have had documented behind-the-scene issues with their staff that seem to go unaddressed.

In addition to some sort of disclosure about writer-to-company connection (which the Vox article does mention is happening), it may be in these sites’ best interest to cool it with the hostility and the “end of the world” declaration on the gaming public (and this Slate article explains why). It may be time for any and all references to that stereotype of “the gamer” as a young, fat, white, basement-dwelling nerdy virgin to be put to rest permanently. It might be time to start a real, close dialogue with the audience, assess games with a more critical eye, explore more investigative pieces, and open up the world of gaming to explore more outlier indie games. And please, for the love of god, stop whining about how hard you have to work while exploring venues like PAX, SDCC, or E3. I don’t think you quite grasp how off-putting that is, particularly in front of an audience that probably will never have a chance to attend.

Journalism can do better. And I will never say that journalists should stop tackling feminist readings of certain games, but we should discuss feminism for a bit first.

V. The problem with modern feminism [and most -isms of today]

Problem_with_Feminism

The above tweet fails to realize that, technically, that is Anita’s goal, and indeed the goal of most feminist readings. It’s not necessarily the point to “see sexism everywhere,” but to have, at least in the back of your mind, a more critical eye when looking at or experiencing media, to question how and why certain roles that women partake in are they way they are. The point of all cultural reviews is to prompt readers to cast a critical eye on the systematic use of coded tropes within the books we read, the movies/TV shows we watch, and the games we play; this is how art, and our culture, advances. There is a line, though.

“SJW,” or “Social Justice Warrior” is a tossed-around term that is usually used to rail against those who are deemed to be for censorship or political correctness via their one-track minded cause. “Social Justice” – and let us be very clear about this – is a good, good thing. SJWs, however, usually refer to the people who uses the cause to aggressively attack the status quo in uncomfortably ways, often missing (and flat-out refusing) any sense of context or inclusiveness. SJWs want a “thing,” and fail to understand how those “things” bring together or connect to other “things.” To SJWs, it’s do-or-die in a real-world war that is constantly trying to destroy the very cause the SJW is rallying for.

I am a feminist. I do worry that feminism is growing… exclusive, though. There have been examples of its dismissiveness of black women and LGBT issues, and there has been coded language tossed about that has implying the dangerousness of black males. Certain well-known feminist sites rally against people like Seth Macfarlane and Daniel Tosh, but then write what could be categorized as an “ironic” take on R. Kelly. Modern feminism also tends to downplay and even joke about subjects like prison rape, homosexual women, and transgendered females. I think its more aggressive advocates do approach SJW levels, absolutely dismissing any and all male assistance, and perhaps get too caught up in the idea of “speaking for all women”. Understand that I believe this only a small percentage of modern feminists, but I think that in the need to feel part of the collective, feminists won’t speak against one (or a few) of their own.

As a feminist, it’s my duty to speak up if and when feminism ignore real, black and/or LGBT feminist voices. (In fact, I did, when I wrote this long tirade against intersectionality). Feminism is a cause that I believe in, and I love that it has been gaining more traction and attention, but I’m very concerned that it is leaving its minority, LGBT, and its male supporters behind. It wouldn’t take much to tackle feminist’s intersectionality problem – more inclusive writers and more observations and analysis of black and minority females in various roles in media, whether in films, TV, or games, would help to open up the issue and give feminism a firmer footing to stand on.

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Given all these issues presented, even though I have my issues with game journalism, I think I tend to be on their side over the Gamergate supporters. I find their approach uncomfortable, engaging in a level of, if not hostility, then forwardness that seems more demanding than revolutionary. Like the Medium and Vox articles imply, it is not clear what exactly Gamergate supporters are aiming for (and I mean a very, very specific demand, as opposed to the nebulous “more accountability in game journalism” mission – how do you do that?). Being that every incident they’re railing against involves a woman’s involvement in games adds to the discomfort; perhaps if there was a male-only journalistic situation that raised eyebrows would I be more receptive to their cause. As it stands, though, it seems that while gamers, game journalists, and feminists have their issues to work through, it is gamers and the supporters of Gamergate that, at the very least, need a very specific goal, something that goes beyond the drive to remove Quinn, Sarkeesian, and Alexander from the field (since they managed to do this to so many other writers), and that goes beyond removing feminist critiques from game journalism, because I REFUSE that notion one hundred percent. I will not be swayed on this.

In either case, there’s a lot to be discussed here, and I’m ready to talk. Is everyone else ready to do the same?

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