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Santiaga for Senate

I happened to be visiting Portland on the weekend that the official website of the Maine Republican Party put a lot of energy into mocking Colleen Lachowicz, a state senate candidate, for playing World of Warcraft. The story became literal front-page news of the October 5 Portland Press Herald, so that the toothy green face of “Santiaga”, Lachowicz’s orcish in-game persona, grinned from within every nearby newspaper kiosk.

Among the many surprising upsets and turnarounds that happened through state and local ballots in the shadow of Tuesday’s presidential election, nestled among sudden groundbreaking advances for women and gay rights, came the conclusion of this story: the mockery seems to have backfired, and Lachowicz won the election, unseating incumbent state senator Tom Martin. (Her support came largely from Waterville, my own fond home for several years post-college.)

I’ve seen some on Twitter stating proudly that Lachowicz represents a first for gamers or WoW-players in state politics, which I would be willing to wager isn’t really true, among American representatives in general or Maine’s senate in particular. More true is that this is the first time I recall seeing gameplay among (potential) American office-holders becoming so overtly politicized, and therefore becoming part of the conversation, even if only over the relatively small stage of a Maine state senate seat.

I find myself at least as interested, though, in how this story has given the lie to the bogeyman, which we like to rattle occasionally before our Facebook-addled youth, that a life lived online can only come back to haunt you later. Here we had a troublemaking entity literally mailing out colorful fliers pull-quoting Lachowicz posting gleefully on message boards about poisons and stabbing (Santiaga is an 85th-level rogue, you know), attempting paint her as a silly fool or perhaps a dangerous maniac. Not only did that not hurt her, but it might very well have helped her win.

Generation-X member Lachowicz is on the leading edge of younger citizens, digitally apt and fully enmeshed in online cultures — including games — who begin to hear the call to run for public office. There will follow countless more after her, in this country and others. To the swelling ranks of postmillenials now becoming politically active, I say this: may xkcd 137 forever serve as a shining beacon. Have courage, say what you mean, and make the change you want to see. And don’t stop playing.

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"This is our normal. How do we get better?"

Amidst certain troubling things I’ve lately read, I found welcome succor in Erin Kissane’s article “How to Kill a Troll”. It responds to the deeply disturbing harrassment of feminist game-and-culture critic Anita Sarkeesian, and more specifically to the confusion and anger that overwhelms those engaging online hate head-on, only to spill over and stick to bystanders like me just trying to make sense of it.

I am so far from having an answer, but I have a suspicion that counterattacks are not working. It’s worthwhile to cover horrible things like the attacks on Sarkeesian and Penny Red and so many others because doing so can help uncommitted or passive readers understand and defend against this behavior. But as cathartic and entertaining as it might be, skewering trolls and attacking jerks is never going to change their minds. Putting people on the defensive only hardens their positions.

When it comes to actually changing minds, I think we’re stuck with love.

Recognizing the humanity of people who do awful things is one of the core challenges of being human. (We have enough trouble recognizing it even in people who are like us.) But it’s the only way out. Even when the worst trolls are beyond visible redemption, the way we handle them is visible to so many others who are still capable of feeling empathy or recognizing pain or changing their minds.

These chilling events have shone a light on a pervasive sickness within the enormous and important online culture around videogames, and I have read no article that more eloquently diagnoses this illness and begins to prescribe a medicine more subtle than mere shoveback. Please go read the whole thing.

I believe that our civilization continuously lurches, in fits and starts and occasional backslides, in an overall correct direction. Before Sarkeesian launched her Kickstarter project, I would observe the swollen comments sections in sites like Hacker News on every article dealing with online sexism, and think: well, the lines have now advanced that far. History rolls on, and those caught on the wrong side of it do tend to get pretty loud. But they’ll eventually come to the light — or get pushed to the sad, dim fringe of insistent ignorance — and we will all move on, once again.

But the volume and intensity of hate directed at this one particular critic and creator surprised me. Even though I take care to not usually identify as a “gamer”, this violence felt very close to home. Between the countless threatening comments and that disgusting game made in response to her work, I felt as if a mob had smashed up a business in my neighborhood in broad daylight, and then brashly signed their names to it, smug in their sureness that society tacitly agreed with them. Like something from the troubled past, something perhaps captured in a black-and-white newsreel during less enlightened times. Retrograde. Its audacity stunned me, and led me to question my confidence.

As Kissane writes, most of us don’t choose to to wade in and engage directly with the faceless hordes of online ignorance, and that’s OK. But it still behooves all of us to have a sober understanding of the problem, and feel a little more prepared to do what we can to help nudge our culture forward.

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Not knowing "no", in Dragon Age and elsewhere

Alex Feinman writes a very insightful analysis on the cultural assumptions and pressures that caused the “Straight Male Gamer” to feel threatened when his male player-character in Dragon Age received come-ons from other men. Even though the game prominently offers the choice to turn these offers down, Alex argues, that player’s culture lacks adequate training — especially for boys — on gracefully rejecting benign-but-unwanted advances.

So now that poor, helpless gamer is stuck in quite a conundrum. He doesn’t want to fuck this man. But he doesn’t know how to say no in this situation. He doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know—he just knows that he feels trapped. He can’t even see the problem. So it must be the fault of the rejected—that’s the pattern he knows.

This pattern is writ large in our society. “You can’t let a woman ask a man to dance! What if he doesn’t want to?” We mostly learned that one already. “You can’t have gays in the military—what if one of them comes on to a Marine?” Gee, I guess then the Marine has to learn how to say no, in a way that doesn’t harm unit cohesion. “You can’t have interracial marriages—it makes me feel icky. What if a black woman asked me out?” Well, maybe you should date her. Or maybe you should say no in a manner that doesn’t upset her. “You can’t let fat people think they’re sexual human beings who deserve to live! What if—”

It’s everywhere.

Bonus reading: via Twitter, Adam Cadre points out a relevant excerpt from the webcomic Bad Machinery.

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