Insert Default Title Here… Or Better Yet, Don’t

I’d like to share with you a comic strip I saw on Facebook today. It’s worth a chuckle, and I suspect more than a few gamers will relate to it:

We all know analyzing humor supposedly ruins it, right? If that bothers you, I’d suggest you go read something else, because I’m about to spend a thousand words doing just that. More accurately, I’m going to analyze larger issues that the comic unintentionally brings up. If that bothers you– if you’d rather have your quick chuckle and move on, because Internet– you’re welcome to do so. But I hope you’re willing to stick around, because even the most innocuous comic, or story, or TV commercial, can be the springboard for some more interesting thoughts.

Still with me? Good.

On the Facebook thread, someone commented that the comic portrayed tired stereotypes– men with poor impulse control, women mothering their husbands– and expressed a desire that artists do more to quash that particular gender stereotype.

Hmm, my brain went, it’s just a comic, but y’know, she’s not wrong. Even if it sometimes reflects real life, it’s still a stereotype on display. Still, it’s just a comic. Worth a chuckle, a moment’s reflection, and time to move on, right?

I was prepared to let it go at that, get on with my day, when I noticed a reply from the person who posted the comic: “That’s odd, [name redacted]. I didn’t ‘see’ the gender aspect when I read this. Perhaps you’re reading too much into a joke.”

Oh, snap, my brain went. Oh, now it’s on. Because it’s one thing to disagree with someone, and it’s another to dismiss their argument out of hand.

You’re reading too much into it.

It’s just a joke. Lighten up.

Why are people such crybabies? Get a sense of humor.

Any of these responses (all of which were in the thread, at various points) will get my hackles up faster than a shitty call in a Seahawks playoff game. Every single one is just a way of saying, I don’t want to have this discussion, and I don’t want you to have it either. Go away. Occasionally (as in this case) there’s the bonus, not-subtle implication that the person who brought it up is really the sexist one, for pointing it out. Which is, of course, bullshit.

I’ve blogged about this before, but just because you personally didn’t find something offensive, doesn’t mean that other people are wrong for doing so. In this particular case, the commenter hadn’t even taken offense, just pointed out an old stereotype! The reactions I read were far more disturbing than the initial comic. Which is usually how these debates go, and how an innocuous comment ends up turning the Internet upside down.

It’s just a joke offers the suggestion that humor is not worthy of such discussion– that funny things should get a free pass, because hey, it’s just a joke, right? But that’s insulting in its own way– it belittles the incredible power that humor and satire have in this world. It’s just a joke, right? Tell that to Jonathan Swift. Tell that to critics (and fans) of George Carlin, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. It’s just a joke!

Bullshit. Jokes are powerful things, even when they’re not trying to be. As someone who’s written his fair share of humor stories, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But what about this particular comic? It’s just a cheap Facebook laugh, right? Well, yes.. but maybe not, if you view it in the larger context of our culture.

You see, the artist’s intent was just to tell a lighthearted joke, so most other aspects of the comic got set to “default.” The default assumption in our society is that males are more obsessed with games (and more “childish”) than women are, so that’s what got portrayed.

We’re focusing on the “women in gaming” default, because that’s what the comic is about– but it’s the not the only way the comic portrays the standard cultural default. The woman herself is pretty and blonde, the Star Wars obsessed kid is a boy, and the family’s skin color is white. Basically, everything about this comic that isn’t directly relevant to the punchline is just society’s default assumption.

Switching everything to “default,” when it’s not relevant to what you’re trying to do (or the punchline you’re trying to tell), isn’t necessarily a problem. But a lot of people are sensitive to this particular default right now because it’s one that many people are trying to change. Even if it wasn’t the person’s intent, it’s a default that still subtly encourages the dismissal of women gamers, because it’s not “the norm.” Does the comic by itself do that? No. Is this comic strip one tiny, infinitesimal part of a larger culture that does? Yes.

Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with any of those defaults when viewed on their own– they became the defaults partly because they’re very common in our society, but they also became the defaults because the vast, vast, vast majority of people producing media and pulling the strings of the industry were white men with certain norms and expectations. What was their default became our default. Even in media that isn’t intentionally sexist, those defaults pervade.

Another example where this dynamic is even more obvious is TV and print advertising. It’s the default to have women cleaning the house and taking care of the kids, while men drive trucks, play games and drink beer. When an ad breaks the default, it usually makes the news– for example, the recent Cheerios ad that portrayed an interracial couple, or the Coca-Cola ad that sung America the Beautiful in languages besides English. Those things don’t, on the face of it, seem all that controversial (especially the interracial couple… this is 2014!). Yet it was newsworthy, because it wasn’t the norm.

For an example of a comic strip that avoids defaults well, I’d point to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, which portrays a wide variety of relationships and people, even when “the default” would be good enough to get the punchline across.

As a writer, I’m not saying you have to studiously avoid the default– I’m saying make your choices deliberately. Don’t create your characters in default mode just because you’re lazy. You’re taught to avoid cliches in your sentences, so why use cliches in your characters and their motivations?

And for those of you who think that this is a lot to pull from a single comic– well, yes it is. But it seems to me a discussion worth having, or at least, a discussion worth not shutting down.

Also, for the record, the comic itself is from (Yay for attribution– but that’s a whole other blog post.) It’s a long-running comic with a variety of characters, and seems to do a pretty good job of representing women in gaming overall, and does a fair amount of satirizing stereotypes. So perhaps it’s unfair to take this comic out of context– but that is how it was posted on Facebook (not by the artists, I should add). And I think it’s worse to try to shut down a worthy discussion by belittling people who bring it up, or dismissing their larger concerns with it’s just a joke.

Let’s be clear. It’s not just a joke. It’s never just a joke, even if that’s how it was intended. Context –cultural and personal– is everything. And just because someone does see a slight that you’re privileged enough to be able to ignore– please, try to put yourself in their shoes, if only for a moment. Maybe a day will come when we don’t have to talk about defaults, and when stereotypes aren’t so overused as to be worth noting– but until that day comes, don’t be surprised if you see these discussions crop up in places where you might not expect them to. When that happens, remember Wheaton’s Law.

And if you’re a content creator– be it a writer, artist, video producer, or otherwise– remember, don’t be lazy and pick the default, just because you can.

A Weekend Among the Gamers

Over Labor Day Weekend, geekdom was split in three. Gamers flocked here to Seattle for the Penny Arcade Expo. Sci-fi & fantasy writers, artists, and fans met in Chicago for the World Science Fiction Convention (and the associated Hugo Awards). And nerds and geeks of all stripes partied and drank their way across downtown Atlanta for Dragon*Con (aka Nerdy Gras). Three awesome events, and sadly, only time to go to one– but which?

Regular readers of this blog (all six of you) know that I’ve been to Dragon*Con each of the last several years, and had a blast every time. But Atlanta is a long, expensive way away from Seattle. PAX, on the other hand, is a mere seven blocks from my apartment. On the other other hand, most of my writer friends (and many of my favorite authors) were planning to be in Chicago for WorldCon.

I had pretty much decided to stay home and try out PAX this year, but then all umpty thousand PAX tickets sold out in less than one day. I considered Dragon*Con and WorldCon, but was reluctant to commit to the money. Registration, hotel, and airfare add up to a lot, and ironically, money is tighter this year than last, even though I actually have a job now. Financial responsibility sucks sometimes.

Thus, last week, I was thinking I wouldn’t make it to any convention. And, well, I did have an idea for a new story and could maybe get some writing done… it would be a chance to enjoy a relaxing weekend, and really, who needs all the hassle of rushing around a busy, crowded convention anyway?

Then, last Thursday, I learned from a good friend that she knew someone who was trying to get rid of some extra PAX passes.


Yep, soon I had my hands on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday day passes for PAX. The story idea would have to wait a little longer.

If numbers are to be believed, PAX is the largest convention I’ve ever been to, by a wide margin (70,000 vs 46,000 for Dragon*Con). Cons of that size are so large that it’s hard to tell from an on-the-ground perspective, but PAX did feel like it was the most crowded convention I’ve been to, and that’s saying a lot– the Expo floor, which is a huge, sprawling space, was completely packed all the time.

For all that, it was also probably the most organized convention I’ve ever been to, thanks in large part to the efforts of the blue-shirted PAX enforcers. They were omnipresent, and always helpful– they organized lines and panels with ease, kept us entertained while we waited (for full context, imagine Gangnam Style being played in the photo on the right), and were always happy to answer questions. At other cons I’ve gotten lost, or confused by the schedule, at PAX I never had to worry about that in the slightest, because there was always an Enforcer nearby who knew the answer. To be a combination cat herder/fountain of knowledge/spontaneous entertainer is a tall order, but somehow they managed it.

I have to admit, I’m not much of a gamer. I haven’t really been one since World of Warcraft consumed a large chunk of my life a few years back. Since then, I’ve kept my distance from video games in general. It’s not that I think they aren’t fun, it’s just that I don’t want to get sucked into spending large chunks of time on them. I have a hard enough time getting my writing done as it is (case in point: this weekend).

Nevertheless, PAX was fun. I spent most of my time wandering around, seeing what there was to see, and taking pictures of costumes– as I usually do at such events. PAX isn’t as heavy on the cosplay as Dragon*Con, but there were still some excellent costumes around.

The biggest difference between PAX and other conventions is the Expo Hall. There is a lot of work, preparation, and above all, money behind the Expo– massive corporate displays put together by some of the industry’s biggest players, both in the software and hardware realm: Nintendo, Square, Microsoft, Sony, Nvidia, Intel, and plenty of smaller players who nevertheless put together massive booths (perhaps “realms” is a better word, given their size) to promote upcoming games. In addition to providing space for people to play said games, huge murals and diorama-like displays were everywhere. These weren’t booths, they were movie sets. For someone who’s used to literary conventions, with struggling writers, artists, and independent vendors sitting at fairly spartan tables, the sheer amount of money that had to go into something like PAX is a bit mind-boggling. Even larger fan cons, like Emerald City Comicon and Dragon*Con, have nothing on the Expo Floor at PAX.

For me, it was both fascinating, and also kind of a turn-off. I think I’d rather wander through a floor full of writers or comic artists at their own tables, selling their own stuff, than an expo floor that’s been transformed by marketing budgets. I know there are lots of indie game developers out there (many of them were at PAX, and some had pooled their resources into a large indie gaming booth), and game developers are, by and large, every bit as passionate about developing games as writers and artists are about their own creations. Certainly gamers are just as passionate about their hobbies as sci-fi & fantasy literature fans are about theirs. But the main thing PAX brought home to me is that video games are very much an industry,and a much bigger one than either publishing or comics (at least, publishing on the scale that I usually see it). PAX was so different from the cons I usually go to that even as I write this, I’m still suffering from a bit of culture shock. Fun culture shock, mind you, but just… wow.

There was other fun stuff happening, too. At each PAX there’s an Omegathon, in which 20 contestants compete through six rounds, each round featuring a different game– they could be board games, video games, or otherwise. In the last round, the final two players go head to head in a mystery game, which isn’t revealed until the contestants are on stage. This year, a Twitter friend and writerly acquaintance, geardrops, was one of the contestants, so I attended the Omegathon rounds, took pictures, and cheered. She lasted until Round 5 (see the giant bananagrams on the left). Alas, they were knocked out by the other team, who were (in my opinion, as an avid Bananagrams player) entirely too willing to resort to two-letter scrabble words. But a win is a win, and a loss is a loss. Still a good show all around.

I also went to panels. Some of them appealed to me because they touched on aspects of writing that I’ve seen at other cons, but from a video gaming perspective (how to create good villains, how to build your world, and so on). By and large I didn’t go to those. I also went to some of the more activist-type panels; there was one on Wil Wheaton’s law, i.e. “Don’t be a dick,” and how we can discourage shitty behavior in online games. This has always been a problem, in online games, on the Internet, and even in the broader fan community– in fact, it was Gabe of Penny Arcade who coined the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. Some day soon I may do a separate post on that whole subject; there’s been a lot of discussion on harassment and bullying in the geek community, and I’m tempted to add my two cents.

But by far the greatest panel (in fact, one of the best I’ve been to at any con) was the NASA panel. Several NASA engineers on the Mars Curiosity project were on hand to do a wide-ranging panel which touched on a variety of subjects, including free online games that allow people to interact with and learn about the current Mars mission, as well as future robotic control systems that may be inspired by gaming technology, and all the way to future exploration, in which gamers might one day step into a holodeck-like and be immersed in a 3D environment, as if we were right there with our robot avatars on other planets. The last ten minutes of the panel were as inspiring as anything I’ve ever seen at any con, ever. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it yourself (you can watch the whole panel if you want, but for the best part, skip ahead to 1h8m). The future they paint is very exciting indeed.

I have to admit, there is one thing I didn’t do at PAX, and that’s actually play any games. I was too busy doing everything else: touring the expo floor, attending panels, watching the Omegathon, going to the evening concerts, being blown away by NASA. Maybe if I go back next year, I’ll have time to dig a little deeper.

Although I have to admit, I missed Dragon*Con this year. And I would very much like to be back in Atlanta next Labor Day Weekend. But PAX was certainly impressive.

To see the full set of pics from PAX, click on the lovely face below: