The Nerdom Hierarchy

As with most things I’m writing about lately, this is something that’s been on my mind but only recently have I decided I should write about it.  Today’s musings come courtesy of an experience I had yesterday that made me start rethinking the ideas of the Nerd Hierarchy.

We nerds/geeks/dorks pride ourselves on our individuality.  It’s our hallmark.  We are different and darn it, we own it.  No nerves or self-consciousness here, baby.  But it gets complicated when we go walk among others like us.  We’d think that because we place so much emphasis on our individuality that we’d be accepting of all who are individuals.  And yet we’re not.  Put a bunch of nerds together, and we’re as petty and clique-y as anyone else.  It’s disappointing, because I’d love to think that nerds would happily embrace other nerds as kindred spirits, and yet like any other person or group of people that acceptance is conditional.

To start off, I don’t really, personally, differentiate between nerds, geeks, and dorks.  However, I might be alone there.  A google search for Nerd vs. Geek turns up a veritable feast of images.  The general consensus is that geeks like technology, t-shirts, gaming, and movies.  Nerds are more academic, and into sci-fi and role-playing.  Further examination shows that geeks can assimilate into society better than nerds, but neither really cares if they do or don’t.  So what happens if you fit both profiles?  What do you then call yourself?  For a person who prides herself on not sticking into on category, when society tries to categorize me, it’s frustrating.  It’s even more frustrating when geek/nerd/dork society tries to do it.

Thus is born a hierarchy in our world.  My first experience with the hierarcy was going to ICON on Long Island, a large convention at Stonybrook University catering to fans of fantasy, sci-fi, anime, gaming, costuming, and the like.  I was fortunate that my best friend and her now-husband were part of the staff, so I got to be, as well.  I learned a lot of backstage information and con shop-talk.  But it was also my first exposure to the concept of the hierarchy that exists in our subculture.  ICON has an Anthropomorphic track, colloquially referred to as “Furries”.  And I learned that in general at these sorts of things, people who like large animals that act like humans are generally at the bottom of the barrel.  Most other con-goers would avoid them and though the con provided programming for them, it was limited and there was no desire to expand it.

As I reestablished my love of gaming, I became aware of more prejudice within the community.  One could not simply be a gamer.  How one gamed had to be taken into consideration.  PC vs. console gaming was a big factor.  Generally because you can do more on a PC, it’s considered superior.  But console gaming definitely has its place.  Why does it matter if I’m shooting my way through zombies in Left 4 Dead with a controlleror a keyboard?  And then there’s other gaming: card, tabletop, and the like.  I was just learning to play Magic, when I picked up the subtle cues that Magic is sometimes considered a “lesser” game, and those who play it may be subjected to head shakes, face palms, and general pity.

The big question with both scenarios is why.  If people like big humanoid animals (or like being big humanoid animals), why does that automatically grant them the short end of the stick in terms of programming at a con?  If people prefer consoles over PCs, why should that make them any less of a gamer?  And why should people who play card games face scrutiny based on the type of card game they’re playing?  Isn’t the entire point of being unabashed nerds/geeks/dorks to embrace our individuality and appreciate it for what it is?

Sadly, that’s the ideal, and we know full well in our world that the ideal is one achievement we’ll never add to our gamer score.  The reality is that we’re human, and as humans we look at things that are different and that we don’t understand, and we automatically categorize them and assign a value of good or bad based on either our preferences or our understanding of those things.  If I prefer PC gaming, consoles must be bad.  If I don’t understand Furries, they must be bad.  I think Magic is silly, so it’s bad.  Nevermind that the people who are engaging in those things are people like us, and more importantly, are peole who have decided to embrace their individuality and own it.  Just like us.

I saw this in action yesterday when I went to Birka.  It’s a large-scale market put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism.  It is an “Organisation dedicated to researching and recreating pre-17th century European history”.  Yesterday I saw a lot of peasants, nobles, and knights.  There were people in full armor walking around like it was completely normal (because there, it was).  I watched fencing and melee battles.  The hotel where it was held even had a roasted pig as part of the luncheon you could purchase.  Birka is primarily a market, but the SCA does all sorts of things where you can camp out and engage in non-modern activity for a day or even a week or two.

Now, I’m used to going to cons where your garb is a costume, but there are SCA members whose attendance at these things is an entirely different persona that exists in pre-17th century Europe.  It’s awesome, and I’d probably get in trouble from the hierarchy by calling it another form of roleplaying, but that’s how I look at it.  Now me, I have ‘garb’.  I love wearing it, but when I do, I’m still 21st century JayRain in a Medieval/Renaissance dress.  So naturally I brought my camera.  I’d read the rules on the Birka website and the only one I’d seen was that we had to be dressed appropriately, which I was.  There was a lot to take in, and I’d seen something interesting in the lobby and decided to take a picture of it.  In doing so I committed a major SCA faux-pas.

The woman at the table (who wasn’t in the picture) said, “Ma’am you need to ask before taking pictures.”  I was incredibly chagrined, because in my mind it was a compliment to her that I thought her display was cool enough to warrant a photo.  So I asked if she’d like me to delete it.  She said “Yes.”  And that was it.  No please, no thank you.  When I brought it up to two of my friends who do these events on a regular basis, one said she probably should have told me in advance that it’s proper form to ask before photographing anything or anyone (and her husband helpfully added in that yes, some people here can be real jerks about stuff).  And the reasoning wasn’t artistic license or anything like that, but the fact that even though we were in a hotel, watching the news while waiting for our burgers and fries to arrive, some members look down upon technology being present at events.  Capturing the memories of the events photographically is a no-no, and cell phones are bad.  Some people take these things so seriously that they become ‘garb nazis’, who are attentive to every detail: if your gown is 13th century but your cloak design is 15th century, and your knickers are briefs made of cotton and elastic (aka 21st century), you don’t belong.

I totally understand the desire to recreate something and be a part of a large-scale event surrounded by others who share that same love.  But when the hierarchy kicks in and it comes down to who’s “serious” about it versus who’s merely “having fun with it” it’s… well…not fun to be a part of it for some people.  I know that the purpose of the SCA is to research and recreate that era of European history, and I don’t fault them for their mission or those who strictly adhere to it.  But I know myself, and know that while I’ll go to Birka again to see all the awesome stuff, I’ll go with different expectations, and I won’t be joining the SCA anytime soon.  Or ever.  And because I constantly feel the need to clarify myself and apologize, I know I was in the wrong, and I know now that the SCA operates completely differently from a con; I know that my expectations were wrong.  I think what they do is wonderful, and it’s very important when it comes to keeping history alive.  And I also know that it’s just not for me.

What is for me, however, is PAX East.  I went for the first time last year, and I saw what is, in my mind, what nerd culture is meant to be.  For one weekend thousands of gamers of all sorts descended upon Boston and just loved gaming.  Our swag bags had mini playable decks of Magic cards so we could play Magic with strangers while waiting in line.  One huge room had consoles from the past that could be played, while another was a Call of Duty and Halo Reach tournament room.  The Classic Arcade Museum brought their retro arcade machines and let us play for free as long as we wanted.  For one weekend PC, console, card, and tabletop gamers came together and just loved gaming and one another.

Yes, there were people in epic full costumes, but they didn’t look down on those without costumes.  We could talk about shooters and RPGs without worrying if one was better than the other.  We platform to our hearts’ content, go get lunch, listen to a talk about how games are assisting the disabled, and then go down on the floor and try the demos that various developers were showing.  There wasn’t any of the segregation or snobbery I’d seen at other cons, where the anime loves stick together and the gamers go somewhere else… no PC gamers avoiding console or card gamers here!  For 48 hours I experienced the ideal in nerd culture.  And interestingly enough, PAX is the Latin word for peace.

Now I’m sure people who’ve been to PAX East or PAX Prime will tell me that it does exist, and I will accept that as truth.  Just because one experience contradicts my own doesn’t make it false, after all.  But what would the nerd world be like if instead of our differences we just accepted our similarities, even if our only similarity is the fact that we are proud do be individuals that don’t conform to the norm?  Even if we can’t forget the labels of geek or nerd or dork, could we stop trying to force one another into those categories, and just be?

In Defense of Fanfiction

As a writer and a geek, it goes without saying that I’ve dabbled… okay, more than dabbled in fanfiction.  At one point I thought that once I started in on my original work in earnest I’d set aside fanfiction in favor of my loftier goals.  Now with my MFA under my belt and armed with the tools to get out there and make that work I find that I’m actually writing more fanfiction.  And if I feel like I get strange looks or polite nods when I say I write speculative fiction, I get them even more when I admit to writing fanfiction.

Urbandictionary defines fanfiction thus:

A piece of fiction within a fandom utilizing characters and situations from a pre-existing work including (but not limited to) books, television programs, films, and comic strips.

Typically separated into het, slash, and general genres. Often used to play out AU scenarios and/or various romantic pairings not found in the original work.

Distributed via mailing lists, blogs, and zines. Heavily archived online

Fanfiction raises some interesting issues for writers.  First and foremost, we can’t make money off of it.  For writers who write to pay the bills, it makes sense to eschew fanfiction.  Intellectual Property laws forbid us from selling our work; our only payment for fanfiction is self-satisfaction, wish fulfillment, and if we’re lucky, fans of our work reviewing.  Second, it’s not our material.  To quote bearonthecouch, “[they] built the sandbox; I just play in it.”  The world, many of the characters, the settings?  They all were created by someone else and someone else gets to make the ultimate calls and ultimately the money off of it.  So why would a writer want to write fanfiction?  And, does all of this mean that fanfiction is a lesser form of writing?

Looking back at my past and what I was like growing up, I think I was writing fanfiction as early as third and fourth grade.  We had young authors’ day back then, where we spent a unit learning how to write stories, and then the culmination was writing it out in our best handwriting, getting it plastic-spiral bound, and displaying it.  Fourth grade was the height of my Legend of Zelda love.  My best friend and I had storylines and original characters.  Well, I did, she always played Zelda or wrote about Zelda.  My story was about my original character in the Zeldaverse trying to save the day, while harboring unrequited love for Link.  Oh the angst (and I was only 10). 

I remember that most of the other kids’ stories were original and because a lot of them didn’t know about Zelda, or weren’t into it the way I was, my story didn’t get a lot of hits.  It was disappointing, but a good early lesson for an aspiring fanfiction writer.

I began writing fanfiction in earnest when I finished with my BA in English back in 2002.  I’d discovered Lord of the Rings that year, and shortly after started in on Harry Potter.  At that time the latter series ended with book 4, with a promised book 5 on the horizon but nowhere in sight.  I wanted to know what happened; I wanted to speculate; I wanted to see what other people thought.  In short?  I discovered fanfiction.net.

Fanfiction.net, or FF.net, is I think what generally gives fanfiction as a genre, and fanfiction authors a bad name.  It’s nice because anyone can post there, but it’s not nice because anyone can post there.  The site is so huge there’s no real way to enforce quality of work, so visitors to the site often run into stories with poor grammar and spelling and ill-conceived, iller-executed plots.  When this is coupled with the general attitude that fanfiction is ‘lesser’ writing because it’s not original, it’s natural that fanfiction gets a bad name for itself.  It takes a discerning mind and patient attitude to sift through the chaff in order to find those rare kernels of well-done writing.  And when you do, it’s worth the time and effort you took.  You learn to be more discerning.  But in our society of instant gratification, few are willing to put such time and effort into something like finding a story that will be well-written and appeal to their tastes.

There are those gems on the site that are on par with, if not better than the original work.  There are authors who gather a huge following due to their talent and grasp of the material.  There’s work that’s silly, work that’s bad but the author really tried and meant well.  It runs the gammut.  And a lot of authors are willing to be in that gammut because, plain and simple, they’re writing for the love of the fandom and of writing itself.

I tried to explain fanfiction to some coworkers once.  Though they were skeptical about the whole thing, especially about why writers would write about someone else’s work while knowing full well they’d never get paid and it’d never go anywhere, they did listen.  One asked if fanfiction/fanon ever makes it into canon, and saw that it might be useful for the owners of the original IP.  One said, “It’s just practice writing then, right?”

Both arguments have given me pause on a regular basis.  Currently on the BioWare Social Network boards (BSN), there ae those of us who entered a Dragon Age short story contest and are nervously awaiting the results.  Some have suggested that it would be really cool if the writers took some of the concepts from entries and made them codex entries or side quests in future game installments.  The argument arose that perhaps if that occurred BioWare would have to make reparation for using our ideas; however, since we’re writing about their intellectual property in the first place, they don’t really owe us anything.

And somehow that led to the discovery of a very interesting now-scandal.  Apparently there was a DA fanfiction that had a large following.  The writer of it allegedly even sent it to David Gaider asking for it to be published under the auspices of EA/BioWare, which he naturally refused.  Shortly thereafter it appeared on Amazon.com as a downloadable Kindle book, though it was ‘original fiction’.  As fans looked into it, it became painfully clear that it was a case of “find/replace” with the names of people, places, and things.  That wouldn’t have been too bad, but when called out on it the author insisted she’d never heard of nor played Dragon Age.  Even when confronted with evidence that she wrote the fanfiction first, she denied everything.  Now David Gaider himself is involved and there’s a huge discussion going on on the BSN boards about it.

It brings up the point about fanfiction being “practice” writing for people who want to be “real” writers.  Only I wonder, does it have to be?  Even if we’re using others’ IP we still have to craft our own story utilizing those parameters.  One of the things Gaider mentioned in a respose to a review was whether or not fanfiction translated to original fiction was a good idea; he gracefully said it was up to the readers of the work to decide, and it was clear his stance was against the denial of plagiarism.  The idea brought me to this blog post and brought me to some thoughts about my own history with fan and original fiction writing.

Since I’ve been out of grad school for almost three years now and my thesis passed, I have no problem admitting that Seven of Wands started life as a Harry Potter fanfiction.  I’d belonged to an RP that was original characters only, and we had some good storylines going.  I crafted my character and her backstory, and we had a lot of fun playing in that sandbox.  I decided it’d be interesting to write her story from beginning to where it ended in the RP.  I posted it on ff.net where it was largely white noise, but that was fine because I enjoyed writing it, which was the important thing to me.  But when I wanted to write a sequel in roughly 2005/2006, I thought that maybe if I was going to spend so much time with these characters I could try fitting them into my own world.  The more work I did the more the world built itself, and I had a sequel that was very original and bore little resemblance to the Harry Potter world of the fanfiction-first novel.  And when I thought to go back and rewrite the original, I wound up being in grad school.

In my case fanfiction was a means to an end, but even though I have an original novel written and in the process of queries and such I’m by no means done with fanfiction.  When I discovered Dragon Age, its emphasis on story and character gripped me so much that I couldn’t help but dive back into fanfiction again after a five year hiatus.  I think it was just a matter of finding a fandom that I felt comfortable writing in.  But also, I’ve found that just because it’s fanfiction, I don’t slack off.  I put as much effort into the writing craft in my fanfiction as I do my original.  Why?  Because in both cases I’m writing for a public audience, and they deserve my best work.  It’s about integrity as a writer.

While fanfiction can help aspiring writers improve, it’s not just practice writing.  It can be a means to an end, but it can be an end in and of itself.  Just because it’s fanfiction doesn’t mean that the story has to suffer, or tenets of writing can be ignored.  Just because we’re not making money off of it, nay we can’t make money off of it, doesn’t mean that as writers we aren’t bound by our integrity and duty to our audiences to give the best we have to offer.  And it doesn’t mean that fanfiction as a form of writing should be disparaged.  There’s as much good fanfiction out there as there is bad original fiction.  It takes talent to tell a good story, and to tell it well, whether that story is original or not.

Quick Thought: What’s up with “society’s standards”?

I think I’m going to explore this a little more in a multi-part series of posts: what is up with society’s standards?  Who imposes them, and why do we as individuals put so much stock in them when trying to decide who we are?  While there are some things that are generally socially unacceptable, a lot of things that get snubbed or shunned are generally harmless and are a part of a person’s creative expression.  I’ve always been an individual, and rarely have I put much stock into what society thinks I should do with my life or personality.  The more I look at the world, and the more I settle into myself and become comfortable being this person (it’s a long, ongoing process), the more I wonder about these things.

Some ideas I’d like to explore:

1. Standards of beauty/body image. 

2. Standards of entertaining oneself

There are probably more, but those were the ones that have been flitting about my brain and catching the attention of my attentively deficient curiosity.  Basically, I want to know not so much where these ‘standards’ come from or how/why they became ‘standard’, but more like… why should I really care about them?

Quite a bit of the feedback I’ve been getting is from people who are individuals and not afraid to be so.  It’s really encouraging to know that there are people out there who don’t care what the world thinks or says, and aren’t afraid to be themselves.  So thank you for the feedback thus far, and hopefully I can continue to be pleasantly cynical about said topics.

But I Want to Play With Toys!

Tonight my friend MLHawke posted a motherly confession: that she enjoyed playing with her daughter, Kender’s, toys.  That got me to thinking and I realized that I have made forays into Toys ‘R Us, or through the toy section of the local Target.  I have looked at toys and hoped people think I’m looking for a gift for a child.  The reality is I look at some of these toys and wish it wouldn’t be perceived as sketchy for me to buy them for myself.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do buy some toys for myself.  I have a large collection of Harry Potter Legos; this summer I purchased the Hagrid’s Hut set from the Lego Store.  I have action figures, and for a time was known for the LOTR figures on my car’s dashboard (RIP Nerdmobile).  I have stuffed zombies.  And we all know I have gaming consoles that get frequent use.  But why is it strange for adults to want to play with toys?

Not going to lie, today’s toys are pretty cool.  In a world where toys compete with television and videogames for kids’ attention and imaginations, the toys work to step it up.  Some toys I don’t understand, and probably never will given that I’m not a child.  But there are some toys I see and my imagination goes haywire.  I think how cool it might be to play with them, and then make sure no one sees me thinking about it:

It brings me back to being a child.  When I was young we didn’t have iPods or iPhones or smartphones… or heck even cell phones that we were constantly glued to.  I had Nintendo that I played fairly frequently, but I also read a lot, and above all, I had toys.  I played with Legos; I had model dinosaurs; and while I had Barbies and did play some typical Barbie roleplaying with my best friend, we (and I alone) also played with our dolls and made costumes out of existing clothes so they matched the images of made up heroines we’d created.  My first official fandom was Legend of Zelda, and looking back now with my older, wiser, nerdier eyes, I see that what she and I were doing was writing fanfiction and creating original characters, as well as roleplaying.

Playing with toys forced me to use my imagination and become creative.  And because of some of the elements of play that we involved, I think it was also integral to forming who I am as a nerd today.  We saw our dolls through being typical teenagers… or characters in the Zelda setting… or with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Or any other scenario.  It made me act, made me think, made me be creative with what I had.  I was always grateful that I was able to learn to entertain myself, and I think my parents were, too.

Plus, my toys were cool.  I had Legos.  I loved my Legos.  To this day I sometimes wonder what happened to all of them.  One year between my brother and me we had the entire Lego Ice Planet series.  That was my space year, seventh grade I think.  Prior to that, I was totally obsessed with horses (which may be why I reload to save my horse.)  Oh, I had Lego horses.  The first Lego horse I had was brown, and came in a small set with a stable to build.  And you’d better believe my dolls had horses.  My favorite was this one:

The corral, the cardboard diorama, all the plastic grooming devices… they were epic in my mind.  I asked my mom for some instant potato flakes to keep in the feed bucket, and would fill the trough with water.  I would also use my brother’s Lincoln Logs to create jumping courses for my horses.  Hedges, oxers, double oxers… I read a lot about showing and horses in general, so I knew about jump courses.  Building them was a huge source of fun for me.  I had the Blinking Beauty horse in the picture; if you “pet” her mane, she blinked and had these long eyelashes.  But later on I also got another horse that went with another doll set.  This horse had legs jointed at the knees and fetlocks, and the head moved up and down with a neck joint.  It also came with a riding outfit for the doll.  Now that? Was AWESOME.

Evidently those were some very important and formative elements of my childhood.  I openly confess to still looking at doll horses and fondly recalling the days when it was okay to spend my time letting my imagination roam free and manifest in dressing up my dolls and taking my toy horses through their fake paces over Lincoln Log jumps.  And when people like my friend say they want to play with their child’s toys I don’t laugh or scoff, I agree. 

People are quick to point out a standard about what it is to be grown up.  Pay your bills, live on your own, find a relationship, get married, have kids, don’t get married… and when it comes to having fun the standard becomes very interesting to look at, especially if you’re like me and your definition of fun doesn’t coincide with “their” definition.  In one episode of How I Met Your Mother, Marshall and Lily decide they need to have grown up fun, so they have people over for a wine tasting.  The episode plays up the dull nature of things until both hosts finally escape through the bathroom window and meet their friends, leaving the “grown ups” waiting for the wine to breathe.

Of course knowing what those characters are like, it’s funny.  But there are people like the “grown ups” who do find wine tasting enjoyable, and I don’t fault them for it at all.  I appreciate that that’s where they find entertainment, even if it’s not for me.  For me fun is making costumes; dressing up; walking around in public in a Medieval dress or like a zombe.  It’s playing D&D every week and video games in between and doing things that stimulate my imagination.  And I’d appreciate not being faulted for my definition of fun.  We’re all different, and age shouldn’t be a factor. 

In the end, I don’t buy the cool toys, mostly because I don’t have the extra money or room.  But I do have my Legos, I do have an army of MegaBlocks Spartans from their Halo collection, and I do have two Halo Reach Spartan action figures.  I will probably play some xbox when I finish writing this.  Hey, my bills are paid and my work is done; I’m going to play with my toys!

Gaming Confessions: I reload to save my horse

The other night I was on my way to perform an assassination when a dragon attacked (cool story, bro).  I whipped out my bow and began tracking that thing through the skies, and letting loose a volley whenever it came close enough to hit.  When it landed I fired arrow after arrow at it and occasionally got caught in its fireballs.  No big deal, because I just used the time when it was flying to use my healing spells.  Its health was down to nearly nothing when…

My horse attacked it.

Now, I appreciate the fact my horse wants to get involved, however, she doesn’t wear armor, and her only weapons are her hooves.  Throughout the course of my current Skyrim playthrough she’s run off cliffs, been set on fire, and eaten by wild sabre cats and dragons.  I find myself wishing I could engage tactics and set them to tell my horse to STAY PUT.  I can’t, so she dies.  And you know what?

I reload my last save and replay that part to result in my horse’s survival.

I did reload several times when the nearly dead dragon killed my horse.  I’d like to think there are practical reasons behind it: a new horse costs 1000 gold, and since I make most of my money from theivery and sneaking about, I’d rather not go drop 1000 gold on the nearest horse when my current one is only dead because of its own stupidity (or mine, when I run it off a cliff by accident).  But the real reason is that I’m a sap.

Yes, my horse is mere pixels, but darn it, those pixels have carried my Nord all over Skyrim in the search to max out skills and lead every covert outfit in the country!  What show of gratitude is there in just leaving it to rot at the bottom of a ravine?  What thanks is there in leaving its horsey corpse to decay next to the skeleton of the dragon it was too stupid to engage with its hooves, only to be pwn’d by fire breath?  Right, there is none.  So I will reload and save my horse, thanks.

I began to seriously think about this when, at one point I got into a pretty unfairly stacked fight with a dragon and some wolves and bandits.  I left my horse where I thought she would be safe, and began to traverse the area slicing up bandits who got too close while I was waiting for that dragon to come into sight so I could switch to arrows.  I heard a whinny and up on a grassy ridge, my horse was fighting off wolves and the dragon.  Naturally I raced to the horse’s aid, the dragon took off… and so did my stupid horse.  I wound up going miles out of the way to a watchtower, killing the dragon from up there, and when I went back I couldn’t find my horse.  I fast-traveled to Whiterun (and when you fast-travel, your horse goes with you).  My horse didn’t come with me, so I could only assume she was dead.

But there was no way I was going to replay that whole battle.  It was insane, and not worth my time.  I sighed and went to the stables to talk to the owner about a new horse.  Oddly enough, the horse for sale looked a lot like my dearly departed one.  And when I spoke with the owner, everything he said pretty much confirmed that it was the exact same horse.  So I gladly parted with my 1000 gold and figured having to re-buy the same horse was the horse’s version of sticking it to the man.  Only it was sticking it to me, with a reminder not to let it die again. 

Do I overthink these things?  Obviously.  I will be the first to admit that I do.  But why is is that I can go assassinate NPCs and wipe out legions of Markarth city guards and only feel slight qualms… but when my horse dies I have to reload and make sure it survives?  To be fair, with the guards I’m pretty nonconfrontational and try to sneak around them until they attack me.  So it’s self-defense.  At least, that’s what my Nord tells himself to sleep better at night.  And though I looked at the contradictory idea of the Chosen One being a jerk in an early post, it really is just a game; I personally wouldn’t go off killing city guards if my IRL city had guards, just because they ticked me off.

I think it comes down to the idea that there is a bond between people and pets.  And yes, that I am a sap.  Horses are personable animals and highly intelligent.  Yet they bear our weight and the weight of our gear; they pull plows, they jump over fences to look pretty; all done out of a bond of trust with the human asking those things of it.  They’re truly amazing animals, and I’ve loved them nearly as long as I’ve loved dinosaurs.  I remember being 7 or 8 and seeing The Neverending Story on TV and bawling insanely during the scene where Artax, Atreyu’s faithful horse, dies in the Swamps of Sadness.  The only thing that made it worthwhile was that Bastian wishes Artax back to life when he recreates Fantasia at the end of the movie.  It’s a good thing I was 17 years older when I read the actual novel and found out that once Artax was gone, he was gone for good.
 
I also have pets myself, and my pets are my companions.  Some might call me a crazy cat lady, but I only have two, thank you very much.  My cats are pets, but they’re also pleasant company.  They’re warm and fuzzy, they’re sweet, and they amuse me greatly.  They’re very social with one another, and with me.  While I know they’re animals and have a lifespan, I try not to think about it, because there is no reload once that happens.  So perhaps that’s why I feel the need to save my horse.  Not just to spare myself another 1000 gold, but because in the world of the game, she is faithful to my character to the point that she will put herself in danger to save him.  Rarely do we see that kind of loyalty in people, and we’re the same species.
 
Perhaps I am a sap, and feel free to point and laugh at this confession.  But when I load up Skyrim this weekend, and I know I will, there will likely come a time when my horse attacks a dragon or runs off a cliff.  Or gets attacked by a dragon while running off a cliff.  Regardless of what happens, you can be sure that I will reload to save my horse.

The Benefits of Being First: A Political Rant

Life’s little ironies surprise me sometimes.  One of those is that so many games involve politics, and I generally hate politics.  Even as far back as Super Mario Bros., the Mushroom Kingdom was in turmoil because the Princess had been kidnapped; in the original Zelda, Hyrule was on the brink of collapse because Gannon had Zelda and was looking to use the Triforce to take over the kingdom.  The games went on from there, relying on the premise of the country/kingdom/land in danger of collapse because a villain had thrown the political scheme into a raging tempest.  And now the games I enjoy like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Skyrim all rely on politics as the basic framework for the storyline.

I can get caught up in those politics.  I can put effort into thinking if I’d rather join the Imperials or the Stormcloaks; or if I want to side with the templars to become Viscount and run Kirkwall the right way; or if I want to leave Anora on the throne, or execute Loghain for his treason, or make Alistair king…

But ask me a political question about the real world?  I’m useless.  What’s more, I’ll probably try to change the subject, or just run away a la Sir Robin (yes, Monty Python reference, couldn’t resist).  It’s strange because my job is extremely political.  Every election year the union promotes certain candidates over others because of their stance on labor and/or education, and contract negotiations depend heavily on who’s been elected.  And yet I can’t seem to stomach it.

What I can stomach even less is when every four years the media, press, paparazzi, and a slough of candidates swoop down upon my state and kiss up to us all for our votes.  It’s part of being first.  We get just about everyone who hasn’t yet run out of money or run into so much scandal that any hope of being elected is gone.  We get the super conservatives and the ultra liberals.  We get the independents.  We get the ABC debate with all the big-time anchors sitting in a local college analyzing the candidates’ stances and how they did.  Basically we get a political and news circus.

Come primary day in January the circus reaches a frenzy.  It’s like some sort of political Baccanalia, minus the drunken orgies.  Or so I’d assume.  You never know with politicians.  Today I will walk the gauntlet of sign-bearing, chanting supporters.  I will keep my eyes front and my face blank and go in, get my ballot, and fill in my dot.  I will make sure to keep my party affiliation at independent (another reason I have issues choosing between Imperial or Stormcloak–in real life I’m very moderate and remain a registered independent).  And when I walk out I will try to dodge the pleading smiles and stares of supporters who are certain I picked their candidate because he was the best.

I really hate primary season, but there are some good things about it.  One, there’s no school today for voting, which I’m totally okay with; I have a ton of stuff to get done around here anyway.  But the most important?  After today the circus leaves town for at least another 8-10 months until the general election in November.  Like a town bereft of its circus, there will be fliers and signs strewn about that have no significance; they only remind us of the excitement that happened, and is now gone.  But that’s okay, in this case.  There won’t be anymore political ads on TV for some time.  The media can finally leave us alone.

Being first is a pain, but after today’s primary, we don’t have to worry about it anymore.  We’re done.  Other states will have to deal with the ads and the campaigns and the mudslinging (and the psychos in the media, and those running for office).  The news can go on to analyze other states and their voters, and the candidate pool can dwindle down until the party conventions when they officially choose a candidate to run… but at that point EVERY state has to deal with what we dealt with.  But from January onward?  We can relax.

So while I rather dislike being first because of the craziness associated with it, I’m glad we are because we can get it over with.  God, the Maker, the eight deities, whomever, be with the states who come after us.

And just because I have to: I was going to go out and vote for your candidate, but then I took an arrow to the knee.  (and voted for who I wanted to win).

Am I Really A Gamer?

There are a lot of things that keep me awake at night.  I worry about the next day: do I need to make copies before class, will I have a chance to grade a set of essays, do I have the answer key to the vocab sheet.  Stuff like that.  I think about my Dragon Age rogue armor: can I pull it off?  Can I get it made before PAX East?  Is my new design idea viable?  I think about finances and bills and how a relationship might be nice if only to have someone helping with the bills.  I think of a lot of things.  Usually my identity isn’t one of them, but today I got to thinking about my identity as a gamer.

I’m a high school English teacher, so the fact that I game instantly gives me +50 approval with a lot of students.  Suddenly I’m not so alien.  My interests are the same as their interests, and there’s suddenly common ground for us to talk about.  For a few moments I don’t hold their grade in the palm of my hand, and they aren’t expected to learn about literature and writing and vocab.  For a few moments we’re just people.

In a way, I think that’s what I’ve always liked about games and gaming: they bring people together.  There’s no gender or age discrepancy.  Growing up, there weren’t any girls my age in my neighborhood.  They were all just a few years too old to be bothered with me, or just a few years too young.  My best friend lived across town.  So what did I do?  I hung out with my brother, my two male cousins, and their male friends.  I remember the year one of my cousins got the first Nintendo console… and everything changed.  It didn’t matter that I was a girl, or that I wasn’t a fast runner or didn’t like sports.  When we played Mario and tried to get to the Minus World we were all the same.  When we struggled through dungeons in Zelda, or tried to figure out the mysteries of Metroid, we were all on the same level.  Beating a game?  Was a big deal.  We started a club: the Nintendo Nuts.  That was the year I got a Nintendo calendar from the Scholastic book order, and we all chose characters to be our code names, and diligently wrote our meetings into the calendar.

If I can recall all those details so clearly, then it’s evident gaming always has been a big part of my life.  I’ve had my hiatuses from it: high school and college and summer jobs and homework and everything else made me drift away.  But now that I’m an adult, living on my own, I’m back into it, and it’s a major hobby of mine.

But am I really a gamer?

I have consoles: my most current is an xBox 360, which I purchased in 2010 just before Kinect came out, so I don’t have Kinect.  I have a Nintendo GameCube, and an N64 I got a couple years back at Game Stop.  I have a DS, but it’s a first-generation one from 2005-2006.  I could have traded it up for a DS Lite when they came out, but since I got it in Belfast, Northern Ireland, it has some sentimental value.  I have a GBA-SP, which I keep so I can play my ancient, ancient Gameboy cartridges.  I do not have a PS3, a 3DS, or a Wii.  My gaming library consists of 22 titles,  quite a few of which I bought with the system (it was a good tax return that year).

We’re now in the dawn of 2012, and so far the only game I want is Mass Effect 3, which is coming out in just under two months.  I’ve never played Portal or Portal 2; never played Assassin’s Creed or any of the Final Fantasy games, and ironically, I know a great deal about Call of Duty Black Ops without ever having played it.  My gamerscore isn’t in the tens of thousands; heck, I was just happy to break four digits!  By some standards I have large gaps in my gaming background.  And of course, when talking about games with my students the question comes up: “JayRain, are you going to get insertepicnewgamehere when it comes out??”

Usually the answer is no.  Most of the times it is financial; I am a public school teacher with grad school loans, after all.  But the real reason is I’m just not interested.  I subscribe to Game Informer, so I am informed about what games are coming out, but I’m just not that interested in purchasing most of them.  If a game really intrigues me or is another installation in a franchise I like, I’ll find a way to shell out for it.  With Gears of War 3 I used my tax refund and paid in its entirety when I pre-ordered, for example.  I pre-ordered Mass Effect 3 today, and used some gift cards.  For Halo: Reach I put down $10 a month for the Special Edition.

But I didn’t get Battlefield 3.  I didn’t get the Halo Anniversary edition, much as I love Halo, and while Homefront and Bulletstorm looked cool I couldn’t bring myself to shell out around $60 for them.  Even Dante’s Inferno, based on a work of literature I love, didn’t sear my wallet begging to be bought.

This all begs the question then: what is a gamer?  And with this I think I’m referring just to videogaming– I know there’s card and tabletop gaming, as well as roleplaying, all of which were included with video games at PAX.  But as for what makes a video gamer: Is it someone for whom gaming is life, regardless of price or time commitment?  Is it someone who just enjoys picking up a game and playing for a few minutes to relax, and then moving on?  Is it someone who engages in social gaming on Facebook or with iPad/iPhone apps?  I don’t know.  But I do know that when I think about it, I think I really am a gamer.  I don’t have a wide range of games, but the franchises I do enjoy I am loyal to and I play them frequently.  I read through my Game Informers every month for the insider news and information as much as for the previews and reviews of games.

But most of all, I love game culture.  I like analyzing the storytelling elements and the characters.  I love puzzles.  I love becoming someone else even if it’s just for a few hours, and I love exploring new worlds or new versions of our own.  I don’t have a lot of games, or the newest consoles.  But what I do have I enjoy and it’s big part of who I am.  So when I shut down Skyrim tonight after joining the Bard’s college, I may have other worries that keep me up.  But my identity as a gamer will not be one of them.

The Dragonborn Comes… and he’s kind of a jerk.

I was on Christmas vacation for this past week, and spent a good part of it sick: with Skyrim Fever.  While the game was released on November 11th, putting me six weeks behind most other rabid gamers, receiving it for Christmas was perfect timing.  And I’ve realized that even if I had gotten it on the release day, it wouldn’t have made any difference.  The game is so vast that there’s not much more of a dent I could have put into it than I did this week.

So far my Nord, Cailan, is a level 10 specializing in dual-haded weapons, but he’s also good with a lockpick and sneaking about.  Nothing like a little cross-class work there.  He’s also Dovahkiin, “Dragonborn”, and basically the equivalent of Skyrim’s “chosen one”.  Many other Nords believe that the Dovahkiin will help quell the rebellion that has rocked their country and help restore peace to Skyrim.  As a fan of fantasy, and a person who gets paid to analyze conventions and cliches of fantasy, none of this surprises me.  But what is surprising me is how seriously I’m taking the moral ramifications of the game.

This isn’t a new concept for me, personally.  Around this time last year I picked up BioWare’s Mass Effect.  As Commander Shepard, you are tasked with saving the galaxy from a rogue operative named Saren.  You are the first human SPECTRE ever, a high-level operative that represents the best humanity can offer to the alien races of the universe.  Mass Effect employs a morality system that defines some choices as “Paragon”, or inherently good and noble; or “Renegade”, which is usually equated with bad.  Throughout my game I began to realize that many of my choices were based on my own personal morals.  In general, I like to make everyone happy.  I try to be a people pleaser and do the right thing, and not cause much of a ruckus.  So I found my Shepard doing that.  When it came time to make the agonizing choice of which character to leave behind on the planet Virmire, I had to decide between my romance and someone else.  Now, the other character, Ashley Williams, was a good character.  But it was her or Kaiden Alenko, with whom I was in a romance, so I left Ashley.  I felt awful, as if the choice my character had made in the game said something about my own personal morals.  Besides, here’s Shepard, supposed to represent all that is good about humanity… and she’s leaving a comrade behind in favor of continuing the romance.

The “chosen one” is a convention of fantasy that’s older than the genre itself.  Usually the chosen one is, like Commander Shepard, someone who represents all the hopes of the people.  His or her coming heralds the coming of hope, and is the harbinger of change for the better.  Perhaps that’s why, then, I aimed for Paragon status with my Shepard.  But after Mass Effect came another BioWare title that has since consumed me: Dragon Age.

Once again, regardless of the origin you choose, you are left as one of the last two Grey Wardens: in effect, one of only two people who can end the Blight that is destroying your homeland of Ferelden.  While the system of morality isn’t as clear-cut as Mass Effect, I found my character making choices that were for the general good, and tried to please the other party members.  One time I had an NPC kill her demon-possessed son, only for Alistair, a main character, to yell at me once we got back to camp.  You better believe I reloaded and replayed that scene so things would have a better outcome.  Sometimes I made choices that I thought were in the best interest and for the common good of most people, only for the end result to come back and slap me across the face.  For example, I crowned Pyral Harrowmont during my first play through the dwarven realm of Orzammar, only to find out in the epilogue that he shut off the city and made the dwarves isolationists.  When I did it again and put Bhelen on the throne for the betterment of Orzammar, he immediately had Harrowmont executed.

I shouldn’t let it bother me so much.  It’s just a game, right?  I’ve talked with other gamers about their choices in Dragon Age, and many find it fun galavant around a fantasy world where they can act with abandon, unencumbered by the morals and consequences of our own world.  But to paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien, fantasy doesn’t nullify reality; if anything, it raises it to a higher level.  If there were no consequences, would we make the same kinds of choices to kill, or believe that the ends justified the means no matter what?  Is it only consequence that defines our morals and forces us to make moral choices?

Or perhaps it is because in these fantasy situations, I am playing as the Chosen One.  The hope of entire nations rests on my shoulders, and because in reality I like to please people and do right by them, when I enter into the fantasy world I feel the need for my characters to live up to those expectations.

Which leads me back to Skyrim.  My character did a contract kill that resulted in a group of elite and mysterious assassins contacting him.  One of my tasks was to kill one of three people.  I wasn’t told which one.  I had to guess, which effectively meant their lives were in my hands.  I made my choice and did the kill.  Afterward I had the conversation option to ask if I’d made the right choice, and found I didn’t want to know.  Because if I’d made the wrong choice I’d have felt terrible.  Yes, it’s just a game, and I know I didn’t kill a real person.  But the world of Skyrim is so huge and involved, that somewhere, somehow down the line in my game I fear that kill coming back to me.

By making that kill, I was invited to join the Dark Brotherhood.  I went to check it out and figured, why not.  My first task was a set of three contract kills.  I killed the first man without talking to him, even though he was a beggar squatting in a shack.  I was chased down and arrested by the guards… and just paid my bounty to go on and do my next contract.  But with that one, I made the mistake of talking to my mark.  I said, “Someone wants you dead.”  And she said, “Yeah, probably my husband.  The feeling is mutual.”  Somehow that made her more human, and it’s a good thing my xbox froze the game because I had a serious moral dilemma that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

In Skyrim, I am Dovahkiin: the Dragonborn, the Chosen One.  My ability to absorb dragons’ souls and hence their power means that the people of Skyrim will look to me to tip the scales for either the Imperials or the Stormcloak rebels.  And I feel I have a duty to them.  I wonder what they’d think if they knew their Dovahkiin killed people for money, or picked locks and snuck into homes and stole coin purses.  Would it matter, so long as the rebellion and/or war ended?  Would it matter so long as the dragons were once again destroyed?  Yes, I am the Dragonborn and I’ve come… and I’m kind of a jerk.

Perhaps it’s just personal biases about the Chosen One convention/cliche.  Or maybe I think about these things too much.  But either way, when it comes to moral dilemmas in RPGs, it’s clear that it’s more than just a game.

The Cynic Writes About Gaming

I’ve never been able to do anything “right”.  I remember the first time I went to the library in school.  I’d just moved from Montana and the only person I knew was my cousin, and by extension, his best friend.  We all trekked down to the library and began to find our books for the week.  The girls went looking for books about kittens, puppies, and horses; the boys went looking for trucks and dinosaurs.  Well, since I only knew boys, I went with them and discovered dinosaurs.  When I got in line to check the book out one of the other girls told me, in a very serious tone, “That’s not a girl book, you can’t take that out.”  Was I chagrined?  Did I change my mind?  Nope.  I shrugged and smiled and checked out that book; I read it and I liked it.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of things “wrong”.  A lot of those things have been in the past decade.  Since finishing my BA in 2002 I’ve made some choices that people wouldn’t expect, and I’m quite happy with the direction my life has taken.  I have cats, but I’m not a ‘cat lady’.  I have my MFA in fiction writing, and while I’ve been trained to analyze literature, I prefer to apply that knowledge to current trends in gaming.  To me, games are about more than puzzles and platforming: they require characters and engaging stories to be interesting, and analyzing just what does that fascinates me.

I have a BA and an MFA, but prefer fantasy novels over modern literary fiction, most of which bores me.  I wrote speculative fiction for my MFA thesis, when I was initially encouraged to write literary.  I challenged myself to write speculative fiction in a literary manner.  I analyzed novels and elements of writing, which I now apply to gaming.  I go to conferences and conventions not on writing or teaching, but gaming and general “participatory culture” (academic speak for nerdery and fandoms).

So what does this make me?  A writing gamer with a cynical view.   Or a cynical gaming writer.  There are many ways to arrange it, but either way, this is me, and this is my blog.  I want to capture my thoughts and observations about gaming, writing, and then general cynical observations about life.  Are cynical observations for everyone?  No, and I don’t want peole to think I’m out to offend, but there are some things I just feel like saying.  People have opinions; and people includes me.

With that said, it’s time to enjoy my final day of Christmas vacation by… what else?  Gaming and writing.  Off to take an arrow to the knee.  Or get nommed by dragons.  Either way, I plan on enjoying it!