Rated M, for Different Reasons

Recently I’ve been giving some thought to the concept of M-rated.  Most of the games I own are M-rated.  It’s more of a coincidence than anything else.  I didn’t go out looking to get only games appropriate for those over age 17, nor did I consider that those would be the only things in my collection.  It just happens that the games I enjoy that have a good story and characters and settings also happen to be judged as appropriate for those 17 and up by the ESRB.

Most of the games explain why they’re rated M for mature audiences.  Usually it’s because of violence, other times due to nudity and/or sexual situations.  But after some conversation that’s been going on in my Dragon Age writing forum, I’ve begun to wonder if mature audiences means only those situations such as gore, violence, sex, nudity, and/or drugs. 

As a writer and literature lover I tend to approach video games from the perspective of story, character, and most of all, themes.  And it happens that the themes of such games as BioShock, Dragon Age, and Gears of War transcend the levels of violence and sexuality as far as maturity is concerned.  In those games and many others there is far more going on that I would almost call subtext that isn’t always meant for young audiences.

I began to think about this when a new forum member on the younger side said she disliked Anders and dared us to change her mind.  A forum member who loves Andes (and has analyzed him extensively and writes him beautifully) took up the challenge and wrote up a very mature, eloquent post explaining her analysis of his character as it related to the situation in Kirkwall in DA2.  The crux of her argument was that what Anders does isn’t just for Anders; it’s for the freedom of mages everywhere, and the more one understand of mages the more one will understand Anders and his motives.  The response?  It was along the lines of “good point and thanks for trying, but I got a laugh out of the fact you even did try, I still hate him.” (paraphrased, of course).

The second member’s post was well-researched, well-worded, and addressed the validity of the first member’s claims, while stating her beliefs.  The response she received was… well… typical for the age range.  I remember being that age and wanting to be right all the time.  But as I’ve grown I’ve learned to listen to other arguments and consider them, and reply in kind–or more eloquently, depending on the person with whom I’m debating.  And that’s a sign of maturity.

So is understanding what’s beneath the surface of Dragon Age 2, and even Dragon Age Origins.  Yes, both games qualify for an M rating under ESRB standards.  Another friend and I laugh over the fact that in your first fight as a human noble in DA:O, you slaughter a few large rats, and come out of it covered in blood.  And of course there’s the not-so-subtle love scene, and Morrigan’s offer.  But the choices you must make along the way: to listen to various party members, to accept the assistance of mage v. templar or wolves v. elves… while your world is being torn apart by civil war even as a Blight of darkspawn threatens everything you know and love… it’s a lot to consider and think about.  While it is just a game, many of us have to make choices that will affect the well-being of others.  As a teacher I face choices of that nature every day.  While the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, it’s still a great responsibility.

Dragon Age 2 is even more mature in terms of theme and subtext.  The game’s story has a much larger scope.  And while Meredith’s tyranny threatens only Kirkwall, the ripple effect affects the rest of Thedas.  Dragon Age 2 is about more than hacking and slashing, and exploring identical sewers, dungeons, and caves.  It’s about more than just deciding who to romance, and is Anders or Fenris cuter or a better love interest.  It’s about city struggling to run itself under a broken system, as its citizens begin to expose the system for what it is.  There are religious zealots who kill the Viscount’s son to make a point.  There are gangs preying on the weak and impoverished while the wealthy flourish and pretend it doesn’t exist.  There are people living in squalor and no one willing or even able to do much of anything about it.  Once Viscount Dumar is killed by the Arishok, Meredith refuses to allow anyone else to take his seat, becoming the sole power in Kirkwall.  And with that she wields martial law, has citizens hanged on suspicion of harboring apostates, and suspects all mages of blood magic.  Kirkwall is a broken town running on a system so broken it’s nearly impossible to fix without destroying it entirely and starting fresh.

This is what Anders seeks to do by blowing up the Chantry.  And Hawke and company are all caught up in the midst of this, looking for a better way.  You don’t have to be mature (mentally) to handle the combat aspect of it.  But to truly understand what’s going on and how the characters fit in requires a level of intellectual and emotional maturity.

Take for example BioShock.  BioShock is brilliant on so many levels.  The setting, gameplay, graphics, all of it makes for a truly beautiful, haunting game.  But it’s the story and themes that is really haunting, and must be approached with a level of intellect and emotional maturity to truly understand the irony.  Now, you can play BioShock as just a game, and enjoy killing Splicers; that’s fine.  But I’m looking at it from the perspective of what’s below the surface of gameplay.

One of the beauties of BioShock is the literary allusions.  The setting is Rapture, which is an ironic name given what’s happened there.  And of course the game reflects and alludes to the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, down even to the philosophies explored through the game’s characters.  One of the final areas of Rapture you can explore is chock full of mythological references.  And then you realize that the Splicers you’ve been shooting up have become that way because of the way Rapture has fallen apart.  They’re not just enemies; they’re people who placed their trust in Rapture, and it failed them.  One of the most haunting scenes in the game is when you’re in an empty theater, and a young man is told to play the piano; when he fails to complete the task an insane director blows him up.  Yes, the violent death is worthy of the M-rating; but it’s comprehending the senselessness behind it that truly requires maturity.

I think even of Gears of War.  The game is beyond violent, and yet it’s still highly character-driven.  The interactions of Delta Squad, and their relationships, and seeing how they hold up while trying to save their planet, make this game an intensive experience.  While it’s easily an action-adventure game and far from role-playing, seeing the characters at work is interesting.  There are so many ghosts that Marcus Fenix must deal with; Cole is a Gear now, but he still relives his Thrashball glory days.  And then there is the heartbreak of Dom searching for his beloved Maria, which is just a minor character point in the first game, but become a major plot point in the second, and finally motivates his actions in the third.  Honestly that point in Gears 3 may have been the first time a video game drove me to tears with the sheer power of character and story.

It’s cool to run around with a machine gun that’s also part chainsaw.  It’s fun to blast the soulless bad guys back to where they came from.  I love doing it, don’t get me wrong.  But to understand what’s behind the characters as they do this is truly powerful and requires a level of understanding that comes with maturity.  And maybe it’s not even conscious maturity, in the vein of “I’m old enough to handle this” or “I know exactly what’s going on here.”

I’m not trying to come across as some holier-than-thou intellectual, or trying to overly analyze or intellectualize gaming.  But mostly I’m looking at the idea that while blood, violence, sex and drugs (and maybe some rock and roll?) certainly warrant an M for Mature rating, some of these games’ themes are also more mature and should be considered by parents thinking of picking up such a game for their not-quite-M-aged child.

Women Gamers, Women in Games: Statistic vs. Stereotype

I just read a list on Cracked.com about being a gamer.  Some of the things it had to say were right on, and some things tended to pertain to a small portion of the gamer demographic.  But it had some interesting things to say about female gamers.  I know this issue is talked to death, and I know I’ll probably offend some people, and probably miss some points of discussion.  But 1.)it’s my blog and I haven’t talked it to death, 2.)if you’re offended at least you think about things (and give me the opportunity to learn more about others’ perspectives) and 3.)this is such a huge topic that I’m bound to miss things, and accept that.  So: what does it mean for me pesonally to be a female gamer, and what do I think about women in games?

Interestingly enough, current statistics show that nearly 2/3 of online gamers are women.  Normally I like to defy the statistics in my ongoing quest for individuality.  However, this is one case where I’m proud to be part of the statistics, and a member of the majority.  I’ve been gaming in earnest since I was young, and owe much of that to Samus Aran of Metroid fame.  Growing up I was used to the idea that the Princess was in another castle.  So imagine my delight when the end of Metroid revealed that the badass bounty hunter I’d taken all over Zebes was a woman!

I’ve never been one of those female gamers that complains much about the portrayal of women in games.  I’m happy to see more and more female characters taking the lead and going out to kick arse and take names, and when I play online (mostly Halo: Reach) I play as my female Spartan.  But what was troubling to me was that I recently read that many women prefer to play online as males.  Granted the study is nearly four years old, but conversely, I was having a conversation with a friend once about males and females online and he said that sometimes he intentionally plays as a female character because people underestimate him.

Now that got me thinking.  Around this time last year, Halo: Reach launched the weekly challenge of 77 online matches in seven days.  Luckily we had two snow days and one delay that week, because I spent my time playing online Halo matches.  I played as my female Spartan, but I kept my mic off mostly because I find in-game chatting distracting for me.  Normally it isn’t an issue, but during one match I got a kill, but then fell and my character made a noise.  The chat got very quiet, and then I heard one person say to the other, “I think there’s a girl playing.”  I had to ask myself, “Why does it matter?”  I can guarantee that if I was playing as a male Spartan it wouldn’t have been an issue; with my mic off, I would just be an anonymous male Spartan trying to kill everyone while they all tried to kill me.  But because I played as a female it started question and discussion.

Usually statistics go hand in hand with developing stereotypes.  However, the Female Gamer is not one such case.  66% of online gamers are women, and yet people are surprised to learn that they’re playing in a match with a female.  Is it because the stereotypical female gamer plays a different sort of game?  Or behaves in a different sort of way?  For me, when I go into a match as an openly female character, I don’t expect to be treated any differently, and I don’t behave any differently.  For me, we’re all gamers and we all have an objective, and it usually involves killing everyone else.  Why should gender matter in that objective?

It also seems to me that the perception is that stereotypical female gamers also will spend time complaining about the oversexualization and objectification of women in games.  I went to a panel at PAX East last year about female characters, and the focus wasn’t on the necessarily overly sexualized characters, but the ones that were portrayed either as realistic in terms of build or personality (Morrigan from Dragon Age stood out, which I remember because I picked up Dragon Age for the first time about a week later); or the ones who were portrayed not as overly sexual, but as helpless.  The princess in another castle, if you will.

For me, I’m less worried about female characters being objectified sexually, and more concerned about them being written as more passive, damsel-in-distress types of characters.  People may voice opinions about Lara Croft’s bust size, but at least she’s out there being proactive.  Kat, in Reach, would kick your arse if you suggested she was attractive in any way.  The stereotye of a female character as overly sexual overshadows the reality of passive DiD sorts of characters.  And since the focus is more on how women are objectified sexually, there’s no real look at how they’re objectified through being passive.

Princess Toadstool was always in another castle; theobjectof Super Mario Bros. was to save her.  Thank the gaming gods for Samus, coming along and blasting her way through Zebes!  Even after she was revealed as a female, she was still blowing up planets like it was her job.  Then in 2002, Metroid: Fusion came out.  Samus was stalked around a deserted space station by an over-powered clone of herself, and had to rely on the guidance of a computer AI, who reminded her of her dead Commanding Officer if she were to survive.  It was a different sort of game, and it portrayed Samus as slightly more vulnerable than in the past.  Coming at it from my perspective, where I enjoy character depth and whatnot, it was very interesting to see a new side to her. 

The Metroid formula changed some as the technology did, and with it, Samus changed.  The lone bounty hunter got teammates in Metroid Prime: Hunters for the DS, and in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption for the Wii.  In Corruption, Samus wound up having to kill her team when they attacked her; while it followed the boss fight formula, it was interesting because Samus had worked with these people earlier in the game, and become more of a character defined by those around her as a result.  And then came Metroid: Other M.  I don’t have a Wii, but even if I did, and even as much as I love Metroid, I wouldn’t play it because of this article.  As someone who’s been in an emotionally abusive relationship, these things resonate with me to begin with; but then seeing Samus, who started out so strong and competent and capable and unapologetic reduced to that?  To see her written as a lost little girl, when she left that behind with the Chozo long ago?  Her strength was something that defined her and made her different.  To take that away demeans her not as a woman, but as a character in general.

Not all characters have gone that way.  Zelda went from the kidnapped prisoner in Ganon’s dungeon to Shiek, a highly trained fighter.  And Dragon Age: Origins has Queen Anora, who will even stand up to her father in spite of the fact that he’s one of Ferelden’s most celebrated generals.  She knows what she wants and what she has to do to get it.  And most of all, she’ll do that if it means achieving her endgame.

And that’s where I feel I am now as a woman who is a gamer.  I’m sure I’ll raise some hackles with all I’ve said, and that’s okay.  This is a difficult issue, where even people on the same side will have different reasons for why they’re on the same side.  But one thing is clear: the statistic and the stereotype don’t always match up, either in the case of the games’ characters, or the gamers themselves.  I may fit a statistic, but I’m not steretypical.  And you shouldn’t be, either.

Lessons Learned

Who says video games and sci-fi/fantasy are a waste of time?  Who says you can’t learn anything from them?  For those that do, I present 10 lessons learned from my gaming and sci-fi/fantasy career:

1. Try not.  Do, or do not.  There is no try.  – Yoda

This is one maxim that is used quite frequently, but it’s true.  There are many things in life that you can’t try to do; you simply have to just do them.  While Nike has the market on the “Just do it” slogan, Yoda one-ups it with the idea that there is no try.  Some things just must be done; trying  is weakness.  Things must be done, or remain undone.  Think of it in terms of laundry (which is what got me thinking about this).  You can’t try to do your laundry; you do it or you don’t.  When it’s done you feel accomplished, when it’s not it’s a pile of clothes threatening to eat you every time you walk by it.  Trying is tantamount to not doing.  So do, or do not.  Don’t try.

2. Keep your head down and your mouth shut and everything will be fine.  – Delvin Mallory, Skyrim

This has been on my mind a lot lately.  The problem I’m having is it’s good advice in that it keeps you out of drama and away from other peoples’ business.  But it also keeps you from getting involved in things and speaking up when you need to.  Delvin is a member of the Riften Thieves’ Guild, so his advice is pretty sound when it comes to Thieves’ Guild activity.  It’s all illegal; so keeping your head down and your mouth shut helps you avoid notice, and therefore trouble.  But what about when you’re trying to do the right thing?  Keeping your head down and your mouth shut keeps you from getting on the bad side of things, but you also have to be able to look yourself in the eye every time you look in a mirror.  It’s good advice at times, but definitely something to ponder.

3. Funny how the Blight brings people together.  – Alistair, Dragon Age: Origins

Well, not always a Blight.  But a disaster brings people together in ways that peace does not.  I remember back to September 11th 2001.  I was a senior in college, just north of Boston when everything happened.  I still remember the fear, the disbelief, the uncertainty.  But what I remember most of all is how for the next few days, everyone, everywhere, was just a bit nicer.  We all shared the experience on some level, and knew we were in it together, so we were all a bit nicer and more willing to help one another. 

On another level, it’s amazing and funny how the smallest, strangest things can bring people together as well.  Dragon Age stands as a great example.  Without Dragon Age I would not have met the most awesome group of friends, ever.  Without fanfiction I would not have met my best friend.  Bottom line?  We never know what will bring us together, so it’s important to be on the lookout for those opportunities.

4. We make our own luck. – Master Chief, Halo

Luck is described in many ways: blind, dumb, a lady… luck is fickle and changeable.  We can’t always rely on it, and must do our part to help ourselves along.  What some people would call luck, others would call the result of training, hard work, and perseverance.  In the Halo universe Master Chief is known for his luck, but if you look deeper into his backstory you’ll also see that in spite of the fact that he was considered lucky, he still worked his arse off.  He knew what he needed to do to win, and didn’t rely on his ‘luck’, preferring instead to make his own luck.  In short, his actions paid off because he was willing to work for it; when the moment of truth came he had what it took to follow through.

5. I fight so all the fighting I’ve already done hasn’t been for nothing. – Ulfric Stormcloak, Skyrim

I started out my Skyrim game wanting to join the Imperial Legion.  But the more I played and saw of them, and the more I heard and saw of Ulfric Stormcloak, the more I lean toward the Stormcloak rebellion.  And this line is one of the reasons.  There are many reasons to fight, and to keep fighting.  Maybe it’s your convictions, maybe it’s survival, maybe it’s to move ahead.  To stop fighting, and essentially give in, is to nullify all the fighting you’ve done to get where you are.  This hit me hard when it came to last week’s disappointment with the writing contest.  I had a few moments where I was ready to give up because I didn’t know why I should bother anymore.  But then I realized that allowing that one thing to stop my writing would make a mockery of all the work I’ve done to get where I am as a writer.  To keep fighting, even when it seems hopeless, shows conviction and strength of character.  Maybe Ulfric is a jerk about some things, but he has conviction, and in this at least he gives sound advice.

6. Artists use lies to tell the truth; I created a lie and because you believed it, you discovered something true about yourself. -V, V for Vendetta

This always sticks with me, especially as a reader, writer, and lover of fantasy.  Most people criticize fantasy as being too escapist, and think people read it to get away from reality.  This is true sometimes, but what many critics don’t realize is that fantasy doesn’t nullify reality.  In his On Fairy Stories essay, Tolkien posits that fantasy actually can enhance reality and bring it to a higher level.  As such we discover truths about humanity and about life through the lens of a fictional reality.  In The Neverending Story Bastian’s first reaction to Mr. Coreander is that “it’s just a story.”  Coreander says that it’s more than that, and if we allow stories to cast the spell over us, we may be swept away but we also learn something true about ourselves.

7. I’m not locked in here with you.  You’re locked in here with me. – Rorschach, Watchmen

Life is all about perspective, and Rorschack is all about challenging our perspectives.  He never compromises; he has strong convictions and sticks with them.  Though this makes him a bit of a vigilante and definitely morally ambiguous, he certainly challenges and changes our perceptions of things.  Sometimes when the numbers seem like they’re not in our favor we have to look at the situation and decide if we’re going to accept the status quo or view it differently.  Rorschach was in prison, surrounded by inmates; most of whom were in there because of him.  Theoretically he doesn’t stand a chance; but he chooses to see things from a different perspective and as a result comes out on top.  I don’t advocate coming out on top the way he does; violence of that caliber isn’t a good thing.  But the idea of changing the way you look at things is.

8. You can’t predict how people will act… But you can control how you’ll respond. In the end, that’s what really matters. – Commander Shepard, Mass Effect

Life is full of things we can’t control or predict.  The uncertainties can make life fun, but also terrifying.  There are so many things that worrying can’t change, and the actions of others are part of that.  When we try to change people and control their actions we set ourselves up for disappointment and failure.  But we can control our own reactions and responses.  We can decide what we will do in a given situation, or say to a particular person.  That choice is ours to make, and it is definitely something we can control.  In the end we have to be able to look at ourselves and say “Yes, I can live with what I said/did.”  That’s what matters most, because that’s what you have to live with.

9. We stand upon the precipice of change. The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss. Watch for that moment… and when it comes, do not hesitate to leap. It is only when you fall that you learn whether you can fly.  – Flemeth, Dragon Age 2

While it’s nice to do things right and feel like you have them under control, the true test of abilities is how you react when you’re out of control.  When you’re in freefall will you feel out of control and fear crashing into the ground?  Or will you realize you have wings to spread and learn to fly?  It’s a scary thing, making that leap, especially when you don’t know what to expect.  Again, you can’t always predict things, but you can predict your reactions and choices.  So will you keep falling, giving into forces beyond your control, or will you choose to fly?  Flemeth is a great example of this because she has such a long history.  On my Dragon Age forum on ff.net we were talking about her and how in her long history she had to have gone through a lot of trial and error to become who and what she is.  It would be easy to give up, but just when she was falling, she discovered she could fly.

10. All we can decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  – Gandalf, Lord of the Rings

Again, we can’t control time; we can’t control what befalls us.  But we can decide what to do with what time we are given.  Will we settle into a rut dreaming of if-onlies and what-ifs?  What happens isn’t for us to decide.  The decision we have, and can control, is what to do with what happens.  How will we as individuals react?  Will we do, will we fly?  Will we change our perspective, or just keep our heads down and our mouths shut and hope to avoid trouble, even if it nullifies all the fighting we’ve done up to this point?  It doesn’t matter what we decide.  What matters is that we decide.

Adventures of a Crossclasser

I begin by openly admitting that there are extensive gaps in my RPG gaming repertoire.  Growing up I preferred platformers to turn-based RPGs.  As such I’ve never played a single Final Fantasy game; in fact, my biggest issue with Final Fantasy is why there are well over a dozen games when it was supposed to be the final fantasy.  But that leaves me in danger of digressing.  I haven’t played… well… name an RPG and I probably haven’t played it, because I’m having issues coming up with titles.

My first RPG, aside from Dragon Warrior for the NES when I was twelve or so, was Mass Effect on the xbox 360.  Prior to ME I had mostly shooters: Bioshock, Halo, Borderlands, Gears of War… that sort of thing.  My gaming library is far from extensive in terms of most anything.  So when I picked up ME I was skeptical about it being an “RPG” because my limited experience left me thinking RPGs were clunky, turn-based, and too drawn out.

But ME managed to combine the best aspects of an RPG, as far as story and character, with the aspects of a good shooter.  I found myself getting into the character development, and forging a relationship with Kaiden Alenko.  I loved the story and the exploration, and once I got the hang of the game I was in love.  My cousin got my ME2 for my birthday last year, and I played through that to the exclusion of some of my work (not my proudest moment, but it makes for a good teachable thing).  One element of the Mass Effect franchise was, however, that you need to choose a class based on how you fight.  ME has some basics, and then makes combinations of them.  It’s been awhile so I don’t recall what I am, but I think I chose one of the combo classes because I felt it afforded me the most options.

Mass Effect was my gateway to Dragon Age.  In Origins, the first of the series, you can choose your character’s backstory and a basic class: warrior, rogue, or mage.  You get to specialize between those, but in general, DA doesn’t really allow for a lot of cross-classing.  My first rogue fought mostly with sword and shield, and it was passable, but when I started using her rogue skills and and using lighter weapons, she throve.  Mages can specialize as Arcane Warriors, who channel magic through their bodies and into weapons, but they’re still mages at their core.  It’s very similar in DA2.  You’re one or the other, and very rarely can you be both.

Now, this worked for me.  I chose a class and went with it, and found ways to specialize within my class to be the best rogue or mage or warrior I could be.  I was comfortable with this system.  I generally play rogues because they’re versatile, though my mage Hawke in DA2 is quite enjoyable to play.  I specialized her as a Force Mage, which means she basically picks people up and slams them down… with her mind.  It’s a lot of fun.

Enter Skyrim.

I’ve also never played an Elder Scrolls game before this one, so please don’t chastise me about how I should have realized this, and the like.  I created my character: went through designing him, choosing his background, that sort of thing.  And when I saved, the game started up again.  “But I haven’t chosen a class yet!” I said to myself, and probably one of the cats who was sitting nearby.  I played through the opening escape from Helgen and as I followed a fellow escapee out of the sacked town I still hadn’t chosen a class.

As the game began in earnest I found myself just going with it.  I named my male Nord Cailan, after the king in Dragon Age: Origins, and thought to class him as a two-handed warrior, like his ill-fated namesake.  I started out using various axes and greatswords.  And then I hit one particularly difficult quest where no matter how much I blocked or healed or shouted I couldn’t do it.  While talking to MLHawke, she mentioned that she had a good one-handed sword and was working on strengthening her destructive spells.

Weapons+Magic?  Huh.  I’d never thought to learn to be a mage.  I was going to be a warrior!… who’d already picked a few dozen locks and upped his sneaking (also appropriate for Cailan, for any of you who know my Dragon Age fic about him).  Well, I was already on my way toward cross-classing two ways; why not go three, since I could?

Cross-classing has made a huge difference in how I enjoy the game.  I feel like I can experience a huge variety of things and do many more that I wasn’t previously able to as a single-class character.  Now, I don’t use magic as often as I would if I were going for a full mage; but the fact that I can use it as I wish, and most importantly am not limited to only using it, is what makes it enjoyable.  I fight primarily with the Nightingale Blade, though I’ve done my fair share of archery as well.  I’m good at sneaking, and have a high lock-picking rate.  And while I’m on my way to leading the Thieves’ Guild, I’m also a pretty good assassin for the Dark Brotherhood and take down dragons like no one’s business.

In short, by combining classes and skills I’m getting a fuller experience and developing what I feel is a more well-rounded character.  And I think that’s not only the key to moving forward with the game, but in life as well.  Yes, there are people who specialize in life; there are people who decide on one career path and follow it without deviation.  But then there are people who branch out and try new things.  They’re unpredictable, but it keeps things exciting.  These are the cross-classers of life.  The people who are not just professionals, but professionals who maybe game or sing or play an instrument on the side.  The ones who play sports as well as music, or do art in addition to games.  Basically, having a wide range of interests and abilities enriches the self, and enriches the world.

So maybe I haven’t really played many RPGs, and maybe I’m completely off.  But my experiences in life are translating into my Skyrim play, and my Skyrim playing is making me think more about life.  In the end, isn’t that all we ask of media?  That it makes us think, or helps us reflect on our world in a new way?  Even though my RPG experience may be limited, the experiences I have gained from the ones I have played have definitely given me pause.  Though classifying oneself into one class may be comfortable, and overall easier, cross-classing and being a little bit of everything opens one’s eyes to a whole new way of seeing and experiencing the world, both in the game and in real life.

Crafting Stories, Creating Community

I’ll have to figure out how to get a subtitle field, because I would subtitle this entry “Another defense of fanfiction”.  In my first post defending fanfic I addressed some of the common misconceptions and stereotypes about people who write fanfiction.  But another defense came to my attention earlier today, and it is that aspect I wish to address now.

I checked my email this morning as usual, and found I had a message from someone on the BioWare Social Network.  It was another person who’d entered the fanfiction writing contest, and she wrote to let me know of her own forays into fanfiction.  I highly suggest clicking the link, because she shares her thoughts about her own fanfiction journey in a very eloquent manner.  But what I realized as I read her work (which she’d written because of mine) was that we don’t just write fanfiction because we enjoy the subject matter.  Fanfiction writing gives us an opportunity to create community while we craft our stories.

Fandom in general is its own community, and it’s a necessary aspect of my life and the lives of those who idendity as geeks or nerds.  It’s our social outlet; it’s where we can meet and discuss our interests and hobbies without getting raised eyebrows in return.  The internet has been wonderful for fandom, because it means we fans can find one another easily, and come together just as easily.  I discovered this my senior year of college and it changed everything for me as a geek/nerd, fan, and eventually as a writer.

I fell in love with Lord of the Rings and all things Tolkien during the second semester of my senior year of college.  My excitement knew few bounds; but one of those bounds was the fact that there were very few people around me in school with whom I could speak about this life-changing work.  My usual social group hadn’t read it, and my friends just sort of smiled while I tried to explain it to them.  I turned to the one place I thought I might find some outlet: the internet.  I found message boards, AIM chatrooms, and websites all devoted to my new love.  And most importantly, I found other fans with whom I could chat and discuss any and everything Tolkien.

This became monumentally important when I graduated in the spring of 2002 and came home.  Suddenly I had no social outlet.  If I went down the hall to ask someone to do a late-night CVS run… well, I’d have found my sleeping parents telling me that there was no 24-hour CVS nearby.  I’d drifted from many of my high school friends, I hadn’t started a new job, and in short, found myself slightly alone.  So I turned to our dial-up internet.

It’s images like this, of someone staring at the blue glow of the computer screen in the wee hours, that gives nerds the label of being antisocial loners.  Like any stereotype, there are those examples that lend credibility to it.  But in reality, I think a lot of fandom members, and particularly writers, are actually being incredibly social mentally and psychologically even though they are physically alone.

That year I went back to my old online haunts and felt far less lonely being able to chat with the people I’d come to know about the subject that brought us together.  Time passed and I discovered Harry Potter.  By then I’d started a new job and had some coworkers I was social with, and even some who knew about my obsessions, even if they didn’t share them.  As I dove into the Potter books, I discovered fanfiction.  At that time, late 2002/early 2003, the fifth Potter book was on the horizon, but wasn’t yet in sight.  Fans all speculated on what would happen after the climactic ending of the fourth book, and took to writing their version of events.  I was as curious as any of them, and joined the throng.

Now, fans need other fans.  That’s fact.  But fans who are writers don’t just need other fans, they need other writers.  Writing appears as a solitary activity, but the fact is, it’s intensely communal.  Feedback is a valuable and necessary aspect of the writing process.  Without it, we can’t grow.  As a result, writers build communities with other writers.  They find people whose opinions they trust.  The overall goal, ideally, is to improve, grow, and develop through the mutual giving and receiving of feedback.

Of course this is the ideal.  It can go wrong, as in the case of flaming or trolling, but like anything, it’s a matter of accepting the bad with the good, and looking more specifically for the good.  In her book Toxic Feedback, author Joni B. Cole explains that feedback needs to be balanced.  Scathing criticism can destroy an author, while nothing but glowing praise strokes an ego, but doesn’t help improve the writing.  As writers we want to look for that balance, and try to be a part of the balance ourselves.  This becomes especially important in fandom and fanfiction writing, where most authors aren’t professionals and many aren’t even considering a career in writing.  With the ease of internet publishing for fanfiction anyone can post, which also means anyone can comment.  This can tear community apart, but thankfully that’s the minority.  In general, it allows for a give and take of writing feedback that can end up building community between fans and writers.

The shared experiences of fandom bring people together, but writing about it keeps them together.  I saw this most clearly throughout the duration of the Dragon Age fanfiction contest.  I have a BSN account, but I don’t really use it.  I dug it up when a friend told me about the contest, and did participate a little bit in the thread.  Over the course of 70+ pages the conversation ranged from our writing processes, to languages, to curiosity about the contest, to our literary and writing influences.  The thread opened in late December, and by mid to late January, members who rarely posted crawled out of the woodwork and jumped into the conversation.  Other members expressed a desire to remain together and encourage each others’ writing endeavors.  Our love of Dragon Age brought us together, but it was the community of writers that emerged that kept us together.

Perhaps my favorite example of how fanfiction fosters community is that of me and my best friend.  Shooting back to that fall and winter of 2002, I remember reading a Harry Potter fic that popped up in the “just in” page on fanfiction.net.  It was different from what I normally liked, but I read it anyway and enjoyed it.  The author had her email and AIM name in her profile, so I shot her a message to say I liked it.  She messaged me back, and we started talking.  We discovered we had a great deal in common, and through frequent and extended conversations became friends.  She read my fics for me before I posted them, and was always there to bounce ideas off of.  I read her work and gave her feedback before she posted.  Eventually we met in person; she came to visit me, then I went to visit her.  And it continued.  She was one of the first two people who ever saw new content for my MFA thesis, and was always there when I needed to vent about it.  In 2009 I was a bridesmaid in her wedding; two months after that she and her husband came to my MFA graduation.  We even share the same birthday.  She’s my best friend, and if it hadn’t been for fanfiction and the community aspect it creates, I wouldn’t have her in my life.

Our motives for writing fanfiction may vary, and our writing styles will differ.  But as fans we will always seek out the fandom, and as writers we crave a community in which to grow and develop.  As we craft our fanfiction, we wind up creating a community held together by a mutual love of the fandom itself and our urge to write about it.

Screw Your Arrow!

I would start this out by saying “In the gaming world…” but the fact is the “Arrow to the Knee” phrase has fast become a cliche even among non-gamers.  In Skyrim, just about every other NPC guard or soldier you pass by tells you, “I used to be an adventurer like you.  Then I took an arrow to the knee.”  It’s become a joke, but with my recent disappointment in the Dragon Age fanfiction contest, I realized that the arrow to the knee is a pathetic excuse.

It started when I publicly announced my disappointment on my facebook, and friends were super-encouraging and told me to keep going; write for its own sake, follow my dreams, that sort of thing.  The fact that I have such friends makes me feel truly blessed, and I know that they don’t just say those things because it’s the ‘nice’ thing to say.  I replied to one, “Oh, I’ll keep writing, no doubt about that. This isn’t an arrow to my knee by any means. Right now it just kind of stings because I’d had such hopes for this.”  I confess that on my way home from work I had a fair share of sniffles in the car.  I moped about my apartment until now, and I’m still not feeling all that great.  Even though I worked hard to write a well-crafted story, I felt almost ashamed of it for not making it.  I briefly entertained thoughts of deleting my Dragon Age fanfiction and crawling into a black hole of shame and self-loathing and whiny blogging.

And then I realized that’s what the Skyrim soldiers did.

As an adventurer throughout the land of Skyrim I’ve been burned, frozen, and shocked, and those are just the magic attacks.  I’ve been skewered with swords and hacked with axes and nommed by dragons.  I’ve taken arrows to my FACE.  And I keep adventuring.  I keep fulfilling Dark Brotherhood contracts and doing numbers jobs for the Thieves’ Guild.  I keep seeking out dragons to kill and words of power to learn.  I chug healing potions and hide from enemies and sneak for miles after targets.  If I gave up after one arrow to the knee, things would be boring, nothing would get done, and the world wouldn’t get saved.

Okay, so my writing, fan or otherwise, isn’t world-changing or on the level of saving the world.  If I don’t write again, it’s not like the world’s doing to collapse.  But my world might.  Another friend who’d entered and fared the same as me said she was trying to remember that she wrote for the sake of writing, which is what I’m trying to remember.  Who am I?  I am a writer, pure and simple.  Writing is an art, and appreciation of art is subjective in the end, even if there are objective aspects to what makes it ‘good’ or ‘contest winning worthy’.  If I were to let one lost contest cripple me and take me down for the count, what sort of writer would I be? 

So Skyrim soldiers?  Screw your arrow.  If one arrow to the knee is going to make you complain about how you can’t be an adventurer anymore, maybe you never deserved to be an adventurer in the first place.

Nerved Up… and up… and up…

I’m an MFA who writes fanfiction; that sounds like the opening to a support-group/twelve-step introduction, but it’s who I am.  It’s something I’ve come to identify with and accept.  Mostly I write my fanfiction for fun; the reviews are nice, but my big thing is writing the best story I can about an existing world I love.  My current fanfiction obsession?  BioWare’s Dragon Age.

Dragon Age got me back into fanfiction after a four-year hiatus, two years of which were my creative writing grad program.  In March it’ll be a year since discovering and playing it, and in that time I’ve done a lot of writing about Dragon Age.  I’ve played all the games multiple times, and I’ve read the novels.  I’ve read the wiki.  I research and write articles for GreyWardens.com.  And at the beginning of January, I entered a Dragon Age fanfiction writing contest, sponsored by BioWare.

The premise is simple: write a short story of no more than 2500 words from the perspective of a mage or templar.  The deadline was January 10th; I submitted January 2nd to get it out of the way, and have been on relative pins and needles since then.  It’s strange because I submitted some query letters and samples of my MFA thesis to some agents and publishers this time last year, and yet I wasn’t nearly as nerved up waiting to hear back.  And when I did get the polite rejection that my novel “wasn’t what they were looking for at this time”, I shrugged and went back to whatever I was doing.  I feel like I should have been more disappointed; after all, I spent two years of my life sweating over that manuscript.  It’s my original work; it’s my metaphorical baby.  And when it didn’t go anywhere I wasn’t bothered.

However, waiting on this contest has me really nervous.  The winners were chosen Sunday night (as per a Tweet from the lead writer of the DA series).  He forwarded the names to his community people Monday.  I spent Monday checking my email until I got home and saw another Tweet that they wouldn’t be formally announced until Wednesday on the BioWare Blog.  And here I am on Wednesday morning: it’s 3AM BioWare’s time, and yet I checked.  And was summarily disappointed when nothing was posted, even though to expect it is a little unrealistic.

So why could I shrug off my nerves with my original novel, and not even feel much disappointment when it was rejected, and yet with this I’m almost sick to my stomach?

I do value my original work.  I put a lot of effort into it, people who’ve read it generally like it, and I think it could go somewhere.  But I think I also value my fanfiction as well, and I value my love of Dragon Age pretty highly.  Also, the top 20 entries were read by David Gaider, the lead writer of Dragon Age.  Maybe because I enjoy the game so much, and know he read the entries, it makes me even more nervous.  Maybe because I value my role as a Dragon Age fanfiction writer, I feel like this would give me more credibility in the fandom (and then I wonder why such things matter so much to me).  Perhaps I just want to have the waiting over with and know for sure.

I’m not sure; I know I shouldn’t base my self-worth and worth as an author or fan on this one thing, but I can’t help it.  Will I be disappointed if things don’t turn out well?  You’d better believe it.  Will I move on? You’d better believe that, too.  But that doesn’t stop me from hoping, and I think it’s the hoping that keeps me nerved up… and up… and up…