SF and Gaming Blog

Thoughts, reviews and opinion on the overlapping worlds of science fiction and gaming.

Does “Geek culture” really have a massive sexism problem, or does it, as Gareth M,  Skarka suggested on Twitter, an “unwillingness to ostracise toxic assholes” problem, which is compounded by the internet’s serious troll problem?

Posted on by Tim Hall | 4 Comments

Fred Clark on The Satanic Panic

Great post by Fred Clark on the 1980s fundamentalist moral panic about D&D and Satanism. It all reads like ancient history now, like something out of the Salem witch trials.

Newitz’s account details one tangential battle of the Satanic Panic that arose in the 1980s — a moral panic that resulted in students being expelled from schools, young people being bullied by their peers or institutionalized by their parents, and dozens of innocent people spending years in prison for crimes that never even occurred.

The astonishing thing, as Newitz says, is that today, a few decades later, “D&D-influenced stories” are a noncontroversial part of mainstream American pop culture. That’s not what anyone would have predicted back during the Reagan years, when Satanic baby-killer politics first arose, bringing with it a whole host of demonizing delusions — a diabolical conspiracy of black-robed ritual abusers, fears of backward-masking messages in rock music, the presumption of a suicide epidemic among RPG enthusiasts. If you remember the 1980s, it’s jarring to step back today and realize how much of that has simply faded away and lost its power. The same folks who were able to bully D&D to the sidelines in the 1980s found themselves steamrolled when they later tried the same tactics against Harry Potter and his fans.

But, as Fred Clark explains, Dungeons and Dragons really was a threat to the world-view of a certain kind of authoritarian fundamentalism. It wasn’t the magic, or the monsters, or the made-up pantheons of gods.

It was the alignment system.

As I’ve explained before, D&D’s alignments have two axes forming a three-by-three matrix of ethical stances. One axis is Good vs. Evil, the other is Law vs. Chaos more or less as defined by Michael Moorcock in his Eternal Champion saga. Law is all about following the rules and obeying authority, and it’s easy to see why some fundamentalists might have a problem with making that independent of Good and Evil. Despite it actually being true, as evidenced by every totalitarian regime in history.

But, as Fred Clark correctly points out, denying the existence of Lawful Evil or Chaotic Good isn’t actually very good theology.

It says something about the sorry state of biblical understanding among biblical “inerrantists” that we were left to learn this from Gary Gygax rather than from Galatians, Isaiah, Amos or the Gospels. But once we learned it — once we came to see the possibility of it — then the whole ideology we’d been taught came into question.

But when the fundamentalist faith is as fragile as a soap-bubble, just about anything can not only be seen as a thread, but can actually be a threat.

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Dark Dungeons!

Yes, they really are making a live-action film version of that infamous 1980s Jack Chick tract warning of that dangers of Dungeons and Dragons.

Posted in Games | Tagged | 4 Comments

Am I correct in assuming that I’m not missing anything vital in my life from having not read any late-period Robert Heinlein?

Posted on by Tim Hall | 6 Comments

Jonathan Ross, The Hugos and the Twitterstorm

Jonathan Ross - Photo from Wikimedia CommonsSo Jonathan Ross was invited to host the Hugo Awards at WorldCon in London, but was forced to withdraw following a storm of outrage on Twitter. Since a tweet of mine got quoted by Bleeding Cool and makes it look as though I was part of the Twitter mob with torches and pitchforks, I thought I needed to make it clear where I stand.

The way so many people had a problem with a household name TV presenter from hosting a major science fiction awards ceremony must be seen in the context of the SF world’s ongoing civil war. On one side there are those believe the genre needs to be made more inclusive towards people who are not white and male, and it’s time to end the racism and sexism that has bedevilled the genre for years. One the other side are those who are concerned about threats to freedom of expression, and witch-hunts against individuals. It doesn’t help that there are a few unpleasant and poisonous individuals on both sides, whose behaviour reinforces the other sides’ conviction that they’re right.

I am not a fan of Jonathan Ross. Given some of his past behaviour, including his reputation for cruelty-based humour and his apparent attitude towards women, inviting such a divisive figure to host a flagship event was always going to be problematic. When one of the organising committee resigned in protest to his invitation, that ought to have been a warning sign that he might not have been quite the right person.

But the way events panned out, nobody comes out of this with any credit. The decision to invite him as host was spectacularly tone-deaf given the ongoing divisions in the SF world. But that doesn’t excuse the people who went on Twitter and attacked him personally with quite unnecessary levels of vitriol. And Ross himself didn’t respond to those attacks with good grace. The whole affair from beginning to end is a spectacular fail by the SFF community as a whole.

The public face of the SFF community is diminished by this. Anyone gleefully celebrating “victory” rather than seeing the whole affair as a tragedy needs to take a long hard look at themselves.

Addendum: There’s a lot of (mostly) level-headed discussion on the subject on Charlie Stross‘s blog.

Further Addendum: And a very insightful post from Foz Meadows laying a lot of the blame on the LonCon committee for the ham-fisted way they handled the initial announcement,

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Songo Mnara as an RPG setting?

ku-xlargeA lost city reveals the grandeur of medieval African civilization, and provides a bit of food for thought for anyone creating a psuedo-medieval RPG setting

Some of the world’s greatest cities during the Middle Ages were on the eastern coast of Africa. Their ornate stone domes and soaring walls, made with ocean corals and painted a brilliant white, were wonders to the traders that visited them from Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. They were the superpowers of the Swahili Coast, and they’ve long been misunderstood by archaeologists. It’s only recently that researchers outside Africa are beginning to appreciate their importance.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that in medieval times northern Europe was a backwater, and the real civilisations of the world were going on elsewhere. So any would-be game designer creating yet another Generic Fantasy setting based solely on medieval Europe is missing out.

The whole thing is worth reading, especially the way Songo Mnara had been wrongly assumed to have been a Arab outpost rather than an indiginous African civilisation. It’s true that it was Islamic, but it practiced an African version of Islam with far greater equality between the sexes.

At a time when game designers are being encouraged to be more inclusive, we should remember that medieval Africa wasn’t all primitive tribes, but contained sophisticated civilisations equal to those of Europe.

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Inclusiveness in Geek Culture, part two.

This is a follow-on my previous post in response to Damien Walter’s piece in The Guardian, and assumes you’ve already read that. If you haven’t, go and read that first.

One thing that makes his piece confused is that among the sweeping generalisations he doesn’t make clear idea of what he actually meeds by ‘geek culture’, and seems to conflate a lot of completely unrelated things.

For a start, is there really a single “Geek culture”? I see a lot of overlapping subcultures centred on different things. Some of those a quite progressive, others can be a bit reactionary, and some are guilty of propagating bad ideas that ought to be challenged.

His reference to young white males being told that they’re going to be millionaires or rock stars sounds far more like shallow reality TV and celebrity culture than anything else. Not only are X-Factor and Big Brother not any part of any geek subculture, but they’re a part of mainstream culture that most of those who identify as a geeks explicitly reject.

There is no point trying to deny many geek subculture do contain a disproportionate number of socially awkward people used to being mocked and ostracised, who cling to their subculture as a “safe space” from a hostile and uncaring world. A lot of this may be down to the toxic nature of many US high schools with their endemic bullying and zero-sum popularity-based caste systems. Yes I know full well that those experiences are by no means universal, but they’re still common enough to have an impact on why some aspects of geek culture are the way they are.

Which is why having confident and successful people patronisingly lecturing to them about “White male privilege” and calling them losers provokes such a defensive backlash; it comes over as yet another round of the same sort of bullying they suffered at school. As one game designer I know of has stated, it’s akin to poking a wounded animal with a stick.

Yes, some people do need to grow up, and need to stop defining themselves by how they were treated at high school. But self-righteous lecturing laced with jargon that comes from critical race theory or academic gender studies isn’t the best way to do it. There needs to be a lot more empathy and understanding if the scenes are to be made truly inclusive.

This isn’t to excuse the racism and misogyny that geek cultures tolerates far too much; value systems created out of self-defined victimhood are never going to be pretty. The much-vaulted “all are welcome” inclusiveness of geekdom includes a failure to recognise that the crude bigotry of a minority is completely out of order. That is a major problem, and it does need to be addressed.

I have noticed that James Desborough has blogged about the same subject and makes a number of the same points. But I do think he’s badly wrong about sexism and racism not being a problem.

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , | 8 Comments

There’s something Wrong On The Internet again, and that something seems to be an awful incoherent reactionary petition aimed at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I won’t link to the thing; you can always Google if you enjoy being outraged at entitled prejudiced drivel. While the author of the petition, someone I’d not previously heard of, appears to be a sexist dick, I’m rather disappointed that one of my all time favourite SF authors appears to have signed the thing.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 13 Comments

Genre as Walled Gardens?

Good post on Genji Press on the problems that happen when SF authors and their readers don’t read nearly enough outside their own genre.

Most SF&F’s understanding of human nature seems to be derived not from life, or even from area outside SF&F, but from other works of SF&F, and that’s far too self-limiting.

I think that one of the big reasons Iain Banks was one of the greatest SF writers of his generation was that he didn’t just read outside the genre, he wrote outside it as well.

It’s not just confined to fiction, of course, it’s a problem in music. How many indie or metal bands are there out there who don’t listen to anything outside their own genre? And is it any surprise that their music ends up sounding like a derivative pasiche of other, better bands?

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Inclusiveness in Geek Culture

Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark in Iron Man.A few days ago, The Guardian’s Damien Walter wrote about the preponderance of white male heroes in mass market superhero films and computer games, and attempted to turn it into a polemic about white male privilege in geek culture as a whole. Unfortunately, while his heart may be in the right place, his argument was so clumsily made and so poorly focussed that his many valid points got lost in the noise. Certainly the manner in which he pushed people’s buttons in a way that was always going to provoke an angry emotional response didn’t come over as a good way to start a constructive conversation.

He ends up leaving you with the impression he’s hating on fandom for Hollywood’s failure to greenlight the sort of projects he wants to see. If you’re actually interested in doing something constructive about geek cultures’ problems with inclusiveness, are lines like this remotely helpful?

Young white men often number among the most useless and deficient individuals in society, precisely because they have such a delusional sense of their own importance and entitlements. They’ve been raised to believe that one day they’ll be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars (and superheroes), but they won’t, and they’re having a tantrum because of it.

Writing a piece that reads as though it’s designed to provoke a backlash, then using that backlash as evidence of the essential rightness of the original piece is still the tactic of the troll. A handful of troglodytes bloviating about Mencius Moldbug and The Red Pill (don’t ask!) in the comments doesn’t validate the tone of the piece.

And no, he doesn’t get to use the “Tone argument” as a get-out clause. He’s privileged white male himself, so it doesn’t apply to people like him. And he describes himself as a professional writer, so he’s supposed to be good at communicating ideas. He should be capable of doing better than this.

There are indeed a lot of valid points about the sorts of stories that aren’t being told but should. I’d love to see Hollywood move beyond American comic book franchises that pre-date the Civil Rights era in favour of the more contemporary SF by the likes of Charlie Stross, Iain Banks or Alastair Reynolds. Or even more challenging works that aren’t written by white men.

So what, if anything, can we do to encourage media companies to tell more diverse and inclusive stories?

As a start, as fans, critics or maybe even as creators, I would suggest that we spent our energies into supporting and encouraging works that tell the sorts of stories we want to see, the ones that don’t rely on tired stereotypes and clichéd plot tropes. And we should champion such things on their merits for the stories they tell.

On a broader inclusiveness front, how about supporting events like ConTessa?

Is it not better to do this than waste our energies raging at the things we dislike and the people who like them?

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , | 2 Comments