Rewinding My Personality

This post will contain spoilers for the first episode of Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange. There are content warnings for violence and privacy intrusions.

I liked the first episode of Life Is Strange, though for a review I would recommend Maddy Myers over at Paste Magazine. Similarly, I was not surprised to see Todd Harper look at the rewind mechanic of the game. The protagonist, Max, gains the power to rewind time, and over the course of this first episode feels very much like a tutorial for how to use that, providing a sandbox in which to try it in various scenarios. Harper noted an interaction with drones that I completely missed, whereas I noted a few people completely walked by the fact that they could help a young teen woman not be hit by a football later in the episode.

Harper further elaborates on other games that have used the rewind mechanism, but what I find interesting is that in this game, it saves me the time of being a save scummer. Instead of saving right before a decision (not actually possible, as this auto-saves), making both decisions, and then sticking with one, I can easily just start rewinding time after a decision and see how it goes. This actually caused some waffling on my part: wanting to see how both options were presented before making a decision. Max does comment on this, never giving an indication as to which would be better.

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How does the player define better? I began to realize I was slowly learning more about Max the more I played with rewinding time. Here was a character who had just moved to a town in which she had lived before, is attending an elite school, and apparently has a great future as a photographer ahead of her. Oh, and one of her old best friends lives in the town. However, her need to be liked can be reflected in her ability to rewind time, as Harper notes. She doesn’t naturally have the answers to many of the questions her classmates pose her, which puts her in the position of being able to either walk away or use her ability to gain their good graces.

In particular, the achievements in the game seem to try and push for that narrative, as the majority are for taking photographs, a handful of which only occur when getting a certain rewind portion correct and then photographing the result (a football missing a student’s head leads to it hitting a window, which can then be photographed; or a bird whose life is saved by lifting a window allows for the same bird to be photographed again in a later scene).

Which leads to a feeling that to achieve the full intent of the game, and what is expected of Max (at least from the developers’ point of view), one has to use this device to do as much as possible, and to test the extent of these powers. Therefore, better seems to indicate use it whenever possible, but at the crux of important decisions where one has to go one way or another, and can’t rewind to come up with a third option, there is no definitive answer, or even one so basically broken down as paragon/renegade. Gather as much information as possible in order to make the decision you feel would be best.

In particular, in a later scene, Max’s former best friend, Chloe, is being harangued by her father-in-law. I had guided Max to hide in a closet and the decision came up whether or not to interrupt the scene. Having earlier gone to fix Max’s camera, I had snooped around the house, finding evidence that Max’s father-in-law was both the security guard who had been harassing Kate earlier, and that he was creepily surveying the entire campus with cameras. A teacher had earlier asked Max to sign a petition to stop this from occurring, though it appears to already be in effect anyway.

Much of this can actually be skipped, but it meant that in that moment, knowing that this father-in-law was a surveillance fiend, I felt Max, whose questioning if anything she does is correct, would have chosen to remain out of the picture and not focus on her for now. She has an odd power set, is new-again in town, and has very few close friends. Chloe would later bemoan Max not getting involved, which seems out of character for her, considering she expressly stated that Max being caught there would have disastrous consequences for her (then again, we don’t know Chloe’s full story, and she had been getting stoned right before this).

This Telltale games style of adventure game seems to thrive on difficult decisions, and I much appreciate the fact that not only has Dontnod added a mechanic where I don’t feel even the urge to research my options beforehand, or needing to go look up what happens afterward, but embraced it within the framework of Max’s own confusion and willingness to be liked. It does inform about not only her own insecurities, but mimics what I felt my own reaction was in trying to figure out how I would even approach this particular run through the game. As I was getting to learn who Max was, she is learning what her limits are, and together it felt like we were both coming to terms with that before heading further into the story.

Posted in Character Analysis, Criticism, Dontnod Entertainment, Impressions, Life Is Strange | Tagged , , ,

Fumbling Through Wolfenstein

Content warning for discussions of genocide, extreme violence, and other atrocities associated with World War II. Spoiler warnings for Wolfenstein: The New Order.

I am very much a third culture kid. Despite being a dual-citizen of the US and Germany (and spending good portions of my life in both), in the US I am considered a German, and in Germany I am considered an American. And yet, I find both cultures to be fairly alien to me quite regularly (it is not uncommon to have friends express shock that I haven’t experienced this thing or another that everybody else apparently has), but can navigate both with a fair amount of ease (it helps that both of these cultures privilege being white). At the same time, since most of my schooling has been in the US, this means I have had to become very accustomed with World War II.

Being obsessed with wars was something that I saw many teen boys do as I was growing up. Having to listen to details about battles during the Civil War in front of small churches, or something akin, were a grand to-do around lunch time. I found myself interested in the social aspects of war, and because of the atrocities my country had committed against classes of people (Jews, Sinti and Romani, gay men), I had to constantly prove I wasn’t some German who was ignoring the past (because that’s apparently a thing some USians seem to think of Germans).

Therefore, I wanted to play through Wolfenstein: The New Order because I had heard it tackled topics like concentration camps and such. Recently, my maternal grandmother, who is German, had also passed, and there is some small amount of guilt there for never learning fully about her experiences growing up as a young girl during the Third Reich.

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And yet, playing through, I was left with some unease. Sure, there were depictions of horrible things, and there was acknowledgement of the horrors of the Third Reich, but going through the concentration camp felt fairly sparse. It was almost like walking through a village in Skyrim, or Lothering in Dragon Age: Origins. This may partially be because the true atrocities of concentration camps were the experience, which the protagonist, B.J., did not really have to go through. There is a scene where a machine tattoos his identification number on his arm (and a gruesome scene later where he cuts it off), but there was never really any sense that what I was experiencing was that bad.

B.J. is removed from a lot of what has happened. He is a blonde American with a square jaw, blue eyes, and a kick-ass attitude. He is the quintessential action star who is useful for killing Nazis.

I was also rather curious as to what it was like to live in a futuristic 1960 where Germany had won through the use of advanced technology (that they had stolen). Being among the rebels, however, there were only snippets here and there. A mother wanting to report her son for putting on lipstick, a letter detailing the story of a woman whose Sapphic desires would get her into trouble, and some audio files from B.J.’s love interest reading a diary about a woman who was murdering Nazis and had an abortion. Most of the context clues of the world lay in scattered newspapers printed in their original language (with translations available to the player).

There was an attempt at world building, but because of the verbs available to B.J., and the company he keeps, it became rather limited in what it could show me, the player: the German and American who grew up and has read through a culture that had to deal with its guilt following the end of the war, and those that see it as a triumph on the world stage at the exact same time.

One thing I did appreciate is that the Nazis were humanized. It may be strange to wish humanization for Nazis, but I feel it important in the fact that these were humans who committed these horrors and atrocities. We must not forget that all it takes is humans to be so cruel to each other. In fact, with the push into using machines, robots, and enhanced humans, there is the active decision to give part of their humanity up in order to achieve their goals. There is horror to be found in complacency with the status quo that robs others of their humanity.

In particular, the second nemesis B.J. faces is Frau Engel, a woman who runs the concentration camp that B.J. visits. Her first encounter with B.J. is on a train onto which he has smuggled, where she tests whether he is an undesirable by playing a game where the player has to choose a card that best illustrates a word or concept she throws out (sexy, etc.). The trick is that he can’t be an undesirable, because otherwise he would attempt to take the gun that was laying on the table and shoot her (the conceit being that undesirables have no hope, and that they would be pushed to desperation).

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Later, in the concentration camp, it is possible to overhear her talking with her effete male lover that she gets to have her fun now: she raised her children for the empire. Her selfishness fits in well with the sadistic character who shows people old vacation and war photos to see if they crack under the strain of her eye that can ferret out impurities. In fact, her lover, Bubi, seems to have a certain effete affectation to contrast with her more domineering attitude. I could never quite tell if the game what the game wanted me to think of him, where his lover, Engel, was clearly supposed to be an antagonist. She is far more present, and far more a danger to B.J., coming back even after having her lower face crushed by one of the robots she uses to control the concentration camp.

Then, in between chapters, B.J. returns to the rebels’ base. For the most part, these characters are distinct for the fact that they are outcasts in some fashion or another, banded against the system that would likely be rid of them anyway. One of these rebels is J, who seems to be this alternate timeline’s Jimi Hendrix: a black man who plays guitar left-handed and infuses the game and B.J’s reality with some psychedelics.

When B.J. asks why J doesn’t fight, J points out that the US was not much better. That the America B.J. fought for, the freedom he thinks he stands for, is all based on his privilege. Were he black, he would not likely have the same views.

This aligns well with the fact that Deathshead, the main antagonist, accuses BJ of just slaughtering Germans indiscriminately, and not being any better than the injustice against which is supposedly fighting. This argument does not work as well for me, as the Germans are not quite characters in and of themselves; the sense of a family life is hinted at, but almost every interaction is with a soldier, who yells out the same barks in German, and who must ultimately be seen as nothing more than an obstacle. Still, it does bring to light the fact that there is no black and white in this particular version of the world either.

It therefore makes sense that B.J. ends up sacrificing himself at the end: given that he is an American who woke up to this world after being stuck in his body for many years, and never truly inhabited this world, he is not one who can affect change in it. He did not live under the yolk of oppression that the Nazis had placed on the world. Plus, as J put its, he is complicit with ‘The Man,’ the big US institution that fought for freedom while not exercising those rights on its own soil. He is a man of action, who is useful during the verbs that require me to kill and destroy. During understanding cultures who have seen horrors he cannot quite fathom, he would be worthless.

However, even though I grew to appreciate the glimpses that were being taken, I realized that this was not a piece of media I would have discussed as a thought exercise with my grandmother. I could gladly discuss Draußen vor der Tür or Die Blechtrommel, this one had more for me to think about as someone who bridges that gap between (and often feels estranged from) both US and German cultures.

Posted in Character Analysis, Criticism, Informal Review | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Gaming Made Me: How I Learned to Stop Fearing and Love Decisions

As a child, I was deemed a born diplomat. The easiest anecdote to relate was when my parents would ask whom I loved more, and I would respond both, giving a compliment to each. As is often the case with a certain people, I found my teen years full of throwing everything away and then doing the opposite of what would please everyone. After graduating college? That all became muddled, and only recently have I found myself more confident in my ability to make decisions for myself.

Part of this was due to economic stability, but another was learning who I was outside of the environment provided by school. This is the type of environment where I was always on; I was always playing a role. To varying degrees, I still do this, but I am much more aware of it all and much more in control of that image based on whom I may be around at any given time.

Which is why I found games to be an essential playground for that discovery. Playing games where I could make choices, no matter how superfluous they were to actually changing the plot, made me realize things about myself. It was a chance to be on stage again, essentially. This also meant arguing with myself and considering the decision I had made.

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It occurred to me over this past weekend, as I played Walking Dead: Season Two, that I was making decisions with a very firm idea in mind. Part of the impetus was that I only had a limited amount of time to make a decision (not really, since I play in windowed mode, I can click outside the window and stall, but I have been purposely avoiding this tactic). Therefore, I found my Clementine tired of everyone’s immature bullshit. Here I was, a small girl, leading a group because they were too incapable of functioning. Granted, this is largely because everyone has varying degrees of mental health issues, considering the environment in which they find themselves.

Then again, balancing between Clementine and my own projection of her reactions, I just figured as a leader, I had to start making some harsh decisions considering the survival of the group. Sure, this led to some questioning of my motives and tactics as regards other characters in the game, but that’s what makes this more interesting to me than just killing demons over and over again in Diablo 3 (though there is a certain joy in that as well).

This was further reiterated in my recent replay of the Dragon Age series. In Origins I found myself playing a politically machinating noblewoman who married Alistair for the chance to place herself and her line back in good standing, more than actual love of him. Whereas in Dragon Age II, I found myself playing a character who was trying to constantly be the big sister to everyone. This led to good mix of responses that were incredibly brunt, diplomatic, and snarky in good measure. Breaking away from the paragon/renegade system meant I felt more free not to game the system, so to speak.

Which is relatively new to me: not gaming the system. I can spend hours theorycrafting over various card games, RPGs, etc. Yet there is a certain thrill at abandoning this when it comes to storytelling, and that is the chance to become what I believe an actual human being would be in these situations.

So, games have more recently given me a more measured reaction to situations. I feel more confident in my ability to analyse a situation and be okay if I don’t make the 100% perfect decision anymore. Not having to game the system has moved me away from the same analysis paralysis I would often face in real life, worried about how others would perceive my actions. It’s a common lesson to learn, but in my case, games helped me grasp on to that concept once again after a tumultuous past few years.

Posted in BioWare, Design, Dragon Age: Origins, Impressions, Mass Effect | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Choice Effect

Potential spoilers: Dragon Age, The Witcher.

Despite donning a different role in the various games I play, I find that when faced with the option of subjugating someone, or siding with those who hold systemic power, I always pause. Recently replaying the recent BioWare RPGs and The Witcher series, it struck me how I could not side against the Scoia’tael in the latter, nor could I find myself wanting to side against the mages in one of the former. Something in me innately wants to rebel against the notion of further subjugation, regardless of whether it would be part of my character or not.

Rebellious

What seems like a fairly simple observation began when I started comparing The Witcher to Dragon Age, as I have seen many do. There are arguments about better combat systems, a character with whom to identify, a better world, and more powerful decision making. The arguments go back and forth both ways, though that last point struck me as interesting, because there is systemic racism that is apparent in both games. Yet, when I looked at my import from the first Witcher to its sequel, my decisions barely had any consequence. Then I recalled the end of Dragon Age II and realized why that was.

A story that a game metes out is a system in and of itself. The world that has been built is tied into that story (as well as the mechanics for progression; it so happens that in these two franchises, violence is rampant), and the only true way to have any effect is to change that story itself. Importing decisions means that any decision I make in a game will be of limited scope. I can side with the Scoia’tael all I want, but that won’t change the fact of their oppression, or the plight of the various elves and dwarves found wandering that world. In Dragon Age II, it is Anders’s reckless act of blowing up the Chantry in Kirkwall that allows BioWare’s writers to move the circumstances surrounding the oppression of mages forward, nothing that my Grey Warden did in Origins, nor any decisions I made in the sequel.

What strikes me about this is that it is an interesting parallel for effecting social change in real life: until the narrative changes in some significant way, all the work is merely a build up toward it. Of course, in these games, these acts happen no matter what, meaning my choice of whether to be for or against such large-scale changes colors which side I am on and how I would perceive such. Looking at the US right now, depending on how one feels about same-sex marriage, all of the seeming progress that is occurring right now means there are a range of reactions and emotions, based on peoples’ own actions and efforts in that struggle.

Which is to say, my hesitance in siding with the humans against the Scoia’tael has a clear impact in that the Geralt I play would clearly have a role in my mind, and would clearly have a mindset on how to approach decisions (granted, this one is alien to me, which is why I have not gone that route yet, despite some arguments that ‘both sides are just as bad,’ which is an argument at which I reflexively roll my eyes).

These are games that are built on decisions, and people seem disappointed when the decisions do not lend themselves to larger changes that carry over from game to game, or even from decision to decision in the same game sometimes. But, if we allow ourselves to inhabit the characters that would make such a decision, it does allow for a narrative to be constructed. These types of games are a collaboration of the players’ imaginations and reasons with the story being told.

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2013 Into 2014

I’m not writing as much as I once did. This is partly because 2013 has been a transitional year for me (having a job that pays well and has regular hours, many different circles of friends, and a boyfriend), and I’ve found I am less satisfied with the same-old. Therefore, it’s not wholly surprising to find most of the writing of which I am proud this year can be found in little odd side projects.

1380330_577566111186_81956165_nTake, for instance, my work with re/Action this year. I wrote about the question of historicism (heavily influenced by my professor Dr. Rhoades) about what are the stories that are passed on to us in games, and how much can we trust them in terms of their authenticity. Who is telling us this story, and what stock do we place in this? For the most part, so far, we’ve been able to trust our narrators (the exceptions burning a brand in our mind, the likes of which we blazon on t-shirts, blog posts, and memes).

The second instance hits more close to home, as I explain being an ethical slut and and explaining how I am in an open relationship and how I am disappointed at what being a slut in games typically means. At a certain point I stopped counting the number with whom I slept. When I went in for a recent STI screening, I answered, “More than 100 and less than 500″ in the number of people with whom I slept with last year. I take my precautions, and they have worked for me so far. More importantly, the people with whom I’ve slept have been people, not just another notch in my masculinity, straight-acting or otherwise.

There was also my contribution to Five Out of Ten, which served to highlight my thoughts on gender and how I explored games in their earlier days (for me, in the late ’80s and early ’90s).

Further, in Memory Insufficient I discuss how the idea of families in a heteronormative context can fit for some queer ideals, but when introducing queer characters, brings up the idea of non-heteronormative methods of passing on culture and tradition. This was raised in part by the successful funding and acceptance of the Massive Chalice Kickstarter (which I did back).

Lastly, I contributed to Ghosts In The Machine, which was a collaborative creative exercise exploring what questions the digital game space opens us up to in terms of larger questions. My own was the ethics of forced-upon violent rhetorics: whom they serve, and what they seek to enterprise out of the audience to whom they speak. I’m not sure whether or not I was successful, but it does beg the question of further exploration among game-like themes.

Surprisingly, for the first time in many years, I played a number of newer releases, about which I would love to share further thoughts, but rest assured I am currently working on a further explication of Gone Home (which I named my GOTY for Sparky Clarkson), and another short story. Whether or not I am ever as prolific as I was before (however sparse that may have been), I hope to still be around and offering.

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HRC’s Branding Attempts

Right after the recession hit the media in a big way, the company for whom I was working shrunk the design department with which I was working. Taking the opportunity to pursue something about which I was passionate, I decided to try out my hand at canvassing, and one of our clients was the HRC. This was right around the time of Prop 8, and the issue at hand was marriage equality. Not for Prop 8, but the issue as a larger whole.

One day while out at the University of Chicago campus, one of my fellow canvassers was accosted by some activists, demanding to know why the HRC would demand money for LGBT causes considering they were abandoning the T in that group? While my coworker sputtered, flabbergasted, I watched on, having known this, but realizing I could not continue with this work, for this particular organization. I did not go back the next day.

I am torn about today.

My Facebook feed (moreso than my Twitter feed) is awash in red equal signs, the branding that the HRC uses going under a color switch in order for people to signal their support of marriage equality as it is being heard in the Supreme Court. I do support marriage equality. I do not support the HRC. When I mentioned this on Twitter, an exchange occurred whereby Courtney Stanton brought up this article explaining the issues the trans community has with the HRC (and with much of what happens in the gay and lesbian movement overall). I won’t rehash the article because it is worth your full attention and a full reading.

I also find it hard to argue for the HRC’s branding in this issue considering they were against the ruling taking place in the first place. To my cynical mind, this reads as a way to pursue more brand awareness, thereby increasing their ability to fundraise in the future. I see no reason not to be cynical with the HRC. This could very well be their gamble to make the best of what they consider a bad situation, but it one where I find using their branding rather counterintuitive for promoting queer issues overall.

What people do with this information is up to them, and I am not trying to create a ‘queerer-than-thou’ hierarchy, but feel people should be informed.

Posted in Inclusiveness, LGBT | Tagged , ,

Five Out of Ten

I don’t know how to pitch. While I have pitched articles in the past, successfully and not, I have found that what usually ends up being sent out reads more like a personal note, introducing myself, and talking about something about which I am super excited. As someone who has never made a successful living wage off writing, I honestly cannot ascertain whether this is an appropriate approach (given that my pitching and writing have often been delayed by both a lack of self-confidence driven by depression), but since my work was recently featured in Five Out of Ten, I figured I would give some insight into what I pitched there, as I find the topic itself fascinating.

So, if you are unfamiliar, Five Out of Ten is a magazine about the culture surrounding games, interested in critical talk about not only the games themselves, but their fit into the society in which they live. From my understanding, it’s aimed to give someone who’s not very familiar with games an entry point for discussion and food for thought. I cannot say whether it’s been successful, largely because those who are my friends and to whom I introduce such to, even if they aren’t people who play games, are interested in that discussion already, and have a place from which to engage.

So, as to what I pitched:

Hello!

My name is Denis, and I have been writing about games for a few years. Below please find a representative sample of my work (which should tell you more about me than any words I could put here):

With the Galaxy in Flames, My Video Game Hero Finally Came out of the Closet
Kotaku

Queer Characters: BioShock
GayGamer

Pokédrag
Gamers With Jobs

The last of those is perhaps of most interest, as I wish to write a feature exploring what exactly gender means in a digital world. When we are given the choice of choosing our character’s creation, gender does find its way there, and it limits us in interesting ways that tell us quite a bit about how we view gender itself. Which is a bit daft, isn’t it? Excepting a few games (and of particular, recently), the gender really seems to have little to no effect. I don’t ever see my digital penis, vagina, or whatever genital configuration I may have, and yet it seems my gender and sex must always align, yet when I am asked my gender, it always refers to my sex. So it seems a bit silly to make me go through these rigid gender binaries.

Which is why I want to write a piece not only exploring gender in a digital age where my genitals don’t matter, but to take it a step further and look at how this systemic boundary frees me in how I can view sex and break those definitions entirely. Who says I am a woman? The fact that I say I am? So do drag queens, and I would write a diary-like feature from the perspective of a drag queen and king (why should only one gender have all the fun?) going through a few character generators, making pointed comments that hopefully illuminate how much symbolism we put in even the most physical of attributes we give our characters. Ideally, it would make a larger comment about how our genital configuration only matters in the rarest of circumstances (depending on how much one enjoys sex with varying partners), and that the entire face of gender should be however the person wishes to express themselves, and how games offer a perfect teaching moment.

The types of games I wish to explore would include at least one MMO (I am thinking either Star Wars or Guild Wars 2), one RPG (one Bethesda and one BioWare, preferably), and then Sims 3. The idea would be to keep it light and entertaining, free of jargon, but still making an overall point of the entire idea of coding gender is very telling of how we see gender in real life, despite the fact that it can be as mutable as sex for some people.

My piece did not really end up like the diary I imagined. One, I had done it with Pokémon and as Erik Hanson of Gamers With Jobs can attest, that was often not on time because it required not only my critically thinking about what I had encountered in the game (viewed through a lens of subverting gender), but treating it as a creative endeavor. Two, the second piece I was being asked to write asked me to contemplate a current issue in games and offer a Player’s Guide, so to speak, to understanding the issue. My pitch for that?

The current games landscape is no the games community with which I grew up. I grew up playing games with my mother, and all of her online friends, who were women, black, gay, bi, and every stripe of diversity you could imagine. We did not call each other faggot, we supported each other, and when I came out, my first forays into such were in an MMO, because I felt safe (further making an argument for MMOs as a place to discover our identities by reinventing ourselves). Depending on how personal a piece would be acceptable, I could trace my interactions with online games, from BBS staples, to MUDs I later dialed into, to the earliest MMOs and how that progression has changed over the years.

This took MMOs out of the consideration of my main piece.

Now, it just so happened that I managed to win a copy of XCOM from Bit Creature around that time, so it was heavily on my mind, especially as I did end up playing it using drag conventions. My male soldiers were named after female games people, my female soldiers named after the male games people. It being fresh on my mind, I used it as a jumping off point, then referenced my experiences with Pokémon, and continued on with The Sims and making larger statements about gender and beauty constructs in games. I addressed both men and women, largely because while I can speak about how we sexualize women, I know from experience how the ideal male shape has shaped my own perceptions, especially as someone who sees his presentation ranging the gamut from butch to femme and places beyond quite frequently (the author picture I provided Alan can be used for reference).

The second piece came out pretty much how I expected, however. In some ways, it feels like pieces I’ve written before, but weaving them together and making an argument from a different angle. EA recently had an LGBT meeting where they discussed, among other topics, how toxic the online environment can be. It’s honestly what keeps me from many games, because I have no patience for others’ obstinance and poor behavior. Therefore, while I discussed gender, and my own love of playing around with it, the second piece is far more personal, as someone who grew up as a teenager playing various games in the BBS/MUD/MMO space. I love the genre, and yet I hate what it can become.

So, there you have that pitch. I like what I wrote, and I feel glad to be featured along some truly excellent pieces (honestly, I had never thought specifically that way about fate, videogames, and tragedy; we do need more pieces exploring gender and sexism in series like Silent Hill; and there’s plenty more to munch and chew on). If you’d like a copy, please go ahead and buy one; the funding model is such that the contributors split the proceeds (minus operation costs), so in a way, you’ll be directly funding my work.

Thank you!

Posted in Criticism, Inclusiveness, LGBT, personal | Tagged , , , , , ,