Thursday, July 23, 2015


Four years ago, I got back into Magic: The Gathering. It's a game I loved as a teenager, and I kept playing it for years after it stopped being a fad at my middle school. As time went on, my hobby increasingly met with eye rolls form my classmates, and I also became hyperaware of the many things that made me "different" from the people around me. I started hating my interest in video games, Dungeons and Dragons, and Magic, and I convinced myself that there must be something wrong with me because I didn't look or act like the popular kids. After my best friend and go-to game buddy abandoned Magic for football and girls, I shoved my cards in a shoebox in my closet, made new friends, and tried to get into surfing, guitar, or any of the other hobbies that were popular at my high school. None of it made me happy.

Magic's latest release, Magic Origins, also focuses on turbulent teenage years. Card art, flavor text, and supplementary materials recount the stories of how several characters grew from fledgling youths to powerful wizards. Each of these wayward teenagers struggles against their environment until arriving at a climactic moment when an inner "spark" is ignited and the character's full powers are released. Many of the set's cards depict events from these stories, and each character has its own special card that can be flipped over to demonstrate the important transformation.

Character-driven storytelling represents a major change from the early days of the game when plot elements occasionally appeared in evocative flavor text printed at the bottom of cards. That hands-off approach created atmosphere without detailing a linear narrative, and this was often a good thing. The game's world felt rich and expansive, as it was bound more by the imagination of the players than by carefully calculated marketing materials.

Indeed, canonizing a specific storyline makes the world feel smaller and the characters less interesting. Nowhere is this more evident than in the series of short stories published to guide players through each Origins character's journey. Although the stories fit into a familiar and well-tested coming-of-age archetype, the resulting fiction too often feels both overladen with details and incapable of creating believable characters and situations.

In "Fire Logic", Chandra's parents give her a job as a black market courier, and on her very first mission she decides to take a shortcut by trespassing through a heavily policed neighborhood, resulting in a series of tedious combat sequences. In "Kytheon Iora of Akros", the title character surreptitiously tries to kill the god of death. These plot points make it hard to relate to the characters, who are defined by their unpredictable and illogical decisions. Scenes like these likely exist for the sole purpose of creating action that can be portrayed in card illustrations.

The stories also make curious departures from established genre norms. "Home" begins with Nissa receiving a prophetic vision of her journey across the world to confront a malignant force that poisons the land. A glittering path appears before her, and she follows it through an escalating series of perils until finally reaching the foretold confrontation. At this moment, she suddenly teleports to a new world with an unrelated and hastily resolved plot. Readers are right to feel cheated. Similarly, "Absent Minds" casts Jace as a troubled youth who is scorned for his special powers. He is taken in by a benevolent mentor, who teaches Jace to control his mind magic while working to end the civil war that has engulfed their world. In a bewildering twist, Jace discovers that his mentor is an evil war profiteer, challenges him to mind battle, and then somehow kills him by erasing his own memory. The story ends with an amnesiac Jace entering a new city and meeting a beautiful woman.

These plots seem to be constructed with the belief that unexpected surprises represent the pinnacle of storytelling. Subverting audience expectations can be a powerful tool, but there's a difference between a story arc that takes an unexpected trajectory and one that abruptly flatlines. These twists and deviations are all the more puzzling because the stories are designed to appeal to a mass audience, and this goal is most easily accomplished by adhering to universal archetypes; if the fantasy coming-of-age story structure worked in The Chronicles of NarniaA Wizard of Earthsea, and Harry Potter, there's no need to reinvent the wheel for a disposable piece of marketing material.

Origins gets it right at least once. In "The Fourth Pact", Liliana turns to dark magic in an attempt to save her brother's life. When her decision dooms him instead, she becomes obsessed with gaining control over death and sells her soul to achieve immortality. The story is straightforward but compelling; we know from the beginning that Liliana is headed down a dark path, but we stick along for the ride because we want to see how it plays out. Furthermore, Liliana remains a dynamic and relatable character because she is confronted with difficult choices when the stakes are high. Deciding to use forbidden methods in order to save a loved one is much more emotionally resonant than trying to kill a god just because.

Dilemmas necessarily lead to meaningful decisions, and this is as true in life as it is in fiction. I quit Magic when I was fifteen because I thought that having cooler hobbies and friends would make me happy. When my high school crush finally got drunk enough to allow himself to make a pass at me, I turned him down. Last month, I left my job because I decided unemployment would be better than remaining in a toxic work environment. Like any character, I'm defined by the choices I've made, and I now realize that choosing what feels right is much more important than trying to adhere to abstract notions of what a good life is supposed to look like. Playing games makes me happy, and that's a good thing. I only wish Magic's writers had the same faith in the imagination and individuality of the game's players.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

THE GATHERING: Special Treatment

Last week, Star City Games published an article by Meghan Wolff, "Women in Magic: The Gathering". Wolff's article outlines some of the reasons why women rarely attend competitive Magic tournaments. Among other things, Wolff calls for content publishers and tournament organizers to take active steps to increase the visibility of female Magic players. She also describes the sexual objectification and other forms of intimidation that women often face when they attend events. I recommend reading the whole thing. (This same topic has been discussed by other female writers in several recent articles.)

At the end of the week, Star City followed up with a response article by Jim Davis, "Women and Magic". Davis says he also wants to see more women in competitive Magic, but he critiques Wolff's approach as one that would create inequality by giving special treatment to women. He contends that players should be courteous to each other, that women should speak up if they are being disrespected, and that female players need to accomplish more in order to earn the respect of the community.

Via Twitter's @CorvusE
I wasn't following this while it was happening, but it appears that a shitstorm ensued, and Star City ended up retracting Davis's article and apologizing for it. The apology has a public comments section that is littered with comments lambasting feminists for being unreasonable, overly sensitive, and opposed to equality. I'm trying to understand the worldview of Davis's defenders, as I find their rhetoric toxic and utterly devoid of empathy. However, I'm willing to bet they feel similarly about my perspective, and I would like to develop a strategy for how to be a good ally to female gamers on this issue.

I cannot ever know exactly how Wolff and other women feel, but I can relate to their description of the unwelcoming atmosphere at Magic tournaments. About four years ago, I had just started playing the game for the first time, and I went to one of my first competitive events: a sealed Innistrad grand prix trial. I was nervous and giddy, and I woke up early to drive east over unfamiliar roads to a small card shop in San Gabriel. I was in unfamiliar territory, but I knew the cards and was excited to attend the upcoming grand prix tournament in San Diego. Sadly, my enthusiasm didn't last long, as it wasn't long before I heard the store regulars cursing each other with homophobic taunts. It was clear that I didn't belong there. Even worse, I felt unsafe. I had trouble focusing on my games. I played poorly and dragged myself home. I never returned to that store, and I never made it to the grand prix.

This isn't the only time this has happened. At my regular store, I've called out other players for making anti-gay or misogynist comments. They have either dismissed my concerns or defiantly defended their words. Similarly, I've met with sarcasm and disdain when I talk to other players about the misogynist language they are using. These interactions have left me feeling angry and rejected, and it also makes me not want to attend other events.

To their credit, the people at Wizards of the Coast have been making positive steps towards creating a more supportive play environment. Starting in Theros block, the creative content and art direction have more consistently featured strong, non-sexualized women, as well as people of color and LGBTQ characters. There is still room for growth; Magic 2015 featured fifteen cards created by guest designers, none of whom were female. I remarked on this to a male friend, who claimed this was because women don't make games. When I hesitated to provide a counter example, he said that I had just proven his point. I'm embarrassed by my stumble, but this certainly doesn't invalidate the excellent work of women game designers in an industry dominated by men. If anything, this example proves the point being made by Wolff and others who have called for increased visibility of women in games.

To bring my own story full circle, I recently registered for this year's upcoming grand prix in San Diego. I'm hoping I will make it this time, and that it will be a good experience, but I would be lying if I said I weren't already steeling myself against unapologetically hurtful comments. The nervousness I (and others) feel before an event should come from excitement and not anxiety or fear. I look forward to the day when this isn't considered a form of special treatment.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Abusive Video Game Lovers: Sabin Figaro

He's careless with his beauty. He's a show-off that wants everyone to know that he's strong and in control. He takes up a lot of space in the locker room, and I'm not just talking about his muscles.

There's a reason why he keeps his eyes focused on the mirror while he's lifting his weights. He wants you to think he's impervious. He wants himself to believe it, too. So he acts like he doesn't need anyone else. Just his weight room. His sports field. His yoga mat.

He dresses casually and comfortably but always shows some skin. His simple jewelry and accessories suggest individuality and nonchalance, and he's convinced himself that his spartan aesthetic makes him purer and less artificial than all the other guys. In reality, he's afraid of committing to a more defined style, so he hides behind the mask of not caring.

Don't be fooled: he still wants you to look at him. He wants everyone to look at him. He just acts like a tough guy because he's afraid of what would happen if someone got close and saw all of his insecurities. After all, he is a tourist. He grew up in the lap of luxury and likes to think that he's a bigger man because he's walked away from it, but his family money will always be there for him when times get tough. This truth makes him feel small and weak, and this is why he won't stop running away from his past.

If you press his buttons just right, he'll put on a great show, but as soon as you get tired or make the slightest misstep, he shuts down and refuses to respond. He makes you feel like it's your fault, but he's terrified that he's the one disappointing you. So he doesn't call. He pretends like it never happened. He hits the weight room and keeps hoping that a big, strong man will catch him when he's about to crumble under the weight of the world.

Watching him is excruciating. His muscles pressing against his tank top. The winning smile he flashes his teammates. The tenderness in his eyes that makes you want to take him in your arms, hold him tight, and tell him he's perfect just the way he is. That sinking feeling when you realize that you never will.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Homophobia is Child's Play in Toy Story 3 (2010)

I'll admit it: I am a huge Pixar fan. In fact, I often defend the studio as being the last great bastion of cinematic creativity in Hollywood today. Pixar films regularly feature smart, character-driven humor, strong visual storytelling that has obviously been crafted in the studio as opposed to the boardroom, and a bittersweet mixture of joy and pathos that never fails to make me weak in the knees. Even though I generally boycott the Los Angeles movie theater experience, I giddily make an annual exception for the latest Pixar release. Their films are so damn good that even at their worst (i.e. Cars), they still manage to outshine nearly every computer animated film ever released by the competition. Needless to say, I found myself powerless to resist the lure of seeing Toy Story 3 on its opening weekend.

Unsurprisingly, the film was charming, cinematic, and emotionally stirring. A few sequences felt a little visually overwhelming, some of the more delightful characters didn't seem to receive the screen time they merited (including newcomers Mr. Pricklepants, Chuckles the Clown, and Trixie the Triceratops), and several minor plot points made little sense without some familiarity with the film's predecessors (this is a cardinal sin amongst sequels). These small flaws notwithstanding, Toy Story 3 was a masterfully executed film.

But still, I was disappointed, disheartened, and more than a little disgusted by the picture's brazen homophobia. The film portrays one of its new characters, a Ken doll named Ken, as a flighty, narcissistic dandy whose effeminate behavior transforms him into a walking punchline. Time and again, his appearance, demeanor, and mannerisms are mocked by the other characters, and the film thus projects the insidious message that men who violate societal standards of masculine gender behavior are worthy of ridicule.

In one particularly abhorrent scene, several characters tease Ken for being a girl's toy. His hasty, emotional denial indicates that this is a taunt he has deflected many times before and which has caused him a great deal of torment. His bitter self-hatred, tragically familiar to many bullied gays, is nonetheless presented as laughable. In another scene, several characters receive a letter written with pink, glittery ink and declare that Barbie has beautiful handwriting before suddenly realizing that Ken is the note's author. They react with bemused surprise, suggesting that there's something bizarre, unnatural, and comical about men who display feminine behavior.

The film also repeatedly belittles Ken for cross-dressing (or purportedly doing so). In one scene, a ticked off Barbie angrily demands that Ken stop wearing her scarf. In another, Barbie disguises herself in Ken's full body spacesuit and almost gives herself away when she forgets to change out of her high heels. Luckily, this mistake is simply viewed as confirmation that Ken likes to wear women's clothes under his outfit, and Barbie manages to escape, though not without suffering a sigh of reproach. This implies that effeminate men like Ken can reasonably be expected to secretly wear women's clothes, and also that transvestism is shameful and needs to be hidden.

Although the film ostensibly suggests that Ken has heterosexual feelings for Barbie, this rarely serves as more than window-dressing for his much greater interest in his own good looks. When he and Barbie go on a date, he spends the entire time modeling different outfits. Furthermore, his fashion sense is portrayed as campy and out of touch. "Love your leg warmers," he tells Barbie without a hint of irony. His own wardrobe is an explosion of the worst excesses of disco, and he squeals in panic when his treasured Nehru jacket is threatened. We can't help but feel that Ken's sequin-studded blazer isn't the only thing he keeps in the closet. Furthermore, his ultra-tacky taste reinforces the stereotype that gay men choose to dress like freaks instead of adopting the sensible, quieter mores of masculine, socially acceptable heterosexuals.

The film also delights in casting Ken as a laughable sissy villain. Even though he serves as a prominent figure among the cabal of evil toys, he lacks the physical prowess of his cohorts and must rely on their strength and cunning to incapacitate his foes. His own attempts at leadership and interrogation are ridiculed by the organization's ringleader, to whom Ken remains a subservient sidekick. He is also easily distracted and ambushed (due to his excessive fondness for showing off his clothes), and he sells out his friends in order to save his designer threads. He eventually redeems himself, but even his moment of courage can hardly be taken seriously as he spends the entire scene wearing nothing more than heart-speckled underpants.

In the end, Toy Story 3 presents Ken as a silly fop who deserves to be humiliated for his unnatural, shameful, and utterly despicable gender-defying behavior. Furthermore, the film compels us to always laugh at Ken and never with him. Casting Ken as a bad guy, the film gives us little reason to empathize with him and even suggests that he deserves to be bullied by those around him because of his effeminate nature.

Sadly, these kinds of portrayals are rampant in popular culture. When LGBT people aren't ignored entirely, we're presented as demeaning and outrageous stereotypes. What results is a vicious cycle in which we hunger for representation in the media but often end up feeling kicked to the curb when we are portrayed in cruel and humiliating ways.

In many cases, we have only found expression through happy accidents. Back in the early 1990's, Mattel released a revamped Ken doll as part of the Earring Magic series. Earring Magic Ken sports tight black pants, a mesh shirt, and a lavender vest, as well as blond highlights and a single earring. He also appears to be wearing a cock ring on a chain around his neck. The doll became an instant must-have item in the gay community, and a horrified Mattel recalled the product. Their belief seemed to be that it would be disastrous to have their product associated with homosexuality. Despite the recall, Earring Magic Ken became the best-selling Ken of all time. Commentators claimed that the doll's popularity derived from its kitsch factor, and while this may be partially true, I think it also touched on something deeper: a desire to be seen and represented as a part of the fabric of everyday America. This yearning certainly hasn't gone away, and as long as Earring Magic Ken is kept off the shelves and Toy Story 3's sickeningly offensive Ken remains on the screen, we still have a long way to go.

Monday, August 24, 2009

How can the light that burned so brightly suddenly burn so pale?

Is it a kind of dream,
Floating out on the tide,
Following the river of death downstream?
Oh, is it a dream?

There's a fog along the horizon,
A strange glow in the sky,
And nobody seems to know where you go,
And what does it mean?
Oh, is it a dream?

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Living End (1992)

The Living End is a brutal film. Conventional audiences will find it nearly unwatchable because of its paper-thin plot, agonizingly static characters, and ludicrous dialogue, not to mention its penchant for eroticized violence and painful gay sex. But The Living End wasn't made for conventional audiences; director Gregg Araki seems more focused on using his film to broadcast a deafening "fuck you" to puritanical America, the Hollywood establishment, and anyone else who can hear his scream of rage.

Much of the film's anger derives from the AIDS activist culture that was boiling over when The Living End first emerged in 1992. The story follows Jon, an unassuming movie critic struggling to find meaning after being diagnosed with HIV. A chance meeting introduces him to Luke, a hard-drinking, HIV-positive pretty boy who finds himself on the run after murdering a cadre of gay bashers. The two escape on a road trip, deciding that the death sentence imposed by their HIV status gives them ample justification to do anything and everything they want. An orgy of sex, violence, and really awesome industrial music ensues.

The film ultimately serves to create a dark fantasy escape from the cruel apathy that greeted the AIDS epidemic. Jon personifies the effete HIV-positive gay man who finds himself marginalized and wished out of existence by the world around him. He fulfills his desires through Luke, a beautiful stranger who ignores all the rules, murders the homophobes who attack him, and provides an easy escape from an imperfect world. Together, the two transgress the barriers of the society that has rejected them and craft new lives for themselves beyond the boundaries of their mundane world.

The Living End continues on its rage bender for as long as it can manage, but like all joy rides, it must eventually come crashing back to reality. The characters burn out and rail against each other and their environment, but the film seems eager to cast aside these tender moments and delve back into chaos. Even with these flashes of lucidity, the film remains raw, deviant, and often without any overriding sense of direction or clarity.

But is it worth it? Maybe, but it sure leaves one hell of a hangover.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Was I the only one whose college experience wasn't some sort of drug-fueled orgy? Where were the amazingly good-looking angsty Bohemian dreamers while I was sitting in my dorm room, waiting for my own End of the Universe? It probably has something to do with the upper-crusty conservative college I went to. Or maybe it was just the wrong decade.

Bret Easton Ellis published The Rules of Attraction in 1987, shortly after graduating from a small New England liberal arts college much like the one that he describes in his novel. The fictional school, Camden, is populated by apathetic proto-hipsters who spend their time snidely criticizing each other, aimlessly changing their majors, half-heartedly dabbling in the arts, and fucking like rabbits.

The film version of The Rules of Attraction repositions itself in the 2000's and updates various aspects of the book accordingly. It also takes several liberties with the characters and their stories, though in a way that remains faithful to the emotional tenor of Ellis's writing, even if several items have been sanitized for the screen (most of the gay content has been excised and one of the characters is a proud virgin, whereas everyone in the book is a total sexaholic). Perhaps somewhat cynically, the film was marketed as a college comedy, and while it possesses the requisite scenes of dorm parties and casual hook-ups, its humor is much darker than typical frat fare, as it ultimately presents a dark fantasy of sexually vampiric deviants who always ruin themselves by falling in love with the wrong people.

I don't think I ever thought I would find myself saying this, but James Van Der Beek is kind of amazing in this film. He plays Sean, the nihilistic drug-dealing partyboy who fails his classes for fun, screws anything that moves, and never quite understands how he makes himself miserable. Like all the film's characters, he hopelessly chases after the one person he can never have- in his case, it's the crafty, Bohemian Lauren, who still holds out hope for a lost boyfriend. Sean meanwhile finds himself pursued by Paul, who cooly mocks his classmates' behavior while struggling to conceal his own insecurities. It's pathetic and tragic enough to be hilarious, especially because it so successfully transforms the most superficial elements of the college film into something so different and refreshing.

The Rules of Attraction earns extra points for being one of the first major features to be cut on Final Cut Pro. The film has a certain simplicity and crispness representative of the best of digital editing systems, and it also bravely includes an entire four minute episode shot entirely on consumer DV camera. This section, which follows Kip Pardue's character as he travels around Europe in a drug-and-sex-induced stupor, is perhaps the strongest and most honest chapter in the entire film, and it demonstrates the great promise of multi-format editing that has become available to filmmakers working in the digital world.

Also, amazingly, the commentary track is by Carrot Top, who had absolutely nothing to do with the movie. He is also apparently watching it for the first time while delivering his comments. This is brilliant, hilarious, and morbid all at once. Just like the film itself.