a perspective on unpaid emotional labor of queer acceptance – An Arse Elektronika Talk

This past weekend I went to Arse Elektronika, a sex and tech conference in San Francisco that has talks from many different perspectives on whatever lies at the intersection of sex and tech. I wanted to share the transcript of my talk since I put a lot into it and it’s about a highly personal subject that I think needs more people reading it. So before you read it below, know a couple of things: I divulge a lot about my sex life, for a reason, and if that would make you uncomfortable you probably should skip this one; given that, this might be NSFW, though nothing graphic is written or shown; and I will be talking a lot about transphobia and cissexism, so please take care of yourself before reading this if you need to. Thanks for reading!

Hello everyone! I’m Mattie Brice, and my main trades are in writing media criticism on interactive experiences and designing what have been avant-garde games for the past few years. But today, I want to focus on a concern from my other area of work, social justice and organizing, that has been on my mind lately, about everyday activism. As you can tell from the title of my talk, I suffer from having a humanities degree, and set out to present this topic in such a way. You could totally tell I was going to whip out Foucault, get some charts, and toss in an obligatory nod to communism. But you know, I started to realize that there was no need for specific evidence for my case, or at least, when it comes down to it, you’re going to have to take my word for it either way. So I decided to speak straight from my personal experience; I’m not every woman, nor every trans person, nor every transwoman. I don’t promise that my experience is statistically relevant enough to be generalized in any manner. So I hope you don’t generalize this, and accept that my story exists because we live in a world that allows it to, and that stands for something, no matter how singular it is. Instead of intricately made slides and long bibliographies, I’m just going to talk at you, and I just want you to listen, absorb, and respond. Because, you know, people don’t do that enough. I’m going to leave some time for questions hopefully, so keep that in mind as I talk. Also, I’m going to be talking about stuff centering around transphobia, so please take care of yourself if you’re in a vulnerable place and feel free to excuse yourself, I won’t be at all offended. So here we go!

Good news! We now have gay marriage in America! Yay! Go us! When I first heard the news, a part of me was like, “Finally,” but the other, sociologist part of me was curious: people have been fighting for this for a long time, and it takes more than just straight-up legislative and judicial persistence to get something like this passed. Society had to change enough for attitudes to sway, for something like homosexuality to finally be seen as American, or at least, not in conflict with American values any longer. Basically, gayness became normal enough. While there will be unpleasant sentiments about gay people marrying for a while, eventually it’s going to be commonplace enough to not comment upon it. Soon, if the only laws that discriminate against a person is their ability to get married, their lives will become mainstream, or even conservative, according to people who see marriage acknowledged by law as an inherently regressive institution (like myself). This might seem unfair, and it is a little. I do think people should enjoy what every other citizen gets to, and it’s not anyone’s fault they were brought up in a society that values marriage.

Thankfully, we’re all discerning people here, and can hold the good with the bad and know things are complicated. If you followed conversations around gay marriage, especially the efforts put in by the Human Rights Campaign, you will know that it isn’t without criticisms. A lot of queer people who have more pressing concerns than marriage legalization felt marginalized by all the effort and focus funneled into gay marriage, particularly women who are transgender and aren’t white. It’s documented and commented upon how often gay rights activists would cut out or ignore lobbying for the advocacy of those in the community, you know, all the letters after the LG but often forgotten or literally left out for convenience. The reason? Those kinds of queer people are too weird, they aren’t legible like the HRC who are known for being predominantly gay WASP dudes who just want to have kids, a house, and some wealth like ‘normal people.’ In the past year there has been a lot of bad blood between the more visible LGBT groups and advocates who aren’t white or cisgender, often neither. Take San Francisco’s Pride parade committee, who allowed Facebook to participate in the festival despite having their real-name policy that routinely shuts down the accounts of trans people, sex workers, and victims of abuse. So basically, gay cis people are now looking like the oppressors, if they haven’t already.

But the whole story isn’t just gay people fighting to be normal. There are also straight people who are becoming degrees of, well, un-straight I guess. If you look at diversity stats at some tech companies, you’ll see numbers of people who, anonymously, identify as something other than heterosexual at matching or higher ratios than are reflected in the US census. One could attribute that to many companies being in liberal areas of the country, but if that were true, we’d see similar increases with other identities. For some time now, being out and not straight increases your chance of being unemployed, homeless, and without traditional support networks that could propel you into fields like tech. So I don’t think there’s just an increasing tide of people who went through life not identifying as straight, rather that as queerness fought for visibility and acceptance, those who never really considered or pursued it until recently are now further identifying with not being totally straight. We can see this in the rise of terms like ‘heteroflexible,’ which became a selectable identifier on OkCupid the same time queer and trans did (think on that).

I’m sure it would warm all of our hearts if we thought that advocacy was the main reason that more straight people started to show colors and eventually contribute to a social environment that would usher in queer acceptance. However, I think a more traditional factor pioneered this movement, that is, porn and general sexual curiosity. Clandestine cruising for sex always surrounded both the internet and queerness, so with the two rising in visibility and more opportunities to make such arrangements became available, the rate at which people realized something was deviant about them shot way up. This is a good time to remind people that what I’m going to be talking about is purely from my personal experience, but I choose to speak it because I believe there is some wider truth to it. I will be focusing on myself, who for convenience’s sake will identify as a transwoman, and cisgender men who are predominately white and pass as heterosexual but have some sort of relationship to queerness. I’m sure there are other factors and stories to what I’m talking about made by other women and queer people, but those stories aren’t mine, and I can’t speak to them as earnestly as I can with my own.

So, I’m a queer-identified trans lady with radical politics who primarily has sex with men. I know I’m pretty hot, cool, a great conversationalist, have awesome selfie-game, currently on-watch as shameless thirstbait in many queer circles. But I have the most difficult time getting laid despite all these great qualities, which really fucked with my ego for the longest time. There is no easy way for a lady like me to find a decent guy to go at it with at any reasonable frequency. A large part of this is very few spaces facilitate transwomen meeting men in enough places and contexts to get connections going on, purely sexual or otherwise. Clubs and events that do, they cater towards men and their typically shitty preconceptions of who they think transwomen are and how they should be treated. Ultimately, I haven’t found many events that don’t explicitly free me from guys approaching me in a way they consume their porn, most likely made by other dudes who have very narrow and exploitative visions of transwomen. Meaning, men are often overtly gross and assume I’m a sex worker, also having shitty attitudes and preconceptions on how sex workers should be treated.

“But what about queer events Mattie?” some of you may be thinking. If not, I’ve been asked that before by well-meaning people very often. The answer has a way of being simple and complex at the same time: queer events that look to include transpeople, especially sex-positive- and kink-related events, don’t attract, or they explicitly exclude, men, especially cisgender men, even if they identify as queer. This severely cuts down the chance that I will meet a man I’m interested in enough to fuck in a space that has radical politics in place to respect me. Now, some of you might be thinking “They shouldn’t be excluding people!” and others will be like “We need spaces away from dudes to feel safe.” Both are well-intended, but one-dimensional when it comes to my predicament. First, we definitely need spaces where queer people can convene and not be hassled by those who have privilege over them, because let me tell you, nothing is more of a killjoy than having to deal with a blundering cis dude when you’re wanting to fuck. But more importantly, am I not a queer woman? Are my needs all of a sudden inconvenient? Am I just not the right kind of queer to have a space welcoming of who I am in my totality?

“Okay Mattie” you say, “What about sex-positive and kink spaces where there’s lots of men? Surely in a place like San Francisco you’d be swamped with ass.” Oh, you kind and gentle soul. The long and short of it is, those spaces are predominantly cissexist and heterosexist, meaning, I’m allowed to attend, but only on the sidelines. The thing is, despite how enlightened sex pervs think they all are, men in sex-positive and kinky communities aren’t too different in attitudes from general society when it comes to who and how they fuck. Here in San Francisco, many events say they are ‘pansexual,’ but really what you most often get are ‘heteroflexible’ couples, where heteroflexible means the woman partner plays with other girls and the guys aren’t afraid to compliment another man on his apparel. Of course, me being trans violates this because cis dudes still read me as something other than woman, and ostensibly treat me like a gay guy, saying things like “I’m not wired for that.” I even had a guy who, after we planned out completely non-sexual play, freaked out on me and called off our scene when he realized I was trans. As an aside, I’m sure I know many good people who identify as heteroflexible, just giving you a heads-up on how heteroflexible people most typically influence my sex life.

So, where does that leave me to find sex? Yes, our best friend, the internet. Since sites that resemble offline spaces I’ve just described are just as unfriendly to me, I’ve made a really tenuous home on Craigslist. The sucky part about this is Craigslist is treated like a garbage dump, the last place you want to go to for anything. It has a shitty reputation that gives it a self-fulfilling prophecy, where there are fuckboys as far as the eye can see, and not nary a hopeful blip of respectable man flesh. I can’t readily admit to cruising on the good CL because it’s honestly embarrassing, people look down on me for it, or assume I must have something horrifically wrong with me, and wheel into sexual disease shaming. But the fact of the matter is, almost all of my sexual encounters have been through that site, most with guys who really don’t treat women with respect, but every once in awhile, I get a gem I try to hold on to. My chances are really slim, but they are greater than all of my time going to events and participating in sex-positive and kink-friendly communities. Simmer on that for a bit.

I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m divulging my sad sex prospects and methods. Well, as anyone interested in internet culture could tell you, weird yet amazing things can happen online that just don’t manifest as strongly in purely offline situations. In fact, there is extensive documentation on self-identified straight men doing things that may look pretty queer from the outside. Take Jane Ward’s work, centered around how men are having sex with other men, but are, like, totally not gay. I could make an entire talk on just my interest and issues with this stuff, but to make it quick, one of her earlier papers centered around str8 men who wanted to have sex with other str8 men on Craigslist. Anyone who’s been on a site where men cruise other men will be familiar with this, but it’s particularly prevalent in places, like Craigslist, that aren’t directly marketed towards queer people. To me this is pretty queer, though these men make it explicit they don’t identify that way. The same attitude exists for men who are seeking transwomen to have sex or experiment with, such as being “100% straight” and wanting “totally passable” women.

I knew I was going to have to deal with some bullshit to have an existent sex life at all. What I didn’t expect was the amount of post-coital therapy I would be doing over the years. For the vast majority of my hookups, men would break down, sometimes in tears, about how he was confused about his sexuality and all the internalized shame he had about what he just enjoyed. Putting aside that these men undermine my womanhood, and really personhood overall, by saying things like that, I had to learn how to navigate these waters in fear that he could turn violent if handled improperly (which is a very real concern to have). Though this still happens to me, and I actually kind of hate it when it’s with someone who has no emotional investment in me, it’s pretty hilarious thinking about a radical activist who got educated in critical theory surrounding gender and sexuality trying to handhold a man’s fragile ego just so he could get out of her damn house. Or potentially worse, I’d end up more involved with a guy and deal with a constantly hot-cold switching of emotions, who goes from completely present and into it to totally distant and scared he was going to be made a pariah if anyone ever found out we fucked or held hands or some shit.

For better or for worse, I became an educator to these men, probably the only queer or trans person they had met and/or had sex with up until then. Through my time hooking up with men online, I’ve introduced many to basic concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality that they wouldn’t seek out of themselves. I’ve taught many safer sex practices and, in general, more kinds of sex practices deftly. I’ve introduced many, many men to ideas of informed consent and better communication tactics with their sexual partners. There are many of them that I linked to sex-positive and kink groups that had other men who they could relate to and feel supported by. Even though we might have not played together much or even more than once, I know I have done my part to push men into queerer and more radical practices since they don’t seek out that education themselves. It doesn’t sound right that the burden is being put on me when it should be put on them, and that’s totally true. However, as I’ve said before, there’s little support for people like me and there aren’t many radical spaces available or inviting for men to be exposed to this stuff, so I can either do it or be even more miserable than I already am. There’s little choice for me.

The sad part about all this is that, when it comes down to it, many of these men can’t stand the shame and potential pain that would come with having an open and healthy sexual relationship with a transwoman. It’s selfish and pitiful, but it’s also the case; there’s no amount of words that will sway someone when they get to that conclusion, rather, it takes lived experiences to lessen the fear until it’s manageable enough for them to surmount. A cis dude respecting a trans lady like a cis woman is one of the rarest occurrences on this planet. Unfortunately, that’s not often with me, but every once in awhile a man arrives at my doorstep already having gone through that experience, and I thank my other trans sisters out there fighting the good fight and fucking these men to their senses so they are over their bullshit by the time they get to me. And thinking of it that way, I feel like it’s my duty to do the same for them. Just think of it, transwomen, fucking guys, hoping that one gets fucked enough to eventually get his shit together and be decent already. If that’s not work for the better good, I don’t know what is.

There’s a big catch to all this, of course: is this even really queer? Some of you may groan at hearing that, but it’s for real, I get this question from queer people and even other transwomen. I’ve regularly been shunned or incidentally left out of events, social gatherings, and support systems because I am not ‘queer enough,’ or at all, for some people. Obsentibly, my romantic life reads as heterosexual, since when it’s convenient, people will reduce those involved to simply ‘a woman and a man having sex,’ and therefore, not really a part of the queer narrative. Queer spaces actively resist anything that smells of heteronormativity and don’t move to encompass people who are queer, yet have aspects of their lives that might look that way despite striving against it. Simply put, as many people forget, being queer isn’t something you’re born with, it’s something you decide to call yourself. Queer is a political statement, and isn’t just about who you fuck, it’s about how you relate to and act against normativity. It might be tough to include every single person who calls themselves queer, but that’s the duty of a space if it wants to call itself that. I think it’s sad that queer advocates are more concerned about how to keep cis guys out of queer spaces than inviting someone like me in.

“But those guys are basically closeted, and leave you out to dry!” some concerned people might be pleading. “How is it fair that guys who are hiding who they are and using you should benefit from queer social cachet?” Believe me, I totally empathize with this sentiment. It is really frustrating to not be able to find many guys who are willing to be out there with me in public, to not feel humiliated that others might see me as ‘unpassable’ and therefore direct homophobia at us. It’s further frustrating when this person is privileged and leans on his power in queer communities to sleep with or sway whomever he wants while you’re left at the bottom. But being closeted doesn’t make you any less queer, or completely free of hate and violence related to heterosexism. Being out is one of the touchstones of gay normalization that was turned into a hammer that sees everyone as a nail. Announce yourself! Be proud! Show your colors! This is a good time to note that as the visibility of women who aren’t cis nor white has gone up, so have their murders. Seeing that LGBT organizations have yet to catch up to serving their trans communities, I don’t really find much stock in equating people to their public personas.

To deny my experiences as queer robs me of existence, space, and the kind of action I can afford to integrate into my life. By simply walking outside, I face a ridiculous amount of threat and risk to my well-being, and that’s before I even attempt to have sex with anyone. Communities have built-in safeguards and practices against those who would harm their community members; kinky and queer communities have socials and parties of varying exclusivity so reputations and vetting are within reach, as are people who can watch your back or be your safe-call when something goes awry. If radical spaces leave me out while straight spaces don’t accommodate me, that means I have to date exclusively at the whim of internet moralities, often meeting people by myself and out of contexts that could be used for my safety. Then ~all of a sudden~ the presence of transwomen who fuck men are providence of companies who control the media, and especially porn, that is the majority of cultural reference people, even some queers, come in contact with of someone like me. Transwomen rarely even get to fuck men in so-called feminist and queer porn, and of course, it’s the same excuses of not knowing enough people who would perform. Is that a problem with transwomen, or with queer spaces? The result is that my experience and visibility on my terms is erased.

Ultimately, being left out of all these spaces is forcing me, and imploring others, to do this emotional and sexual labor for cis men. We rarely get to do it how we want it, and on our own terms, rather, only the ways ashamed heterosexuality allows. Without community structures, without support networks, without visibility, without affirmed existence, we are compelled to make do and deal with fragile cis masculinity in the gutters between everyone else’s celebratory debauchery. If I want to celebrate, a word, which, I have a bunch of issues with, particularly for this context, I have to build the whole thing up myself. I’m based here in the [San Francisco Bay Area], and the only play party I’ve been to that had queer politics and cis men attending who knew they’d be in shit for treating transwomen differently was an event I myself ran. You think it wouldn’t be so hard to do, and you’re right, it’s actually very fucking simple! But this is a sort of theme in my career: I didn’t see any writing on trans issues in games, so I wrote it myself; I never saw a game that featured a lead character who looked like me, so I made it myself. And while I do feel accomplished, I would much rather all of this be the norm, and have other people take credit just so I could cruise and love in acceptable amounts of turmoil like everyone else.

As I come down to the end of this, I can’t let my lovely men completely off the hook. Despite being victims in this scenario, men are also the source of all the bullshit that plagues them. So I want to start of my conversation to men with this: destigmatizing sex and love with transwomen begins and ends with men. You shouldn’t have to sleep with us in order to finally come to terms with the fact that we should be treated like human beings. Whenever you’re talking about women in general, you should be including transwomen as well, unless you make the distinction on purpose; of course, you might start to notice that you always qualify your attractions to only cis women, and it’s going to make you look like an ass: good, it should. Unlike what cultural narratives have taught you, you are not ‘wired for vagina,’ as one guy once said straight to my face. You don’t need to be prompted with some codeword to share with other men that transwomen are attractive and should be treated with respect, because all other men are assuming you feel like we’re gross and worthless. Even if your life is settled in a certain way where you won’t ever be intimate with a transwoman, you never know who in your life is suffering and will have their entire life changed because you validated who they are. It sounds grand and exaggerated but it’s the real truth.

Men, both those who do and do not sleep with transwomen, are riding in to queer acceptance on transwomen’s backs. This is evident from the first glass thrown at Stonewall to the emotional labor worked behind closed doors. Transwomen, especially those who aren’t white, have the burden of moving society forward because they continue to be ones most at risk. It’s because of those who have no choice but to be brave and strong that one day you will come to peace with yourself. And believe me, it’s tiring, and on my weaker days, I’m extremely bitter about it. However, you have to come to terms with this, as uncomfortable as it may be, and find a way to bridge the gap. You will likely feel a lot of guilt, but know it isn’t me who is making you feel guilty, it’s your conscience telling you something is fucked up. Guilt isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes it’s there to notify you that you really need to get yourself together and take a higher path. It’s never too late to recognize your place in a power dynamic and do something about it. Remember that!

Furthermore, you need to pick up your end of the slack, and create safe middle grounds for you to be around transwomen and other queer people. If you run events, have explicit policies that validate and protect transwomen. If you’re a creator, keep trans people in mind and use them in your narratives when talking about what you do. If you perform, request more of a presence from willing transwomen and be sure their labor is valued. Whatever way you impact and inhabit the world, there is some conscious way that you can make it more welcoming to people like me, you just have to do the work and educate yourself. And don’t rely on queer spaces being made for you first, make your own, recruit your friends that are more into the scene to make these meeting grounds inviting. There is absolutely no need for “not all men” type grumbling in this process, because the onus is on you to display through active effort that you’re not a jerk wanting validation for every little thing you do when you’re rarely ever asked to be decent to those you have power over. The point is that you have a lot to get over and prove, and it’s going to discourage you at first, but you really have a responsibility for all that you’ve coasted on all this time.

And here’s the shameless self-promotion: I already made a very long list of what I think the contemporary man should be aware of when unpacking toxic masculinity, and respecting the people in their lives that they have power over. Here’s the thing, all this talk about social justice and queer acceptance seem huge and out of your control and influence, but they’re not! Instead of framing it as you needing to solve all of the world’s oppressions, focus on the day-to-day attitudes and interactions that build up over time into a power dynamic. The most important thing you can do, starting today, starting now, is salvaging the relationships you currently have and learning to respect those people in a way that doesn’t serve shitty masculinist values. All of the things I’ve written about are super achievable, and are mostly about training yourself into a state of mind that values growth and communication. You are not going to be perfect tomorrow, and neither am I. The difference is, my quality of life is affected by how men value and treat me, and not as prominently the other way around. So, for my sake, and for everyone who is trans, please take this chance and honor the work we’ve done for you all this time. Thank you!

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More Than a Beard: How Hot Ryu Turns Thirst Into Critique

If there is one particularly awkward conversation in media critique, I would give the award to discussion surrounding the sexual interests of women, and tangentially, anyone attracted to men. Codified on the ‘obviously bad’ platform of media activism, the objectification and sexualization of women calls into question the pervasiveness of pandering to men’s interests by emphasizing sexual dimorphism based on men being powerful and women being their objects of pleasure. Besides the arguments of this outright not existing or doesn’t matter, the focus on sexualization brought up other inquiries: Can men be sexualized? Should men be sexualized? How exactly do we handle the sexy in our media? As straight women and queer people of all stripes became more visible and part of conversations in games, amorous and sexual interests that veer from the typically televised began to seep in, sometimes turning straight men into subjects to be looked at and allowing others the agency to look and express interest. But what is it that a critic or artist could learn about media and sexuality from the increased visibility of marginalized people? Like a burly angel sent down from on high, “Hot Ryu” shows that not only do people in games want attractive depictions of men, but that men need more thirst-inducing depictions of themselves to battle the toxic masculinity produced by the media, typically by other men.

It might be a little befuddling why there is such a big deal being made out of Hot Ryu. Ultimately, the only difference between him and any other depiction of Ryu is a beard, and sure some people like facial hair on a guy, but why the daddy cat calls and particular interest? So far, the pervasive conversation on sexualization in the media is very narrow in what aspects of a person could be considered sexual and therefore exaggerated to be a main point of focus for viewers. This focus is in line with men’s socialization, that body parts made to be covered up and only hinted at or revealed during intercourse are what can flag as sexual. However this isn’t the whole story, particularly since how men believe they are sexualized in the media, having muscular chests and arms, are not taboo to reveal in public. Because men often control the depiction of their gender in the media, they are looking for other men to identify with their characters, and men are not socialized with the expectation to be looked at sexually. Instead, they are depicted with a physical relationship with power, and men subconsciously expect other people to be attracted to that power. The hiccup is everyone isn’t necessarily attracted to the power men depict for themselves, rather traits that signal what kind of person they are especially as it relates to amorous and sexual activities. Coming from an American-centered industry, the beard, then, evokes qualities surrounding lumbersexuality, a fashion trend of ironic, exaggerated rugged masculinity that often centers around having a beard. It’s important to point this out because the main qualities of lumbersexuals are irony and reference, awareness that straight masculinity is crumbling under its own weight yet refuses to move and save itself. Despite Ryu being a Japanese character in a Japanese game, he can be co-opted into this particularly white American trend by simply being viewed by English-speaking audiences with American-influenced sensibilities, aided by the anime and Japanese video game convention of mukokuseki, or depicting Japanese characters as non-ethic-yet-vaguely-white. While bara conventions surely can be read into Hot Ryu, the lumbersexual is a prevalent mode he’s being interpreted by English-speaking communities accustomed to white-centered beauty. Hot Ryu doesn’t have to be actually white to exist in this context, and can co-exist with completely different reactions from other cultures, like Japan’s, whatever they may be.

Hot Ryu sparked a combination of this ironic masculinity with amorous interest despite what seems to be just a simple addition given the prevalence of grizzled white men in video games. Timing and broader familiarity with feminist analysis plays a part in this. Fighting games are notorious for sexulized depictions of women characters, and with Mika returning to Street Fighter, discussion was back around talking about unnecessary fanservice in an industry that should know better by now. Then out comes Hot Ryu, looking burlier than ever, in a way prepped to be looked at sexually much how the women are. Except it doesn’t work the same, rather, it’s absurd that just a beard would completely change how you see someone. But when beards are tightly wound in lumbersexual discourse, one is inclined to both roll their eyes yet lust after the wearer at the same time. When Hot Ryu became a meme and trend on social media, it wasn’t simply because he was hot to look at, but because his new beard entered him into ironic masculinity. The memes juxtaposed his hypermasculine persona, now moved into commentary because of the beard, against fan imagining of a sensitive and caring boyfriend, a trope contemporary men struggle with and parody through methods like lumbersexuality. Along with a sub-designation of Hot Ryu being Daddy Ryu, evoking the lumbersexual allowed those who like men to extrapolate fantasies in public through the irony men set up for themselves. Because there is a general lack of sexual flagging by straight guys in the media, people who like men outsourced that flagging to other symbols to engage with. Like wearing a red hanky in your right back pocket means you want to get fisted, having a quintessential lumberjack beard might mean you’re struggling with contemporary masculinity by making it a caricature. This means that the basic, yet uncommon, act of making men a subject, not object, of attraction is in itself a kind of critique.

So how does Hot Ryu change the sexualization conversation? Just on the (his) face, we see a reversal of standards on what constitutes something as sexy for consumption, namely complicating the power vs attractive object binary based on men’s socialized and marketed tastes. Instead we see audiences imbue agency through a knowing consumption, making a character a sexualized subject instead of object. The distinction is important, like the difference between retaining agency through choosing objectification, being the objectified subject, and being perceived as inherently an object for use. This creates a basis of critique of masculinity that isn’t solely on straight, cisgender men’s terms, as they resist being objectified through identifying with power and interpreting how they could be consumed through that lens instead of what actually is the case. Most importantly, this appropriation allows alternative visions of masculinity that are uncommon in media dominated by men depicting themselves but will likely relate to men through less exploitative ways as we continue to imagine future masculinities independent of oppressive power structures. The beard isn’t the end-goal, as it is wrapped in a lot of regressive politics, but when looking at strategies to challenge contemporary masculinity, we can cite these sorts of reactions and conversations for men on the ground level to reassess what men in power tell them masculinity is, and how masculinity functions in the everyday lives of those they affect.

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Things I want the men in my life to know

I’ve gotten to a point, both as someone constantly engaging with social change and as a healthy human being, where I need to actively and thoughtfully incorporate men in my life. This might sound like a strange thing to announce, but it’s actually pretty important, for me and a bunch of other people. Obviously I’ve been close to men before, both as intimate partners and friends, peers and co-workers. As I dive deeper into embodying the change I want in the world, my relationship with men has become fraught. I notice power imbalances, harmful behaviors, and a general lack of understanding when it comes to how oppression and marginalization occurs in day-to-day interactions. While some people can go through their lives with men mostly on the outskirts or in limited quantities, how I move through the world isn’t accommodated by that. My interest in and need of anti-oppression work outside of gender and sexuality requires partnerships with men. The fields I work in are dominated by men, therefore it is likely that the majority of my connections will also be men. And possibly more importantly, I expect to date mostly men, and I want some base understanding that we change the world on the ground level, between people we care about, as much as we do on the policy and media ones.

What follows is a list of notes I created, sort of lessons from what I’ve personally learned from my relationship with men. I’m posting it publicly because I think it will be useful for others, and I want those I get close to in the future to easily find it. I don’t think men are lost causes, and if I refer someone to this list, it’s not that you are particularly bad. No guy is going to need every lesson on this list, nor any of them in the most literal sense. In reality, people of all genders can benefit from following all these thoughts I have, but I want to present them in the context of struggling with contemporary masculinity. As a precaution, I want to remind people that no one is required to educate anyone, especially at their own expense. I’m writing this and making an active effort because I’ve arrived to a part of my life where I do have the want and energy. I’ve tried wrestling with how masculinity affected my relationship with men in the past and realized it all went wrong because I didn’t have the time nor energy for it. No matter what, you, nor I, will be able to grow alone, and we have to learn where we can find opportunity for growth while staying savvy of social issues and how it continues to change us.

Don’t read this all in one go. Skim it, see what strikes you. I want this to be something that serves as talking points for multiple conversations over time, and it starts with awareness. This isn’t a paint by numbers, nor a how-to really. It’s more like some real talk, having it here in writing so you know it’s coming rather than a complete surprise. Some reads as accusatory, and it is a little, but a lot has to do with taking care of yourself. I know it’s long, so I bolded the main ideas in each part. It would mean a lot if you took the time to read it all however, I put work into it!

 

Where you are now

One of the most difficult things to do when becoming aware of power dynamics informed by oppression is the first: understanding what is immutably you, and what can change. The first line of resistance you will find will come in the form of “I’m just hardwired this way” or “it’s biological,” assuming that some aspect of yourself is just etched in stone and cannot change. While there are some biological and chemical effects that shape who you are, there needs to be a hard look at what you were socialized to do, and what is actually a product of your body. If you didn’t hear it from a personal physician or other medical expert diagnosing you, it’s likely that you haven’t challenged a concerning aspect of yourself enough to know that it’s something you can change. You aren’t bound to some sort of hunter-gatherer method of dealing with women, nor are you more prone to violence because of your hormones. You were trained to be a certain way through cultural socialization since the day you were born. Throughout life, you’ve built yourself around this socialization, so it’s difficult to imagine yourself outside of it. The good news is that there is a you outside of the harmful behaviors taught to you by society, and there are plenty of people in the world who actively resisted and crafted themselves as people to accommodate that. You going to have to fight a lot of “but this is just reality” impulses when it comes to challenging socialization, and it’s ultimately your call what goes and what stays. Just know that it’s going to happen so you can be intentional about what you do decide to keep and let go.

Before going on any self-improvement journey, it’s critical to not put yourself or your progress in a success vs failure binary. There is a particular expectation men have to always be successful and to lose sense of themselves when they are failing. When it comes to challenging how you perpetuate unhealthy power dynamics, you, everyone, will always be a work in progress. There isn’t an end-point, at least, not for us, so you won’t ever be a success nor a failure. Not only does this mean that you can’t frame yourself that way, to either feel complicit in what you accomplished nor eternally damned, but you also will see me that way, as a growing human being trying as hard as anyone else. Not an idol, not perfect, just human, like you.

This process is going to take a lot of self-awareness, a kind of self-awareness you’re not often asked to develop. You will have to have a good sense of your motivations and the reasons why you do things. Society has let you get by with certain behaviors as “quirks” or “that’s just how guys are.” It is important to double-check your gut reactions to see if you’re not throwing around power unintentionally. You’ve been allowed to insert yourself, take up space, and speak over others without comment because it’s expected of you to do it. This doesn’t mean you can’t speak or be places, rather that you’re making sure you’ve taken a second to recognize that you’re not intruding and trampling over others.

Because a lot of socialization is centered around serving masculinity, people who aren’t men are given different metrics of success and relevance, as judged by said men. You probably have heard of objectification and exotification before, behaviors men display towards people who aren’t men that assesses their worth. On top of meeting the standards men create for themselves, objectified people must excel at one exaggerated function men find valuable (being attractive, willing to do unsavory manual labor) and exotified people must fulfill a man’s curiosity based solely on their stereotype (exaggerate certain physical features, act as ambassador to another culture). These attitudes are rarely obvious in day-to-day interactions, but they lie at the very base of how men construct their understanding of other people. This means paying more attention to someone in non-intimate contexts because you find them attractive while unintentionally shunning those you don’t, because their looks are at the core of how you’ve been taught to value them.

 

How you value

Men are taught to overestimate themselves and people like them. This is often construed only for men that are completely egotistical, but this also affects insecure, self-deprecating men. First, this leads you to assuming you don’t really need to learn or improve at certain things, especially if no one has brought it up to you enough. If you believe you are capable, and there’s a conflict of competency, this casts doubt on the other person instead of you coming to terms whether or not you should be asserting as much confidence as you are. Second, this sets you up for your own failure and losing a disproportionate amount of self-worth because you identify with being capable at everything. You won’t question the competency of people like you as much because of this overestimation, leading to homogeneous environments where everyone looks and acts the same.

In turn, you underestimate those who aren’t like you. If men surround themselves with, and in turn only seem to respect, people who are similar, then difference is seen as a deficit or risk that needs to prove competency. You are more likely to attribute someone being right or successful to luck or outside help if they are different to you. You can undermine other people by tasking them to constantly live up to another set of standards until you are satisfied, if you ever are. This probably sounds very confrontational, but in my experiences it comes out in small, well-intended ways, like doubting whether I can take care of myself or questioning my understanding of my career path despite my success.

Because you’ve surrounded yourself in that kind of dynamic, a homogeneous sorting of people similar to you and those who are different only appearing in instrumental ways, you’ve grown to assume that your logic and boundaries are normative. Since so many people think and act like you, then others are outliers or have problems, while the way you think and the opinions you have are more right because of an assumed widespread acceptance. This is particularly salient with safety concerns, like needing to reach a certain level of informed consent for intimate interactions to assuming that if you don’t feel threatened, no one should. Again, it’s not combative, it’s more that you don’t realize when you cross a boundary because you assume everyone has the same ones, and therefore, you don’t have a good sense of your own boundaries. It’s a challenge, but coming up against the idea that you’re normal, or the everyman, or even an iconic special snowflake that has a prescribed place will really open you up to internalizing that others aren’t inherently inferior to you.

To solve this, accepting that multiple viewpoints and experiences can be right will help decentralize yourself from places you shouldn’t be. Not in a liberal arts class “every opinion is correct” sort of way, but that what you don’t have the facts on isn’t up for your dismissal. Just because you can’t believe something to be true, since it’s never happened to you, doesn’t mean it isn’t. I find that this happens the most when it’s going to make a man feel shitty or that he’s done something wrong and wants to escape feeling guilty. This is particularly crucial to understand for when someone expresses their personal experiences, to not veto them out because they don’t match up to what you understand to be facts, but is instead most likely an incomplete picture. Conflicting personal experiences doesn’t mean one is invalid, work on understanding the world where both and others can exist.

 

Expectations

Since we were young, we had different expectations depending on what gender people thought we were. You likely had lower expectations to be capable of skills and behaviors related to relationships and domesticity. Because of this, you unconsciously expect others to pick up that slack, as it is an assumption you wouldn’t be as good so the other should take charge. While it might seem like you’re admitting a weakness or it’s better off that you don’t mess things up, emotional and domestic labor is often forced upon others and not recognized. It is assumed that women in particular will take care of you, and no matter how independent or modern man you feel, you will expect for them to continue doing it for you since you don’t try hard enough to become competent yourself. This sets you and other people for stereotypical problems that disproportionately harms those with less power.

On the flip side, I find that guys expect acknowledgement and sometimes reward for things that should be done out of basic decency. It’s the “nice guy” routine, a guy who will feel ignored or spiteful if it isn’t commented on that he listens, helps, or does any emotional/domestic labor that men typically don’t do. This establishes an exploitative relationship where you will only be decent to someone if they fulfill you in some way. You assume that this is extra or going out of your way while you expect others to do it for you at all times. When you’re asked to do more of it, you will feel like you’re putting in more than you actually do.

Many people want to believe that they are intrinsically egalitarian. The typical man, and probably you, thinks that people of all genders should be treated exactly the same, and believe you’ve acted that way since day one. Unfortunately, what seems like egalitarian to you probably still works in your favor, where you allocate tasks and responsibilities that give you more power, time, and energy than others. You will still gravitate towards “mens work” which is valued more yet doesn’t deal with a lot of daily, unrecognized minutia. You will have to reorganize responsibilities to a system isn’t decided by gender expectations despite what you think your skill level is.

I have this memory of being in a discussion about gender expectations in school that seems really mundane but really twists my guts when I think about it. We were talking about the sexual double-standard between men and women when it came to amounts of sexual partners, where it’s understood that men are allowed to have many and feel good about it while women are shamed for the same behavior. When asked how he felt about it, a classmate of mine said he always knew of the double-standard, and benefited from it, “but that’s just the way things are.” There are more subtle examples of this, such as not questioning that it’s disproportionately women volunteering to run events while you get to participate in them, or a partner staying over your place because you have the more pressing job to get to in the morning. You need to question whether something working in your favor is fair, even if someone doesn’t speak up about it.

 

Social support

Through both research and my own experience, I’ve found that men don’t have very strong emotional support networks. It’s important that you have a few deep one-on-one relationships with others who are not your intimate partners. Men tend to reserve all their emotional unloading for partners, and this is a really unhealthy habit since you might not always be in a relationship or you have feelings about your relationship that requires an outside perspective. Someone you just do activities with or those you only see in group settings don’t count, it’s a person who you can call up and will immediately listen to all you have to say and allow you emote in every way you want to. Don’t require sexual engagement with someone in order to talk about your feelings.

When reviewing the state of your social support network, there are a couple of things you need to keep an eye out for. First, do you have deep platonic relationships with other men that can talk about issues without usual “man’s talk” about feelings? I find that men are embarrassed to talk to their guy friends about emotions in the first place, but even when they get there, keep it in a crappy “we’re totally not gay” realm where sexism and other harmful attitudes keep spaces between them. Secondly, is your network diverse or only people who are like you? If you can only talk to other men who are most likely in your same position but not willing to admit it, you will be stuck in a toxic echo chamber that doesn’t actually help you and goads you into trying to work things out on your own. You have to make an active effort to have different people around you who have different strengths and can spot when you’re being held up by harmful socialization.

Don’t reserve your “true self” for intimate relationships. While it might seem romantic, it encourages you to keep distant from others and not invite the social support you need. It also pushes you and your intimate partner in a trope-filled “woman tries to fix broken man” situation which is a sure recipe for disaster. It’s common in my experience for men to not feel present in relationships unless it becomes intimate, which commonly marks others as less worthwhile because they are not sexual objects to them. You need to practice being open and forthcoming at every opportunity, and it’s better to do that in low-stakes situations like friendships than waiting and failing in an intense intimacy.

Related, it’s often the case that men aren’t thought of as particularly caring people, and eventually people will assume you don’t really have the capacity to care when you don’t make an effort to show that you do. This means partaking in a lot of the emotional and domestic labor you are accustomed to receiving but not giving, making sure a relationship on any level isn’t one-sided. You tend to only focus on the state of the relationship when it has a clear benefit for you or it’s in danger of being lost, and that is prevented with regular maintenance. You can’t assume that someone knows you care because you are probably not socialized to express it in ways that are visible to others.

 

Wrestling with vulnerability

This is where it actually gets tough. I haven’t had more struggle with men than when it comes with being vulnerable. In short, you need to become more comfortable with vulnerability, both in feeling and expressing it. Vulnerability comes from strength, not weakness, and you need to tell that to yourself over and over again. Find opportunities where you can practice it safely, and eventually be able to share vulnerability with another person when opportunities come up spontaneously.

You expect people different from you, especially women, to be vulnerable while simultaneously associating vulnerability with weakness. It is exploitative to stall out until the other person opens up and you retain control and power while you decide how much to reveal of yourself. This isn’t necessarily a conscious strategy nor do you do it out of malice. It is another expectation for someone else to do emotional labor for you while you keep everything at your own pace. You ignore the needs of someone else by placing your comfort over theirs, forcing them to pry information out of you until you completely shut down on them.

There is a famous quote by Margaret Atwood that pertains to your relationship with vulnerability: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” There is no doubt that we all feel anxiety and pain and have wounds from our past. You, however, inflate the risk and potential pain of being vulnerable while other people have legitimate, material effects from theirs. It is more likely that a woman will get abused or killed by her intimate partner, date, or friend than by a stranger. Other marginalized people run great risks of being physically harmed or socially destroyed by being vulnerable, and often you don’t run anything near that risk. It’s important to recognize that you feel pain and hurt, just realize that it just takes a band-aid to heal yours while it would take hospitalization for others.

Given this, it’s imperative that you take the first step in initiating vulnerability when it’s appropriate. You run lower risks, such as being embarrassed, than I do, such as being socially ostracized and/or killed. This will begin to reverse the cycle of you expecting emotional labor and establishing a power dynamic that allows you to keep distant. This could mean speaking up when someone does or says something shitty when a person would risk being silenced and you wouldn’t. This also includes being involved with someone’s safety in environments that are potentially hostile to them, especially if you brought them there.

 

Communication

Not only is it a pervasive trope, but it is well researched that men don’t have as strong communication skills that they expect women to have. So, to put it simply, you honestly need to learn how to communicate emotions well. You hear it all the time, that communication is the most important part of relationships, yet you put off actually understanding what that means and how to get yourself to be a deft communicator. This means learning to reflect, identifying your emotions, and sharing them with someone else. We all communicate in different ways, but expecting someone else to read your mind or just not care about feelings at all is actively harmful and a common thing men do.

While speaking and contributing your input is important to communication, listening is so much more. Listening isn’t just hearing what the other person is saying, it’s understanding why they said what they did, believing what they feel, and remembering it for when it’s relevant. When someone is speaking, you shouldn’t be selective about the information you choose to hear so you can form a rebuttal, even if it’s to help them. Sometimes people don’t want your input or to do anything other than listen, and listening should signal that for you. Listening is doing something.

As I’ve said before, socialization affects you to your core, down to how you conceive and understand yourself. You’re trained to control and numb your emotions instead of feeling them, leaving you distant and unsure of how anything actually affects you. You have to resist this impulse, and it will be difficult (but that’s what you have a support network for!). Instead, you need to lean into what you’re feeling, letting it overtake you so you can accept it for what it is. Sometimes this is going to feel uncomfortable, or give you a moment of shame or embarrassment, but especially around people who are important to you, it’s vital to actually feel the full range of your emotions and be able to name and share them.

There is this pernicious free pass we give to men in being ambiguous or misleading about their intentions, especially when it involves intimacy. I’ve found this exists because you were socialized to objectify and exotify people you are intimate with, and that instrumentalizes your relationship to them. You are willing to lead others on as long as you’re getting what you want, and cutting out before they can demand too much of you. Again, this isn’t some villainous plot and you probably aren’t actively thinking this way. Instead you believe you’re just independent, wanting something like sex but not intimacy, or interested in some experience but not looking to actually invest in the relationship like the other would want. It is important to be 100% forward, without being asked, about your intentions with other people, even when you suspect the other person might not be completely on board if you divulged your true feelings.

 

Asking

In both what I’ve experienced and studied, many of men’s problems stem from being unable to ask for help. You are socialized to take care of yourself and that needing help is a weakness that diminishes who you are. There are going to be many times where you think it’d be inappropriate or bad to ask for help, and you have to fight those impulses. Again, asking for help comes from a place of strength, not weakness. The mistake is overestimating yourself and paying for it in the long run, not relying on other people to help you out.

Asking questions is vital for communication, especially understanding someone who is different from you. Not only does this make you seem interested and present, but it allows someone to fill in information where you probably have a stereotype or something misleading you learned through media. Be sure to offer as much information as you are requesting so the interaction isn’t one-sided and turns into you keeping control of the exchange.

You need to be careful of the kinds of questions you ask of the people who are different from you. Don’t treat someone as subject to your idle curiosity and ask something invasive. It seems like an extra step, but you should ask someone if they are comfortable with a particular line of questioning before you potentially exotify them. This also involves seeking consent in all situations that involves someone’s personal space, such as being touched, using their things, or wanting intimate information. A general rule of thumb is don’t ask for anything you wouldn’t be willing to disclose yourself, and to not assume what another person is comfortable with sharing.

Men are likely to skip out on their regular physical and especially mental health, and that compounds on your ability to deal with new things such as practicing vulnerability and confronting hostile masculinity. If you can afford it, get regular physical and mental check-ups instead of waiting to see a doctor when there’s a crisis. If you haven’t given therapy a go, you really should give it an earnest try. Find a man about your age that can relate to you and your problems and use that time to express things you’re not ready to share with friends and intimate partners. Going to professionals isn’t just for the explicitly ill and it takes strength to seek help of any sort.

 

And there you have it, one huge list of things I’ve tracked over time on what I believe affects my relationship to men. Some things are just what you need to be aware of, and others can be put on a to-do list. You’ve probably read or heard most of this advice already, but now it’s framed on how being more self-aware isn’t just for your benefit, it’s also to help out people like me as we continue to fight for respect in our society. We may be budding friends, colleagues, or lovers, and I’m bound to bring this up at some time or another. So I figure it’s best for this to be out there, so you can visit it and just check in with yourself about what you can do to help us both out. Because I really do believe change starts from the connection between two people, and I’m ready to make a difference with the people in my life, including the guys.

 

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Passing Through: Another Take on Identity in Activism and Design

My grandmother always seemed to have cutlery to polish whenever I visited her for dinner. She was, almost to a point of a stereotype, distinctly matriarchal in the way she existed in my family structure. Physically present, shouting inquiries of personal issues from the kitchen, enlisting any idler to shine her silverware. I would sit down in her green, billowy recliner in front of the TV as I cleaned on a fold-out dinner table. This time, talk show hosts were debating about immigration, which caused my grandmother to launch into a story as she cooked jerk chicken from behind me.

She and my father are from Jamaica, but neither of them really look like it. Something many people in this country don’t realize is how mixed it is in the Caribbean. All in the same family gathering, we had people who looked asian, white, black, or something altogether different. At the time, I didn’t really think of it as odd; every couple in my blood line were interracial. When she arrived in New York to immigrate, my grandmother recounted all of the invasive questions clerks asked her about herself. The one that stood out: “What race are you?” She answered:

“Human?”

This past year, I’ve sat down with a lot of creators about representation in games. One of the first questions out of their mouth is “How do you depict minorities well in games?” Maybe it’s because this is usually over dinner, knife and fork in hand, that I want to reply with “Human?” Thinking of my grandmother who doesn’t have a clearly identifiable race by American standards trying to explain herself to an official. ‘Human’ is loaded though; dominant identities are conflated with universal traits of humanity while minoritized people must be loud about their diverging qualities. Usually, I would fall back on trying to tap what is really human, and in turn, interrogate and separate what we assume is default about humanity and is really dominant culture.

I’ve started to think of my grandmother’s story a little differently lately. I feel like there’s a more active, personal dynamic with identity than what we currently conceive. Contemporary activism has a strong slant towards self-identification, particularly within established minoritized groups. This makes sense; a person is who they say they are, and that needs to be respected. What does that say about my grandmother, who didn’t have an answer for her race until she lived in America? Would she be outside today’s activism if she didn’t explicitly label herself?

We aren’t inherently any of these social categories. We are not essentialized genders, races, sexualities, abilities, or anything else. These labels are instead leveraged for power, two kinds in particular: to create difference and then elevate one difference over all others, or in reaction, to form community around a shared minoritized quality. Despite flexibility in some of these communities about who counts for what, identity is treated as a fact once declared, in complete ownership of the person who claims it. This isn’t the whole picture.

Upon memory, the first time I heard the term ‘passing’ was when I looked through transition video diaries on Youtube by queer people. It means when you successfully appear as cisgender to someone, and is constantly haunting non-cis people’s lives. Many queer folks on forums and chats thought passing was the ultimate test non-cis people should try to conquer. Men on personals sites plaster ‘passable only’ all over their ads. The thing about passing is that you can try to influence it as much as you can, but ultimately, it’s the perceptions of other people that decide whether you pass or not. There is a bit of your identity that is always held hostage by the public, a site of power struggles. I’m interpreted to be many genders throughout my day, and not simply man, woman, or non-binary, but a whole other host of qualities and baggage that each particular person brings to those things. I’m being gendered by them; they imbue my identity with whatever gender they interpret and create a power dynamic with it.

This isn’t the sole domain of gender, as we can see, my grandmother was being raced during her story. I am often raced by white people who don’t see me as ‘one of those black people’ and by non-white people as ‘basically white.’ This structures our relationship with one another, both the restrictive and creative forces of power that is organized by institutional oppression. Removing individual expressions of power by interpreting other people’s identity makes us go to the default, that people are a series of labels that can be neatly organized into who’s valued and marginalized. These aren’t simple declarations of ‘I’m going to treat you like a woman,’ rather us creating an internal barometer to gauge how we should relate to one another. I think this creates an easier view for how microaggressions and non-overt oppressive power plays happen in daily life.

Some of the queries I’ve received plan to show that a character is transgender by having some sort of reveal, because how else would a player know that the character is trans? This is a product of declarative identity, and it is often used to marginalize even with the best intentions. A stronger way to express someone’s sense of self is to show the struggle over that negotiating space of someone’s identity. By making it extremely particular to the people involved; what does it mean for someone to perceive a woman cis when she’s not? Or to assume someone’s half white, half black? Framing it this way makes it pretty compatible for play design, as the me-too slant of current rhetoric around representation rarely talks about what it means to have these identities, especially ones like race and sexuality that was created to categorize the other.

The mechanics of passing, and how that affects activism and design, feel shoved to the side for a very identitarian manifestation of intersectionality. Identity doesn’t have to be restrained to story conceits, but up for play. It’s not only the person themselves who plays with identity, rather, they co-struggle with society and how individuals interpret them. This is more readily apparent for people who don’t neatly fall into boxes, but can be done with all aspects of identity and oppression. This doesn’t even have to be strictly realistic, find any good science fiction book on cyborgs or mutation and how humanity is negotiated. If we consider what it’s like to be human to be this struggle, we afford ourselves complex insights into not only the minoritized, but also the ingrained qualities of dominant cultures.

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The Dadification of Video Games is Real

(Spoilers about The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite, and The Reapers Are the Angels)

I recently watched a Lets Play of The Last of Us, because god forbid I play a shooter ever again in my life. But I do like to keep up with what’s going on and what people are buzzing on about. Something super interesting to me was how similar it was to Bioshock: Infinite, which I also watched. I feel like they really succinctly capture the stage games are going through in reaction to contemporary ideals for the medium: both of the protagonists are older and fathers, both have daughter-role side-kicks, both had news stories about cover art about said daughters, both wanted to deal with mature topics, both had demonized non-white radical activists.

Where TLoU diverges from BS:I might be completely unintentional, but I feel like it stands as a ‘fuck you’ to this aging gamer/game developer population of men trying to keep their killing sprees and titillation while requesting to be taken seriously as creators and players.

The game might have been going for otherwise, but I found Joel to be a straight-up bad person. He’s not complicated, morally gray, or whatever. He’s just a selfish asshole much like many protagonists in video games, and everything that happens in the game is for his benefit. This is evidenced by the final scene, where it’s obvious Ellie wanted to give her life to the cause, and the only reason she is alive is because Joel finally came around to wanting to work on being a good human being who wanted a second chance at having a daughter. Unfortunately, that meant putting aside everyone else’s wants and needs for his own whims: aka an asshole. The audiologs that suggest there were other failed experiments were a weak attempt to complicate his stance; nothing’s complicated, Joel was looking for any excuse to get what he wanted, to the peril of many other people.

The thing is, we are shown time and time again that Ellie is more than capable of taking care of herself. In fact, she does a better job of taking care of them both because Joel can’t get over his pride and general asshattery. Viewing this entire game as a critique, it’s telling you play Ellie when Joel is out of commission and can’t see her be awesome. It’s also telling that her identity-specific drama is surrounded by rape imagery and the actual threat of rape, because right now that seems to be the main way developers get drama out of their women characters. We don’t end Ellie’s chapter with a new insight really, because we always knew she could take care of herself. This makes Joel’s intrusion to the scene even more bitter because you know the game is going back to focus on him just after a girl survived attempted rape.

There is a post-apocalyptic fiction story called The Reapers are the Angels, which has a girl protagonist in a zombie infected world. Like Ellie, she was born after the apocalypse, so this is the only world she knew. And I noticed many differences in how the narrative allowed them to exist, despite both being extremely capable people; Ellie still had a sense of the old world and seemed to be pretty informed of gender roles, when Temple (the main character of the book) occupies what we’d consider an ambiguous space, because traditional women’s gender roles directly impose with survival. Where Ellie was written in a way to inform players of game elements, it really infantilized her when she is pretty much more mature than Joel. Temple also faced attempted rape, but it was near the beginning of the book, and it itself didn’t phase her too much. What rape represented was something she was unfamiliar with; old patriarchal domination. And throughout the book, the brother of her rapist hunts her to avenge his murder, even though he knows it was wrong. Rape wasn’t used to show that Temple was weak and vulnerable, but to show how she differed from the old ways of our current contemporary society. Ellie, on the other hand, had an attempted rape scene just as we give up control of her to ultimately serve as a bonding moment to further Joel’s character arch. This is the same for his daughter in the beginning of the game; you are meant to feel vulnerable and scared as a little girl, innocent to everything going on, and have that emotional buy-in when she’s killed. But her death has little to do with her, rather, to explain why Joel is the way he is. It’s a dad’s version of fridging a girlfriend at the beginning of a game; the more ‘mature’ option is to kill a daughter.

Basically, our audience and developers are getting older, but are still not observant of how they make all other types of people serve them for their character growth. For some reason, we think making people assholes who might change to be nice one day morally complicated. All of this reminds me of when we talk about gun violence, and how much older men still sound like 18-year-olds with how much they still need video games to serve their specific purposes. TLoU was most likely not a comment on the dadification of games, but it stands as a great artifact to talk about it.

Pursuing My True Self

“Call me Mattie.”

It was the first time I had ever said that. I remember being at an old hookah bar when I did, Java D’lights. I was waiting on a glass of wine and my good friend hovered near my shoulder, watching. She knew, and waited.

I decided to change my name- well, a little. It was a point of my life when everyone chose a different gender for me; at work, a customer would address me as “sir,” the next as “hey there, lady” with a sly smile, and the last sputtering out all the pronouns in a scattershot attempt to not fuck it up. It was a point in my life that I discovered how much of my identity was public property, that others made it up for me. To save embarrassment on both ends, I edited my name to something as interpretable as my gender.

I smiled. So did he.

~*~

I remember when I first met him. Well, no, not him, but maybe- he’s a him, to me. I want Naoto to be a him to me as I want my lovers to have me as a her. But we both, quite easily, could be something else. Having the title of woman or man sometimes is a purposeful choice of getting the approximate behavior you want without necessarily subscribing to its rigid borders.

In Persona 4, your party members have their deepest insecurities played out on the Midnight Channel like a scheduled program. Everyone is watching and judging. Everyone is watching when it is revealed Naoto isn’t a cisgender man, his shadow self threatening him with sexual reassignment surgery. At that moment, I realized that I, too, was watching Naoto through a TV. He never called himself a she, the rest of the cast did. He didn’t call himself a him, they all did. I did.

What is Naoto’s identity? It’s possible he doesn’t know yet. And with the absence of genderqueer characters in media, we don’t have a cultural reference point for what to make of him.

There is a concept in postmodernism of a fact versus an event. We see facts as undeniable, objective information that we all can perceive and agree is reality. Events explode the idea of facts into an intersection truths from different perspectives, even if they are, and often so, contradictory. Take the film, Rashomon. Several witnesses to a murder all say different things, and they aren’t lying, just relaying what happened from their own perspective. What has happened to us in life, the philosophies we relate to, change the angle we see information at. When it comes to identity, facts are pretty much useless.

Naoto is an event. To me, he is a product of my experience as a transgender woman exposed to how society treats queer people. I see the anxiety of choosing a label, of having to change my body in order for people to treat me the way I wanted to be treated. Naoto doesn’t actually have a factual identity; he is an apparition of numbers. What we all decide he is, ultimately, isn’t important. Rather, the why’s and how’s reveal our cultural perspective of people who don’t fit into cisgender norms.

The reaction over Naoto and what the community at large dictates as his identity shows this large gap where the queer experience should be. People just don’t know, and possibly can’t fathom, cissexism and how it manifests in a queer person’s life. This is why the game can’t seem transphobic– people are looking at Naoto as a fact, not an event.

~*~

“Hey, pretty.”

It was the first time anyone had ever called me pretty. It was the first day I wore makeup and a skirt. I was twenty-three.

People began to change me. My image changed to something that received the most positive feedback: smiles, opened doors, drinks, longing. I held tight onto the ideology of not modifying my body, but I was fooling myself. The flat-irons, skyscraper heels, thick lashes- a part of me already wasn’t mine anymore. Everyone looks at me with their television eyes.

Around this time, I found a flier snuck between my windshield and its wiper. I remember it because the hot Florida sun baked a corner of it onto the glass, and the remnants pointed up to the sky. The flier was for a nudist event to welcome new people into their community beach parties. What struck me was how slanted towards women it was; it promised a boost in self-esteem and increased comfort with your own body. I could use both those things. One of the guys with words over his crotch was kind of cute.

But being in a nudist community would most likely do neither of those things for me. If I participated in one of their beach parties, no one would treat me like a woman. Clothing became integral to my identity, and without its strategic use, I lose control of what others make of me. I don’t think many people live a life where others decide for you fundamental qualities such as gender and neurology. Because of that, many don’t realize how they participate in telling me who I am.

~*~

I was curious to know all there was to know about him. My character dated Naoto, solving mysteries and making it a point to let him live in relative acceptance. The rest of the party now referred to Naoto as a girl, though nothing changed about him. Despite following a guide on how to romance him, it was a bumpy road. There is a choice you are required to make in order to trigger the romance subplot: treat him like a woman. What is seen as a romantic, a white knight gesture, actually causes Naoto to break down and begin to give up. ‘Is this the only way you’ll have me?’ he seems to ask, with the player eliminating his control over his gender. Come Christmas time, you get to choose- is he a girl, or does he decide?

It reminded me of every relationship, if I can call them that, I’ve had, where it revolved around my partner’s comfort level. Are we to be seen together outside? Am I woman enough? Many times I was denied splitting the check or holding the door open for myself, or god forbid, my date. I became a doll for people to paint their fantasies on, and that’s what happened with Naoto. Where he was forced to show his ‘natural’ femininity, I had to prove mine.

~*~

So who am I really, if I change with every person I meet? Maybe we are all events, shaped by circumstance and those around us. All choose your own adventures for our readers’ liking. There is a facet of reality missing when we assume there is only one truth to find, when there are as many as that can be thought up.

You Want To Make a Boyfriend – You Just Don’t Know it Yet

There is an app taking the world by storm. It’s hot in Japan, it’s free, it’s Boyfriend Maker.

Indeed, this is an unusual game to talk about on The Border House, because it does play up and exploit heteronormative stereotypes and conventions. This game seems to target pre-adolescent girls with the usual crap media tells them about relationships: care only about the emotional stuff, be obsessed with fashion, and whatever you do HAVE LOTS OF PINK.

But let’s hold on for a second. I know through much of my own writing, and just my personal wants, that there is a huge exclusion of feminine-assigned activities in gaming. Video games are dominated by themes and activities we often see in young boys’ games- guns, scorekeeping, showing aggression and physical prowess. Something we don’t see are what we think of as little girls’ games, like playing house or the kinds of make believe that practice social bonds. None of these things are actually just for boys or girls, it’s what society enculturates us to do, and sexism shows where these skills show up again in life. This doesn’t make the actual activities and topics of fashion and relationships bad, even with a lot of pink, just that we only expect women to be into that sort of thing.

I believe Boyfriend Maker is opening a gaming audience used to shooting and slashing to… just talking! It is an app for your iStuff, soon coming to Androids, that lets you customize an avatar of someone who will presumably be your boyfriend, and then puts you in a chat with them. Once you name each other, you are free to converse with him about anything you wish. After a few lines of dialogue, you are bound to notice something… strange about your boyfriend. I’m not exactly sure how he decides what to say back to you, but very often it results in a very awkward and humorous interaction. It is almost like an actual human- reacts predictably enough to follow the rules of conversation, but has many quirks and unexpected reactions to surprise you.

Isn’t this how relationships work in reality? We become invested in our partners enough that they offer a sense of stability through their familiarity, but often remind us they are an independent person that has their own motivations and idiosyncrasies. This isn’t something afforded to us often in games: BioWare games are the ones praised most often for their in-game relationships, but in the end, they are more predictable than erratic since you know there are ‘correct’ choices that have them act a certain way. In Boyfriend Maker, there is no ‘correct.’ The object of the game is to just talk, and you gain money and points by keeping the conversation alive. The only way to do better is to pay for more points, and that just opens up aesthetic customization options. The absence of the optimal path is a rare occurance for video games, and my hunch is because that sort of play is mostly found games like house. It distills a certain aspect of The Sims many of us have grown to love, the same aspect that often has it cast as ‘non-game.’ Boyfriend Maker is broaching a need maybe we didn’t think we had: an actual, intimate connection with a game.

Slowing down, I don’t think that people are actually falling in love with their made-to-order boyfriends (all who look like Justin Bieber, at that). Frankly, it’s the curiosity, and maybe a want, to play the role of the emotionally inquisitive partner to a boyfriend who tries to navigate that gendered field of landmines. You just want to know what he’s thinking and he just wants to impress you. When do we ever get to play in that space? Boyfriend Maker puts the player in full-on interpretation mode, trying to decipher the weird things their boyfriend is saying. We often have this as a puzzle to be solved in games, but not something for itself, or maybe as personal reflection.

There is something interesting going on with performing gender here as well. This game has been a hit with many of my friends who are heterosexual men, who I think are particularly enjoying acting in the space of interrogating the boyfriend that maybe they were always on the other side of. In a sense, saying “my boyfriend” in this sense has become something completely abstracted; rather, it’s someone we’re apparently enamored with but says gibberish in order to impress us. Seeing that there is no real dating in this game, it’s just presumed that this boyfriend is already intimate with the player, and is basically a pocket partner to chat with when we want. And while I don’t think Boyfriend Maker has anything perfect, it opens up the topic for questioning, especially when it comes to maybe making games for empathy of certain gender roles.

What decides the things your boyfriend says back to you remains a mystery to me; there are many theories about it aggregating from others’ responses, but I haven’t seen any notes on it from the developers. However, there is something undoubtedly queer amiss- in many reactions from my acquaintances and seeing fan postings of Boyfriend Maker, the boyfriend will surprise you by subverting your expectations of their sexuality, their gender, and their perception of your identity. This is probably the result of randomness instead of some progressive message, but it furthers the idea of ‘the boyfriend’ being this archetype we interact with. Unfortunately, there are some lines your boyfriend can say that reinforce typical sexist attitudes, but they are amongst so much absurdity that it is difficult to take it seriously.

Ultimately, I see Boyfriend Maker as a reaction to hentai sims made for heterosexual men, creating a game that women would supposedly enjoy, that is in turn co-opted by players for subversive play. And because the gender expectations they plan to exploit are actually underserved in games, they struck something interesting that could be used for future game ideas. Dare I say, this game is in the line of greats such as Facade and Prom Week, games that feature social interaction mechanics as the main source of interaction. Boyfriend Maker is obviously silly and not the best quality, however it possibly provides us with a clue on what we want from games that is largely absent. But if you’ll excuse me, I have to introduce my pocket boyfriend to my real one.

(Don’t have an iPhone or iPad? Here’s a tumblr with screenshots of [NSFW] humorous things the boyfriend has said: http://boyfriendmaker.tumblr.com/ Be warned that, naturally, people are wanting to engage in some crude and sometimes sexist conversation with the boyfriend, but often there’s just some zany, interesting things that deserve to be seen!)

Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game

There is a movement. A movement that says “You can too.” It is growing in size, accessibility, and voice. Game design is, and always has been, for everyone, but the narrow path the industry took blocked off many peoples’ opportunity to join in on this artistic revolution. It’s assumed you must have the best graphics, know how to code, have the money to develop a game that can speak to the world.

I only know life with computers and video games in them. My father is a programmer and shared a love for technology with his children. I grew up surrounded by games and, naturally, wanted to make them. But my father never passed down the skill to code, and I never realized how important programming fit into making a game until I tried making them years later. Coding became a monster; I couldn’t get it and felt my creative energy dissipate every time I tried to learn. I entered university believing game design wasn’t for me and gave up on that dream to join the industry.

But now, I’ve come full circle. The industry badly needs to diversify and there’s still roadblocks. Publisher model game development is choked by putting profit above all else, and the monochromatic landscape of non-AAA development still values methods that require monetary investment and a previous buy-in to programming culture that many of us just don’t have. Despite this, I still had something to say, or rather, something I didn’t know how to say. I had something I needed others to play.

This is how Mainichi was born. It was an experiment in translating a personal experience into game mechanics, and also a push to prove to myself that I can make a game, even if the video game industry wouldn’t accept me. I want Mainichi to be a call to arms, a triumph of the personal. I made a game that only I could make, and I’m hoping this exercise empowers others to express a life that is uniquely theirs.

Choosing Vocal Chords

The biggest roadblock I had to overcome was choosing the program I would use to make my game. I asked for suggestions, consulted lists, and tried out many to no avail. I ran into many bumps; usually, the more free and open source something is, the more programming is integral to the making process. Though, some did come with their own scripting language that was easier to learn and a viable method for those who aren’t completely code-phobic like I am. Many of the more popular game makers are primed for certain types of games, like shooters or platformers. Looking to make something akin to an adventure game, the obtuse methods to simple get someone walking across the screen on a level plane and generating a textbox from an NPC were quick to grate my nerves.

If there was something I learned, it’s the increasing amount of tools for people to use all assume different competencies, wants, and conventions. Authoring programs are prepared for certain users, and make it easy or difficult to do particular things. This isn’t simply a practical thing to know, but political. Many programs assume you have the privilege, tastes, and wants of the hegemonic man. However, some of these tools come with communities that make it easier to subvert this assumption, and is, in particular, something I encourage others to factor in when choosing a program for themselves. Here is what I came up with for myself and the needs I perceived I needed for my game ideas:

*Programming unnecessary or extremely minimal/optional
*No to low cost
*Made it simple or easy for me to use textboxes, characters, variables, cutscenes
*Has an active enough community to provide custom content

These and other factors contributed to me picking RPG Maker VX, despite its price tag. Mostly, my personal disposition and skills overcame the cost for it after not feeling compatible with all my other options- I was familiar with the toolset already, had the skills to edit its art assets enough for my own devices, and most of my ideas would benefit from the assumption of an RPG/adventure game being made. There were narrow expectations about the kind of game I wanted to make inside those conventions, but there was room to subvert these paradigms. As an aside, RPGMVX does have a cheaper sibling, RPGMXP, that I ended up not choosing because I had the familiarity with the former. However, for those new to both and interested in using them, XP is as viable, just for different reasons. I think others can find similar, free programs and still do what I did with Mainichi, RPGMVX just happened to be right for me.

Training My Voice

It’s easy to have a story or an idea. What makes a game significant is its designed experience. Coming into this experiment, I knew that current attempts of doling out social awareness just through story devices plainly didn’t work. I had to choose methods of design to communicate the feelings of my experience to the player, because otherwise I could simply point them to an essay I’ve done. I would say Mainichi lets someone feel rather than tells them what to feel. It’s a key difference to create empathy instead of telling the player what’s right to think.

If this experiment is judged successful, I think it will be because of my philosophy of being hyper-personal, or like what my colleague Jenn Frank says is “alarmingly specific.” This applied not only to the topic but the design as well; I wanted to draw upon my ideas about sociology, postmodern art, ludonarrative resonance, and diversity politics in video games and have them influence the way the player interacted with the rules. I wanted this game to be dripping with the intersection of all of my influences, and create a new way of looking at design as a byproduct. I think for a personal piece like this to work, you have to speak to the world in general through a very specialized perspective.

How to design a game for social good is a fraught question. It’s difficult to position the player in a way that doesn’t have them exploit the minority and unknowingly replicate the problematic ideologies the game set out to defeat. This is why I stressed reactivity of the system and eliminated min/maxing of any sort. When you look at the system as a metaphor for society, the suffering that happens to the character doesn’t become something the player enables but joins ranks against.

There is something to be said about being too referential in a game, but I decided to be extremely so. I made the character after my likeness and named them after myself, I have a Japanese title, there’s a Dragon Age II cameo, etc. However, everything does have a personal link to add to the aesthetic and ‘meaning’ of the piece. Since the game is essentially interacting with a system, it could be replicated with numbers and without any sort of cultural representation. So it felt right to imbue as much of the game with my personal easter eggs because the game won’t make complete sense without the meta-awareness of how it fits in. And really, all games that try to mean something have to do that as well.

Speaking

I also recognized there would be audiences for my game, but no ‘perfect player.’ There is no one person that can absorb everything this game is meant to do. I’m not even the perfect player for my game. Rather, I knew that it would be released to the world and many people of different relationships to games would play it, including those who don’t game at all. So my game doesn’t have a target audience like many other games, and I didn’t have a genre in mind when making the game. However, I was aware of the different expectations people would bring to my game.

A lot of this game is speaking to the game development community. It is a community that finds making a game about minority issues near-impossible, so I ended up making one in about a week. There are also different paths for it to be analyzed, genealogy-wise, and one could see Mainichi as an offspring of Dys4ia and Passage. From Dys4ia I am intentionally making my game political through the personal, merely repeating the idea in a different format to diversify how we see, define, and interface with games. Another game in this lineage would be Merritt Kopas’ LIM, which also relies on mechanics replicating emotional experiences. I also see Mainichi as a critique to Passage in this regard; just because this isn’t AAA development doesn’t mean the types of games coming out of the indie scene aren’t dominated by heterosexual white men’s narratives. I want the community to know that some people don’t have the luxury of mulling over something as long term and general as the passage of life towards death or saving the world. Some of us have to worry for our physical safety every day we leave the house, some of us will live and die unequal citizens in a system that doesn’t care; the street scene in Mainichi hopes to be referential to the design of Passage for the community of developers that care about that sort of design canon.

Because of the look and that it is in fact made with an RPG Maker, I knew some players would be bringing the baggage that comes along with RPGs. I also have quite a lot to say about RPGs, how I think they are evolving, and my answer to ‘what is an RPG.’ So I specifically highlighted certain conventions, like choice, time management, NPCs, cause/effect, multiple paths to the end goal. I then proceeded to flip the expectations players would have with elements; the choices you make aren’t epic or demarcated by a clear morality, the player is taught to avoid as much interaction as possible, and the player will be depressed looking for the ‘good’ ending. Mainly, I find RPGs abstract things so we can interact with them, an exercise in turning something qualitative into a system. The player gains empathy through my attempt of abstracting how people gender me, and allowed the player to experiment in the system to realize the experiences I’ve been through.

Outside of the highbrow stuff, I wanted to communicate an experience that I couldn’t do with words alone. Ultimately, this could be a project in telling my best friend why I was often depressed despite the good intentions of my support group. Similarly, I wanted players with cisgender privilege to also empathize with one aspect of having a queer gender or presentation. It can also serve as a tool for a trans* person to share with their friends if they have the same trouble explaining like I did.

You Can Too

A huge reason I made Mainichi was to say that, yes, anyone can make a game of critical merit. You don’t have to be a programmer, you don’t need a whole bunch of disposable income, be on a triple digit design team, or a part of the indie in-crowd. The important thing is to know game design is something everyone has the capacity to work on, and the implementation into a program is the hard part.

This is important to note because video games aren’t the only types of games there are: I am currently working on a card game that will allow players to simulate and interrogate the dynamics of a first date or sex. In addition, as The Border House has already shown, there are also non-traditional formats of digital games that beg to be used and experimented with, like Twine and Ren’py. What I think a lot of the non-AAA developers forgot was that one leaves the publisher model behind in order to do something different. I’ve seen many failed projects because so many want to make the next Final Fantasy with RPG Maker and don’t see the dissonance in politics concerning that. Instead, take part in diversifying not only the characters and stories we see in games, but how we fundamentally interact with them as a whole.

Confessions of a Fake Geek Girl

Phony. I’m considered a fake in many facets of my identity. I’ve found out that it takes another person involved for me to be fake, that it isn’t an innate quality. Someone from a point of privilege makes a judgment of whether or not I’m authentic or real, and if I’m allowed into the club. Geek culture is full of people waiting to do nerd cred checks to make sure whether people like me are allowed at cons, publications, and merely being in the presence of others in a geek setting. One such person is Joe Peacock, who wrote on CNN’s Geek Out! blog about his distaste for falsies. At least, when it comes to deciding which beautiful women are geeky enough and are permitted to dress up as sexy elves. His piece reinforced my experience with this line drawing to be completely arbitrary to the person making the decision, since one’s exclusion of Felicia Day is OBVIOUSLY out of hand, but not these soul sucking attention mongers with nice boobies over here. Wait let me take a picture before you go.

Here’s the deal: Who put anyone in charge of deciding whether someone is authentic or not? What is blind rage-inducing about Joe’s piece is the unprecedented arrogance thinking he can make a decision like that. That for some reason, geekery is such a holy grail of attractiveness that a Batman shirt is all you need to go from a 6 to a 9 for Joe. Do you understand what you’re doing when you assume others’ intentions, and tell them they are not real?

It’s easy to see where this attitude comes from; the conversation always starts at how women are ruining things for the geek community. For some reason, these articles aren’t about how geek culture is predisposed to wanting women being sexy at all times. Instead, it’s women acting as sirens, striking at the weak spot geek men have for beautiful women. Obviously there’s no talk about how handsome men use their good looks to win favors, and there isn’t a question raised as to why that imbalance exists.

What I’d like to point out is how no matter their authenticity on the Peacock-o-meter, there is a correlation between successful women in geek spaces and having conventional beauty. When Joe regards other women accepted into the fold, he doesn’t talk about merits outside of sexy cosplay, because that’s mostly what men in geek spaces are focused on. My question is, why aren’t the men involved in geek structures promoting and highlighting women on their merits, but instead constantly talk about their looks? Why does Olivia Munn need to be “real” as according to you in order for her to be respected as a human being? How come a model hired to be a model MUST have geek credentials? It seems like Joe needed to turn this critique inwards and at other men for their inability to support the meritocracy they imply is in existence.

Women are not invaders into geek spaces. No, games are not that much more inclusive than ten, twenty years ago, it’s just that women and girls enjoyed games before they realized there was a huge sexism problem. Many didn’t realize it was just a boy thing until after they started playing. I know I didn’t find Paperboy especially masculine when I was four, I just really liked cracking up at that dude breakdancing in his driveway.

Let me parallel this to my own life. For the past seven or so years, I’ve been adjusting to a society that likes to tell me I’m not a woman. And I’ve met all sorts of different criteria for why I’m not considered a woman, but it usually falls into two camps: I wasn’t born female or I don’t try hard enough. I’ve been called deceptive, artificial, weak, and often denied my identity by others. Isn’t there a little bit of cognitive dissonance when you tell someone they aren’t who they feel they are? Saying someone isn’t a woman is disgusting mostly because you’re unaware of how much you actually don’t have a say in deciding someone’s identity. It also showed me that to be a “true” woman, I would need a lot of investment in my looks merely because we revolve so much of womanhood around men’s aesthetic sensibilities.

How does this relate to geek culture? I wrote a piece about why I felt compelled to wear heels every day I was at PAX East. I wasn’t there to cosplay, snag a modeling job, or pick up men. Rather, there is a silly notion that I’m becoming a professional in games media, and I’m extremely aware of the homogenous identities that make up publications and development studios. I know that because of my open transgender identity and the topics I write about, I better be damn well easy on the eyes if anyone is going to give me a chance. This isn’t speculation, but raw data from the life I live. I have others to vouch for my talent and authenticity, but in the face of what matters, it’s what makes heterosexual men comfortable. People who lie outside of that are constantly harassed and ignored, and we have examples at major sites and scenes of such happenings. And there’s no winning – men assume that because I put effort into my looks, I can’t be a serious gamer.

It’s easy to say that I, and other women, just don’t have the strength to weather through the crap and let our insides matter more than our looks. Unfortunately, if it wasn’t for cosmetics and sexy outfits, I would have anxiety and depression plunges multiple times a day. I’ve been there, and I resisted makeup and such adamantly until I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take people making disgusted faces at me, fumbling with pronouns, treating me like they could catch The Gay if they stood too close. If there was this wand that guaranteed no one would even blink at seeing my morning face and assume I wasn’t a woman, I would throw every bottle of MAC I own out the window, laughing manically.

It isn’t me or sexy women that needs to change. It’s a culture that values women mostly on their looks that has to. It is hypocritical to say women are the problem when you are consuming geek media that has 90% of the women sexualized towards heterosexual men’s liking. And really, there is nothing wrong with men liking sexy women, and women enjoying being sexy for men. It’s just the culture doesn’t allow variance by shaming and ignoring women who don’t fit popular ideas of beauty. Geek men want everyone to stop treating them like adolescent boys, but this lack of self-awareness has to stop first.

What about the men!? re: Tropes vs Women

Alright, some issues need to be cleared up, both for the genuinely confused and the frothing comment sections across all publications. Let me give you the multiple reasons why “Men have it bad too, why do women have to get all this attention!?” is a shitty derailment of what’s important:

1. Women’s issues don’t require tackling men’s at the same time to be valid.

Look, there’s very few people who are going to say things aren’t messed up for guys as well. Men’s issues are important and few people talk about them. But it doesn’t make sense to demand initiatives that focus on women’s topics to also include men. That’s an issue for another time or for someone else to tackle, maybe, like, all the men who constantly bring up that men have issues?

2. The industry listens and caters to the gendered interests of men.

It is not up for debate that women have the short end of the stick in the videogame industry; it’s widely acknowledged that most games are marketed to men, made mostly by men, and reported on mostly by men. Everything is constructed with men’s interests in mind, and women suffer way more gendered harassment and discrimination, intentional or not, than men. There is a dire need to stop this, which is why there is a huge focus on women. If men were to mobilize about their issues, game companies are extremely more likely to respond, while women’s movements are often met with scorn and skepticism.

We all know that games are treated like fantasy, an escape. The thing is, it’s largely men’s fantasies and escapes being catered to. Everyone else has to give up their fantasies and comfort zones to accommodate for men’s. There are plethora of men characters for guys to relate to and project themselves on. Yes, the muscled guys can get tiring, but they are a power fantasy, not used as sex appeal. Women, on the other hand, pretty much only have the option of projecting themselves on a sexualized woman. Being sexy is cool, but it shouldn’t be the only option. Men are at a comfortable advantage here, while women have to deal with so much on top of trying to legitimize their arguments of sexism.

3. This is not reverse sexism; misandry doesn’t exist.

Here’s a hot button issue a lot of dudes are falling to: “All of this stuff is ignoring men, it’s misandry!” I can tell you that anyone who uses misandry in this way has no idea how the social justice movement uses the word misogyny. Let me break this down:

Yes, you can find definitions that say misandry and misogyny are basically hatred for men and women. That’s the dictionary version that no one uses, rather, misogyny is specifically the systemic discrimination against women. So, yes, I can make a misandrous statement like “All men deserve to die, because, yeah” but that’s a surface level this conversation is way past.
To be frank, there is no systemic force that discriminates against men. What we all notice is that culture values a certain TYPE of man, and that’s where men’s issues come in. However, there isn’t discrimination against men for being men.

4. All of the discrimination perceived against men is actually misogyny.

Misogyny is the root of all of all discrimination pertaining to gender and sexuality. Why are men depicted as muscle-bound hulks? And those who don’t fit into the perfect model bullied? Because men who act at all like women are looked down on! It’s because the qualities of weak, sensitive, needy, emotional, etc, are all attributed to women, and men do their best to not be called one. Women have been adapting over the decades and can have qualities traditionally associated with men while not feeling dissonance with their gender. Men are at a snail’s pace with this. It’s the same reason why homosexuality is discriminated against, or anyone of any queer identity or sexuality.

There are also comments like “Why do men have to do all the saving?” These are all plays off of misogynistic wish fulfillment and power fantasies of men. Men do all the saving because it’s assumed women can’t save themselves. If we address the misogyny at work, and women are depicted saving themselves and being heroes, notice that all those negative “misandrist” tropes disappear.

5. MOST MEN DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT MEN’S ISSUES ARE.

Looking at all of the guys mobilizing to bring light to men’s discrimination, you can see the lack of research and thoroughness. Everything is vaguely centered around being he-man superheroes. It is far more likely that people in the social justice community, which is mostly social minorities, actually know what needs to be worked on. Everything going on with the retaliation against Tropes vs Women and other social initiatives is just that: a knee-jerk reaction. There is not one person in geek social justice activism that will deny the need for men allies in the cause to help explore how men fit in.

This whole “What about the men?” backlash has no legs to stand on. It’s all hurt pride and lack of awareness on the actual issues.

The Type of Woman I Want Others to See: Why I Wore Heels to PAX East

It was probably 40 degrees American and windy. Being from South Florida, I tend to lose track of how different the temperature feels after I get goosebumps on my knees. I spent my first night in Boston clinging to the inside of my detective coat, which was apparently poor at insulating heat. The air felt more brisk as the night went on, as if the energy of all the fans and artists of the game industry dispersed in the atmosphere. In my own room, I went through my meticulously rolled and sectioned outfits in my luggage, choosing which would be the first casuals and professionals alike would gain their initial impressions with. Cue my horror when I notice all of my leggings missing, forgotten on a dresser drawer, from my dresses-of-rather-courageous-length-only wardrobe.

I decided to take a trip to Harvard Square in the morning with the set of casual attire no one would ever see me in- comfy jeans, fluffy yellow hoodie, and feminine flats with a famous checkered pattern. Being a recent admirer of Esperanza Spalding, I decided to let my hair go free, messy but weightless. I figured a quick trip to Urban Outfitters wouldn’t be criminal, since the majority of the gaming community seemed to own everything plaid anyway. I remember enjoying the feeling of being lost in a city crowd, until I was called sir.

At first, I didn’t think the person was talking to me, because I’d first have a panic attack before entering a public space without makeup. It wasn’t until they mentioned a resemblance to Lenny Kravits that I turned to a man staring at me, since I was the only person of color within a few yards radius (something cities like Boston made me extremely sensitive about). Despite my pointed flats and twice-mascara’ed lashes, this gentleman felt it necessary to remind me that everyone saw who I ‘really’ was. That I wasn’t fooling anyone. On the train back to my hotel to change before the convention, I told myself I’d never dress like that again.

There’s two sides to these mass gathering of gaming folk, one being that I can talk with anyone about my interests, but I must also appear professional at all times. An unfortunate part about being a professional who is transgender is to be convincing. Whether my new acquaintance or I likes it or not, they will make a snap judgment of me, that I’m a woman, or I’m obviously not a woman. In an industry dominated by heterosexual men, my appearance is closely tied to any form of success. I have to battle with the implicit tension of possibly threatening their sexuality, or just their reputation with being associated with someone like me. You see, people don’t believe that I’m a woman because I say so; even self-proclaimed liberal and open-minded individuals will backdrop my identity thinking that I wasn’t always a woman, and that it’s perfectly okay that I made this ‘choice.’ What’s worse, just wearing clothing from the women’s section isn’t enough. In order for men to feel comfortably heterosexual around me, I have to be near porn-star grade in appearance, as if to make up for what’s different about me. Everything may be unintentional and reasonable considering the unlikelyhood they have experience with people who are transgender, but it is far from innocuous. This is why I wore heels every day at PAX East.

About 17 minutes after I read Leigh Alexander’s “Types of Women Men Like Better Than Me,” I cried. I cried because it prompted a good string of tweets about how insecure I felt over managing my image in a professional space. I try to make it a policy to not say depressingly self-conscious things in public, but it was a needed catharsis. I was also tired with the amount of effort it took just to appear average, to have a fair shot as just being a person. I lied to all of my friends who expressed concern over my heeled travel methods; I shrug and smile until I go home and tear up in pain because that’s what I have to do. There, I said it.

I wore knee-high laced up leather boots to the “Death of Vox Games” panel, where the group metamorphosed into Polygon. Standing in line during Q&A, I was anxious because I was only woman going to engage the panel. I wondered if my dress was too short, if my hair was okay, and if I was legitimate enough to press the Polygon staff on their growing but still lacking diversity. This isn’t unique to Polygon, but most publications both paid and hobbyist. They took a bold step of attempting to set a new standard for writing about games, and are self-aware about the precedent they should be taking on this issue. What shocked me about their response was the small amount of women that applied to write for them. Upon memory, out of about 650 applications, 12 were women writers. Doing some quick calculator work, that’s not even 2%. Assuming their newest recruits were headhunted, I was in the physical presence of a quarter of the women applicants that very day (I included myself in that). Why is this? Obviously, since there was a mess over Polygon’s opening line-up, people would aim to fill this need they have, right?

It wasn’t until I went to another panel that day that someone recognized me from my question. She told me that she aspired to write about games but, after her foray into the scene, bowed out because of the homogenous mastheads of online publications. Since videogame culture started from an angle that marginalized minorities, she found staff that didn’t explicitly support diversity issues to be the ones to hand wave these sorts of concerns. Having now personally met some of Polygon’s staff, I’m confident that their representation of diversity is definitely a concern. However, I can see how their involvements with past publications show they stayed either silent or blissfully unaware of minority concerns.

She made me realize that not everyone is like me, that not everyone feels like they have to contort themselves in order to fit in. Some people give the system the finger and move on with their talent elsewhere. Polygon limits its diversity by being a super team of established writers, because minorities are still catching on that there’s a need for their voices in the industry and that not everyone in gaming excuses discrimination with all of the usual flawed arguments. I was part of the rarity that came knocking on their door; most minority talent needs to be discovered for the first time and cultivated. It’s not until minority voices are valued on teams such as Polygon’s that people like her would take a risk and apply. She made me reflect on the example I’m setting for other writers, and that possibly one day, others would look to my path.

I’m not quite sure what to change yet, but I figured I should be candid. That while I love the things I do and try to love the person I am, there’s an incredible pressure to be attractive just to have a chance. Past this ramble, I will continue to wear heels and be incredibly conscious of my appearance. This is my personal path that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, but there needs to be stories of transgender experience in writing about videogames. About being a woman in videogames. I wonder, with the next person I meet, will they see the woman I want them to see?

Women, the Ensemble, and Narrative Authority in the Final Fantasy Series

How gender informs design is a subject rarely discussed but holds a lot of value as we explore how to express gender topics in games. What exactly is a feminine narrative design? There isn’t a concrete answer, but we have the benefit of the Final Fantasy series to consider the question, including its games led by women characters. This isn’t to say that what we find there is definitively feminine storytelling, but rather how the series shifts in technique whenever women dominate the cast.

A curious trend exists of women-led Final Fantasy games being ensemble stories rather than their men-led siblings with their single-character focus. Mostly notably in Final Fantasy VI it becomes unclear who exactly matters most in the story, since Terra is most often seen as the head of the party. However, Celes takes control for the last part of the game. Final Fantasy X-2, XIII, and XIII-2 all fall into ambiguity, in which the team is emphasized over the individual in terms of the game’s design. Contrast this to series favorites, like VII and VIII, which has male leads with no question as to who the story is about.

We can formally express this ambiguity by looking at how the series experiments with the difference between the story’s main character and protagonist. Most often these characters are the same, but they also often diverge in the series. Final Fantasy gives us two games with the clearest split between the main character and the protagonist. Final Fantasy X features Tidus and Yuna respectively, and XII features Vaan and Ashe. It’s interesting in these games that the main character is a man because the main character is the perspective that the player takes on. Main characters are there for the player to most immediately relate to and trust (or mistrust), while the protagonist drives the action of the story and clashes with the antagonist. Tidus and Vaan are quite literally tag-alongs to a party of much more pertinent characters but offer their unique outsider perspectives so that the player isn’t lost when dropped into the action. It’s Yuna’s pilgrimage that Seymour is out to stop, Ashe’s legitimacy to power that threatens Vayne. Now, who exactly is the main character and who is the protagonist of VI?

What makes games like VI and XIII interesting from this perspective is how much the women share narrative responsibility with other characters. Lightning is the cover character for her game, but control often shifts to other characters. As well, her perspective is constantly informed by the meta-narration of Vanille, who is arguably the actual central character of the cast. Both she and Fang act as protagonists while their Cocoon party members are scrambling to adapt to the consequences of their actions. How it’s probable that you’ll remember the women and forget the men in a video game is remarkable, though the men take more narrative authority than they would allow women in other games. This ambiguity most likely adds into gamers’ frustrations with the game, as it is generally unfamiliar ground for everyone involved. However, there is a general gendered reaction to XIII similar to Dragon Age II’s reception; it also focused on an ensemble cast and took narrative importance away from the player character. The oft male-dominated old guard took issue with this change while many minority gamers felt more room to relate to characters.

My best guess as to why narrative importance is more egalitarian in these titles is a combination of two things: sensitivity to distancing men from relating to the main characters by spreading out the focus and the role that women typically are assigned in stories. The lack of women in proper starring roles in games isn’t a new thing, and what Final Fantasy seems to be doing is cheating. We can have strong women only if the player isn’t forced to identify with them throughout the entire game. This also taps into the usual function of women serving as the source of the social cohesion of their group. Very often parties present a child/maiden/mother trifecta (e.g. Rikku, Yuna, and Lulu) used to keep a group functioning, especially acting as emotional guidance for the male characters. Following this idea, video game women can only continue to do this as leads until game designers figure out different or more nuanced roles for them. On the other hand, the ambiguity of roles that these games provide is preferable, as they share influence throughout the entire cast instead of just coming up with excuses as to why the majority of characters fight for the main character.

Gender politics influences more than costume design and word choice but also design decisions that govern our relationship to the game. This is important for diversity causes in gaming, as how players can empathize with the characters determines a large portion of their enjoyment. It also opens up more discussion about the seemingly arcane practice of narrative design, drawing attention to how elements such as characters and point of view reinforce design ideologies. With a new Final Fantasy on the horizon, it will be interesting to see a sole woman lead or a male-led ensemble cast.

Valuing the Feminine: Why I Love Vanille

Let me come out with it now: my favorite Final Fantasy characters tend to be the classic cheerful and energetic archetype, like Aeris, Selphie, and Vanille. It’s usually because I bring a lot of myself into games, and want to relate to someone in a fantasy world. Before I really looked into gender studies, I didn’t realize how problematic these characters were in respect to women’s portrayal in games overall. While I have that perspective now, I still look back at my connection to them with fondness. It wasn’t until recent conversation with peers that I tested my defense of these women; their reception is mostly negative or dismissive because they are seen as hyperactive and hyper-feminine, perceived to serve the very narrow interests of hegemony. For the most part, I agree. The fandom Final Fantasy appeals to expects certain characters in their party, as consistently having that stereotype of a young girl just past sexual maturity shows. So I’m not going to argue against how they are problematic, rather just the short end of the stick they receive.

If there is a vantage point transition gives me, it’s to see how people react differently the identities they think I have. I experienced a shift of privilege when my appearance went from others pegging me as some sort of male to seeing me as a woman. One thing that, to this day, bothers me is how my happy-go-lucky, sensitive persona went from a characteristic of being well rounded as male to a sign of weakness and unintelligence as a woman. What was before friendly and comforting became ditzy and vulnerable. It’s been a battle for me in the workspaces I inhabit, as I either have to be myself and treated this way, or hardened and forceful with my competency, which brings on another set of gendered insults. I’ve experienced this recently when networking and socializing with other game writers, encountering some who devalue my opinion because I’m feminine. So I have a stake in this, one that tells me something else is going on with how we’re treating this type of character. We often demonize the feminine because it seems regressive in our gender politics, but decidedly feminine women aren’t the issue. It’s the values that see femininity as inferior we still need to look at.

I came to this realization when playing Final Fantasy XIII. It’s a game where the women stole the show and I barely remember what the men actually did, which is nice for a change. Lightning and Fang seem to get all of the credit, though, and not undeservedly; I’d go to say Fang was Woman of the Year in 2010. However, mostly due to the vocal direction her actress was given, Vanille was received with general disdain. I, on the other hand, loved her and thought she was the most important and nuanced character in that game. But that’s because I don’t think being badass, physically adept, and androgynous is the only way of being a strong woman. Sometimes the strongest character is the person who ties everyone together, is the subliminal, caretaking force that gives everything meaning.

Vanille’s role as the narrator, along with the aesthetic that came with being from Pulse, reminds me of the social function as storytellers women in some Native American (and I’m sure other) cultures, serving as their tribes’ memory and history. While the flashbacks explained everyone’s personal motivations, it was mostly Vanille’s memories that revealed the cause of the entire catastrophe. In a sense, her story of burden and guilt is thankless because it’s not the type of courage we’re used to valuing. The game wouldn’t exist without Vanille, but we’re ready to forget her.

This all might tie into feminist theory that hypothesizes work relegated to the private sphere and dubbed as feminine isn’t really seen as work or accomplishment, but expected duty. In order to get recognition, you must make a show for yourself in the aggressive, angled masculine space. Meaning, we’re already primed to either fetishize or degrade Vanille if we don’t identify with her. I feel like her theme summed it up for me, a track of someone walking a melancholy path and struggling to keep on a smile. XIII’s crew was full of angst, and without Vanille smiling, the group wouldn’t be able to hold itself together. So she kept doing it, even when it she didn’t want to. I personally empathize with the amount of courage and effort that takes, and wished I had someone to recognize it in my own life.

I don’t want to let Square Enix and other companies off the hook for the obvious pandering towards the hegemonic gamer base when it comes to characters like Vanille, but I also challenge gamers to check if they’re harsher on feminine characters. Are we measuring competency and worth with a masculine measuring stick? Let’s not relegate the feminine only to the service of hegemonic interests, but allow feminine people to feel as empowered as heroes. The Final Fantasy series is actually a good place to start exploring this topic with its range of feminine characters, to identify what is problematic, and what is heroically feminine.

Second Date – Ikezawa Hanako, a Trans* Narrative

(Trigger Warning for trans* transition experiences)

Katawa Shoujo doesn’t make anything easy. Every positive has a caveat, each charming thoughtful moment its headdesk. Last time, I talked about how Hanako’s path exemplified the sexual exotification of disability in the game, mostly through giving the player a main character without a superficially notable disability. Upon a first glance, there seemed to be little application for this analysis outside of criticizing pandering to men’s interests in visual novels, however, my personal connection to Hanako provided me with something else. I saw her do something that triggered a muscle memory from my past: She covers her face.

This is emblematic for the teenage stage of life where you think everyone is always watching you. Appearances matter, especially how you dress, your hair, your face. Imagine having that double fold and outside of high school; that was me. Growing into a transgender identity isn’t a quick and magical process many people imagine, rather, it’s a very long and awkward transition. A transition with the destination constantly changing. One of the most painful experiences is claiming an identity that others don’t see or believe. Without the aid of fashion tips and makeup, people in my day-to-day life wouldn’t see me as a woman, and I lived that for a long time. One of the things I did was cover my face. I liked scarves, straightened my hair and grew out long bangs, tried to make a posture where I hid my jaw line with my hand seem natural. I felt awkward, and looking at Hanako, I now know everyone else knew I was awkward, despite my efforts.

Then there was the social anxiety, some that stays with me today. Whenever someone approached me and looked at my face, all I could think of was how they were staring at my trans-ness. It made me feel ugly. I felt ugly when people stumbled to identify me, I felt ugly whenever a guy would forcibly call me “dude” and make sure there was a yard between us. Hanako was the Id I battled with, wanting someone like Lily who didn’t notice what was transgender about me, who was sensitive to when I need to leave social gatherings, that I needed extra steps to feel comfortable. Society does two things to people like Hanako: shames and sexualizes them. Hanako’s path is a story of someone who survives both, however, she can only overcome the shame inside the bounds of Katawa Shoujo. It’s the same with being transgender, as one can ignore, hide, or embrace what distinguishes them from a cisgender identity, but it others will allow it to rule their interactions. People will interact with trans* people in accordance to essentialized notions of sexual orientation and relegate trans* bodies to sexual fetishism. Which, in turn, exotifies being transgender in the manner Katawa Shoujo does to disability.

I both criticize and empathize with Hanako’s decision to share her disability in a sexualized setting and ‘giving into’ sex with Hisao to gauge his interest. In my experience, when being transgender is the elephant in the relationship, sex is typically the answer. To parallel Hisao and Hanako’s relationship, an inexperienced cisgender partner will seek to answer questions about the transgender person’s body and their sexual chemistry with an identity they haven’t slept with before. Sex can often happen quickly, and will usually determine whether the cisgender partner will continue the relationship. Hanako needed to know what Hisao was there for, and sex was more about Hisao figuring out his feelings rather than their mutual satisfaction. The unfortunate truth is Hanako and transgender people know they are often viewed only through what makes them exotic, and once it becomes familiar, interest fades. What is lamentable is how oblivious Hisao is to this, and how players can excise their empathy for his situation without being aware of their contribution to the systemic oppression of those exotified.

The developers probably didn’t plan Hanako to be an exploration of the exotic or trans* issues. I also don’t claim to represent every single person with a trans* identity. It also isn’t a suggestion that players or anyone participating in visual novel culture are rapists or otherwise condemnable people. Katawa Shoujo, however, normalizes the exotic and makes it palatable to more hegemonic identities; it’s easier to explore feelings surrounding dating someone with a disability or transgender identity when they are a video game character bent to satisfy the player. It only serves hegemonic gamer identity, but future iterations of games aiming to explore the diverse range of relationships possible would benefit from looking at the ground Katawa Shoujo covered.

Ikezawa Hanako, the Otaku Exotic

You’re a male student who has the pick of five high school girls with disabilities to date and sleep with. Yes, Katawa Shoujo has a sensationalist premise promising for something to go horribly wrong. The main character, Nakai Hisao, transfers to a private school that accommodates students with disabilities and health issues that require the need of an around the clock medical staff. As he wrestles with his disability and how that involves his identity, attractive girls with their own problems whom he can romance complicate things further. One of the story paths Hisao can take is to involve himself with Ikezawa Hanako, a burn victim with scars covering half her body, and crippling social anxiety as a result. There is a case for Hanako being the standard romance, or the one made in mind of the audience that would play this game, despite having the most unconventional look of all the romances.

With its sexual connotation, the scars exotify Hanako. Without them, she would be a very typical Japanese schoolgirl who is extremely shy, tries to cook, hides in the library… Would anything be interesting about Hanako if it wasn’t for her accident? The mental side of her disability is actually emphasized traits of what we think of woman nerds: dislikes social interaction except with those who earn her affection, hypersensitive to her preferences of where they can go, and enjoying anything that makes them a relative shut-in. All wrapped in traditional Japanese beauty and given scarring to make her unique. Many of the other girls have personality quirks that involve their disability but don’t rely on it to make them unique. Hanako, on the other hand, enables the typical men’s fantasy traits; by rousing Hisao’s white knight tendencies and being an extreme stereotype of a geek or nerd, she is the most palatable choice for the typical consumer visual novels and dating sims. Having this social anxiety forces the player to invest their own protective tendencies, but in a way that won’t backlash at them. In a way, the player won’t feel their own social ineptitude or inability to read people to be a hindrance because Hanako is such an extreme case.

The conclusion of her storyline is pretty telling; you can only get the perfect run through if you respect her independence and allow her to start doing things on her own without Hisao hovering over her. Because this is a fantasy, her new stake in autonomy happens right at the end of the game, so the player doesn’t have to experience a complicated relationship. Instead, Hanako provided the chase and the emotions of caretaking and resolved her character arc without disrupting these feelings. So when players look back at their time with Hanako, they will remember holding a glass figurine rather than the first step to being a woman she makes at the end of the game. It is a strange convention of these high school dating sims to end the game when the relationship officially starts, which is typically after a sex scene. Because players will remember the dutiful, quiet Hanako that provided sex because she wanted to be close, and not the potentially threatening social and secure Hanako that happens after the story’s end.

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