“Representation” in Final Fantasy XVI

I had to block someone on Twitter this week.

To make a short story even shorter: Issues surrounding representation in media and popular culture are very important but extremely complicated, and I’m not interested in decontextualized virtue signaling being used as a weapon to beat down individual members of marginalized communities on social media.

To set the stage: I watched the reveal trailer for Final Fantasy XVI, and I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually.

Seeing as how my PlayStation 4 plays DVD and Blu-ray discs just fine, I probably won’t buy the PlayStation 5 console, but that’s okay. Knowing Square Enix, they’ll probably release the “game” as a movie, an animated miniseries, a novel, a short story collection, a manga, a spin-off manga, a mobile-only trading card game, a series of themed deserts in their Tokyo café, and so on. Maybe I’ll play the actual game, and maybe I’ll engage with it through other media. Given that the project is still in development, this isn’t a decision I’ll have to make anytime soon.

Still, based on the trailer, Final Fantasy XVI looks like a cool game with an intriguing premise. After watching the trailer, I made three tweets about how:

(1) I like the dog,
(2) I like the Dark Souls aesthetic, and
(3) I like how this game seems to be developing the themes of the previous games.

Almost immediately, some random person whom I’ve never interacted with before decided that my appreciative reaction tweets about a promo trailer would be a good venue to tell me that it’s problematic for me to express appreciation about a game that doesn’t have any female or LGBTQ+ characters.

I also saw this sort of knee-jerk reaction from a few people I follow and respect, and I have to admit that I was surprised.

First of all, this was a four-minute trailer for a game that’s going to come out who knows when. “The next big information reveal is scheduled for 2021,” apparently. Although it seems as if the player will control a solitary male warrior, we don’t really have a lot of information about who the characters are and what their sexual histories and preferences might be.

Second, how dare this person come into Yoshi-P’s house and assume he’s not going to have female and queer characters in this game. Naoki Yoshida is famous in the gaming industry for hiring and promoting female staff members, and he’s been nothing but respectful of the LGBTQ+ communities that have formed within Final Fantasy XIV. All of the (female and queer-identified) translation and localization staff who have worked with him have nothing but good things to say about the creative environments he facilitates.

Third, although I may have once seen myself in Final Fantasy games in a way I didn’t see myself elsewhere, both the franchise and the gaming industry have shifted dramatically during the past ten years, and I think it’s unrealistic and unfair to rely on the four-minute trailer of a mainline Final Fantasy game for validation and representation.

Both as a queer creator (and translator) and as someone who works with and promotes queer creators (and translators), I always get defensive when people say that we don’t exist, or that the work we contribute to large projects is somehow invalid if the final product doesn’t meet certain arbitrary standards of “representation.”

When I look for representation (meaning, when I look for meaningful stories about identity that transcend mere tokenism), big-budget mainstream games are never going to be the first place I look. This is not to say that there aren’t female and queer protagonists in big-budget mainstream games, and this certainly isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like to see more of them. Still, I think it’s much more reasonable to expect a more specific type of “representation” from games created by smaller studios that are more invested in allowing individual voices to be expressed with clarity and distinction than they are in appealing to a broad audience. I’m almost 100% certain that there will be female and queer characters in Final Fantasy XVI, but that’s not why I would (or wouldn’t) play the game.

To me personally, it’s extremely insulting that someone would look at all the amazing and important work done by female and queer creators in the gaming industry, as well as all the powerful representation in both triple-A games and indie titles, and say, essentially, “That’s not good enough because it does not interest me personally.”

I agree with this person that there should be more female and openly queer characters in big-budget mainstream game franchises. Of course I do. Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I’ve been engaging in a PLAYABLE ZELDA 2020 online campaign since at least 2015. Attempting to shame random people on Twitter for being fans of large franchises isn’t going to dismantle systems of inequality, however, nor is denying the existence of the diversity and representation that so many individual creators have fought and sacrificed to make happen.

But I couldn’t say all of this in a Tweet, so I just blocked this person. If nothing else, it’s rude to invade someone’s space for the sole purpose of publicly engaging in performative wokeness, and I don’t have the time to spend on that sort of emotional vampirism.

So I don’t care that the main protagonist in Final Fantasy XVI is probably going to be male. Once the game has been released, I might have more to say about what it does and doesn’t do. Until then, I’d much rather devote my limited emotional resources to appreciating games from diverse creators that speak to me in a meaningful way.

Voices Are Not Commodities

I Know I’m Late
https://medium.com/@rebecca.albertalli/i-know-im-late-9b31de339c62

So why do we keep doing this? Why do we, again and again, cross the line between critiquing books and making assumptions about author identities? How are we so aware of invisible marginalization as a hypothetical concept, but so utterly incapable of making space for it in our community?

Let me be perfectly clear: this isn’t how I wanted to come out. This doesn’t feel good or empowering, or even particularly safe. Honestly, I’m doing this because I’ve been scrutinized, subtweeted, mocked, lectured, and invalidated just about every single day for years, and I’m exhausted. And if you think I’m the only closeted or semi-closeted queer author feeling this pressure, you haven’t been paying attention.

And I’m one of the lucky ones! I’m a financially independent adult. I can’t be disowned. I come from a liberal family, I have an enormous network of queer friends and acquaintances, and my livelihood isn’t even remotely at risk. I’m hugely privileged in more ways than I can count. And this was still brutally hard for me. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for other closeted writers, and how unwelcome they must feel in this community.
As someone who was disowned by my family after being outed at fifteen, and as someone who was very recently forced to leave a stable job after disclosing a disability, my position on the matter is clear: Personal identity is complicated, and no one should be made to feel pressured to disclose sensitive personal information in a public venue. This is not social justice; it’s real violence performed against people in vulnerable positions.
.
Also relevant:

Social Media Self-Care

During the past few days, I deleted about four hundred posts on Tumblr:

Posts where I reblogged people’s stories, meta, and art with supportive comments and tags, posts of original art and stories and jokes I made for people’s ideas and headcanons, and reblogs of people’s creative projects and commission info.

I applied the same level of attention to weeding my blog on Tumblr that I’ve devoted to developing my island on Animal Crossing, and it was incredibly cathartic.

I don’t need to see a snapshot of myself going out of my way to be kind and friendly to someone who thought it would be a good idea to send me a message asking if they could commission me to drink an entire bottle of NyQuil and pass out with a plastic trash bag over my head, for example.

I was never friends with any of these creeps. It never happened.

For me, the purpose of Tumblr is and always has been to create a small garden of things that make me happy. I scroll through my own Tumblr when I’m stuck in a waiting room, or during some impossibly long train or car ride, or when I’m exhausted but can’t sleep. “Interesting but relaxing” is the vibe I’m going for, and I think I’ve gone a decent job, for the most part. After all, I’m fairly skilled at catering to myself as an audience of one.

I’ve never been comfortable with the expectation to behave like a brand; and, regardless, activity on Tumblr has declined rapidly during the past month or so. I’ve gone from getting well over a thousand notes a day at the beginning of the year to getting less than a hundred a day during the past three weeks, and it only takes me about fifteen minutes to scroll through an entire day’s feed – if I even bother, which I mostly don’t.

What has ultimately come out of my social experience of fandom on Tumblr are lowkey but lasting friendships with professional artists and writers who have mostly moved to Twitter. I understand the value of online anonymity, but I think there are benefits to allowing yourself to be a real and fully-rounded person online. There are also benefits to being able to mute people, as well as being able to choose never to see certain tags and keywords. I’m not saying that Twitter is a good platform, because it’s objectively awful, but it’s become a much easier place to manage the social aspects of fandom.

To be honest, it’s because of Twitter that I no longer think of “fandom” as a discrete area of my life that needs to be contained and concealed as a shameful waste of time. I am a writer who writes reviews and critical essays about media. Sometimes I write fiction and draw comics. This is who I am, and I’ve found it much easier to interact with people when I don’t have to hide aspects of myself. I’ve also found it much easier to pick up the sort of high-quality freelance assignments that enabled me to quit the soul-crushing job that was making me sick.

Maybe it took me a little longer than other people to find my voice and surround myself with a supportive community, but I’m happy I’m here now.

A Golden Mean

I’m currently working with someone on a comic commission, and it’s going great. We’ve developed something of a friendship, and over the course of our exchange we traded a few paragraphs about Ganondorf’s nose as it relates to his character design. I had a few years of research and observation to contribute, and it was fun putting everything in down in writing. I realized, however, that I can never, ever post any of this on Tumblr.

I first joined Tumblr because I used to love reading the essays people posted there, but the general culture of the site has shifted so far to “performatively woke” that it’s become really scary to say anything that might be taken out of context.

For example, this morning I reblogged an interesting post about how Lord of the Rings isn’t really “heroic fantasy” in the way that many people criticize it as being. The context, for me, is my continual process of working through the narrative structure of the games in the Zelda series. What I’m afraid of, however, is that someone is going to read my act of reblogging this post as a defense of certain fantasy tropes with unfortunate implications in light of a recent (conversation?) (debate?) (trashcan fire?) about D&D on Twitter. A normal person would say, “That’s a crazy thing to think,” but the truth is that I’ve received disturbing hate mail for far more innocuous things.

The Discord interface continues to annoy me, and Twitter is deliberately designed to be awful and upsetting. I never thought I would say this, but I’m spending more time on Reddit these days. People posting there tend toward the pedantic at times, and the site sometimes feels like one of the last bastions of the “well actually” school of comic book guys (who are super annoying in the Zelda fandom, btw); but, for the most part, everyone is relatively sane and hate speech gets moderated out.

A week or two ago I read through an archived thread about how people in multinational marriages tease each other, and it was very sweet and wholesome. “One day I asked my Russian wife why she has to put dill on everything,” one post read, “and she got annoyed and asked me if I wanted a side of guns with my big American hamburger. I love her so much.” I’m in a line of work where almost everyone I know is in a mixed race/nationality/culture relationship, as I am myself, and it was nice to see people making silly jokes about how they resolve the tensions that can sometimes rise from different expectations, communication styles, and life experiences.

I can’t even begin to imagine what a thread like this would look like on Tumblr. There would be assumptions and accusations all over the place, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

The problem with Reddit, however, is that the person who is super helpfully walking you through the latest Zelda clone you’re playing might also be a moderator on one of the boards dedicated to political action meant to keep the American South gerrymandered in order to facilitate voter suppression. I offer this as an example because it happened to me a few months ago. About three years ago I received a similar shock when I realized that one of the stars of a Neko Atsume subreddit was heavily involved in an ultranationalist group operating out of r/The_Donald.

What I’m trying to say is that it sure would be nice to belong to a large and active online community that occupies a comfortable middle ground between xenophobic white supremacy and sending death threats in the name of social justice.

Consumable and Disposable

I’m going to say something that sounds like self-pity, but it’s really more of an observation.

I feel like, at the beginning of every relationship I have with another person, they grant me a certain number of “goodwill points.” These goodwill points will never increase, but they will steadily decrease. The only way for me to prevent them from decreasing is to be constantly active and productive, thus maintaining the level of goodwill this person felt for me when our relationship first began. I have to be very careful about what I do, however, because one wrong move might reduce the remaining goodwill points to zero in one fell swoop, thus influencing the other person to terminate the relationship.

I know this might sound like the deluded thinking of someone with anxiety, but I have no other way of interpreting the behavior of other people that, as far as I can tell, has no relation to who I am or what I do. From my perspective, I’m just being myself and doing the sort of work I’ve always done. I’m pretty constant, and I try not to cause trouble for anyone if I can help it.

What I’m trying to explain with this model is how I can sometimes wake up in the morning and find that people have randomly unfollowed me on social media. Like, I don’t think I did or said anything weird, but I could have, or it could simply be that I reached the limit of someone else’s tolerance.

I should clarify that I’m not upset about losing one or two followers. Rather, since I became more active on social media about five years ago, this has been an almost daily occurrence – you gain some, you lose some. I know that it’s random, but it still feels a little personal.

I guess it’s become almost something of a truism that social media has had a negative influence on the way we treat other people as consumable, with relationships being ultimately disposable. It’s not entirely accurate to say that you have a “relationship” with someone who follows you on social media, but I think this mentality also applies to a lot of professional relationships, with the vast majority of people who have entered the workforce during the past fifteen years being treated as consumable and disposable.

I just read Emily Guendelsberger’s book On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, and nothing she experienced surprises me. What she writes doesn’t just apply to low-wage work, however.

Speaking from my personal experience as a former tenure-track professor, I constantly felt like I was under an enormous amount of pressure. I worked seventy-hour weeks for five years, and (unsurprisingly) this ended up making me sick. I was forced to declare a disability in an attempt to temporarily reduce my workload to a fifty-hour week, at which point my tenure liaison gleefully informed me that there would “never be a place at this university for people like you.” Since reaching out to my colleagues in the field via various professional networks, I’ve come to realize that I’m far from the only person who has received this sort of treatment. Ironically, we’re the lucky ones who were at least on the tenure track, and we were spared many of the indignities experienced by the adjunct precariat who work just as hard (if not harder) and make exponentially lower salaries.

As painful as it’s been to be fired, it’s even more painful that none of the people I’ve worked with for the past six years has said anything to me. Like, it’s not my anxiety telling me that I’m not good enough, and it’s not my anxiety telling me that the people I was friendly with didn’t actually care about me. Employment in the twenty-first century, low-wage or otherwise, is deliberately designed to be exhausting, and it’s difficult to make real friends or form lasting relationships if you are constantly, constantly working your ass off to avoid being judged as unproductive and insufficient. Friends are wonderful, but “friends” aren’t going to pay the rent.

In the absence of real relationships, then, we’ve collectively developed a vague system of steadily decreasing goodwill in which your value as a person is measured solely by how productive you can be and how successful you are at regulating your behavior to remain on-brand.

Karen Would Like Your Attention Please

How ‘Karen’ Became a Coronavirus Villain
https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/05/coronavirus-karen-memes-reddit-twitter-carolyn-goodman/611104/

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, “Karen” has been adopted as a shorthand to call out a vocal minority of middle-aged white women who are opposed to social distancing, out of either ignorance or ruthless self-interest. It’s the latest evolution of a long-standing meme. In The New York Times last year, the writer Sarah Miller described Karens as “the policewomen of all human behavior,” using the example of a suburban white woman who calls the cops on kids’ pool parties. Karens have been mocked for being anti-vaccine and pro–”Can I speak to your manager?” They’re obsessed with banal consumer trends and their personal appearance, and typically criminally misguided, usually loudly and with extreme confidence.

Their defining essence is “entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain,” according to Heather Suzanne Woods, a meme researcher and professor at Kansas State University. A Karen “demands the world exist according to her standards with little regard for others, and she is willing to risk or demean others to achieve her ends.”

This is a relatively short article, and it’s worth reading to the end. I would say that it goes to a surprising place, but at this point I’m not actually all that surprised to learn that some of the more high-profile Karens on Twitter were manufactured by right-wing content farms.

Twitch Studies

The Twitch streamers who spend years broadcasting to no one
https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/16/17569520/twitch-streamers-zero-viewers-motivation-community

The rise of popular (and profitable) influencers on platforms like YouTube and Twitch has also made the idea of being an online influencer aspirational. Some parents note that their children pretend to unbox toys to a nonexistent audience, and teachers report that their students often say they want to pursue YouTubing as a career. But when seemingly everyone wants to record footage or live stream, who ends up watching the content?

Starting a career on platforms like Twitch often means spending some time broadcasting to absolutely no one. Discoverability is an issue: when you log into Twitch, the most visible people are those who already have a large following. While there are tools to find lesser-known streamers, most people starting out without built-in audiences from other platforms or supportive friends and family end up staring at a big, fat zero on their viewership counter. This lonely live stream purgatory can last anywhere from a few days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, depending on your luck. According to people who have gone through it, lacking an audience is one of the most demoralizing things you can experience online.

I found this article by searching for the title, which I saw in a screencap photo in a Kotaku article about a professor who taught a session of his class about Twitch on Twitch.

Although I sometimes fantasize that I’m recording myself when I do 100% completion speedruns of Legend of Zelda games, I have to admit that I never got into Twitch. I understand the appeal, but like… Okay, how do I put this.

So much of being considered cool in high school and college is about sharing communal experiences. You can’t just watch a movie and talk about it, you have to watch it with your friends and share inside jokes that mainly take the form of repeating the lines from the movie that everyone in your friend group laughed at. I enjoy spending time with people, but I have trouble relaxing enough to passively consume content in the company of a group. Doing something like quietly watching a television show or sports game has always felt like having to sit through an awful and boring lecture.

What I’m trying to say is that Twitch isn’t for me. I’m not suggesting that Twitch isn’t worth reading about and writing about and teaching an entire college class about; but, to me, it’s really nothing more than how teenagers and people in their early twenties have always spent time with their peer groups.

The primary difference, I guess, is that people aspire to do this professionally. In fact, some of my own students are already well on their way to making a career out of streaming or Let’s Play videos.

Anyway, I was thinking about teaching a class through Twitch (or possibly Discord) myself, but I ultimately decided against it. I understand the drive to hold class sessions via videoconferencing, but I also don’t think it’s entirely fair to assume that everyone will have access both to a good internet connection and to a quiet space where they can be alone, especially not during an arbitrarily set time, and not while they’re back with their families. See also:

‘Zoombombing’: When Video Conferences Go Wrong

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/style/zoombombing-zoom-trolling.html

How Instagram and Tumblr Work

I’m a big fan of Gal Shir’s texture brushes, and yesterday I read his self-published book View Insights, which is about how to grow a following on social media, specifically Instagram.

The first 2/3 of the book contains good general life advice, such as:

(1) Do what you actually enjoy doing
(2) It’s not necessary to quit your day job
(3) Divide your ideas into “big projects” and “small projects”
(4) Learn how to balance and prioritize your projects

The book also contains a few pieces of advice that are predicated on assumptions that strike me as somewhat “masculinist,” such as the idea that no one cares about pictures of your face or your personal life – which is not even remotely true in the online spaces I have experience with, where people tend to care just as much about the artist as they do the art. So your mileage may vary, I guess.

What I found interesting about this book was the last third, in which the author digs deep into how Instagram’s algorithms work and why they work in the ways they do. Tumblr is an altogether different platform that works in different ways for different reasons, but Shir corroborates some of the tendencies I’ve noticed on Tumblr, such as:

(1) The “value” of a post is algorithmically ranked within a limited number of tags
(2) This “value” is partially dependent on the “user rank” of the poster
(3) This “value” is also determined by interaction from other “high-rank” users
(4) The level of interaction needs to be significant, like commenting or sharing (and not simply liking)
(5) This “high-rank” interaction needs to happen within the first few hours of posting

A while ago I speculated (here) about what I called “anchor blogs” on Tumblr, which are blogs that may not necessarily post original content but still manage to be influential. I was thinking about how actual person-to-person social networks tend to function within fandom; but, if this algorithmically based “user rank” theory is true, this would help explain the patterns I noticed relating to how any given post spreads.

Tumblr has passed its prime, so I’m not sure if any of this still applies; but, according to this theory, this is what you would have needed to do in order to become a “high-rank” user:

(1) Interact with a lot of content
(2) At a significant level
(3) Within hours of it being posted
(4) And follow a lot of people
(5) While having “high-rank” followers

What all of this boils down to is that these two platforms reward “engagement,” which is essentially extroverted behavior combined with the condition of being on your phone all the time. Shir says that, when he first started trying to build a following on Instagram, he would devote three hours a day to interacting with other posts and people on the platform during peak hours. Unlike Instagram (and Facebook), I’m almost 100% certain that Tumblr doesn’t apply a secondary “positivity rating” to posts and comments, but actually being genuinely friendly probably doesn’t hurt.

Technologies of Behavior Modification

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff review – we are the pawns
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/02/age-of-surveillance-capitalism-shoshana-zuboff-review

While insisting that their technology is too complex to be legislated, there are companies that have poured billions into lobbying against oversight, and while building empires on publicly funded data and the details of our private lives they have repeatedly rejected established norms of societal responsibility and accountability. And what is crucially different about this new form of exploitation and exceptionalism is that beyond merely strip-mining our intimate inner lives, it seeks to shape, direct and control them. Their operations transpose the total control over production pioneered by industrial capitalism to every aspect of everyday life.

I’m not sure I’m up for reading the actual book, which sounds miserably depressing, but this is an interesting review. Two paragraphs are devoted to a blunt deconstruction of Pokémon Go, which is fair.

Even though most of the people (especially artists) I used to follow on Tumblr have moved to Twitter and Instagram, I still feel a bit weird about engaging with those two platforms. Despite its flaws, I appreciate that Tumblr is relatively chaotic and isn’t making money for anyone. Activity on the site has dropped off since the beginning of the year, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. Also, as much as Discord annoys me for being exclusive, inaccessible, and difficult to use, I’ve found myself spending more time on art and sketch channels during the past few months.

Meanwhile, AO3 remains the Gold Standard of Internet and continues to be my happy place.

Algorithmic Time

The 2010s Broke Our Sense Of Time
https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/katherinemiller/the-2010s-have-broken-our-sense-of-time

How did everything get so jumbled? Stories about our phones, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest often concern Nazis, grifters, scammers, plagiarists, the aesthetes who reject that online life, the famous, the infamous, people who are making a buck, and anyone else who pushes the logic and limits already in place. But what about the rest of us?

The 2000s were a bad decade, full of terrorism, financial ruin, and war. The 2010s were different, somehow more disorienting, full of molten anxiety, racism, and moral horror shows. Maybe this is a reason for the disorientation: Life had run on a certain rhythm of time and logic, and then at a hundred different entry points, that rhythm and that logic shifted a little, sped up, slowed down, or disappeared, until you could barely remember what time it was.

The writer isn’t wrong, but holy hell do all of the flashing GIF images make this article difficult to read. I understand that this is (probably?) the result of an intentional artistic decision to create a format that mimics the experience of having your attention constantly divided between multiple competing demands online, but it works a little too well. The essay is about how having our lives mediated through social media disrupts our memory; and, lo and behold, I can barely remember what I read.

All that being said, I’m planning to cut and paste the text into a document to study later, as what the author is describing mirrors my experience of the past four years almost perfectly.