Street Fighters: Thoughts on the Video Game Voice Actor Strike

The voice actors strike brings to light questions about the boundaries between work and play

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On Friday, SAG-AFTRA, the union representing voice actors in the video game industry officially went on strike. This comes after breakdowns in negotiations between the union and several major companies in the industry over workplace treatment and safety and compensation for actors. Workers are striking against some of the largest names in the business, including Electronic Arts, Activision, and Disney, companies with large amounts of resources behind them and that set the standards and tone for the industry as a whole. This strike is important not only because it demonstrates the importance of collectively organizing to achieve fair working conditions, but because it also points to broader issues surrounding the proliferation of immaterial labor in contemporary life and the increasingly blurred distinctions between labor and leisure.

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Voice actors are striking over transparency in what roles they are given and the nature of projects and for secondary compensation for successful games that sell more than 2 million units. In addition, they are also striking for better  working conditions, such as limiting  the amount of time actors can perform physically demanding voice and screen capture work. After two years of negotiations, these issues have been unresolved and SAG-AFTRA has initiated a strike in response. The strike seems to have a lot of support from players, fans, and actors themselves. Will Wheaton has voiced his support and voice actress Tara Strong (the voice of all your childhood faves) has tweeted about the treatment she and other performers have been subject to.

Not everyone, however, is on board with the strike.  The Voice Realm, a voice-over casting site, is already positioning itself to take on the work that the striking workers won’t do. In other words, they are willing to be scabs. Others are criticizing the voice actors, calling them ungrateful and reminding them that there are others waiting in line to do these jobs who would do the work for far less. In a time where unions are under attack in many industries, we must fight back against critics who will try to position unions as unnecessary hindrances. Unions exist so that the rights of workers can be protected and advanced against the interests of the company who is looking to exploit them.

This strike is unique because it brings to light many questions about the boundaries between work and play, boundaries that have been increasingly blurred in contemporary life. Video games are a medium that is able to manifest play in countless new forms and transform work so that it no longer appears as such. It relies upon immaterial labor, work that produces immaterial products like knowledge, emotional responses, and relationships. Work and play have blended so seamlessly when it comes to video games, in what Julian Küchlich calls “playbor.” As Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter note, “game making blurs the lines between work and play, production and consumption, voluntary activity and precarious exploitation, in a way that typifies the boundless exercise of biopower.”

The problem that arises is that immaterial labor not only disguises the work that is done by creative types like programmers and actors, but it also disguises the work done by everyone else. While the voice actors are one of the most visible aspects of games, there is a whole chain of forces that must come together in order for a game to be released. This includes actors, testers, programmers, artists, musicians, and designers. But, it also includes janitors, office managers, and the workers who manufacture the physical disks. At all levels, labor is done so that a game can be produced and sold. All immaterial labor has supporting material infrastructure underneath it. Like code itself, you aren’t meant to see its inner workings. When functioning properly, you aren’t meant to see it at all.

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This is a characteristic of almost all digital technology work today, not just video games. It includes non-creative workers like Uber drivers, mechanical Turk workers, writers, Google book scanners, Amazon warehouse workers, and the people who make sure your Facebook feed is PG.  This labor behind it is meant to be hidden and disguised as routine, mundane, and normal. It is disguised by code and design, refashioned as a labor of love, and then made pervasive through exploitative practices like “crunch time.” For players, playing video games can be considered be a “form of consumption that reinforces the pleasures of work.” We are conditioned to believe that in order to do the things you love, they should be done at any cost. But, for the companies, it means we should do them at no cost. This isn’t to say that people should not take joy in the work they do. But, it doesn’t mean you have to accept being exploited by your employer to work in the field you love.

Much of the success of the video game industry relies on the underpaid labor of its workforce and the unpaid labor of fans and players. Corporate managers discourage unionization and are known to remind workers that they are lucky to work in a such a cut-throat field on creative projects that are meant to be enjoyed.  They manipulate the desires of creative workers in order to manufacture precarious working conditions. The joy of play is used against workers by managers and anti-union critics in order to dismiss their serious grievances. They fashion play, a world-building activity that has potential for the radical transformation of people and society, into a weapon to be used against organizing efforts.

We have been given an opportunity with this strike. Situations like this bring to the surface all the small, myriad forces that come together to provide us with consumer products. These are not just the issues workers face in one industry, but the issues of people around the globe. Instead of calling those who demand better treatment and compensation for their work ungrateful, we should stand in solidarity with the strikers and use this as an opportunity to demand better working conditions at all levels.

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Girl, I Guess I’m With Her

On existential jubilations and jeering

As the Democratic National Convention winds to a close, I’m witnessing many people rejoice with Hillary’s (imminent) acceptance of the Democratic nomination. Cheers for her experience, her intelligence, her qualifications, and her drive ring through the air as supporters celebrate the success of her campaign. And, they are quite right to celebrate. It was a successful campaign. But, I don’t want to celebrate.

I’ve mostly kept quiet about the election lately, having given myself over to disillusionment. But, I wanted to write about something else I’ve been witnessing besides the jubilations. I have been witnessing a deluge of scorn. This scorn isn’t directed at the usual suspects: Donald Trump, the Republican Party, the Right in general. No, this scorn is directed at Bernie Sanders supporters and the Left. The reasons for the scorn are obvious. The rationale is not so clear. The reasons:

Sanders supporters, the Bernie-or-Busters, are going to throw the election (that hasn’t happened yet).

Fact: The overwhelming majority of Bernie Sanders supporters will support Hillary in the general.

Trump is too dangerous to allow to be president. This issue is unprecedented and demands the suspension of your values in order to stop the greater evil.

True. Donald Trump is too dangerous and should not be elected President. If you’re in the center or on the Left, you will probably agree with this. If you disagree, you might not actually be on the left side of the political spectrum. However, Donald Trump is certainly not unprecedented. Abroad, he reminds Italians of Silvio Berlusconi. At home, Barry Goldwater supported the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Or, we might remember the foreign policy blunder of the Iraq War, which killed over 500,000 people and lead to the creation of ISIS. The amnesia is astounding.

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Sanders needs to reign in his supporters. They are disgusting, selfish, sore losers who just can’t admit that they can’t have what they want. They are children who can’t admit when they are beat. Their booing and jeering is causing a split in the Party. Their uproars and disruptions are demonstrating weakness in a time when we need Party unity.

Because calling the people you supposedly need to court disgusting is certainly the best way to win them over. People love being called disgusting and selfish.

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As Emmet Rensin points out, this behavior is strange and paradoxical: Sanders supporters are painted as threats to the Party who will hand this election to Trump while they are simultaneously a minority force to be laughed at and dismissed. They are a force that does not need to be taken seriously, yet the threat is serious enough to warrant a ton of coverage. The question this attitude asks is not: Why is there so much discontent in the Party, but why are they doing this to us?

Meanwhile, the protestors outside the convention, whose number is much greater than the protestors found at the RNC, are being kept behind high barricades. It almost looks like the wall Donald Trump promises to build, but that might just be my dark sense of humor.

It’s quite interesting to see otherwise calm people rage at Sanders supporters for throwing an election that hasn’t happened yet. They point to Ralph Nader in 2000. They laugh at the supporters who have thrown their support behind Jill Stein. Again, the question is not: What causes people to make such decisions, but why are these fools so foolish? Don’t they know what’s good for them?

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This ignores the material conditions in which people make their political decisions. Critics assume that all Bernie supporters are white and privileged and they can afford to live under four years of Trump. “People of color and women will all suffer under Trump, but you’ll be just fine.” Never mind the people of color and the women and children who have suffered from the perils of regime change and the humming of drones. It also ignores the year of rhetorical hyperbole from the liberal media where Donald Trump has been painted as an existential threat that no one will survive. It ignores the obvious fact that not all Bernie supporters are white men. Many of them are women. Many of them are people of color.

What drives this disdain for the Left, those who liberals should supposedly be in solidarity with? It’s usually not the moral reasoning. Most liberals would agree with helping the poor, addressing terrible race relations, and a general reformation of the voting process. But, maybe it is the moral reasoning. It is not that the Left and liberals disagree on the moral issues, it’s that the Left doesn’t put them aside when it comes to policy and platform. All know and agree when something is unjust, the Left just doesn’t know when to shut up about it.

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And, that’s the wedge. It’s easy to have disdain for the Right because we can feel they are ludicrous and always unjust. But, for liberals, those farther Left are a reminder of a vision that they agree with in principle, but fail to adopt when given the opportunity. They might be forced to admit they agree with the principle but won’t act. Or, they actually don’t agree with the principles which means they no longer have the moral high ground which bound them together against the Right. I don’t think they can handle the dissonance that creates.

The Right does not seem to have this issue. Those in the center usually capitulate to those further on the Right. You only need to look at the government shutdown and the advent of the Tea Party to see evidence of this tendency. Yet, on the Left, it is those further left who need to capitulate to those in the center. And, this is only done to capitulate to those further right than they. This is why the Democrats can run a candidate and platform that is supposedly progressive, but lacks support for a single payer health care system, is not critical of the TPP, and does not even mention the word fracking (to be fair, it does advocate for a $15/hour minimum wage and treats gun violence as a public health issue).


One of the great successes of Hillary Clinton’s campaign was not its platform. Her platform was basically: “Well, at least I’m not that lunatic.” This is the reason Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders threw their support behind Clinton. Why Sarah Silverman, who originally supported Sanders, can call Bernie-or-Busters ridiculous. And, why Elizabeth Banks can make a speech comparing Trump to the dystopian world of The Hunger Games. It is all to stop Trump, the harbinger of the end of days.

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The great success of Hilary Clinton’s campaign was its ability to pit feminism against socialism. It made the Left, socialist supporters look like sexist assholes; Bernie Bros who don’t like Hillary because she’s a woman. And, it separated the feminist movement from it’s engagement with class relations. It articulated feminism not as a collective movement about the liberation of women from both oppressive social and labor conditions but as a project of neoliberalism: trickle down feminism we just need to lean into.

“It’s Hillary Clinton’s turn. It’s time we had a woman in charge and voting for her is a feminist act.”

But by that logic, voting for Sarah Palin, for Michele Bachmann, for Marine Le Pen, or for Margaret Thatcher is also a feminist act.

“Hillary Clinton is going to shatter the glass ceiling and demonstrate that a women will be capable of leading a nation.”

I’m sure the election of Hillary Clinton will not end sexism in America any more than the election of Barack Obama ended racism.

“Hillary Clinton will be an inspiration to girls everywhere, proving that, they too, can lead nations”

Yes, Hillary Clinton will inspire girls everywhere, proving  that, they too, can grow up to drop bombs on people.

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The defense of Hillary Clinton’s record and character misses one crucial point: Hillary Clinton does not need us to defend her from sexism. As one of the most powerful women in the world, she is insulated (not immune) from much of its effects. She still managed to become an influential lawyer. She still managed to be an influential First Lady when Bill was governor and president. She and Bill have always been regarded as a power team. She still managed to be a powerful senator and a powerful secretary of state. She did this despite the ridiculous amount of sexism facing her. And, I’m sure she won’t lose any sleep over my criticism of her either.

One of the great powers of Clinton is her ability to inspire thousands of tepid defenses of her right to make obscene amounts of money from the very structures she vows to dismantle and then getting to call criticisms “hating the player, not the game” as if she doesn’t actively (as a political actor) have a hand in making the rules of the game herself! This is why we can paint the mythical Bernie Bro as sexist and the protestors at the DNC as sore losers. It turns their valid criticisms of Clinton’s political history into character assassinations. It turns their rightful criticism of a Party that has ignored them into a political spectacle where the protestors are the Fools.

Donald Trump is the personification of America’s narcissism and the most extreme hubris of American exceptionalism.  I don’t want him to be president. But, there is something extremely wrong with voting based on fear. It only encourages us to cast votes to avoid trouble instead of casting votes to create conditions where such trouble will not arise. Hillary Clinton is not immune to the hubris of American exceptionalism either. It takes hubris, after all, to claim that America “has never stopped being great” while running a progressive platform. Spoiler alert: This is not a progressive attitude.

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There is also something wrong with painting any criticism of Trump as support for Clinton and painting any sort of dissent against Clinton as the creation of an existential crisis that will only help Trump get elected. This is the result of the two-party system which turns everything into a zero-sum crisis. It ignores the fact that on November 8, 2016, most Americans will go to the polls to decide between two individuals who are completely out of touch with the lives of everyday people.

And, perhaps that’s what the Left is fed up with. The false choices dressed up as empowerment. I am told that my only two options are an overblown, fascist Cheetoh and a neoliberal war hawk. While we might call one the lesser evil of the two, it doesn’t mean the lesser evil is not still evil. To me, neither of them are good options and I don’t quite understand why they are appealing options to so many.

I will most likely vote for Hillary Clinton in November. But, do not tell me that this is empowering or that it will be good for America or the world. Do not tell me that I should feel good about this choice because I’ve averted us from some crisis. That is neoliberal thinking at its finest: the idea that I, one individual, have the power to swing the world between good and evil, the Light Side and the Dark Side, with the mere checking of a box. That is a false sense of power and we should not be seduced by it.

Girl, I guess I’m with her.
But, I don’t have to like it.

War Games – Gender and Violence After Gamergate

Why are political criticisms of video games so often treated as declarations of war?

Gamers may understandably find the question of politics to be rather tiring. To debate whether or not video games are political is, in itself, an exercise in politics, insofar as debate is the process by which the limits of acceptable speech and criticism are negotiated by the community of of discourse. But if the debate about video games is intrinsically political, what kind of politics are we talking about? And if war, as Clausewitz said, is politics by other means, then what is the connection between video games and war?

Some gamers not only object to considering video games political, they object to reading video games politically. They reject both feminist and queer readings of video games and the presence of explicitly feminist or queer things in them. One player got so upset by the inclusion of a transgender NPC (non player character) in the recent expansion of the game Baldur’s Gate that he uploaded a video of him killing the character. After conversing with the NPC, the player directs his party to attack her. Graphically, she is torn to pieces. The video is titled “Tranny Abuse” and has over 30,000 views. This gamer rejected politics by turning to war.

Those who question why women in video games are scantily clad in the heat of battle, or bent into literally back-breaking poses, are frequently dismissed as reading too closely. The anti-political appeal to what John Huizinga called “the separateness of play” (“why do you have to analyze it? It’s just a game”) not only becomes part of a struggle to negotiate the boundaries of acceptable speech about video games but it also frames the boundaries of acceptable experience of the game itself.
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The most notable example of the gamer war against politics is the criticism and harassment critic Anita Sarkeesian faced when she began a web series on Youtube called Tropes Vs Women in Video Games. In these videos, Sarkeesian analyzes various tropes that designers of video games often appeal to in the creation of female characters. They present an analysis similar to what one might find in an undergraduate gender or media studies class. Despite this, she received such a flood of vitriol that she was forced to temporarily flee her home. War games shut down politics.

Critics of video games are not only deemed killjoys who are not only unable to enjoy games; they are viewed as existential threats to video games, justifying symbolic and actual violence. The act of criticism is treated as a declaration of war. And, this language of warfare is important. War talk legitimizes the mobilization of hordes of trolls in order to fight back in the war on video games and the enemy in this culture war are the Social Justice Warriors, a pejorative based on a caricature of socially progressive and feminist views. The warriors are organized into a feminist army, who collaborate to create false allegations of sexism or create a protectionist racket.

Harassers even speak of false flag operations, where victims of harassment are accused of faking the harassment for attention and money. When a group of people coordinate attacks on a particular person or forum, it’s called brigading.

The conflation between war and social justice allows gamers to perceive criticisms as clarion calls. Forums and subreddits become the battlegrounds where the culture war is waged while doxing (the publication of personal and identifying information) becomes espionage and military intelligence.

When your critics are warriors, violence becomes acceptable and normalized. Soldiers are expected to be casualties and character assassination borders on the real.

The pejorative use of SJW points to a rather disturbing characteristic of these purist gamers: creating a link between war and cultural critique, with a heavy dose of misogyny. Originally coined as a compliment, only in the past few years has the term Social Justice Warrior become an insult. It gained mainstream popularity during Gamergate. In short, the SJW is any individual or group (usually women) who holds, and is vocal about, socially progressive or liberal views. In practice, the insult is levied at any sort of feminist criticism of game design, development, gameplay, and/or the social practices of gamers and communities which someone disagrees with. These SJWs make up the feminist armyan army that takes only offense, not prisoners.

Conflicts like GamerGate were organized by relatively small groups of gamers who search for and manipulate information in order to attack perceived enemies. These enemies are almost always women and minorities and the attacks overwhelmingly feature gendered threats of violence and rape. While Gamergate as a named movement seems to have subsided, its supporters are still heavily invested in harassing women in the video game and tech industries and it seems to have morphed into a neo-reactionary movement poised to quickly jump on any new perceived threats.

What are the results of such movements? Death threatsRape threats. One person threatened to massacre the attendees of a talk Sarkeesian gave (she canceled it). Doxing. Bomb threats. Others have lost their jobs. In a note explaining why she dropped a lawsuit against her harasser, game developer Zoe Quinn said that she received an “almost one foot stack of threats and photos of me that people had printed out, jizzed on, and sent to my family.”

Do these voices speak for all gamers? Ian Bogost writes that the proliferation of video games into the wider public sphere is leading to a breakdown of the gamer as an identity category. The boundaries of the identity change not only as more people begin to play games but we realize that people traditionally excluded from being gamers have been playing all along. As gamers seek to navigate their  unraveling identity in the face of new players and critics, tension increases and violence ensues. And, as many have observed, the policing of group boundaries seems to be fiercest around the periphery.

But, I’m not sure if this policing of identity is enough to account for the level of vitriol and hate that is directed at critics. It’s one thing to let people know you are dissatisfied. It’s quite another to send mountains of death threats. China Miéville (s/o to Jennifer Doyle for this reference) might describe this as social sadism – the proliferation and excess of public cruelty.”Anyone who doubts that everyday surplus sadism is everyday need only read the comments below the articles, follow threads, brave twitterstorms.” What makes this form of sadism so pernicious is the speed at which it excuses itself: shifting the grounds (“its about ethics in gaming journalism), downplaying the abuse (“it’s only words on the Internet”). It’s not only the boundaries of the gamer identity that are shifting, but the “boundaries of permissible punitivity are constantly stretched.”

The excuses act as a veil of plausible deniability, which the gaming purists drape over their acts of violence. As Miéville notes, the veil is extremely thin and meant to be uncovered, which is what makes dog-whistle politics successful. Just a trace of deniability is enough for the tactic to work. The war against SJWs is waged not only through violence but through the manipulation of the language surrounding it. And it’s in these excuses, the shifting grounds, where we find Michel Foucault’s reversal of Clausewitz’s dictum: politics is war by other means.

 

Much Ado About Nothing (For 2 Solid Hours)

Watching last night’s GOP Debate left me with the question: What, if anything, was actually discussed? Between the buzz words, character assassinations, and Donald Trump hand waves, there was absolutely nothing. The GOP Debate was just that: buzz words, character assassinations, and Trump jazz hands.

But, if the debate has taught us anything, it has taught us that absurdity comes in many forms, and 10 manifestations appeared on stage last night. While we may be quick to jump on Trump as the politico ad absurdum extraordinaire, I’m convinced that his presence next to the other candidates ensures that everyone else’s absurdities seem like sagely wisdom.

Some of my personal favorites:

PLANNED PARENTHOOD

Senator Ted Cruz’s assertion that he would open a federal investigation into the recent allegations that Planned Parenthood profits off the sales of fetuses.  This was said despite the fact that there is strong evidence that the videos are heavily edited and the organization that released them is known for such antics

And, is there a better way to distance yourself from past sexist statements than by making new sexist statements?

IMMIGRATION

Trump accused the Mexican government of purposely sending all of the “bad guys” over the border to commit “killings, murders, and crime” and suggested that we build an actual wall between the United States and Mexico.

Trump on the border of the new U.S./Mexico Wall

While Trump was espousing on his Game-of-Thrones-binge-style-politics with all of the political acumen of Cersei Lannister, you may have missed Senator Marco Rubio suggesting that while he would like to expand the fence, El-Chapo may dig underneath that too. Absent from all of this was Governor Rick Santorum’s statement during the second-tier debate that breaking up immigrant families is justifiable. The evidence: “the compassion in our laws.”

But, thank goodness Trump was there to remind us that before he graced us with his presence, no one had ever discussed immigration before.

IRAN AND FOREIGN POLICY

There was general agreement that the Iran deal was bad. Though, there was also a general agreement (by me) that the candidates wouldn’t know the meaning of the word diplomacy if it dropped a bomb on them. Allegations that the United States gave too much away or that we did not benefit belie the fact that diplomatic efforts are about compromise, not winning.

Scott Walker chimed in with his childhood memory “tying a yellow ribbon on the tree in front of my house during those 44 days (of the Iran hostage crisis)”

War, destruction, and chaos will reign when diplomacy wins out, apparently.

BLACK LIVES MATTER

Wait, they covered that?

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This doesn’t even begin to cover every bit of absurdity that occurred last night. Ben Carson solved America’s racial divide by reminding us that he sees only brains, not race. Senator John Kasich stood out for his seemingly reasonable demeanor (but reasonable does not equate to right) and he even has gay friends! Mike Huckabee reminded us of the true aim of the military is “to kill people and break things,” not a “social experiment” for transgender people.

But, I think what we really learned is that Americans can’t say no to a face like this: