Games for Girls

(This post was originaly written for OnTheLeftNZ.com)

Girls like video games, but video games don’t always like girls. In fact, video games can be an actively hostile environment towards girls, and it starts young. But that isn’t universal and there is a growing trend towards great games that encourage and support girls as players. I’ve compiled a list of a few titles I’ve personally enjoyed throughout the year.

As a disclaimer, these are all games I have personally liked or enjoyed in the last year, this isn’t the be-all and end-all list of games for girls. Some of these games feature some problem or other, they don’t necessarily have feminist values and they aren’t girls-only games. They are games that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and genders. Please also take my age suggestions with a grain of salt. All children are different and have different environments/needs/parents.

(Click on images for full-size versions)

Child of Light

PS Vita, PC, PS4
Jem’s suggested age range: 10+ (Scary monsters, tricky gameplay)

Child of Light

Child of Light is a fantasy RPG about a young princess and her adventures in a magical land. With an absolutely gorgeous illustrative style and an engaging yet traditional battle system, Aurora is clever and powerful, and her adventure helps her to grow and discover her strength. Sounds pretty standard for an adventure game, yes? It is, until you realise girls never get to do this.

Well, never is a bit of a stretch. But it’s definitely almost never. So close to never it deserves highlighting. Child of Light feels like a game I have played before, but instead of being relegated to a secondary character as usual, I am the star of the show. I don’t think I have ever played a game so absent from casual sexism. Considering that even Tetris can be sexist, this is a notable achievement.

When playing video games I’m constantly waiting for something to spoil or tarnish my experience. Some sexist comment, eye candy character or death-for-the-sake-of-story. I have learnt after years of gaming that it is far too much to ask for a game to be free of sexism. It doesn’t matter if it’s a game meant for children, sexism makes its way in there. Child of Light never had this moment, and that’s a part of what made it such a special experience for me.

Character conversation in Child of Light

Two hours in I realised my party featured more girls than boys and my heart did a little excited flutter. Even in female-led games, the protagonist is so often alone. Being one girl in a strong team of girls felt magnificent. We were the warriors, the mages, the jesters. We were varied, which made us strong. With so many women to design there was no chance for the “token girl” trope to take hold. Instead the game features deep characters with personalities and motivations wholly their own begin to emerge.

I can’t remember if I have ever played another game where every single major character was a woman or girl. Every. Single. One. There is something so powerful and deeply comforting about all the major protagonists and antagonists being women, I’m not sure I can ever fully articulate how special this experience was to me. I guess this is how boys always get to feel.

Child of Light received criticism for being the same old RPG thing. For me that’s exactly why I liked it so much. It’s the kind of game boys have always had, but finally I’m being recognised as a member of the audience.

Broken Age Act 1

PC, iOS
Jem’s suggested age range: 8+ (scary monsters) 

Vella-Broken-Age-01

Broken Age Act 1 is a point and click adventure/puzzle game from Doublefine. Doublefine make excellent games and pretty much anything from their studio is going to be great, but I’m going to mention Broken Age here specifically because of Vela. Vela is one of the two main characters in Broken Age, and she is AWESOME.

Vela gets the action storyline. She is hungry for revenge and her whole storyline is shaped around killing the monster that terrorises the local villagers every year. The monster reads as an allegory of the patriarchy with the villages offering up their girls to the monster as a sacrifice. When Vela tries to draw attention to how this is wrong and young women shouldn’t have to be sacrificed, she’s told that no, this is how it is and how it has to be. Vela has ideas of her own, though.

Broken Age Act 1

Concepts like revenge and action are typically ideas applied to boy’s stories, so it’s interesting to see them applied to Vela. Vela’s story isn’t masculine in any way, she remains feminine – dressed in pink and speaking softly, she solves puzzles by talking to people, earning trust and using her wits to get the things she needs. However, she is still a warrior and never at any point does she lose sight of her goal. Not afraid to break rules when she needs to, Vela’s half of the story is interesting, funny, and compelling.

Vela’s story is only half of Broken Age. Shae’s story is just as good. Since he’s a boy, I’m not going to write about him here. There are plenty of other reviews that talk about both of them.

Broken Age Act 1 is the first part of a two part series, but it plays well alone. The second half is in production and will be released at some magical point in the future.

Monument Valley

iOS
Jem’s suggested age range: 8+ without assistance, any age with a helpful person to guide them through.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley has been the darling of iOS gaming this year, and rightly so. A beautiful perspective puzzle game, the character guides Ida around the world, adjusting the Escher-like perspective to guide her path. The narrative is light yet powerful, the environments themselves carrying the bulk of the storytelling power. Ida’s adventure is about an hour long (and the expansion of an extra 9 levels about the same) which is the perfect length for a game like this. 

I had a delightful time playing through this game myself, but nothing was more awesome than sharing the game with my 7 year old cousin. She was completely mesmerised by it. And even when she complained that it was ‘too hard’, usually she wasn’t more than a minute or two from solving the next step of the puzzle herself, which made her squeal with delight. My mother, who has always been a huge supporter of play and video games but never a player herself, is happy to say that Monument Valley is the one game she’s played.

So, Monument Valley! A beautiful puzzle game with a female protagonist and beautiful environments.

Pokémon

Nintendo handheld consoles since 1995
Jem’s suggested age range: 8+ 

Pokemon

I will likely always love Pokémon. It’s a very special series for me, which in some ways marks the start of my journey as a gamer. In the early versions you couldn’t play as a girl, but your character was so pixelated it didn’t matter much anyway. Better to play as a boy than to not play at all, that was for sure. The early games were an amazing adventure, and as a 12-year-old kid they made me feel powerful and connected. I was a part of this amazing world. You become quite connected to your team, who you train, choose abilities for, and battle with to defeat tough opponents or capture new potential team mates.

It did bug me that so much of the interaction was based around fighting. I wanted to hang out and get to know my companion pokémon for more than just their strength. Later versions and spinoff titles of the franchise have expanded the world and given players a range of ways to engage with the lovable creatures – from photo games to card games to puzzle games. In the main titles some pokémon now evolve based on their friendship level with you, and a strong friendship bond earns special bonuses. It’s not surprising that pokémon who evolve in this way end up being some of my favourite teammates.

Pokemon

The versions of Pokémon released last year (X and Y) cultivate a rich experience where you can customise your gender, appearance, hair, and outfits. I was sad that this flexibility hasn’t carried over to this year’s re-release of Ruby and Sapphire (Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire), and that your character choices have boiled back down to only gender options (Pictures here are screenshots of my character from X and Y). However, I am still playing Ruby and really enjoying the blend of features from the previous games with the locations and pokémon from an older generation.

The interesting thing about this current generation of Pokémon titles is the way you can connect with others. It’s almost like a background to the game. If you want you can stay connected the whole time, getting boosts from other players from all over the world, conducting mystery trades or even battling other players. Your identity is at least partially anonymised and there are only a set number of phrases you can use to communicate to prevent harassment.

Players can easily choose what kinds of engagements they want, and opt out of the kinds they don’t want. It’s also very easy to not engage at all if the feature is unwanted. As a fiercely solo player in most of my gaming spaces I was surprised how much I enjoyed the online aspects of the game. It was especially nice to play alongside my younger brother, who played my old Pokémon cartridges after I abandoned them.

This list was originally 10 games long, but that seemed a bit excessive for one post. If you like these little game reviews, please say so! I can certainly write more.

Being mindful of mental illness

 (This post was originally written for OnTheLeftNZ.com)

There’s a lot of mental illness stigma in New Zealand. From the friend or family member who tells you just to ‘get over it’, to the many little ways that living with a mental illness in an unsupportive environment slowly erodes at you. Whenever I see a new campaign set out to help inform and educate people about mental illness I am heartened, but often end up feeling a tad disappointed. Campaigns tend to focus on depression, but other forms of mental illness are still so very rarely discussed.

The kind of depression that gets funding and celebrity campaigns tends to be episodic depression. I guess its appeal is that it can hit absolutely anyone and it’s treatable. If you have an episode of depression you can get out the other end and have it be over. It’s got to be very appealing to have your campaign finish with a happy ending, especially if you get to put a respected celebrity face to it. This is great, and I’m happy that campaigns like this exist, but they aren’t structured to talk about anything other than episodic depression, and so they don’t do much to raise awareness for other kinds of mental illness. They still lead into the idea that mental illness is the thing you should completely recover from, and that complete recovery is your only option.

I have clinical anxiety. My brain is wired this way and will always be a bit funny about certain things. I am prone to having flare-ups and relapses, and intense situations (especially social situations) can provoke my condition. I am currently choosing to function without medication specifically for my anxiety, as I’ve found treatments for my PCOS helps with the worst of my symptoms. This is a choice I make that is currently right for me, but this may change in the future.

I’ve had periods of depression on the top of my anxiety, but the anxiety is there through everything. I honestly thought it was just how everyone went through the world until I was finally diagnosed at 19. Knowing that this was a thing my brain did and would likely always do was a bit of a shock, but it has ended up opening a lot more doors than it has closed. I now know what behaviours I needed to watch for, monitor and how to manage my warning signs. This lets me live in a much happier space than otherwise.

I was lucky enough to see a good psychologist, who helped give me the tools that get me through my daily life. Now, even when things get tough for me, I can open this mental toolbox and use any of the tools I find inside there. I’m sharing a few of my tools here with you today, in case they might be useful to others.

I’d like to state that I am not in any way a qualified psychotherapist and the information I provide is as a sufferer and support person of others. If you have mental health concerns please take them to a professional first, as everyone is different and needs different things. Please also keep in mind these are my own personal tips that help me, and that other people need different things.

Be mindful of warning signs

My anxiety operates around an all or nothing thought pattern. If something doesn’t go quite as I expected I might think something like: “This didn’t go exactly as I imagined, therefore I am a dreadful person everyone hates”. This poisonous thinking sets off a chain reaction that in bad cases could lead to a panic attack. Often it leaves me feeling deeply uneasy and wary, unable to enjoy anything at all until the feeling passes, which can take hours or days. Often I’ll completely forget what the initial trigger was and be left only with this heightened sense of worry, it’s exhausting.

After a lot of practice I easily recognise my warning signs and can create my very own counter-serum using the power of my own brain. By recognising the hostile thought as an anxiety warning sign, I can work to dissolve it and neutralise the harmful effects. The way I do this is based off Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It feels stupid at first, but reinforcing positive memories and pathways helps to cement them, and helps to counter or overwrite the negative pathway trying to worm its way in. Changing the thoughts influences changes in feelings with enough practice.

As an example, I’d counter “I’m a dreadful person everyone hates” with “I get along well with good people” and think about the friends I’d had positive interactions with lately, and how awesome they are. They have time for me, so I must be at the very least tolerable. Thinking like this is usually enough to stop the anxiety spiral from revving up, especially if each thought has its own specialised counter-serum.

Forgive failures and setbacks

In particularly stressful times I quite often miss my warning signs and end up in an anxiety or depression spiral. Some days become completely unrecoverable. But hey, it’s hard to stay on top of your game all the time. Once I’ve slipped I make sure to instantly forgive myself for doing so. Just like that, forgiven. I wouldn’t be critical someone for slipping, so I shouldn’t give myself a hard time either.

Forgiveness for being human and for having a mental illness goes a long way to me feeling like I can pick myself up again. There’s a voice inside me that demands I perform at 100% optimal capacity every minute of every day. By telling this voice that no, it’s okay to be at 40% right now is comforting and makes my recovery easier.

Look back often

I make sure to always look back to check how I’m coping with how I’ve coped in the past. It’s not always better, but the overall trend seems to have stabilised for me in the last few years. Even though I am relatively stable, I still find it useful to look back to when I wasn’t coping well to help reinforce how much I have improved since those times.

Rewards

When I feel like I’ve done something well, I like to reward myself. Usually it’s something small, like a nice meal, a fancy drink or even just some time playing a new game. It’s nice to give myself a little acknowledgement at getting through something that I’d otherwise find intimidating.

Self care

When discussing mental health within the context of cognitive behavioural therapy, there’s a model made of three parts: thoughts, feelings, and physical self. I consider self care to be the soothing ointment that you put on one or all three parts. Self care for me is escaping into video games or buying some lollies or soda and curling up in bed. Self care is of course an entirely personal thing, but it’s a thing to do to make your thoughts, feelings, or physical self feel better, even if only for a short time. Sometimes all you need is a small respite from the constant active self monitoring that comes with long-term mental illness.

Safety nets

Safety nets are important. They are the people in your life you can talk to about how your illness might be affecting you today. They might not completely understand, but they can still be supportive and helpful in other ways. The most important thing to remember is that relationships are two way streets. While the people around you will hopefully have time for you, it’s important that you respect them, their energy levels and ability to engage with you on your needs. Even completely neurotypical friends get worn out and need time to themselves. If someone can’t help you, don’t take it personally, just ask another person in your net. If your net is small, reach out to other support online, in centres or over the phone.

Everything’s okay

Seems pretty self-explanatory, but it’s always worth saying. Things are okay. I’ve had to do a lot of work to get to okay and I have to do a lot of work to stay here, but it’s working. I feel like a person who has a lifelong condition but can manage it in a way that affords me a pretty great quality of life. I feel very fortunate.

If you need support and are unsure how to get it, below are some New Zealand-based support networks and organisations.

http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/ Mental Health Foundation
Suicide Prevention Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Youthline 0800 376 633 or free text 234
Samaritans 0800 726 666 (Lower North Island, Christchurch & West Coast)
04 473 9739 (other regions)

Tech Freedom Vs Feminism

(This post was originally written for OnTheLeftNZ.com)

[TW for mentions of harassment, sexual abuse charges, Julian Assange and literal nazis]

Ever since I was small I had an absolutely overwhelming sense of justice. This informs and influences my world at every level, permeating through everything. It makes sense to invest myself deeply in the things I care about, and to me that means fighting for justice where I perceive it lacking. Two such things are identifying as a woman and the internet.

For identifying as a woman it’s feminism, and for the internet it’s privacy, the open web and general internet and information freedom. In my heart I feel like fighting for feminism and fighting for Internet freedom should go together like the best of friends, but in truth these are two sides of my activism that constantly clash, and leave me a mess in the middle.

The tech industry and the open internet movement have a very pervasive and ever-present misogyny problem. This dominant rhetoric makes it increasingly difficult to interact with a movement that is supposed to be about freedom, privacy and security. It gets even more horrible when prominent members within these communities are known abusers, misogynists and outright hatemongers.

Several prominent tech freedom organisations choose to align themselves with and refuse to depose these kinds of men, no matter how horrible the shit against them is. The men themselves get away with harassing and abusing women because they are seen as being ‘valuable’ to the movement. Once you’re up on a tech freedom pedestal, it seems like it’s impossible for someone to bring you down.

Take Julian Assange – Editor in Chief of  Wikileaks. Wikileaks as an organisation is doing work for tech freedom and transparency in government that I’m desperate for. Their part in exposing the ever-looming TPPA is invaluable. However, I am absolutely not in any way desperate for information about an alleged rapist, or to hear from any of his apologists (if you say ‘honey trap’ to me I will kick you in your honey trap).

Assange comes across more as an embarrassment than anything else, and his presence at events creates active hostility towards rape survivors. Reminder: He lives in the Ecuadorian embassy hiding from sexual assault charges, not for anything related to being a Wikileaker. You could say that these charges have an unusual amount of weight behind them and are politically motivated, but that doesn’t stop them from being sexual assault charges. You can’t wish away the abuse here.

If anyone steps up to criticise Assange’s continued presence or airtime, there are many, many men willing to come out in active support of Assange, or at the very least wanting to ‘debate’, Sea-lioning the conversation. It makes it uncomfortable to be in tech freedom spaces and feel safe. Not only are people happy to defend Assange beyond all good reason, you are also expected to listen politely and not get annoyed about their derailing conversation. [Note, if you’re considering jumping in to try and tell a woman she is wrong to be suspicious/critical of an alleged rapist being in a position of honour, you should probably think about jumping into a skip bin instead, because you are behaving like trash.]

And this doesn’t just happen in one organisation, it’s a prominent and consistent problem throughout tech and tech freedom. The Electronic Freedom Foundation do good work combating unfair copyright laws and have a comprehensive campaign dissecting the TPPA. But they also support Weev, the man who has harassed Kathy Sierra off the internet.

Kathy Sierra, for those who didn’t get the chance to see her on twitter, is one of those fantastic minds that helps people to reinterpret the world in a way that makes better sense. She brought better ways of thinking, learning, and engaging with tech. She also took the most fantastic photographs of her Icelandic ponies. Weev is a Literal Nazi, known troll and destroyer of lives. While he did spend time in jail when he shouldn’t have, he is a trash human who delights in manipulating and gaslighting women. Despite his known status as the owner of a swastika tattoo, he still gets a pass from EFF. He just gets called ‘controversial’ before he’s mentioned. How shit a person does someone have to be before it outweighs their ‘value’ to the tech community? It seems like we haven’t reached that limit yet, and I honestly doubt we ever will.

(If you want to read in Kathy’s own words what being a victim of harassment is like, her farewell essay Trouble at Koolaid Point is the place to go to get some understanding and to get angry.)

I struggle to support EFF and their ‘free speech’ mantra. Yes, freedom of expression is important and necessary element of a free society. The right to be critical and speak out against oppressive organisations needs to be safe from prosecution and censorship. However, EFF push the freedom of speech line too far and take it to mean freedom of any speech on any platform. Recently The Verge published an article about twitter possibly trialling anti-harassment filters. EFF came out swinging against these policies, decrying censorship, or possible future use of censorship. This, at a tool that is being used to stop anti-semitic abuse. Last time I checked, hate speech and free speech were different things.

Funny how EFF stay bone silent when women are driven from platforms like twitter by harassing behaviour, but take steps to try and curb that harassment and they begin speaking about some kind of bizarre case of trickledown censorship. If you take that kind of line it means that we can’t ever do anything about neonazis or misogynists, and their victims get to continue to be victims for some imaginary ‘greater good’ reason. C’mon, people. I’m pretty sure we can have anti-harassment policies and still be firmly in support of freedom of speech. Abused and harassed people shouldn’t have to endure suffering for your ideology. If they do, your ideology is harmful and toxic.

It seems the mere mention of tools that support and encourage marginalised people to be a part of the tech industry incites a frothing flame war from the privileged. Mention a Code of Conduct or Anti Harassment policy or any kind of diverse speaker or employment strategy, and you will be met with a bunch of people angry that they don’t get to run around the net like naughty children anymore. Yes, there are consequences to your words. Yes, the internet is real life, it always has been.

It seems like these tech freedom organisations aren’t so much about liberty or freedom but are designed to support the status quo. When you support the stories of men who abuse and hate to the point of idolisation, you are doing so at the expense of the people they have hurt and will continue to hurt if unchecked. This apparently seems to be secondary to the all-important ‘freedom of information’ or ‘freedom to privacy’ or ‘freedom of speech’ that these organisations champion. As long as they have the right to say and do anything without any repercussions, they’re happy.

Unfortunately I don’t have any answers. The organisations who are doing internet freedom work are also the ones who are idolising and absolving the various hateful actions of men. It all adds up to build a pattern of anti-women rhetoric and it’s certainly one that makes me feel absolutely unwelcome. It stops feeling like it’s very much about freedom or privacy. It’s certainly not about the freedom and privacy of those who a typically and historically stripped of it (minorities, women, LGBTI or people living with disability).

This was a difficult piece to write. Not because of the subject matter, but because there is so much subject matter that it’s difficult to know where to stop. I have watched women be driven from tech and driven from their homes this year thanks to the harassment they have received, and I see organisations like EFF and Wikileaks being complicit or outright wooing their harassers. If you’re a woman in tech, you soak in this environment every day. It’s not special and over time it stops being particularly outrageous. But it never stops being disappointing, angering or horrible.

Why stay? Because despite all of this stuff. Despite the misogyny, the threats, the abuse and the torrents of shit, there’s some truly wonderful and amazing things that can be done with tech. It has such a beautiful and unlimited potential and it can and does bring so much good to people’s lives. Misogynists don’t and never will deserve to win. So I look to stay here and dig my feet in and be loud and fight while I can.

TPPA – The Monster in our future

(This post was originally written for OnTheLeftNZ.com.)

The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is big. Really big. Like a big sleeping super secret behemoth that will soon extend its tentacles outwards from its slumbering location and take a stranglehold on us and 11 other countries around the world. Once it’s in place we won’t be able to do anything about it. And the scary thing is we’re not even supposed to know what’s going on until after it emerges from its watery depths, in control of far more than any normal trade agreement has the right to control.

If you ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about your concerns, you get brushed off. Like say, wanting to know why it’s so secret to NZ citizens, or why the leaked info we have about the Copyright and IP chapter is so harsh, or why health officials who are predicting this will be a huge and expensive blow to PHARMAC are being ignored. If you manage to ask, you tend to get one very dismissive answer back: “It’s International trade, this is how it works, you wouldn’t understand.”

It’s true that I’m not and never have been the chief negotiator for New Zealand in an international trade deal, so there probably is an awful lot about the TPPA and the international trade process that I don’t understand. However, from listening to experts who do, I’m piecing together a picture that says I should still be very concerned about what is happening here. We all should.

The TPPA is not a ‘normal’ international trade agreement

Most trade agreements are bilateral trade agreements. New Zealand has a bunch of these already. The thing that’s different about the TPPA is that it’s a multilateral agreement. Essentially the USA has decided instead of expending the horrendous amount of effort and time to set up heaps of bilateral agreements, it’ll just bundle a whole lot of countries all together and get them all out of the way in one big whack.

It’s a strategy that’s taken over six years to get anywhere, because the odd thing about getting a whole lot of countries in a room together with different goals, cultural values and desires from trade? They’re going to find it pretty tricky to agree.

From leaked documents (the latest ones here: https://wikileaks.org/tpp-ip2/), we can get a pretty good sense of what’s happened, who’s agreeing (or disagreeing) to what. But we only find this information out afterwards, and only if we’re lucky enough to get a leak this round.

The secrecy around trade agreements is apparently necessary in order to help broker the agreements, and it is something we have experienced in previous trade agreements. However, the TPPA isn’t completely secret – certain parties with a vested interest are able to view, comment and influence the content of the agreement. These parties aren’t the parliaments, social services or citizens of the participating countries, they’re corporations (predominantly US-based) who stand to make a profit. So, Disney, for example. Or representatives from the tobacco industry.

Of the 29 chapters in the TPPA, only five are related to what usually goes into a trade document – tariffs and the like. The rest are related to things like labour laws, IP and copyright and a whole lot of other things, stuff that it’s usually left up to the countries themselves to legislate. Proponents of the TPPA say this is just what modern trade agreements look like, and that we should expect to sacrifice a few things here and there in order to get access to the sweet, sweet, international export market. I think that allowing the US to have a stranglehold on New Zealand law isn’t worth the few coins it’ll get us.

The TPPA is not ‘free trade’

There’s this idea that trade, and especially free trade, are things that we want. And yeah, New Zealand needs things and other countries have them, so it’s a good idea for us to trade to get those things. Free trade is a term to describe when all the little tariffs and fees for getting our product into the desired country get lifted. For example, New Zealand beef and dairy into say, the US. If we set up a free trade agreement with the US, those pesky fees could disappear, and it could mean better profits for New Zealand and New Zealand’s dairy farmers.

The thing is the US already has a really intense dairy industry. There are a lot of protections and subsidies in federal and state law to make sure local farmers can run at a profit while maintaining low prices that consumers want. Agricultural farmers in the US have enjoyed protections going back to the 1920s and still remain pretty chummy with the people in Washington who make decisions about these things.

Any removal of tariffs on New Zealand imports of dairy or beef will be met with heavy lobbying resistance from US farmers whose profits would be under threat. It’s just not a thing that is very likely, no matter how hard we push for it. The States don’t need our product and it’d actively hurt their existing markets to give it to us. I haven’t seen a lot of discussion around this (mostly because I follow the copyright branch more closely), but it seems like access to the US market is New Zealand’s number one reason for chasing the TPPA, and it’s a lofty and highly unlikely one.

Copyright and IP

Corporate interests are using their influence over the TPPA to push for harsher copyright laws, claiming that this will encourage innovation and the creation of new content. There is no evidence that any of the proposed changes to IP and copyright reform will have a positive effect on creators – only corporate pockets.

The changes that are proposed include extension to copyright (meaning works will stay in copyright and out of the public domain for longer), compulsory DRM (that annoying stuff that is supposed to make it harder to steal, but just makes using legitimate products more horrible) and will put a lot of pressure on ISPs to be the gatekeepers of their users. This could affect our access to streaming services (geoblocking), as well as the overall privacy of users online.

New Zealand was due to have a copyright review last year, but this has been indefinitely delayed until we know what we’ll have to agree to under the TPPA.

New Zealand has stood against some steps of the copyright and IP chapters. Parallel importing would be incredibly unpopular to lose. However, there’s very real concern that pressures from the US combined with the tasty carrot of other chapters of the TPPA will mean New Zealand will sign anyway.

Other consequences

Because this deal is so big, so far-reaching, and with very little recourse left open to us once it is signed, it’s difficult to predict just what the consequences will be. There’s a lot to be concerned about, like how New Zealand’s government could be held accountable by an private international court if we make laws that are seen to cut into a company’s profits.

That’s right. We can be sued for making laws that would benefit New Zealanders if a company decides that law will affect their profits. Say, plain packaged cigarettes.

What can we do?

Since all this is happening in secret behind closed doors it’s hard to know what we can do. It’s even harder when you try to voice your concerns but are met with the same dismissive ‘you wouldn’t understand’ answer. It is tricky to keep the balance of all the chapters, all the countries and the dynamics and possible effects this agreement will have on us and the world.

With the TPPA composing 40% of the world’s economic wealth, this isn’t something we can fall asleep and wait for. This monster is coming, so perhaps we should sharpen our wordblades to try and disarm it.

The TPPA is ambling ever closer to its conclusion, and as it does so it is shaping up to look like a super terrible deal for New Zealand on all sides.

Nationwide protests happened today against the TPPA. To keep up to date with the latest info, http://www.itsourfuture.org.nz/ is the best resource.

Why I am On The Left

(This post was originally writeen and published on OnTheLeftNZ.com.)

I am left first and foremost because I believe in a government that places the needs of people ahead of all other concerns. People are the culture and community that make everything else about the world possible. I am left wing because I am feminist, and right wing politics by nature and ideology uphold the power and structural dynamics that oppress women and marginalised people. Right wing politics and I can’t be friends for this core reason. It’s not me, it’s definitely you.

I am left because I believe in artistic freedom and the right for artists to control their own work. Leaked documents from the ongoing TPPA negotiations look set for US interests to take a stranglehold on our copyright law. One key demand is restricting material that enters the public domain by the extension of copyright to life+75 years. This is a really boring way of saying the US want to add an extra 25 years of ‘no touchies’ to the work of dead New Zealanders (we have life+50 years in NZ at the moment). Copyright was invented to protect the rights of the original creators, but it’s ballooning out to be this ever extending bubble of protection to corporate assets, with American corporations lobbying the hardest.

The environment and climate change are critical concerns for New Zealand. Complete inaction on anything meaningful will make us into villains in the eyes of our children and grandchildren. New Zealand is a small island nation with a small population at the edge of nowhere, but we can and have used this as a reason to act radically and push the boundaries of what can be possible on the global stage. I look at our Government’s stance on climate change and I see a country too apathetic to make the kinds of decisions we need to make. The ones that don’t necessarily earn us friendship points with the US, but the decisions we make because they are the ones 98% of scientific evidence points to as necessary.

I watched with horror last term as the National Government began to dismantle and shuffle and shift policy by policy, making little nips here and there into the safety net that is designed to protect all New Zealanders. An extra fee here, increased cost over there. Reduced funding to this or that, and a privatisation or two because it fits with their ideology. All this has been structured to be almost imperceptible to a sleepy majority of New Zealanders (or, as our prime minister likes to call them ‘real New Zealanders’). A one-off script of antibiotics is an extra $2? GST on my fruit and veg? It doesn’t add up to much.

Unless you aren’t on much to begin with. Then each of these fee changes, levies and increases hit like a blow to the gut. It’s hard to believe in trickle down economics when the cup at the top just keeps getting bigger.

I am angry at how the Government views poverty as a moral failing. You’re only poor because you are too lazy isn’t so much heavily implied as it is actively stated. I am angry that the support structures that help women out of abusive domestic relationships have been directly targeted, and numbers of solo parents off benefits (not numbers into work, just off benefits) is hailed like a big achievement. Are those people back with abusive partners? Are their lives now at risk? There’s no numbers on that.

I am deeply concerned with what will happen to New Zealand in the next three years. I am worried for the health of our nation, for the education of our children, for the lives and realities of our women and marginalised communities. I am angry about our environment, about transport, and about the tactical silencing of journalists and organisations that dare to voice disagreement. I watch as our politics slowly ‘Americanise’. I am baffled that anyone can look at America, with its devastating inequality and think “Yeah, let’s be more like those guys”.

You can’t run a country like you run a business. You can’t crunch people like you crunch financial numbers. You just end up with a whole lot of crunched-up people.

Tattoos

Six years ago today I got my first tattoo. I say first, even though it’s currently the only one. However, many others are planned. I wasn’t ever sure tattoo would be a thing for me, but it turns out it really, really is.

Tattoos have many meanings and connotations, and they can range from very personal to broader cultural assumptions about tattoo and people who choose to wear them. I have Japanese heritage. I am a woman. I am a feminist. These things intertwine in a complex narrative to create what tattoos mean for me.

Please note, this is just my own personal story about what tattoos mean. They will and do mean a lot of other things to a lot of other people.

Tattoo and my illness

The story of my first tattoo is wrapped up in the story of my chronic illness. In 2007 I got sick with a bad flu and never got better. Eventually after two years of telling doctors and specialists I was tired, I got a fuzzy diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It was not a fun time. I failed papers and stressed friendships. I was too tired to draw most of the time, which was like losing part of myself. I couldn’t hold conversations because I’d forget what I was saying halfway through a sentence. Eventually after a lot of trial and error and exhaustion I found a mix of rehabilitation that worked well for me, and undertook a slow path to recovery.

Moving  to Wellington was the first major turning point since being diagnosed with CFS. I’d always wanted to live in Wellington, and moving down in October of 2008 felt like a wonderful dream.

I took that moment to get a tattoo, to celebrate the journey I had been on up until this point and to acknowledge the struggles I’d been through to get there. CFS doesn’t leave any scars. I didn’t have anything visible on the outside of me that let myself or others know what I’d been through. A tattoo seemed like the perfect way to give myself a visible marker to point to.

My tattoo is six years old now. The ink is slowly bleeding and fading colour. A part of me wants to get it touched up to improve its shape, but another part of me is happy watching the ink age into my skin. It’s a fixed point in time I’m drifting away from, and I’m really enjoying what that means and how that feels. When I get caught up in everyday things I only have to look down at my wrist and remember the biggest struggle I’ve been through to date, and how I’ve survived it. It’s become a constant comfort, and I’m really happy with that.

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Tattoo and Japanese heritage

For a long time I have wanted tattoos that celebrate my Japanese heritage. It’s been an internal conflict I’ve struggled with for as long as I’ve wanted them. Tattoo is commonly thought of to be associated with Yakuza in Japanese culture, and if I ever want to live in Japan it’s possible I’d run into problems trying to visit onsen or join a gym because of the negative connotations that tattoos carry.

A part of me that has struggled with celebrating my heritage in a way that my family (specifically my grandmother) would strongly disapprove of, not to mention wider Japanese culture. If I want to get something that celebrates Japanese culture and my heritage, why am I feeling compelled to do it in such an un-Japanese way? I’ve been reading, researching and learning as much as I can about Japan and Japanese culture to decide what to do.

While the popularity and meanings of tattoo have shifted a lot in the last 200 years, tattoo is still an undeniable part of Japanese culture. In that last decade tattoo popularity in Japan is slowly on the rise.

Japan inked: Should the country reclaim its tattoo culture? This article helped me to know a bit more about the history of Japanese tattoo, how it is tied with Kabuki and Ukio-e prints, and that its abolition was linked to crushing a rising merchant class, oppressing the indigenous inhabitants of Okinawa and the Ainu in Hokkaido, especially the leading women of those cultures.

In this context I feel like getting tattoos is a powerful positive statement. It is stepping up and celebrating the parts of a culture I am tied to, while in the same way rebelling against the dominating forces that banned tattoo in the first place. These patriarchal attitudes are not ones I wish to subscribe to, and I don’t wish to let my acknowledgement of my heritage be stifled by their oppression. I fight against these attitudes here in the west, why would I not fight them from a Japanese perspective too?

I know my grandma is going to hate them. When I’ve talked to her about tattoos I want that celebrate my heritage she asks me why I don’t just make clothes with the artwork on to wear, why I want it imprinted in my skin. It makes me sad that I won’t be able to make her understand and she will view them as being ugly. I’m comforted here by the fact that most people’s grandmothers probably don’t like their tattoos, and they still get them anyway. And their grandmas still love them anyway. I’m sure mine will forgive me for making this choice.

As Japanese diaspora my connection and relationship to Japan is different to that of someone who has always lived in the country. Growing up in New Zealand there is the acknowledgement of this culture that I live in and am a part of, and what tattoo means here. I feel like getting tattoos will help me to celebrate and connect these two parts of myself, and help anchor me to my Japanese heritage.

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Tattoo and feminism

Go anywhere in the world and talk to almost any person and you will find someone with an opinion about what women should do with their bodies. Women’s bodies are treated as public property. This is why street harassment is culturally accepted the world over. It’s why people have such strong feelings about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. It’s why women have to fight to be able to look after their own reproductive health. It extends to people feeling entitled that women should look and dress in a way that they find appealing, right down to their body shape and size.

A tattoo to me symbolises bodily autonomy. It is me saying that I want this on my skin forever, and it is a choice I am making to do so. It is me reclaiming my body in a very direct way. A tattoo isn’t for anyone else to like. It is for me to show you that this is my body and it gets decorated the way that I want, and you have to deal with it.

My feelings about tattoo and bodies and feminism and racism are better summed up by this post from Margaret Cho.

Tattoo and art

I’m a very visual person and always have been. My life is a song of visual images and it’s always been something I want on my skin. I see other people with their tattoos and sleeves and I love the look of the curls of ink wrapping arms and thighs, framing feet and backs and every possible inch of skin that will keep ink in.

My drawings spill out from me onto a page if I’m lucky, but I also see illustrations written into my skin – like if I just scrubbed hard enough the images would come through.

Tattoo is the closest way I can get to this feeling. And as I get older the picture of what my skin wears is starting to solidify. It hasn’t changed at all for two years.

I am looking forward to filling in this mural on myself, with the help of my tattoo artist. I will get to wear the visual song-story of myself where others can see, and this is so exciting.

Tattoo and aging

Sometimes I think about what will happen if I am covered in sleeves and begin to wish for my arms to be unadorned. Will I miss being able to wear sleeveless dresses and present an air of sophisticated cocktail elegance, especially as an older woman? Will this affect my career professionally, if people see animals curled around my lower arms while I’m trying to talk like I’m a serious person.

But then I think that isn’t me anyway. I can achieve cocktail elegance with tattoos if I want, and my career is sadly more likely to struggle because of my gender than whether I have cats tattooed on my arms. And I don’t (And won’t) let my gender stop me, so why would tattoos ever stop me?

I look at photos of older tattoos and I see a life lived in a skin the owner is happy in. And I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than that.

Heritage as told by colour palettes

The National Library of New Zealand’s done this amazing thing. They have released a series of colour palettes based on book spines within their collection. These colours, captured from sets of books, haven’t been recorded anywhere like this before. It’s a unique curation idea, one that leaves the door open for others to come along and have a play with these heritage colours.

Palette sketch 1

I decided I’d use the palettes as the basis for a daily drawing series. 26 palettes, 26 illustrations.

Usually my work is more painterly, so restricting myself to the 3-5 colours of the palettes has meant I’ve had to stretch my brain into new configurations. It’s helped me to explore colour combinations I otherwise wouldn’t have explored. I’ve been pushed to think of interesting and different ways to create and balance the images created.

Palette 2

I love the end effect. The colours sometimes feel like they’re reaching forward in time from their original timeframes, and other times they feel completely disguised – without the name of the series you’d never know the heritage written into the image’s DNA. It’s an interesting feeling, seeing my drawing style singing out in these colours that belong to another time.

It makes me think what my illustration style might be singing. I wonder if there’s anything in my illustrations that hints and my heritage, the unconscious blocks of the people before me who have helped to build me to where I am today. I’m sure there’s a lot there to read about who I am and my own experience, but I’m curious to know if there’s anything older than that, more unconscious that I am drawn to.

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My thoughts and relationship to the series has changed as each new palette is opened in photoshop. It started as a quick way to get in some daily drawing exercise and a fun way to play with a cool resource. As the series has grown I find myself wondering more about the original context of these colours and what it means for me to be using them to colour my own work like this.

I shape an individual image with its own story each day, but each piece builts on the strength of the series. There’s a subtle hint of conversation here, and it’s become a very fulfilling creative task to expand on it day by day.There’s only a few more left in the series. I have plans for what to do with them once they’re finished, including having them available as prints, a zine, and maybe release some as postcards.

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I’ve had an amazing amount of support for this project. Thanks to everyone who’s liked, favourited, commented and shared the work I’ve been doing on this project. It’s been such a wonderful thing to meet with people and hear compliments on this series, which I’m becoming quite proud of. Even people who quietly enjoy at a distance, you make a difference too.

Print pre-order Knitted Cocoon Revision

Some artist angst

Quite often when I finish an illustration I am unhappy with it. This is nothing unique – just about any creative person you talk to will have similar feelings about their own work. I don’t like to discuss my disappointment about any specific piece because I don’t want how I view my illustration to ruin someone else’s enjoyment of it. Plus, if I did that, pretty much everything I draw would be ruined for people.

This is a thing that I manage, and learn to deal constructively with my disappointment at my own lack of skill. It’s never good enough (whatever that means), but I can use this energy and channel it into making the next thing better. Occasionally a piece niggles moreso than the others, and the mistakes and inadequacies I perceive in it is like having a scratch I can’t ever itch.

Knitted-cocoon

I had this feeling very strongly when I saw my cocoon print in person for the first time (which I sold as a Rape Crisis donation print at the end of last year). I realised that I’d missed out on a lot of the colour and texture I’d wanted to achieve with the piece. This was disappointing to me, because the core concept was so strong and I felt like I’d not done it justice.

Regardless of my personal feelings the print was well-loved and the fundraiser was a great success. I’m so grateful to everyone who donated and enjoyed the original piece, it is still very special to me and it means a lot that you engaged so much with the work. I hope that my original knitted cocoon continues to give you warmth and safety when you need it.

For Shakti

I’ve been wanting to do another print fundraiser for another women’s charity, and Shakti stood out as an obvious choice. I wasn’t sure what image to do for them, and after trying out a few different concepts I came back to my original cocoon painting. The imagery works as well for Shakti as it did for Wellington Rape Crisis, and I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted another go at this illustration.

Knitted-cocoon-2

Comparing the two side by side I’m surprised by how much my work has grown in the last six months. I am so pleased that this version captures a bit more of what I was originally aiming for. Quite often I feel like my work stays the same or gets worse, so it’s nice to see evidence that I am growing, that what I am doing is working. Re-drawing a piece like this is the clearest way to see those results.

Print donation

$15 of every print sold will go to Shakti. Please read about the wonderful work they are doing for international women facing domestic violence.

If you bought the first print and like this one, please contact me and I will send you a 25% off code for this print ($15 will still be going to Shakti). I have a record of your transactions, so please use the same name/email address as the one you sent to qualify for the discount.

This print will be on pre-order and printed in August 2014. If you require a copy earlier for some reason, contact me as this can be arranged.

If you do not want to buy a copy of this print, please consider making a donation to Shakti through their channels: http://shakti-international.org/donate-to-shakti/

Purchase the donation print

Thanks to Pollyanne Peña for her time and support in helping set this print donation up.

Don’t tell me what to do – Transistor Review

[I’ve attempted to avoid major spoilers, but some minor spoilers are still present in this piece]

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Images from Supergiant Games

I’ve been looking forward to playing Transistor since I first heard Supergiant were making a new game. I was ridiculously happy to find out I’d get to play as a female character. And a female character who isn’t designed purely for men to look at. There’s no panty shots, no high heels or gratuitous poses. Her costume is practical, and her character and motivations are interesting and unique. But after finishing the game I’m left with some heartache. Transistor promised to be something different, but in a lot of ways it fell back onto tired gendered tropes. Transistor to me still feels like a game designed for men.

I feel like I need to put a disclaimer here to say I thoroughly enjoyed Transistor and will fanatically recommend it to any person who is interested in playing. It is a beautifully well-crafted world and story, and the timing and delivery of the narrative showcases some of the best storytelling in games to date. The battle system is new and engaging, and it’s easy to increase or decrease the difficulty to suit your play style. It is easily one of the most interesting and unique titles of the year.

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What I want to talk about here is the way that at times I found playing as Red to be claustrophobic. The structure and shape of the story assumed certain things about Red and her relationships that I found to be shallow and patronising. I found the perspective of the story to be a very male view of Red and her actions. Since the entire game is narrated by male voices (Red has lost hers), this feeling became stronger the further into the game I got.

A mute male character gives an air of stoicism and strength. It is a choice not to talk and engage with you. It gives power to his character that he doesn’t give you words. When muteness is a quality of a female character, it’s often because they have been emotionally or physically harmed. This muteness is often ‘cured’ by the care of a good man, or at least that’s the trope.

Red’s story seems to be trying to subvert standard game tropes. Transistor presents itself initially as a twist on the male revenge trope. This time it’s Red out for answers and possibly revenge. The thing I find odd here is that Red is also avenging violence committed against herself. In the male version of the trope, the man is typically unscathed, free to vent his anger on the violence done to the women (And it’s often more than one woman) in his life. Red still has horrific violence done to her, losing her voice, which is a core part of herself and her expression. The end result is that while Red gets to keep her body, she loses her voice, making her almost as silent as the targeted women in the male version of the trope.

Muteness as a character trait is often used so as to not project a voice onto the player. Link from Legend of Zelda never speaks out loud, and neither does the character in Pokemon. Your half of the conversation is always implied through your action and choices. However, your actions and personality is blank too, for you to fill. Red is obviously supposed to be someone. In my initial playthrough I found it difficult to know who that someone really was.

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The narration in the game is the voice of Red’s lover, talking in the second person to Red. His consciousness is trapped in the sword, and from there he guides Red through the game, offering advice, history and colouring the world with his memories. The city is a rich and beautiful world, but it’s a world shaped by someone telling you what to find special about it. This has a substantially different feel to third person narration in Supergiant’s other title, Bastion. The closer assumed relationship of second person narration places a lot of pressure on the player to comply within the expected relationship dynamic, or to purposefully push against it. She’s running through a world created by her lover’s words, not her own experience.

While Red manages to maintain motivation separate to what her lover wants for her, her story is still unfolding through his voice and direction. This is cleverly used as a key gameplay mechanic, but as a player I found my eyes rolling more than a few times listening to this guy try and tell Red what to do, or got overly sentimental about one location or another that as a player I was visiting for the first time.

This also has the added layer that as a woman in the real world I have a lot of men in my life that believe they can direct me and tell me where I need to go and what I need to do. How I should be safe, how I should behave, what I should value. I can choose to ignore and do my own thing, but it’s a daily battle just to be able to have autonomy doing something mundane like walking down the street. I play games to escape, but the decisions I had to make in Transistor felt a lot like the ones I have to make everyday when navigating my relationships with men in my life.

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Transistor was far more his story, this nameless, faceless man, than it was Red’s. She’s the poster girl, the action, but all her emotions are implied, or conveyed through a few lines of text on odd occasions if you look for them. Sometimes her emotions, her strength and defiance shine through beautifully by your direction of her, and these are the moments where the story is at its most engaging. But still, all of the vocalised emotion is his emotion, with space for you to fill in the blanks as to how Red responds to his feelings.

At the end of the game I didn’t have much of an idea who Red was, apart from the way she was seen by others. Either by the antagonists who were keeping files on her, or through the voice of her lover. This had me feeling pretty claustrophobic as a player. I like to know who it is that I am playing, or have the freedom to invent my own narrative. I feel like Transistor is inviting me to project my own feelings into Red, but then didn’t give me the space to construct the narrative that I want. It gave me a man’s narrative for me instead.

Red’s choice at the very end of the game deeply disappointed me for a lot of reasons. I was hoping for something that left her with a bit more autonomy and control. She managed to navigate her way through an unfathomable amount of danger on her strength, intelligence and skill. I wanted her ending to build on this direction. Her choice ended up feeling hollow and tacky compared to the ending I wanted for Red. The one I had felt like I was playing towards, that her defiance and attitude through my play style had implied for me.

It’s a weird clash. Supergiant as a company are looking to push barriers and boundaries of storytelling in games. They are making gorgeous games with well-polished environments that balance action and narrative, delivered in a unique and engaging way unlike what anyone else is doing. It is a shame that after all that the core story they deliver in Transistor falls back on tired tropes, and delivers a mainly male narrative.

Making your character a woman isn’t enough – the story needs to be hers as well.

Growing Pains – #YesAllWomen

I was lucky to grow up a healthy kid. My childhood scars come from my own turbulent mind, not from my body. I never broke a bone, still haven’t. I thought, with that arrogance that all young children feel, that my body would always be sound. It would grow and be stronger and I would take over the world.

At 19 I experienced an illness more severe than anything in my life. And while I have survived it, I have suffered and it will be a part of me forever. My blood is permanently unsuitable for donation. I’ve knocked myself about. I’ve injured my ankle and knee several times and needed physio. I feel the strain when it’s cold. The nerves in my skin still prickle from a bad rash I had months ago, and that might never fade.

As we age we collect ailments. Parts of us get hurt and won’t ever be the same again. This is something we learn to mitigate in order to keep living. Put less weight on the weak ankle, avoid this activity since it strains that injury. Apply lotions and ointments to skin. Rest more when needed. We live our lives within the confines of our illnesses and injuries.

Misogyny behaves a lot like a disease. We learn very early how to wear its scars. We modify our behaviour once we’ve experienced injuries. We follow the recommended guidelines to keep safe, we feel like it’s our fault when we don’t follow them closely enough, or when they’re inevitably never enough. Like we got these scars on purpose. And most of us most of the time don’t ever talk about it.

The injuries inflicted on us mount up. We might not discuss them all but they live in us forever, like the virus in my blood. An interaction with a foul-mouthed boy as a child. A bra-snap at 12. Street harassment, drunk parties, unwanted touches, unwarranted aggression. Too many to even count. Some of us have deeper scars than others, but every single one of us has scars, no exception. We live with a background radiation of constant fear that male anger will find us. The anger that is directed at us for daring to have bodies and walk around in them. The need to overpower and control us for some invisible transgression caused by being a woman.

These stories are usually heavily guarded secrets, things we hardly even tell each other. Partly because we are ashamed of ourselves, and partly because so many of them are so ordinary, so every day, that they barely register as the horrors they are. We are so adapted to living with the disease of misogyny that we barely see the way it shapes our lives. Or if we do notice, we are ashamed and hide it away.

At times like this we do see it, and it is horrifying. But we will stand together and tell you our secrets, because right now it is important that this information is in the world. We are angry that we have to live this, and that we live it in silence, and that so many of these stories from so many strangers are so so familiar.

You may think it is not all men, but yes, it is ALL women. And that needs to change. We should not have to wear these scars. And they do not have to be the scars that future women wear. We are standing up and sharing our stories, and people are listening. I hope you keep listening, because this is just the first discussion. There is still so much left to say.