A Republican in College

Last week, a young woman took to twitter as young (and not so young) people often do, to share her feelings. Michelle Shampton wrote that “As a Republican in college, I am genuinely afraid to speak about my conservative views in fear of being stereotyped or labeled negatively.”


Her tweet comes amidst an apparently endless, ongoing narrative from some that American universities are dens of socialist inequity whereby instructors fill students’ head with leftist dogma, resulting directly in mob rule that asserts various left-wing ideas as unquestionable orthodoxy. I would argue that such a view has genuine merit but moves very quickly towards the less interesting and not as laudable goal of throwing some red meat to a hungry audience, filled with incorrect assumptions about professor salaries and how we use our time. I repeat: the view has genuine merit. The compulsion to correct another, to enforce the correctness of an idea, is directly proportional to one’s conviction s/he is “in the right” and this rule applies to either side of the political spectrum, not to mention the various fragments contained within our increasingly outdated binary view of left and right. Unfortunately in the case of Shampton’s tweet, the Internet soon obliged in offering further evidence of this problem (just see the replies to her tweet). She was widely mocked, and many tweets quoted her comments in horror while pointing out that being murdered because of one’s sexual orientation, for example, is far worse than being worried about being stereotyped in college.

Well… yeah. I would agree with that, though I have trouble understanding why one would immediately jump to such a comparison unless it was an accepted truth that it is perfectly okay for conservatives or people holding conservative views to feel they are in the minority while in college. I do not think this should be an accepted truth.

It also strikes me as unfair that this statement was immediately met with replies that implied she supported crimes against LGBTQ people, amid other horrifying acts. She never said any such thing. I imagine no small amount of these responses were inspired by Tim Allen’s recent colourful description of being a conservative in Hollywood “is like ‘30s Germany”, a comparison that is both grossly disrespectful and borderline anti-Semitic in its carelessness and insulting to anyone interested in making genuine historical comparisons (don’t get me started on Trump’s election and 1933, by the way…).

However, Allen made these comments not in a thoughtful op-ed for the LA Times but while shooting back and forth with Jimmy Kimmel on the set of a talk show. He was trying to be funny, and silly. My argument here is not that one can say whatever one wants if it is couched in humour, but to point out that Allen’s comments drew disproportionate attention, which in turn surrounded some entirely valid criticism. I may be wrong, but I find it hard to believe this context did not help shape reaction to Shampton’s tweet.

I’m not interested in policing reactions to the tweet, nor am I qualified to do so. I do, however, want to point out that the reactions to her tweet were extremely unpleasant, and frustrating in how carelessly and often unwittingly they perpetrated a simple act of bullying. If one was to take Shampton’s tweet as a beleaguered cry from beneath chains of oppression, I can see how that would be extremely frustrating. It would also perpetuate a rather unfair critique of academia that, frankly, ascribes almost supernatural powers to the common college instructor in our supposed abilities to bend young minds to our frantic, insidious Socialist will.

I do not believe that American campuses are instruments of indoctrination by a liberal cabal, though I do acknowledge, readily, that conversations on college campuses skew towards liberal biases much more quickly than conservative ones, and sometimes with regrettable results. I also do not believe Shampton was seeking to make this point, though I could be wrong. I do not think this tweet, a short comment of 140 characters or less, don’t forget, made a compelling case. It was a succinct declaration of something this woman felt at that moment, which is what twitter is designed to help share with the world.

However, if she does feel that academia is anti-conservative not just in terms of public conversation but down to its bones, she has every right to think that whether I agree or not. If she was flippantly comparing the plight of being a young conservative in 2017 to that of a gay person in fear of her life because of her sexuality, I would have a problem with that, but I do not see how putting her down or mocking her moves any conversation forward in any way. Speaking as a college instructor, I find the idea that a young person has not yet figured out how to declare her political ideas in a thoroughly convincing way unsurprising, particularly given the reams of evidence much more experienced people, including myself, can often do no better. Furthermore, I welcome this idea. Is not merely understandable, but desirable that undergraduates are still finding their way towards a world view? This should be celebrated and protected. So much of this, I suppose, becomes subsumed into wider conversations about how we use the Internet, but I see no reason why we cannot work towards imposing a moratorium of our own on immediately leaping in to virtually eviscerate a named but essentially still anonymous stranger. The costs would seem less potentially harmful to me than those of benevolent harassment.

History of Games in Public Conversation

I had the pleasure this past week of sitting in as a guest on the Starting Point podcast with Brian Bentley And Corey Dockendorf. We had a great time (go and have a listen!) and in the midst of my unplanned advocation for a gaming lifestyle more or less entirely based on playing games by Blizzard, Brian asked me a great question on the history of video games. When we were young (Brian and I are both either at the tail end of Gen X or old and crusty millennials; I pick the former), video game consoles were toys, products clearly aimed at children; today they are sleek beautiful multimedia devices aimed either at the entire family or specifically at adults. When, Brian asked me, did I think the change that facilitated video games’ move as a medium from one to the other take place?

My answer, in short, was the early to mid 1990s. Specifically, I raised the issue of major sports games becoming extremely popular in public discourse and the subsequent normalization, publicly, of men in their 20s playing video games. Now the reality went both beyond sports games and beyond men in their 20s, of course; I do think, however, that the celebration of sports games in particular played a key role in broader public acceptance of video games as something on which adults spent their leisure time. This is… an idea I have discovered I want to spend a lot more time on. I have been saying for a while now I wanted to write something for a journal on sports and eSports, and this seems like a nice connection project into that, even as a longer blog post, possibly for History Respawned, with a bit more research and work behind it.

So look out for that.

Trouble at the South China Morning Post

There’s a great piece in the Guardian today from Tom Phillips on trouble brewing at the Hong Kong publication the South China Morning Post. The SCMP, one of the most respected newspapers in East Asia and certainly the most authoritative English-language broadsheet, has been slowly slipping towards viewpoints and positions more favourable to Beijing, at least according to some of The Guardian’s sources. Phillips’ (and Christy Yao’s) work uses as its hook the case of Zhao Wei, a young Chinese human rights activist seized in 2015 as part of a government crackdown and allegedly recently released, though her husband and lawyer point out they have yet to be able to make contact with her:

“I have come to realise that I have taken the wrong path,” Zhao was quoted as saying in the article. “I repent for what I did. I’m now a brand new person.”
The story did not make clear how the SCMP had managed to make contact with Zhao and activists, media experts and Zhao’s husband and lawyer suspect the interview was set up by mainland authorities and conducted against her will.

The SCMP becoming more inured to Beijing’s rather skewed view of the press’ role in a modern society is concerning in its own right of course, but the importance of the newspaper as a Hong Kong institution also marks it out as representative of broader fears that predate the handover of the former British colony back to Chinese hands in 1997. The flow of mainland Chinese, be they workers, entrepreneurs or political apparatchiks, has caused concern to simmer gently in Hong Kong for years now. Recent developments surrounding Beijing’s fundamental failure to understand democratic systems have left many in no doubt that the reshaping of Hong Kong public life to make Beijing’s leaders feel more comfortable is happening thanks to more factors than gradual, if inevitable, cultural and political shift.

So yes, it is all rather worrying for those of us who value Hong Kong’s independence (figuratively speaking, of course) and the territory’s contributions to East Asia and the world, despite lots of assurances that this is so much fussing over nothing and bad blood. The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 guarantees Hong Kong’s “current social and economic systems”, particularly “[r]ights and freedoms” such as freedom of assembly and, yes, of the press. That guarantee is given only for the first fifty years after the handover. A lot has changed in China since then, and the threat to Hong Kong’s “economic system” is nowhere near as grave as once imagined. The latter however creates ample room for concern, particularly given the persistently disappointing positions taken by Xi Jinping’s government.

Of course one could point out, as many do, that British interest in Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms became somewhat more acute once the handover became a reality. Those who make this point might also make the related point that British interest in Hong Kong democracy was non-existent. And they would be right. Still, we have the Hong Kong we have, and the territory is a wondrous thing. It would be a terrible thing to see that compromised. The SCMP is nowhere near the point of no return but hopefully enough people will take note of the gentle slips and slides towards the precipice.

This is the Dark Souls of a short post about a YouTube video

Oh my word. I am pretty sure that all human development to this point has led to this moment.

I genuinely appreciate being able to get jokes like this. My belated discovery of the wonder of Dark Souls last year, in addition to fostering an addiction to complex games essentially focused on esoteric storytelling and exploration, finally granted me entrance to a fascinating subculture of Dark Souls adoration that tends to be a lot more fun than such a description makes it sound. See  above.

Admittedly, the above video probably seems insane to someone who has not played a lot of Dark Souls, thought about Dark Souls, read about Dark Souls, and then played more Dark Souls. Yet it brings me joy on a busy Monday.

Grading All Day…

Today I reap what I have sown, and in between prepping for tomorrow’s classes I have plenty of grading to do. It allows me to make a silly Chris de Burgh intentional malapropism:

Break out the diet coke and away we go…

More blog posts to come in future, I promise. For now hang out while I read fifty takes on Urban II’s speech at Clermont in 1095 and another thirty or so on the Meiji Constitution of 1889.


Deus Vult

I found this article in Polygon fascinating, discussing the odd conflation between an alt-right adoption of the term “Deus Vult” and the growing online community around the game For Honor. I find it fascinating in no small part because I gave my students Robert the Monk’s version of the famous Pope Urban II speech that gave life to this particular term, and did so with no knowledge about the online alt-right connotations.

Allegra Frank describes the historical nature of the phrase as “obvious and inextricable”, which is not a bad way of putting it in terms of its use in the game. I cannot help but find it all a bit disturbing, frankly. I had read previously of the alt-right community’s interest in monarchy and medieval standards of governance and (supposed) moral justifications for autocratic rule. Their approach, needless to say, is ahistorical and embarrassing. I’m not sure how you could come away from reading a version of Urban II’s speech in the early twenty-first century and come away thinking he was on to something exciting or that in any way gives us a useful blueprint for the future. The source is inseparable from its context, and it takes remarkably willful rejection of that context to draw parallels with challenges the world faces today.

As for For Honor, it seems the fans of the game use the term as part of their own celebration of their community online. Go for it, I say. There is something to be said for relationships between terms and I am grateful that even in the savage land of wild untamed memes there is genuine competition between representations.

The Holocaust and the Edges of Denial

This past Friday the Whitehouse shared a public statement to commemorate the international day for remembrance dedicated to the Holocaust, as they do every year. This year, however, had a notable difference from previous ones, in that the statement did not mention Jewish victims of the Holocaust. When asked about this, Whitehouse spokesperson Hope Hicks asserted that the Trump administration is inclusive, so inclusive in fact that they feel it is important to recognize the millions of non-Jewish victims of Nazi horrors including the physically and mentally disabled, homosexuals, Roma and other groups.

Looking past for a moment the astonishingly hypocritical claim to inclusiveness, this statement is very troubling. Ms. Hicks is completely right to point out that the Nazi Party turned its savagery on many groups other than Jews, but it is an unwarranted and unnecessary leap to then try and re-contextualize the Holocaust as a broad murder program aimed at a large number of groups. It was not. The Holocaust and Hitler’s “Final Solution” focused singularly on the global Jewish community. The extension of state-driven genocidal practices to other groups Nazis found distasteful does not alter that fact.

At first I assumed that this was a simple case of a costly error borne of a lack of expertise and experience, and that the Trump administration could not bring itself to admit to making a mistake; see also the mess this weekend derived from a poorly worded executive order and a foolish (truly foolish, beyond belief) decision to include green card holders in already restrictive and arbitrary policies on “vetting” entrants to the country. However, there was grounds for skepticism, and as John Podhoretz points out this odd and ahistorical desire to insist that not only the Jews suffered because of the Holocaust has an extensive history.

It is rubbish, and it is extremely bad history. Obviously, the willingness and eagerness of the Nazis to extend a message of hatred and eugenic exclusivism to a large number of groups that did not fit their entirely fictional Aryan race ideal is worthy of note and offers important lessons. Victims of their cruelty deserve to be remembered. However, the idea that the Holocaust was not the end result of a plan conceived from the very start as an attempt to solve a Jewish “problem” completely ignores historical fact. It ignores many, many things Hitler and his cronies said and were saying for long before he became Fuhrer. Hicks and her boss’ rather pathetic attempt to appropriate awkward language of inclusivity merely highlight a clumsy attempt to do an end run on the historical facts of the Holocaust, which should lead reasonable people to assume that someone involved in the drafting of that statement has a problem with Jewish people, acknowledged openly or otherwise, and that others who read the statement lacked the faculties or spine to fix it before sharing this message with the public.

If one truly wanted to be clear that the horrors of the Holocaust lie not just in the attempts by a state and a people to eradicate an entire group of human beings but that such methodology was then extended to various subsets of groups considered unacceptable to a stated norm, then there was an easy way to do this. Mention those who died at the hands of the state because of their sexual activity or ethnic origin, as an additional comment in support of the central horror of the Holocaust: the death of six million Jews and a meticulously constructed system that sought to kill many millions more.

To reiterate, this is among other things just bad history. You do not need to be an historian of the Holocaust or be familiar with the historiography to be able to point out the problem here. This is another evolution of the David Irving school of trying to chip away at the edges of the accepted historical argument. Irving and his fellows liked to cast doubt on the numbers of victims and dance around the reality that they were effectively denying the Holocaust. Irving even sued a historian for correctly pointing out that this is exactly what he was doing (a series of events recently dramatized on film). Dressing the omission of Jewish victims from a statement on the Holocaust in newspeak masquerading as post-identity-politics humanism simply takes the practice of Holocaust denial away from casting doubt on well-established historical fact to seeking to undermine well-established historical consensus. There is, in theory, room to maneuver here, but only if you are predisposed to argue that Jewish people are somehow over-represented in discourse on the Holocaust. If you are so predisposed, I am sorry to inform you that you are wrong. It was one of the great sins of human history, it has shaped all of our discourse on genocide and ethnic cleansing since, and adding to the long list of victims in the public consciousness merely helps spread the word of the sheer depth and breadth of its horrors. Those horrors, I am sorry to say, have expansive borders. There is no need to reduce the reality of the Holocaust’s defining anti-semitism to further illuminate them.

Apocalypse Now, Again

A lot of information is hitting me at the same time right now. People are making an Apocalypse Now game, Francis Ford Coppola is involved, and there is a lot of talk about how video games are ready as a medium to add something of genuine meaning to Coppola’s initial artistic offering.

Says the auteur genius behind Apocalypse Now, The Godfather (Parts I and II) and Jack:

Forty years ago, I set out to make a personal art picture that could hopefully influence generations of viewers for years to come. Today, I’m joined by new daredevils, a team who want to make an interactive version of Apocalypse Now, where you are Captain Benjamin Willard amidst the harsh backdrop of the Vietnam War. I’ve been watching videogames grow into a meaningful way to tell stories, and I’m excited to explore the possibilities for Apocalypse Now for a new platform and a new generation.

As I said, a lot there.

First off: it’s great they have a roster of talented people who have worked on good games before, but that doesn’t guarantee anything.

Secondly, I’m not really sure how making a game with Willard as a protagonist really adds to the original vision. I’m also not much of a fan of the phrase “interactive recreation of Willard’s journey” being used on the Kickstarter page. It doesn’t really mean anything of course, and doesn’t commit people to much, but it does reek of another video game existing mostly as a prematurely vestigial appendage of an existing work of art.

In fairness, what a work of art. My Vietnam class this past fall (which I will write up soon, I promise) watched Apocalypse Now and it remains stunning. If anything, I recommend that people who have seen the film at a young age watch it again after a decade or two. It was an entirely new experience, akin to the one I had reading Brave New World in my 30s, a testament to the film’s enduring artistic merit.

It means something, something tangible, that Coppola would make such a show of his investment and confidence in the project. There is no reason not to take him at his word. The game has the potential to be a genuine crossover as well, and if there is a medium best suited to mixing together established classics and something new, I think the video game is right up there with the novel. It is of course very difficult to do.

It also begs the question of what the game is setting out to do artistically. Apocalypse Now, in addition to being a tour de force from a young director in his prime, is a film seeking to explore the American misadventure in Vietnam in ways both explicit and indistinct. The film is soaked in the symbolism of American failure and confusion, but Willard’s journey enters the metaphysical. Apocalypse Now is as much about the limits and arrogance of modernity as it is the morality of the American war in Vietnam.

So, what to expect from a game produced in the early twenty-first century amidst the swings of populism in the West and a democratic consensus seemingly enshrined forever in the postwar twentieth century under siege? I’m not sure I know, really. I want it to work out, but it is not clear just yet what this game is going to be. I am far from won over from comments like this one:

“It’s like Fallout: New Vegas on acid in the middle of the Vietnam War.”

In fairness, they are trying to sell a game they are not able to start making yet. They deserve a lot of leeway. I am pulling for them, but I hope this proves to be a lot of pre-sale guff that makes something interesting possible.

Game of the Year (Not this year, last year)

‘Tis the season of GOTYs, or rather it ’twas before I spent Christmas having fun and not writing and then dove into an intensive January of teaching (more of that soon) and I come to share my own. As has been the case in recent years, my enjoyment of video games is nowhere near as closely tied to the annual release calendar as it once was. I have no regrets from not being up to date, but it does make my deliberations on what my favourite game of the year was more complicated. I suppose I could just give up on such deliberations, but why would I do that? It’s fun.

So yes, I often pick two or three games that came out the year before, or earlier. Rather than get too far into the weeds of what should and should not qualify as a Game of the Year, I will instead just go ahead and share my game(s) of the year, using my complete failure to match the latest and greatest releases as an excuse for categories, a cheap move that lets me write more and have more fun. Starting this evening, let me talk about my game of the year for a little while.

Game of the Year: Dark Souls

Yes, Dark Souls. Yes, the same Dark Souls that came out in 2011. This is probably my most egregiously anachronistic game of the year pick yet. My love affair with Dark Souls, though I had no idea that is what it would become, started earlier still when I tried my hand at Demon’s Souls in 2009. It didn’t go well. I subsequently tried Dark Souls, which also did not go well, and then bought Dark Souls for PC so that I could reinstall it every six months, play for an hour and get annoyed, and give up on it again.

This went on for a few years, and during that time I read, listened to and watched countless tributes to the game and its sequels. I assumed that the game just was not for me after all, that I looked for something different in games, that perhaps, as this problem gradually became worse, I just did not have the time to spend committing myself to the game. I did not have in me to be miserable for hours just to get to the next boss. Then it clicked.

Dark Souls is not about bosses at all. At least, not for me. I play the game somewhat atypically perhaps; I shamelessly dig into wikis, and the single moment that led to my finally understanding what makes these games so special came from a decidedly skeevy suicide rush to grab an armor set that my character in theory would not need for hours but that basically gave me just enough room to finally figure out how this whole thing works.

So… that’s the secret about Dark Souls. It’s not about the difficulty at all. I mean, the difficulty adds something special for people who are into that sort of thing, but it’s not the difficulty of the game that makes the game itself special. It’s the discovery, and the disarming intricacy with which the world you explore has been built. The Dark Souls environment makes sense in a way that compounds over one’s experience of the game. Lengthy, frustrating sections of the game come in retrospect to provide nostalgic recollections of one’s pathway through the story, a story that is nebulous by design and reflexive and adaptive as a result. You can take the Dark Souls story or leave it, you can read a lot into it or move on. It sits there and doesn’t really care if you are interested or not. In a video game world where your hand is held, gripped solidly by the AI as part of an extended tutorial that might last for hours, Dark Souls is refreshing. Invigorating. It’s the best kept secret in the medium, despite everyone shouting about it. If you read this and haven’t played Dark Souls yet, give it a shot, and keep trying until it sticks. You’ll thank me.

The Curious Expedition and plans to come…

I missed this on Tuesday, but Rock Paper Shotgun named The Curious Expedition as best “roguelike” game of 2016 as part of their consistently excellent annual Advent Calendar.

Congratulations to The Curious Expedition and its developers, Riad Djemili and Johannes Kristmann!

I’m quite taken with the game myself and must write about it soon. I am planning to give it to my world history students this coming spring as the assigned text for a short assignment. I’m not sure just yet what form that will take, and but I have to figure it out soon and look forward to sharing. For now I will point out what attracts me to the game for the purposes of discussing world history.

You choose a historical figure, such as Marie Curie or Johan Huizinga, and depart for a corner of the “unexplored” world (in eighteenth and nineteenth century parlance) to uncover a map full of jungles and wild beasts, hidden temples and “natives” who will trade with you. Essentially, The Curious Expedition will give my students the chance to simulate the act of discovery within a specific discourse of western identity and the modern. This is something Bob Whitaker and I discussed once on the History Respawned podcast when talking about the ways that No Man’s Sky chooses to present information to the player and simulate the act of discovery.

There’s a long way to go in figure out how this will work, and I have no choice but to play the game some more as I conduct my research.

I have a couple of posts to write, really: what I hope to get out of The Curious Expedition and how it is becoming easier to assign games anyway. It is easier and easier to find interesting games available on PC and Mac (and sometimes on iOS/Android, too), and the indie games revolution means there are plenty of games available.

It also makes for a more controllable student reading experience. See here for Graham Smith’s take on this particular game’s accessibility:

It’s a game you can pick up and play immediately. You don’t need to play a tutorial, it has crisp graphics and a simple UI, and a single session can be brought to a satisfying conclusion in 15 minutes.

Perfect. As much as I would like to give my students No Man’s Sky, have them play it for twenty hours and then come back to talk about how the game, despite being set in space in a vaguely defined future, essentially recreates extremely old-fashioned modes of creating ownership of the world through discovery and subsequent orientalism, that’s a big commitment to assume from my students. It is also a major assumption about the hardware they have available and what they are willing and able to spend money on.

So, The Curious Expedition it is! I look forward to writing more about it… soon…