Just a Girl Robot: Adventures in Fatherhood and Feminism

My daughter Niamh is 2 1/2 years old. Her life, I admit with some embarrassment and resignation, is inundated with mass-marketed media: Disney movies, children’s TV shows, picture books, and so on—to say nothing of the books, comics, movies and TV that Mom and Dad read and watch. From the very first my mind has been pondering and anticipating all the wealth of beloved stories I’ll be able to share with her as she grows up. Some I’m waiting until she’s older and can appreciate them better, and some I’ve started already: The Iron Giant. The Hobbit. The Muppets. Star Wars. Winnie-the-Pooh. Whatever she seems ready for, whatever she responds to, and whatever I watch for my own enjoyment that she just happens to be around for.

It was the latter case when Niamh became obsessed with Mega Man. I have a passing fondness for the old video game series, and stumbled on the 1995 cartoon adaption while poking around Youtube. Niamh, playing on the floor at my feet, perked up and said “wanna watch!” So I plopped her on my lap and we watched the episode together.

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Making it ourselves

I saw the Tim Burton film 9 last night with my wife. It was a movie that promised so much, yet failed to satisfy. In fact it was painful how breathless plotting, ponderous dialogue, and shameless clichés managed to rob a story that could have been heartbreakingly human. Instead it was a collection of fascinating ideas and themes that were ultimately lifeless.

This has always been a hazard of Hollywood, for seekers of substance. Every now and again a film is the real deal, but often it’s a pale, stilted imitation of authentic expression.

My wife and I noted that more and more of the promising movies we’ve seen have left that empty taste. The question hit us–are we witnessing a twilight of artistic depth? Is the age of personal human vision in art and storytelling passing from the earth?

I don’t know much about how 9‘s vision germinated. I do know that the production processes of movies and television provide a wealth of material for consumption, but are not conducive to authenticity. Human-ness is not produced by committee. What are then chances that a creator will say something honest, and be heard, as content-as-product proliferates?

Perhaps this trend in movies represents a mere slump, a recession if you will, in creativity. But if it is indeed the birth pangs of a complete creative collapse in the “entertainment” industry, then I must conclude that if we want to have stories with integrity, we must make them ourselves.

This is why roleplaying and storyjamming are more than mere diversions for me.

This is the way we make our own myths, the way we keep the flame of story alight. This is the way we teach ourselves, over and over, to be humans. This is the way we celebrate who we are.

Occasionally, within the “system,” (or sometimes in defiance of it–Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, for instance) a fire will blaze up that speaks with integrity, that teaches us, that celebrates with us. We cherish these flames. But by and large, we’re on our own. So we write our own novels with a purpose beyond leveraging motion picture rights, we make our own comics which explore the endless possibilities, we make our own music in our living rooms and on our street corners for whoever is there to hear. . .and we sit down by the hearth to tell stories together.

Put like that, storyjamming is less a pastime and more a calling. A calling I mean to keep.

Peace,

-Joel

They’d be crazy to follow us, wouldn’t they?

millennium_falcon_ep52With all this thinking about, watching, and gaming Star Wars, lately, I’ve been idly wondering what it is that makes Star Wars work: why is the original trilogy so engaging and fresh, even after multiple viewings and decades of accumulated cruft? Then a stray thought popped into my head: Star Wars works because it only ever does something once.

Think about it: every thrilling and memorable moment of the films happens once, then never again. The first time the Millennium Falcon escapes a planet, they blast off into hyperspace and leave the Star Destroyers in the dust. The second time. . .the hyperdrive’s busted and it’s time for a thrilling chase. The first time they’re pursued by TIE Fighters, Han and Luke gun them down with the quad cannons. The second time, the cannons sit unused while the ships play thread the needle with asteroids. One military engagement is X- and Y-wings against TIEs, the next is Snowspeeders against Imperial Walkers. Same with environments: the first flick’s action takes place in a desert and a giant battlestation. The second has an ice world, a swamp and a city in the clouds. The third returns to the desert, sure, but the main event’s in a forest. Nothing ever becomes stale or routine.

Now, it is true that Return of the Jedi re-uses one important thing: the Death Star. But this is precisely where Star Wars starts to wear out its welcome, precisely because it repeats itself. Jedi gets a little frayed around the edges as the fresh ideas start to dry up, and I’d argue that there’s practically nothing fresh and new in the prequels, because they abandon this principle.

That’s how it works in so much adventure fiction. Always the new, the fresh, the different, the surprising, with scarcely a look back. But when we look at adventure roleplaying, we often see the opposite. Players generally do the same thing, over and over. It makes a certain amount of sense–if something works once, why not again? If quad guns work well against TIEs, let’s hop in the turrets every time we face them, right?

But it kills drama. It kills excitement. It kills wonder. If the thing to do is the same thing you did last time, there’s no reason to do anything particularly; actions just sort of blend together into a soupy gray. I wonder how we would go about reclaiming that freshness in a game environment. Dramatic devices like the busted hyperdrive help, and we can definitely play mindfully toward that. What else? Perhaps a procedural framework that incentivizes doing things in a new way? That offers diminishing returns each time you use the same solution to a problem?

What else would work? And how have you tackled this issue?

Peace,

-Joel