Sunday, December 1, 2013

Elspeth and September Learn to Love

People love animals. And one of the reasons is because the animals love them back. One reason I think pets are interesting is because I believe that they, like games, wonderfully illustrate how so much of the time people are their own best therapists. People are drawn to things that make them feel whole. Sometimes this instinct can go awry, as in the case of drugs or too much of even good things, but I believe that people are usually pulled in the direction of healing and growth.

A professor told me once that everyone has a drug of choice, you just might not know what it is. It’s based on your own needs and tastes and neurobiological quirks. I suspect animals might be the same way—people certainly have their pets of choice. Each species is so different, and each species has the power to speak to a certain subset of people intensely.

I once asked a classmate why she studied horse therapy, when horses are so expensive to maintain compared to cats or dogs. She explained that horses are prey animals, and as such they are uniquely sensitive to danger. A person who comes in with angry energy will struggle to connect with the horse until they find a way to calm themselves—but if they do they will be richly rewarded.

Recently I adopted a pair of rats. I had two before, and I loved them. Intelligent, curious, resilient—there’s a lot for me to admire about rats. In college I had Hugh and Pierre, who were adopted as babies from a breeder. This meant that they had a warm, secure upbringing and positive expectations for how they’d be treated. They bonded with me right away, and loved being handled or cuddling up on my shoulder. My new pair of girls is rather different. They don’t have rat breeders in Wyoming, so rather than drive to Denver I conceded and went to Petco.

I didn’t actively go to the store with the plan to get rats. I just went to look at the rats. (I know, I know.) When I looked in the tank, instead of all the rats being huddled fearfully in their house, one black and white girl was perched on top of the water bottle watching people go by. She was even bruxing, which is something that rats do when they’re relaxed.

I was rather charmed by this rat who could just chill out in a less than desirable situation. My husband made the mistake of encouraging me to hold her—the minute she was in my hands, she was my rat. I named my new rat September, after the adventurous heroine from Cat Valente’s Fairyland series, and her shyer cagemate became Elspeth.

Elspeth and September have proven to be very different from Hugh and Pierre. The girls likely grew up on a farm for feeder rats, with minimal handling and insecure living conditions, and you can see it in their behavior. September is still adventurous—she was running around the bedroom on Day 1. Elspeth stayed in her cage, well away from the doors. Mostly she stayed in her wooden rat house.

The inquisitive September
When studying development, there is a concept called attachment theory. While my reading is generally human-centric, this is something that (to my understanding) applies across mammals—for example Harry Harlow’s famous experiments demonstrated that babymonkeys were more drawn to a cuddly cloth “mother” than to the metal one thatgave them milk, and thrived more if their milk machine was cuddly. The same attachment test used with babies can be used with dogs.

In brief, to be securely attached is to trust that someone will be available and give you nurturance and support as needed. Securely attached babies use their parents (or other attachment figures) as a “secure base” from which to explore the world, quickly scooting back if things get too threatening. While attachment develops in relation to one or a few people, it typically generalizes to give an overall sense of worthiness and trust.

In adulthood, your attachment figures might be the first people you call up when things start to get rough. This is an important concept in therapy, where clients often do not have a secure attachment figure. By being consistent and nurturing, therapists can provide the stable base for their client to start connecting with the world.

This topic has been of interest to me because I have historically not attached easily. I tended to be independent to the point of standoffishness and reluctant to give or receive affection unless a long history was established. Up through my college years I spent a lot of time alone in my room, relying only on myself for security when things went sour. I had people I cared about and who cared about me, but the instinct to reach out in times of trouble just wasn’t there.

In time I came around, especially after getting married—spouses are one of the more common later attachment figures, along with therapists, mentors, and friends. I am fortunate to have a number of mentors and friends who provide the nurturing and stability that we are all wired to respond to. And I have also been very fortunate to serve as an attachment figure, both professionally and personally, which I consider to be one of the most profound experiences life holds.

Pierre and Hugh were very attached to me. They trusted me to handle them any which way, they ran to me when I opened the cage, they used me as home base. They’d had a very good breeder (Hilloah at Ratz Realm, for those of you in Seattle), which paradoxically made it easy for them to separate and attach to someone new. They’d been loved before and they knew they’d be loved again. (This is probably for the best—at that age I don’t know that I would have had the empathy or patience to win them over had they been more skittish.)

Elspeth and September, on the other hand, see to have no such expectation. September is adventurous and treats humans like inanimate objects. Just this afternoon she ran up my back to sit on my shoulder while I was leaning against the bed, but this was more of a lookout than affection—I reached my hand up to pet her and she immediately ran back down. Elspeth is highly motivated by food and I have coaxed her onto my arm or lap with bits of trail mix.

Ellie, keeping three paws firmly rooted in the cage
But make a sudden move, try to initiate affection, or—God forbid—try to pick them up—and it’s obvious where their base is. They run to their cage and often hide in their house, where I have insisted that nobody ever bother them. Taming a rat, like taming a person, starts with boundaries and a sense of safety.
The girls are getting braver every day. Even September isn’t actually fearless—for the first several days, she slept only in the rat house. But now they’ve taken the nesting cotton and made themselves a new bed upstairs in the corner. Why? Is it more comfortable there? Do they want to be part of the family? I don’t know. But I’m glad they are out of their rat house. And I’m glad I am out of my bedroom. And I’m glad for all my friends and clients who have ventured out from wherever they were hiding to give human connection another try.

Still alert
 Many people mistakenly think that attachment is set in infancy, or at least childhood, but the research shows that this isn’t the case.  Insecurely attached children can grow up to be securely attached adults, if the conditions are right. Dogs in a shelter, after only brief interaction with a new handler,will often prefer to stick near him or her instead of trying to escape from theroom. Elspeth and September want to be loved, it’s clear from the way they approach before becoming overwhelmed and retreating again. Let's see if I can help them let themselves be

Saturday, September 28, 2013

On the Elusive "Good Female Character"

I think the women of M14 could have shown a little more skin.

Is that weird? The women look absolutely phenomenal. Banisher Priest is both eminently feminine and completely battle-ready. Chandra, Pyromaster has neither the backbreaking pose of Chandra, the Firebrand nor the basketball breasts that dominated the advertising. I hadn’t kept up with the M14 spoilers for school, so I was hit with the complete set at once via DailyMTG’s visual spoiler.

Archangel of ThuneAs I first started looking through the cards, I thought it was a fluke. Some artists (I’m looking at you, Michael C. Hayes) consistently draw women in character-appropriate attire and poses. I figured somehow all of these had gotten clumped at the top.

But as I scrolled through row after row, without a single battle bikini or cheesecake pose to be seen except on reprints, I seriously began to tear up a little. It was sinking in that they had actually listened to us—to me and my friends and all the countless others who speak up again and again, who ask for the characters representing us to be portrayed as meaningfully as the characters representing the male players. (I would also like to acknowledge the many non-women who make this same request.) They had made an entire set of women who actually looked like women going about their business, not like props.

The Sexy Spectrum

At the same time, something felt a little odd. While each individual card in M14 looked fantastic, there was something about the set as a whole. It was a world without sensuality, a very conservative world. Which can be interesting as a characteristic of a world. Innistrad, for example, is canonically very cold (although a couple of the characters’ inexplicable costume designs give new meaning to the phrase “freezing your tits off.” Just imagine the wind!) 

Woodland SleuthCurse of Stalked Prey

My worry on seeing M14 was that our request had been misunderstood. That people might think we hated sexiness or wanted to slut-shame women who showed skin. Thankfully, that fear has been allayed by the character design in Theros, where men and women alike wear minimal clothing. 

This tells a story—I assume that Theros is very hot (poor Elspeth!) and they use agility and magic instead of steel to protect their vital organs. My friends and I have debated my choice to buy this print—my argument is that since we know Michael C. Hayes can and regularly does paint women in battle gear and battle poses, his decision to sex this one up tells us more about the character than about the artist.

WakedancerWhich brings me to my original statement—women come in all varieties. Some have no desire to be sexually appealing, and make an effort not to be. Some are incidentally sexy whether they’re dressed conservatively or revealingly. And some make a concerted effort. It is really nice to see Magic art embracing a broader spectrum.

I always use Wakedancer as my go-to for provocative clothing done right—her magic is from dance, a potentially very sensual medium, and it would make complete sense for her to choose a suitably sensual outfit.

What I like to see on a female character isn’t the specifics of her clothing at all—it’s about agency. My friend calls this The Natasha Principle: Does this woman look like she picked out her own outfit, choosing something appropriate for what she planned to do that day?

Strong vs. Strongly Written

So why didn’t I say anything about my concerns when M14 came out? I pretty much just called it a home run and left it at that. The reason: I didn’t want people to feel like they can’t win, like we’ll never be satisfied. The set was a huge and beautifully executed step in the right direction, and I wanted to take some time just to appreciate that.

But I was recently inspired to think about the complexities of the issue by this blog post that I found on The author talks about the difference between strong female characters and good female characters. In her words, “A female character does not have to be 'strong' (whatever your definition of that is) to be a good character. Women can be strong, or wussy, or emotional, or stoic, or needy, or independent, and still be legitimate people and interesting characters.”

Elspeth, Knight-Errant
But certain tropes, such as the damsel in distress, have become contaminated by too many stories where that’s all there is to the woman. As a result, characters get derided for coming too close to the cliché. Elspeth, who is a survivor of severe and chronic developmental trauma and has moments of great fragility, seems to be a very polarizing character. (I don't read the books but from the little I've seen I am a big fan.) Easier just to say “No damsels in distress” than to make sure your character is more than that—and that people get it.

There are so many complaints and many of them seem contradictory. If a lawyer character wants a husband then she’s a cliché of women always needing a man. If she doesn’t, she’s a cliché of professional women being frigid. Even if the character is beautifully executed, the media’s portrayal of gender roles is so warped that every detail is fraught with deeper meaning that can then be picked apart.

Creators who I talk to about this usually want to do right, and I really feel for their frustration. I want to promise them “Follow this list of rules, and everything will be okay. You can feel confident about your characters and nobody will ever attack you.” I mean, I want to be able to tell them that. I want such a list to exist.

But in the end, I suppose, everybody has be able to trust their own judgment as creators. It comes down to being able to say, “I thought about this thoroughly, I listened to people’s concerns, I searched my own conscience, and this is what I came up with.” If you’ve given it your best, it’s not my place or anyone else’s to tell you otherwise. We can raise our objections, of course. And we will. We all have our concerns. But it’s up to you to decide whether you're going to change your path accordingly.

Keep listening. Keep learning. Keep trying. I couldn’t ask for more.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

More Randomness

Last weekend, Mark Rosewater did his podcast on randomness. (I transcribed it here, but I really recommend listening if possible.) His article on the topic covers roughly the same territory in fewer words but doesn’t mention anybody getting punched in the face, so... you know. Pros and cons.

Rosewater talks about some of the upsides of randomness: namely “It creates surprises,” “It makes the game play differently,” and “It allows players to react.” He mainly focuses on the ways randomness creates excitement and novelty. (If I recall correctly, his guess for why people are interested in the unknown is more or less dead right according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity.)

Listening to this, my neuropsych side got to thinking about other possible benefits of randomness. I am fascinated by the neuropsychology of games, and how our abilities in various areas affect what games we enjoy and/or are good at.

Recently I was playing Robo Rally, one of my all-time favorite games. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Robo Rally is a game by Richard Garfield (designer of Magic: The Gathering) in which the players race their robots through an obstacle course. The board is full of elements like conveyor belts, pushers, and rotating gears to knock your robots off track. Since you have to plan out your next five moves in your head, taking all of these into account, it is very easy to accidentally wind up somewhere you weren’t expecting. Complicating things further is the fact that other robots can bump into you, spoiling even the best-plotted courses.

Now, I normally go way out of my way to avoid visual-spatial games. Chess, Othello, Connect Four—my brain just doesn’t work that way. I think this may have something to do with the fact that I don’t use pictures to think at all. I think almost entirely in words, with a few vague and tenuous spatial concepts. If I ever drive you somewhere, you’d better be ready to navigate.

However, I love Robo Rally, and I think the reason has something to do with the other major mechanic: the move cards. You’re given nine cards (fewer if you’ve taken damage) that say things like “Move 2” or “Turn Around.” You play five of the cards, and then you’re dealt a new hand of nine. And somehow, this mechanic makes all the difference.

This brings us to one aspect of randomness that Rosewater doesn’t really touch on—the fact that randomness actually limits how much information you need to really need to consider at once. In chess, you’re generally supposed to think ahead by a certain number of moves. Kasparov reportedly said that he thinks three to five moves ahead, and that in certain situations it is possible to go up to twelve or fourteen.

To be able to consider that much information, particularly hypothetical branching paths, requires a strong capacity in what is called executive functioning. Executive functioning is actually many separate but related skills which combine to effectively be the manager of the brain. To give you a sense of what is included in this group, here is a list (bolding is mine) from LDonline, a learning disabilities website:

Normally, features of executive function are seen in our ability to:
·            make plans
·            keep track of time
·            keep track of more than one thing at once
·            meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
·            engage in group dynamics
·            evaluate ideas
·            reflect on our work
·            change our minds and make mid-course and corrections while thinking, reading and writing
·            finish work on time
·            ask for help
·            wait to speak until we're called on
·            seek more information when we need it.”
When all information (besides your opponent’s choices) is available for the foreseeable future, as is the case with chess, the person who can think way ahead (i.e., the person with strong executive functioning) is going to have a major advantage. In addition, a chess board offers… well, I can’t calculate off the top of my head how many possible moves there are in a given turn, but it is a whole lot. Just comparing all of your options requires holding a huge amount of information in your head at once. Alternately, you may be able to recognize which moves are irrelevant to the task at hand and ignore them, but screening out irrelevant stimuli is also part of the executive functioning package.
As is typically the case for people with ADHD, most aspects of executive functioning are really not my strong suit. While it’s good enough to get me through the day-to-day, games are designed to push the limits of our abilities—and something like chess pushes mine to the breaking point. However, in Robo Rally, drawing a random hand every five moves means the value of planning beyond that is significantly curtailed. When a random component is introduced (as in the case of Robo Rally), weakness in that area is no longer the huge handicap that it was. In addition, mistakes have a random chance of actually being fortunate, reducing the sting of badly chosen moves. Magic is similar in that you can consider what’s in your deck and play to your outs, but mostly you are reacting to what is in front of you.
The limited hand size isn’t technically part of randomness, but the random draw helps the “ridiculous number of moves to consider” problem by limiting the number of options you have to consider. If you’ve ever played Mental Magic you know how overwhelming it gets when you can choose from any card ever. This can also be seen in the fact that things that reduce randomness, such as tutoring and library manipulation, can be satisfying but also multiply the number of options you have to consider in order to make the optimal play.
Rosewater says that people think randomness makes games less skill-testing, and argues that in reality it makes it more skill-testing. The truth is, neither position is right—random and nonrandom games both test skill, they just test different skills. While drafting is a skill, so is being able to read the metagame, learn your deck inside and out, and generally plan ahead for Constructed. They cater to different strengths—careful planning vs. thinking on the fly. The more randomness is introduced, the less planning matters and the more cognitive flexibility matters. (Unsurprisingly, one of my friends called me the most exclusively Limited player she has ever met.)
Randomness is exciting. It can make games more emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating. And paradoxically it can stop them from being overstimulating, limiting the amount of information we are flooded with so that we can focus on what’s fun and interesting to think about. Like I talked about in my Understanding Complexity article, one of the cool things about Magic is the huge variety of cognitive processes it draws on. As a result, relative strength or weakness in one particular area does not result in the serious beating it would lead to in a game that fully emphasized that area. Randomness is one of many tools that keeps the game accessible to all.