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Author of off-kilter sci fi/fantasy books. Fond of apocalyptic and fantastical things. Known for phuquerie. I bite. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00BGWZRCW

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Press 'X' for Prejudice: Mental Health in the Gaming World, Part 2

Hello, hello!

A note before we get underway: I will be referring to and linking to descriptions of various disorders. If you identify with these symptoms and experiences, you may want to consult a specialist. I am not a diagnostician or psychiatrist, and you probably aren't either, so don't diagnose yourself based on a few links on the internet. 


Okay, so, with that done--let's get back to the tea in China, as my mother says. As a reminder, the issue was  this article. I agree, but not completely. Last week, we broke down what mental health issues mean, and this week, we'll talk about it in relation to gaming.




Source. I know it's got a watermark. But a broken screaming mirror-head was too cool to resist.

What does this have to do with gaming? 


As mentioned, games love to use insanity as a device. Sometimes it's portrayed really badly and inaccurately--but sometimes, that's actually okay. Lovecraft's monsters have less to do with schizophrenia than they do with tapping into the psychedelic experiences caused by substance use (a theme in a few of the stories, actually) and tapping into the fundamental fears of childhood. Anyone who's cuddled up under the covers, clutching a pillow or toy frantically, trying to avoid breathing or moving--paralysed by fear of imaginary beasts under the bed, in the hall, or in the closet, can understand where Lovecraft is coming from. Then, too, the insane and unworldly logic of dreams and the bizarre things our minds combine influence a lot of games. The stuff my own brain has come up with as a result of the unusual serotonin and dopamine levels experienced during REM ended up inspiring a series and a whole bunch of short stories. In a way, video games are not playing on real mental health disorders, but on the vagaries of healthy minds when they stray in dark directions.


But...but...what's wrong with that? 



The issue is that people might be getting the wrong idea about how mental health works from these games. Obviously, there's also the problematic (push the buzzer because I said the 'p' word, do it, I dare you) treatment of mental health issues everywhere else in the media, too. People are gradually becoming more aware of it, especially with all the shootings in the States lately, but the problem is what you might call a "piling on" effect. Sure, books often have better depictions, but not everyone reads a lot, and not all books are accurate about the matter, either. And just because everything else is crappy, doesn't mean games should aim for the lowest common denominator in quality.

Mental health issues do not make someone violent just because they exist, for the most part. But gaming is just beginning to figure that out. I don't think we need to keep heroes homebound for weeks--though montages would handle the problems with that nicely--but it should be an option, shouldn't it? It's a challenge for writers, but challenges in writing keep one sharp and improve storytelling abilities.

Another consideration is representation, which has a very positive effect on self-perception and long-term success. People mock Tumblrites for self-diagnosis, but anxiety and other disorders actually appear to be more prevalent than we expected anyway. So while the internet might not be the best way to figure out if something is wrong with you, sometimes it's a good place to find help. Sometimes. And by offering better depictions in games, there is a chance that gamers will find ways to deal with their own demons.


Do we need to fix it? 


Well, actually, yes. There needs to be more of a crowbar between the fictionalized depictions of insanity, which are artistic, and the portrayals of real disorders. It would be nice if more writers and artists actually spoke to people with mental health issues and flipped through the DSM list to get a better idea of what they're trying to depict. One game that actually humanized people with mental health issues pretty well and dealt with therapy (in a very metaphorical way) was Psychonauts, mentioned above. Dead Space and Mass Effect 3 actually touch on PTSD, but don't really resolve it. Also, mental health issues tend to magically dissolve until they're needed for plot reasons, and they really don't work like that in real life.

Things are changing, however; just the fact that Depression Quest exists is a massive step forward. Thisthisthis, and this may be relevant to your interests if you're looking for realistic games. I will warn you that the last one is so creepy, I noped out part of the way through.

So, on that perky note, I can only say--sweet dreams, readers. Remember--real life is even more terrifying than anything that could possibly happen in a game.

*Edit*--a wonderful and very articulate article about video games and the potential they have to teach people compassion appears here.



*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Pass the Prozac: Mental Health in the Gaming World, Part 1

Hello, hello!

A note before we get underway: I will be referring to and linking to descriptions of various disorders. If you identify with these symptoms and experiences, you may want to consult a specialist. I am not a diagnostician or psychiatrist, and you probably aren't either, so don't diagnose yourself based on a few links on the internet. 


So, this post has been a long time coming. So long, in fact, that I got the idea from working on the Psychonauts review a while back. Yeah, I know. That was a while ago.

Why pick it up again, then? Partly it was that the idea refused to die. I really like fictionalized depictions of madness--before I got into Lovecraft, there was Shakespeare, and before him, Diana Wynne Jones actually covered it pretty well in her series, too. And video games love using artistic renderings of madness.

Then I saw this. And though it's well-intentioned, I don't think the writer understands mental health issues as well as they think they do. The comments section betrays a lot of the same misunderstandings, though it's not as bad as, say, Youtube. How dare I say that, though? On what basis can I claim to have a good understanding of mental health--in the real world, not just in fiction?




Source. Not shown: an accurate representation of actual retrograde amnesia or the horrible face-melty monster. You're welcome.

How about some background? 



Before I let myself become a writer, I thought I had to be a child psychiatrist or psychologist. I like kids, after all, and I like helping people; it seemed like a good use of my skills, curiosity, and intellect. Then I actually completed my degree in Addictions Counselling. That included not only lab experiences with undergoing forced counselling and forcibly counselling other students--the emotional equivalent of The Hunger Games--but practical classes in neuroscience and a lot of time working with the DSM-IV. I hated the degree by the end of it, but I stuck it out to the finish line.

In "the real world", I've also worked with two government organizations that provide funding to people with disabilities--including front-line service that involved a lot of patient interaction. They were both great experiences, though I have to admit I'm glad I get to work on editing instead. I wasn't working as a counsellor in either position--my degree ruined that for me--but I was interacting with patients and families regularly.

Then there's the real life stuff. Close friends, family members, my partner--all of them have struggled with mental health issues of various kinds. And hell, so have I. I've learned that sanity and mental health--actual health--are a matter of taking things day by day sometimes, of figuring out how triggers work and how to avoid situations with certain kinds of stressors. Sometimes just waking up is a victory.

So, without getting into serious specifics--I know what mental health encompasses pretty well. But what does that have to do with the depiction of insanity in video games and art?


Is the insanity we see in art realistic? 


This isn't as straightforward as it sounds. The answer is "no, but yes."

There are elements of Lovecraftian or Shakespearean madness that reflect the experience of a psychotic breakdown or psychotic episode (as in cases of schizophrenia). The hallucinations, both visual and auditory; the paranoia and fears of persecution; the "word salad" that results when the brain and tongue are at war. Sometimes these visions and hallucinations are vicious and aggressive, and sometimes they're actually more benign--mostly outside the West, in countries with better social support systems and more communal values. Here, the high levels of isolation and rather vicious social dynamics tend to make people feel very isolated, and the metaphorical demons in their heads are very aggressive. It's not much of a stretch to say these things are probably linked.

However, "insanity" often encompasses a lot of things. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the megalomaniac's mainstay; Antisocial Personality Disorder, and other, less 'by the book' forms of aggression and psychotic behavior are all referred to as "insanity". If a character is "crazy", they'll do anything. Interestingly, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder-type symptoms are also used as motivation. Horribly mangled versions of Disassociative Identity Disorder  are also popular choices to represent "insanity".


Source. Yeah, I know. Watermark. But it's a great picture.


Does a mental health disorder make someone violent and evil? 


Short answer: no. While some illnesses can contribute to violent behavior, it seems like life trauma has a much bigger impact on violence as a response to hallucinations or perceived aggression from others. However, the jury is still out on this; we are trying to understand what causes violence as a response or defense mechanism.

However, just having a mental health issue is not going to mean someone is "crazy". Between 10 and 20% of Canadians and Americans will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives, the most common being depression and/or anxiety. Phobias are also extremely common. This means that mental health issues are actually normal parts of the human experience. We don't necessarily cope with them very well, and we tend to pathologize them and isolate people who have them--but they're far from uncommon.

So, does a mental health issue make someone violent? Occasionally, yes. Evil? Absolutely not. Hurting people can make them hurt other people, though. In fact, abuse of various kinds can basically induce mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, as well as PTSD. The thing is, abusers often have mental health issues and a history of pain themselves, so it's complex. In any case, painting people as monsters won't solve the problem, and certainly won't cure people. In fact, most mental health issues can't be cured, only treated, but some of them are easier to live with than others.

So...what about gaming? Does all of this misinformation have a negative affect on gamers, or is it relatively innocent? Next time: we get back on topic and talk about this in the context of gaming!

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A Few Thoughts on Death and the Internet

So, it's finally happened--someone I knew on Facebook has passed away. I knew, statistically speaking, that a friend-acquaintance or close friend would pass away eventually. That's how life, and entropy, work. But this was a real shock--something like the sinking feeling when you let the air out of your lungs and fall to the bottom of the pool. And like that sinking, it's not real yet; my heart has a weightless, hollow feeling.

It hasn't really set in yet, but Johnetta Samone was a smart, sweet woman who always spoke her mind but had a gentle heart. She spoke up for those who needed it and had a really good sense of humour when times were lighter. She was a good person, committed to love and understanding and compassion. She had a good sense of humour. Johnetta Samone was meh about technology, had incredible dreads, a playful sense of humour--and now, she's just not here. 
She will be missed. May she rest in peace and travel well.
I couldn't help thinking about quantum immortality.

What if we just...don't know if we've died? Like, maybe something happened--we've all had near miss accidents--and during one of those accidents we ended up being conscious in another multiverse facet? And thinking we only "almost" missed the steps?

What exactly happens when everything here stops--whether "we" go somewhere or it's all just "that good night"--is not a question I have an answer to. But I suppose we can hope. And I hope that Neezy is somewhere with sunlight and good music and slightly better people.
 *****

 Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog for more. I promise it won't all be about death.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Short Story: The Last F$#% Given

Hello hello!

My mentor and friend, Zig Zag Claybourne, over at Rehumanize Yourself said, "I want a short story about the last phuque given." I couldn't help but oblige. A certain Asimov short played a roll in the genesis of this.
***

Tamika stared out at the endless void. The glowing chunks of what had once been Gaia, the blue-green jewel of home, drifted slowly towards the sun. The little grey moon, following like a faithful cat, was no more. It had been knocked away by the comet.

She watched for a long time as the scarlet fury of the sun slowly devoured the remaining shards of Earth. There had been life there, once. And on Mars as well, the russet neighbour. There was a time when humanity had filled the whole system orbiting Sol, had stretched beyond that—

Then came the war. Then another war, and another one. The factions didn’t matter. It had been xenos the first time, genetically engineered hybrids the second, robots, the third time. Tamika distantly remembered a time when it had been the other way around—robots, then humans, then the xeno invaders had waged war. The Shroedinger device had made history an even more confusing proposition than it once was.

She strode across the deck, platinum heels clacking. A captured Singularity glinted around her neck: the last moments of a dying star. She surveyed her ship. The crew were still in their places, polished bones and hardware gleaming. No-one could say she hadn’t taken care of them. Even now, with nothing but auto-protocols left, they were impeccably tidy. Of course, the time-scarabs had helped with that—picking all flesh from their bones.

Tamika’s metal fingers played over the console distractedly. She navigated away from Sol, and faster than a thought, her little ship arrived in the Orion cluster.

Cold and dead here, too, but a better sense of perspective. She looked back at the Solar system—nothing but a few distant glitters, now. Not her problem.

The universe would go dark any day now, she thought, firing up the engines. A few lights were still on, but the house was empty. Perhaps it was time to knock it down, to build something new.

The last living creature in the universe deliberated, staring at her console, and opened the hidden menu. A display glowed before her.

“Activate the Oroboros protocol,” she said, her dusty vocal chords clattering a little. She crossed two of her six legs and waited for the computer to respond.

It flickered for a moment. The computer, too, was breaking down. “Activate the Oroboros protocol? Are you sure? Y/N?”

“There’s nothing left,” said Tamika. “It’s time to start over. Yes.”

The Singularity around her neck burned brightly for a moment. There was nothing but light, pure light, as the Orion cluster, then the spiral arm, then the rest of the Milky Way Galaxy, then the universe collapsed in on itself—

—and then—


“This should be interesting,” said Tamika. “Computer, initiate protocol ‘Beginning’. I’m bored already of all this light. Let’s build something.”


*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Continuity: The Devils are in the Details

Hello hello!

A big and very gracious thank-you to the SFRB for letting me guest-post once again today. Today's post has been inspired by a bugbear I've been dealing with lately: continuity.

Those of you who are fans and bloggers might shrug when I mention continuity. Writers, on the other hand, are probably feeling a shiver down their spines that has nothing to do with the ice-bucket challenge. To explain why this induces muttering dreams and sleepless nights, it wouldn't hurt to have a definition.




Source. Pictured: a reader unhappy with continuity errors.

Continuity: what is it, and why does it matter?


"Continuity" refers to self-consistency through descriptions, action, storylines, and development in a creative work. In a nutshell, good continuity means adhering to your own rules. A work should be congruent and not vary too much throughout its existence. "Discontinuity" happens when errors are made or the lore is changed; "retroactive continuity", or "retcons", are made to reconcile early errors with later events, details, or changes. You can also manipulate continuity in order to make the narrator unreliable. Inception, American Psycho, Memento, and other films and books have made use of this. An unreliable narrator is great when it's done on purpose, but inconsistent details can also make a writer look sloppy.

 For instance, your distraught loner character might develop into a compassionate and friendly, even optimistic person through a series, but she probably shouldn't too perky and resilient right away if she's recently lost her entire family, dog, boyfriend, and ship in a single fell swoop. This usually happens when a series has been left alone for too long and the author's forgotten how to write for a character, or when the author is getting bored of a character's traits.

Character continuity is important, and the same goes for plot details. Something that one character says happened two years ago should not suddenly have happened ten years ago when it's mentioned again. We'll go deeper in a second.


Why is this important for sci fi? 


Everyone knows about the fan outcry that happened when George Lucas created the first Star Wars movies, but retroactive continuity issues also played a role in the first trilogy. Entire blogs have been written and based on examining errors in the series, so let's talk about a different example--Doctor Who. With so many writers, the story of the Time War has been bent and twisted and changed in ways that can seem self-contradictory. This also affects the characters and their journey, of course, because the plot never functions in isolation. (If it does, get an editor to look over your book, stat, because something is broken.)

As writers of fiction, it's important to learn from failures and make sure that our worlds are consistent. A tiny detail that was mentioned and thrown away earlier can be mined for plot purposes later, or, conversely, can break the plot. Farscape had a wonderful episode called "The Locket", but the mechanism their ship Moya used to escape a time-freezing zone, a "reverse starburst", unfortunately was never mentioned again. The eagles in The Lord of the Rings or the many, many plot devices used in the Harry Potter series are examples of dropped plot devices and throwaway details that accumulated to create some improbable and silly situations for the characters. The worst case I've seen was probably in The Sword of Truth--there were so many throwaway plot devices in this series that the author had to go nuclear on the ending for the last book in order to reconcile them all.

When plot devices are forgotten or tossed aside from continuity, characters' situations can end seem silly to the audience. Just because the author has forgotten something doesn't mean our readers will, unfortunately!



Source. 


How do we fix it?


It wouldn't be a SciFiMagpie post without a solution. In this case, it's simple, but a lot of work: KNOW THY WORLD. Chuck Wendig has a particularly wonderful affirmation card (posted above). The way I'm coping with continuity in The Meaning Wars is by re-reading And the Stars Will Sing and The Stolen: Two Short Stories.  Unfortunately, it's also brought a few flaws and typos in the books to my attention, but that's part of the process. You can't be a better writer unless you know your flaws.

"How can I smooth over that exposition? How can I change things so I can avoid that head-jump--can I imply things, perhaps? Maybe do a short scene from the other character's perspective? Did I just change the location of this world by accident? How can a luxurious Southern California/Ireland-like region exist in a warzone? Should I move it?" These are just a few of the questions I've been asking myself, and while painful, it's also really satisfying to know when I've gotten something right. After all, readers love to niggle, but even the ones who miss continuity errors appreciate smooth, consistent stories. This is also the reason why editors are very, very useful people to know.

And the better you do at maintaining continuity, the less sleep you'll lose at night after you accidentally change a character's name, make them three inches taller than they were in the first book, and give them a peanut allergy that would have killed them in the first scene in the second book.

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 


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