Dear Orson

Note: Below you’ll find racist and homophobic language. These words were not originally used by me, and I never use such filth, but I happen to agree with Louis CK in the notion that the censored version of a word is as bad as the word itself. I take responsibility for the words below: if their presence offends you, I apologize. Please know that I do not use them lightly. These words are necessary for clarity, and so I feel they should be spelled out in full.

“Of course they can’’t let niggers use the beach at a Southern resort—can you imagine sensitive persons bathing near a pack of greasy chimpanzees? The only thing that makes life endurable where blacks abound is the Jim Crow principle, & I wish they’’d apply it in N.Y. both to niggers & to the more Asiatic type of puffy, rat-faced Jew. Either stow ‘em out of sight or kill ‘’em off—anything so that a white man may walk along the streets without shuddering nausea.” —H. P. Lovecraft, February 1925

“I think it is beyond doubt that H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” —Stephen King

“The dark secret of homosexual society—the one that dares not speak its name—is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.” —Orson Scott Card, February 2004

When I was 12, I discovered the world of Ender’s Game. It was summer, and I was explicitly ignoring my assigned summer reading in favor of the things I wanted to read: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Heinlein and Asimov, and a new book from the library called Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Ender, the child prodigy main character, felt everything I felt as a kid. I was in accelerated academic programs, I was freakishly smart, I was… well, I was spending my entire summer vacation reading books. I felt the loneliness of intelligence, the impatience of youth, and Ender understood me.

In one scene in the book, Ender is forced to part ways with the first real friend he’s ever had. Alai, a talented young man of North African decent, embraces Ender, kisses him, and whispers, “Salaam, Ender.” Arabic for peace. The two are friends, but their fates are pulling them apart, and they both wish that they were someone different, in a different time, so they could stay close. Ender cried, and I did too.

There’s a long tradition in history and literature of evaluating people in slices without forgetting the whole. Authors and great historical figures have to be seen as people with flaws, but admired for the work they did and the impact they made. Thomas Jefferson was a patriot and a slave rapist. H. P. Lovecraft was a pioneer in the horror fiction genre and a breathtaking racist. Ben Franklin was an inventor and a womanizer. In literature, this is known as the death of the author: when a creator creates, their work is good or bad or transcendent based on the work and only the work.

Orson Scott Card is a despicable homophobe. He’s a bigot who is responsible for my favorite-ever books, and he uses the money he’s earned from entertaining the world to donate to horrible groups like the National Organization for Marriage. He wants laws against non-procreative sex to be enforced, and he’s worked (and failed) to make sure that gays never see the legal protections of marriage in America.

As I’ve become aware of this, I’ve become more and more conflicted about my love for Ender. Do I continue to recommend his books to friends exploring science fiction for the first time? Should I join in discussions of the book; should I write an essay about the treatment of memorials in Speaker for the Dead (as I did in high school)? The art is separate, and I love the art. Plus, it’s easy to go too far about this. Should I boycott books by religious authors, since I’m an atheist? Should I avoid movies created by outspoken Republicans if I am a liberal? You can’t police people’s thoughts, and great art is rare enough without more restrictions. I’m finding an author that I like, not auditioning for a new best friend.

But Card is still out there, and when I buy his books he earns royalties. My money is his money is NOMs money is spent to hurt people I care about. That’s more than red state/blue state disagreement. It’s unconscionable to me.

Ender’s Game, that transformative book of my youth, is now being made into a movie. It looks like everything I’ve always wanted my Ender’s Game movie to be.

I won’t go and see it.

When we separate the art from the artist, we are applying an artificial barrier that doesn’t exist in the wild. Contractual forces tie Card and Ender together, and what is good for one is good for the other. Card is co-producing the film, so he will almost definitely see a cut of the profits. Even if the movie never pays him a dime (if, say, his producer credit is purely ceremonial), his profile will be permanently raised by a successful blockbuster based on his series.

Card is in his sixties now, and odds are good that he will die long before me. I don’t wish him dead, you understand, it’s just a reality of mortality that he’ll probably go before I will. Maybe then, when his money can no longer hurt people I love, maybe then I’ll be able to buy a new copy of Ender’s Game to replace my dog-eared old paperback. Maybe then I’ll be able to see my old friend Ender again without feeling Card’s bigot eyes watching over us both.

Until then: thanks, but no. I’ll pass. Salaam, Orson. I wish that you were someone different.


Warren Spector Was Right

Games design legend Warren Spector—whose resume includes a few little things like Deus Ex, Thief and Wing Commander—turned heads a couple of weeks ago when he railed against the trailer for the Wolfenstein reboot, Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Posting to Facebook (and typing from his iPhone, just to put the statement in its full and proper context), Spector wrote:

Did the world really need another Wolfenstein game? Did we need a generically dark, monochromatic, FPS, kill-the-Nazi-giant-robot game? Uh. No. The world did not. I am so tired of stuff like this.

Sidebar: These images are all from different games.

This lit the world on fire a little bit, because when a guy like Spector says something about video games, everyone stops to listen. And although 2009’s Wolfenstein was uninspired, the series dives into alternate histories and plays with elements of science-fiction and horror—hardly the cookie-cutter, real-world shooting game that so many people are tired of.

Spector elaborated on his initial comments in the ensuing Facebook comment thread, which was filled with a hundred comments after only a few hours. What steams Spector is the ubiquity and homogeneity of generic shooter titles at the expense of all other kinds of games.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t be allowed to make or play stuff like this, but I reserve the right to be depressed about it and to wish games supported a more diverse range of styles and content.

As his comments began to be reported in the gaming press, Spector wrote a much longer explanation in a comments thread at Destructoid.

Anyone want to deny it’s a shooter? Anyone want to deny it’s using a monochromatic color palette? Anyone want to defend the ‘in a world where…’ narration? Does anyone look at the state of the industry and, leaving indie stuff aside, the major publishers are pushing much besides shooters, sports and action-rpgs?

But Warren, if you’re setting aside indie stuff, sports stuff and action-RPG stuff, you are setting aside an awful lot of stuff. All of that stuff is where the meat of PC gaming is happening every day. Dear Esther was a first-person walker with no enemies and no guns. Torchlight is an action-RPG that out-Diablo’d Diablo. FTL put you in command of a starship as the entire universe tried to kill you. The Walking Dead put you in the lead role of a cell-shaded moving comic book. All of these games, great and small, were commercially successful and helped push modern gaming in new directions.

There’s a renaissance going on right now in PC gaming, and focusing on the frequently bland world of AAA publishers is basically just complaining that the world isn’t changing fast enough for your tastes. The variety and quality of games coming through independent developers and non-traditional publishing venues like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight is unprecedented, and that’s a thing that should be celebrated more than it is.

Army of Two

Pictured: Bros

Spector is right about the stuffiness of the AAA game market. Most games are able to sell millions of copies on launch day only if they appeal to every possible person with a PC or gaming console in their house. Distressingly, these games do this by being about large men firing large guns at large enemies, usually in the future, usually with a snarky, foul-mouthed bro in attendance.  This trope is so well established that whole games are built on it: the new expansion for Far Cry 3, Blood Dragon, is an 80s-tastic parody of the adolescent male power-fantasy problem.

But is it really fair to launch that attack from Wolfenstein’s back, considering that the game doesn’t exist yet? This angst is an incredibly premature reaction based solely on a trailer that doesn’t show any gameplay or finalized art.

There’s being right and then there’s picking your moment. I think Spector took his very reasonable frustrations and took them out on a game that has at least a possibility to reintroduce us to interesting locations and novel gameplay designs.

And, after a day’s worth of abuse, Spector came to pretty much the same conclusion. He apologized in a follow-up post:

I owe the Wolfenstein team an apology. And to everyone who pointed out that I didn’t know enough about the game to judge, well, you were right. Consider this my mea culpa.

I hope the conversation doesn’t end there, though. I hope that the same people who wrote to Spector in defense of Wolfenstein also paid attention when he said this:

I’ll stand by my overall statement about lack of variety and innovation in mainstream gaming. I was simply expressing, once again, my long-held belief that we make too many shooters, lots of which look, sound and feel like basically the same game dressed up in different clothes.