Castlevania: Symphony of the Mike, Part 2 – A Miserable Pile of Secrets

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In the first part of this series, we looked at the psychology of Dracula and how his behavior evokes the feelings that go along with some neurological conditions. I used my own experiences with OCD and tourettes to look at Dracula in a new way. We saw how a history of generational trauma can exacerbate these conditions, and how the stigma associated with both these conditions and with a history of trauma haunts us to this day. But what of Alucard, the protagonist of Symphony of the Night? When we engage the game through this lens, how do we see his family history of trauma, his personal history of abuse and his own tendencies towards neurological conditions shaping him?

Alucard’s first appearance is in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse which takes place in 1476. Alucard starts as an enemy of Trevor Belmont, the vampire hunter come to destroy his father, but after a battle he joins those opposing his father. Upon defeating Alucard, he tells the player that it was a test, and that he has been waiting for someone to help him defeat his father. This is something that has apparently been on his mind for some time. After the events of that game, Alucard disappears for the next four hundred years, sealing himself away because he doesn’t feel fit to live among normal people. While he is hundreds of years old, he is still physically and psychologically only 18, a teenager.

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We don’t know much about Alucard’s childhood, but what we do know is not pretty. Alucard’s mother was killed by an angry mob for consorting with a vampire, and Alucard watched her die. This event is also presumably what pushed Dracula to declare war on humanity, and he raised Alucard to hate and reject his human side.

What does it mean to raise a child to hate himself? I can tell you from experience how much it hurts. My father suffers from pretty bad OCD tendencies. If things are out of order in his work or living space, he gets fidgety and angry. If he’s having a conservation, he needs to repeat the same idea several times or else it doesn’t feel right and he gets angry. If the OCD was bad, he would need to pace and talk, and if he was in any way prevented from doing that then it means whatever is preventing him from doing that is trying to hurt him. None of this would be insurmountable to deal with, if not for the fact that my father has never been able to come to terms with the fact that he has these issues. Remember what I wrote last time about my family’s history of surviving purges and genocides? Part of coping with that was a need to present ourselves as strong and without weakness. Admitting to weakness could get you hurt, cast out, or even killed. Add society’s stigma against mental illness to that and you have a recipe for trouble. Admitting one has OCD, even just a little, is exposing a weakness to the world that cannot be allowed. This meant that there needed to be another, external source for his anger and frustration. Growing up as the only person in the family diagnosed with anything meant that I was often considered that source.

My father loved me and he could be the greatest father in the world growing up, but whenever the OCD crept up there would be a change. If that feeling of dread that comes from the compulsive and negative thoughts came upon him, it had to be MY tourettes and OCD CAUSING him to feel that way. I would be told, angrily, how I was ruining the family, that I was a disgrace, and that no one would ever care for me because I was so broken and bad. Whenever I had my own OCD thoughts and issues, it would become proof of just how horrible I was. This switch from positive father to verbally abusive father could happen without warning over the slightest thing. It could also end just as quickly, and then the universe seemed entirely different. Worse yet, trying to discuss it could trigger that very switch. As I grew older I learned it was better not to try and fight with him over it and instead to retreat, but even then he would pace outside my room, muttering or yelling about how I was a monster. After the OCD feelings ended, he would act like nothing had happened, and if I brought it up it would be dismissed as fantasy, or if those obsessive thoughts remained provoke him into yelling again. If even having it acknowledged could risk ending “loving dad” mode, wasn’t it better to just accept it and internalize it? If he was a loving father most of the time, then wasn’t I bad for judging him when he did become verbally abusive? Emotional abuse trains you to doubt yourself and come up with excuses for others. Of course, the reason he couldn’t deal with his condition was the stigma attached to it, which I know all to well myself, and while of course that doesn’t excuse any emotional abuse, it does make it something I can sympathize with conceptually. So how do you interally balance all that?

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Every relationship, be it familial, romantic, friendship or otherwise, has moments of miscommunication or crossed wires. Every relationship requires us to navigate these moments and negotiate or compromise with each other. No one is perfect and no one can be expected to understand someone else 100% of the time, even those we love. But when the existence of these moments is used as an excuse to harm someone or to ignore harmful behavior, it becomes abusive. It warps our perception of reality, creating a mental understanding of the world where one party feels it is ok to hurt. When this point of view is confronted by the reality experienced by the person being abused, they respond with emotional punishment. It is easier for them to hurt someone else, even someone they really may care for, than confront a perception of reality that is not their own. In time, this can instill a perception of reality within the victim that it is ok to be hurt or that it is deserved.

Abuse isn’t kind enough to be the exclusive domain of monsters. It’d be a lot easier if it was.

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Even after my dad came to terms with his condition and began earnestly working to improve his mental wellbeing and his relationships with others, the past had its impact. That training in self-hatred meant that in future abusive relationships with other people as an adult, it wouldn’t be difficult to convince me that I deserved everything, and that it was unfair of me to “dwell” on something like, say, being hit or mentally tormented. It is surprisingly easy to be told that you’re not “allowed” to mention that you were hit and still make excuses for them. “Good people don’t hit for not reason” I was told, “and I’m a good person, so you need to take responsibility for making me hit you.” Once the entire event was agreed to be “off limits” the next step was to convince me it never even happened. “I never hit you, you would only say that if you didn’t really love me” and even “you would only say that because you have tourettes and therefore are crazy. You can’t trust yourself, you can only trust me, and I say you are bad.” When someone you love, who may even love you, is abusive, hating yourself is a remarkably effective defense in the short term. Even when you know you did nothing to justify it, you’ll live with it if it means those moments end quicker. Just take it on yourself and maybe they’ll go back to loving you. Isn’t it worth being a monster if it means less pain?

The player decides if Alucard is a fighter, a magician, a vampire, an explorer, a hoarder, a sneak, a problem-solver or whatever else defines how they choose to lead him through the castle. What the player has no control over is how Alucard responds to others. Alcuard is not particularly talkative in this game. It is easy to see Alucard’s dialogue when speaking to Maria or Richtor as cool aloofness (even as a stereotypical lone-wolf badassery), but I recognize it as fear. Opening up to others risks being hurt, and potentially even worse it risks you hurting someone else and having every horrible fear you have about yourself confirmed. It is far easier to withdraw inward than take that risk. The idea that someone could see Alucard as cool doesn’t even cross his mind, he’s just trying to get through those conversations as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Imagining Alucard’s entire childhood of one of constant abuse and neglect doesn’t ring true. There had to have been good experiences along with the bad, or else Alucard would have no problem rejoining humanity. Alucard seeks to define himself as everything his father is not, even taking a name for himself that is LITERALLY the reverse of his father. But even then he has his own feelings of affection for his father. While we never see all of Alucard’s past, it is all too easy for me to infer one that is conceptually close to my own. I can’t help but define Alucard’s background just as I define how he moves and fights.

Is this game canon? If so then Alucard's childhood had a lot of happy times as well!

Is this game canon? If so then Alucard’s childhood had a lot of happy times as well!

Dracula is, both literally and figuratively, a monster, which makes Alucard the son of a monster. His childhood was spent hating himself for being half-human, and now as an adult he hates himself for being half-monster. Raised to despise and fear himself, his liberation from Dracula sadly only seems to have changed the source of his self-loathing. He fears he will end up hurting others the same way he was hurt, and so he withdraws.

The ultimate tragedy of Symphony of the Night’s narrative is that being a commercial video game, there is never going to be a way for Alucard to interact with his father or his own feelings other than through violence and platform jumping. There’s no “therapy” button and you can’t equip “confrontational but necessary conversation as adults” in Alucard’s right hand slot. There’s no “fuck this castle shit, I’m going to move to another city and create my own family of like-minded friends” dialogue tree. Alucard can only fight his demons by actually fighting demons. Meanwhile in the real world, I can have an ongoing conversation and relationship with my father about his past struggles, and I can also have other figures of abuse who may as well be pixelated Draculas for all the resolution I can expect there. It would also be in my rights to choose not to have any relationship with anyone, and no one should feel compelled to maintain any relationship that makes them feel uncomfortable. I, and any other victim of abuse, have more agency over my life and my understanding of myself than any fictional character ever will. Alucard has no agency of his own, he is simply a puppet to our commands and perspectives. Alucard’s only hope comes from the players and their thoughts and stories outside the game. Even outside of the player’s input, Alucard has no choice within the narrative as to whether or not he will fight Dracula, much less find a resolution to his past. Instead, that possibility for self-redemption is decided by another character, based on the actions of the player.

"'...I've come to destroy this castle' Stupid! Stupid! Why did I say it that way? Now she thinks I'm some kind of nerd."

“‘…I’ve come to destroy this castle’ Stupid! Stupid! Why did I say it that way? Now she thinks I’m some kind of nerd.”

Both Maria and Richtor are young, good-looking, single people. Either of them could possibly be interested in Alucard as a friend or something more, but Alucard will never act on that. Despite this, it is still possible for the player to insure that Alucard has a happier ending, where he is at least open to the possibility of intimacy again. Symphony of the Night has multiple endings depending on the skill of the player. This is somewhat similar to the multiple, skill-based endings of its spiritual cousin-franchise Metroid, but with one crucial difference. Metroid infamously has its tough, no-nonsense heroine strip down to her skivvies if you beat the game under a certain time limit, serving as an out-of-character reward for players who memorize and rush through the game. Rushing through Symphony guarantees you an ending where Alucard locks himself away from the world, with potential friends simply letting him disappear from heir lives. Instead, the best ending is rewarded to players who complete as much of the auto-map as possible. Each section of the castle you visit brings you closer to an ending where at least one person is willing to put effort into breaking past his shell.

It would be easy to see this ending as Maria putting all the effort into reaching Alucard, and Alucard doing nothing. That doesn’t seem to be a particularly powerful message (and it all but reduces Maria to a prize for the player), but I choose to interpret it a different way. In the good ending, Maria is putting in effort to reach and empathize with Alucard, but Alucard is also meeting her halfway, even if only silently. The difference between an Alucard who has fully explored the castle and one who hasn’t is that the former understands himself enough to know he is worth empathizing with, and that crucial difference is conveyed to Maria.

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Spoilers: People are sad and say lots of periods in this game. Also vampires.

Alucard fears that he is a monster like his father, and that he will only end up hurting others, and yet ironically it is only possible for him to open to the possibility of intimacy through mastering his vampire powers that make him a monster. Without acknowledging his “monster” side and embracing his heritage, he cannot completely map the castle. Remember, this is the same castle he lived in his entire childhood. He is relearning his home, understanding the place that shaped him and confronting the source of his problems. Only self-awareness and acceptance allows Alucard to convey that he is capable of connecting to others.

But what, exactly, does the castle say about Alucard and his childhood? What is Alucard learning as he explores its halls and fights its monsters? If this is where he grew up, why is it all unfamiliar? Or IS it unfamiliar? Next time we’re going to take a closer look into the castle itself and the creatures that live there.

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Tarot and What Is Winning Anyways?

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I’ve been thinking about Tarot more than usual these days, in no small part due to Mattie Brice’s recent writings on the subject. I think what is most interesting to me about her recent exploration on Tarot is how it connects to two more “traditional” games I love in an abstract sense but have never really enjoyed playing in a modern, competitive environment.

I don’t believe in divination, but I love doing Tarot. The “fun” is not in being able to detail the future, but in constructing meaning and narrative within the rules and confines the randomly selected cards create. Each combination of cards creates a different series of ideas you must connect, but also slowly creates more and more limits which force you to really examine the narrative you are creating and how it fits together. Once I realized how Tarot actually worked, I was able to “divine” all kinds of interesting ideas and insight into my world and myself. Each card of the deck was carefully illustrated and designed to convey a specific series of emotions. As long as one enters into a Tarot reading with the intent of creating meaning, it is all but impossible not to somehow be pushed towards thinking about larger problems or issues within your life. Because your goal is to connect each card drawn, but to do so within the specific meaning ascribed to each card and image, it is therefore a useful tool for forcing yourself to think about your problems in a new light. It is a kind of play that is inherently creative, forcing you to create stories and link ideas. It is also a kind of play that almost no other card game has.

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When I was a young lad, Magic the Gathering was released onto an unsuspecting world. My elementary school received a few decks to give out to the students as a promotional event. It was a pretty clever business move, as the promise of free cards meant that nearly everyone in my class got hooked and soon ran out to buy additional cards of their own. I, being the young ecology nerd I was, was drawn most strongly to the “creature” cards. You had all your standard fantasy tropes, but also intriguing new creatures. As more and more editions came out, you also had more and more variations on the standard tropes. There was never JUST a “goblin” or JUST a “dragon” but always some more specific and intriguing variation. There were yetis and chimera from multiple countries and regions, each with their own attributes and forms. There were endless varieties of dragon, each suited for a different fantasy eco-system. There were dwarves, merfolk and elves of every occupation you could name, not just the standard Dungeons and Dragons classes. Even the made up creatures like the wonderfully alien thallids and thrulls had seemingly countless variations. There were kingdoms of diverse biomes, cultures and food chains, and it was CONSTANTLY growing. Today there is what, several million unique cards across dozens and dozens of expansions? Billions upon billions of card combinations to choose from and therefore worlds to create! So why was it such a bore to actually play?

The backstory for the game is that you are a Planeswalker, a wizard of unimaginable power who travels countless dimensions. When you encounter another Planeswalker, you duel, with the cards representing the spells you cast. Planeswalker spells aren’t any normal kind of magic, but instead involve the Planeswalker remembering the lands they have visited, drawing mana energy from those memories, and bringing pieces of other dimensions to aid them. You’re not merely summoning a monster or casting a spell, you’re bringing part of your home out of your past and into the world you’re battling on. A “deck” is supposed to represent an incredibly personal collection of memories and experiences, unique to each Planeswalker. But in reality, what it is is a collection of cards chosen by the player to be most effective in defeating their opponent and winning the game. The results of each game are binary. You win or you lose. If you choose cards around any theme other than winning, you are more likely to lose. So thematically your deck is supposed to be an incredibly personal and individual collection of experiences, but you end up penalized by the game for treating it as such.

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As a kid, this was frustrating. I would spend hours creating decks based on specific worlds I’d dream up. I chose creatures I wanted to see living together over those which could combo well, and I chose spells which could be used to create a sense of narrative rather than ones which allowed complex tactics. But when it came time to then actually play with those decks, it wasn’t fun anymore because there was no way to “win.” So instead I’d go back and try to create “playable” decks that used the right cards in the right combinations and took into account what other players would probably be playing. It was no longer fun, so I stopped playing and collecting pretty quickly.

This is not to say that there is anything WRONG with playing the competitive Magic metagame, or with having fun coming up with unique and unexpected combinations to defeat your opponent. But for me it took some of the magic out of Magic. It even made the cards less fun to just collect and discover outside of the main game. At first it was exciting buying a sealed pack of cards and seeing what new stories or adventures came to mind from the randomly assigned cards within. But when you’re playing only to win tournaments, buying cards at random is pointless. Better to just buy specific cards after you’ve done the research.

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This experience is mirrored in the Pokemon games. You have all these monsters, but not all of them are “playable” in the competitive game. You have no choice but to evolve your bulbasaur if you want to win, or to replace your favorite hypno or parasect with a more powerful “tier” of Pokemon. The game is no longer about personal choice or engaging with a fictional world, but in math simulations. Which, again, is perfectly fine but it goes against what the games themselves claim to be about. You’re not discovering a world or creating a relationship with alien creatures, you’re choosing the most powerful weapon for a specific outcome in a game of chance. I think its telling that the online Pokemon battle simulators which strip the games down to JUST competitive battling without any of the world or roleplaying are actually more fun and interesting in regards to the metagame and battles than the real games are themselves. Because the real games are caught between two different goals, without any real desire and understanding how to bridge them.

Tarot came directly out of competitive games of chance, but also from players using games of chance to create art and poetry. What if more players were willing to use existing games in new ways? What if a game of Magic was less about who won, and more about exploring another person’s created world? What if the goal was not about dominating another “planeswalker” but in trying to use both player’s selected “memories” to communicate or gain insight into each other. What if every Pokemon was useful not just in “battle” but in exploring and understanding the world you explore and the game rewarded you for connecting with whoever you felt like?

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Obviously there is space for the players to make those changes on their own and create their own games within existing games. But I see myself as someone who is both a developer and a player, and I think we developers all too often get stuck in ideas about what “winning” and “losing” is supposed to be. When we do offer other ways to play, they are usually still tied into those same ideas. Take the various, half-assed attempts to create other ways of playing Pokemon such as the “Pokemon Contests” which resembled talent shows or the movie filming mini-games of Black and White. All these mini-games did was change around which Pokemon were viable, and were still all based around a binary win/lose formula. Even the non competitive mini-games required you to play them “correctly” as opposed to personally. As such they all tended to be significantly less interesting variations on the normal battling, and most players end up ignoring them in the long run.

Of all AAA commercial games, it is surprisingly Smash Brothers which seems to offer the best look at what developers can do to combat this. Smash Brothers offers multiple ways of playing competitively, but even better offers ways of using the same fighting game rules and system to create and play in other ways. Sometimes it involves using the familiar mechanics in another familiar competitive game way, like the Angry Birds-inspired variation of the 3DS version or the “Metroidvania” platformer of Subspace Emissary. But it also lets you use the fighting game system to create photos and movies. How do you communicate, choreograph and create something new using this limited series of animations and models? To me, that is a really interesting question and challenge. While it is not the focus of the series by any means, and it is still a series based almost entirely on a simple win/lose formula, it at least gives its players one way of defining their own play and goals without forcing them to do everything on their own.

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In some ways, I’m becoming less interested in “games” and more interested in spaces for play, story, creation and discovery. Games can be a vehicle for these spaces, and as we see in Tarot their use of systems and rules are what helps drive that play and discovery. But when we only allow one outcome for play, we limit the power these spaces can have. It isn’t even a case where we players or developers have to choose between giving space for multiple goals and ideas of “winning” or staying within a familiar definition. The space is already there, no matter what rules we build into the system. All we need to do is think about what we can get out of choosing to use that space. All we need to do is realize that everything is playable.

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Scribbly Walrus

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Scribbly Walrus is a quick game I made to help me get over some of my generic-tortured-artist ‘oh I can’t release/ask for money/care about my art because it isn’t polished enough.” Abstract ideas of polish are the enemy of art. Sometimes you just need to flipping MAKE something. So I drew all the assets in a day and put it together the next. Not all my future games will be put together so haphazardly, but its nice to just create a small little world once and awhile.

Something I’ve been exploring lately are the old Nintendo Game & Watch devices. They are incredibly simple games, but many of them are quite lovely and elegant. Despite the primitive hardware and EXTREMELY limited animation, the little Mr G&Ws are incredibly evocative and charming. While a character in a G&W device may only have three frames of animation, each one is given a great deal of attention and design. You end up with characters that resemble playing a “real cartoon” even more than later games with fluid animation would be capable of.  I want to take lessons from these early pieces, and other simple LCD devices like tamagotchis. Sometimes it is fun to go on and on and let a piece spiral out of control, but there is something to be said for being able to convey everything you want in as simple a means as possible. These games have only a single screen and limited animation, but someone can figure out what to do and have fun just by looking at it.

Courtesy of http://animatedscreenshots.tumblr.com/

Courtesy of animatedscreenshots.tumblr.com

I also like how many Game & Watches involve mundane or everyday activities. Games about cooking sausages, caring for goldfish, mixing cement, being a fire-fighter, swimming in the ocean, and caring for a greenhouse. I like games that give you a little moment to enjoy, and that kind of format is good for games about animals.

Scribbly Walrus isn’t as polished as a Game & Watch (by design!) but it does give you a single screen to explore as a simple character. Like a real walrus, you can relax on an ice floe, play in the sea, and use your sensitive tusks and whiskers to find hidden shellfish.

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Walruses are not exactly having a great time right now. Man made climate change has led to a huge decrease in arctic sea ice. Walruses don’t have a lot of stamina, and need to rest on those ice floes in between foraging. Without ice to rest on, they have no choice but to flee inland, resulting in 35,000 walruses rushing the coast of Alaska all at once.

Walruses aren’t the only marine mammal in trouble. As of this moment there are only 97 vaquita porpoises left in the world. Vaquita are the world’s smallest porpoise, and their numbers are plunging due to unregulated gill-net fishing and demand for the shrimp and fish that share their habitat. If you are able to, consider donating to help the vaquita now before time runs out.

Scribbly Walrus can be played online for free at Gamejolt

Or download it for Windows and Mac OSX at itchi.io

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Castlevania: Symphony of the Mike Part 1 – OCDracula

Dracula.(Castlevania).full.295042Is it fair to retroactively psycho-analyze fictional characters? Perhaps not, in the sense that I am in no way ascribing motive to Koji Igarashi or anyone else who worked on Symphony of the Night, but as each player takes on the role of Alucard each player must take on the role of creator in deciding how Alucard acts and therefore, to an extent, define their specific incarnation of Alucard. Just as a theatrical production is a collaboration between writer, director and actors each translating and interpreting the work, each play-through of the game is a collaboration between the designers and the player(s). Not every game need be (or, arguably, can be) viewed as a collaboration in this way, but games such as Symphony lend themselves well to this form of play. Also, perhaps, at this moment in my life, I am also particularly disposed toward analyzing Alucard and his father through a particular lens.

Each player’s Alucard is unique. How they fight, what items they use, how they explore the castle, even the skill they demonstrate will all vary from player to player. Of course, all Alucards have some shared experiences. Every Alucard will be an physically 18 year old half-vampire with flowing hair and fabulous capes, for example. Nearly every Alucard will also end up something of a packrat, as players grab everything that isn’t nailed down. Alucard’s cloak will end up stuffed with potions, dozens of swords, a restaurant’s worth of food, and enough clothing to outfit a small village. But no matter how obsessively the player collects items and hoards their inventory, it will always pale in comparison to that of Alucard’s father, Dracula.

Dracula’s habit of hiding items around his castle has become something of a running joke for fans of the Castlevania series. The idea that you could whip a centuries old castle wall to find perfectly edible, healthy pot roasts and turkey legs is pure old-timey video game nonsense. Symphony of the Night continues this tradition with gusto. Dracula has continued placing food in his walls and hidden rooms, but he has expanded his menu to include everything from cheesecake to dim sum. There is not a single candle in his castle that isn’t home to at least one coin, with some containing sums as high as five hundred American dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that means any given candle could have contained the equivalent of $6746.38!

What exactly IS Dracula’s obsession with hiding things in candles or stuffing his home with meat? Why does Dracula fill his castle with piles of daggers, swords, books, bottles, lightning-shooting guns, Lord of the Rings memorabilia and almost countless other bric-a-brac? Is it possible that Dracula suffers from hoarding disorder?

Seems legit

Seems legit

Compulsive hoarding was first defined as a mental disorder in the 5th edition of the DSM in 2013. It is still not entirely understood, and it is unclear as to whether it is merely a symptom of another condition (such as OCD) or truly a separate, isolated disorder.

The first criteria for diagnosing hoarding disorder is “Persistent difficulty discarding or parting or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions.” It is safe to say that Dracula falls under the first criteria. His collection includes incredibly old objects, some of which have been in his possession for centuries. The oldest items in his collection include a dagger owned by the artist Hans Holbein from the 16th century, a katana made by the Japanese swordsmith Masamune in the 13th-14th century, and a garment worn by the biblical Joseph sometime around 1800-1500 BC! While these and many other items in his collection are valuable, he also hoards random cloth tunics, knives, and other worthless items.

The 2nd criteria, “This difficulty is due to strong urges to save items and/or distress associated with discarding,” is impossible to assess based on the little we see of Dracula in the game. However, Dracula definitely fails to meet the 3rd and 4th criteria, that of his hoarding making his home unusable and interfering with his social welfare respectively. There is no part of his castle that unusable because of his hoarding. For example, there is an entire wing filled with grandfather clocks, but they are all neatly arranged and do not hinder movement in any way. While some floors may have random objects littered across them, every room in the castle is still usable for its intended purpose, which means that Dracula fails to meet the 3rd criteria. He also doesn’t seem to meet the 4th criteria, as it does not seem to impair his social standing with the other undead and demonic entities in his social circle. It could be argued that his hoarding does create an unsafe environment for others, as it gives vampire hunters who wander in the weapons needed to cause grievous injury to other monsters, but that isn’t exactly what the DSM means. It seems pretty clear that Dracula’s candle-and-meat fixation is not specifically due to hoarding disorder.

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So if his hoarding is not due specifically to hoarding disorder, could it be the symptom of a different condition? For years, hoarding was considered a symptom or subtype of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Full disclosure: I suffer from Tourettic OCD and so have some understanding of the condition, but I do not for a second consider my experiences to be universal to every form of OCD. The difference between hoarding associated with OCD and Compulsive Hoarding, as I understand it, is in motivation. Hoarding due to OCD is fueled not by the stuff itself, but by a compulsive fear or superstition. A lot of people misunderstand what OCD is like. OCD doesn’t take over your body and force you to do something. Rather, you have this repeating, obsessive cycle of thoughts that tells you over and over that if you DON’T do something, it will cause a disaster. Someone I knew who suffered from bad OCD had to shout “five!” every time anyone counted to four because the feeling that a four “left alone there” would cause horrible things to happen to them and their family was overpowering. They knew it wasn’t logical, but the feeling of dread was real regardless. The compulsive fear or worry is not always a specific superstition, such as in my own case. Sometimes when I have tourettes tics, I have to repeat the tic after its finished because my body just “feels wrong” if I don’t. Suppressing a tic makes me feel like my body is going to collapse into itself. People who hoard as a symptom of OCD do so because it has become tied into some negative thought loop.

Dracula hoards very specific things. He collects weapons, armor, money, rations and drugs. These aren’t the 19th century equivalent of junk mail, even if the items aren’t particularly valuable or useful. Their intended purpose seems valid for Dracula’s interests. Keep in mind that Dracula has been literally killed at least once a century since he was born. He always comes back, but who is to say what he is going to come back to? If you knew you were going to be staked through the heart and lose another few decades, wouldn’t you want to make sure that you were set when you came back?

Dracula is obsessive and paranoid. He hoards and hides money and goods because he knows sooner or later he will be attacked and staked again. What better way to make sure that no one steals your money while you are waiting to be resurrected by your evil followers than to hide it? What better way to plan for a long siege of heroes than to have emergency rations covertly stashed around your home? Having an arsenal in every corner of his castle means no matter where he is attacked, he can defend himself. He did not count on the Belmont clan being so thorough in its destruction of his home, but even now that his hiding places are well known, he can’t stop. It has become more than a ritual or a desire, but a compulsion. If he doesn’t put some coins in his candles, it starts another negative feedback loop, obsessively playing terrible, negative thoughts in his head.

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A puppet that I am probably related to

Dracula would certainly not be the first OCD vampire in history. Many vampire legends around the world depict the undead fiends as suffering from arithmomania, or an obsession with counting their actions or surrounding objects. In several stories, the heroes escape the vampire by scattering seeds or grains across the floor, forcing the vampire to stop and count them before resuming the chase. Of course Count von Count, one of the most famous pop-culture vampires of all time, is famous specifically for his arithmomania. Vampires also obsessively perform superstitious behavior (refusing to move through running water, avoiding certain religious symbols, refusing to cross a threshold until certain prerequisites are met) that also seems to be in-line with OCD symptoms. Whether vampirism supposedly causes OCD or these were people who had OCD before turning undead doesn’t matter. All I’m saying is that those of us with OCD and OCD tendencies can fairly easily see aspects of ourselves in these monsters. A precedent is set to see Dracula in this particular light.

By sheer coincidence, my own genetic origin of OCD and Tourettes comes from Transylvania. My ancestors who passed these conditions down the line were originally Czech Jews from Prague (supposedly they were rabbis who served under the Rabbi Loew of “the golem” fame, but who can say for sure). When the Jewish community was expelled from Prague during the Habsburg reign, my ancestors fled to Romania, and settled in Transylvania. There they found kinship and intermarried with another disenfranchised community, the Roma. From what I can gather, this is unusual, as while both the Jewish and Roma communities of Europe suffer ongoing bigotry and abuse to this day, the two groups were often set against each other by those in power. However, when doing family research for school as a lad, I learned that Transylvania was home to a number of intertwined Roma and Jewish communities. The groups that settled there were mostly craftsmen, entertainers and artisans and it was apparently hard to pit two hardworking blacksmiths against each other. Before the holocaust began, my Romanian ancestors fled to the US, where they intermarried with other members of the Jewish diaspora who had arrived in the US from Germany and Russia. The Jewish and Roma people left behind almost all died in what followed.

My family history is one of fear and struggle on all sides. The fear of genocide, the fear of persecution, the fear that everything could be taken away from you in an instant. Multiple generations had to leave their homes under the threat of violence, leaving their entire lives behind. My ancestors were lucky to have skin the right shade for America, so that when they arrived they were declared “white” and did not need to fear the same level to violence as back home (unlike those the wrong shade, who still today live with that fear in America). But family stories get passed on. Patterns emerge. The guilt that comes from knowing those left behind died so you could escape is not something that goes away easily, nor is the knowledge that no home is guaranteed to be permanent. Certain fears got passed down to the children of my family without anyone even realizing it. Horror left its footprint, and we were all but born wary. If our genetic tendency to OCD and tourettes exacerbated some of those fears we were instilled with? More’s the pity.

Its hard to imagine that Dracula would get too much help for his condition either. I had a hard enough time, and my tourettes is mild enough that many people don’t notice my outward tics. Being seen as “neurotypical” means I get to hear people talk about OCD and tourettes (as well as other forms of mental illness) as though I don’t have those conditions. It means I get to hear good people talk about how some people shouldn’t be born, or how resources are “wasted” on them, or how they’re just “difficult” or “faking.” Psychology today is more advanced that it ever has been in Western medicine, we know more about how the brain works than we ever have in history, and we can treat conditions long considered untreatable, yet still the average person thinks you can cure depression by thinking yourself happy. I’ve been told, by people I loved and wanted to trust, to just “stop having tourettes” and that the existence of my condition meant my experiences did not matter. Each time this happened, I died a little inside, and retreated further inward into that same siege mentality. I know other people who retreated further, some retreating so far that they lost all contact with the world outside themselves. The stigma associated with mental and neurological illness is very real, and it kills. But as frustrating as it is today, I believe Dracula would have had it worse than I do. When Symphony of the Night takes place, phrenology and mesmerism were still considered viable practices. When Dracula would have been raising Alucard in the 15th century, the term “psychology” had only just been coined by Croatian humanist Marko Marulic and the obsessive and intrusive thoughts associated with OCD were considered to be the result of demon possession. The fact that by pure coincidence Dracula DOES associate with demons wouldn’t have made it easier to get an accurate diagnosis. Even if Dracula and Alucard had the vocabulary to talk about their possible conditions, it is highly unlikely they would have turned to any of their contemporary “experts” for help.

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or a neurological anxiety disorder.

I descend from communities called monsters, demons, animals, inhuman and even, specifically, vampires. I descend from people told that they were defective, that their minds were defiled by actual demons, and that they were not fit to be with “normal” people. It is easy to see Dracula in a more sympathetic light this way. How many families were destroyed because of those labels? How many people were killed because it was all too easy to call someone a monster when you have a whip in one hand and a cross in the other? Each new generation of Dracula that is reborn carries the memory of persecution and violence the previous generation of Dracula suffered. Dracula’s story could very easily be retold as a metaphor for my own family, and the families of countless others.

But Dracula’s story isn’t being retold, and as we will see in the next update, there are limits to what this potential sympathy will buy from us. Dracula is a victim in some ways, but he is also an abusive figure in the game’s narrative. His son, Alucard, not only witnessed the tragic murder of his mother at the hands of an angry mob, but was then raised by Dracula to hate himself. While each player has control over how their Alucard explores the castle and how he responds to the obstacles he encounters, the aspects of Alucard they cannot control show clear signs of a victim of emotional abuse. Next time we will look at Alucard, and how a history of abuse has shaped our “half-monster” hero.

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Recognizing those who take hits so that we may play

Several important, talented writers and designers have quit games recently because of harassment. There has been a coordinated attack on women that a group of people have decided are “enemies” of games. You can read the copious chat logs where these people detail their plans to create fake controversies, stalk and harass individuals, and attempt to manipulate the created discussion through astroturfing. I’m not going to get into the talk about “game ethics” because, frankly, its a fake debate. There are real issues with the game industry and hobby, but those aren’t being discussed right now, and it is not the intent of this current mob to discuss them. The amorphous, ever-shifting argument about what “gamergate” is actually against will always shift and change to avoid scrutiny, and engaging it at all seems fruitless. There is no good faith on one “side” so no actual discussion can take place. Anyone paying attention knows that the controversy is manufactured, and that there already are places to discuss real issues of ethics within the sphere of games. Anyone still pretending otherwise is doing so out of a frankly Brobdingnagian level of cognitive dissonance, and is not going to have their mind changed here. What I want to talk about is what it means to lose voices, and hopefully acknowledge how important the voices we are losing are.

When I first started grad school, I had no interest in making games. I had returned to school because I hated my job teaching and wanted to gain a stronger background in biology and ecology. I wanted to find a way to connect my artwork (then primarily illustration and comics) to issues of conservation and human rights. I ended up thinking about games largely by accident, I had been reading Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed at the exact moment I was taking a class on the history of activist art. We were looking at many artists who were taking inspiration from Boal’s work, as well as from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in order to foster social change. There were amazing examples of how clever activists had used painting, sculpture, photography, radio, animation and even, in one very notable case from Brazil, fireworks as a means of getting people to connect to the world around them and create real, functional progressive change in their communities. Looking at all of these examples, and reading the theory behind it, a single thought popped into my head and refused to leave: “what would a Pokemon of the Oppressed look like?” Before long I was asking this question for every kind of game I could think of.

I grew up with games. I came into the world a few months after the Famicom was first released. I learned to draw by lying on the floor with open copies of Nintendo Power and Ranger Rick side by side and a sketchbook full of levels and mazes based around whatever animal I was most interested in at that time. I wrote Secret of Mana fan fic for my fourth grade creative writing class and was designing my own Pokemon before Pokemon had even officially been released. I read all the early gaming webcomics in highschool, and knew all the “gaming cultural touchstones” or whatever you want to call them. But as my teen years faded and I got more involved in my college work, I stopped identifying as a “gamer.” I still played games, a lot of games, but I didn’t keep up with news or read articles, and had no interested in the new generation of game humor, webcomics, youtube personalities or streaming. I had no idea on what game developers thought about when designing games, or what video game criticism (the kind I was studying in my theatre and art classes) looked like. So when I began digging around in earnest two years ago to see what kind of games theory and writing existed, I didn’t know what I’d find. As far as I knew, no one was doing serious academic of critical work regarding games. I was delighted to find myself wrong in this regard.

That was how I stumbled onto several articles by Mattie Brice. I was blown away, here was the kind of stuff I had wanted to find, the kind of writing I had assumed didn’t exist yet in games, and it was right there. Here was someone who designed games, played games, wrote about games, but was not locked into just games. Her articles drew inspiration from other mediums and from real experiences. There was a willingness to play, not just within the rules of a game but within her own thinking and writing that I found inspiring. Even more amazing, Brice wasn’t the only one. From reading those first articles I found the work of Anna Anthropy and her amazing book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, which put into words so many stray thoughts I had been juggling on my own. I found other game creators who were eloquently writing about their own process and the larger culture that surrounded their games like Merritt Kopas and Zoe Quinn. I found the wonderful curation of writing that is Critical Distance, through which I found more writers like Kris Ligman, Samantha Allen, Lana Polansky, Aevee Bee, Jenn Frank, Pauli Kohberger, Elizabeth Simins, Zoya Street, and so, so many others. Here were people deconstructing games, reconstructing games, finding new ways to play, thinking about systems, thinking about control, connecting games to other mediums, connecting games to the larger world, challenging existing ideas, bringing back voices and ideas from the past, making new games, and I was hooked. It was amazing to find so much knowledge, all there to be explored and appreciated. It became clear: there was not only room in games to do what I wanted to do, but there were already people doing it.

The more I learned, the more I was inspired. The more I looked, the more I found. There were people thinking about games and play in amazing ways even predating video games. I found articles by sociologists examining how games had been used in the past for psychology, work by fine artists creating variations of chess or tarot to play new games with their audience, theatrical troupes using games to transform anyone into an actor or writer, research by biologists exploring how other animals played and what that meant about us (if anything), paleontologists using games to help understand a world they could never truly see, ancient activists using play to subvert dictatorships and oppression, and modern activists using play to build connections between ideas and movements. The world of games and play was larger than I had ever known. Not only was there room for me, but I was already part of it without even realizing. All this time, play had been the glue that connected the seemingly unconnected fields I wanted to study. These writers I found gave me the language to describe this play and recognize how it connected ideas.

I wouldn’t be doing what I do if not for the writers and designers that came before me. That is what makes the fact that we’re losing so many voices so sad. I’m not worried about Mattie Brice, Jenn Frank, Samantha Allen or Lana Polansky in the sense that they are brilliant writers and even if they’re no longer going to be writing about games, they will be creating brilliant work (Hell, in the end they’ll probably end up being much better paid for it!). But I am worried. I’m worried about the toll others must pay so that I can be inspired and protected. I’m worried because of the next generation of brilliant writers and designers, who will miss out on so much. I’m worried about the voices preemptively silenced by seeing how a toxic community treats people it considers threats. I’m worried about the journals and websites that refused to stand with the writers they took work from, and what that means for future writers and readers. I’m worried about how seldom we acknowledge those who take the blows for us. I’m worried that every time new spaces are created that work with play or games, they are attacked and invaded by selfish, spiteful people. I’m worried about the cultures within the label “gamer” that cares more about protecting the perceived honor of a self-granted title than they care about protecting people who play and make games.

To be blunt, conversations about “what is a gamer?” rank somewhere far, far below even “what is a game?” in terms of conversations I am interested in having. “Gamer” is a pointless term. If it means “one who plays a game” then it does not serve as a particularly useful descriptor for a culture. If it means “one who loves games” then suddenly we have people arguing over how “love” is defined and what games “count” when deciding gamerness. If it means a specific community, then we run into the problem that there are multiple communities that adopt that label, few of which share the same ideology beyond “Mario is fun.” Am I more of a gamer now than when I simply played jrpgs on my DS but didn’t follow discussions and debates about the medium? Am I less of a gamer now that I think about how games connect to other mediums and social issues, or am I more of one?  “Gamer” is so meaningless a term that its definition can be shifted to be whatever the speaker wants it to be. There is a group that sees an “attack on gamers” that somehow leaves out the attack on people who love and play games when its women they don’t like. This simple fact that “gamer” is so amorphous has been abused by a vocal segment of self-identifying gamers who despise specific women and wished to coordinate harassment against them. Endless debates over the identity of “gamer” obscure and confound the simple fact that a toxic level of abuse has been taking place in the name of protecting a very specific, narrow view of the world. That and the fact that social media companies, the game industry and media actively courts and emboldens the idea that this is a “real” debate with “two sides” in an attempt to profit from suffering and hatred.

I don’t care about the culture or lack-thereof of gamers or about an identity based on consumer habits. I care about people. I care about acknowledging the people who inspired me and fought for me. I care about how people play and how people explore ideas. Like I said above, I have every confidence that the people who stepped away from games this week will never stop doing great work. But that doesn’t make the fact that they were harassed into leaving alright. I don’t want them forgotten, and I don’t want the abuse they suffered ignored. I don’t want the people who choose to stay to have to face constant abuse either. I don’t want people to think play ends with a small segment of games. I want work and inspiration recognized.

Here is my links page, it contains a bunch of important people worth reading. I’ll be adding more as well. Everyone there has helped me in some way become a better writer, a better designer and even a better player. These people matter, their work matters, and when we begin losing such voices, we need to seriously look at how we have failed.

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Conflict Minerals and Games

Trigger Warning: Rape and sexual slavery

“The DRC’s greatest curse is its wealth.” – Jean-Bertin, Congolese activist, 2012

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most resource rich places in the world. It is home to massive reserves of gold, tungsten, tin, cobalt, copper and diamonds. Its forests are full of precious woods and rubber. It is home to 64% of the worldwide reserves of coltan, an ore from which tantalum, a metal used to make capacitors for electronic equipment, can be extracted from. Tantalum and cassiterite (a tin ore used in circuitry) in particular are currently in high demand and are extremely valuable. 18% of the world’s production of tantalum comes from the DRC.

Yet despite all this natural wealth, the DRC was ranked last place in the 2011 Human Development index. The resources are being extracted and sold, but no one in the DRC are seeing the benefit. What is happening here?

The history of exploitation in the DRC goes back to the Congo Free State of 1877 to 1908. It was then that Belgium ran a genocidal campaign of ivory and rubber production that led to the brutal deaths of around 10 million Congolese. The horrors of the Belgium occupation are legendary, the most infamous being the practice of cutting off limbs to enforce rubber quotas. This pattern of violent exploitation and corruption would unfortunately follow the region from then on, no matter who was in charge.

Today the region is wracked by ongoing civil war. Millions have died in the conflict, even more have been displaced from their homes. Children are kidnapped and forced to fight as soldiers. Sexual slavery and violence is rampant, with a recent study estimating that as many as 400,000 women are raped in the DRC every year. The warlords and armies fund their war with those valuable minerals, and many of the bloodiest battles are waged over the mines.

The miners are kept in semi-slavery conditions, offering barely enough to live on and no safety. Child labor is exceedingly common, and millions suffer from health problems as a result of mining. Many of the mining companies utilize debt-bondage slavery, loaning food and supplies to the miners at a price they can’t hope to afford from mining. Other mines are more overt slavery operations, with entire villages being forced to extract minerals at gunpoint. On an environmental level, mining is also catastrophic. It destroys local ecosystems, renders land unusable for farming or living, facilitates the spread of disease, and destroys local water supplies.

As previously mentioned, tantalum is used in almost every modern electronic device, from mobile phones to game consoles. There is a demonstrable link between the price of tantalum and violence in the DRC.1 In 2000, the release of the Playstation 2 and subsequent demand for the system sent the price of tantalum skyrocketing, causing the proportion of mines attacked to jump from 13% to 40%.2

This conflict and connection has largely been invisible to us in the West until recently. An early attempt at raising awareness between consumer habits and exploitation was the “Dona tu movil” campaign, started in 2004 by Congolese activists in Spain. The purpose of the campaign was to encourage people to recycle old phones and become more aware of the conditions in the DRC. As of 2012 the campaign has recycled 732,025 devices and raised a million euro. Sadly, the demand for tantalum outstrips what little recycling can offer. The current climate of phone consumption encourages people to upgrade and replace phones as often as possible. This is mirrored in the video game industry, where the lifespan of consoles is ever shrinking in favor of increasingly incremental upgrades. Even activist groups admit that recycling, even on a colossal scale, can not approach meeting the current demand.

A more recent campaign targeted specific companies and pressured them to address the issue of conflict minerals. In response, Apple and Intel both announced that they would no longer buy tantalum from the DRC in 2011, with Nokia and Samsung vowing to phase out DRC tantalum shortly after. These promises are good, but it is very easy for corporations to make such a promise without actually accomplishing anything. Tantalum is produced by smelting coltan ore, and as long as companies claim that they asked the smelters if the coltan was purchased legally they can claim it is not their responsibility. In fact, coltan smuggling is so rampant that it is difficult to prove that codes of conduct are followed. Neighboring countries facilitate the smuggling of resources out of the DRC in order to benefit from the demand, and corporations aren’t particularly willing to investigate too deeply where their cheap tantalum is coming from.

A prime example of the lackluster response to this issue can be found in Nintendo. In 2012, the Enough Project ranked the major electronic companies on their commitment to phasing out conflict minerals and to the creation of a clean mineral trade. Nintendo was ranked dead last3, with the report stating “Nintendo has made no known effort to trace or audit its supply chain.” In response, a number of viral campaigns directly targeting Nintendo launched and were picked up by the wider media, eventually forcing Nintendo to respond. In the fall of 2012, Nintendo announced it had made progress in removing conflict minerals from its Wii and 3DS products, and they addressed the conflict mineral policy directly on their website.4 However, activists were not terribly impressed, as Nintendo made a lot of promises to investigate and audit without actually promising anything concrete or showing any specific plan. Suppliers would be given a questionnaire, but otherwise Nintendo was not requiring its suppliers to use conflict-free smelters. The Enough Project responded, “Nintendo’s statement is a meaningless piece of paper without concrete steps behind it … Without that bare minimum, Nintendo is only putting a fig leaf over serious issues of war and slavery.”5

Nintendo is certainly not the only company talking more than acting. While there has been some demonstrable progress (Intel is currently developing a new conflict-free microchip and several companies have come together to form the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade), there is still a lot of resistance from corporations against deeper auditing of supply chains. Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act directly addressed the issue of conflict minerals, requiring all national and international companies to report annually to the SEC with supply chain analysis on where their minerals come from. This measure has been under constant attack by corporations who consider it too bothersome and difficult to investigate. The companies argue that after decades of no one keeping track, investigating the supply chains is expensive and time consuming.

The first of these supply chain audits were released this past spring, with several electronic companies such as Google admitting that there was a “potential presence” of DRC conflict minerals in their suppliers.6 Other companies such as Disney and Sony reported that they were unable to determine if any of their suppliers used conflict minerals. Like Nintendo, many companies elected only to send their suppliers a questionnaire, and either accepted the responses at face value or shrugged their shoulders if their suppliers elected not to report back.

Section 1502 originally required companies to label whether their products were “conflict free” or not. However, this part was struck down by the US Court of Appeals in March, 2014. The court declared that requiring corporations to display this information violated their freedom of speech. Without this label, there is no real consequence for doing a half-assed audit. The information is technically available, but consumers who want to learn if their product contains conflict minerals have to instead wade through long legal documents or wait for another source to do it for them.

It should be noted that there are legal mines in the DRC and attempts by the local government to reform mining conditions. Companies could quite easily support these mines without any huge cost. Tantalum is also found in other parts of the world, in fact until recently Australia was the world’s largest tantalum producer. It shouldn’t be difficult to create a conflict-mineral free device, and despite corporate claims it would not be prohibitively complicated or expensive.

Honestly, this is subject that games journalism could be talking about more. Apple, Nintendo, Sony, Google and Microsoft all use minerals in the production of their gaming products that could be coming from the DRC. Video games are a huge economic force, and we’ve already seen how the demand for one system directly led to more violence. But other than short reports on the campaigns against Nintendo, there has been very little investigation into this issue by the game press. Why is that? I don’t think its entirely because people don’t care (although there is certainly a great degree of “who cares, just give me games” entitlement to be found). Rather, I believe the main problem lies in how removed we are from the products we buy.

When you go and buy a phone or a 3DS or a PS4, you don’t know who built it. There are no “game console artisans” or anything like that. You may know the name of a few game developers, but you won’t know the factory it was made, or the materials that went into its creation. Most of us have no idea how any of these products work on a technical level beyond the abstract. We don’t know the names of the factory workers who put the pieces together, or the names of the workers who smelted the ore into the metals, or the names of the miners who extracted the metals. It might as well be magic to us. A nebulous corporate brand simply made a magic box appear in our stores and we exchange paper or the electronic promise of paper for them. Then we go home and play and don’t think further. This applies to us designers as well, the games we make are made on devices built from slavery-derived minerals, even if all we do is produce digital content. Even the corporations are caught in this commodity fetishism, with no one working at the companies knowing where the materials and products they use come from either. If Sony and Nintendo don’t know where their magic boxes come from, what hope do we have?

But that doesn’t change the fact that we are complicit in the suffering of the DRC. I want to take a moment to comment on what I mean when I say “complicit” because I think many people tend to bristle at what they think this means. No one is claiming that you, average Joe and Jane consumer, are intentionally trying to hurt anyone, or that you alone can undo over a century of war and exploitation, or that you specifically are guilty of murder, rape or slavery. But regardless of our intentions and beliefs, we all have contributed and take part in a society that enables atrocities to happen in the name of convenience. Electronic companies and our demand for electronic goods are the driving force behind mineral production. All video games are made and played on these electronic devices, making it not merely an industry or consumer problem. As things currently stand, the entire medium has become complicit.

As of this post, it is not possible to buy a guaranteed conflict-free phone or game device. No matter how much you want to, you can’t play a video game without increasing the demand for conflict-minerals. This isn’t just a game problem, complicity cannot be avoided because of our very day-to-day life. How can you participate in our society without a phone? So then how do we work toward change if we have no meaningful choices other than buy a blood-phone or not be able to get a job or socialize? The crisis in the DRC is complicated and fueled by many sources. Cutting armed groups from the supply chain and helping promote safer alternatives helps, but won’t magically solve the problem. The idea that the electronics industry alone could end the human rights abuses in the DRC is naive (and pretty white-savior-y). Likewise a complete boycott of all Congolese minerals doesn’t help any of the miners there who need the little they get from trade to survive. But the idea that we should do nothing if we can’t do everything is a rather shallow deflection of responsibility.

Complicity does not innately mean fault, but it does mean responsibility. We have a responsibility to demand more information on what we buy. We have a responsibility to understand how our lives impact other lives. We have a responsibility to question how important our consumption really is. We have a responsibility to help build more open supply chains. We have a responsibility to insure the people we depend on for our goods are being treated fairly. We have a responsibility to demand that our companies live up to their commitment.

More Information:
Raise Hope for the Congo
Enough Project – Conflict Minerals

Update: Above I mentioned Intel’s work on creating a conflict-free microchip. Intel has announced that all their smelters are using conflict-free minerals and that they have stopped working with any that refused to change or allow an audit. This is currently being verified by 3rd parties, so it isn’t EXACTLY a guarantee yet, but it is still good news and proof that creating a conflict-free device is nowhere near out of the realm of possibility.

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Ecology of the Mushroom Kingdom – The Parabiology and Anthropology of the Dry Bones and the Boo

The Mushroom Kingdom is not only a paradise of unique and unknown species for ecologists and biologists to puzzle over, it is also home to what we in the soft sciences have termed “parazoological lifeforms.” While the existence of such lifeforms in our own kingdoms are mere speculation, visiting ecologists have long marveled at the undead remnants of living creatures found in the Mushroom Kingdom. While several varieties of undead manifestation exist, the two most common classifications are the dry bones and the boo.

The word “skeleton” comes from the Greek skeletos, meaning “dried body” or “mummy.” This etymological connection between skeletons and mummies may have its roots in the origin of the Egyptian mummy. Prior to the Egyptians adopting man-made mummification as part of their burial rites, dead bodies were simply buried in shallow graves. The dry desert heat and air would dehydrate these corpses, leading to natural mummification. This natural mummification process left behind an extremely dry corpse with visable skeleton, and it would have a profound impact on the spiritual beliefs, as well as the society and everyday life, of ancient Egypt.

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Over time, the ancient Egyptians came to define the human soul as existing in five parts, all separate from the body. The reason to preserve the body through mummification was to provide a space for the souls to return one day. Without the souls, a mummy was just a dry bag of bones without animation. The idea of a stalking, animate mummy came centuries later with the Western imagination desperate for monsters. The animate mummy now represented the pre-colonial past, animated by the language and superstition the “enlightened” colonizers had undermined or ignored, and returned to punish those that had defiled its land. The monster was awoken by Hollywood archaeologists, scientists, rogues or vaudevillians who violated the past for their own gain, and it couldn’t be stopped by conventional means. Even then, the animate mummy from these movies was mindless and soulless, a body without true awareness or purpose.

The Dance of Death (1493), a woodcut by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.

The Dance of Death (1493), a woodcut by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.

This idea that the body was without awareness after death was not universally shared. Medieval art is filled with images of skeletons capable of passion, rage, joy and other emotions. These expressive skeletons were not usually meant to be joyful to the viewer, but rather to horrify and shock them. Death was not an escape from earthly passions, if anything it would only make things worse. With the divine soul gone, all that remained was violence and depravity. This is mirrored in some ways by the use of skeletons in Japanese folklore, where skeletons and spirits are consumed with an unending hunger for something they either over-consumed or under-consumed in life. Bodies dying of starvation may come back as giant gashadokuro skeletons with endless hunger. Those who died with anger and revenge in their heart may come back as piles of mekurabe skulls and torment their killers with undead staring contests. Whether Christian or Buddhist skeletons, their animation and passion did not mean they possessed a soul, but rather that the earthly body, rather than the divine soul, is the receptacle of earthly passions.

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The animated, mummified remains of a Terrapene fungus

One of the first appearances of skeletons as a representation of death in the Western canon appears in Ezekiel 37:1-14, The Valley of the Dry Bones. Dry Bones, the common name for the animated skeletons of dead koopas, may in fact be a reference to this passage. Dry Bones appear in two varieties, that of the quadruped Terrapene fungus and the upright Pseudeskelone peripatea . Animated Terrapene skeletons behave much like the did in life, animalistic and seemingly mindlessly wandering across the land. The upright dry bones are much more animated. They cackle and laugh when amused, they use bone tools, they respond to those around them, they play games and even drive cars with a competitive spirit. Does this mean that they house the souls of their former lives or is it merely the earthly passions of the body? Dry Bones do appear more active and excitable than living koopas, perhaps indicating that without the divine koopa soul to limit them, the body gives itself over to passions that were otherwise repressed. On the other hand, koopa lives tend to be both strictly regimented and violently short. A koopa can look forward to little more than a tyrannical leader conscripting them into military service, and then death at the feet of a Mario. If their soul remains, it may find that its now nigh-invulnerable dry bones form gives it an opportunity to express emotions and passions forbidden to them in life.

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Does the dry bones possess a soul? We may never truly know the answer, and can only speculate. A single piece of evidence that they do not possess a soul exists in when these creatures first appeared. The first recorded sight of a dry bones was by the Japanese in the October of 1988 (it was not described in US games or literature until 1990), a full three years after the first Toadstool-Koopa War of 1985. One of the results of this war was the mass death of hundreds, if not thousands, or Terrapene koopa troopas by Marios. If these first dry bones were the animated skeletons of those troopas killed by Marios in the first war, they may have risen with a specific calling for revenge against their killers, like the mekurabe of Japanese literature. These dry bones would then be soulless, and those who were more evolved upright koopas killed by Mario would retain the earthly passions and emotions. Of course, this is entirely circumstantial. The field of parazoology is entirely made up, and thus has not begun defining its methodology. Without proper tools we currently cannot penetrate further into this biological mystery.

Hieroglyphics discovered at Drybake Stadium showcasing daily life for the ancient Koopas civilization in World 2

Hieroglyphics discovered at Drybake Stadium showcasing daily life for the ancient Koopas civilization in World 2

We can, however, turn to anthropology to at least learn how Koopa society considers this question. Archaeological evidence of early Koopa civilizations is scant, but evidence indicates that the earliest upright Koopa settlements were built in deserts. This can be seen in the discovery and investigation of such sites as the Pyramids of World 2 (Super Mario Bros. 3, 1988) and the ruins of the Dry Dry Desert (Paper Mario, 2000). This was further corroborated by the discovery of three new sites in World 2; the Yoshi Sphinx, Sandshifter Ruins and Drybake Stadium (Paper Mario: Sticker Star, 2012). The discovery of mummified pokeys (Carnegiea ambulus) and dry bones at these sites indicates that mummification was part of the ancient Koopa civilization’s burial rites.  The discovery of the animated, extremely well preserved remains of King Tutankoopa in particular shows that the bodies of higher ranking koopas were preserved much better than those of simple troopas. It is easy to see how ancient Koopa society mirrored that of ancient Egypt, where the natural process of mummification led to a societal belief that the soul and body were separate. Koopa society today is highly stratified, with a regimented caste system divided by genus. This system may have its roots in this ancient Koopa civilization as well, where the difference in how different species were mummified became the basis and justification for the modern hierarchy of Koopa society. Bringing this back to the original question, we can see how Koopa theology holds that the undead forms are animated by the returned souls of their past lives, not simply by earthly passions.

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The second, and more common, form of undead in the Mushroom Kingdom is known as the “boo.” Boos are non-terminal repeating phantasms, and may also be considered a class 5 full roaming vapor. Like dry bones they express the full gamut of emotions, hungers and passions. If koopas come back as dry bones, then what are the boos the phantasms of? They could be the ghosts of koopas who died a different way, but they first appeared at the exact same time as the dry bones and with the exact same need to avenge themselves upon any Mario in sight. In fact, their anger at Mario seems more pronounced than that of the dry bones. Boos will stalk a Mario unless they make direct eye contact with the phantasm. When starred in the face, the creature will halt movement, cover itself in shame, and become slightly intangible. They will remain in this position until their target turns around. Their rage and fear at the Marios is significantly more pronounced than that of the dry bones, which would indicate they had experienced a great deal more violence at the feet of these predators than the koopas did. If there is any species that has reason to hate and fear a Mario more than the common koopa, it would be the goomba.

Taxidermy figures of a goomba and a boo. Note the resemblance.

Taxidermy figures of a goomba and a boo side by side

The goomba is an ambulatory fungus, and as such it does not have a skeleton. Human and koopa concepts of the body and soul being separate entities may have emerged from how their animal bodies exist and deteriorate after death, but goombas do not have the same experience. When a goomba dies, the body collapses and flattens, quickly deteriorating into the soil. When a goomba dies, nothing is left behind for long, either body or soul. What kind of undead would such a creature leave behind if it died full of rage and anger? Why, a class 5 vapor, of course. The face of a boo betrays its fungal ancestry. The boo’s face is nothing but an exaggerated and horrific goomba visage. The eyes have become beadier, the prominent eyebrows sharper, the large teeth sharper and pronounced at both the top and bottom of their jaw, and the two nubby feet of the goomba the nubby “arms” of the boo.

This does not mean that the boo is the divine spirit of the goomba given form, but that the earthly passions left behind take a different form. Perhaps this mirrors the Voodoun concept of the soul, which is composed of two parts. The gros bon ange or “big good angel” is a piece of the shared universal human soul. It enters the body, animates it, and hopefully returns to the universal soul upon the body’s death. The other half of the human soul is the ti bon ange, or “little good angel” and is unique to each person. This part of the soul contains all of one’s individual personality, moral conscience, experiences, reactions, drives and emotions. The ti bon ange is not trapped to the body, as it leaves every night to experience dreams. Upon a person’s death, the two parts of the soul leave the body, and where they go depends on how the family of the dead take care of them. Giving the dead honor and respect insures that the ti bon ange stays in the grave until it is ready to go to the realm of the dead. Failure to do this means the ti bon ange will leave the grave and can cause great misfortune to the living. If the parabiology of the goomba resembles the Voodoun concept of death and the soul, then the boo may be the lingering ti bon ange of the goomba, warped by its rage at an unjust death far from its family and home. A Voodoun sorcerer or bokon, can also use magic to capture and enslave a ti bon ange, particularly those who have died at sea or in far away lands. The Koopa have their own tradition of sorcery and magic, and the boos may have been created by the magikoopa caste as a way of ensuring their foot-soldiers could be reused by the Koopa Kingdom even after their death at the front lines. In either case, the boos tend to congregate in groups that roam a specific building or stretch of land that may have no connection to the location of their death. Goombas rarely inhabit these locations, and when forced to by Koopa military directions, they tend to wear masks made of skulls or pumpkins.  This superstitious activity may indicate that goombas feel a need to hide and distance themselves from boos, which would make sense if they believe boos to be the spirits of fallen goombas given improper burial or enslaved by their economic and military superiors.

Sadly, as the entire field of parabiology is largely made-up, we may never learn the truth.

A scene from Pieter Boo-gel the Elder’s The Triumph of Game Over (c. 1562)

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