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Alessia's Bulwark

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”

Picasso’s famous words were among those jumbling in my head while watching Super Bowl commercials this year. That’s right, my boyfriend was watching football; I was watching commercials. Anyway, Liam Neeson had me in stitches when he said, “BigBuffetBoy85, I’m coming for you, with lots of barbarians and dragons.” Hilarious for riffing off his Taken franchise persona to sell Clash of Clans to a new audience, but also, well, awkwardly, nervously funny because this made-up marketing scenario tapped into something deeper, something that hit me close to home.

What is real? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. From the tired false dualism of real versus virtual (Nathan Jurgenson has some great reflections on this) to the near fetishization of F2F (face-to-face) relationships, I’m pretty tired of the whole conversation. I get it, you like to see the person you’re talking to. Maybe you read an article somewhere about the importance of nonverbal communication.

But to assume that someone is being more “real” with you because they are sitting across from you “in-the-flesh” is bogus, as anyone who has ever dated could attest. Or to argue that I can’t really know how my friends are doing because they’re only thumbing text messages to me is ludicrous; I could shock you with what I pick up on through the cadence of text-and-response, attention to tipos (that’s a joke, by the way), syntax, grammar, etc.

Anyway, all of this is what was brought to a head by Liam Neeson geeking out about Clash of Clans. The line was being flirted with: Is he just really into this mobile game (and is such devotion possible to a click-and-wait game, the world wants to know), or is he shading a little Taken-style sociopathic and in danger of doing some Gamergate-esque harassment?

The ad is funny (and lies, I assume), but points to a serious truth.

The Gamergate fiasco has been going on for the better part of a year now and has become almost an old punch line for some folks, namely anyone who hasn’t been a victim. But the reality is that women were harassed before Gamergate; women have been harassed online as long as there has been an online. I get it all the time, not as bad as some maybe, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant or dangerous.

I’m on social media like everyone in my generation, but the real problem place for harassment is in games.

I’ve been an MMORPG fan since Guild Wars in my teenage years. I really like taking the role of “Tank” in raiding parties. Why yes, thank you, I’ll stay in the middle of the fray and take the bulk of damage dealt; I’m tough like that. Until you pass me on the sidewalk in physical space, a tiny young woman who looks even younger than she is. Well, I’m tough, and I’m going to tank, so get over it. So, what is real about me? My physical appearance? My personality and attitude? My in-game skillset? Tell me, am I a pixie or a tank?

In my current MMORPG of choice, Elder Scrolls Online, there’s a special heavy armor set called “Alessia’s Bulwark.” I love that the best armor in the game for the beefiest player role is named for a woman. I’ve been crafting everything in this set and like to imagine myself embodying the spirit of Alessia when I quest in her gear. It’s almost a ritual of protection, to toughen up to play the game and endure the harassers.

This took on new significance about six months ago, the beginning of December, when my friend Kate committed suicide. We hadn’t yet met in physical space, but we’d been frequent quest-mates for almost a decade (half my life). Like me, Kate got harassed regularly. But unlike me, she fought back in social media and discussion boards. Guys don’t appreciate that, and someone doxxed her (publicly posted her home address, email, and mobile phone number). The ensuing flood of vitriol and scary stalking crushed her. She had battled depression as long as I’ve known her, and she didn’t have the support network around her to cope, so she ended it in the one way she felt like she could.

So, what is real? Are the things said online real?

A bunch of us guild-mates sent flowers to Kate’s physical-space memorial service, and we set up a special event in-game, at the Alessia’s Bulwark area, to have a moment of silence in remembrance of her. It was huge and beautiful, and Kate’s mom was even able to attend through a guild-mate who lived close to her (she watched on the screen over his shoulder). I wept through the whole thing.

So, what is real? Is this outpouring of love real?

(I should also note that none of her classmates from her religious private school attended her memorial; in fact, plenty of them had bullied her on a regular basis.) Let’s not be quick to write off relationships or communication in certain media and spaces. It might be different, and most likely is different, but let’s refrain from naming it better or worse. Physical space is the norm but incredibly uncomfortable and awkward for some people; the nonverbal cues that many find so helpful, others find debilitating for one reason or another. Digital space is an alternative, an approach from another angle, a new onramp to social settings. Maybe we could celebrate the fact that there are now more avenues for opening up than ever before.

Being real in physical spaces often comes with baggage.

I remember my first full day on campus as a freshman. I went to the Student Center to check my mailbox, and as I exited the mailroom, I rounded the corner into what can only be described as a tidal wave of supermodels. In reality it was a group of sorority sisters who had finished lunch and were heading back to classes. But all I could process in that moment was how impossibly tall and skinny and perfectly coiffed they all were, accompanied by the requisite aura of confidence. Supermodels.

Since Liam Neeson started messing with my life, I’ve thought back to that first visceral intersection with the Greek system. Today, I’m much less awestruck. Sure, they’re measurably a lot taller than me, but I still get to ask, “What is real?” Are these women everything that meets the eye on their immaculate surfaces, or is there something deeper? What’s actually going on for them and all the other cool kids?

A few weeks after the Super Bowl ad epiphany I decided I wanted to know; I wanted to experience walking through the Student Center in their shoes. So I borrowed a pair of their shoes. No really, I did; my neighbor across the hall in my dorm is a Tri Delt. I perched higher upon heels than I ever had before. I wrangled my hair to look civilized, trendy even. I put on makeup for the first time since my Junior Prom. I borrowed what I had formerly dismissed as “sexy clothes.” And off I went to check my mail in the mailroom.

It was weird. I’m used to wandering about with a certain degree of anonymity. This day though, I felt like all eyes were on me. I saw myself as strangers saw me; I felt obligated to straighten my posture, put on a slight smile, and stride purposefully. I was being noticed; I needed to project confidence. Who was this new girl and what had she done with the real me?

But then again, who is the real me? I had just accidently empathized a day in my life, and it was messing with my neat categories. No answers, just more questions.

Besides the tidal wave of supermodel sorority sisters, that first week on campus also held my first collegiate Physics class. First thing I learned? Apparently AP Physics in high school is a thing, and judging by the contributions of my classmates, evidently it teaches you something. Who knew? I was so utterly lost; my own high school Physics curriculum of loosely relevant Reality TV wasn’t helping me with the assumed calculus foundation for the problem sets. Survivor has a lot to teach about the physical world; equations are not in its repertoire.

Turns out my Physics class was also the course all Junior-year pre-med students took as preparation for the MCAT, so I wasn’t just struggling along with fellow clueless frosh, but was confronted with doctors-in-training, literally.

It didn’t help that I struggled to find any realness in Physics class too. Classmates were very “loose” about their lab results, students coasted on the coattails of more experienced group partners, and I’d see people almost every day only talking about the most surface-level stuff. It was easy for me to fall into these patterns too.

Even as a freshman though I knew this wasn’t who I wanted to be. So I set about answering a single question: What do I actually want to get out of college? I had some rough ideas, and I started asking “Why?” to dig deep into the root causes and motivations. I’ve also asked “How?” a bunch of times to pull myself back up into more practical realms.

Now, two years later, I am approaching an answer: I want to connect deeply with people and ideas, deep enough to know what is real. I want to suspend judgment of media or spaces or platforms just because it’s trendy to dismiss them. I want to give communication and relationships in digital spaces a fair shot to uncover the real.

Back in January, about a month after Kate’s memorial service and shortly before the Super Bowl, a headline about design thinking crossed my Twitter TL (timeline). The title was a little clickbaity, but I went with it anyway and was impressed by the resources Stanford has made available to randos like me. They have a 5-phase design framework with a nice graphic and everything, and a virtual introductory crash course. I was hooked.

Turns out I had already been doing some design thinking on my own. My sorority supermodels sisters encounter led to an Empathizing exercise. My Physics class and figuring out what I wanted college to be about was an activity of Defining. Since I was a kid, I’ve always carried a small journal with me to capture my thoughts: perfect for Ideating.

The close proximity of Kate’s death, Liam Neeson’s sociopathology, and design thinking introduction made me realize I needed to be more intentional about this process. So I had figured out what I wanted my life to be about; great, but I didn’t have much of a plan to get going. Rather than stopping at patting myself on the back for empathizing and defining and casually ideating, I leaned forward.

I started into more active ideation. I still kept my thought journal going, but I made sure to schedule time every week to write in it. I would put two random ideas together just to see what would happen; I’ve been amazed at what comes from these novel connections. It’s taking the time to slow down the torrent of ideas, allowing the things already in my head to collide and jostle together and then settle. This tests the substance of ideas and break things apart, but also draws out deeper beauty or real form.

I used to clutch a single idea as long as I could, tweaking it along the way, sure, but really keeping a tight grip. This new framework for me is about loosening my grip, trusting the jostling process to mess with the ideas and make them better.

I’m finishing up this really great sociology class this term; really great because our professor has been trying to help us engage critically with sociology all around us. I dare say, she is helping us see what is real.

She pointed us to a new online game called Parable of the Polygons, which makes an argument about entitlement and segregation that I found to be profound. I’d read stuff with a similar message before in other sociology courses, but there was something about the interactivity of this game that was quite different than reading academic articles. Same ideas, different experience of realness. Ian Bogost would call this the persuasive power of games, and it makes me ask: What is the relationship between persuasive and real?

How could games (or other highly persuasive media like fabrication labs and maker spaces) be prototypes in my process of seeking realness? Seems strange to talk about a journey including both Kate’s death and videogames. A cynic might point out the incongruity of putting the morbid and the trivial side by side.

But if we think about these experiences and media and spaces in terms of participation and agency, my brain is more content. The point being, for realness, I can’t be a passive consumer but must actively take part.

These are the things I must test.

I don’t begin to imagine these ideas are in their final form. They’re a start, an early prototype. I’ll see how they hold up, and I’ll revise. I’ll try to gain deeper empathy, more crisply define what I’m aiming for, come up with new ideas, put together new prototypes, try those out, and repeat.

This is where being a Tank comes in handy. I’m jumping into the middle of the fray. I’m ok with whatever chaotic sequence comes. I’m tough and adaptable. I go slow and steady and deliberately. I can take whatever the journey throws at me.

Let me just suit up; I’ll put on Alessia’s Bulwark.

I suspect it will be a journey full of unexpected turns that will sound even stranger than the beginning I’ve described here already. Videogames, sorority sisters, Physics, a friend’s death. And Liam Neeson as a catalyst.

All on a quest to discover what’s real in this world.