27 Nov 2012

Women and video games

I love video games. I have loved video games since I was old enough to boot up my grandparent's Amiga and learn DOS commands. I would have been about eight (circa 1993). Before then, my earliest memories are playing Alex Kidd in Miracle World on the Mastersystem II. I used to play Zork, and various other interactive fictions, the original Civilization and Eye of The Beholder. It sparked an interest in fantasy RPGs that hasn't gone away. We didn't own a family PC until I was 14, but my older brother went through consoles like other people go through socks. We had (at various points) a NES, a SNES, a Playstation and  an N64 (my favourite console of all time). Once we got hold of a PC, I started playing games like Baldur's Gate, Theme Hospital and SimCity. I spent HOURS of my life on there. My very first blog was a gaming blog, written in HTML from scratch and published on the burgeoning school intranet. Nobody read it, obviously. Now, I have been through various gaming PCs and consoles and have an XBox 360, and an Inspiron One, which is shite for gaming  - I only use it to play The Sims 3. I intend to upgrade in the next year.

However, as a female gamer, I've always been aware of heavy bias towards male gamers. As a child, I wasn't allowed to play on my brother's consoles unless he needed someone to make up the numbers on four player Goldeneye. I was a girl, the games were for him and my younger brother. It would certainly never have occurred to my parents to buy me a console in my own right. My family thought I was a bit strange for spending so much time on the old computer at my Gran's house, and then later doing the same at home. I was supposed to be into makeup, and clothes (PAH!), not hacking and slashing away in forbidden realms.If I joined in playing Quake on the school computers, there would be one or two girls and fifteen boys. I rarely chose to play as a female character, as they were inevitably crappier than the male characters. Look at bloody Princess Peach in the Mario series - she was never where she said she was going to be and seemingly incapable of just NOT getting abducted by Bowser. In Street Fighter, it took them years to have more than one female character, and then it was the semi-naked Cammy. Even in Baldur's Gate, the women were either irritating (Imoen), mental on religion (Jaheira/Branwen) or vile tempered (Viconia).

I always felt like I was on the fringe, only allowed into the male dominated sector of gaming because they hadn't noticed I was there.

Now, of course, I don't give a rat's ass what anyone thinks of my leisure activities, and games are certainly more inclusive than they used to be. On my shelf at the moment, I have the following games (not many, coz I trade in as soon as I'm done): Oblivion, Skyrim, Soul Calibre IV, Lego Harry Potter 1-4, Sims 3, Sims Medieval. The latter three games are genuinely genderless. Harry Potter is aimed at kids, and the Sims games are (almost by definition) inclusive. Oblivion and Skyrim are slightly orientated to male gamers. Soul Calibre is a sexist piece of junk, full of heaving bosoms, short skirts and camel toes. I play it because I'm amazing at it, and it amuses me to kick ass.

Sexism, however, continues. There are games that are basically developed on the premise of sexism, like Leisure Suit Larry (which I loved, rather hypocritically). Consider GTA, one of the more popular video game franchises. Screw a hooker, run her over and get your money back! Almost every interactive NPC is male. I grant you, part of GTA's charm is it's wholehearted lack of political correctness. It makes crime fun, and allows you to be someone you would never want to be in reality. However, its misogyny goes beyond what it necessary to stay in the character of the game.
Tomb Raider is another subtly (or not so subtly) sexist game. At first glance, it seems fine. A female protagonist, doing all manner of traditionally male activities, shooting guns and fighting tigers (and whatever other bollocks she got up to). But the game's biggest selling point is Lara Croft: fantasy woman. Make her do a backflip and watch her boobs bounce. See also: Dead or Alive.
Even in Sims 3, a game I usually consider to be admirably inclusive, has sliders on the female characters to make their breasts bigger or smaller.
It is rare that a video game has a female protagonist that is not incredibly sexually attractive. The only reason I can think for this is to tailor it to the men who want to game. You don't generally get cut scenes lingering over the male character's arse or crotch.

Sexism is alive and well in videogames. But why? Are female gamers so incredibly rare that they should be discounted altogether? I'd have to say no to that. When I was growing up, I certainly felt like the only girl who knew how to use WASD (or even QWOP), but now I know it's just not true. Women do not just play Brain Training on DS, or have a go on a WiiFit every now and then. Some of us have racked up 100+ hours on Skyrim, and completed Mass Effect on insanity (not me though, I hate Mass Effect). Some of us get really angry when Fable sequels just keep getting crappier, and Hitman tries too hard. Thousands, if not millions of us play Xbox Live. We are no longer the minority group.

Despite the institutionalised sexism, and the downright misogyny of many games, women still play and enjoy them. There is little alternative, when female developers are treated like crap. If women are massively underrepresented at a development level, the end product is going to be male orientated at best, vilely sexist at worst. And until there is a major backlash, nothing will change. I sincerely hope that #1reasonwhy starts the ball rolling.

20 Nov 2012

The shock of breastfeeding

People, I have news for you: 1% of UK women breastfeed for the minimum recommended six months. Considering that breastmilk is the optimal food for new babies, and most women want to give their babies the best start they can, this statistic should be shocking. But it isn't.

Here's why. When midwives tell women they should breastfeed, they fail to tell them that it is bloody hard work. When women go to breastfeeding classes, the teacher fails to tell them that it is bloody hard work. They harp on about the health benefits, the satisfaction, the close bond. And then, babies don't feed much immediately after birth, and midwives are on hand to latch the baby on and offer reassurance.

It's when the new mother gets home that the problem starts.
Picture the scene. A woman has her first baby. All is joy and light.Three days later, the new mother is crying because her boobs are huge and full and painful, her nipples cane, the baby won't sleep, she doesn't know if the baby's latching right, the baby's always hungry, she has mastitis, she doesn't want the baby anymore, she just wants to sleep. The midwife comes in, says everything's fine and the mother feels better. Then two hours later, it starts again. The father may suggest she puts the baby on a bottle 'so he can help', other relatives chime in with handy hints like 'well, he SHOULD only be feeding four hourly' or 'Maybe you're not making enough milk' or 'All mine were bottle fed and nothing bad happened'.
The mother is undermined, hormonal, unhappy and weak. Why the HELL would anyone want to continue the torture of initiating breastfeeding against all that? The establishing of breastfeeding takes around 4 to 6 weeks to complete, yet most midwives handover care around day 10. Health visitors are far less frequent visitors, and far less hands on. It is a lucky woman indeed who gets a good midwifery team and a good health visiting team.

The reason that so many women give up breastfeeding, often at considerable emotional cost to their postnatal recovery, is simple. There is insufficient support available, and education is unrealistically optimistic, presumably to try not to put off women who want to breastfeed. But what is the point in painting breastfeeding in a glowing light if women are just going to become demoralised, and give up within weeks?

A woman who has just had a baby needs positive encouragement. Nobody should suggest to a mother who wants to breastfeed that she is doing it wrong. Midwives need to be allowed to offer proper postnatal support. Alas, this is not usually available due to budgetary constraints. Fathers and family need to be supportive of the decision to breastfeed, rather than sulk because they 'can't help', as if feeding a baby is the only available way to interact with a newborn, or offer help to it's mother. It is usually the mother who ends up doing all the bottle feeding, however good the intentions are to begin with.

And here's the thing. IF a woman can get through the difficult first six weeks, with cluster feeding and disturbed nights, and the constant refrain of "my baby slept through the night from TWO DAYS on formula", "my baby fed four hourly from birth", "you should put him/her on a bottle", "Oooh, that's a bit weird", breastfeeding is practical, simple, hygienic and (once you've got the hang of it) EASY. A breastfed baby is incredibly easy to comfort, to settle to sleep, to keep quiet at awkward moments. There are well documented health benefits, to both mother and child. It is also deeply rewarding on an emotional level.

There is nothing wrong with choosing to formula feed from the start. There is nothing wrong with formula feeding if breastfeeding fails. But this isn't about the choice of feeding methods. It's about the lack of support given to women who WANT to breastfeed.

I have now been breastfeeding for 40 months. I had a three month gap between weaning the eldest and giving birth to the youngest. Neither of them have every had a drop of formula, which was my decision, and one I have stood by despite endless, well-meant advice about how my children SHOULD be fed, and how 'strange' it is to be feeding a toddler. With my eldest, the breastfeeding relationship was the only thing that stopped me completely losing it with postnatal depression (it was the only thing I felt I could do for him), and was a struggle. With my youngest, it came naturally and easily because I'd learnt the hard way how to do it.

I have written before about how a lack of support was damaging following my first birth, and I stand by that. If I had given up breastfeeding (as I was often tempted) when he was tiny, I would have felt a complete failure. Emotional and practical support is such a simple thing to need, and yet such a struggle to receive.

14 Nov 2012

Moving from Level 1 to Level 2

SO, K101 is DONE. I get my result is around a month, and to be honest, I've barely thought about it since I stepped out of the exam hall. The exam, for what it's worth, was much better than I was expecting. I wish I hadn't got in such a massive, life-damaging stress about it. By that morning, I was catatonic.We got to take in a notes sheet, so even if our minds went blank, we had somewhere to start. My mind didn't go blank, the questions were all on bits I'd thoroughly revised. I regurgitated 2500 words onto the answer booklet, and I finished with about half an hour to spare. My wrist was complete agony after an hour, then I stopped feeling it. I'm considering getting plastics to have another look at it. The tendon is two inches short and I can see the scarring moving up and down inside when I clench my fist. This is not good!
I then had to wait for the bus for an hour, but that was mere BAD TIMING. I don't even want to guess how I did. I think I passed. That's all I can say.

K203 started ten days before the exam and I did NOTHING until after the exam. Then I just couldn't get my brain in gear. I was still in revision mode. This is why I'm never doing two modules back to back again. It took me three whole weeks to do one unit (you're supposed to do a unit a week), though I had sick children to contend with as well. I did the first TMA without reading half the relevant unit.
But SOMEHOW, I got 71% ! 
My highest TMA essay score in K101 was 73%. I was expecting a significant drop in marks on this module, with it being higher level. Let's see if I can do as well next time (probably not).

Without naming names (and I put all this on my feedback form after the module), my K101 tutor was a disappointment. Her feedback was minimal, her group interaction worse. When I asked for help with my exam prep, she had nothing useful to say. The only good thing was her tutorial notes (I never went to a tutorial).
My NEW tutor is a REVELATION! She's very active on the forum, does regular tutorials with excellent notation and her feedback is exactly what I need. It tells me what I've done wrong, without being insulting, and tells me what I've done right. She praised my structure and paragraphing, which tutor#1 marked me down on every time.

It's buoyed me up to get on with it. I've managed to mostly catch up in the last ten days and I've got a reading week next week, so I can get up to date and write my next TMA, which is due on the 28th. The course content is one subject, but in great depth (the polar opposite to K101, which is broad and shallow) and the first block is theory. Theory, and difficult reading, and nonsensical statistics. It's challenging every preconception I had about health and biomedicine. It is MESSING with my HEAD.
But I think I love it.