Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Bioware moderator stirs controversy in game forum

The High Secret Order of Forum Moderators had to issue an emergency alert this week when one of our brethren exceeded his authority on the Bioware forums and accidentally challenged 30 years of Star Wars history.

I was leafing through our secret newsletter and saw the sad story of Bioware community manager Sean Dahlberg sandwiched between “Ten ways to abuse your power” and “Five new slang terms that are actually obscene.”

Like most forums, Bioware’s system automatically catches and censors keywords that contain profanity and explicit language. Their system was set to automatically censor the words “gay” and “lesbian” since they are frequently used as insults.

But as is so often the case, rules that were meant to prevent discrimination are now having the opposite effect.

This was a minor incident until Mr. Dahlberg tried to defend the policy with a most unfortunate choice of words. Instead of just dismissing the issue or declaring the subject off-topic, Dahlberg said, “These are terms that do not exist in Star Wars.”

It’s hard to say if Dahlberg took his logic too far or simply not far enough. He could have declared the topic inappropriate or gone one step further and made the case that there is no sexuality in Star Wars.

The latter statement is kind of sweeping but I think it would be easy to defend. There is passion in Star Wars. There is romance in Star Wars, but the series has always stopped short of addressing adult sexuality.

That would have made for an interesting discussion but it wouldn’t have made headlines or set off any kind of Internet firestorm. Instead, Dahlberg’s statement was interpreted as a declaration that there is no homosexuality in the Star Wars universe – a dangerous statement to make on any fan forum.

To understand why, you have to understand the psychology of a dedicated Star Wars fan. Fans of these forums don’t just consume Star Wars material, they study it the way theologians study the Bible, searching for hidden connections and undiscovered nuances in the text.

In this context, Sean Dahlberg wasn’t just making a statement about his forum, he was questioning the meaning of scripture, bringing up a question that may require a Star Wars Council of Trent.

The resulting firestorm inspired press releases, blog posts and a good deal of original scholarship, as fans scrambled to provide examples of homosexual relationships in the Star Wars universe.

Game designers dismissed one example as a “scripting bug” while a well-known Star Wars author declared that a pair of Mandalorian soldiers in her work were more than just friends.

Most of this is just standard Internet contrariness. The Internet can turn anybody into a rebellious teenager. A forum rule is like a closed door. It’s not enough that there are thousands of blogs and forums where this discussion would be welcome, people want to talk about it in the one place where it’s not.

There’s also a larger issue here, a tendency that has come on very strong in my generation. Where baby boomers and their parents were content to grow up and leave their childhoods behind, Generation X seems determined to hang onto its childhood and bring it into the adult world.

You can see it in our entertainment, as comic book movies rule the silver screen and books like Harry Potter cross over to an adult audience. But we’re not just trying to extend our childhoods, we’re trying to project adult values and adult flaws onto our childhood heroes.

My favorite example is the recent “Iron Man” movie where the fight scenes and special effects are merged into the context of a real human life. Robert Downey Jr. portrayed Tony Stark as a real person who built fantastic things.

In this case, the mix of childhood memories and adult storytelling worked. Other films have missed the mark. Bryan Singer tried the same trick in “Superman Returns” but didn’t quite pull it off.

The original “Superman” film was classic family entertainment. Audiences went to the new one expecting an ordinary comic book movie and found themselves watching a kind of Greek tragedy. Singer’s Superman was brought down to Earth in a way that made a lot of fans uncomfortable.

This forum incident was blown out of proportion because Star Wars is like the last holdout against this trend. Fans walked into “The Phantom Menace” expecting a Star Wars film aimed at the adults they had become. Instead, George Lucas went the other way, abandoning adult fans in his quest to sell toys to children.

But fans are still hungry to see adult stories told in the Star Wars universe. “Revenge of the Sith” was dark and violent, but it lacked the emotional complexity that fans were waiting for.

Early reviews say that J.J. Abrams has successfully moved Star Trek into an adult context. Hopefully the Star Wars reboot won’t be far behind.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 1, 2009 at 18:21

Posted in Columns, Movies

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