October 5th, 2009

Ah, OkCupid, one more reason why I love you. Wait, um, I mean, I am an objective journalist who covers online dating! Yes…

Back in June OKC launched OkTrends, a blog that analyzes data from user profiles and presents to you, the lucky, lucky reader, relevant statistical breakdowns — like how New England is repulsed by rape fantasies, whereas apparently Wyoming thinks they’re A-OK. As the bloggers point out, each question the site poses to would-be daters, their way of judging personality and potential matches, gets answered around 300,000 times. Granted, the people who use the site don’t represent an objective cross section, but that’s still an impressive way to poll people on rape fantasies… or just about anything.

As someone who’s fascinated by the fine art of online dating (i.e. how we social beings awkwardly move our flirtations into digital media), I’m loving the posts on things like optimizing your message response rate. They’ve got millions of messages at their disposal to mine for data. Remember, the ones you thought were private? Now they’re teaching us valuable lessons, like that the ideal first message for men to send to women — in terms of optimizing time spent and likelihood of getting a response — is 200 characters. Seem short? Women only need type 50 characters. Careful, ladies, or you might go overboard and include a whole sentence.

Best OkTrends post yet: “Exactly What to Say in a First Message.” Bad grammar and “stupid slang,” like “ur” for “you’re,” bring down the chance that you’ll receive a response to nearly 5%. Feel free to say things like “awesome” and “fascinating,” but dear God, please don’t call your fellow users “cutie,” “hot,” “beautiful,” or worst of all “sexy.” Trying to figure out how to start your message? “How’s it going” gives you a 30% increased response rate over plain old “hi.” Don’t mention outside email or chat right away. Talk specifics in what you like (successful example: “zombie”).

Oh, and if you’re a man, be horribly self-effacing. Say you’re sorry, you just have to apologize, you’re pretty awkward, you’re probably messing up this message already, but you’re kinda a cool guy, and maybe possibly you could go for drinks sometime, if you’re not to busy self-flagellating while crying yourself to sleep in the bathtub.

Not to brag (/strikes pose as if on the online dating runway) but these are all tips I already use in my OKC messaging. They’ll definitely be helpful for the next time I try and explain to a newb why nobody is responding to his condescending three-word emails. Plus, it’s nice to hear confirmed by the general population just how annoying it is to receive messages that start, as so many I get do, something along the lines of “Hi cutie ur pretty. u on aim?” Nothing could be classier than the one that suggested I come “rock his Casbah” though. No official stats yet on the effectiveness of that phrase.

Far from being a series of press releases disguised as a blog — I’m looking at you, pretty much every other such site out there — OkTrends is an awesome resource, and I’m thrilled to see OKC using their data for good (i.e. interesting research) vs evil (good, old-fashioned info selling, though they could well be doing that too, though Yagan denied it in one of my interviews with him). What else will they come up with? They’re taking suggestions, so do send them anything you’d like to see. Between us we’ll figure out this crazy thing called internet love. Or we’ll just learn how to sweet talk online strangers.

October 4th, 2009

If there’s one thing the world of geekery isn’t missing these days, it’s games inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Tim Burton’s new movie has been hyped for its release March, 2010 since this summer’s gamer-filled Comic-Con. The sequel to American McGee’s Alice, also due out next year, has caused a similar stir. I reviewed a remake of the classic Wonderland-themed chess game, originally Through the Looking Glass, now AliceX. And just the other day I discovered Alice in Bomberland, an upcoming iPhone game worked on in part by friend and Braid artist David Hellman. That list, I’m sure, is far from comprehensive.

We could say that this renewed Alice flurry is a matter of semi coincidence — smaller developments studios piggy-packing off the release of two big projects, American McGee’s Alice 2 and Burton’s darkly vibrant film, which are both set to drop in the coming months. Our collective gamer love of the little girl who fell down the rabbit hole didn’t start in 2009 though. It goes as far back as… well, when? Do we have American McGee to thank? Or maybe cosplayers in white and blue? Or maybe cult classic Alice in Wonderland porn.

Whatever got us started, Alice has become a pop culture icon able to exist almost completely separate from the story in which she first appeared. We’ve appropriated the images of her fall, her nibbling mushrooms, of her teatime with the mad hatter, and we use them as the raw material to create new stories, some much like the original — others about, well, avoiding explosives. We’ve made her own our, and that goes for pop culture in general, not just geekery.

So why does Alice fascinate us more than other children’s stories? Is it the surprisingly modern absurdity of the story? Is it its sexual ambiguity and “perverse” undertones? Recommended reading: Will Brooker’s Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture. But you can already tell I’m rooting for that perversion answer, can’t you?

September 13th, 2009

Something is very odd with the images of femininity we’re passing down to kids these days. I know, I sound like I should be sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch shaking my walking stick at pesky youngsters. But hear me out. Even as a sex writer I was shocked to see how sexy the women in popular girls’ toys and games have become.

While I was in France last month, I worked on a farm with a couple who had a six-year-old daughter, Gabrielle. Each afternoon, hiding inside from the midday heat, I would help Gabrielle out on the family computer. Her favorite site, Jeux de Fille, was little more than a collection of girl-oriented flash games — dress up, makeup, “seduction” — but most seemed harmless. The women in the games though, electronic paper dolls, were surprisingly sexualized: fully formed, nearly naked, striking seductive posing and pouting out at the player.

Gabrielle herself didn’t seem to notice. She clearly stated when she did or didn’t like certain outfits, but her only real comment on the females before her was to stick her tongue out at redheads and declare them “pas jolie!” Thanks, kid.

The coloring books and toys in Gabrielle’s room revealed much of the same. Call me old-fashioned, but I imagined girls playing with images of — well, other girls: young, innocent, mischievous, but decidedly non-sexualized characters like Madeline, or old-school Dora the Explorer before TV execs turned her into a lithe beauty pageant contestant, or Strawberry Shortcake when she still had pudge. Sure, you hear a lot of fuss over the adult curves and skimpy outfits of Bratz doll (and missing noses — what up with that?), but I didn’t realize that this new way of presenting womanhood was so pervasive.

Then the question becomes, is this a problem? Is any of it so different than the decades of shapely Barbies that have come before? I’m saying “yes,” and it’s not because I’m worried that seeing a few extra sets of pouty lips and matching underwear is going to corrupt our youth. Instead, I’m worried about how we’ll continue to mess with women’s self-image when they grow up seeing unrealistic bodies from day one — about how girls of all ages are becoming complicit in their own objectification by getting used to seeing their gender as sexualized, aesthetic objects.

Maybe it’s backwards-thinking. Maybe it’s naive. But years down the line, if I have a daughter of my own, I’m playing things safe. Sexualized women? Boo. Stick the to the adorable androgyny that is Winnie the Pooh.

August 12th, 2009

I’ll admit, the first thought that came to mind as I sorted through the videos of contestants for the recent casting call for two new Frag Dolls wasn’t, “Wow, there are so many talented, spunky female gamers out there today.” It was, “Wow, these girls are all hot. I wonder where they’re hiding the normal-looking ones.”

As part of my research for the PCWorld article I did on the Dolls, I got a chance to ask team members, would-be Dolls, and even fans their take on what I’d call the “hotness issue.” Sure, these women kick ass at games. Sure, they believe in gender equality in the industry. But at the same time don’t they stand for all that’s off in the gaming world? They’re beautiful women brought together for men to watch in order to draw attention to and sell Ubisoft games. So could an unattractive competitor really have had any chance at becoming the next Frag Doll?

Team leader Morgan Romine readily acknowledged that the members of her group are all attractive women, but explained, “For a position where you get as much spotlight attention as we do, we end up getting girls who are gorgeous. I would say that the 90 girls we had apply, it’s an amazing looking group of girls. We don’t pick based on looks. It’s one of those chicken and the egg things. The girls who are more attractive are the ones who are more confident.”

She was also quick to dispel the mystique of beauty around the current Dolls. “Our existing team, we’re good looking girls, but when people come and say, ‘Oh it’s just Ubisoft hiring models and putting game controllers in their hands,’ that’s flattering, but we also know its Photoshop and makeup. You can make anybody marketable. You can take an average looking girl and do the whole photo process and they will totally work for what we need to do.”

At least one of competitos, Lanai Gara, who ended up becoming one of two new Dolls, found it hard to adjust to all the attention. During an interview I conducted during E3 she said, “I haven’t worn a dress since homecoming, and I’m 21. All these French guys were hitting on me [at an industry party], being like, “You’re beautiful,” and I was like, “That’s cool.” I’m a gamer. I’m one of those people who goes home after work and just plays games… The attention is something to get used to, but I’m not the type of person to let it go to my head.”

As for me, I’m not 100% convinced — even if Frag Doll community member Andrew Jiang said picking a new team member wasn’t about looks, it was about personality. Still, I understand that the group is first and foremost about marketing, and there’s nothing too marketable about an unattractive gamer, even if she can trounce with the best of us.

August 11th, 2009

One of the most interesting things that emerged from my research on the Frag Dolls was the nature of the community that has grown up around Ubisoft’s all-female, pro-gaming PR team. Sure, I figured they have fans, but a dedicated horde?

This is a group of hardcore gamers, to hear Frag Doll leader Morgan Romine explain it, largely male, who fall between the ages of 18 to 34. Unlike other members of the gaming community who write off the Dolls as glorified booth babes, they’re not spending hours each week on the team’s message boards to heckle them. They’re in full support of these women players but — as contestants in the recent competition to become the newest Frag Doll found out fast — theirs is a deep but a tough love.

Kristin Reilly, who’s experience with the competition I chronicled in my PCWorld article, explained how would-be Dolls had to brave a trial by fire to earn the support of the community. “The IRC chat room [on the site], it’s not moderated, so if you go in there you go in at your own risk. It’s a free for all,” she recalled. “There were a lot of hateful things that were said in that room. When you’ve been a girl in gaming as long as I have you know the boys aren’t the most receptive to females coming into their world. Any new person who comes into the community they’re going to give a hazing to.” She added, “They’re not bad guys… but occasionally the internet troll that everyone has inside them will come out.”

Once the contestants got on their good sides, they saw a whole new face to the community members. Lynae Gara, who did end up making it as one of two new Frag Dolls, reported from E3 of those who joined the Dolls at events, “The community members are characters. There’s a guy who’s always around. We call him Pancake. He’s always making sure we’re okay, asking if we want drinks or Starbucks. We can tell they really look up to the Frag Dolls, even though they are guys. They respect that these are women gamers and they’re a heck of a lot better than us. They’re not booth babes.” I also spoke with a community member named Andrew who had flown all the way to L.A. on the off chance that the team would be able to get him a pass so he could act as moral support.

Who are these guys? Are they so loyal because they’re fawning over beautiful female gamers, or do they really see something to identify with in the Frag Dolls? Said Romine, “They like the fact that we’re girls. They’ll be the first to tell you that playing with a bunch of immature dudes on Halo is not that fun. They say really rude things to each other. It becomes this Lord of the Flies situation. So having girls to play with is great. It’s more balanced. I tend to consider these guys to be a little more mature… Most of them haven’t played with girls before and they think that’l be a welcome change from what they’re used to.”

August 10th, 2009

The very first post I ever wrote for Heroine Sheik, all the way back in April of 2005, was about Ubisoft’s all-female, pro-gaming PR team, The Frag Dolls. It ran along with a column I wrote for Planet GameCube, my very first gig, where I often published multi-thousand word rants on subjects like sexism and girl power. Needless to say, thinking about those early articles makes me smile and cringe all at the same time.

That’s why I was happy to be able to return to the Frag Dolls for a recent PCWorld.com article about the competition they held this spring/summer for two new team members. The requirements and training were fierce. I trailed would-be Doll Kristin Reilly as she applied with photos, warmed up to the online community, and kicked ass in matches against others in the running. Check out the story of her struggle — and its outcome.

As always, I have a lot more material from interviews than I could have possibly included in the piece. I hope to run some of the more interesting tidbits over the next few days, so stop back again for more. Will you be more likely to keep reading if I promise to never again use the words “girl power?”

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