Compersion Is A Muscle.

I have a sweetie who’s been touch-deprived for a couple of months now; they’ve been travelling solo and exhausted by illness to boot.

Last night, they hooked up with someone.

And I was really, genuinely happy for them. Which is a change from a decade ago.

See, a decade ago, a close partner hooking up with someone new would have sent flurries of anxiety thrumming through me. I would have freaked out about whether that partner was better in bed, I would have fretted about how this new person would steal affection from me, I would have catalogued all my deficiencies and then done endless calculations to see what I had to do to be worthy of continued attention.

Today? Nothin’. I’m just genuinely filled with that poly-feeling called “Compersion,” where I’m happy if they’re happy.

Yet that happy feeling didn’t come naturally to me. We had to work on it. And I say “We” because as I’ve said before, compersion is something that only flourishes in a safe environment. It’s hard to feel thrilled for someone’s adventures when you do know that every new partner means less space for you, that their New Relationship Energy will eat into your old-and-tired dates.

Part of building that compersion muscle involves having partners who genuinely value you – the people who, even if they’re seeing other folks, are still over the moon whenever they see you.

But more importantly, getting that compersion muscle all swole involves some self-reflection and analysis. Because yes, your partners can lavish you with attention, but if you’re so caught up in your stress-ball that you don’t see what’s actually happening then it’s all for naught.

Because I had to notice that yes, my partners were happy about the sex (I specifically asked for no specific details, because I personally can’t handle that shit), but their enthusiasm for other-sex didn’t touch the sex they wanted to have with me.

Or, more critically, the love they wanted to have with me. My wife didn’t want to watch obscure Oscar films any less with me, my girlfriend didn’t want to play videogames less with me, my sweetie didn’t want to cuddle less. All the nonsexual things I valued about being with them never waned – or if they did, it wasn’t because of the sex, but because of other emotional frictions that were causing damage.

In time, I came to learn that sex was important to a functioning relationship, but it was not the only thing that held us together.

And then the other necessary lesson: over the years I came to internalize that idea that sex was a person-to-person thing, not a universal experience.

Which is to say that I used to have this idea that sex was an exam, and I was doing well, maybe like 85%, but someone could come along and score a 90% and then why would anyone want to smooch up the B student when they could get an A-?

And since then, I’ve come to understand that sex is more like the intense variety of food cravings. What I get with my wife is very distinct from what I get with my sweetie Fox, and that sex is not graded on some objective scale, but rather a desire that’s as unique as a key to a lock. There’s not a competition to be The Best at sex, but rather an urge to find out what we ourselves can create, and that’s actually led to better sex because instead of whipping out My Moves I’m more focused on who’s with me right here, right now.

None of that means that I’m immune from jealousy, of course; some people might evolve past it, but I don’t think I’m one of them. But it does mean at least with my long-term partners, the ones who’ve earned my trust, I can hear about a liasion they desperately needed and not think OH MY GOD I WASN’T THERE but “I’m really glad they got cuddles with someone, and I know those cuddles don’t mean they don’t want cuddles with me.”

It’s a good place. Even if it’s been a hike to get here, lemme tellya.

I’m Discussing Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children Series Over On Dream Foundry!

So Dream Foundry is a bunch of good folks who want to nurture all the people who are writing, or drawing, or videoing science fiction. They’ve got a Kickstarter to help get them up and running, if you care to donate –

But the important thing is that we’re discussing the themes and craft involved in Seanan McGuire’s excellent Wayward Children series over there. Every week I’m posting a few questions and discussing the answers, and frankly, we could use some more people to join in on the discussion. So if you love the Wayward Children series – and why wouldn’t you? it’s awesome! – then head over and check it out.

When Your Default Advice Could Accidentally Destroy Someone.

What is a sane default behavior? Which is to say, “What do you do when you don’t know someone that well?”

That question is, when you look at it, about 90% of all advice that’s ever given – “Here’s what you do when you don’t know for sure.” Want to ask someone on a date? Well, here’s what most normal people respond to positively. Need to ask for a raise? Here’s how you can get most bosses to hear you. Want to avoid getting ripped off by a mechanic? These are signs for when you have no idea whether your mechanic is good or not.

The goal is a decent baseline – you know this won’t work in every situation, just most of them.

The problem comes when someone’s misread the baseline. In which case the advice turns sour.

For example, women get treated differently in the workplace. If they’re aggressive, they’re more likely to be seen as bitchy or shrewish, and get treated negatively as a result. Which is not to say advice like “Be aggressive in asking for raises” is bad advice, but it is advice that’s aimed at a specific audience – and it can backfire quickly if you assume that women are basically interchangeable with men.

So you have to be careful. There’s a lot of advice that cloaks itself as “This works most of the time,” and in truth the approach works only in a specific environment. You’ll see dating advice like “People only want sculpted bodies, so lose weight and work out before dragging your flabby bod before anyone else!” – and that’s probably true for the circles these people move in, but there’s plenty of places where you don’t have to be model-quality to get a smooch or two.

But more importantly: Advice only exists as a stand-in until you know someone’s specific preferences.

I say this because some very decent advice given the other day would absolutely wreck me.

Page Turner wrote a solid essay the other day called Don’t Say “We Need to Talk.” Do This Instead. And in it, she mentions some things I agree are good baselines when you need to hash out a conflict with a friend or lover – specifically, don’t ever say “We need to talk” and then go silent. That shit leads to anxiety and, as noted, spicy armpits.

But then she discusses her way of leading up to a tense discussion that needs to be had, and I thought, “Oh, wow, that would play havoc with my mental illness.”

She:

  • Arranged a time to meet in person where we had plenty of time alone to hang out and talk (eliminating the extra stress of my conversation partner having to worry about how they were reacting to bad news in public)
  • Talked for 20 to 30 minutes prior to moving into the heavy news about lighter things, gossip, news, subjects that were easy and carefree.
  • Evaluated my conversation partner’s mental and emotional state during the lighter topics, making sure they seemed like they were in a place where they could handle harder news.
  • After determining they were in a place where they could handle the heavier topics, moved quickly into sharing that news.

I suspect that’s good advice for people in a vacuum, but for me?

That’s a nightmare.

See, I have a brain that’s trying to kill me at all times. Whenever I’m not directly in the presence of someone who’s being nice to me at that moment, my brain gives me all sorts of rationales as to why things are going totally wrong.

It’s so bad that my wife will literally be in the basement sewing, and I’ll have a flash of thought that hearkens back to some conversation we had about me buying the wrong milk, and my brain will say, “She went downstairs because she iso furious about you accidentally getting the 2%, she can’t stand you, you’re a wreck of a human being,” and then – depending on whether I’m in my seasonal affective disorder time of year – “You should probably just off yourself and not bother her any more.”

Now, my wife has learned that if I occasionally stumble downstairs to say “You love me, right?” that it’s just my stupid brain working overtime again in its relentless efforts to exterminate me. But realistically, I have so many stupid thoughts like this that back in the days when I asked her if she loved me every time that I thought I’d screwed up, I burned her out.

So I spend a lot of time self-soothing. “Nonsense,” I say. “She seemed fine when she went downstairs. I’m being foolish, and I don’t need to check in.”

With that in mind, you can see how sitting down with a friend, being talked to for half an hour as I go “Oh, this is nice, all those worries I had were in fact needless” and then BAM big discussion would harm me a lot.

Because the next time I’d be wrapped up in some imaginary slight, I’d go, “Well, my friend seemed happy, surely things are okay” and my brain would rumble out like a bucking steer at the rodeo to thrash around and say, “REMEMBER THAT NICE HALF-HOUR CONVERSATION YOU HAD BEFORE SHE DROPPED THE BOMB? YOU HAVE NO CLUE WHEN PEOPLE ARE MAD AT YOU. THEY’RE PROBABLY HATING YOU RIGHT NOW.”

And then I’m back to texting people at all hours of the day to go “Hey, we’re okay, right? We’re okay now, right? We’re still okay, right?” and that presents its own list of problems.

Likewise, because I have a brain that’s trying to kill me, hiding problems from me even if you don’t think I can handle it is a big no-no. I know people mean well, but hiding problems from me contributes to the internal gaslighting that my mental illness provides. Me, I need to know as soon as you’re ready to talk about it, because otherwise it’ll do lasting damage to me that could lead to self-harm.

And that’s not to say Page didn’t provide good default advice. I realize I’m not wired like other people. I’m agreeing that what she’s saying would probably go over well for most folks, and it would definitely go over better than a text saying “We need to talk.”

But I have dated people who have internalized that idea of “Don’t bring up a serious issue if someone’s in a bad headspace” to the point where even when I told them “Hey, just break the seal and get it over with, I need to fight all my battles at once,” they concealed serious problems from me for weeks or months at a time – weeks or months when I was desperately expending energy convincing myself that I had problems, yes, but my relationship with these people was okay – only to find that whoops, this aspect was also a trainwreck and now my brain won’t ever let me rest because that time I thought things were twitchy with David THEY TOTALLY WERE and REALLY AREN’T THINGS MUCH WORSE THAN YOU KNOW, FERRETT?

That approach, though well-intended, did lasting harm.

Which is why you have to remember: Once you get to know someone well enough, advice is dispensable. Which is not to say you’ll ever know your partners perfectly – I’ve been married to my wife for almost twenty years and we still surprise each other on occasion – but past a certain point, you have to stop listening to “What other people do” and internalize “What this person, right here, right now, needs.”

So maybe that first time you need to have a sit-down talk with somebody, you give them nice conversations for a half hour, scope them out, and then drop the problem when you think they’re ready. That’s not a bad first approach.

But afterwards, you should also ask them, “So was that the way I should have done things?” And move on from that one-size-fits-all advice to something that will nurture and protect this specific person you love.

Message ends.

Maybe Sekiro Should Be Hard, I Dunno

So there’s a new game that I’m currently flinging myself until my nose turns to bloody mush, and that game is called Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It is from the infamously taxing game developer From Software, which made Dark Souls and Bloodborne.

These games are difficult to beat, and Sekiro in particular is uncompromising. The designers looked at their past games to learn all the ways that people faked their way past difficult bosses, and put in workarounds. Yes, maybe players used to dodge around bosses in Dark Souls, or they just attacked blindly until they got lucky in Bloodborne. But Sekiro says, “Parrying blows is important, even if it’s hard to do. You learn to block incoming attacks or you die.”

And you do die. Over and over again. Until eventually you get the timing right and you win.

Or, you know, you quit the game.

And “accessibility” is a major concern in gaming these days, and should be. Not only are gamers getting older, and as such suffering from poorer vision and arthritis, but there have always been gamers who don’t have the fine motor controls to be able to defeat a game – or, in fact, all the limbs or fingers to do so.

So the saying goes that games like Sekiro should have an easy mode – or at least fine-tunable controls like the game Celeste, a platform game which is also extremely hard but has a set of “assist” controls that extends your jump time or automatically clings to walls and so forth. Celeste has been hailed because it lets gamers who can’t physically match the speed or finesse of the game still experience it.

“It doesn’t take away from your experience of the game to have an easy mode,” the saying goes. “So put one in! It’s as simple as that.”

It kinda isn’t, though.

Now, in 99% of all games, I would absolutely agree with you. Someone wants to play Doom Eternal on one-shot-one-kill mode? Doesn’t bother me, I’m here churning through it on medium. Someone wants to play the new Dragon Age (oh God let there be a new Dragon Age) on story mode, where it skips all the battles? Great. Someone needs a slower timing to master the jumps on Mario? Awesome. People of all sorts should be able to play, and win, videogames!

There’s a bullshit idea carried over from the quarter-guzzling roots of arcades that videogames should be experienced as pure challenge – and frankly, that’s a ridiculously reductionistic take on the medium. Videogames are art, and art takes on many forms, and if you’re playing videogames for the story or the pretty art or even a mild challenge, they’re still videogames.

You should be having fun.

But the thing is, most people will agree that they don’t want changes that take away the fun of the core game play experience.

I’d argue that the core game play experience of Sekiro or Bloodborne or Dark Souls is despair.

I’ll be honest: there was a boss in Bloodborne that literally killed me fifty times, and that’s not counting the times I died trying to fight my way to his lair. I spent probably about four hours convinced I couldn’t beat him, losing over and over again…

And part of that gaming experience was knowing there was no other way. Bloodborne had one difficulty setting, and it was alike for everyone who’d just installed the game. If it had an easier difficulty mode, I would have stepped down like I have before when I felt a game got too bullshit – I loved Dragon Age: Origins, but the final battle was too hard so I stepped down. I feel no guilt for this. I wanted to see what happened.

But with Bloodborne…. I couldn’t.

So I had to keep pounding my head against the same boss, with friends telling me how I could do it, getting incrementally better each time and learning new strategies until eventually, with a mixture of skill and luck, I beat the Blood-Starved Beast.

That game experience would not have happened if I’d had any other option. I absolutely would have changed the settings just for this one dude.

As a result, the triumph when I’d mastered it was fiercer than other games.

And that’s the gameplay loop of the From Software games: I can’t do this I can’t do this I can’t do this oh wait oh hell I might no I lost again I can’t I can’t I DID.

For the full experience, you need to a) have no other choices, and b) give into that despair.

Same with Sekiro. It’s actually not as hard as it sounds thus far, though it is hard: there are strategies you can use to counter the hard once. I met a frail old dude who was way too fast for me to block, but I could poison him. I met an enraged ogre who had too much health, but I could set him on fire. In truth, it sounds like there are walls, but you just have to get sneaky.

But it is hard. Very hard. And that style of challenge is not fun for everybody, nor even necessarily fun for us all the time. And while yes, you can make any game into a grim lesson in “Git gud” by playing, I dunno, Rock Band with an angry cat tied to a stick, most games are designed to have a fairly straightforward (and shallow) difficulty curve, and that is a good thing because that’s what most people enjoy. Too many gamers want every game to be a gruelling slog because that’s the way they personally relax, but I like to think that “controller-flinging difficulty” should not be the only metric for enjoyment.

The Dark Souls genre of games is a goddamned difficulty cliff, however, and what fun there is to be had lies is in discovering that hey, you can climb Mount Everest.

Which is why when people go, “Games should be accessible to anybody!” I agree heartily, then think, “…but the whole point of this genre of games is to push you beyond what you believe you can accomplish, and if you can reset the difficulty, that experience doesn’t happen.”

I don’t know. It wouldn’t hurt me per se to have an Easy mode on Sekiro; I don’t wrap my pride up in my gaming, and if I can’t beat Sekiro I won’t be overly fussed. Maybe I’m not that good at games, and that’s fine; I save my fierce indomitability for my writing, which is why I wrote eight terrible novels before I finally published my first one.

But though it wouldn’t hurt me, it would change the experience of those games, and those games only. Because for me, I am not strong enough to resist the allure of the easy mode. Making the game more accessible would give me an out, which I would take, and then it would be the same as every other game not in the genre of “Play my way or die.”

And I don’t know. I like accessibility. But some games aren’t about being accessible – and I say this as a person who may not be able to get the full experience out of a game I sunk $60 into. I’ve seen videos of the final boss. I may not have the reflexes to beat the guy.

Not knowing whether I can do it is a large part of why I’m playing. And I don’t know if anything else would fill that same, unique, urge.

Why Asking The People Around You Is A Crappy Way Of Seeing If Your Culture’s Okay.

I watch a lot of Gordon Ramsay, the notoriously foul-mouthed chef. I especially like the episodes where he strides into dying restaurants that serve crappy food to a dwindling customer base, and attempts to convince the owners that their microwaved lasagna is not worth anyone’s $12.00.

These owners are, inevitably, going broke, or they wouldn’t have called in Gordon Ramsay to harangue them. But I’d say about half of them are absolutely convinced that their food is great.

“You don’t see them complaining!” the restaurant owners cry, waving their hands at the five dismal retirees huddled miserably around a table.

Which is true. They’re not complaining. The trick to understanding life is that most people, when doing something for fun, don’t actually complain.

They just go somewhere else.

If a meal at a restaurant is terrible, it takes either a massive fault in customer service or a massive asshole to call the manager over and say “HEY! YOUR FOOD IS TURDS ON TOAST!” A handful of people will leave negative reviews online.

Most people just shrug, say, “That was disappointing,” and go searching for a place that is actually providing good food. They don’t bother to tell you personally because they’re not invested in your restaurant’s success.

Their feedback is absence. They don’t come back.

It’s a nebulous message, but then again, they’re not concerned about giving you a message. They just wanted a nice place to eat, and this? Is not it.

So when that restaurant owner waves their hand around to say, “My food is good! You don’t see them complaining!”, this is true. The regulars at this place may actually like it. But if you’re trying to determine whether a restaurant is successful, taking a poll of the regulars may not actually tell you what you need to know, because the people who could give you the useful feedback have walked out the goddamned door.

And so it goes with most hobbies.

I say this because right now, Magic: the Gathering is dealing with a huge problem – about 45% of their players are women, but when it comes to the professional Magic tournament scene, probably less than 1% of the pro players are women. And why is that?

And the interesting thing is that a distressing amount of the male Magic: the Gathering fans are that restaurant owner. They wave their hands about the room and say, “Magic doesn’t have a sexism problem! You don’t hear them complaining!” And they point to a room of almost all dudes.

Who they’re not listening to is, you know, all the women who tried playing in high-level in Magic tournaments and found people assuming they were some real man’s girlfriend and being scorned for their appearance and having their skills questioned at every turn and oh yeah, also being hit on a lot and then scorned when they weren’t there to date…

They left.

Most of them didn’t go out in a blaze of “HERE IS WHY I AM GOING” – they weren’t sufficiently invested in pro Magic, which clearly didn’t care much for them, to turn their “fun hobby” into a “gruelling crusade to change the cultural face of Magic.”

They just kept playing at kitchen tables, where it was fun.

And the lesson is this: whenever you’re asking, “Why aren’t more people here?” the answer will often not be found anywhere among the people who are there. The answer will be found among the people who left – people who are harder to track down, people whose voices you may well have been prone to ignoring in the first place, people who just wanted fun and found overpriced microwaved lasagna.

And sometimes – as with Magic – the answer is “There are lots of people here, but note the people who aren’t.” Which, if you’re concerned about attracting a different audience to your game – and Wizards is very much concerned about having 40%+ of their audience not playing in their high-profile events – is a hard question to ask when you can’t just take a poll of everyone sitting at the table.

But you need to. Because the answer to your question is often, “I wanted fun and got turds on toast.” And then you have to figure out what’s more profitable – the five pensioners at the table, or the hordes of people outside who tried your food and found a better cafe.

Message ends.