Saturday, September 26, 2015

A short discussion on having conversations with the past

I just finished reading Timothy F. Lull's short book (only 154 pocket-sized pages) My Conversations with Martin Luther. This book was given to me as a confirmation present on Reformation Day, October 31st, 2000 by the church I was confirmed in. I've had the book since then, patiently sitting on my shelf until the opportunity arose for me to read it. An essay contest involving having a contemporary conversation with Luther gave me the motivation I needed to read this book, and I am glad to have done so.

The book is divided into six chapters, detailing six conversations Lull had with Luther over the course of a decade. These conversations are just that--Martin Luther, the famed Reformer, appearing to Lull and having brief conversations about events from Luther's life and about Luther's works. Lull begins by saying that the reality of these conversations having actually having taken place are more or less irrelevant, saying that he believes "the book will make for better reading if those who decide to explore it will put away such questions as what did and did not happen, what might or might not have taken place, and instead follow what Dr. Luther has to say--whether from any actual visit or in my (supposed) fantasy" (p 7). The conversations range from Luther's biographical details to Luther having the chance to revisit his (quite frankly, detestable) writings on the Jews. Lull was quite an excellent Luther scholar and while this book purposefully takes a light, conversational tone, the scholarship is evident nonetheless.

The purpose of this post is not to write a review of Lull's short little book, although, I do recommend that anyone interested in Luther studies read it. Instead, I want to comment on Lull's hope from this book, namely, that others will be inspired to have their own conversations with Luther. Lull doesn't just lead the reader to fend for themselves; Lull actually gives three pieces of advice for how the reader might have their own conversation with Martin Luther. I think these three tips work for any great thinker of the past, so I will share them here:

1. Read the thinker's own words. For Luther, Lull recommends specific works, such as his own edited volume, Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings. This is essential for any writer, though--start with their words!

2. Read a biography about the thinker. Once you have read the words of your subject, now read a biography so you can place them in context of their life. This also lets you get acquainted with how others saw them. For Luther, Lull recommends many books, including my personal favorite, Heiko A. Oberman's Luther: Man Between God and the Devil.

3. Lastly, read scholarship on the thinker. By this, Lull means to look specifically at what you want to talk about with your intended conversant. Once you have that issue or theme in mind, look for contemporary scholarship on it. For Luther, Lull recommends serious items of scholarship on the reformation (such as Eric W. Grtisch's Fortress Introduction to Lutheranism) to perhaps more whimsical or lighter fare, such as a travel guide that allows you to visit some of Luther's haunts (Wolfgang Hoffmann's Luther: A Practical Travel Guide).

I think these three nuggets of wisdom are essential to any conversation with the past. It is often intimidating for someone to take up conversing with the past--I know often times I am often imitated when approaching the works of an accomplished thinker. Where do I start? In someone as prolific a writer as Luther (with over 100 volumes of his work in the Weimar Edition of his works), it can be even worse. It helps when you have a guide like Lull's book, which eases you into the writings. Even without that, with the internet it generally isn't too difficult for most authors (obviously not super obscure ones) to find what work is probably best to start with. Aside from that, as Lull's conversational and informal tone implies, have fun!

Two final notes: My own recommendation for Luther is to start with his Small Catechism. This little book goes over the core of Christian beliefs, and as such, the core of Luther's teachings. It is available in its entirety on the ELCA website, in addition to a few hundred different print editions, including being a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal.

Second, and this is just a personal note of serendipity: before moving out to Berkeley, CA, I had no idea that Lull was formerly the president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, also in Berkeley, CA, up until his death in 2003. Imagine my surprise when I open his book to find that much of these conversations with Luther happened only a mile away from where I was reading them! I of course knew of Dr. Lull, especially his aforementioned Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, but I did not know much of his biographical information. How cool it was for me to read his words overlooking the same scenic San Francisco Bay that he saw as he wrote them, twenty years earlier. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Disney Infinity 3.0 Review--Where's the Diversity?

Two years ago, I published a review on my blog of a brand new game, Disney Infinity. The slogan for Disney Infinity is "Infinite Possibility," so I tongue-in-cheek called my review "infinite white guys, limited diversity" in reference to the jarring lack of playable characters of color and women. Each year since then a new version has been released, capitalizing on Disney's recent acquisition of new properties: in 2014, we saw the release of Disney Infinity 2.0, featuring characters from the Marvel universe; just this past August, we saw the release of Disney Infinity 3.0, featuring characters from the Star Wars universe.

For those who are not familiar with the Disney Infinity franchise, here is a quick recap taken from my original review of the game: "Disney Infinity is perhaps one of the most enjoyable and addicting games I have ever played. The game is on the one hand an open-world sandbox game (á la Minecraft), on the other hand, a collecting of Disney characters element (á la an extremely expensive Pokémon—Disney Edition), on yet another hand with different Disney mini-worlds that each have their own theme, cast, and missions (á la Disney Universe), all presented in a style similar to the popular Skylanders series (how many hands was that, by the way?). Many have reviewed the gameplay, cost, and other features, but I have yet to see anyone review the game’s selection of available characters, and especially the lack of diversity in those characters." 

I ended my original post by predicting the inclusion of the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, speculating: "Can you imagine Princess Leia and Mace Windu fighting against Nick Fury and Black Widow? Now throw in Mrs. Incredible and Sorcerer Mickey into the mix. That truly would be an epic game, and if licensure allows, Disney Infinity might just be that game."

Well, with the release of 3.0 this past month, Disney Infinity had just the chance to be that game. Over the past two iterations, we certainly saw a concerted effort to increase the women and girls: 2.0 added six playable female characters (out of a total of 30) and 3.0 has eleven (out of a total of 34). Add this to the original eight playable female characters from the original game, and you have a grand total of 25 playable female characters out of a total of 73. That's a little over 1/3 of the representation of the entire game! And this is coming from a company that has a strong Disney Princess Franchise, and has released in recent years several animated features with strong, female characters.

The often used excuse in gaming is that there are not as many girls out there playing these games as men, yet even the Disney Infinity crew admitted their shock when they found that the game appeals equally to boys and girls. So I will hand it to them, they are making a concerted effort to increase the amount of female playable characters.

But here's the big issue. Where are the characters of color? The original game had one person of color as a playable character (Tonto from the Lone Ranger; though it is fair to say that he doesn't count since he was played by Johnny Depp in the film). Despite including practically every other named character in the Incredibles play set, there was no mention, let alone playable character, of Frozone, the cool black superhero with ice powers voiced by Samuel L. Jackson (pun intended).

Disney Infinity attempted to increase their diversity with 2.0--two black superheroes, Falcon and Nick Fury, fight alongside the Avengers and Spider-Man, respectively. Middle-Eastern characters Jasmine and Aladdin are playable in the toy-box alongside Asian-American Hiro from the film Big Hero 6 (but one could easily make the argument that Jasmine and Aladdin white-washed, considering how light their skin is).

And now, with 3.0, we have the addition of the Star Wars universe, yet surprisingly (or not), the only possible people of color are the racially ambiguous (i.e. tan skinned) characters from Star Wars Rebels: Sabine, Kanan, and Ezra. Disney original characters added to the mix include Mulan and... that's it.

Here's the crazy part--in the Disney Princesses franchise, there are quite a few people of color: the aforementioned Jasmine and Mulan, but also the Native American Pocahontas, the African-American Tiana, and sometimes included, the Roma Esmeralda. Obviously they are surrounded by a whole bunch of white girls, but there is certainly more diversity than is represented in the Disney Infinity game thus far. Also, notoriously absent or sidelined are some of the people of color from both Star Wars and Marvel: Black Panther, White Tiger, and Luke Cage all make appearances as non-playable characters in 2.0 and Mace Windu--arguably the coolest jedi in the Star Wars prequels, is relegated to a non-playable character! The playset based off of the original Star Wars trilogy is yet to be released, so it remains to be seen if Lando Calrissian even makes an appearance, though he is not a playable character.

I'm not sure which is worse--not including the people of color at all or including them only as non-playable helper characters relegated to supporting your WHITE character. Come on Disney Infinity team, lets include more people of color and women. Marvel has plenty of strong women and people of color, Star Wars is... getting there, and the Disney properties are also, in recent years, becoming more diverse. Please reflect that in your game. It's already been proven to you that half of the players of your game are girls and women, so please consider making them have greater representation in your game. Along with people of color, too. Maybe then there truly will be infinite possibilities, but until then, it still seems to be infinite white guys, limited diversity.