Girl Gamer Identity

Earlier this week I talked to Elizabeth Ballou of Bustle about sexism in gaming (and found a fellow BioWare fangirl – always great). The resulting article, which discusses gender representation in games and talks to several other gamers, both male and female, made me think about what it means for women to identify as gamers.

One of the gamers Ballou interviewed presents a sad-but-true perspective that echoes the problem of the “fake geek girl”: “’I know I’m afraid to call myself a gamer,’ said my friend Mackenzie. ‘The moment I do will inevitably result in a guy or two calling me out, scoffing at my puny list of favorite games or lack of shooters among them. I’ve had someone say I play video games to get attention from boys. I’ve had someone say that I’m a fake. Honestly, I just love playing games.’”

The “fake gamer girl” is a subset of the “fake geek girl,” that mysterious female who appears at cons or game nights and who is automatically accused of using games or cosplay or a geek tshirt as a way to gain male attention. Nevermind that the kind of attention female gamers often garner is crude, abusive, sexist, dismissive, and demeaning. Nevermind that women might actually attend such events because they like gaming or comics or anime.

Last fall, I spoke to a class of seniors in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at UR about gaming and gender, and about fandom and gender in the gaming community. They were appalled at the kinds of treatment women received as gamers, but they weren’t really all that surprised. What surprised me was that at the start of the conversation, they all said they weren’t gamers. By the end of it, two of them admitted that they probably actually were gamers, they just didn’t want to identify as gamers because of what that meant – both within and without the gaming community.

There is still a perception outside of gaming that it’s a waste of time – and that it’s primarily done by teenage and college-age males. Within gaming, I think the community is aware of the age spread (from very young to the very old, with an average age in the late 30s), but I think there is still a misperception that “gaming” is still predominantly male. The male gamers asked about it often admit that women play games, but they play Angry Birds or Flappy Bird or Candy Crush or Wii Fit – that they’re casual gamers rather than “real” or hardcore gamers.

When I was talking with Ballou, she identified as a “casual gamer.” And then we proceeded to spend a lot of time talking about Mass Effect and Dragon Age, about Jennifer Hale’s amazing voice acting, and about whether we’d played through as both manShep and femShep (I have, she couldn’t make herself do it). We talked about the weakness of level design in Dragon Age II (seriously, all the caves are exactly the same), and she talked about how much better the narrative complexity was in Dragon Age: Origins.

This is not a conversation one has with a “casual gamer.” “Casual gamers” don’t know the names of the voice actors, they don’t talk level design, and they can’t pick apart the narrative versus gameplay nuance of an RPG series that takes 40+ hours to play. And yet women are far more likely than men to identify themselves as “casual” players as a kind of defense mechanism – particularly if they don’t play FPSs.

It’s safer to say “I’m a casual gamer” to avoid the kind of harassment or disdain that is so often targeted at gamers, particularly female gamers, so that it becomes something we often say without even thinking about it. We think about what kind of person is usually labeled as “hardcore” and we say “No, that’s not me,” and default to “casual.” But there’s so much in the middle – and so many genres of games. I’m an RPG gamer, but I also enjoy shooters and casual games (like Angry Birds or Peggle). I’ve played RTSs (Starcraft II, Age of Mythology) and tower defense and puzzle games. I’m not a stereotypical “hardcore” player – I don’t devote endless hours to Call of Duty (at least not anymore), and I’d rather play single-player than multiplayer almost any day.

I’d encourage more women to start identifying as gamers – and not as “casual” gamers, unless that’s what they really are – in large part because the more we embrace that identity, the more others will recognize it as legitimate.

Tired

So over the past week or so I’ve graduated to a new level of reaction to the rampant sexism that surrounds women in media and, especially, gaming. It’s getting to the point now where I’ve become exhausted just looking at the tweets, posts, articles, and videos. I’m tired of it being a topic of conversation, not because I think it isn’t worth remarking upon, but because I’m just tired of it being a problem.

And this worries me. It worries me because in the last month or so I’ve seen women driven out of the industry by harassment (Samantha Allen, in particular, who explains that “For Women on the Internet, It Doesn’t Get Better“), I’ve seen other women and gay men on the verge of giving up their passions and careers in games criticism and journalism, and yet the comments sections of articles just don’t stop.

Keeping up with the stories and tweets about sexism and harassment in games takes up at least three hours of my day – three hours that I could be spending working, but (because I write on gender and games) which I instead spend “keeping up with the conversation,” if a conversation it can be called. Three hours which leave me tired and depressed and wishing that either the world were a better place or I’d been instead interested in makeup and fashion or born a straight white male. (No, not really either of those last two things, but you get the idea.)

And I’ve been lucky enough not to suffer harassment beyond the occasional “You’re dumb and you don’t know what you’re talking about because you’re a woman.”

I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to write for The Learned Fangirl, where the writers are an amazing supportive group of women (and the occasional dude) of many walks and creeds and colors. Where most of the comments are civil, and even those that cross the line don’t leap across it wearing rocket boosters.

But something has been happening recently, in life and online, that strikes me as a little disturbing. I get comments that say things like “You aren’t like other women,” or “You’re not one of those feminists,” and I’ve been told that I “don’t count as a woman.” Apparently I possess the bizarre ability to “pass” as male without trying… and I’m not discussing transgender. I’m pretty much cisfemale with no effort put in (little/no makeup, jeans, tshirts), so there isn’t any confusion about my gender identity, either in person or online, where my name makes my gender pretty apparent.

And yet I “don’t count” as female. Whether this is because I don’t coo over pink things or because I don’t immediately begin to scream about the objectification of women in every game I play, I’m not sure, but it’s starting to bother me quite a bit. As much as I’m in favor of gender neutrality in terms of our valuation of skills, being told that I “don’t count as a woman” isn’t actually gender neutrality.

I’m being exempted from the gender paradigm – it still exists outside me, somehow, and is still problematic in that other women – people who “count” as women – are still being excluded or marginalized where I’m not. (I don’t WANT to be marginalized, mind you, I’m just pointing out that my exclusionary status is an indicator that sexism is very much alive and well for all I wish it weren’t.) And it’s an odd place to be. It’s odd to watch sexism and harassment from the outside, to have mansplainers talk to me as though I understand their perspective because I’m not “that kind” of woman or because I “don’t count” as the female enemy.

I wonder why I’m excluded even as I’m thankful not to be the target of threats and verbal assault, why my voice is somehow more palatable to those who would see women relegated to kitchens and bedrooms and stripclubs – and I wonder if that’s a problem. I don’t see the world as a dichotomy of “us” (women) versus “them” (men), nor do I see games as either “evil” (sexist) or “good” (feminist). I see them as products of our culture, which is deeply flawed and patriarchal, and I see some games doing good in the world, some for gender egalitarianism and acceptance, some protesting violence, some protesting racism or religious exclusion, and some not really contributing anything of quality to the cultural milieu.

But what does it mean that voices that struggle to be rational and reasonable, to acknowledge both the positives and negatives in the fight against the -isms (sexism, in my case), become co-opted by the dominant and oppressive paradigms? I don’t want to be irrational in my responses to games, but neither do I want to be aligned with misogyny simply because I won’t lambast games for their use of a damsel in distress…

And all of it makes me tired.

Next Project?

So one of the things I’ve been meaning to do for a while is play through XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Everything I have heard about said game is that it’s awesome, and I’m really hoping that all the hype (and the trailer that mentioned Heart of Darkness) isn’t going to leave me disappointed.

The purpose of this post is twofold. First, to make sure that I actually do start playing because I’ve said I would. Second, to query whether or not I should start making “as-I-play” posts about games to this blog, no matter what I’m playing. I’d give them their own tags, and people should feel more than free to ignore them as they wish, but a reader at TLF mentioned wanting to see one for this particular game. I’m not sure TLF is the place to do that (although if you want it Keidra, it’s yours), so I’m thinking of posting such a thing here, as a compromise.

I’m wondering what y’all think – please let me know in the comments, by FB comment, by private message or email, twitter, whatever ways you have of contacting me. Radio silence implies that you either don’t care, or that you think it’s a terrible idea.

Thanks!

Edit: Keidra has indeed claimed the series for TLF, so I guess it will be going up there! I’ll post a link here, as per usual.

I’ll also take suggestions for future games to do – XCOM is on the list, as is The Bureau, and in October I will be playing Inquisition, so that will also show up. Just remember that I have about two other lives on top of my gaming life, so the list will take me a long time to get through.

Fan Effect

So I was one of many people disappointed by the ending of Mass Effect 3. I was not, however, one of the people for whom the ending “ruined” the entire series. Nor was I one of the people calling for the death, destruction, or public flogging of any of the members of the BioWare staff. I did appreciate some of what they did with the new ending, even though I still think it fell far short of what people wanted from the series.

At PaxEast 2013, BioWare ran a panel at which they offered to answer fan questions about the series – and at which they presented a host of interesting demographic information about what players prefer – manShep vs. femShep, romance choices, etc. The ending of course came up.

All this serves to preface not another rant about Mass Effect 3, but as background for BioWare’s choice to ask fans for their input via survey on Mass Effect 4, which doesn’t yet have a release date (but will not include a Shep of any gender).

I’m not sure what I think of this. On the one hand, this seems like a way for the developer to get in touch with what their fanbase actually wants. On another, I know that the most vocal fans are often the hardcore fans, and do not accurately represent the desires of the majority of fans of any game. (Visiting fora for games, for instance, will give one a skewed perspective on what people like about that game.) On a third (this is an alien with more than two arms, go with it), as a cultural critic I don’t want to see developers giving up their creative freedom to the fickle and contradictory wishes of the unwashed (or even washed) masses. On a fourth, what I really don’t want to see is the inevitable internet backlash from those masses who believe that they were “ignored” by a highly experienced and decorated developer who really does probably know better than they do what makes a good game. Finally (yup, five-handed alien), I don’t want to see a game produced by crowdsourcing that is either schizophrenic or contains a lot of gestures toward things fans think they want.

What I want out of Mass Effect 4 is whatever BioWare wants the game to be. Despite the debacle of the Mass Effect 3 ending, I trust BioWare’s writers, designers, and artists to produce a high-quality game. Sure, it will have bugs. It will have things that I personally don’t like or contain narrative elements that I would not have chosen. But you know what? So does every other form of entertainment on the planet. That’s part of why BioWare games are good – they are crafted, designed, and produced by people who care deeply about the worlds and characters they contain.

This is not to say that the fans don’t care deeply, too. They do (some of us maybe too much…). But they are ultimately fans, not developers. They’re welcome, of course, to create fanart, fanfic, and whatever other fan-content they wish. They can rewrite the ending to Mass Effect 3 in their heads or on their blogs as many times and ways as they wish.But they are not the developer and they therefore don’t have – and, I would say, shouldn’t have – extensive creative input.

Of course the desires of fans are ultimately important – if a fan hates something, they won’t buy it. If they don’t buy it, the company might never make another game or will change their focus. And fans have every right to whine, complain, praise, or buy/not buy anything they wish. But what I don’t want to see is a sudden turn, especially in a company like BioWare, to a democratic system of production. Democracy is great for politics, but isn’t (usually) great in art.

Edit: xposted to TLF

TLF: You Died. Again.

My review of Dark Souls went up last night on TLF.

For the sake of full disclosure, although if you actually read the title it should be obvious, I didn’t actually play Dark Souls. I watched. If I’d tried to play it, I might have thrown my XBox down the stairs out of sheer frustration. You see, I hate dying. I hate it even more if I lose the stuff I’m carrying. And even more if I have to go back to the spot in which I died having to kill everything all over again in order to retrieve my stuff but more likely dying again thereby losing said stuff for all eternity.

However, if that doesn’t bother you, you’ll probably really enjoy Dark Souls because other than that, the game is actually really impressive and I kind of wish I could play it without kicking my console down the stairs.

Binders and Gills and Inches, Oh MY!

(Note: Please read the last two words of the title as though you are George Takei, if only for your own personal amusement.)

In what seems to be a followup to yesterday’s post about gender-customization and Ubisoft, today I get to talk about Ubisoft’s extremely questionable decision to announce that Far Cry 4 (which has already taken some heat for the blatant racism on its cover art) is, and I quote, “packed to the gills with women.” “Packed to the gills.”

First of all, I’m not terribly sure what that even means, except to correlate it with the equally bizarre and ambiguous Romney “Binders full of women” debacle from the 2012 election campaign. Really, “binders” presumably can hold more than “gills,” unless we’re talking about something like a whale shark, I suppose, which must have really large gills. (I’m not the only one making this connection, either.)

For once, the above forum thread is full of more mockery for Ubisoft than it is derision for those who find Ubisoft’s statement questionable, although I suspect largely for the ludicrous nature of the statement rather than the implied content. Continuing, “Hutchinson says the developer ‘tried very hard to make sure of the four main antagonists, half of them are women, which is cool. On your side, one of the main leaders of the rebel faction is a woman, half the rebels that fight with you are women. It’s packed to the gills with women. They’re everywhere, just like life.’”

The follow-up that this is “just like life” is almost face-smackingly stupid, given that feminist gamers have been asking for years for the demographics of games to emulate “life,” the fact that Ubisoft has actually listened for once does not merit giving them a virtual cookie, especially because in spite of the claim that Far Cry 4 is “teeming with women,” that it is “just like life,” they aren’t going to create any female protagonists. Because women can be antagonists, but not, apparently, protagonists, because that’s too much work. Also, I guess, not “just like life.” Because women aren’t heroes. (They’re not even people on the same level as corporations – but that’s another debate I’m not having here.)

But here’s the best part. As Polygon notes, “Far Cary 4 devs were ‘inches away’ from women as playable characters.” Inches. (5-8 inches, might we say?) So now we’re supposed to give Ubisoft some credit because it almost did what we wanted it to do? They almost had gender-customization for their protagonist? And the reason they didn’t?

Well, per yesterday’s post, it wasn’t because having a female protagonist would in some way derail the story. Nope. Because “When asked if he thought a woman protagonist would work in Ubisoft’s brazen and oftentimes violent open-world shooter series, Hutchinson said that yes, it could work – and it should already be working.” What happened, then?

They didn’t have a “female reading for the character.” That’s right, they just didn’t hire a female voice actor. Sure, that’s time and expense, but really? Even that soon (the article is from June 11) after what happened with the Unity announcement at E3, Ubisoft still decided to play the “animating women is hard and we’d need a female voice actor” card? (Yup, they did.)

So here’s what I don’t get. If you see how upset a significant portion of the fanbase gets when you don’t offer gender-customization for Unity and you were originally intending to provide it as an option inFar Cry 4, why on earth would you not delay release long enough to put it back in? This is not a case of “the story needs the protagonist to be a man,” as the developer states explicitly that the story not only can but should support gender-customization, but a case of corporate cost-cutting at the expense of inclusivity and creativity. This is a case where Ubisoft should look at the developer and say, “The fans want it, you want it, let’s make it happen” instead of forcing the developer to regurgitate a tired, weak, and half-assed argument that it’s “too hard” to include what he wanted to include from the beginning.

We’ve been calling for more diversity in games for a few years now – and now we’re seeing developers (yes, even white male developers) try to do it, so let’s get the publishers on board with the fact that games not only can but sometimes should include that diversity, even at a modest financial cost.

Stay Out of My Plot!

A piece today at Polygon, entitled “What if ‘he’ and ‘she’ were interchangeable in a game’s story?” seems on the surface to be asking a legitimate question about the role of gender in videogaming. However, given the piece’s brevity and failure to understand the argument with which it opens, it ends up serving more as an open door for the kind of trollish commentary that we’ve all come to expect from any attempt to rationally discuss gender in gaming.

It opens with a reference to the recent kerfluffle about Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity‘s lack of female assassins in the cooperative portion of the game. It concludes by suggesting that providing a gender-neutral option functionally deflates the game’s narrative, since “an interactive story has to be written with unique relationships between characters of various genders,” at least according to Sande Chen.

The comment section – read at your own peril – is a morass of people putting forth BioWare games as examples where this gender-neutrality works effectively, people howling about how “Tomb Raider wouldn’t work if it had a man!,” angry debates between people who believe that men and women are inherently biologically disposed to certain behaviors and those who believe biology is indeterminate, and people desperately attempting to suggest a middle ground in which we ought to just make games more diverse only to be yelled at by people crying out for “pirate diversity.” (I’m not going to address the “biological differences” bullshit in this post.)

First of all, to suggest that the problem Ubisoft brought to light is that “feminists” want all protagonist characters to be gender-neutral is silly. No one ever said that. The problem with Unity is that in a multiplayer cooperative situation gender was not one of the customizable options, when the developer went on proudly about how the character could be customized in just about any way and is shown in a whole variety of outfits. No one said that the central protagonist in a single-player narrative had to be gender-customizable.

Similarly, when people complained about GTAV, the complaint was not that all three playable protagonists were not customizable – it was that all three of them were male and that women were otherwise horribly represented in the game and the series as a whole.

Put plainly, the outcry is not that every protagonist should be gender-customizable. The outcry is that when plot and narrative do not matter and a character is otherwise completely customizable, gender should be included on that list. Even Call of Duty allows players to choose gender (as of Ghosts). Other games that do this in multiplayer: Gears of War, Mass Effect 3, Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, Dead Island, Monaco. Many of these have blank slate characters. Others have given characters personalities and traits. All of them have a choice in gender for multiplayer.

Yes, there are games that do have a gender-neutral protagonist – Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fable, Skyrim – and most of them do it well, or at least well enough. But there are also games where the identity of the protagonist in terms of race and gender are important – Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed (all the single-player campaigns), Red Dead Redemption. There are others where gender and race seem less relevant, but still have a set player-character, like Dishonored orDead Space, who does default to white male-ness, and I can see an argument being made that the “default” could be mixed up in these cases, but really I don’t care that Corvo and Isaac happen to be white men. It would be nice to have some variety, but I’m not offended by their existence.

I am offended when a new game comes out in 2014 that offers a customizable multiplayer experience in which character identity is irrelevant (because otherwise they wouldn’t all be the exact same thing, either) and gender and race are eliminated from the slate of choices. Because that’s just a sign of laziness and lack of consideration, a statement that women and racial minorities aren’t important enough to make it worth their time and effort. Sure, Ubisoft and the Assassin’s Creed series has a great track record, but that makes it more disappointing, not less.

So, Polygon, if you’re going to represent an argument for greater diversity and gender equality, at least do us the dignity of getting that argument straight. We’re not asking for all the things to be gender-customizable. We aren’t trying to “change” stories or bleed the significance from game narratives to make room for a “shell” of a player-character. We are asking that when a game is about multiplayer and customization, that the game actually be customizable, both in terms of the color of the character’s pants and what happens to be underneath them.

The New Frontier

In preparation for a co-authored piece on Tomb Raider and Red Dead Redemption, I’ve been doing some reading about frontier space and American masculinity, and something I read yesterday in Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America struck me as particularly pertinent to a lot of the sexism-related issues we’ve been seeing recently online.

Kimmel’s discussion of the West and the Western genre of novels (and films) suggests that part of the allure of the West is that it offers an escape from the drudgery of everyday life that is seen as feminized and emasculating. He writes,

As a genre the western represented the apotheosis of masculinist fantasy, a revolt not against women but against feminization. The vast prairie is the domain of male liberation from workplace humiliation, cultural feminization, and domestic emasculation. The saloon replaces the church, the campfire replaces the Victorian parlor, the range replaces the factory floor. The western is a purified, pristine male domain. (150)

In addition, Kimmel suggests that any new space was first and foremost considered masculine space, or at least space in which to prove one’s masculinity: “Finally, other men sought to revive manhood in the real jungle. If the frontier was closed, some reasoned, why not extend its boundaries beyond the borders of the continental United States and create new frontiers where men could test and prove their manhood?” (111).

In our increasingly globalized – and therefore shrinking – world, there are no new frontiers for us to explore (we haven’t yet gained the capacity to go into space, “the final frontier,” although I will bet anything that we’ll see a revisitation of the masculine frontiersman in the “space cowboy” when we do). This means that the only space left for us to treat as a frontier is digital space – the frontier of the internet and of digital gaming.

For a variety of reasons, the tech industry has become increasingly a male domain (there are a lot of books that deal with why this may have happened, even though the first programmers were actually women), which has marked digital space as masculine space in our social consciousness. As such, games, which occupy digital space, have also become marked as masculine space.

It becomes an issue when men – no, not all men – become defensive about digital space as their sole purview and domain. This is a long-standing pattern that appears to be symptomatic of Western civilization; men become highly defensive of space when they believe it is about to become “sissified” (to use Kimmel’s term) and attack those they perceive as encroaching on that space.

The inherent problem seems to come back to this idea that there must be a distinction between men and women beyond basic biology. Kimmel’s book lists a historic trajectory of trends that includes things like the fact that originally pink was a masculine color and blue was feminine, high heels were for men, and other examples of cultural gendered tropes that have been inverted over time. Given this, it becomes nearly impossible to say that “boys just like X,” or “girls don’t like Y”; the masculinization of digital space is as socially constructed as pink or blue. The whole idea of having “male” or “female” space is silly, and our social pressure for men and women to embody certain traits is equally detrimental to both.

TLF: Digital Decorating: Women as Background Decoration (TvWVG)

My response to the latest Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video – “Women as Background Decoration, Part 1″ – is up on TLF.

The short version is that I think Sarkeesian is getting better – or at least more comprehensive and thoughtful – with her series as it continues. While it still has some issues – which I address – the later videos have become more engaged and less angry lists of “bad things,” which I applaud. There’s still some points she makes with which I take issue, but overall I think she’s learning from the process and becoming a better critic for it.