Alter Egos

So here’s an interesting article about a photo project concerning real people and their online avatars by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings. I think I mentioned at one point that most of the time, if given a choice, I will choose a male avatar over a female one (and generally a non-human over a human). My husband is the opposite, typically choosing a female avatar (with the notable and disturbing exception of his Mass Effect character, which he managed to make look exactly like him).

What I like about the photo project (photographed by Robbie Cooper) is that it demonstrates something interesting and unique about online communities that is not really replicable in the real world. In short, what someone looks like online does not necessarily have any relationship whatsoever to what they look like in real life. I’m pretty sure that the majority of people, if asked, would recognize that this is likely often the case. Online avatars and user pictures – as well as usernames – give us a much more complete sense of anonymity; we are not only not giving our real names, but we’re providing an image that may not be related to any aspect of ourselves: gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, etc. In the real world, you can give someone a fake name and approximate your age, but your physical body is still an identifier that is difficult to belie.

But what I find particularly interesting about online avatars/handles/icons is that they actually do showcase something about the person in a much more intimate way than a face-to-face meeting does. An avatar shows a person’s imaginative self-identification – what they think of themselves and their skills, what they wish they could be, how they wish others to perceive them (even if only in this limited digital context).

My handle on Girl Gamer and XBox Live is the name of a little-known angel who attempted to overthrow Satan’s rebellion in heaven (and failed). I’m not entirely certain what that says about me, but it is more personal in some ways that I identify with that identity than if I were to just use my name.

My favorite of the images in the article, though, is the one below. The boy in this image has declared something rather meaningful in his choice of avatar. He refuses to be either confined or limited by the restrictions of his physical body, but he also seems to be acknowledging (by choosing what appears to be a mech, or a heavily-armored soldier at the least) that being contained by machinery is also a part of his existence. Who he chooses to be online is more him than the body we see in real life – and I think that is likely true of many people.

While most of us don’t face the real-life limitations of disability or physical confinement, we are limited by the genetics we inherited, and virtual worlds (whether game worlds or virtual space like Second Life) allow us to transcend those imposed limitations on our abilities and identities; to take the opportunity to become more or better than we are in mundane, analog space; and to create an alternate reality that allows us to decompress, to experience fiero (elation), to improve ourselves, to socialize, to do whatever it is we go there to do. Small wonder we are beginning to see more and more people escaping the cruel limitations and bigotry of the real world, engaging in what Edward Castronova calls the “digital exodus.”

But, as I’m sure is painfully obvious to a lot of people, the anonymity and non-tangible nature of the digital universe can also provide excuses for bigotry and cruelty that people would not necessarily engage in were they in a face-to-face situation. But the benefits of digital experience – whether gaming, social, etc. – I would argue, outweigh the negatives, and the recent impulse to de-anonymize online forums and communities threatens one of the most interesting and potentially freeing aspects of being online: the ability to be who and what you want to be, rather than being judged primarily for the physical body and appearance given to you by genetics.

Aveline: Female Protagonist (Assassin’s Creed)

So in all the furor over horrible depictions of women in videogames, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation has quietly made a very important point, as Kotaku‘s Evan Narcisse notes in his article. That point is that the protagonist of the new AC game is not only female, she’s also African American: “The idea of Aveline intrigues me because she’s a black woman, one who happens in the leading role of a major video game.” He also points out that Aveline would “stand out” in 1786. Which she would have, although perhaps not as much as one might immediately suppose.

But, Narcisse says, “I like that. I’m glad Ubisoft are putting black people in their made-up past. Race, gender and historical circumstances aside, Aveline isn’t any more preposterous than Altair or Ezio.” And that’s one of the best attitudes that I’ve seen concerning a female game protagonist. She’s just as unlikely as any of the previous male protagonists, which is a statement of (more or less) equality.

And Narcisse hits upon another element of the game that strikes me as particularly important (and interesting, to someone who studies Shakespeare): cross-dressing. Shakespeare’s play’s have plenty of gender-bending heroines who can “get away” with behaving like men because 1. they’re dressed as men, and 2. they actually were played by men. Narcisse says,

I also wondered if Aveline’s wanton killing of her mostly male enemies could be explained away by her role-playing as a man. Her breeches and tricorner outfit could certainly imply that. Nope was the answer to that question. In fact, she’s also going to be walking New Orleans in ladies’ fashion of the time.

Which makes me want to play this game. I was not a fan of the first AC, probably because a bug kept me from being able to actually DO anything with it. But, as Narcisse concludes,

It’s easy to project my previously documented desires onto Aveline and the other black characters that might show up in Liberation. That’s because characters like Aveline are diamond-rare in video games. No matter how the finished Assassin’s Creed Liberation turns out, she’s already valuable.

Round Tables

Last year at the Ethical Inquiry through Video Game Play and Design conference at the Prindle Institute for Ethics at Depaw University, I had the great pleasure of discovering (and playing) cooperative boardgames, specifically, Yggdrasil. Since, I’ve also been able to play Pandemic, which I like less, although it is more readily accessible for people not obsessed with Norse mythology.

I grew up playing boardgames. Monopoly, Clue, chess, Trivial Pursuit, the obligatory games of small children: Snakes and Ladders, Candyland, Sorry. In my family, we also played mah jongg (my family’s German, so no, I don’t know why we chose that as our family game of choice). But none of those were cooperative. Most games aren’t. They’re about beating other people, whether the other team or everyone else sitting at the table.

But Yggdrasil and Pandemic represent a different type of game in which the players are pitted against the game itself. In Pandemic, players oppose the spread of a disease. In Yggdrasil, though, the players play against the gods. And that’s one of the reasons I like it so much.

Perhaps it’s my competitive streak, but Pandemic‘s us-versus-the-viral-outbreak setting (while fun) is rather horribly bleak. We win, or we all die horrible, messy deaths. Yggdrasil forces you to have opponents with names and (admittedly bizarre) faces. Loki, Jormungand, Hell, Nidhogg, Sirt, Fenrir. And each has a personality (each one does something different and awful to the players). It’s much more personal than the objective horror of a virus. And while Pandemic may be simulating something more real – and therefore possibly more relevant to the real world – than Yggdrasil, there is more hope to the end of the Norse world (if you know the myth). At least if the gods win, the players are remade, the world re-created, and it continues on. In Pandemic… not so much.

But what’s really fun about both games (and, indeed, most of the cooperative videogames I’ve played in which the players are being civil to one another) is the sense of camaraderie that is produced by defeating a piece of paper with a god on it, or a pixellated wave of zombies on the screen. It creates fiero (that woo-hoo! feeling that makes you want to throw your arms up in the air and yell), yes, but it does so in a way that is intrinsically communal rather than individuated. And I think we need more of that in our lives.

So much of contemporary Western society (especially in the U.S.) is me-me-me. Games are also me-me-me. But cooperative games are us-us-us. And when they’re not just team games, but truly cooperative games, they’re even more US-US-US!! And when you play them around a table (instead of mediated through the ether of the internet), they’re US-US-US! in a completely familial kind of way. Sure, it’s a temporary feeling that wears off the minute you start to play Risk and are at each other’s throats again. But cooperative fiero is probably the closest we can get to a sense of gaming nationalism that is non-exclusionary. And that’s a feeling that we should be trying to achieve more often outside of gameplay.

We’re good at factionalism and individualism. We’re good at creating in-groups and out-groups. But what if everyone – like Arthur’s legendary round table – is actually working together against the odds, not against another nation or ethnicity or creed? Isn’t that really what we need in this world? Maybe games aren’t the way we get there, but thinking about what in games helps us achieve it, even temporarily, might help us to realize how we could begin to apply those ideas to the real problems that aren’t so easily overcome.

This Week in Gender-Related Game-News…

So this week’s Gamasutra “This Week in Video Game Criticism” did a write-up of some of the more recent incidents in misogyny and bigotry in the gaming world, which I’m going to reproduce here at length:

I would be remiss in addressing some of the higher-profile pieces of the week, starting with Leigh Alexander’s opinion piece for Gamasutra in which she speculates we’re finally seeing a positive, rising trend in the discussion of sexism and misogyny in the industry and in gamer culture– but she also notes we should address where the underlying issues of those attitudes lie:

“[In] games, as well as comics and other male-dominated nerd arenas, the business model leverages risk aversion against a habituated, narrow audience. It doesn’t favor experimenting to try to give these people newer, smarter things. More importantly, neither do the traditions of geek culture, which is founded in misunderstood people prizing their special escapes from the uninitiated, keeping sacred the spaces that make them feel powerful.

For most people, this is their identity, and if you tell them you want to change it in any way they are going to fear losing their power. It’s not surprising that issues of privilege get tangled in the morass.”

The other big sexism-among-gamers piece this week was this ill-advised opinion piece by Colin Moriarty for IGN, which in itself does not merit inclusion here, but to set the context for a couple of great response essays.

The first of these responses comes from (one of my personal favorite young game bloggers) Mattie Brice, who lays into Moriarty’s article with a heavy critique and adds:

“[What] is cute about the ‘save creativity!’ angle is how much people like Colin are protecting incredibly old, entrenched attitudes. There’s a push against how video games deal with sex because it is incredibly UNcreative. Scantily clad women with no other purpose than to be so? What is creative about that? There is nothing creative of our western culture appropriating and exotifying other cultures, we’ve been doing that way before free speech was written into law. Or the glorification of a war we had no business initiating as another excuse to shoot brown people? Something tells me that’s not the ‘fresh’ Colin is looking for. The people that Colin’s article represent don’t want anything to change, unless you consider figuring out how to get a girl as close to naked as possible without financial retribution creative.”

Touching off this, GayGamer editor and Border House contributor Denis Farr writes in his own blog that “90s Politics are Dead! Long Live 90s Politics!” critiquing the use of the terms “politically correct” and “offended” in editorials such as Moriarty’s:

“[The] idea that everyone will be offended by someone is akin to just throwing your hands up in the air and saying we may as well not to anything and just let things be. There is a certain person for whom this is a viable response, and it is typically a person to whom the market is advertising. Even if it is in an increasingly puerile and stock manner. For people who are not represented fairly or equally, it is not just a matter of being ‘offended,’ it is a matter of desiring a more rich landscape. Leaving that to the free market might sound good, but unless a desire for better and more is expressed, companies, who are typically conservative in how they want to spend money, will continue pumping out the formulae they feel are safe.”

On a little more positive note, we’re seeing an increase in the discussion of The Bechdel Test among gaming critics. In addition to this (woefully neglected) blog beginning earlier this year, the Gameological Society have treated us to a roundup of 15 games which (some of them, surprisingly) pass the test.

Lastly on the subject of sexism, we are rather late to the party on this one, but you simply must watch this hilarious dramatic reading and machinima by George Kokoris of a misogynist gamer screed. Which if nothing else is a lesson in minding what you post onto the internet, lest someone on the other end has a copy of Garry’s Mod and a booming voice.

I don’t really feel the need to comment on each of these, save to say that several people have already reacted to Moriarty’s article in a similar way to my own response, and that the Bechdel Test is an interesting example of the way we think not only about women, but about what defines “heroism” in general (and the fact that our “heroes” tend not to be women, almost across the board in popular media).

The fact that Gamasutra  is putting out an article like this (which did have some things to say about non-misogyny-related gaming news, as well) shows that people are starting to pay attention in a positive way to the elements of bigotry and misogyny in the gaming industry, which is great. If there are games that pass the Bechdel Test, that’s wonderful. If we’re starting to see public voices like Moriarty’s be criticized (and tastefully) for helping to perpetuate, if not defend, misogyny in games, that’s a sign that the industry critics and developers are trying to lead their audience in the right direction, and that gives me hope.

But whether the gaming community will allow themselves to be led (will become followers) of the developers and critics who are trying to lead them away from their entrenched bigotry and “privilege” remains to be seen. Because, as many people have pointed out, it is very hard to convince someone to leave a position of privilege.

Ultraviolence

I’m borrowing a phrase from Stanley Kubric’s Clockwork Orange and spinning off of yesterday’s post about ultraviolence in God of War, talking about the current trend and probable future of videogame violence. Interestingly, there’s a followup to the God of War thing from Kotaku, where Stephen Totilo articulates the point I’m making here: namely, that gamers do have a threshold for too much violence, for ultraviolence. By “ultraviolence” what I mean, in essence, is that not only will the violence become increasingly violent (you don’t just shoot your enemy in the head, you grab them and curb-stomp them), the depictions increasingly graphic (slow-motion shots of a head-shot), and the graphics increasingly realistic, but that we will be seeing it more and more often in games, and in quantities that are much higher.

In short, the trend in games seems to indicate that horde mode (when you face wave-after-wave of enemies, particularly of the zombie variety) is becoming increasingly popular as a multiplayer form of gameplay, the violence we see in becoming more grotesque (in Gears of War 3, for instance, the player receives an achievement for finding all the possible curb-stomp executions, rendered in gory detail), and the engines running games will become much more realistic just in basic graphical terms. Next-gen consoles will make this even more obvious as they reach a new level of graphical capabilities.

This post is not condemning videogame violence. I play Gears. I got that curb-stomp achievement, and laughed while each scene played. But there are limits to my tolerance. Gears doesn’t bother me, Left 4 Dead doesn’t bother me, because the enemies in those games are completely Otherized – they aren’t human. Violence perpetrated against aliens, monsters, and zombies is violence against something that isn’t real and isn’t human, for all that they often have profoundly human characteristics. It’s one of the reasons why videogames released in Germany have to use green blood (instead of red) – it makes the targets less human.

I do get a little squeamish when I have to kill humans – especially innocent ones – and their deaths are gory. Maybe that’s hypocritical, maybe it’s a natural product of in-group/out-group psychology. I didn’t like that level in Modern Warfare where I was supposed to help shoot civilians in an airport – which is not to say that I think they should not have included it. I think they did something very interesting by deliberately including it, and I will defend their right to do so. I just didn’t feel comfortable about it. I didn’t feel comfortable harvesting the little sisters in Bioshock, despite their creepy inhuman glowing eyes. I’m made really uncomfortable by Saint’s Row (despite its clear sarcasm) and Grand Theft Auto.

To be fair, I didn’t like shooting many of the alien species in Mass Effect, either, because they had been de-Otherized – they were speaking, feeling members of the galactic community of which my character was also a part. They were “like me” in the important senses, where zombies really are not. Especially Nazi zombies, who make appearances in several games.

But the point I want to get to – and one which my industry-working husband made the other day – is that while we will see a surge in this ultraviolence in the next few generations of games (and with the next-gen of consoles), we will also likely see a drop-off of ultraviolence except among a small contingent of fans. People love to kill things when they don’t feel bad about it – monsters, zombies, and hordes of insectoid aliens just don’t evoke empathy. They allow for cathartic violence that doesn’t require us to consider the implications of that violence.

Similarly, multiplayer games with respawn remove the “realism” from even the most realistic games. Modern Warfare multiplayer, for instance, ceases to be about eliminating your enemies (as human as they and their avatars are, since you are playing with and against actual people), and becomes more about tagging them, in a way. They come right back, whether in seconds or at the end of the round (in elimination deathmatch).

Games are also not really fully realistic – they grow more graphically complex and “real” every day, but they’re still clearly not “photorealistic.” You don’t mistake videogame graphics for live-action (with people)… yet. But we’re rapidly approaching a generation of consoles with the technological capacity to make that person we’re shooting at look like a “real” person, instead of a pixel-generated avatar. Add in more realistic in-game physics, and games will be able to accurately simulate what shooting a live human being would look like.

So what are the consequences of such Otherized violence? Do games like these make us more inclined to commit acts of actual violence against one another? What happens when ultraviolence becomes more commonplace?

I think my husband is probably right, and Stephen Totilo from Kotaku agrees. I think we’ll see a wave of games that showcase ultraviolence that is also realistic, and that they won’t do as well as we might think. I think people will be amazed by the technology, but they’ll want to go back to Team Fortress‘s cartoonish violence with exploding confetti in birthday mode. They’ll want zombies and aliens instead of humans, and they’ll want the cartoon-ish “style” of their old games, because it’s just so much harder to enjoy catharsis when you’re feeling terrible about what you’ve just simulated. And I think most people will feel bad – most people don’t enjoy watching excessive violence (think the Saw movies). Yes, some people do enjoy so-called “torture porn,” but most don’t. And some people will enjoy hyper-realistic ultraviolence in videogames, but most won’t.

Will playing ultraviolent, hyper-realistic videogames make us more violent as a culture? No, I don’t think so. Using a console is a profoundly different experience than holding a real gun, and people understand the distinction. I would not advocate letting a five-year-old play Modern Warfare, but I’m certainly no more likely to physically harm someone for having played it myself as an adult (nor am I more violent for having played Duke Nukem as a teenager). As with all things, videogames are age-appropriate and should be treated as such, but they are no more likely than any other form of entertainment to encourage socially deviant behaviors. So while yes, I think we will see a surge in hyper-realistic videogame violence, I don’t see it as a cause for concern. The industry will balance itself out, as with all forms of technology, and we will find an equilibrium that I think will return us to a more distanced, Otherized form of the genre.

What this tells us about the role of games as potential vectors for leadership is simply that people, generally speaking, want to help people. If we can find a way to consider others as part of a global in-group, we can mitigate our violent impulses. Is that likely? I don’t really think so, although I would like to think it could be. The question becomes whether, as with games, we will need a new global enemy (first contact with an alien species?) in order to move our current human Others into our in-group. Human beings are violent creatures – we enjoy violence in our entertainment and react with violence to perceived threats in our reality. Perhaps there is a way to surmount this, and, if so, videogames may cease altogether to be violent. But I’m not really seeing that as realistic.

More Silencing

Feminist Frequency just posted a tweet about how an organization called Gamers Against Bigotry was hacked and shut down for putting together a database of people who are willing to pledge that they will not engage in bigoted behavior online and within their gaming communities.

They are not demanding money. The pledge is as follows:

As a gamer, I realize I contribute to an incredibly diverse social network of gamers around the world, and that my actions have the ability to impact others. In effort to make a positive impact, and to create a community that is welcoming to all, I pledge to not use bigoted language while gaming, online and otherwise.

Bigoted language includes, but is not limited to, slurs based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.

It is tantamount to the sorts of honor pledges that many of us made or were asked to make in high school to avoid drugs, alcohol, and smoking. There is no legal, financial, or even social repercussion to signing or not signing. It is entirely voluntary.

And apparently threatening enough that there is a concerted effort to shut down the database and erase it, which happens every time the folks at GAB think they have it up and running again.

So what, precisely, is so threatening about what GAB is doing? They’re not a legal entity and they do not have the power to enforce bans or sanctions against players in any online communities. They are, for instance, asking people to stop using the word “rape” casually, asking people not to use racial, gender, or sexual slurs against one another, and asking people to be overall respectful of the basic humanity of the other people with whom they are playing and interacting.

Perhaps the backlash against GAB comes for some of the reasons I’ve mentioned before, but there seems to be more to it than that. This isn’t just the internet equivalent of jumping up and down and waving one’s hands about in order to distract people from an issue (which is what trolls generally do). This is the active shutting down of a site dedicated to basic decency. Which is to say, there are enough people out there in the gaming community who feel strongly that they should have the right to be abusive and bigoted that they will put in a concerted effort to silence those who want nothing more than to not be abused.

This goes beyond the issue of free speech and hate speech – what is happening here isn’t “hate speech” in the same way that I’ve talked about it before. This is the spiteful censoring of non-hate speech in what appears to be preemptive retaliation for the censoring of hate speech. In short, an attempt to make sure that the only speech is hate-speech.

And I find this particularly alarming because it says to me that there is a large and active enough contingent out there who not only are willing to be abusive, but who want to actively stop others from protesting abuse. It tells me that the ideology of the gaming community is abusive and bigoted, and that such behavior is not only going to be tolerated, but even encouraged because it keeps winning. And that is why it’s important for Anita Sarkeesian to keep doing what she’s doing. Why it’s important for GAB to get itself back up and running. And why it’s vital that we keep talking and not allow ourselves to be silenced.

Update 4.58pm 23 July: Both Sam Killermann’s website and GAB’s site are completely down as a result of hacking. You can still follow them on twitter as GAB648. I’ll keep updating here as things change…

Drawing the Line

Gamasutra recently posted an article about how the next God of War game is going to curtail violence against women. As they point out, it is unclear precisely how that is going to manifest itself in the game. The quotation from Sony Santa Monica that opens the article is vague, at best, and seems (at least to me) to be pandering a bit to current events amidst the gaming community:

There are some things we’ve pulled back from. I think where this has been an issue is with violence against women — the team’s pulled back from some of that and assessed that a little more carefully.

On the one hand, I applaud the fact that the industry is showing signs of retracting content that abuses women. On the other, I can’t help but think that the vagueness is actually a sign of an attempt to ward off future criticism from someone like Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency. Gamasutra‘s Frank Cifaldi also points out that the designers are doing their best to make Kratos appear as though he isn’t enjoying the ultraviolent acts he’s committing in the game.

As someone who has played God of War, I can tell you that what Kratos’s expression may or may not be is utterly irrelevant. The ultraviolence in the series is just plain fun. The use of the blades, the drop-kicking of Cerberus puppies (which are trying to bite your feet off, in my defense), those are what make the God of War series so awesome. It doesn’t matter a whit what Kratos’s expression says about his emotional investment (or lack thereof).

But, more importantly, God of War is not the game I would consider the worst in terms of its depictions of women. Sure, it has sexualized female NPCs (and there are a couple of harlots Kratos can sleep with at the start of 2, I believe), but nothing gratuitously over-the-top in terms of genre. And this is a point made by commenters on the article, the first of whom asks, “Which women are they talking about? Do they mean the gorgons and harpies?”

This question spurs my next one: are they talking about curtailing the violence Kratos commits against women (which would be the gorgons and harpies who are usually trying to kill him), or are they talking about cut-scene depictions of violence against women, such as Kratos’s wife? And, if so, why is it that they feel they need to cut these depictions? Presumably, such scenes would serve as Kratos’s motivation – in short, these scenes would condemn violence against women by demonizing it… which, in my opinion, is not inherently misogynist because it would be criticizing misogyny.

Which brings me to the point of another commenter, who says, “Does anyone think that drawing that line is in itself sexist?” And I think he (and it is a he) is right. By focusing specifically on the fact that they are “curtailing” violence against women, the developers are trying to wave the white flag at misogyny: “We’re not misogynist! We’re cutting out violence against women!”

Here’s the key. I’m all for condemning violence against women (and men, honestly), but sometimes that means it has to be shown. As in the video of Lauren Luke putting on makeup “the morning after,” showing violence is sometimes necessary in order to effectively condemn it. (That being said, this video does bother me, although I still can’t quite ascertain what about it makes me so uncomfortable.) Ignoring the fact that violence happens can be a form of silencing – if no one sees it, then no one recognizes it as problematic.

But I can’t really condemn the God of War developers without knowing what they mean when they say they’re going to curtail violence against women in the game. What I am is skeptical about the motivations that lead them to make such a generalized, sweeping statement out of context and in a framework of recent internet hype about videogames and misogyny. So perhaps my cynicism is unwarranted, but it seems to me that they really just want someone to pat them on the head and tell them they’re being “feminist,” when what they’re really doing is giving lip-service to the issue in order to avoid having to really deal with it.

Mature Play

Rob Fahey’s article at gamesindustry international, “A Question of Maturity,” makes an argument that games are not yet capable of being “mature,” saying that “You can’t make someone experience love through a video game, or sorrow.” On the one hand, no, of course you can’t. You can’t make a (healthy, well-adjusted) player fall in love with an NPC. But a film can’t make you experience love with a character on-screen, either. Not really. But it can approximate it, and – I would argue – there are players of videogames who also feel approximations of love and (certainly) sorrow.

I think that the problem with Fahey’s argument is not that we shouldn’t keep trying to mature games as a genre, shouldn’t keep pushing the limits of our creative and emotional juices, because we very clearly should. Art stagnates when it ceases to push all limits. But I think Fahey is just plain wrong that videogames can’t make people feel complex emotions. I think they absolutely can, and do.

Fahey does make the point that the attitude that videogames just “can’t do it” is wrong: the idea that we should “Make games that are fun – if you want to explore something bigger and more important, go and write a book or make a film,” is reductive and diminishes the artistic and social value of game design, game art, and game narrative. Fahey argues that we should “Keep trying, and try harder.” Okay, I’m with him in this. He’s also right that the “medium is very young and it’s going to make a lot of mistakes.” Yes, it absolutely is. But maturity does not mean a lack of mistakes. There are any number of films out there that are both immature and ineffective.

What really bothers me about Fahey’s argument is that he implies that “core” gaming is immature because “core” games are shooters. There is nothing inherently immature about shooters as a genre, any more than a romantic comedy or an action film is inherently immature. Yes, there are a lot of immature versions of those genres, but that doesn’t automatically relegate every example of the genre to a level of relative immaturity. Fahey’s example of testicle-shooting may be immature (on multiple levels, and one of those is Fahey’s), but that doesn’t mean that Halo or Call of Duty don’t have complex and mature contributions to make to the social milieu.

I think the biggest issue with Fahey’s argument is that it assumes that because games will continue to evolve in content and complexity, that what we have now is somehow not worthy of consideration as either art or social commentary. And I have a big problem with that relegation of videogames to the sidelines simply because they have more future in front of them than they have history. Of course the genre doesn’t have centuries of work in its pocket the way literature does, but that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of making mature commentary.

In fact, I think what bothers me the most about this piece isn’t what Fahey himself is saying, it’s the underlying assumption that so many people are taking for granted – which is that they don’t have to try harder because they have the “free pass” that videogames are an immature genre. I think that if we’ve learned anything from the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle, it’s that fans are no longer willing to accept immaturity in terms of plot and characterization across the board. Certainly, many fans are granting passes to other games that should be doing more in those terms (as I said earlier about Diablo III, for example), but we are starting to notice and starting to expect more – and the more we expect of our games, the more likely they will deliver.

Games may be a young genre, but that is no excuse for immature behavior, any more than we should grant a “free pass” to someone who is thirty instead of seventy. Videogames are past their childhood and adolescence. They have a long life ahead of them, yes, but it’s high time we start expecting adult behavior out of them. To say nothing of out of the gamers who play them.

The R-Word (Trigger warning)

So recently there has been a lot of hype surfacing around the “culture of rape” that exists in games and on the internet. But it’s also surfaced in more “common” forums, such as when comedian Daniel Tosh made a “rape-joke” and was called out for it in person and via twitter. It’s also come up with regards to the newest Tomb Raider. Anyone who has ever spent any time on Fark will also know that there are several consistently repeated memes that also make rape jokes (specifically, prison-rape jokes).

Tosh’s joke prompted the response from an audience member that “rape jokes are never funny,” and Tosh responded by suggesting that it would be funny of that audience member (who happened to be female) were raped right then and there. The issue, of course, is not whether rape jokes are funny, but whether or not they should even be allowed. As Jezebel’s Lindy West points out in the article, “At this point, the conversation has devolved into two polarized camps: outraged feminists arguing that ‘rape jokes are never funny,’ and defensive comics wailing about how the ‘thought police’ is ‘silencing’ them.”

West takes an interesting and somewhat unexpected stance on the point: that both sides are actually wrong. She thinks that making rape jokes is okay even though rape itself is horrible and wrong. She also thinks that Tosh was irresponsible and disrespectful in the way that he used the topic.

And then she addresses the central point, which is that people have the right to censor things when they feel they are inappropriate, but not the right to stop them from being said to begin with. In other words, if fans want to refuse to listen to Tosh because of this, then that is their right. If he has no fan base and is fired, that is not silencing Tosh (who is welcome to keep speaking all he wants), that is responding to the audience’s corresponding freedom to listen/disapprove.

In short, people should think about what they say before they say it based on the response they want/expect to receive. She puts it crudely, but accurately: “This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an ‘equal-opportunity offender,’ is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did ‘not censoring yourself’ become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks….So when you make a joke in that room that trivializes rape or mocks rape victims, you are deliberately (because now you know!) harming those people. On purpose. Not because you’re a rapist—you’re probably not—but because you’re selfish and amateurish and lazy and scared.” Essentially, West comes down on the side of community – rather than organizational – censorship. If we don’t like what we’re hearing, then we as the audience need to tell the speaker that we don’t like it and don’t want to hear it. And then hope they will self-censor out of a sense of their own humanity.

But does what works in comedy and entertainment also work for online communities? For games? Can we rely on the gaming community to call for censorship of offensive material loudly enough that companies running the communities will enforce the audience demands (in the way that West suggests Comedy Central would if the fan outcry against Tosh were loud enough)? Or will a sense of decency and humanity prevail in a space that is largely anonymous and doesn’t involve having to look the person you’ve just harassed in the face?

In the case of Tomb Raider and the attempted rape/not-rape of Lara Croft, there seems to be a bit of panic concerning terminology. The problem there, for me, is not that the game portrays a scene of sexual assault (because, at least to me, that’s what it is), but that the PR people are afraid to admit it. The inclusion of sexual assault and rape in a videogame should not be censored any more than it is in films or on television shows. It’s disturbing, yes, but the point being made – even in Tomb Raider – is that it is bad. Players, they point out, want to “protect” Lara, and that is an indication that people are responding appropriately. They don’t like it. They want to eliminate it. And that’s a good thing. But it’s something that should be talked about, not censored with vague euphemisms like “close physical intimidation” or “pathological situation.”

For instance, at the end of her article, West actually chooses four rape jokes she thinks “work.” All four are commentary – used ironically or sarcastically to make the suggestion that rape is actually bad, not intrinsically funny. And that’s the difference, she seems to imply, between Tosh’s poor joke and the ones made by the other comedians.

And I think that’s really the point. Shakespeare didn’t put the rape of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus because he thought it was funny. He didn’t have the hand- and toungue-less Lavinia pick up Titus’s chopped-off hand in her teeth because he thought rape was a good idea, either, even though watching it is funny. He included it because sometimes in order to face and talk about horrible things we have to make them darkly humorous. It’s the same reason that Team Fortress 2 is occasionally hilarious despite its violence (and is especially so in the “Meet the…” video series). The game itself doesn’t condone wanton homicide… but it uses it to expose the irony that we seem to only be capable of working together when there’s an opposition, that we as a species bond over acts of violence and atrocity and idolize those who commit those acts in our works of art.

Using violence and yes, rape, in a darkly funny way to comment on the horror of human atrocity should be acceptable in the right place and context. Yes, it will offend some people, and they should have the right to say so and to avoid the places, people, and products that make them uncomfortable. They should be able to do so without fear of condemnation or the feeling of being belittled or victimized. There should be places and situations where such jokes are inappropriate and unacceptable, but there should also be places where it is. And that is really where this comes back to so many of the discussions I’ve posted on recently – the ability to choose to listen or to be forced to endure. What happened, for instance, with Sarkeesian was forced on her, directly attacked her, and was not an issue of “freedom of speech.” It was an issue of abuse.

So to come back to a central question – do we rely on institutions to do our so-called “thought policing”? Part of me wants to say “yes,” but part of me knows that “thought police” do not distinguish irony or sarcasm or social commentary from abuse very well. Which leaves me feeling uncertain, because while I think that XBL should probably ban or limit participation on abusive behavior, I don’t think they have the right to restrict legitimate commentary, even if it does contain a rape joke, and I don’t trust institutionalized mediation to be able (or willing) to make the distinction.

Part Three: Why Are Game(r)s Special?

In the last of this triptych, I want to talk about why this is happening in this particular way, with these particular people, and concerning this particular topic.

In part, this post stems from my curiosity as to why Sarkeesian didn’t receive inordinate amounts of harassment for any of her other “Tropes vs. Women” projects – in other words, why is the idea of a woman speaking about misogyny in videogames any “worse” than speaking about misogyny in print or on television?

Dr. Nerdlove’s (DN) article has an answer: “The misogyny we’re seeing in nerd culture is more about what happens when entitlement and resentment melt together and form a bitter little pill.” This springs from the fact that “nerds frequently see themselves as ‘special’; we are the outcasts and misfits whom society looks down upon but are unaware that secretly we are in fact superior beings in disguise.”

I’ve been a nerd for a long time. Since before Big Bang Theory and PAX and even the invention of the Xbox. I played games on my computer when it was a Compaq portable that need three large floppy disks to boot to DOS (and if that made no sense to you, that should tell you just how nerdy I am). And as much as it stings to admit, yes, geek culture does think of itself as a collective of misunderstood geniuses.

But we’re not. The stereotypes of nerds and geeks exist because “misunderstood” has often been a loose translation of “socially awkward,” and this spate of vile misogyny is really not going to help matters. (While I’ve said, and it’s true, that more and more people are becoming gamers, those people are not necessarily all nerds/geeks in the sense that DN and I mean, here.) Geeks/nerds form their own community because, as DN says, “we all understand each other,” or, at least, I thought we did.

I understand a lot of it, but as a female, I can’t understand the sort of stuff that’s been happening recently. And I’m sure that SWMs (straight white males) don’t really understand what it’s like to be anything but SWMs. But, honestly, I expect more out of nerds and geeks because they should understand what it’s like to be ostracized and discounted, whether they’re SWMs or not. They should know better and they should recognize when they’re doing the same thing to others that has been done to them. While DN argues that the sci fi and geek cultures have been largely occupied by SWMs (which is true), that doesn’t excuse their inability to empathize with others.

DN says that part of the problem is that “they tend to see women as intimidating. That intimidation makes them angry.” That’s not an excuse (and DN isn’t saying it’s a legitimate one). Geek, and, specifically, geek-gaming culture’s response to the perceived threat of “you’ll take the sexy women out of my games” is misogynistic psychological violence, and that should not be acceptable. But it’s wildly out of proportion.

The fantasy of being powerful and attractive and everything to pretty much everyone isn’t under threat. Player-characters will continue to be heroic savers-of-the-universe-who-get-the-girl/guy in the end. They will continue to be sexy. They just might do it in more practical clothing, and that’s not going to “ruin” your game.

DN’s conclusion is worth looking at:

The fucked up part is that this isn’t a zero-sum game. Nobody is trying to take men’s toys away – unless you are so vested in the ability to revel in the worst impulses of bullshit images of masculinity that you can’t stand life without it. All that’s being asked is that we acknowledge that things in geek culture have been a little fucked up and to try and make things less fucked up in the future so that everybody can enjoy it.