Monthly Archives: August 2012

Girl… er… Guild Wars

I would like to start by acknowledging that I don’t play Guild Wars and have no intention of playing Guild Wars 2 – although not because of anything about to be included in this post. Today’s Border House blog makes some interesting comments from the perspective of someone who does play GW2, and I think those comments are generalizable not only to most games, but to a lot of other media, as well.

Here’s the crux of it:

Right now, I’d like to discuss the Sons of Svanir and the Flame Legion, who are the antagonist factions for the norn and the charr respectively. One thing that these two groups have in common is a “no girls allowed” sign hung outside their metaphorical clubhouses. I’m not certain how I feel about this.

If you dig into the lore, you’ll find they have pretty similar rationales for the exclusion of women. In both cases, there was a woman hundreds of years ago who stood up to them, and they decided to generalise from that woman to all women, decide that women can’t be trusted, and ostracise them thereafter.

I want to say that this is just cartoon supervillainy, with the evil turned up to 11. I want to say that it’s as if they revealed that these factions stand for punching kittens and pouring toxic waste in duck ponds. I want to say that, but I can’t, because that kind of ridiculous exclusion of women is too prevalent, still, in real life.

There are a couple of things here that I feel are worth commenting on, and one of them has nothing to do with misogyny (in or out of games). First, like Rho, I’m not really sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, misogyny is being villainized, albeit in a rather cartoonish way. If the bad guys have a sign that says “no girls allowed,” then excluding women is bad, right?

Well, not really. Yes, that level of it is there. But the legend behind the rationale in-game is that some woman way back when did something bad and so all women are therefore inferior rings rather too true with the basic biblical mythology of Adam and Eve for comfort. Sure, that could be GW2’s intention – criticize the basis of misogyny as a long-past and likely mythological origin that functions as a weak excuse. But here’s the thing… It’s so silly that it ceases to be functional. Yes, it’s better than the good guys having a “no girls allowed” sign, but a better criticism of misogyny would simply be to exclude it altogether. For instance, inDragon Age(which I’m currently replaying), there are both women and men in positions of power, both women and men in the military, and both women and men as both good and bad, smart and stupid.

In essence, while I appreciate the “effort” (a sentiment Rho ultimately agrees with), it feels a bit forced and juvenile. I want to see games that are making more mature statements than “It isn’t nice to exclude girls,” but I have to applaud the idea that someone is at least willing to say it.

My other thought – the one not related to misogyny, specifically – is with the two-dimensional nature of many videogames and fantasy narratives across media (books, tv, film), what Rho calls “cartoon supervillainy.” In essence, the kind of symbolism that comes shaped like a large club with nails sticking out of it. Like having your “bad guys” post a sign that says “No girls allowed.” That kind of bad symbolism.

Basically, I’m tired of fantasy narratives that have a clear good vs. evil dichotomy, and I’m even more tired of it being so painfully obvious. Horrid demonic brain-eating creatures make for easy, guilt-free kills in a videogame, so I understand the impulse to use them, but it doesn’t give you a very satisfying narrative development. Yes, horde-modes of wave after wave of zombies can be cathartic, but they aren’t narratively interesting, and they don’t provide much in the way of artistic or sociological merit. If your goal is catharsis, fine. But for narrative genres (and the narrative portions of games), you need more. You need to make that dichotomy more complex (as in Dragon Age: Awakening, where the mindless zombie does its best to convince you that it isn’t mindless and it really wants peace… which may very well be true) or eliminate the fallacy of dichotomies to begin with, as life isn’t dichotomous in the least. Good people do bad things and hold stupid opinions, and bad people can do good things and hold intelligent opinions. Life is complex, and art – including videogames – should not only reflect, but reflect on it.

Moral Games

Since at present I’m both replaying and revising a paper on Dragon Age II, when I saw Tom Biggs’s article on morality and gaming at IGN, I was intrigued, and then a bit annoyed. Biggs argues that “real-world morals” have no place in videogaming. On the one hand, his point that games are not reality and the moral choices one makes in a game do not directly correspond to the way one would make those same moral choices in the real world is true. One might play a game as a criminal, as in Grand Theft Auto, or a “renegade” in Mass Effect, or by harvesting the Little Sisters in Bioshock without actually being the type of person who would do those things in the real world (not that we have Little Sisters in the real world…).

However, that doesn’t mean that real-world morals are not applicable to videogames. What it means is that the process by which one applies them is different. Our ethics are our ethics, whether we are playing a game or functioning in the real world. We may be more inclined to choose to go against those ethics when we’re in a simulated or virtual world – like that of a game, whether video or role-playing or otherwise – but that doesn’t mean those morals aren’t a part of the gameplay experience.

For instance, when my students have played through Bioshock and faced the choice of saving or harvesting the first Little Sister, with Atlas and Tennenbaum both exhorting them in different directions, they fell back on their own ethical bent in order to make the decision. Some said, “it’s a child, I can’t kill it.” Some said, “it isn’t human anymore, I can kill it because that’s to my benefit.” Some said, “it’s creepy – make it go away.” Some were influenced by the fact that Atlas had been helping them navigate the world. Some were influenced by the fact that Tennenbaum is female, others by the fact that they knew her background as a scientist who experimented on human beings, or by the fact that she had a German accent and was thereby affiliated with Nazism in their minds.

But no matter what decision they made, their ethics were a part of that decision, even if they chose to go against those ethics, just to see what would happen. And that’s the key to all this. While Biggs suggests that real-world morality and ethics aren’t relevant, what he’s really saying is that those ethics need not limit a player’s decisions in gamespace because the consequences aren’t as fully enacted – they’re virtual, for the most part. The consequences that remain are game-related, but they are also emotional. Some people just can’t bring themselves to harvest a digital little girl with glowing eyes because she’s still a little girl – their real-world ethics win out over their curiosity or their revulsion.

Now the anecdote with which Biggs opens is a prime example of this:

While playing The Godfather back in 2007, my friend’s father walked into the room just in time to see my character ‘Aldo’ throw a random passer-by against a wall and beat him senseless. The old man was outraged by this, lecturing us about the ‘junk’ we were playing. His reaction is not uncommon, I fear, as evidenced by the long and vitriolic history our hobby has with moral outrage.

The father in this story was not able to separate his real-world ethics from what he saw the boys playing. But the boys, as gamers, were able to construct a secondary set of ethical drives. They recognized, as Biggs says, that “every game has its own internal logic – separate from the real world – that governs the play, informs your decisions and dictates what’s acceptable within the system.”

And he’s right. The ethos that governs a game is not the same ethos that governs our real-world lives. But it does overlap, and we are being encouraged to examine the ethics that cause us to make the decisions we make, both in the real world and in gamespace. GTA and Saint’s Row have systems where crime is not only permissible, but encouraged, but that doesn’t mean that our real-world ethics aren’t relevant – it just means that they come into play (pun intended) in a different way. We are meant to consider our own ethics – why we make the ethical decisions that we do – based on our willingness to bend those ethics in a virtual environment. We’re meant to think about whether we would make the same decisions in the real world, and why or why not.

That doesn’t sound like irrelevance to me. It’s a different way of applying ethics and morals, yes, but it’s a way that is every bit as relevant and valid as making a real-world decision. So when Biggs says “What it cannot do is make the internal logical and moral systems of a game have any bearing on the morality of the everyday,” he’s wrong. Gaming – play – does have a very real bearing on the morality of the everyday, just not in the way that the father of his story might have believed.

Games and play help us consider not only what our morals are, but where they come from and how they are shaped. Games and play let us experiment with those ethics, examine their validity in a variety of situations without the stress of real-world consequences. Games and play enable us to reexamine not only our ethos and morality, but the ideological foundations that underpin them – and allow us to consider and reconsider the reasons why be believe in the things we believe in, and to reevaluate when necessary. Not only do real-world ethics have a huge place in videogames, but games and play of all kinds have a huge place in forming those ethics to begin with, from the time we are children through to the games we play as adults.

What we need to be cautious about – and Biggs is as guilty of this as the father in his story – is assuming that we need to behave in games as we would in real life in order to be moral. Children pretend to be people they are not, in situations in which they are not, in order to test out their ethical development. Adult play – video- and other games – does the same thing. It’s actually vital to our continued development as a society that our ethics continue to evolve with changing technology and ideologies, and continued play (whether in virtual or real space) is an essential part of that.

Is this really necessary?

So while browsing through my twitter feed yesterday, this article pops up from gameranx: “Dead or Alive Devs Went ‘Hands-On’ to Get the Breast Physics Right in Dead or Alive 5.” My first thought – “Is this really news-worthy?” – was immediately followed by “And is that really necessary?” And I’m not sure what my answer is, at the end of it all.

The article itself acknowledges that there have been reactions from both sides – the side that finds the game’s copyrighted breast-physics entertaining and the side that finds it disgusting/degrading. I’m pretty sure there’s also a sizable side that doesn’t care one way or another, but they’re the side that doesn’t speak up, so I’m not going to deal with them.

I’m torn, personally. The part of me that is a technician and (perhaps) an artist recognizes the desire for realism. If you want to have realistic physics and your physics engine is capable of rendering objects as they would appear in real life, why shouldn’t the breasts in your game have realistic physics? They should. It’s simply a part of the general realistic milieu. The part of me that’s a feminist is a little horrified, especially at the idea of the need for “hands-on” work in order to determine breast-physics. I mean, really? Do you really need “hands-on” experience? (And if the experience itself involves waterballoons or something equally innocuous, did you really need to call it “hands-on”?)

I like the idea that games are trying to approximate reality. I like the idea that they’re trying to produce realistic female bodies (although I will admit that I find it unlikely that the women in this game are going to be “realistic” in any sense of the word that I would actually condone, breast-physics aside). I’m not sure that breast-physics are really necessary, and I’m really sure that copyrighting them is absolutely unnecessary. Nor am I completely sure what that means. (Does it mean that other companies would need to write their own algorithm for realistic breast-bouncing? Or does it mean that the breasts in their games do not behave realistically?)

Either way, I’m certain that – despite the fact that I decided to devote a post to it – it shouldn’t be news-worthy, nor should it really be a selling-point for the game, although I know it is (and therefore can’t really fault them for marketing to it, since it will help the game to sell).

But I think that the fact that all the article talks about in the game is breast-physics says something about the kinds of attitudes expected of and evinced by the gaming community. Since over 40% of the community is women, I’m guessing a similar percentage also don’t really care about realistic bounce, and I think that while its fine for games to strive for verisimilitude, advertising the bounce over the gameplay is going a bit too far over the line for good taste.

Who We Play

After having played (and re-played) both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, it occurs to me that a discussion of the portrayal of gender in the games themselves ought rightfully to include the gender of the player-character.

Most of the time, I play as a male avatar. But not in Mass Effect. Now, I have played through at least one game in both series (once each) with the opposite gender from my “primary” choice (ME3 as a male, DAI as a female), and while I liked my male-Shepard, he wasn’t quite “right.” Ditto with my female-Warden. Which makes me wonder – since I’m the same player – why female-Shepard works for me where a female-Warden or female-Hawke does not.

I think it’s all about setting, actually. In a quasi-medieval setting (like that of Dragon Age), the gendered stereotypes of women which accompany that “mindset,” I think, continue to pervade even in the fictionalized (and largely gender-neutral) world of the game. I find this to be the case in medievalesque fantasy worlds in general (in novels, films, and games), even when the creator(s) make a point of gender egalitarianism or even matriarchy. Women still “feel” socially inferior.

The Mass Effect universe, however, is sci fi futurism, and presumably in a time and space where gender is much lower on the list of things people worry about. Racism – which perhaps should more appropriately be called speciesism in ME – is the primary concern, as, I think, it would be in confrontations between alien cultures. We’re working toward that social place in our contemporary world, so it would make sense that a future one would have gotten things more or less sorted out.

But I think character also has a lot to do with it. The Warden in DA is silent (literally), which just “feels” more male (from a Western social perspective). Shepard is not. Of course, what Shepard has to say is almost entirely removed from gendered ideas, as the male and female versions have almost identical dialogue (almost). And, really, what Shepard says seems just as appropriate either way, but Shepard just feels like a “she.”

And female-Shepard is my most favorite female protagonist player-character precisely because she was designed as a male. Now that might seem completely counter-intuitive. Why does a male-designed Shepard make a good female character?

Because a good female character isn’t created as a female character (and especially not by a design team is almost totally male), she’s created as a character who just happens to be female. My guess is that a male-Shepard is a good female-Shepard because when a male-dominant design team makes a male character, they aren’t thinking about gender. They’re just thinking about what makes a good character. And it just so happens that the things that make a good character also make for a good female character.

But the Warden shouldn’t be any different, logically speaking. Yet, to me, he is. For some reason, the Warden feels better as a male. Perhaps it is the assumptions I bring with me about medieval worlds. Perhaps its because of the “silent and stoic” image of the male hero. Perhaps its because my general preference for fantasy protagonists is for males instead of females (and I tend to read more sci fi with female protagonists than I do fantasy with female protagonists).

But really, I think one of the reasons I like Bioware’s character designs so much is that their player-characters make for good characters in both directions. Sure, I have a preference, but I think that ultimately they work because they aren’t designed to “be” or to “be for” a specific gender (see my earlier post about gendered games). And I think that, in general, my preference for male avatars springs from my desire to play a character, not a “girl.”

So does this make me a videogame misogynist? Maybe, but I doubt it. I think that what’s happening is that I’m feeling the general discomfort that mostly-male design teams have in creating a female protagonist. After all, I loved Chell, who is a woman designed by a woman… and many players didn’t notice she was female until well into the game. And that’s what I think a player-character really should be. A character whose gender doesn’t ultimately matter (whether because, as in Bioware games, you can choose either gender or because you don’t “feel” like the gender is being imposed) – they’re just a good character.

I Play Halo on Legendary

Yesterday a Border House article popped up on my twitter feed that sent me into fits. Gunthera1 from Border House reported on the new announcement that Borderlands 2 will have a casual mode for inexperienced players, followed up this morning by a second Border House post by Cuppycake. The story was repeated on gameranx. Great. What does this have to do with my ability to play Halo on Legendary? Because the lead designer, John Hemingway, said the following:

“The design team was looking at the concept art and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we’ve ever had. I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree. This is, I love Borderlands and I want to share it with someone, but they suck at first-person shooters. Can we make a skill tree that actually allows them to understand the game and to play the game? That’s what our attempt with the Best Friends Forever skill tree is.”

The presumption of the idea that “Easy” or “Casual” mode in a game is “Girlfriend Mode” is not only misogynistic, but both insulting and personally offensive. As a gamer – and a female – I should have the ability to choose my level of difficulty without being condemned for doing so. As a woman, I should not be relegated to the role of “girlfriend” or “wife” for playing on casual. Also, the idea that I’m not capable of playing at “Normal” or “Difficult” or “Legendary” (which, yes, I have done) is demeaning and sexist.

I have plenty of male friends who “suck” at gaming. I have plenty of female friends who also “suck” at gaming. I also have friends of both genders who do not. In fact, the group I play with most often is a set of four of us, two men, two women, and the woman I play with is perhaps more bloodthirsty than the rest of us. But that’s neither here nor there.

As Gunthera1 says,

So he used a phrase similar to Girlfriend Mode in the interview because of a ‘lack of a better term’? I disagree with Hemingway on this point. This phrase implies that women don’t play video games and therefore the easiest modes in a game exist so that they can play a game with their boyfriends or significant others. It is heteronormative and sexist in its roots. The industry keeps using the term as if its prevalence makes it okay. Whether it is used one or one thousand times, it is problematic.

She suggests “New Player mode.” Fine. There’s also “Casual,” which is common, or Deus X‘s “Tell me a story” mode. There are innumerable ways to say what they need to say without bringing in a pejorative slight on women who game. Maybe Hemingway isn’t actually sexist, but his use of “girlfriend mode” is. The fact that his term is being defended says something more about the community and the industry – it may not even realize the degree to which it is actively hostile to women (and other marginalized groups). The language, the images, the terms they use alienate us and make us feel unwelcome, even by members of the community who have no active issue with women being gamers.

In essence, we need to think about how we use our terms. Calling it “girlfriend mode,” gameranx‘s Ian Miles Cheong suggests, is both offensive and counterproductive: “The ironic thing about “girlfriend mode” is that it’s designed to make games more accessible to non-gamers. Instead, the term alienates.” Gunthera1 says:

But instead of using a term that doesn’t alienate women and paint them as the lesser players, some gamers and the industry itself continue to use “Girlfriend Mode”. Every time it is used we are putting out a sign on the clubhouse door that says “No Girls Allowed”. It is one of many subtle indicators that video games are made ONLY FOR men. If women play games they are viewed as interlopers. They are the girlfriends dragged to the media by their partners. They are not there because of their own desires and interests. They are deemed Girlfriends, not Gamers.

In short, we need to reevaluate the way we talk about games and gamers. We need to consider the sexist, racist, and homophobic terms and images we use in games and think about the atmosphere that those things create. Cheong made use of an excellent metaphor: “when terms like those go unaddressed, it allows sexist stereotypes to blossom like big smelly rafflesia flowers, stinking up the place. Have you ever smelt a rafflesia? They’re called corpse flowers, and for good reason.”

If we expected Hemingway to apologize, or his company to apologize and say “Gee, we’re sorry, that was thoughtless,” we were apparently wrong. In fact, IGN‘s Colin Moriarty published a piece decrying objections to “girlfriend mode.” Why?

Remember, Mr. Hemingway didn’t actually say anything offensive. People wanting to be offended are simply looking for anything to jump on, consequences for anyone and anything be damned. So expect to hear a lot less from developers in the future because of episodes like this, and a lot more canned responses from PR as a result.

All because Mr. Hemingway dared say “girlfriend mode.” The horror.

Mr. Moriarty, I beg to differ. The reason people are offended is because Hemingway most certainly did say something offensive. In the grand scheme of things, there are many things that are much more offensive, yes, but it was still offensive. It was also a public declaration that the industry doesn’t think about women as gamers, but as “girlfriends of gamers.” Does that mean he’s a sexist pig? Almost certainly not. But if it isn’t called “girlfriend mode” (it isn’t), then don’t call it that, especially not in public where people will be offended by it.

Mr. Moriarty, we don’t use certain terms and phrases not simply because they aren’t politically correct, but because they are demeaning. To insinuate that because I am female I must not be good at shooters (your girlfriend is not all people’s girlfriend, and yes, I managed to both obtain a PhD and become good at shooters at the same time) is a product of the same ideology that says that because I am female I must spend my life in a kitchen, not use power tools, and enjoy pink and frills. The words we use can be hurtful, but even when they aren’t (as even I would not suggest that “girlfriend mode” is “hurtful,” exactly), they can still be dangerous when they perpetuate an outmoded ideal that marginalizes or diminishes someone due to their genetics or gender.

Edit: And Brandon Sheffield from Gamasutra agrees:

I do believe that the mode is a good idea, and I also believe that Hemingway didn’t mean any offense to women. Still, simply saying something is not sexist doesn’t make it not sexist.

I’ve addressed this problem before, but the issue I find is that “girlfriend mode” made it into Hemingway’s lexicon at all. It’s not an official mode name, but it rolled off the tongue so easily. Developers don’t head into press meetups completely unprepared – he must have thought of this term before. It was said without malice, but also without really thinking about it might mean to some people. It was unconscious.

Sheffield goes on to point out that women make up at least 42% of gamers (as of a 2011 ESA survey) and therefore deserve to get more credit than they’re receiving because they make up almost half of the gaming community, and much less than half its voice, and only 10% of the industry creating it. But he also says that “the digital women’s movement” is making progress, and “growing pains” like this one are a part of that progress. Maybe so. But we still need to make sure that we don’t allow comments like Hemingway’s to be swept aside, “growing pains” or not. They’re important because they need to be recognized for what they are. /Edit

Words and images are far more important than we give them credit for most of the time. They are the foundation of our cultural understanding of people – and when we allow terms and images that are demeaning to others, we hurt our culture and society as a whole. When we use “girlfriend mode” we diminish women as inept. When our videogames contain women who wear little to no practical clothing, we assume that women’s value is based on their sex appeal. When we suggest that “rape” is akin to defeat in a game, we minimize the traumatic impact it has on a person’s life. When we call something we don’t like “gay,” we demean the LGBTQ community as deviant and shameful. Words and images matter, and it’s important to take the time to choose them carefully so that they reflect the kind of community we want to form and the society we want to become.

Girls at Play

So one of the major questions that’s behind a lot of what I’ve been talking about here is not why are women being harassed in online and gaming communities, but why are they a minority to begin with… After all, there are slightly more women than men in this world, at about 51% globally, and is even slightly higher in Western countries (Europe, Australia, North America, and most of South America). So why are there so few women playing games and participating in online communities?

The answer, at least according to Clementine at Tiltfactor, is because of the very toxicity that the presence of women in the gaming community produces. She’s talking about a specific subset of the gaming community, admittedly, but the team-based RTS (real-time strategy) games she mentions are a microcosm for the larger issues in online (especially gaming) communities. In short, that they are insular and over-protective of their exclusivity – regardless of the gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity of the newcomer. And noobs who are not immediately skilled (which would be most of them) are harassed for causing the team to lose. However, when that newcomer has a clear “flag” that can be used as a slur against them, that “flag” becomes an easy target.

However, Clementine points out that the knowledge of someone’s gender (which is more readily apparent in voice-chat than either ethnicity or sexuality) produces an immediate hostile reaction unrelated to their gameplay abilities. And this is not exclusive to team RTSs – many women avoid using voice chat in all online play because of the sorts of treatment Clementine is discussing. Here’s the issue:

If I’m lucky they’ll just express surprise that women use the internet. Sometimes they ask for sexual favors (“MAY I TOUCH YOUR VAGINA”, said one guy. “NO PLEASE. I WILL MAKE YOU FEEL REAL GOOD”). Sometimes they just yell “Go make me a sammich” (seriously? That would also be bad for the team if I left the keyboard to prepare foodstuffs. Smart.) Or if I mess up or die even once, I am told that “This is why women shouldn’t play games.” If I don’t use voice chat, we are losing a great strategic advantage for the team. If I mute an asshole on the team, then I can’t hear what he or she might have to say, which is also a strategic disadvantage if they actually decided to use voice chat for strategic purposes.

So should women really be expected to mute harassers and, in essence, not participate fully in the gameplay experience because their teammates can’t be bothered to act like adult human beings? And, as she continues to point out, this is not a problem exclusive to gaming. It’s a problem that surfaces in any male-dominated field: science, business, academia.

The biggest concern, of course, is that a hostile environment will lead to a perpetuation of the dearth of females (or any underrepresented minority) in those fields. When women are ostracized, they become decreasingly likely to want to continue to participate in that arena. So when, as Clementine and The Border House both point out, a Launch Party for Battlefield 3 banned women, it is perpetuating rather than “solving” the problem by implicitly authorizing misogyny – saying, “make enough rude comments, and we’ll keep the girls out of your hair”:

Nothing ruins a good LAN party like uncomfortable guests or lots of tension, both of which can result from mixing immature, misogynistic male-gamers with female counterparts. Though we’ve done our best to avoid these situations in years past, we’ve certainly had our share of problems. As a result, we no longer allow women to attend this event.

The rationale behind the female ban is to “protect them from misogynistic insults”; the consequence is to permit and perpetuate the misogyny that produced them by maintaining the male-exclusive community that legitimates those comments to begin with.

Clementine has a call out to both her fellow players and to Valve:

Valve Software – Take this stuff seriously. Building a more civil community is only in your best interest. Don’t excuse sexism, racism, or homophobia, and give players better mechanisms for reporting folks who give MOBA games their bad reputation.

Players – don’t be assholes, and don’t let other people be assholes. Speak up and say it’s not okay, and definitely take advantage of reporting. We could all benefit from fewer assholes in our games.

Which comes back to something I’ve been talking about for a while – how much of this is truly Valve’s responsibility? Should they encourage a civil community? Sure. But beyond saying “play nice,” what are their responsibilities as a company? Should they take complaints from players of abuse seriously? Yes, I think they should. But they can’t monitor every game and intervene in every situation.

Personally, I think the onus here lies with the community – collective leadership is more effective than imposed, top-down autocracy. Autocratic imposition creates resentment, while collective leadership on the part of the players themselves grants more agency and solidifies community in a more productive way that can actually (eventually) create the kind of atmosphere that is currently sorely lacking.

Full Citizenship

Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives examines a variety of games and game types, but something he said while explaining open-world games (games which do not have restrictive paths for the player to follow, but instead allow the player to plot his or her own narrative and spatial path through the game… like life) struck me as particularly relevant for leadership studies.

Oblivion is less a game than a world that best rewards full citizenship, and for a while I lived there and claimed it” (5).

On the one hand, this statement addresses current concerns with the addictive (a.k.a. “time-wasting”) nature of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, which has caused the dissolution of innumerable relationships, firing from jobs, and (in rare instances) even death for those who cannot tear themselves away from the game for long enough to eat or sleep. And there is something to be said for moderation of play-time. One should actually have a real life outside of one’s life inside a gameworld.

However, I am not interested in addressing the addictiveness (or lack thereof) of gaming. For some it is, and for some it isn’t. There are many psychological and sociological studies out there that will make arguments in both directions.

What I’m interested in is the fact that Oblivion (like Skyrim after it, which had not been released at the time of Bissell’s publication) “rewards full citizenship.” “Full citizenship” is something leadership studies deals with on a regular basis; it examines the ways in which leaders of all types can encourage “full citizenship” in their followers and seeks to encourage “full citizenship” in its students. And Oblivion, if Bissell is to be believed, has managed to accomplish it with a game.

The caveat, of course, is that Oblivion has created the desire to be a “full citizen” in the gameworld, not in the real world. It has elements and aspects that encourage players to want to be “full citizens” when they may or may not feel the same inclination in their everyday lives. As leadership scholars, we would be remiss to not look at how games encourage participatory virtual lives in an effort to create participatory real lives. In essence, games have figured out how to use mechanics – rewards, quests, goals, experience points – to make people care enough to assume “full citizenship.”

We want to see progress, feel accomplishment, understand our purpose in society (I’m not going to become existential enough in this post to suggest a purpose in life), and recognize clear goals. This is something McGonigal has discussed at length in Reality is Broken, and I’m not going to repeat it here and now. But the point stands: make people care about participating by showing them the value of their participation, and they will want to become “full citizens” without needing persuasion.

Defining Our Terms

So a couple of things have come together to form today’s topic/question: When is something “mean,” when is it “bullying,” and when is it “hate speech”? One of those things was a recent tweet by a friend who argued that there was a concerted difference between “being mean” online and “cyberbullying.” Another is the fact that I’m putting together a short presentation for SMCRVA on online harassment and bullying with some other folks called “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Tweet No Evil.”

My first reaction was to disagree with my friend’s assessment, actually. To say that while “bullying” may have a variety of degrees, “being mean” is one of them. But then I thought about what this friend was saying. In short, that “mean” comments are sometimes not actually “bullying.” I’ve reproduced the sequence below (with names removed to protect the innocent):


I can totally tell when someone never experienced RL bullying yet uses the word “cyberbullying.” Being mean to someone isn’t cyberbullying.

It’s certainly part of it, but bullying is more than mean-ness. It’s the systematic use of violence to demean, belittle, and harm another.

Yes, it’s true that disagreement is not bullying. Someone can disagree with you (the whole Chik-fil-a mess being a prime example) without bullying you, infringing upon your rights, or committing an act of anti-free speech or hate speech. The means by which someone chooses to disagree can, however, be both “mean” and “bullying.” But I take the point here – bullying has a different connotation than “being mean.”

We’re all mean sometimes. We say things out of a knee-jerk reaction – whether online or off – or passion for the topic at hand that are designed to be hurtful or intimidating. But is that really “bullying”? And if not, when does it cross the line into “bullying”?

If I take my friend’s definition, bullying is a pattern of concerted and deliberate acts of meanness, whether over a long period of time or short, designed to make the other person or group feel marginalized, belittled, weak, and unworthy. It can include being mean. It can also include – I would argue – hate speech.

But hate speech is something more nefarious than either “meanness” or “bullying.” Hate speech is a symptom of a larger cultural problem. It refuses to acknowledge people on a global, rather than personal, scale. It discriminates based on a category over which an individual has no control (gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity) or a category that is shared by an entire community (religion, nationality, interest), and demeans all people in that category. But we can generally agree when something is hate speech.

We don’t seem to have a clear grasp on when “meanness” and “bullying” cross, nor do we seem to have a clear sense of when we should interfere or what type of interference is appropriate. On the one hand, I think we should all be respectful of our differences. On the other, I don’t like the idea of being unable to express frustrations or disagreements without being accused of “bullying” or “infringing upon the right to free speech.”

I think my friend is right. Disagreement that doesn’t involve insults or hate speech is not bullying. If it’s reasonable and doesn’t contain offensive language, it isn’t even mean. It’s disagreement.

I also don’t think we should be regulating “meanness” in any substantial way. I think it’s not only fair, but worth encouraging people to “say something” if they feel they are being targeted by or witnessing “meanness” (for instance, saying, “Hey, that wasn’t nice.”), but I don’t think it’s within the purview of companies, moderators, or anyone else to “regulate.”

Bullying, on the other hand, seems to be a larger problem, especially within certain online communities. I talk mostly about gaming communities, but it seems to be present elsewhere, as well. The female blogging community, for instance. And in many online communities, the bullying is also (or at least contains) hate speech. Most of my examples have been concerned with misogyny, but homophobic bigotry is also fairly rampant online.

Here’s the thing. When we talk about “bullying,” most people think of children. They think of high school and “how do we stop kids from bullying.” And being what I think of as a “survivor” of high school, I agree that it’s a problem. But I also think that the kids – especially the kids online – are only mimicking what they see adults doing. The adults on Fark or Reddit or XBL can be vicious. And here’s the thing. Sometimes adults are “mean” in a friendly way. And most adults understand that in certain contexts, that “meanness” isn’t really mean, and it isn’t bullying (although there is also a grey area, as I’ve talked about, where it isn’t clear which is which). But kids, even mature teenagers, don’t always see that. Heck, some adults don’t see that (and some of them for good reason – traumatic experience, a close relationship with someone who’s experienced trauma, a history of having been bullied, etc.).

But from a leadership standpoint, we need to actually consider our actions and all their repercussions, especially online. Online space is in many ways freer than the real world. It’s also much, much more public. Millions of people can read your post, follow your twitter account, or be offended by your snarky comment on someone else’s blog forum. Lead by example. In a public online space, think about whatever you’ve written before you hit “post” or “send.” Reread it. Think about how a stranger you don’t know and who doesn’t know you might react to what you’ve just written.

And, furthermore, remember that your online identity is not just yours. Now especially, it can be linked to your real identity, your career identity, and your family identity. Would you want your boss to know what you think? Would you want him or her to read it the way you just wrote it, profanity and lewd pictures and all? What about your mom? Would you want to be thought of as the person who wrote that comment or blog post?

But it goes both ways. Yes, we should be respectful and considerate, think about what we say and in what contexts. But we should also try to give people as much benefit of the doubt as we can. Sometimes people say things in a way that might seem offensive, but it isn’t really meant that way. Sometimes a fight isn’t worth pursuing. Sometimes – as a recent tongue-in-cheek Kotaku article suggested – the best thing to do is just to be nice. To not feed the proverbial trolls.

Sometimes, yes, the fight is worth having, the comment is worth rebutting, or the troll is worth feeding with Exlax. Sometimes it is important, and vitally so, to speak out against what we’ve seen. But sometimes it’s hard to find where that line actually exists when the sand is constantly shifting.


This post was inspired by several different things, including a couple of recent articles sent to me by a colleague and a post made on Google+ by a friend. The question at hand is one of authenticity – specifically, geek authenticity and what it means to be a female in a community (whether online or off) that is predominantly male-centered. I think a lot of the issues that come up in this context are relevant to any community that is one focused on male privilege, including business, academia, the sciences, athletics, and certainly gaming (digital or analog).

Much of this specific recent furor is a consequence of CNN’s coverage of Joe Peacock’s blog post, “Booth Babes Need Not Apply,” which argues against “pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention.” Peacock doesn’t make the claim that all girls are just pretending, and he says so, but the way he says it almost makes it worse: “Now, before every single woman reading this explodes, let me disambiguate a bit. I absolutely do not believe that every girl who attends conventions and likes ‘Doctor Who’ is pretending to be a geek.” First, he knows that what he’s saying is sexist and potentially offensive, but he feels that he gets to say it anyway because of his position of privilege – whether as a male or as a “real” geek (I don’t know which, although either or both is possible). Second, the syntax makes it unclear whether he’s saying that some women are geeks or whether he’s saying that some women aren’t pretending to be geeks… although he does later say that there are female geeks, and some of them are even attractive.

His complaint is against

the girls who have no interest or history in gaming taking nearly naked photos of themselves with game controllers draped all over their body just to play at being a ‘model.’ I get sick of wannabes who couldn’t make it as car show eye candy slapping on a Batman shirt and strutting around comic book conventions instead….They’re poachers. They’re a pox on our culture. As a guy, I find it repugnant that, due to my interests in comic books, sci-fi, fantasy and role playing games, video games and toys, I am supposed to feel honored that a pretty girl is in my presence. It’s insulting.

My question is “why do you care?” Why does it matter to you whether they’re “infiltrating your culture” or not? Clearly, they have enough interest to be there, to put on the outfit, and so forth. They’re interested in some element of the culture, even if only on a surface level. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t bother going to the con, and they really wouldn’t bother to put on the outfit. If they aren’t being offensive or harassing, live and let live.

But Mr. Peacock seems to think that these women – whether they are “pretending” or just new to the culture or maybe just like dressing up like Catwoman – are tantamount to the men who engage in online harassment and misogyny: “Are guys acting this way toward women just as disgusting and base as women poaching attention from our culture, satisfying their egos by strutting around a group of guys dressed in clothing and costumes from a culture filled with men they see as beneath them? Absolutely.” And that’s where I have a really big problem.

There’s a universe of difference between cruelty and sexist harassment on the one side and putting on a costume you don’t know much about on the other. One is harmful. The other is not. There is no degradation of “geek culture” being made by women who aren’t obsessed with the minutiae of trivia behind the costume they put on because they liked the Batman movie or want to look cute for the sake of it. Would I do it? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean I’m offended by someone who does any more than I’m offended by someone wearing an Elizabethan outfit at a Renaissance Faire who doesn’t know as much about early modern England as I do (which is probably most of the attendees).

In response, John Scalzi’s post on Whatever argues that anyone who wants to be considered a geek should be considered so. He picks apart Peacock’s assertions of “true Geekdom” as entirely manufactured and personal – not as representative of the community at large. In short, Sclazi argues that a community, especially one like the geek or gaming community whose members are often marginalized in many ways, should be welcoming of all types, not just those who conform to a particular status quo of “hardcore geekdom,” in the same way that not all members of any community need to be supreme experts; for instance, a football fan is still a football fan even if he or she doesn’t know all the players and their stats – they can just like watching the game.

Most importantly, though, Sclazi says, “here’s a funny fact: Her geekdom is not about you. At all. It’s about her.” Which is what this all boils down to, whether we’re talking about geekdom or gaming or anything. The woman’s choice to be involved in the community or event or business is not about the men already in it. It’s about her. About what she wants to do or be or be involved in. And since it’s about her, no one else should have a say in her attempts to participate.

But Mr. Scalzi isn’t without his own issues, as mediatedlife suggests in another post. In short, while Sclazi is right that what women choose to do is their own business, mediatedlife argues that the gaming industry and geek community are in part to blame for “inauthentic” geek women “parading” about in costumes… because they have encouraged that sort of thing from the start (a point which Peacock also makes and suggests is problematic, in his defense). mediatedlife objects not to Scalzi’s point that women should be allowed to do/wear what they want, but that he is – in essence – defending the “Booth Babe” phenomenon: “We have to stop, for instance, arguing that asking women to stop reinforcing sexist standards of attractiveness and behavior is slut shaming.”

So where do we draw the line? I like mediatedlife’s point that asking women to stop promoting objectification shouldn’t be condemned. I think Scalzi is right in saying that women should be allowed to do and wear whatever they wish, to identify with or simply hang around with the geek community if they wish. I also take Peacock’s point that women who use the “Booth Babe” look for attention are probably not doing so in a healthy, empowering way, and that they can be annoying.

But I’m conflicted. I don’t like the idea that women are being excluded from the geek community for any reason, and especially because someone else has identified them as “inauthentic,” no matter the justification. I don’t like the idea that women should be told not to be sexy or wear revealing clothing if they want to (or men, for that matter). I also don’t like the kind of objectification that often happens to women at cons, especially when they’re wearing costumes. I often don’t like the costumes to begin with, given their tendency toward objectification.

I think ultimately it all comes down to respect. If you want to wear a skimpy outfit, fine. Understand that you will be stared at, possibly asked out. But even if you do wear a skimpy outfit, you have the right to be treated respectfully and not be harassed or demeaned or accused not having enough “geek cred.” In short, you have the same rights as any other man or woman in the room.