No Fear

A conversation on twitter today between friends made me start thinking more seriously about being a woman and being a geek and gamer – and also being an academic. Recently, I’ve seen a spate of articles on “fake geek girls” as though that’s an actual thing, posts and articles about male legislators attempting to illegalize abortion or mandating vaginal ultrasounds, rape culture in general, and discussions of sexual assault and rape and whether they can be “prevented” by the victims.

Because this blog is about gaming, I’m not going to launch into my opinions on most of that, but I am going to talk about how all of this is related to girl gamers and the gaming community. Namely, the idea that women are somehow “asking” for the treatment they receive at the hands and controllers of their male compatriots. I also want to note, before I get started, that this is also true of ethnic, religious, and other minorities, of queer folk, and of others marginalized by mainstream Western society. But as a female, that’s the aspect that impacts me most, and so that’s the lens through which I’m approaching the problem.

One of the most frequent pieces of advice “people” tend to give female gamers who complain about harassment is “don’t turn on your mic,” “play a different game,” “only play with friends,” or some other form of “well, you’re just asking for it”-style victim-blaming. If only we women didn’t speak on public channels, post on forums, or interact publicly with male gamers, none of this would be a problem. If only we didn’t wear short skirts or go out in public without a male escort… You get the idea. It’s a much-toned-down version of the same victim-blaming that happens with sexual assault.

Here’s a personal story. I read a piece this morning about a woman assaulted on the New York subway who did nothing, got to work, and had to… clean up after her assailant. She wasn’t raped, per se. She was “rubbed.” And she said nothing about it during the assault because – well, because what DO you say when that happens to you on a crowded train? I don’t know, because I didn’t know what to say when it happened to me. Like her, I dismissed it as a disgusting incident (mine was less disgusting as it involved no “clean-up”), got angry, and moved on with my life. I didn’t consider it assault, not really, because I’d been trained by my society to dismiss such things as “icky stuff that happens sometimes to women.” Just as we dismiss verbal assault and mockery online as “stuff that happens sometimes to female gamers.”

We shouldn’t. We should never dismiss such behavior as something that “just happens sometimes,” whether to us or to others who are playing with us. We shouldn’t have to worry about “what will happen if I say something on this channel?” or “I need to pick an avatar that isn’t obviously female.” We shouldn’t have to mitigate our own (appropriate) behavior to account for the inappropriate behavior of others.

And the kind of culture that tells us – as women, as gamers, as queer folk, as minorities – to “just stop playing” or “get over it, it’s just trash talk” or “it’s just harmless – guys do that” perpetuates the kind of culture that not only allows, but condones and even encourages further sexism and oppression. It’s the kind of culture that produces incidents like the one Slaus Caldwell describes, but it’s also the culture that made his teammate not speak up until the end – because she “knew better” than to expose herself to it. (More here.) I’m not saying she should have spoken up earlier, but that she shouldn’t have been made to feel as though she couldn’t because of her gender (and yes, I’m assuming that is the case, although it might not be).

By tacitly permitting this culture of victim-shaming (because it’s not simply “blame”), we’re making even potential victims feel accountable for mitigating their risk, and thereby holding them responsible for being even potential victims. We’re forcing them out of society without ever actively attacking them by putting them in the position of having to defend themselves from the possibility of being victimized. And that’s much, much worse.

TLF: Once Upon a… Nevermind

This is my second – and possibly last – post on Fable III, mostly because I couldn’t actually make myself continue through it. My TLF review – which includes a stream-of-playthrough-commentary – is up, but I’d like to talk a little more about what really bothers me about Fable‘s interaction mechanics.

Specifically, why my Princess’s utter inability to carry on a conversation bothers me so damn much. After all, the Warden in Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age: Awakening doesn’t speak, and neither does my (male) orc-mage-warrior in Skyrim. In fact, my Skyrim character’s interactions are even more rudimentary than the Warden’s. And yet, I would much rather play my orc than my Fable III princess any day.

Why?

Well, first, because my orc is not a princess. He is fantastically special, being the Dragonborn and all that, which I do find annoying simply because of my profound dislike for Chosen One narratives. But he isn’t a princess (or a prince), and I find that much less alienating (despite his lack of humanity) than royalty because I’m not royalty nor do I want to be. The narrative I want to construct for my character isn’t one of privilege. I may be a person in a privileged social position as a mostly heteronormative white female, but that isn’t the narrative I’d like told by my playthrough experience.

Second – and this ties into the first – because for a game that purports to be all about choices, I wasn’t given many in the creation of my character’s origin or even physicality. While the point of the gameplay in Fable games is to construct the player-character’s general personality, the hero comes pre-loaded with certain attributes (physical and non-physical) that are quite frankly offensive (particularly the physical attributes). The utter lack of intellectual capacity of my princess, especially when paired with her literally heaving bosoms, infuriated me from the beginning. I understand needing a character to be a tabula rasa, but it should be possible to construct one – like in Skyrim or DA – that isn’t a drooling bimbo/idiot.

Third, and most importantly, because even though my orc doesn’t actually speak (you choose conversation options in Skyrim as though your player-character does speak, but there is no actual voice-over to accompany those choices, like in DA:O and DA:A), he also doesn’t make asinine cooing or babbling noises. There is nothing about my orc’s actions that I find distasteful or embarrassing, unlike with my princess. And this was really the deal-breaker for me – I can live with a privileged narrative, even if it isn’t the one I would choose – but I absolutely cannot live with being humiliated at participating in basic gameplay interactions (which are necessary to progression and leveling in the game). I didn’t want anyone to even see me playing Fable III because of the idiotic actions and noises my princess made (and I was wearing headphones).

Because in Fable games the player does have the capacity to change the non-physical attributes of their hero – clothes, weapons, skills, attitude – it is possible to “overcome” the first and second irritations to enough of a degree that they become tolerable. But the prospect of facing that idiotic cooing for the rest of the game made me unable to force myself to continue. It was insulting to my princess’s intelligence and to mine as a player – irrespective of gender, because the prince sounds like just as much of an idiot – that I had to behave like a tactless toddler in order to engage in character interactions. Even silence – as in Skyrim – is preferable.

Female Leads

So this piece on Kotaku from Stephen Totilo today made me stop and think about the fact that one of the biggest pushes in gaming from the feminist perspective is to have more games with female protagonists, or at least female protagonist options. It’s about Gavin Moore, developer of The Puppeteer, who doesn’t want to allow players to play his game as a female character.

Here’s the thing. I don’t necessarily think that anyone should make Moore include a female option for his game. I also think that we need more games that have female protagonists and female-protag options. So how do we reconcile what amounts to basic freedom of creativity with the desire to open up the games industry to more inclusive titles and features?

That’s a damn good question, and one I don’t really have the answer to, but I think it ultimately lies in a multipart approach that includes community, publishers, and developers. First, I don’t think that any developer – like Moore – should be forced to include a female-protag option if it doesn’t fit with the story they’re telling. While I love that BioWare always allows a male-or-female option, I don’t think that’s going to be the right fit for every game and every story. For instance, no one is saying that we should have a Lawrence Croft option in Tomb Raider (although there is an hilarious satire on The New Statesmen about him here that’s totally worth a read) or a Samuel Aran in Metroid. Nor could I really envision a Marcia Fenix in Gears of War or Betty DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite. That’s not to say that those games couldn’t support female protagonists, but that their stories, as they are told, don’t really work that way.

There are, of course, games that can and do support either gender – Fallout games, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Fable games, and so on. But that doesn’t mean that every single game out there has to do the same in order to arrive at the kind of egalitarianism that we (read, feminist gamers) would like to see in the industry.

What we want is to stop hearing the lame excuse from publishers that female-protag games don’t sell. We want to see more games with women in leading roles, but that doesn’t mean we want then shoehorned into those roles. It means we want to see more women on development teams, more stories that are designed to include or feature women, more stories that can allow for either gender in the leading role. But it doesn’t mean that we want to eliminate all games that have male protagonists. Personally, I like male protagonists and generally prefer to play them over female protagonists (although that’s in part, as I’m learning in Fable III, due to the face that many female protagonists are annoying beyond belief).

So while I do think that we need more female-protags, I also think that we shouldn’t be giving developers like Moore backlash for not personally telling a story that requires one. Instead, we should be supporting games that do have female leads so that we see more of them get green-lighted by publishers, instead of hearing about cases like Crystal in Starfox, who was supposed to be the lead, but then became a crystal-encased victim, instead. Yes, I do want to see more developers pushing projects with female leads, but I don’t want to see developers being punished or criticized for telling stories that don’t.

What needs to happen, really, is that gamers need to speak up about their desire to play as women (or to have the option to play as women), causing publishers to pull their heads out of the collective sand and say “Oh, okay, we’ll let those projects go through,” so that more developers want to make games that feature female leads, but so that developers like Moore can still make their games with male leads, too. Because feminism shouldn’t be about yelling at people for making games with male heroes, it should be about asking for just as many games with female ones.

TLF: What’s Yours is Mine

Today’s post is a review of Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, over on The Learned Fangirl. One of the fun things about Monaco is that it’s co-op, and that’s something that we tend to talk much less about in videogaming, given the prevalence of single-player and multiplayer competitive modes.

When we talk about the gaming community – particularly the badly behaved members – we’re usually talking about multiplayer: both competitive and cooperative-competitive (teams playing against other teams), but Monaco is purely co-op… well, mostly. But it does some interesting things to the group dynamic that definitely make it worth playing with a group of friends.

Once Upon a Time There was a Leader…

So I’ve recently started playing Fable III. There are many reasons I hate the game so far, although I’m going to give it the proverbial college try for a little while longer before I give up completely (also, probably going to appear on TLF in the future).

I’m writing this post because of a very particular leadership element I encountered today – that of “having greatness thrust upon me” as the player-character. First of all, my opening choice as a player was “Prince” or “Princess.” Second, I am apparently “chosen” to have magical powers that no one else has (except my father, possibly?). Third, I have been told to go out, gather followers (in those words), and lead a revolution.

Here’s my objection from a purely leadership studies standpoint. Leaders do not appear because someone hands them a magical object, good genetics, and a quest arrow. If they did, more patriarchal monarchs would have been better leaders.

What really bothers me about this “go be a leader” mentality in the game is the fact that it creates a false impression for players. Being a leader isn’t about just deciding “Hey, I’m going to be a leader! I have a pretty rock! People will follow me!” It’s about being willing to stand forward, to make sacrifices, to speak up, to set an example… in short, to be a positive agent in some way, shape, or form. Leadership is ultimately about agency, and my idiotic princess most certainly does not have agency. She is unequipped to be a leader in any way, and just because her weapons instructor and her butler and her dog seem to think she’s spiffy does not make her fit to lead a revolution in any capacity, nor should they suggest that it does.

If you’re going to make a game about developing leadership, then have your player-character actually develop leadership. Have them build loyalty. Have them naturally accrue followers (don’t just tell them to go find some) through actions and decisions. Have them act.

The real problem here is that Fable III is reflecting a potentially dangerous attitude that I see more and more often in real life – entitlement. My princess in Fable III is entitled to her leadership role because she was born to it, she’s magic, and someone told her she’s a leader. But in the real world we aren’t simply entitled to things like leadership – we have to earn them, just as we have to earn promotions, grades, and awards.

No one owes us anything more than basic human rights, and that’s a lesson that far too many people have not learned. They’ve been told all their lives that they’re Special, they can do anything they want, they can be anything they want to be. But they aren’t told that they have to work for it, sacrifice for it, make choices between two things that they want because they can’t have it all. And when they find that they can’t just have, they have to earn, some of those people decide they’re going to take it anyway, even if that means lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering to do so. Because they deserve it.

It would be nice, for once, to have stories and games that aren’t about princesses. That are about simple, ordinary people who don’t become princesses or kings or wizards through happenstance or accident or marriage. That are about ordinary people who work hard, make sacrifices, and become interesting, successful people by earning it. People who don’t have an inherent advantage of birth or magic, just people who become special because they have the motivation to do so. They study hard, they work hard, they sacrifice.

Really, it’s the same problem that’s feeding the weight-loss industry (to make what might appear to be a complete non sequitur). We don’t want to spend every day thinking about what we eat, counting calories, carefully monitoring our fruits and veggies. We don’t want to exercise an hour a day, three or more days a week. We want to sit on our couch in front of our tv and eat cheetos and pizza and somehow magically lose weight because of a pill or a belt or a cream. And just as cheetos and pizza and tv will not result in a fit, healthy physique, entitlement does not produce good leaders. Work does. Dedication does. Devotion does. Agency does. Responsibility does. I’d like our games to teach us that, instead.

“Girl” on Top

Today Gamers Against Bigotry shared a story by a male gamer about what it was like to log in to his wife’s multiplayer account. It contains most of what you’d expect – the male players identified the gamertag as female, discussed booting said supposed female, then got upset when said supposed female beat them, then insulted both that supposed female and the other actual female playing in their game.

The author – who had no idea what he was getting into when he logged on as his wife – found in this experience a catalyst to promote feminism in the gaming community and to point out that suggesting that a woman “get raped” because she’s defeated a male teammate (teammate!! This is a cooperative game!) is unacceptable and should never happen or be tolerated.

Okay. Great. But I do have a couple problems with this narrative. Namely, that it takes a male narrative about abuse of women for people to pay attention to it. I’ve been the identified female gamertag. I’ve been the only female voice on chat. I’ve also been one of several women in a game who defeated our male teammates and opponents. And, to be fair, not all of them have been misogynistic assholes. A lot of them remarked only “You’re a girl?” and then moved on with their lives (although the simple fact that my gender was surprising is problematic in and of itself). Few of them made rude or crude comments, but you can bet that I remember those much more vividly than I do the good ones.

But it doesn’t seem right for a man masquerading as a woman to become our voice, our advocate. Yes, I’m glad that Caldwell wrote what he did, and I’m glad he realizes that this is a problem and wanted to share his story, but what about the fact that there was an actual woman playing, a woman who felt utterly silenced for most of the game, whose actual gender was being maligned? Yes, it’s awful that Caldwell was insulted for being a girl (even though he isn’t), but what abouther?

I also think there something dangerous about “proving” that women can game by having a man masquerade (however innocently) as a woman because the woman whose tag he borrowed wasn’t a very good player. Certainly, even a bad player shouldn’t be subject to insults and misogyny, regardless of gender, but the fact that he was male somewhat detracts from the power of the story. It’s still about his experience – not about the experience of the woman actually playing, not about his wife’s experience of being a player maligned not only for  being a woman, but probably also for not being elite.

Which raises a point about women in multiplayer games – a lot of them don’t play (or don’t play visibly) precisely because of the abuse to which they are subject, which means they aren’t skilled, they aren’t good enough to “prove” themselves because they choose not to spend hours playing a game where they are daily attacked for appearing to be female. Because that’s another point here – perceived gender is much more important than actual gender.

The two idiots on Caldwell’s server perceived his tag as female. They perceived the final player’s tag as default male (for more on “default” see my earlier post), even though she was female, and didn’t attack her until she spoke up and identified herself as such. The very perception of gender is enough to get a player verbally assaulted, booted, neglected, and otherwise ostracized from a game – so no wonder more women don’t play or don’t speak up if they do.

And that’s the real problem here. Women still aren’t being given a voice – either because someone else is silencing them, or because they’re too damn sick of dealing with this kind of thing. Last night I got a comment notification from TLF on my last Anita Sarkeesian post that seems to echo some of this in a small way:

Well read half way though and stopped couldn’t take it this become go Anita go Anita rather fast her videos are crap, she bashes literally any game she loves playing DiD herself, oh poor me save me fund my project because I got trolled, video games are made for u to go play have fun and act like a child because guess what its fun to trash talk someone and 5mins later your chatting with them

Putting aside the small apoplectic fit being had by my inner grammarian, I was particularly irritated by this comment because said commenter didn’t actually read all the way through before deciding that I must agree with everything that Sarkeesian has to say (obviously not having read the post I made about it before that…). I think that there’s a lot wrong with Sarkeesian’s project, but I do think that there’s a lot right with it, and “russell” (the commenter) decided that since I didn’t immediately dismiss her as belonging in the kitchen, I must revere her as a feminist deity.

But here’s my biggest complaint, and it’s one that Caldwell addresses, too: “video games are made for u to go play have fun and act like a child because guess what its fun to trash talk someone and 5mins later your chatting with them.” Yes, games are made to play. Games are made for fun. BUT. You are not a child and many of these games are not designed for children – they’re designed for adults, with adult themes, with commentary and complex social problems and advanced cinematic and literary allusions (the husband is playing Condemned 2 right now, which is alluding to Gaston Leroux’s novel Phantom of the Opera, and Mass Effect has references to Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Eliot, among others). They are adult forms of entertainment that require complex adult thought to understand and fully engage with.

And, furthermore, there is a difference between “trash talk” and “verbal assault.” “I got you, you bastard” qualifies as “trash talk.” “Get raped” does not. So I would invite you, “russell,” to think about how you talk to men when you play with them and how you talk to women. If it doesn’t matter – if you say the same, non-sexual things, to both genders, then you’re engaging in “trash talk.” If you’re not, if you’re sexualizing your “trash talk” to women but not to men, if you’re demeaning gender or sexuality, then it isn’t “trash talk.” And if anyone ever tells you to stop, it isn’t “trash talk.”

Because it is a game, and it is supposed to be fun for everyone playing the game. And when you’re a female gamer, situations like the one in which Caldwell found himself aren’t fun anymore. When you’ve played game after game and all the women in it are two-dimensional or victims, it isn’t fun anymore. When you habitually don’t engage with the community of which you are a part because you no longer have the patience or the strength to deal with the comments and the disparagement, it isn’t fun anymore. As a player, you should have the right to have fun, but you absolutely do not have the right to take that fun away from anyone else because of their gender, sexuality, or ethnicity.

Trigger-(Un)Happy?

So a couple days ago, Kotaku posted this story about a boy who has been in prison for three months after making a poorly-thought-out comment on Facebook following a League of Legends game. If you don’t want to read the story, Justin Carter posted the following on his Facebook page: “Oh yeah, I’m real messed up in the head, I’m going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still, beating hearts,” followed by “lol” and “jk.” The important letters here are “jk” – “just kidding.”

Now I think this was tasteless, but given that Carter is 19 years old, I’m sure not the most tasteless thing he’s ever said, and certainly not the most tasteless thing that’s ever been associated with a LoL game. LoL is, in fact, almost legendary for the rude behavior of its players, as may be seen on their forums. Carter’s comment cannot possibly be the worst thing that has been said by a LoL player.

However, as Kotaku reports:

After seeing the comments on Facebook, an unidentified Canadian woman looked up Carter’s personal information, found an old address located near an elementary school and called the cops. The then-18-year-old Carter was subsquently [sic] arrested on February 14th on charges of making a terrorist threat and has been in custody awaiting trial for more than three months.

I’m not sure whether I’m more horrified that someone would go to all the trouble to look him up at an old address and call the authorities on him, or at the fact that he’s been arrested pending a hearing. Yes, what he said was awful, but the fact that authorities found no indication after a search that he had any intention of following through with his remark in any serious way suggests that he was, in fact, “jk.”

The fact that he did not make this statement repeatedly, did not send it to any authorities, and had no weapons makes the fact that he remains in prison (as opposed to being released or placed under house arrest) even more ridiculous, as he was arrested for making a “terrorist threat.” Do I think he shouldn’t have said it, especially on a public forum? Of course. But overreaction seems to be the theme of the year, from Carter to Kiera Wilmot (a 16-year-old arrested and expelled for a poorly done science experiment, whose expulsion was rescinded after the internet exploded in her defense – here’s her side of the story).

In both cases there seems to be more going on than meets the eye. For Wilmot, race almost certainly played a factor in the school’s decision, as did post-Sandy Hook paranoia. For Carter, games have undoubtedly contributed to his being labeled a threat to schoolchildren everywhere in the aftermath of blaming games for Columbine and Sandy Hook. Both were teenagers who made poor decisions. Neither actually damaged any property, tried to damage property, or caused injury to anyone. Neither has a reputation for “trouble.” Neither posses weapons or has a history of criminal or threatening behavior.

When I first started writing about not blaming games for violence, this was one of the things that concerned me about the finger-pointing going on in society. Allowing fear about the danger of videogaming to lead our society to knee-jerk arrest someone for an idle “jk” threat – in however poor taste – and keep them incarcerated for months (perhaps years) moves far too close to McCarthyism for my taste. Should Carter be punished for his bad choice? Sure. Make him do community service. Suspend his Facebook and/or gaming privileges. Put him through sensitivity training and make him work with an anti-bullying organization. But arrest? That’s going to make him more violent than playing any game ever would.