Industrial Silence

I want to begin by clarifying that I don’t work in the game industry as a developer, just in case anyone had the thought. I have never worked with or for a development company, and I don’t make videogames. I am an academic, a cultural critic whose job is to analyze and present criticism (both positive and negative) of popular media. I happen to work in two genres: early modern drama (think Shakespeare) and videogames. Yes, these two things may seem disparate, but both are the popular culture artifacts of their respective generations.

In that sense, I work “in the industry” because what the game industry produces, does, and says are of immediate relevance to my profession and my productivity. I am lucky enough, however, to have the buffer of academe between me and the people who make life hell for women in the industry in the traditional, blood-sweat-and-tears sense. I’m also a bit saddened that the academy, with its own problems with misogyny and bias, is an infinitely more pleasant place to be a professional female than the game industry.

Western society as a whole has a huge problem with latent misogyny, linked to the pervasiveness of rape culture, most often manifest in casual comments, presumption, and paternalism. Just this week I’ve witnessed or heard anecdotes about men defaulting to diminutive nicknames for women without asking, men assuming that women are secretaries rather than managers, men assuming that women know nothing about technology, and men assuming that women are not in positions of authority.

Women everywhere in the US have to deal with this on a minor scale, often so culturally ingrained that they dismiss it or even fail to notice it when it happens at the store or on the train. But women in technology and in the game industry, whether as journalists or developers, may as well be the modern-day equivalent of the women in the 1950s who dared to make a living outside the home.

This story from Kotaku by Rachel Edidin, “She Was Harassed By a Games Reporter. Now She’s Speaking Out” highlights a lot of the problems faced by women in the game industry. (This is also why I’m trying to put together a panel on this for NWSA.) As upsetting and depressing as this story is, it pales in comparison to some of the harassment and threats received by other women in the industry.

However, I’ve talked about this before, and I want to take this opportunity to talk specifically about the kinds of things said by Josh Mattingly to “Alice Mercier” (not her real name). Mattingly didn’t threaten “Mercier.” He didn’t suggest that she needed to be raped or assaulted or murdered. He did offer to give her “My penis. For your vagina,” in what was presumably meant to be a consensual act.

So, to play the troll’s advocate for a second, what’s the problem? If Mattingly wasn’t threatening her, why did this exchange warrant a lengthy apology (which he did make on his blog, although not directly to her)? As one of the first commenters, penenasty, remarks,

Who wants to take bets on how many posters who are probably white males, say “this isn’t a problem” and bonus points for “why didn’t she just tell him to stop”

As “Mercier” explains, she was taken aback by the nature of Mattingly’s comments and tried to ignore them so that he would stop. It didn’t work, but her instinct was to not reward his sexual comments by giving them attention (much like one might ignore a child’s tantrum to not reinforce the behavior). Should she have spoken up? She certainly would have been justified in doing so, but she shouldn’t have to even think about whether or not to have to make that choice – he shouldn’t have said any of it in the first place.

The problem as I see it is that our culture permits men to “hit on” women without censure so long as the “hitting on” doesn’t take a violent tone. But unwanted advances are just as unwanted whether they are violent or not – and Mattingly’s comments are not only unwanted, but wildly inappropriate to a business discussion (which is what it was originally meant to be).

But – the troll might say – why do advances have to be curtailed? What if the speaker is genuinely attempting to initiate a romantic conversation? Are men not allowed to say anything “nice” anymore?

The simple truth is that if someone ignores your first advance – especially when it’s of such an unsubtle nature as “I will kiss you on the vagina if you do,” which has all the subtlety of an armored rhino with bells on – then it isn’t wanted. Cease and desist. Immediately.

Secondly, there is a difference between a polite “Hey, do you want to go for coffee?” and what Mattingly suggested. I have offered to take a colleague out for beer or pastry for doing me a favor with no nefarious intentions. Those things are normal exchanges for professional favors. Mattingly’s suggestion would not be considered an acceptable business exchange anywhere outside of prostitution.

But the real problem isn’t that Mattingly did it (although that is a problem), it’s that he works in an industry where the culture enables him to think – even drunk – that such an exchange would be appropriate. It’s symptomatic of a larger problem not of misogyny, per se, but of androcentrism that suggests that (straight cis) male desires are the default and take primacy. At its heart, it’s the same problem that gave rise to the demand for a “sexuality toggle” in BioWare games and the same problem that permits trolls to demand sandwiches in online forums. And it will continue so long as we shake our heads and say that “boys will be boys” or tell victims that they should “get over it,” or, worse, that they “had it coming.”

No Need to Hide

So today Gameranx is apparently feeling like messing with my (perhaps excessive) emotional attachment to the Dragon Age series. First, they post that

I have a small, private freakout because that’s one of my favorite components of BioWare games, click on the link, and discover that the story was clearly the result of misinformation, as Gameranx had already updated it with a tweet from Mike Laidlaw assuring fans that romances would still be included (and optional) in the game.

The next tweet from Gameranx reads as follows:

I go to this link with a good deal more annoyance than fear, not at BioWare, but at the idea that this is even somehow remotely newsworthy. The article begins, “Dragon Age: Inquisition lead writer David Gaider won’t hide the game’s homosexual options behind some sort of sexuality toggle.” Yes, sexuality toggle. Because players shouldn’t have to be subjected – apparently – to unwanted advances from a person of the same/opposite gender. Because that never happens in real life.

Of course, what the request really means is “Please create a toggle so that I can continue to live my privileged straight male existence without ever having to be hit on by a man.” Gaider responded with this:

“when it comes to content options like the so-called ‘gay toggle’ …my question would be ‘why?’ We don’t allow the player to de-select other sorts of content. A ‘violence’ toggle? A ‘mention of slavery’ toggle? A ‘sexual situations’ toggle? Why would we have a ‘gay’ toggle? Even if that was just to set the player’s personal preference, and we didn’t think that was incredibly on-the-nose to put up front, would de-selecting the ‘gay’ toggle mean a player should expect to encounter no gay characters? Ever? You don’t think there are those who would interpret it as exactly that?”

The point of including certain experiences in the game is to allow players choice, not privilege. In fact, the whole of the Dragon Age experience is largely about confronting privilege and persecution, teaching players how to negotiate persecution of either themselves or their family/friends (especially in Dragon Age II, where the player must either play as a mage or have a sibling who is a mage, an oppressed class in Kirkwall). The game forces its player to confront these things, so why would Gaider’s team allow players to deliberately avoid something that might make them uncomfortable and force them to broaden their perspective?

And that’s not even addressing the bigotry that a demand to “un-gay” a game actually demonstrates.

Good on BioWare for taking the high road here and supporting diversity in games and the gaming community, despite the fussing of certain privileged fans. Good on them for being willing to take the risk of alienating their supposed demographic of the 20-30something straight white male by forcing “him” to experience the possibly unwanted advances of male digital characters. Good on them for being unwilling to compromise their ethic just to cater to the supposed image of what a videogame should be – and good on them for creating a precedent that future games will hopefully follow.

TLF: Free is Never Free

Although I know the title makes it sound like I’m about to start spouting platitudes about freedom and serving one’s country, this post over at TLF is actually about free-to-play games and why I find them so infuriating and problematic.

I am curious, though, about those of you who not only play free-to-play (as I do, too), but who pay for the upgrades. At what point do you “cave in” and give them money? What’s worth paying for and what isn’t? I’m also horribly nosy and want to know how much you’ve ended up paying for them, but I know that’s probably more personal than most people want to share on some random person’s blog.

Threat of Followers

So today Anita Sarkeesian tweeted about an article by Pacific Standard journalist Amanda Hess, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” Although I usually reserve this blog for posts about games and the gaming community, there’s something significant about Hess’s work, and about the way Sarkeesian framed it:

Every woman I know in games writing has been viciously attacked for her work. We can’t ignore these epidemic levels of sexist harassment. Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) January 6, 2014

Let’s take a moment to think about that: every woman I know in games writing has been viciously attacked for her work. That list includes Hess, Julie Larson-Green, Alyssa Royse, Carolyn Petit, Jennifer Hepler, Kathy Sierra, Maddy Myers, Lindy West, Zoya Street, Dina Abou Karam, Mattie Brice, Catherine Mayer, Sarkeesian herself, and many others. In fact, these days, women’s voices in games criticism are noted not for what those women say, but for what is said to them.

In short, it has become a horrific badge of credibility of a female game developer or games writer has been threatened, verbally abused, harassed, or otherwise “attacked” (online or off) by members of the online and/or gaming community. If a woman isn’t being harassed by the body of trolls that comprises a portion of gaming fandom, she isn’t a significant voice – or so the trope seems to go.

One of the dangers of this – in addition to the dangers that come part and parcel with the threats themselves, including actual physical danger, emotional scarring, PTSD, depression, and general discomfort in one’s own skin – is that these acts of harassment will come to be dismissed as a “sign of making it”: if you haven’t gained someone’s hatred, then you aren’t making enough waves.

This has been an historical problem in any rights movement throughout history – racial, religious, cultural, sexual. Part of the issue is that there is some truth to it; any change to the status quo rocks the proverbial boat and upsets those among the privileged who want things to remain unchanged. So yes, a challenge to the way things are does tend to create hostility, but (and this is a very large BUT) that doesn’t mean that 1) it should, or, 2) and more importantly, that it should become permissible that harassment is simply “part of the game.”

The attitude of “that’s what you get for…” is one that has justified bigotry and violence against women, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and LGBTQ folk for decades, even centuries. “That’s what you get for being drunk.” “That’s what you get for dressing like that.” “That’s what you get for going into that neighborhood.” “That’s what you get for going out with a white man.” “That’s what you get for crossing the line,” in which the line could be miscegenation, the proverbial “tracks,” sexual promiscuity, flirtation, social mores, or any number of other things.

Harassment is not “what you get for” posting online. It is not a necessary rite of passage that should be undergone by any vocal minority speaking out against silencing or bigotry. It is not simply to be tolerated or shoved under the rug.

It is also not “no big deal,” as Hess’s account suggests. Nor should it be dismissed out of hand by the law simply because it exists in the ether of “online.” Our laws have yet to catch up to Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn, as victims have very little recourse or defense against online harassment, which can and does end lives, whether because the online harasser is mentally disturbed enough to follow through on the threats or because the weight of them becomes so much that it drives its victims to suicide.

It’s important to acknowledge the power of online actions – to recognize that there are real dangers in anonymous tweets and posts, and to attempt to ensure that there is an avenue to which victims of harassment can go when they feel threatened. It is also important that those of us online who are not direct victims remember to support those who are, in whatever way(s) we feel we can.

CFP: Gender and Gaming

I’m posting this call for proposals here so that it can easily be found and revisited. If you see it and are interested, please feel free to submit a proposal.

Call for Papers: “Technological Futures” at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference (November 13-16, 2014 in Puerto Rico)

Abstracts due 2/1/2014

The relationship between feminism and technology is a fraught one, whether we are discussing the dearth of women in technology-related fields, the treatment of women in online forums, or the representation of women in video games. A series of recent events have drawn both critical and media attention to the persistence of misogyny in and around video gaming: the online harassment of Anita Sarkeesian for her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” feminist video series; the public backlash against the appointment of Julie Larson-Green as head of Microsoft’s XBox division;protests mounted against female game developers Jennifer Hepler and Dina Abou Karam (among others); and the hypersexualized digital representations of female characters and avatars in popular games like World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto. These examples all reflect the extent to which a highly vocal segment within the gaming community has been resistant not only to feminist analysis and criticism, but to the presence of women – both real and digital – within that community.

Whether a cause or a product of this vocal resistance, women are under- and often mis-represented both in the industry and in games themselves. While women make up approximately 45% of the consumer gaming market and 70% of women aged 12 to 24 play video games according to Entertainment Software Association, they represent only 11% of designers and only 3% of programmers in the game industry. Despite the significant presence of female consumers, however, only 15% of video game characters are female, and even fewer are protagonists.

Drawing on NWSA conference sub-theme “Technologizing Futures,” this session invites papers focused on the role of women in video games and the gaming community more broadly. We welcome papers from a range of disciplines that analyze the role of women (and/or trans*women) in games and gaming culture, including both humanities and social science methodologies. Potential topics for analysis might include, but are not limited to:

*analysis of the relationship between individual games and the institutionalized (and often unintentional) misogynist culture of the industry

*critical challenges to the culture of video game misogyny, including online activism

*feminist narrative and/or ludic analysis of individual video games

*feminist interventions in and alternatives to mainstream gaming culture

*narrative and/or ludic analysis of recent feminist “indie” games and production companies

*intersectionality and gaming culture, including resistance to marginalized identities and/or the development of intersectional “indie” games (such as Dys4ia)

*feminist pedagogy and the place of video games in the women’s studies classroom

Please send a one page abstract accompanied by a 100 word truncated abstract (an NWSA requirement) to both Dr. Kristin Bezio (kbezio@richmond.edu) and Dr. Jennifer L. Airey (jennifer-airey@utulsa.edu) by February 1, 2014. Each panelist will speak for approximately 15 minutes with time for Q&A after the fact.