How Homogeneity Happens

So today a friend drew my attention to this little game of Polygons. It’s cute. There are happy squares and triangles. And apathetic squares and triangles. And sad squares and triangles.

And the point is to teach us about how our “natural” inclination to hang out with people like us produces segregation. Because a triangle surrounded by squares isn’t happy, nor is a square surrounded by triangles happy. And the “easiest” way to make everybody happy appears to be to make all the squares and triangles sit next to each other.

But history – and Jim Crow – should have taught us that isn’t really a good solution. Because segregation by race, gender, creed, or sexuality never actually accomplishes the fallacy of separate-but-equal.

The game doesn’t tell us whether the triangles or the squares will end up being institutionally oppressed or whether they live in a happy geometric land where they can be separate but equal, but it does show us how we tend to congregate like with like – and how easily and simply that produces factionalism, in-groups and out-groups. Even just in terms of where we choose to live without ever really thinking about it.

And that’s worth thinking about.

Invisible Benefits

Today, Feminist Frequency released a new video – “25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male” - that has almost nothing to do with Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series. I say “almost nothing” because it’s pretty clear that many of the things listed in this new video are the product of many of Sarkeesian’s own experiences in playing and speaking about videogames.

The video is a series of men listing off some of the “invisible privileges” of gaming while male and is based on a post made several months ago by Jonathan McIntosh. (At the time, I wrote a response to some of the comments on McIntosh’s piece). I still agree with my assessment: that while I take issue with the comments – obviously, they’re comments – the piece itself is not really objectionable.

Upon second thought, though, I found that the video did raise my awareness about something else that’s often made invisible in gaming, and which isn’t acknowledged in the video itself. We’ve been doing a lot of talking about gender in games recently, but we haven’t really been doing much talking about race in gaming (which is kind of pathetic, given the very important conversations about race that are being had outside of games due to the events in Ferguson, Missouri). At one point in the video, a black man says that he won’t be sexually harassed at a convention – which may well be true, but just because he won’t be sexually harassed doesn’t mean he won’t be harassed for the color of his skin or his choice to wear his hair in dreadlocks.

One of the things I remember most vividly from the time I spent playing various Call of Duty games is that most of the chatter coming from other players wasn’t sexist (okay, so I wasn’t talking to them, so they didn’t know they were playing with a woman), but it was very racist. My modus operandi at the time was generally to mute everyone else in my game so I didn’t have to hear what they said, but what I caught in the few seconds that took was almost always either racist or heterosexist or both. I didn’t say anything, mostly out of concern that then the tide would turn against me for being female, but that’s always bothered me about CoD.

The video made me realize that in our attempts to rectify sexism in the industry we often end up ignoring the intersectionality of oppression – the overlap of oppressive systems that simultaneously marginalize multiple groups. Because the black man in the video has probably faced racism at conventions and while playing online, just as women face sexism in those spaces – and it’s just as important that we recognize his experience as it is that we recognize women’s experience.

Now imagine what it’s like for a woman of color, who receives both types of harassment. Now imagine being a queer woman of color.

I’m not saying this to criticize the video – we can’t always do all the things. I’m saying this because it’s important to remember that there are other systems of oppression in place that are very harmful in very real ways to multiple groups of people, and that we need to remind ourselves, even if we choose to focus primarily on one of those ways, that we can’t forget about the others (either the issues or the people they represent).

All of us need to remember that our experience is not the experience of everyone – and for some of us that means we need to acknowledge our privilege and other people’s oppression even as we are ourselves oppressed.

Bad Hair Day

So this post is actually a response to a comment on my first Dragon Age: Inquisition post on TLF. The comment reads as follows:

Kristin I’ve been wondering how you feel about the overtly masculine representation of women in Dragon Age.

You seem sensible based on your blog, so hopefully you wont outright accuse me of being a sexist.

I don’t believe women should feel like they have to look or act a certain way.

However, within the world and time period that Dragon Age tries to emulate, women tended to favor a certain air of femininity and classical beauty.

Yet, it seems to me that in the interest of “progressive aesthetics” Bioware has forced short hair cuts, muscular (to an almost cartoonish nature) body types and scarring onto every single female in the entire game world.

I can understand why women get upset when games portray every female in the game as Megan Fox, but I dont see how portraying every female as a buff version of Ellen is any better.

Surely a man doesnt have to feel sexist simply for wanting to see MAYBE ONE woman who dresses and wears her hair in what some might consider to be a “sexist manner”.

I am of course speaking of wearing a dress and maybe having shoulder length hair. Apparently that entire look is just a male created social construct.

First, hair in Inquisition is terrible. Awful. The “butch” haircuts that bother you are not the product of a “progressive aesthetic” so much as they are the result of some very bad hair design and animation. Everyone’s hair is chunky and obscenely shiny, as though the rifts have suddenly caused everyone in Thedas to become obsessed with pomade. (And don’t even get me started on facial hair… Dorain. Bull. Ugh.)

But yes, Tommy, you’re right that all the women seem to have short hair, or their hair is pulled back very tightly against their heads. That’s not because BioWare has an intrinsic objection to long hair (some of the styles in their other games included pony tails, braids, and weird Medusa-looking long hair), but can you imagine what THIS hair would look like? Ew. It’s an animation problem, not a preference for butch haircuts. Personally, I’d love my male Qunari Herald to have long Fabio-locks, but that’s not a choice for him, either.

Second point – I’m sorry, Tommy, I’m just not seeing what you’re seeing. In fact, the only woman who has short butch hair (with a weird braid-headband-thing that I also hate), muscles, and scars is Cassandra. Also, she’s really not THAT muscly. I know women with bigger biceps than she has (okay, so I know some pretty badass women, but still – I have bigger muscles than Cassandra).

Also, Cassandra is a soldier who pretty much killed a dragon on her own. I’d be more suspicious if she didn’t have muscles and scars. She also isn’t Ellen – Cassandra’s romance options are male-only. And as for her un-sexy armor, well, Bull remarks at one point that he’s happy to see a woman wearing a normal chest-plate because boob-armor actually directs blades toward your heart. That’s right, boob-plate armor is more likely to kill you. So it’s good that she’s not wearing sexy armor – and since she’s a soldier, she should be wearing armor.

But the other women have varying hair styles. Leliana’s hair is shoulder-length (in a hood, so we don’t have to see how bad that hair really is). Sera has a short hair-cut, but no scars or muscles. Josephine’s hair is in an up-do.

Then there’s Vivienne. Vivienne… is gorgeous. She also has the best hair in the game. Seriously. Look at her. She’s got great hair, she’s sexy, and she’s incredibly feminine while still being powerful. Sure, she’s wearing pants, but LOOK AT THEM. Her outfit is fabulous.

So here’s the other thing about Tommy’s question. Of the women in your companion party, Sera is giggly (and really weird, okay), Vivienne is sultry, and Cassandra would sooner hit you than flirt with you. That’s three completely different types of women. Sure, none of them is in a skirt, but you’re at war. Have you ever tried engaging in combat in a skirt? It doesn’t work.

But if a skirt is what you’re looking for, what about Josephine? She, like Leliana of the shoulder-length red hair, is one of your primary advisors, she’s a romance-able character, and she’s in a dress. (Okay, you can’t see all of it in the picture, but you get the idea.)

On top of all of this, there are plenty of women outside the companions and advisors who are wearing skirts and flouncing about being useless in war. Pretty much every woman in Val Royeaux is wearing a skirt, a mask, a ruff, carrying a fan or flowers… Being rather “girly,” in fact. Most of the women in the Chantry are wearing skirts (so are the men). The woman who runs the bar in Haven is in a dress. Maeve is wearing a dress. Fiona wears a dress.

So I guess I’m just not seeing a lack of dresses. I’m also not seeing a lack of femininity – what I am seeing is a variety of types of femininity… and masculinity. Bull, Varric, Dorian, Cullen, and Blackwall all present different styles of male-ness. Cassandra, Sera, Vivienne, Leliana, and Josephine all present different styles of female-ness. Sure, only one of them is in a dress, but they are all feminine in different ways.

Yes, scarred, muscly, pixie-cut Cassandra is feminine, too.

Being Heard

So a few weeks back, the University’s PR firm inquired about taking a post from this blog and pushing it out – with minor modifications – to the world at large. This was, first and foremost, a minor source of terror.

It went out on Friday, with additional news outlets continuing to pick it up this week.

Here’s a link to one of the outlets – Seattle Times - chosen because a student came up and mentioned seeing it to me. It’s more or less the same as an earlier post, but I like to document publications here.

No, I’m not reading the comments.

Really Warm Fuzzies

So I recently returned from the National Women’s Studies Association conference where I moderated a fantastic panel on gender in games – looking at perceptions of players, perceptions of developers, journalism media, and pedagogy through a feminist lens. It was warm and comforting. Really warm. Like, tropical island, sunning by the pool with a pina colada warm. Really. It was awesome.

The panelists were fantastic, the audience was supportive and interested, and no one left the panel feeling overtly threatened or attacked. It was a space where it was safe to talk about the threats faced by women in the gaming and tech industries in a real, honest way. It was a genuine discussion of ideas and innovations, and it reminded me that in spite of all the hatred and vitriol out there, there are a lot of people quietly doing good work.

What I’m afraid of is that those people will be driven away from the industry, whether they’re journalists, gamers, or academics, because of the kind of attitude of privilege and hostility that gave birth to GamerGate. Because, let’s be honest, it isn’t just about GG. Anita Sarkeesian was harassed before GG was a thing. Women were feeling marginalized, harassed, and ostracized by the heteronormative masculine practices of their companies and of cons long before GG. The “fake geek girl” produced a backlash against women in “geek culture” (including gaming) before GG.

GG isn’t some insidious new movement or suddenly-sprung-up cohort. It’s yet another symptom of a disease that has plagued the tech industry and geek culture more generally for decades. It’s part of a system designed by those in privileged positions who were not the ultra-privileged but were smart enough to create their own escapism. And now that the worlds they created (sci fi, fantasy, videogames) are no longer the realm of straight white male nerds, that space – that “safe” space – is being threatened.

This has been true since sci fi started becoming mainstream, since videogame consoles began to appear in the average household, and since it became worthwhile to reboot as major films comic book characters like Batman, Superman, and the Avengers. In other words, since the 1990s. It’s taken a long time for the facade overlaying this culture to rupture, but it has, and as more and more people partake in geek culture, the more the culture itself will shift, embracing the variance and diversity of its changing identity.

GG is, as more than one person has suggested, the alligator death-roll of “old” geek and videogame culture. It’s a last desperate attempt to keep the elements of a culture that used to represent “safety” to a select and homogenized group of people who no longer make up the majority of its members. The problem is not that those members feel safe, but that so many others do not feel safe, that the price of the “old” safety is the discomfort and harassment of everyone else.

The thing is, there can be many safe spaces within geek culture. There can be spaces that hold to the old “traditional” stories of gaming. There can be spaces that reject those traditions in favor of other, new stories. There can be spaces that allow for crossover between them. There can be space for all, if we are willing to shrink our own personal bubbles and share the couch.

Making Things Official

So this is the week in which academic organizations are making their official statements about GamerGate. First, there was the ICA (International Communication Association), declaring its position on harassment and doxxing, along with some helpful tips on how to minimize one’s chances of being doxxed. It’s a little disturbing, quite frankly, that being an academic now carries with it the possibility of online harassment, death threats, and doxxing – if you aren’t Salman Rushdie. DiGRA (the Digital Games Research Association and target of OperationDiggingDiGRA) also released their public statement condemning “bullying.”

As a member of the DiGRA listserv, I got to see this when it was sent out, and also was able to see the responses to it. Some people applauded DiGRA’s willingness to make a statement, some warned about the impending GG-related fiasco now that DiGRA has engaged with the discussion openly, some questioned the intent of the statement coming so late in the game, some remarked that making such a statement would hurt DiGRA’s standing with the industry (how?), and still more expressed their concerns that DiGRA hasn’t been critical enough of the movement, citing the ICA’s more condemnatory stance.

While I do see the point of view that wants desperately to stay out of the line of fire, I (obviously) think there is more harm to be done by remaining silent out of a sense of self-preservation, particularly since DiGRA itself was dragged unwillingly into OperationDiggingDiGRA. In large part, I think the biggest threat of remaining silent is a loss of the very thing which so many of us in academia value above all else – academic freedom.

For many of us, academia represents a locus of intelligent and open conversation about the major issues and concerns of our day – filtered through the media of our disciplines, but relevant nevertheless. To have our voices functionally silenced is to threaten the very core of what it means to be an academic – something that is already happening elsewhere with the University of Kansas Board of Regents‘ policy on social media.

Proponents of ODD will argue that academics ought to celebrate the opportunity for wider discussion and embrace the “peer review” and “fact checking” coming out of ODD. As I’ve said before, “fact checking” is always welcome, but “peer review” comes out of academia itself. The purpose is not to silence a viewpoint or theoretical approach, but to make sure that the discussion itself has merit. Some of the best pieces in academia are controversial, and spur arguments and counter-articles; discussion, not finality, is the aim.

What ODD threatens to do is to functionally harass academics out of the discipline of game studies – or at least to harass feminist and queer theorists out of game studies. It aims to silence academic freedom when that freedom doesn’t agree with gamergaters’ conception of the status quo. And that is the key here – academia has long been a source of challenge to the status quo, whether socially, politically, religiously, or otherwise. Progress – scientific, social, political – comes out of challenging the status quo by demanding answers to unanswered questions, by asking questions that others are afraid to ask, and by innovating in the lab and in the classroom.

ODD threatens to stop that conversation by making the emotional and mental cost of producing academic work in game studies too high. It is vital that academics in all fields have the freedom and the ability to continue to challenge the status quo, irrespective of whether they are feminist, conservative, games scholars, queer theorists, historians, literary critics, political scientists, hard scientists, communications scholars, or anyone else laboring in academe. ODD – and the Kansas Board of Regents, although entirely unrelated – is employing coercion in order to maintain the status quo through silence, and that is anathema to everything academia represents.

The End of Feminism?

So one of the other reactions on the internet to movements like Men’s Rights Advocates and GamerGate is a push for the end of Feminism. On the one hand, this makes me throw up my hands and want to bash my head into a desk, because the MRA and GG are the reason we need feminism more than ever. On the other, if I take a minute to actually pay attention to what people calling for the end of feminism are saying – and by “people” I do not mean MRAs or GGers – they have some valid points.

First and foremost is what “feminism” has come to mean for many people. A common understanding is that of the “feminazi,” or “man-hating woman,” who supposedly advocates for a gynocracy and/or the extermination of all men. This image is the one that gave birth to the “Why I don’t need feminism” Tumblr and @WomenAgainstFeminism, which largely seem to display a vast misunderstanding of the definition of “feminism” (technically defined by the dictionary as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men”).

More recently, XOJane published an anonymous piece entitled “I am A Feminist And I Don’t Think We Need The Feminist Movement Anymore” which contains the following description:

American feminism has become a media-obsessed vortex of mostly coastal white women trying to make careers of giddily telling us about the hard reality of everybody’s life to prove they deserve a spot on TV.

This type of “sorority-style” feminism is, I would suggest, even more problematic than the “feminazi” version. On the one hand, it’s avowal of a kind of sisterhood makes it seem attractive, like the “Girl Power” movement of the 1990s and early 2000s. On the other, it serves – also like the Girl Power movement – to reinforce gender stereotypes and further institutionalize other forms of oppression like racism and homophobia by eliminating them under the umbrella of a “sisterhood” that features predominantly middle- and upper-class white women.

It pretends to advocate for women’s rights, when what it really does is advocate for the rights of a very specific, socially acceptable version of what women are or should be. It doesn’t advocate for the rights of butch lesbians, transwomen, women of color, poor or homeless women, or women who seek to defy gender and social normativity in any way. It states that women who are already granted a certain level of privilege within American society ought to be granted more privilege, and leaves behind the women who don’t fit into that narrow mold.* (*These women should be given more privilege, but so should all the women that aren’t included under the umbrella.)

And I would agree that this kind of so-called “feminism” isn’t helpful. It widens rather than narrows the gap between the privileged and the oppressed, and that isn’t good for anybody.

But where I disagree is with a recent trend of “giving up” on movements and terms that have been partially co-opted by the privileged. I’m not ready to stop being a gamer, and I’m really not ready to stop being a feminist (which makes me a feminist gamer, which is a dangerous thing to be these days).

The anonymous poster at XOJane is right about one thing:

We DON’T NEED feminism like this. We need some thing better; we need something that’s not just ready for Hilary but actually ready for a life that has been hard for a while and is getting harder — though for all their news hawking, they don’t seem to notice.

I hope feminism keeps failing. I hope they laugh these girls right into the implosion the rest of us are living through.

Maybe — just maybe — if it actually goes straight to hell they’ll actually remember what feminism is about.

I don’t hope feminism fails. I hope that enough women and men are able to see through this recent whitewashing (in multiple senses) of feminism as a movement and go back to its roots – fighting the hard fight in the mud and dirt because all women and men deserve social equality, not just the ones with good PR campaigns and disposable income.

Day of the Dead

So this is not going to be a post about Anita Sarkeesian’s appearance on The Colbert Report last night, although I will say that it was not one of the best interviews I’ve seen. I think Colbert had a hard time trying to make sure that he wasn’t “attacking” her (since that’s his persona), given what she’s been through and the kind of message that would send, and balancing his perodic style. It’s hard to quip about horrible harassment and sexism when your subject is both nervous and not trying to be funny (I’m not saying she should have been funny, just that she wasn’t and that made the interview a little more awkward than some).

This is a post on Chris Plante’s piece from The Verge stating that GamerGate is dead. While his opening premise – “As an activist movement with the ability to inspire positive change, Gamergate is dead” – is not wrong, it is a tiny bit misleading, since I’m not convinced that GamerGate ever had the capacity to “inspire positive change,” given where it began. That’s not to say that the now-infamous byline of “ethics in games journalism” doesn’t need some “positive change,” just that I’m skeptical that GamerGate was ever really about that (also, that the kind of change that would benefit games journalism is what they were talking about in the first place).

His point that “GamerGate died ironically from what it most wanted: mainstream exposure,” is also accurate (and ties in to a post I made the other day), insofar as it suggests that GamerGate is not benefiting from mainstream news coverage or the list of celebrities who have now spoken up against it or in favor of feminism (now including Stephen Colbert). And Plante’s quip that “When a fictional ideal of repressive rhetoric thinks your movement is too much, then it’s time to reconsider,” is amusing – although I would suggest that Colbert’s “response” was more in line with his actual politics than his persona’s.

The problem, as I see it, is that Plante’s piece is more hopeful than it is reflective of what’s going to happen within the GamerGate movement. As of this morning, for example, OperationDiggingDiGRA (more on that here) was still examining the work of games academics for signs of feminist conspiracies. GamerGate isn’t about journalism ethics, and that is a conversation that Plante rightfully suggests can take place elsewhere and in a healthier way.

GamerGate is about couching privilege as a “right” and defending that privilege as though it were the most basic tenet of human dignity. And it just isn’t. It’s about mostly straight white men desperately attempting to cling to the (oppressive) power they possess in a “culture” (is gaming really a “culture”? But that’s another post for another day) that they feel has always belonged to them. It’s about the deliberate exclusion of diverse voices in a medium that is rapidly expanding and already includes those voices – which is where the whole backlash came from to begin with. GamerGate, specifically, is about a retrogressive desire to maintain a fictional status quo that never really existed as compensation for perceived loss.

And I’m just not seeing that as “dead.” Women have been able to vote in this country since 1919, and we still don’t make the same amount as equally-qualified men. Jim Crow laws were abolished in 1964, and racism against African Americans continues to be pervasive and institutionalized. GamerGate isn’t on the same scale as these, certainly (although it is the product of a similar social problem), but it isn’t going to just go away in three months.

I hope Plante is right, and this is the beginning of the end for GamerGate. I’m just not going to hold my breath… or my tongue.