Not the Problem You Are Looking For: “Nerds” are Not Game Culture’s Problem

Gaming culture – particularly in its pseudo-journalistic internet form – has problems. A lot of them. Some of them are problems it shares with every other culture on the planet and are a simple byproduct of being human. Some of them are particular to the First World comprised mostly of North America and Europe with a dose of East Asia. Some of them are the project of a previously homogenous straight white male demographic derived from the US military industrial complex of privilege. And some of them are the result of a demographic that is, by and large, educated and wealthy and interested in esoteric subjects, technologies, and fantasies – otherwise known as “nerds.”

But “nerds” are not the biggest problem in gaming culture, contrary to an opinion piece published by Destructoid which claims that “nerds” are the problem with gaming journalism. The piece suggests that

1) nerds care about shit that is completely unimportant to everyone else, and 2) nerds want other people to see how important this unimportant shit actually is. A nerd is a guy who can’t help spend hours trying to convince his loathing in-laws that The Game Grumps are way funnier than Mel Brooks. A nerd is a girl who sits you down in the middle of a hurricane and babbles about how the latest Legend of Zelda game completely sucks compared to the prior, nearly identical Legend of Zelda game. A nerd is in their own world. A nerd wants you to be in that world with them.

Although I suppose this is the point where a responsible blogger admits to being a nerd  (and I am), I take exception with the suggestion that nerds only care about “unimportant shit.” Sure, relative to starvation or global war or sex trafficking, games may be “unimportant shit,” but within the confines of a First World audience who does not face those problems on a daily basis, games are not “unimportant shit.” Games are very important shit.

Here’s why.

Games, and videogames in particular, are a rising form of consumer media that comprises one of the fundamental cornerstones of twenty-first century popular culture. More people in North America, Japan, and South Korea own or have regular access to videogame systems (PCs, consoles, handheld devices) than don’t. Videogames (esports, in specific) are rapidly becoming professionalized, and have international competitions from which players earn a living. Colleges are giving scholarships to esports players. There are classes taught on games, people earn a livelihood making games, and the games industry has a higher gross budget than Hollywood.

Do not tell me that’s “unimportant shit.”

Now this doesn’t invalidate the other main point of the article, which is that journalists are swayed by a kind of rabid fan-boy- and fan-girl-ism which enables AAA developers to manipulate (some of) them into giving rave reviews on games that don’t fully deserve them, while causing indie games to be criticized viciously because they don’t conform to the so-called industry standards. Developers with reputations become demigods who cannot be criticized (Peter Molyneux or Ken Levine, for example), even when they deserve it.

Yes, there are industry parties designed to cater to reviewers in an effort to garner positive reviews in exchange for swag. Yes, there are “journalists” who actually work for publishers and developers (and some companies release their own “magazines,” whose articles are obviously going to be biased if one thinks about it for five seconds). There are blogs that are little more than shill-sites for companies which tout the latest “great” games, all of which just happen to be made by the same people.

But “nerd-dom” is not the cause of these problems. Nor are they as wide-spread as the author seems to think. There are a LOT of journalists – many of whom have, admittedly, been attacked for their opinions in recent months – and critics whose work attempts to maintain that mysterious thing called “integrity” or “critical distance.” A lot of people working within the industry, within journalism, and within academia who believe in doing a service to their readers and to the industry by criticizing it for the things which deserve criticism.

And those people don’t do what they do because games are “unimportant shit.” They do what they do because games and the gaming industry are very important shit, and because that shit reflects and informs our broader cultural milieu. Because our culture is our past, present, and future, and it’s very important that we engage with it in a thoughtful and critical way.

[Redacted] – Games, Censorship, and Sexual Violence

One of the big news stories in gaming at the moment is about Australia’s refusal to issue classification to Devolver’s Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number due to sexual violence (link to Kotaku Australia). In Australia, media that “depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults” may be denied classification, and would therefore be made unavailable to consumers.

The report from Australian Classification includes a description of the scene which caused the game to fail classification (**trigger warning for sexual violence** – highlight below to read scene description):

In the sequence of game play footage titled Midnight Animal, the protagonist character bursts into what appears to be a movie set and explicitly kills 4 people, who collapse to the floor in a pool of copious blood, often accompanied by blood splatter. After stomping on the head of a fifth male character, he strikes a female character wearing red underwear. She is knocked to the floor and is viewed lying face down in a pool of copious blood. The male character is viewed with his pants halfway down, partially exposing his buttocks. He is viewed pinning the female down by the arms and lying on top of her thrusting, implicitly raping her (either rear entry or anally) while her legs are viewed kicking as she struggles beneath him. This visual depiction of implied sexual violence is emphasised by it being mid-screen, with a red backdrop pulsating and the remainder of the screen being surrounded by black.

I don’t think I need to explain how the above scene might “offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults,” emphasis here on “reasonable.” I don’t think that there’s any question that this scene is distasteful, violent, misogynistic, and disturbing, made all the more so because this is the protagonist engaging in this behavior, rather than a villain or other NPC.

Response to the Australian Classification decision has been mingled approval and outrage, with responses that include “It’s a video game” (the implication being that it’s therefore somehow acceptable or “not real” violence); “there are movies that have rape scenes in them and they are given R18+ or AV15+”; “I’m 100% anti censorship, If any line is crossed the statement should be made with our wallets, Not by the fun police”; and this example of eloquence:

Then don’t buy the damn game. I am fed up with all you Fucktards who just beg for the opportunity to be offended. It is simple. You don’t like it then stay away from it. Jeez who are we now just a bunch of whiny fucking pricks who are not happy unless we are stating our useless fucking opinions. Pretty much just pissing on anyone who has the drive or guts to do something like make art be it games or film or whatever. SHUT YOUR STUPID FUCKING MOUTHS AND LET PEOPLE GET ON WITH THERE PASSIONS.

Grammatical and lexical issues aside, this final commenter strikes at the heart of much of the present discussions about gender and gaming. Said commenter clearly does not understand the implicit cultural valuation present in the creation and dissemination of cultural artifacts – the idea that what is contained within a work of culture (popular or otherwise) somehow impacts or reflects some aspect of that culture.

I do not think that Hotline Miami 2 has the same kind of cultural cache as Selma or The Imitation Game, or even Dragon Age: Inquisition orGTAV, so my guess is that there are far more people who haven’t heard of the game than have, thus minimizing the actual impact of its censorship. But at the same time, denial of classification to the game is censorship – plain and simple.

As horrified as I am by the content of the above quoted scene, I can’t support banning it.

Here’s why.

Censorship of any kind is a detriment to culture. It stifles voices that can contribute to a discussion, and it also exposes places where a society needs work. This is one of the latter cases. If our art – and yes, videogames are art – contains the glorification of sexual violence, then we need to consider why, just as we need to consider why our art contains the glorification of racism, sexism, homophobia, and genocide.

Would I prefer that this game did not exist? Absolutely. But since it does, it has every right to continue to do so, and to be available with clear warnings to the general (adult) public. And that’s one of the primary distinctions between my viewpoint – and that, I think, of many feminists speaking out in gaming – and that which is attempting to silence mine. While I might think that GGers shouldn’t hold the opinions they do, I believe they have the right to hold them. I believe they have the right to speak up about them, so long as that does not infringe upon the rights of others.

And that last point is the key to all of this, for me. Anything has the right to exist – any art, any speech, any opinion – so long as it does not bring harm to others. That might mean restricting the age of those eligible to purchase an item. It might mean putting warning labels on it. It might mean putting it in a special section of a store. But it does not mean refusing its right to exist.

Much of what has happened re: GG in recent months does bring harm to others. It has not only further marginalized the already outcast, but it has brought active harm to people for having opinions about games. People have lost homes, income, and health as a consequence of the actions of a few whose impetus for protesting is that they disagree with an opinion. That is not free speech – that is censorship of the worst kind.

So while I do not like Hotline Miami 2 and will never play it, while I will criticize its developer’s decision to include interactive rape and say that such a thing should not exist, I will never say that it must be silenced, eliminated, or censored. It should be treated carefully, but respectfully, as should any work of art or culture.

What I – and, I think, other so-called “social justice warriors” hope for is not the censorship of offensive and harmful material, but the decision to not make material that has little value other than offense and harm. We hope for a society that considers its impact and takes action to make sure that what it has to say is said to contribute to the world rather than to detract from it. We hope for artists and creators and, yes, fans and critics who consider a variety of viewpoints and take the initiative to “first, do no harm.”

Put it in Reverse

So there’s this word that’s been bothering me quite a bit recently when it comes to posts on or about a lot of recent events. It’s “reverse.” As in, “reverse sexism,” “reverse racism,” “reverse persecution.”

It bothers me because there is no such thing. Sexism is the discrimination against someone because of gender – which gender is irrelevant. Racism is discrimination based on race – which race is irrelevant. Persecution is persecution – you can’t “reverse” it and have it still be persecution.

And yes, I understand what people mean when they use the phrase, but that’s half the problem. “Reverse” is used by people of a privileged class when they feel as though that privilege is being taken away from them. It never (or rarely) occurs to them that what they’re feeling is the product of the “original” -ism act; it’s still sexism if a man isn’t allowed to wear a short skirt or show off his pecs at work, even though that’s “targeted” against a man rather than a woman. It’s all part of the same horrible sexism package that says that women are X thing and men are Y thing and everyone ought to conform to that standard.

It’s the same story when we look at race or religion or sexual orientation or anything else that humans have come up with to discriminate against one another. It’s all bad news for everybody. And sure, there are people who are more privileged within those -ism constructs – I’m certainly not denying that – but even privilege is harmful, to both those with it and those without it.

Also, if someone pulls out the biological determinism argument one more time, I’m going to start throwing things. Biological determinism is – pardon my proverbial French – utter shite. Sure, people with XY chromosomes and penises can’t physically become pregnant, but aside from basic physiological functions, there’s nothing about biology that dictates superiority or a preference for work in the STEM fields.

Case in point – computer work used to be considered “women’s work” because it was thought of as secretarial. Programmers were women because it was coded (har har) female. Well, that shifted, and now we think of it as coded male, but neither the core concept of programming nor our basic biological building blocks have changed. Farming – coded female in some societies, male in others. Makeup was coded male in Europe for a long time, and so were high heels. Shopping was something men did in much of medieval Europe because women weren’t to leave the house. Music, drama, art, all coded male. Teaching, until the nineteenth century, coded male.

You get my point. We code behaviors, clothing, and expectations based on social influences – influences which shift based on innumerable factors, very few of which are biological. Yes, it is a truth that you don’t find many women in STEM, or construction, or gaming. But instead of saying that “women just don’t like” those things, or that “women aren’t programmed for” them, let’s think about why it is that women aren’t engaging in those institutions.

Could it be that these fields, because coded masculine, are hostile environments, even though the individuals in them might be welcoming? Women don’t go into STEM because they’re told from a young age that they should be wives and mothers, teachers or nurses, something nurturing, someone emotional, not someone rational who gives up her weekends to a lab or an office. Boys are taught to be competitive, to be driven, to fight for dominance. This social training predisposes us from a young age to gravitate toward (and away from) certain things, to automatically dismiss entire career paths at the age of nine or ten or twenty as something that isn’t “for us.”

And to a certain extent, that’s true. It isn’t “for us” because we grew up with that belief. We developed into teenagers and adults who had already made choices based on preferences evolved in highly gendered and -ism-ed childhoods. Some of us defied those -isms and took on careers and hobbies that weren’t coded to our race or gender or religion. Some of us didn’t. And all of those choices are legitimate. But it doesn’t change the fact that we’re pigeonholing our own children by not questioning those social constructs.

And, worse, we’re watching those constructs kill people. Charlie Hebdo. Mike Brown. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Leelah Alcorn. Guantanamo. Matthew Shepard. Abu Grabe. Rafael Ramos. Wenjian Liu. We watch institutionalized -isms kill people and then justify them as “the way things are.” Biological determinism. Or, as I like to call it, excuses and bullsh*t.

New Year, Same Old Sh**

So yesterday I returned to the internet (for all intents and purposes) after two weeks of travel, holiday celebrations, and other things that kept me away. I did not read Twitter for two whole weeks, checked Facebook maybe once every few days, and answered only emails that I wanted to answer.

It was great.

Yesterday, when I finally returned to Twitter, it was with hope that 2015 would be better than 2014, which – let’s be honest – pretty much sucked for everybody.

And the first Tweet I see is about how GamerGate is currently doxxing and harassing transwomen, outing them to people in their workplaces and communities, and generally making their lives hell. I read about how 8chan claims no affiliation with GamerGate, but how they clearly support forums devoted to it. I read about how women I know are making “public” Twitter accounts for their businesses because they can push that off on PR people and not have to read lengthy streams of hate every day.

Same old sh**.

I’m not a New Years resolution type. I don’t believe in declaring the first of the year as the time to start a diet or a new exercise regimen. I believe that if you’re going to make a change, “today” is the day to start it, not a specific date on an arbitrary calendar. And yet, I had some hope that the holiday season might inspire people to be kinder to one another, to respect one another a little more, to acknowledge the humanity in each other.

Apparently not.

If you are the resolutions type, let’s all try to do each other a favor this year. Let’s treat each other with respect. Let’s be kinder, more sympathetic, more thoughtful. Let’s consider how our actions, our words, and our creations impact one another before we put them out into the world. Let’s consider how we would feel if we were in another person’s shoes. Let’s try to let go of our privilege and share it with those who have less.

Let’s try to be a little more human, and a lot more humane.

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.