Author Archives: Bezio

Hedging our Bets: Kotaku on Sarkeesian

So yesterday Stephen Totilo of Kotaku did a write-up of a talk given at NYU by Anita Sarkeesian. Twitter and the internet in general naturally have things to say about this, some good, some bad. But what drew my attention was specifically a tweet from Emily Nussbaum:

So I went and took a closer look, and she’s right. There is something wistful about the piece, something hesitant, which seems to be keeping Totilo from actually taking the plunge and saying what he really thinks.

I don’t know Totilo. I have no idea if he’s a fan of Sarkeesian, a skeptic, or if he wishes she would disappear into the earth. But his piece reads like something struggling desperately not to alienate two disparate and at-war audiences: those who all-but-canonize Sarkeesian, and those who’d rather see her burned at the proverbial stake.

And I don’t really blame him. Totilo took a lot of heat at the beginning of the debacle that is GamerGate, particularly concerning pieces published by Kotaku which were written by “feminist sympathizers.” People demanded that he fire some of his writers and/or that he himself be fired. He’s had first-hand experience of the horrors of getting involved in the gender-and-videogames discussion.

So the fact that he was willing to jump back into the shark-infested waters to begin with shows some courage (or stupidity, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here, since he seems to be an intelligent man). Whether he likes what Sarkeesian has to say or not, he has to come at it with a very large dose of skepticism or risk alienating his readership. (Some people are okay taking that risk, but I get why he might not be.)

That said – and I do not blame him for hedging his bets – Totilo is somewhat dismissive of the fact that most of Sarkeesian’s points are art-based: “Sarkeesian’s emphasis on the critique of what players see, more than what they do.” He points out that because she doesn’t often talk mechanics or interactions, her “criticisms of gaming occupy a different spot than other people’s criticisms about, say, free-to-play game design, game length, or downloadable content. Those latter arguments clearly and directly pertain to whether a game would be more or less fun or engaging for any player, which for many gamers is the paramount gaming concern.” To me, this feels very much like a claim that “real critics talk about design and gameplay,” although that’s not explicitly what Totilo says.

By beginning with a discussion of how Sarkeesian doesn’t really identify as a gamer (sort of) how she plays mostly Nintendo games of her own volition, and how she enjoys casual games (like Angry Birds) most, Totilo has set her up as a non-gamer (or at least, not as a hardcore gamer) whose criticisms are about the “fluff” of games, rather than the core component – “the paramount gaming concern.”

Furthermore, he concludes with the following statement:

As easy as she had suggested some of the changes in gaming could be, so much of this is likely to be controversial—and not just because someone might be sexist. How do you balance creators’ freedom with the need or desire to open a game up to a broader audience? How do you assess which portrayals of women in games attract or repel male or female gamers? How do we truly determine the impact of the characters we see or control on how we relate to those characters or view the world?

The implication, of course, is that what Sarkeesian suggests is restrictive to developers’ freedoms, that female characters are somehow repellent to gamers, and that it shouldn’t matter what our gaming avatars look like because in the end ‘it’s just a game’ (my words, not his).

And that’s where he lost me for good. I get wanting to make the article as palatable to his readers (many of whom are hardcore gamers) as possible, but to dismiss Sarkeesian’s criticisms as functionally fluff that ultimately doesn’t matter is to take a political side. Sarkeesian’s requests are not about restricting the freedom of developers any more than a critique of a film is designed to restrict the freedom of its director or actors. It’s about making the medium better for everyone – about opening up options, not closing them off.

Furthermore, even bringing up the idea that adding gender balance and reducing sexism (and racism) in games might be infringing on someone’s “freedom” is to borrow a tired trope from the privileged class: someone else pointing out oppression is not censorship. Bigotry, racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. are not freedoms; they are themselves restrictive and oppressive, and exercising them is not a right. No one has the “right” to harass others, objectify others, or oppress others. Asking someone to stop even unintentional oppression is not stifling creativity – it’s allowing for more voices to contribute, more perspectives to be considered, more to be created.

So, in the end, while I understand Totilo’s hesitancy to really take a stance – and he tries very hard not to – he ends up falling back into the same hedge-maze of games criticism and journalism, walking in circles rather than finding the way out.

Does Anita Sarkeesian have the answers to the problems of sexism and racism in games? Probably not – or at least, not exclusively or perfectly. Are her eight points really as “easy” as she thinks? Almost certainly not, nor are they going to “fix” things the way she seems to imply. But considering them – and the intentions behind them – would probably make games better, not because they would restrict the “freedoms” of developers, but because they would cause those developers to think about and then intentionally choose specific characters, motions, and mechanics instead of defaulting to the same old, tired sexist tropes without any consideration given to why they’re being employed.

A Tiger Can’t Change

So today it was brought to my attention that there is a fan mod for Dragon Age Inquisition that allows players to modify the sexual preferences of the companion characters in the game. Some people are thrilled by this. Some people are really angry about this.

Let’s look at why.

Only two of the companions are bisexual (Bull and Josephine), and several of them have species preferences (Solas can only be romanced by a female elf, Cullen by a female elf or human). This means that some of the most popular characters are not available for romance with all Inquisitors (Cassandra and Dorian are only available to male Inquisitors; Sera and Blackwall to female Inquisitors; Cole, Vivienne, and Varric to no one).

Those who are thrilled are those who wanted to romance a particular character in the game, but whose Inquisitor was not oriented in that direction.There are accounts online from multiple fans about how they attempted to romance a companion only to be heartbroken because Cassandra or Dorian wouldn’t date their female Inquisitor, or Cullen or Sera wouldn’t date their male Inquisitor. This fan mod gives them the opportunity to experience that.

Then there’s the other side. This side falls into two camps. First, the camp that’s already horrified that some characters are homosexual or bisexual. They think it’s disgusting that Cassandra could now be a lesbian, or that Cullen might be gay. I’m essentially going to dismiss that opinion as bigoted.

Then there’s my viewpoint, which is that this mod goes against one of the major points being made by the game: people are what they are. They can’t, and shouldn’t, be forced to change. In the game, Dorian talks specifically about how his father betrayed him by using blood magic to try to make him straight. That is – in essence – what this mod does. It changes the politics (yes, I know, “politics” is a dirty word in games right now) and the purpose of part of the game, and I don’t approve in general of things that change the developers’ intentions (fixing failures is fine – changing intentions bothers me). It also implies that we can change people to be what we want because it suits us, something that is both false and harmful.

Do I think the person who created the mod should be shamed and harassed? Of course not. But I think it’s important to remember that even if you can now romance Cassandra or Dorian as a woman, that it goes against one of the most powerful points in the game – we are what we are, we love who we love, and that can’t be changed.

SVU Does GG

So this week one of the many things flying about on the feminist internet is the fact that Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has more or less decided to feature internet harassment against Anita Sarkeesian (with a little Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu thrown in) as the subject of its Feb. 11th episode, entitled “The Intimidation Game” (clever, SVU, I see what you did there). (Video link – SVU: The Intimidation Game)

The Washington Post did a write-up of some of the similarities and differences, conflating Sarkeesian’s experience over the last few years (yes, we’re at “years” now) with GamerGate, and suggesting that L&O is offering “the final word on GamerGate.”

My thought on that sentiment is “If only.” If only this were the last we would hear about GamerGate or harassment of women online. If only women in the games industry would now be able to blithely go about their lives and businesses without fear of repercussions in the form of threats, harassment, doxxing, and even violence. Because while none of the real women involved in GamerGate have been abducted or physically assaulted, that is the fear that has been created – intentionally – by those engaging in online threats and harassment.

Sure enough (and in its defense, the WP piece does talk about the “thoughtful” nature of the comments which appeared immediately after the episode aired), the episode is far from the “final word” on the subject, as Quinn’s twitter today contained the following:

And Sarkeesian had this to say:

So no, it wasn’t the “last word” on GamerGate, not by a long shot.

Ars Technica, on the other hand, characterized the episode with the phrase “everyone loses.” From where I’m sitting, that seems more accurate.

I watched it. And it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten this angry at a television show. And I mean legitimately angry, not “How could they do that to X character?!” but “That was irresponsible, disrespectful, and undermines progress” kind of angry.

That episode just eroded years of work being done by the games industry to see its products recognized as valuable contributions to culture that influence the way people think, it undermines the work being done by women and other minority voices for recognition and respect in the industry, and it completely negates the difficulty of the struggle many feminists and other activists face every day by turning it into nothing more than a headline. It trivializes the difficulty of daily harassment by transforming institutionalized misogyny and exclusivity into a fringe spectacle that impacts only the important or infamous.

It’s disgusting and depressing to sit at this keyboard and watch years of effort at recognition be disintegrated in forty-two minutes and change. Thanks for that, NBC. That’s the last Law & Order I will ever watch.

(Edit: See my TLF post for more details.)

Get Rid of the Black Marker: A Post Against Censorship

A recent conversation has reiterated one of the components of recent internet discussions of games – particularly those containing overt misogyny – that bothers me more than most of the others. It’s the conflation amongst many online of “criticism” with “censorship.” A few weeks ago, I made this post on the Australian censorship of Hotline Miami 2, which contains a passage I feel bears repeating (even though I feel a little odd about quoting myself):

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.

Criticism is – or should be – the thoughtful consideration of and discussion about why our cultural artifacts (including videogames) contain things like racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and the other -isms of society. Criticism is not censorship.

Let me just repeat that one: Criticism is not censorship.

Yes, there are people on the internet who claim that certain games – probably including Hotline Miami 2 – should not have been made and certainly should not be sold. I am not among them. I will never buy it, never play it, and am, quite honestly, disgusted by it, but I will not say that it should not exist. I will say that it is harmful to women because it perpetuates a culture of misogyny and sexual violence that daily endangers real women in the real world, but I do not dispute its right to exist.

Let me also be very clear that I do not think that someone can become a misogynist by playing Hotline Miami 2. I do not think that any single piece of culture can change a person’s nature or predispositions. I do think that, en masse, popular culture devoted predominantly to particular ideological paradigms does inculcate its audience into those paradigms. In non-academic-ese, what we see all day, every day, does impact how we think about the world. It might not cause us to take action on those thoughts, not directly, but it does cause us to become accepting or permissive of certain behaviors we might not otherwise choose to permit.

It can also cause us to reject certain behaviors. Publish enough tracts and novels about the abolition of slavery – like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was progressive for its time – and society might just decide that slavery isn’t acceptable. Publish enough tracts and hold enough speeches on how women should vote, and you get women’s suffrage. Make enough television, movies, and videogames about how African Americans are all violent gangsters, and you get unarmed black teenagers being shot because white people feel genuine (albeit unjustified) fear of them.

That is the power of media, videogames included, and that is precisely why criticism (not censorship) is vitally important. Because if we kowtow to the sanctity of creators and the entertainment media, we stop questioning why we believe the things we believe. Censorship is just another form of refusing criticism, and it is through criticism – genuine, respectful dialogue – that culture moves forward.

Does Gender Matter Behind the Pen?

So yesterday my attention was drawn to this opinion piece on Polygon about whether or not we can rely on men to write good female characters. I assume, by extension, that women must therefore be unreliable as authors of male characters, African Americas of Asian characters, Jewish persons of Christian characters, and so on.

Which should tell you just how idiotic I find that question to be.

Of course men can write good female characters. Women can write good male characters. Cispersons can write good transpersons. Transpersons can write good cispersons. White people can write good people of color. People of color can write good white people or people of another color. Members of one religion can write good members of other religions.

The whole point of being a writer – says someone who does in fact write for a living, although not primarily creatively – is to adopt a specific persona for a specific audience. I do not write the same here as I do as an formal academic as I do as a friend or a daughter or a wife. When I do write creatively, I often take a male perspective, and I’d like to think that I don’t do it too badly (although I’d have to actually put it out for publication to get a true barometer of that, which I haven’t done).

Does a woman have more of a sense of what it is like to experience life as a woman? Of course she does. The same goes for any gender, orientation, belief, or color. But that does not preclude a good writer from doing research and attempting to represent the experience of another in a way that is meaningful, respectful, and “good.”

It’s the “doing research” part that’s important, here. Colin Campbell – author of the above-linked piece – suggests that “The skill required to convincingly write across genders is pretty high, and not commonly found.” I would beg to differ. While it may be true that writing across any lines does take skill, professional writers of all stripes have that skill. What most of them lack is the wherewithal and/or the time (in the games industry time is a very valuable commodity that its workers often do not have nearly enough of) to put in the necessary research to do so.

Research is a vital component of any writing, or at least it should be. As an academic, I could blather on incessantly about what I think about Hamlet, but unless I do the research to have a clear understanding of its context, otherwise known as where its author is coming from, I can’t possibly hope to write about Hamlet well. And it’s that qualifier that’s important, here. I might have impeccable syntax, but if I don’t do the research, what I have to say is irrelevant.

The principle, while slightly different in methodology, is applicable to creative endeavors, as well. If I wish to write from the perspective of a 15th century Frenchman, I’d better go find out what it is that 15th century Frenchmen do. If I want to write as a woman of color, I need to read a lot about what women of color experience on a daily basis, talk to women of color about their experiences and fears, and then try to be as respectful of that as I possibly can. Is it easier (for me) to write as a white woman from the twenty-first century? Of course it is – because I’ve already done that research simply by living. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t do another perspective well – it just means I have to work harder at it.

And, here’s my real point, the experience of doing that work is ultimately invaluable in so many ways. It introduces empathy where empathy may not have existed. It broadens the horizons of both artists and consumers by exposing them to the lived experiences of those who are unlike them in some way. It enables artists and consumers to break down the harmful social barriers that exist in any culture by virtue of their ability to identify with someone Other than themselves. It creates change. It enables justice.

So while I absolutely think that the cultural industries of gaming and mass media do need to include more women, queer persons, transpersons, and people of color, I also think that there is a lot to be gained from having everyone do the work and take the risk of adopting voices that are different from their own.