TLF: Out of the Background: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Women as Background II

Yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency released a new Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video – part two of “Women as Background Decoration.” As per usual, people seem to either love it or hate it (and I’m pretty sure most of them have come to their respective conclusions before ever clicking on the link or pushing play.

I did a write-up response over on TLF, also as per usual.

On a related but not-repeated-in-my-TLF-post note, I’m starting to become irritated by the people I think of as Sarkeesian cheerleaders (none of whom I know personally, by the way). Not anywhere near to the level with which I am disgusted by the trolls who attack her, mind you, but, I think, in large part because of them.

These are the people to whom Sarkessian can do or say no wrong. Every word, every clip, every tweet are sacrosanct nuggets of gold in the feminist fight against the ravening trollish hordes.

And, to be honest, I can sympathize with the impulse because she is fighting the proverbial good fight. She’s doing good work, or at least work for good (although arguably a little of each). I don’t want her to stop making her video series, nor do I want her to be subject to the harassment that characterizes (and escalates with) every release of another episode.

But I also think that to hold Sarkeesian up as the pillar of feminist criticism of videogames is problematic and does a disservice to criticism itself on a couple levels.

First – and most importantly as far as I’m concerned – it suggests that to engage with criticism (metacriticism, if you will) is to devalue it and render it meaningless. If that were the case, no academic ever would have a job. The purpose of criticism is to have a critical conversation, which includes discussion and dissent, that engages with both the primary material (here, videogames) and the other critics (Sarkeesian).

Second, the valorization of Sarkeesian as a paragon of feminist criticism creates a black-and-white template in which videogames are seen as either feminist or misogynist, with no room in the middle.

Finally, it polarizes the people surrounding the discussions. If I’m not with Sarkeesian 100%, then I must support the trolls. This is a false dichotomy that hurts feminists and intelligent criticism far more than it hurts the trolls.

Nuance is important. Critical conversations are important. If I take issue with Sarkeesian’s depiction of one game among many – Dishonored, for instance – then there should be no problem with me pointing that out. I’m not saying that her work is bad. I’m not saying that there is nothing of value in the episode. I am saying that I disagree with this one point – to criticize a single point is to engage her work in conversation, which, so long as it is done respectfully, ought to be the objective of any critic’s work.

So don’t wave your finger in my direction and say “But you only don’t like this one example” as a reason why my entire criticism is invalid. No, I don’t like that example, and that’s okay. As Sarkeesian herself says at the start of every episode, it is possible – even positive – for us to criticize the things we like. So instead of name-calling and accusations (from anyone), let’s have a conversation.

What did you like in this episode? What didn’t you like? Was there a game you thought was missing? A game you thought was misrepresented?

Sexism is the New Social Justice

So recent events – of which I’m sure many of you are aware – in the games-journalism world have me thinking about the nature of sexism and how privilege corrupts the idea of social justice. Not only have people been throwing around the term “social justice warrior” as both a personal banner and an insult, depending on one’s political and social position, but I’ve seen several instances of “journalism is corrupt!” being thrown about without anyone really interrogating what that means.

First, and probably most obviously, is the Zoe Quinn debacle in which the developer of Depression Quest (which I’ve been meaning to play but haven’t gotten to in my queue just yet) had some sort of sexual relationship with a person who is not her boyfriend. I’m a little sketchy on the details and would mostly prefer to stay that way, but the end result is that her now-ex-boyfriend got hurt (emotionally and/or pridefully) and marshaled 4chan to recoup his tarnished honor.

I’m not questioning whether or not he has the right to feel hurt by adultery or betrayal or cheating or even being rapidly replaced or whatever it is that happened. He does, absolutely. It’s a shitty position in which to be. But that does not give him the right to attack his ex in the manner and to the degree in which he has. Getting a bunch of people to threaten the mental and physical well-being of another person, getting people to post private information and photographs to the public internet, and having people harass said person about her “integrity” and “ethics” while committing unconscionable acts of emotional assault are not appropriate and are in fact horrific and should be arrest-worthy.

Today, I saw this tweet:

This person’s feed is full of disparaging tweets about Quinn, and has now attacked Kotaku‘s Patricia Hernandez (via Stephen Totilo, editor for Kotaku) for supposed illicit affairs with game devs.

Totilo’s policy seems to be that so long as the developers aren’t gaining unfairly positive reviews from the relationships, and that the reporters just avoid reporting about those particular devs when possible, it’s fine:

@subtleblend seems to think that in the really incredibly small developer-journalist community that any sort of human interaction qualifies as a “relationship.” Certainly, advocating about how awesome a developer’s game is when one is in a position to influence sales is problematic, but most of the “proof” offered by @subtleblend of bias are collections of quotes and links to Anna Anthropy’s blog or games site – not actual reviews. One of them did suggest that one of Anthropy’s creations is “cute,” but was not the kind of “drop-everything-and-buy-it” kind of review that one would expect from a biased journalist.

But even if there is something problematic about Hernandez’s friendship with Anthropy here, the question that no one has yet asked remains: why is it that all of a sudden “everyone” (men) is concerned with journalistic ethics specifically surrounding primarily female developers? Hernandez – who has received her share of harassment in the past simply for being female and a games journalist – is also female, and is therefore subject to this campaign, but notice how the person being harassed in the Zoe Quinn “scandal” is primarily Zoe – and not the other (male) party.

With the exception of Phil Fish (whose life has been thoroughly screwed-with), the subjects of these harassment campaigns are women: Anita Sarkeesian, Carolyn Petit, Anna Anthropy, Zoe Quinn, Patricia Hernandez. What the trollish hordes have concluded (*cough* manufactured *cough*) from this is that women are therefore a threat to journalistic ethics. Not my words, theirs, as Zoya Street explains on Border House. All of which comes down to the same sexist “fears” that women will somehow “corrupt” or “take away” the male-dominated arena of games – both development and journalism, which is – of course – complete bullshit.

Finally, this is the point where I feel the need to say that as a critic of games who is also married to a game developer, banning journalists and critics from any sort of fraternization with game devs is downright idiotic.Now I’m not in a position to give any noticeable benefit to said developer, so my ethics aren’t really in question, but I’ve written on games he’s developed and said both positive and negative things about them as a player and a critic because that’s my job. Would it be sketchy for me to say that a game my husband worked on is the best thing ever and everyone should buy it? Only if I didn’t really think so.

Totilo’s point that it’s “better” for journalists to be upfront about their relationship with developers allows readers to say “how honest is this? how much does the author’s liking of this developer influence their thoughts?” I get why that might be a good CYA for an editor, and why readers might want to be informed of all the elements going into a decision.

But. And this is a but that is mostly applicable for women, both journalists and devs, the disclosure of that information also leads to dismissal – “she’s only saying she likes it because she’s sleeping with him/he’s only saying that because she’s sleeping with him.” If that is true, it’s a problem, but the assumption typically comes with a heavy dose of sexist presumption (in both directions).

In any industry, people marry other people in the industry, people sleep with other people in the industry, and so on. It happens in movies, in music, in tv, in publishing, in games, in academia. Should there be cronyism policies in place? Probably to ensure avoidance of worst-case scenarios, but if both people are capable of conducting themselves like adults, then there shouldn’t be an issue. Obviously, there are cases where people can’t act like adults, where they publish nude photos and release private information out of spite, but then those are the people who should be punished.

The long and short of it is that people are people. People will become involved with other people in their field of interest because that’s what brings people together, whether romantically or platonically. Some of those people will be women. It’s time the games industry caught up with the rest of the planet, puts on its big-kid pants, and starts acting like an adult.

To Fix or Not To Fix

This week, Gamespot ran a piece on how Dontnod, the developer who made Remember Me and is currently working on Life is Strange, isn’t “trying to fix the industry” by featuring female leads. This struck me as odd on a couple of levels.

First, Dontnod is “trying to fix the industry” by having female leads, but not in a pushy kind of way, which is probably why they said what they did:

“That’s not us trying to be different for the sake of being different,” creative director Jean-Maxime Moris told Joystiq at Gamescom. “It’s not as if we’re trying to ‘fix the industry.’”

What this says to me is that Dontnod is trying to make games that are good, games that are unique or “fresh” (to use one of the buzzwords), games that aren’t the same cookie-cutter white-male-shooter games that everyone else seems to think is required for success. What that means, really, is that they are trying to be different, but not “for the sake of being different” – the idea is to make an original game because that’s a good thing, not just to shock people or stick out like a sore thumb.

I find it a little odd that people disparage the idea of being different “for the sake of being different” – that somehow wanting to make something original is not a legitimate goal in and of itself. But that is as it is. Certainly, if a company wants to be successful, they need to make a game that is fun, a game that is popular, but I’m not sure why Moris went out of his way to assure players that “being different” isn’t one of the goals.

Second, art director Michel Koch explains the presence of female leads by saying that

“We have women in the dev team–not that many because it’s still the video game industry and there are not that many women–but we have women working on the game,” Koch said. “And our writer, which is an American writer we’ve worked with before, he’s consulting with his nieces. He’s showing scripts to them, to read it and see if it feels genuine and fresh.”

There are women on the team. (Admittedly, having women on a development team is a thing that is sadly rare, but here seems more like an apology than a reasonable statement – but that could be the way it’s framed and not what Koch intended at all.) Women are a part of the development process, and the game has female leads. Sadly, this is as unusual and innovative as the article frames it – but it shouldn’t be.

But that aside, the headline – like the quote – also makes some basic assumptions about videogames and gamers that is still bothersome. It has become headline-worthy point when a developer makes not one, but two games in a row that feature female leads (that aren’t a series, like Tomb Raider). My god. I applaud Dontnod for doing it, mind you, but I’d rather see the headline be about the game instead of about a developer defending the choice to make two games in a row featuring female leads.

Critics and Creators

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how people who criticize games ought to just “make their own games” that say what they believe games should say. There are innumerable problems with this statement, some of them practical and some ideological.

Practical first. Maybe I can’t make games. Maybe I don’t have access to the resources necessary to make a game. If my vision is AAA quality, I might not have the millions of dollars it would take to produce that vision, and to make an “indie” version might undercut the game’s purpose. Maybe I don’t have the time to learn the skills I would need to program or animate or write the things I would like to see in a game. Maybe I would love to make the game, but I just can’t, whether for financial or personal reasons.

But let’s assume for a second that my problem isn’t actually practical. Let’s assume that I do have access to these things, but that I simply don’t want to make a game. I’m not interested in making a game, in designing mechanics, in doing art and animation and programming. I just don’t want to.

That does not, I repeat, does not mean that I am not qualified to criticize existing games any more than Roger Ebert was not qualified to criticize films (he didn’t make them), Emily Nussbaum is not qualified to criticize television (she doesn’t make tv shows), or Harold Bloom is not qualified to criticize literature (he doesn’t write it – although to be fair, I kind of wish Harold Bloom didn’t criticize literature, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the right or the qualifications to do so). In fact,almost all critics of a thing do not make that thingfor a living.

Why is it, then, that we have this hangup about games that says “if you don’t like it, make your own”?

It’s the same source, I think, as the idiotic adage “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” (Don’t get me started on that one.) There is this sense among the masses that someone can only participate in something if they are a part of it – if they are an expert, a genius, a creator. Such an attitude is profoundly dangerous and, frankly, lazy.

The most important part of a participatory community is not the creator(s); the most important part of any community is its audience. The consumers. The watchers. The commenters. Shakespeare knew this. His audience also knew this. The role of an audience is not simply to passively absorb what they are shown or told. The role of an audience is to receive, to assess, and to judge the media they consume. They can judge with the spending or withholding of money, certainly, but they can also judge with their words.

That is the role of the critic. To be an active and engaged member of the audience who has passion for the focus of that community, be it games, film, television, literature, soccer, graphic novels, football, portraiture, figure skating, performance art, theater, dance, music… the list goes on. The critic stands in as a voice from the audience, which has many voices, some of them discordant, some harmonious. The critic’s purpose is not to create anew the genre which she or he criticizes; it is to help to shape that genre from the point of view of the audience.

The audience – and the audience’s criticism – is what shapes every artistic genre that has ever existed or will ever exist. In that sense, the critic’s voice has just as much power as the creator’s over the afterlife of a product – Ebert’s reviews have made and broken films. Of course, not all critics are or ever will be Ebert. But the collection of voices that are critical raise issues to prominence that need discussion – irrespective of the eventual outcome of that discussion.

All of this comes down to the fallacy that critics do what they do because they lack the capacity to create. It is not that critics cannot create any more than teachers cannot “do.” Teachers teach, a thing that must be “done” with finesse, skill, and dedication. Critics critique (or “criticize,” if you wish), which requires extensive knowledge of the genre, culture, history, and other criticism within that field.

So when I criticize a game, don’t tell me to go “make my own game.” I did not choose to become a game designer. I chose to become a critic, and my criticism is the way in which I choose to shape the genre that I, too, love.

AIP/TLF: Managing the Team (XCOM)

My second as-I-play post on XCOM: Enemy Unknown has gone live on TLF. I’m a few more hours into the game now, and have started to see my soldiers carving out niches in terms of their tactical abilities (which really means that they’re advancing along their little tech trees in different directions). I’m also upgrading their armor and kits so that they’re less likely to get killed (or can at least take more shots).

I’m not in love with the game, though. It’s not a bad game, I don’t dislike it, but I find myself largely apathetic toward it – it is an engaging way to kill time, provided I’m looking to kill more than an hour (otherwise it isn’t really worth getting into it).

Here’s the first as-I-play, if you need to catch up.

Next Project?

So one of the things I’ve been meaning to do for a while is play through XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Everything I have heard about said game is that it’s awesome, and I’m really hoping that all the hype (and the trailer that mentioned Heart of Darkness) isn’t going to leave me disappointed.

The purpose of this post is twofold. First, to make sure that I actually do start playing because I’ve said I would. Second, to query whether or not I should start making “as-I-play” posts about games to this blog, no matter what I’m playing. I’d give them their own tags, and people should feel more than free to ignore them as they wish, but a reader at TLF mentioned wanting to see one for this particular game. I’m not sure TLF is the place to do that (although if you want it Keidra, it’s yours), so I’m thinking of posting such a thing here, as a compromise.

I’m wondering what y’all think – please let me know in the comments, by FB comment, by private message or email, twitter, whatever ways you have of contacting me. Radio silence implies that you either don’t care, or that you think it’s a terrible idea.

Thanks!

Edit: Keidra has indeed claimed the series for TLF, so I guess it will be going up there! I’ll post a link here, as per usual.

I’ll also take suggestions for future games to do – XCOM is on the list, as is The Bureau, and in October I will be playing Inquisition, so that will also show up. Just remember that I have about two other lives on top of my gaming life, so the list will take me a long time to get through.