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.

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.

Dirty Laundry

One of the big developments this week in GamerGate is that the world – as opposed to the internet – has taken notice. The “movement,” such as it is, has come into the public eye. Pieces have appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The New York Times, twice in The New Yorker, and five times on CNN.com (to say nothing of on tv), at least at my last count (which might be off). This is in addition to pieces on Gamasutra, Kotaku, IGN, GameSpot, and Polygon, which are too numerous for me to even think about linking. Celebrities like Felicia Day, Chris Kluwe, and even the Hulk* have weighed in, and others – like Joss Wheedon – have tweeted their support for those being harassed. (*Not the ‘real’ Hulk.)

GamerGate, just in case you’ve lived somewhere off-grid, started as a hashtag from Adam Baldwin, ostensibly over corrupt gaming journalism ethics, and derailed so quickly that it never actually made it to any sort of legitimate discussion thereof. That’s not to say that there aren’t things to discuss concerning “ethics” and “games journalism,” just that the hashtag went off the rails so quickly that this particular discussion never went anywhere useful, actionable, or productive. Even the initial “scandal” which spawned the tag – that developer Zoe Quinn had exchanged sexual favors for a positive review from a journalist working at Kotaku - is blatantly factually erroneous (neither the journalist in question nor any journalist at Kotaku never reviewed her game, Depression Quest).

Since then, the internet – and Twitter especially – has exploded with pro- and anti-GGaters howling insults, sending threats, and generally behaving like infants, with a few staunch adults thrown in here and there. (For a sense of what the conversation on Twitter looks like, check out Andy Baio’s research project.) Many gaming, feminist, and pop culture outlets – like Feministing and Geek Feminism - have been cautious about engaging the discussion out of fear that they will become subject to the rage of GGaters – like Quinn, Day, and Anita Sarkeesian. Others – like Mangotron - were covering GGate and withdrew that coverage because of harassment.

This isn’t a post attacking GGate or defending feminism or bemoaning the state of women in the games industry (although I have done all of the above before). This is a post reminding all of us that when we write on the internet, whether on Twitter or Facebook or a blog or in the comments section, we are writing in a public space. Whether or not we are read or retweeted or shared, we are nevertheless in public.

Many members of the gaming community – whether GGaters or not – have long been accustomed to the sense that they are screaming into the void. Recent news attention shows us now that the void has both eyes and ears – it has been watching and listening all along. (I’m also not going to digress into a post about how everything we do, say, and post online is being recorded by Google, the NSA, and various nefarious spybots, either, but it is.)

What remains to be seen is whether the creatures of the void are going to prove to be monsters or angels or something in between; whether the airing of GGate’s extremely dirty and smelly laundry will galvanize an army of detergent-wielding knights or coalesce into a stained-sock-golem that will wreak havoc on the gaming community.

I hope that we’ll find out that there are a lot more people who recognize that with the maturation of the games industry comes the responsibility to act like adults and do the damn wash.

The Darkness Beyond the Gate

I have learned a lot about privilege since the beginning of the Gate-that-shall-not-be-named. I have learned how privileged I am. I have also learned how privileged I am not. It is the second of these that was most surprising, and more than a little terrifying.

I am privileged because I grew up in an upper-middle-class family, went to a private school, and never really wanted for anything in terms of finances or material goods. I am privileged because I had an excellent education. I am privileged because of the color of my skin and the nation into which I was born. I am privileged because every day I have enough to eat. I am healthy and insured. I have a husband and two cats. I can pay my rent on time. I have enough income to do things “for fun.” I love my job.

I was raised by loving parents who taught me that I could do anything I wanted and be anyone I wanted. They told me I could speak my mind without fear of repercussion. That my choices were mine and mine alone to make. These are the things we tell privileged children.

They are not true.

Fortunately, my parents also taught me that the world was unfair, and that sometimes people who don’t deserve things (good or bad) get them anyway. They taught me that sometimes people would hate me for no apparent reason, that other kids could be unreasonably cruel, and they gave me tools to deal with that reality that mostly worked.

They taught me to stand up for people who were being mistreated, to speak for those who could not speak for themselves, and to be kind to those in need. To give back. To give forward. To not judge someone because they look or speak or think differently from the way I do.

They taught me that some people were racist, and that racism was wrong. They taught me that I could love whomever I wanted, and that love was good. They taught me that my body was beautiful, no matter what it looked like.

My parents did not teach me that my gender would limit the things I could do. They taught me that girls could play as hard and well as boys, that girls could learn to build and play with trucks and do hard manual labor.

They did not teach me that when I grew older, men would try to take away my power tools, call me “little lady,” and assume that I was weak. They did not teach me that men would catcall me on the street or presume that they had the right to look at or touch my body without my permission. They did not teach me that I was not privileged, that I was oppressed, that there was a one in five chance that I would be sexually assaulted.

They did not teach me that one day, when I was an adult with a career and a good job, married with a place to live and cats, that I would be afraid to speak up, to post on a public forum, because of men on the internet. They taught me that it is okay to be afraid, and that, if it’s important, I should do whatever it is that frightens me anyway.

I do not say this to condemn anyone who has chosen not to speak up – there are many reasons why someone might not. I do not have a history of trauma or depression or mental illness. I do not have a “checkered past.” I don’t have children to worry about. I am not a celebrity, a journalist, or a developer. For all intents and purposes, I am irrelevant to the vast majority of people on the planet or even in my state, country, or city.

But I am an academic, and academics are public people. We are expected to speak, and to speak from a position of authority and certainty. We are expected to assume a public identity – minor though it may be – as a part of our job. We can earn or lose a career or tenure based on whether or not we have engaged with the public in our chosen field.

In other words, because I chose, some years ago, to write about videogames and to write about gender, it is part of my job to say something about what is happening in the gaming community right now. This is also true of other journalists, critics, and developers. This is our job.

And it’s terrifying.

There are people who are speaking up for whom this is not their job. People who simply love games and want them to be better. They have chosen to engage in an ugly, bitter mud-slinging disaster of their own free will because they believe it is the right thing to do. They are risking themselves, their reputations, and their sanity simply because they want games and the gaming community to be better. And today, this week, this month, this year, and possibly forever, those people are my heroes.

Black and White and Rainbow with Sprinkles

So I know I’ve mentioned this on here before, but one of the things I hate the most about the whole G****G*** movement is the way it’s served to unmitigatingly dichotomize discussions about games, about gender, and about privilege. I hate that if people are involved in the discussion, they’re either Gaters or SJWs, misogynists or misandrists, trolls or feminazis. The discussions that we should be having about gender, sexuality, race, and cultural diversity in games shouldn’t be framed by either-or. There is so much nuance, so many possibilities, that to reduce the discussion to thing A or thing B misses the infinite space in between those things, as well as to either side.

To be upfront about it, I think that what women like Anita Sarkeesian are doing for games is great. I think that a series like “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” has a lot to give to an industry that has hitherto been profoundly unaware of the problems it has in its treatment of women. I think there is a lot to be done with videogames in they way they portray not only women, but minorities and transpersons and queer persons and persons of other religions, creeds, and cultures.

But I also think that tweets like the following are problematic, too:

The article from Rolling Stone is the source of the phrase, “pop culture’s most valuable critic,” which is where I take issue with this. Although it isn’t the most brilliant interview ever, the issues I have are with the interviewer and the byline writer – not with Sarkeesian herself. Put frankly, I just don’t think she’s “pop culture’s most valuable critic.” She may well be its “most visible” critic at the moment, which carries with it a certain amount of cache, but “most valuable” implies a level of depth and experience that she just doesn’t have.

The interview itself is fine – it talks about the video series, GG, and the harassment she’s faced as a result.That’s not really a problem (although the fact that she’s had to deal with the last of these is). What’s problematic, to me, is the fact that in this internet-turned-offline drama, one has to be either a hero or a villain. At one point, for instance, the interviewer says the following: “You’ve described yourself as a folk villain to a certain subset of gamers, and you’ve become a folk hero to another.” The image of a “folk villain” is certainly clever and fairly apt for the position in which Sarkeesian has found herself, but the impulse to create the opposition – either “folk villain” or “folk hero” – creates a false opposition. It produces a war that may or may not have inherently existed.

This is not to say that Rolling Stone in particular is culpable here – the dichotomy was in place long before current non-gaming media picked up on it. But no one is attempting to dismantle it, either, and I find that almost equally irritating. I know conflict sells – or gets clicks – and the more news outlets get involved in the discussion, the fewer voices are going to be heard because they’re all going to get filtered into pro and against – and the pro and against WHAT is going to fall away.

You see, this isn’t really a war – one doesn’t have to approach games as either misogynist or the Best Thing Evar, which is the way things are shaping up right now.

Anita Sarkeesian can be valuable and contribute value to the games industry without being “pop culture’s most valuable critic.” People can object to her viewpoint in whatever nuance they want without being GGers or misogynists (I take issue with some of what she says, and I’m about as feminist as you can possibly get). (People should also be able to object without resorting to insults, threats, and so on, so there is some blame that falls on those participating in such actions.)

What I hate is that according to the line in the sand that has currently been drawn, I have to either love all the things about games as they are OR I have to be a games-hating raving feminist who wants people to never have fun because patriarchy.

But let’s be honest here. I love games. I play RPGs and shooters and puzzle games and mobile games (pretty much in that order of frequency). I’ve had fun playing Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Call of Duty, Borderlands, Skyrim, Team Fortress 2, XCOM, BioShock, Infinite, Warcraft 3, Age of Mythology, Tomb Raider, Braid, Dishonored, Contrast, Alice, Myst, Riven, System Shock 2, Civilization, Plants vs. Zombies, Peggle, and Bejeweled. Even Minesweeper and Lode Runner and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego, back in the day. (And I’m sure I missed some in there.)

I can love those games and hate individual things about them (the ubiquitous Asari strippers in Mass Effect, for instance, or the godawful Mako). I can love a game and still think that it’s sexist (Warcraft). I can hate a game that isn’t sexist, or for reasons that have nothing to do with sexism (Alan Wake, which I didn’t make it far enough into to find out whether it was sexist or not). I can also hate a game in part for its sexism (Fable III). I can do all these things, and still love games. I can also do all these things and still be a feminist. (And, for the record, I can be a feminist and not hate men. One can also be a feminist and wear makeup or a skirt.)

The reason so many people – men, women, transpersons – are talking about games is because they love games. If we didn’t love them, we wouldn’t talk about them, and that is something we all have in common here. Whether GGers or feminists or just plain gamers, we all love games. We aren’t at war – or at least, we don’t have to be.

This isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition – everybody can have the games they want. What we can’t have is for ALL the games to be what only one group wants – but I think that if we all stopped shouting and flag waving and gating, we might find out that the games that would appear if everyone tried to accommodate others (just a little bit) wouldn’t be even half as awful as we feared.

So instead of putting up walls and siphoning people off into jars based on their gate-status or -ist identification, how about we just talk about what makes a good game?