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?

The Rise of New Gaming

For some reason I have yet to figure out, the abomination that is GamerGate has persisted, even going so far as to spawn an ostensibly academic offshoot that is seeking to “fact-check and peer review” the work of qualified academics under the umbrella of “saving games.” GamerGate has managed not only to ruin the lives of journalists and developers (Anita Sarkeesian, Phil Fish, Zoe Quinn, Samantha Allen, Mattie Brice, Jenn Frank, among others), but it has now caused major companies to withdraw their advertising campaigns from journalism outlets that have done nothing more heinous than refuse to bend to GGers’ demands – I’m looking at you, Intel. Mercedes temporarily pulled their ads from Gawker (who run Kotaku), but have since reinstated the campaign.

The ad focus seems to be one of the more banal things that has come out of GG at this point – no death threats, no rape threats, no one’s personal information being made available on the web. But, as The Washington Post‘s Caitlin Dewey notes,

the incident still demonstrates a worrying new trend among the Gamergate crowd: curbing the speech of reporters they don’t like by threatening their advertisers. For a media empire, such as Gawker, of course, one advertiser won’t necessarily make or break operations. But for targeted sites like Gamasutra, a smaller, gaming industry news site, or Gameranx, a five-person operation, targeting advertisers isn’t just a form of protest: It’s a threat to their very existence.

In other words, the ad campaign can be a very real, very serious problem to the very voices who area already being threatened by the oppressive ideological apparatus that makes up patriarchal society. (And yes, I am a card-carrying feminist.) Put more simply, for those in a position of non-dominance – women, minorities, LGBTQ folk – campaigns like this one cause much more damage, which is precisely the point.

I’ve talked before on this blog about what all this GG business is coming to mean for non-straight-white-male gamers, as well as responding to Leigh Alexander’s thinkpiece on “the death of the gamer,” to turn a Foucauldian phrase. But one thing that I keep coming back to is the idea that it’s time for gaming to evolve beyond the 1980s and 1990s stereotype of the white teenage boy in the basement – which, by the way, GGers are not helping, despite the fact that most of them are probably not teenagers or in basements.

What’s really happening is that those who have hitherto held the dominant position in gamer culture are losing that dominant position, and are fighting with all they’re worth to keep it, no matter how many internet death threats or metaphoric flinging of mud that requires. To quote former NFL Quarterback Chris Kluwe:

The only danger to the things “gamers” enjoy doing (i.e. playing new games), is the threat YOU YOURSELF have created, because for some reason you think sharing your toys with others is going to make the world explode.

Kluwe’s post (which has a fabulous ending) recaps a lot of the ideas already stated by Kathy Sierra‘s idea of the Koolaid Point -

the most vocal trolling and “hate” for a brand kicks in HARD once a critical mass of brand fans/users are thought to have “drunk the Koolaid”. In other words, the hate wasn’t so much about the product/brand but that other people were falling for it.

Put as simply as I can manage, the whole point of movements like GG and its sub-affiliates is the idea that someone is paying attention to something other than you, in which the “you” is the heretofore dominant demographic.

That’s it. GG is a temper-tantrum being thrown by people with so much privilege that it never occurs to them that exploiting the opportunities they have (wealth, education, access to technology) might be inappropriate in certain situations. It never occurs to them that death threats or other threats of bodily harm might not be an appropriate reaction to a delay in a game release, to the “nerfing” of a gun in Call of Duty, to one developer supporting another, or to a feminist speaking about videogames. People who have convinced themselves that feminists are a bigger threat to the world than ISIS or poverty or human trafficking or ebola-and-cholera-and-HIV-combined or institutionalized racism (which they also don’t believe exists).

All because feminists and “social justice warriors” (people who fight for social equality, which is clearly a dangerous thing) have the audacity to suggest that a medium they also love might want to take a critical look at the way it represents women, minorities, and LGBTQ people, because those people also play and love games.

How dare we.

 

AIP/TLF Shut Your Claptrap (Borderlands 2)

The first post in a new As-I-Play series has gone live over on TLF: this time, I’m playing through Borderlands 2!

This is one of those games that I kept considering every time I thought about getting a new game. I played and enjoyed Borderlands, in spite of the huge disappointment that was the Vault ending. But I liked most of the gameplay, I liked the world, and I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of Pandora, which reminds me quite a bit of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

But I didn’t like it enough to actually go out and buy the second game. There was always a hesitation, something that said “meh” every time I seriously considered it. In part, it was because of the fairly anticlimactic ending. In part, it was because I wanted to play it co-op, and my cohorts slowly abandoned me. And in part, it was because I got very good at wandering into places where the enemies were leveled so far above me that I kept getting annihilated.

But the husband bought it for me, so I no longer have to justify spending the money to myself. I can just sit back and play. :) And then babble about it at you.

I’m Still a Gamer

Amid the toxic fallout from August in the gaming world is an idea that’s being championed by several feminist critics, including Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra, that the term “gamer” ought to be disposed with.

On the one hand, I completely sympathize with the sentiment that’s behind the argument. “Gamers,” by which she means the trollish minority of anti-feminist vocal MRA-supporting feminist-conspiracy-theory-touting subset of gamers, have of late been behaving like spoiled toddlers who have been told that they can’t eat their entire birthday cake because other people should also get a slice.

But on the other, I think the knee-jerk impulse to excise the term from our vocabulary runs the risk of erasing a lot of what is good about being a gamer. Identifying with the rest of gamer culture – sharing common fandoms and conversations; enjoying the thrill of victory, whether in solo, co-op, or competitive play; experiencing the excitement of new game mechanics or technologies… all those things are also a part of being a gamer. I’ve found more friends by identifying as a gamer (both board games and videogames) than I have by identifying as anything else. I’d hate to lose that.

I understand, too, the argument that games are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous part of our culture. They are. More people play games – especially casual mobile games – than ever before… or do they? Solitaire has been a staple of people’s lives since they could make cards. Dice (or knuckle-bones) can be solitaire, co-op, and competitive, too. In short, whether playing a sport, a board/card game, or a videogame, human beings have been gamers of varying degrees for all eternity. Just because more people play Candy Crush and Flappy Bird than used to play Minesweeper doesn’t mean that there isn’t a distinction between those folks who are gamers, and Gamers.

Certainly, there isn’t a level of monetary commitment one can give to become a Gamer (per a current argument), nor dedicated hours to gaming, nor ownership of a particular set of machinery. Being a Gamer is about attitude and ownership of the identity (not the paraphernalia). It’s about putting games before a lot of other things, and wanting to put games before other things because of the positives that gaming represents.

Being a Gamer, to me, means being willing to take risks. It also means wanting to never let go of the impulse to play. Playfulness, and the embrasure of the fantastic that comes with it, is something our society as a whole is sorely lacking. Playfulness can manifest in many ways, not just through gaming, but gaming is, to me at least, one of the most concrete ways that adults have the opportunity to remain playful in a world that is otherwise harsh, unfair, and stressful.

Play is important – physical play, cosplay, identity play, virtual play… all kinds of play that help us to define and redefine ourselves and our beliefs, to experiment with new patterns of thought and ways of engaging with the world, to work out our frustrations in a safe way. And Gamers are (some of the) people who value play more than most.

And that’s why I want to not just hold on to the Gamer identity, but to reclaim it and encourage people to embrace it.

AIG/TLF: Hold Your Fire (XCOM)

In a (hopefully) much less controversial post – my latest As-I-Play post on XCOM: Enemy Unknown is up over at TLF.

In a side note, I’d originally titled the post “Stop, Don’t Shoot” when I started writing it the day before the Ferguson protests started. When I went back to keep updating the post I decided that would be a bit tasteless, so you get the title noted above instead.