That’s Just Normal

Today, Polygon ran an opinion piece by Jonathan McIntosh, producer of Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs. Women in Videogames series, entitled “Playing with Privilege: The Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male.” As far as such pieces go, this one is fairly banal – well-written, accurate, non-inflammatory, non-accusatory, and straightforward, with no intentionally upsetting anecdotes about the kinds of harassment women receive while playing or discussing gaming, either online or in person. It doesn’t illuminate any significant aspects of gaming culture that those of us in it and aware of the problem don’t already know, but its reasonable tone might make it more likely to be read and absorbed by those who still remain ignorant… out of privilege.

I don’t really have much to say about McIntosh’s piece itself. I do – following a recent theme on this blog – have something to say about the comments. First of all, the comments are fairly tolerable, all things considered. No one gets called nasty names, no one gets told to make a sandwich, and no one gets called a “white knight” (although the trope does get brought up). There are a couple of things about it that bother me, though.

1. “It’s not just videogames.” This is one of those comments that bothers me in part because of its truth. Sexism (or privilege of any kind) isn’t just a part of the gaming community. Sexism is rampant everywhere, to greater or lesser degrees. As a female stage technician, I can say that it’s present every time I walk into a Home Depot and someone asks me if I’m shopping for my husband (nope – he buys me the power tools). As a woman in academia, I’ve had my work or ideas dismissed by the male academe (although fortunately not at my current place of employment). As a gamer, I’ve been asked for photos of my body parts, demands of sexting and cyber, told to get off the headset because I’m just talking for my boyfriend, and presumed to be shopping for my male counterpart when in a game store. Yes, sexism is everywhere. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about in gaming just because it happens on the street, at the office, and in hardware stores the world ’round. It happens everywhere, we should address it everywhere, and that includes in gaming.

But the one that really gets me:

2. “It’s not privilege, it’s just normal.” Yes, it is just normal. For you, the straight white male. And that is the very definition of privilege. Because for me, it isn’t normal. It has become normalized, accepted as “the way it is,” but because I can see that it isn’t normal for you, the SWMG, I understand that it is only normal for me because I am Other than SWMG. You do not have to see that your “normal” is privileged because that is the very essence of privilege: that you do not have to see that your normal is for others the unattainable-but-longed-for. To call your normal privileged is not to insult you or suggest that you somehow have attained something you do not deserve. You do deserve your normal. But so do the rest of us who, by virtue of our birth, have been excluded from that normal.

As I write this, I am very much aware that to be able to discuss the ramifications of sexism (ablism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.) in gaming culture is itself a privilege. I have access to the money, technology, and time to participate in a culture that is a measure of my leisure and luxury. I have the ability to play videogames, the money to pay for them, and the sociopolitical infrastructure to do so online and without fear of official or legal sanction. And all those things are markers of my membership in a privileged nation, society, and community.

There are larger problems in this world than sexism in gaming. There is poverty, sexual trafficking, genocide, war, hate crime, religious persecution, and widespread sickness. There are things that many of us can – and probably should – do to improve all those things, even on a microcosmic scale. But I also firmly believe that the culture of the privileged can be changed – from both the position of those who create it and those who consume it – in order to be better, more equal, less tolerant of hatred and marginalization. If the culture of the privileged is that toward which we all aspire, then that culture should be one which embraces rather than excludes, encourages rather than excoriates.

So while, yes, there are bigger problems, larger issues, and more widespread discrimination, that does not mean that we should allow the symptoms of the larger disease to go untreated. Yes, we should be searching for a larger cure, but the disease can be managed by treating the cough, the nausea, and the pain while we labor to find the panacea it so desperately needs.

Comment-ment Problems

So I’m starting to dread comment notifications on TLF. I guess I’m lucky that most people haven’t found this blog, since it means that I’m not inundated with depressing comments on a more regular basis.

Today’s featured comment is in response to a cross-post here about another comment from TLF. It suggests that by pointing out the problematic nature of the phrase “wom[e]n like…” I am thereby effacing any sort of distinction between men and women.

Well, in the case of criticism, yes, yes I am. I don’t think that the gender of a critic, an academic, a journalist, etc., is a relevant criterion when one is discussing – whether positively or negatively – their opinions. I did not say that Sarkeesian’s “female experience,” to borrow the most recent commenter’s phrase, was irrelevant to her viewpoint. Nor did I ever once suggest that “everyone is identical,” as the commenter concludes.

Instead, I said that one’s viability as a critic is not determined by one’s gender. Nor, for the record, is one’s viability as a critic determined by race or sexuality or religion. That does not mean that one’s experience as a member of any of those groups is invalid or not valuable. But it does mean that if I, as a white woman, wanted to criticize the racial depiction of a character in tv or a videogame that my race and gender are irrelevant to the quality of that criticism. I can’t personally speak to the “Black experience,” to quote the commenter, but I can suggest that, for instance, Bioshock Infinite contains a highly vexed depiction of race (and gender).

To reduce my disparaging of the phrase “women like…” in regards to the first commenter’s dismissal of Sarkeesian’s opinion as being intrinsically female to the statement that there is no distinction between male and female experiences of the world is being intentionally obtuse. Sarkeesian isn’t writing about the female experience. Neither am I. I’m talking about a critic’s perception, an academic’s observations.

Are they colored by whatever other components influence my life? Of course they are. But to say that my voice should be subsumed into the general category of all women before it should be considered academic or critical is both dismissive and reductionist.

For that matter, to suggest that there is a single “female” or “male” or “Black” experience that is shared by all people of that designation is equally reductionist and problematic (if that is in fact the intention of the commenter… which I hope it is not, as to assume so is to be guilty of the very crime of which I stand accused).

In the grand scheme of internet comments, this one is banal, even benign. Yet the perpetuation of the attitude that biology or genetics must inherently make us categorically unequal is infuriating. Of course every individual is skilled or unskilled, good or bad, at different things. I am not a construction worker or rocket scientist and do not pretend to be. But I am a trained carpenter and electrician, a gamer and an academic, an aerialist and a stage manager. Those things are not categorically part of the “female experience,” and my gender is irrelevant to all of them (with the exception of the kind of costumes I wear in aerials)

In fact, what the commenter calls the “female experience” is almost entirely socialized – the product of socialization far more powerful than biology. And anything that is socialized rather than inherent, any experience that is the result of a false inequality, although all too real to those who experience it, should not determine their competence or identity. Yes, women are treated differently than men, but aside from purely biological functions, they should not be, nor should Blacks be treated differently than Asians or Native Americans or Hispanics or Latinos or Arabs or Whites. They are – but they should not be.

So when I suggest that the phrase “women like…” is problematic, I don’t mean that women don’t experience sexism, but, rather, that they should not, and that the evaluation of their work should be on its own merits, on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin or the chromosomes in their DNA.

“Woman like Anita”: What’s (Not) Wrong with Critical Fandom

About a week or so ago, I received a new comment on an old TLF post on Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Videogames” project. The original post was written before Sarkeesian actually released any of her videos (there are subsequent posts on TLF that talk about each video once they were released), and has garnered more attention than any other post I’ve made at TLF, which bothers me a little if only because it’s since been dated by the release of Sarkeesian’s videos (Post #2, Post #3, Post #4)  and I’d like to see people follow the conversation, not react to the original post. But that little complaint aside…

This most recent comment bothers me quite a bit, and I was having trouble figuring out why, exactly, since it’s a far cry from the kind of internet troll harassment that people talking about Sarkeesian’s work usually get (i.e. no threats or demands for sandwiches). However, there are several things about it that bother me.

First, the assumption that “No one has yet come to the realization that this anita sarkiseen woman has done it for the attention and the money? Thanks internet for giving this woman a free ride in cash and picks with universities” is irrelevant. Yes, Sarkeesian is making money with this series. So what? People make money doing what they do for a living. This is what she does for a living. The idea that somehow her publicizing her work and speaking about it in public is a sign of corruption is ludicrous. I talk about gender and games, I publish about games, I teach about games, and part of the reason I get paid is because of that. It’s my job. Sarkeesian may be self-employed, but talking about “Tropes vs. Women” is nevertheless her job and she should get paid for it, irrespective of whether or not anyone agrees with her opinions.

Second, this sentence: “Woman like Anita are a waste of time and nothing more than a media-eyelight eyesore forcing their way on how games should be.” Any sentence that contains the phrase “Wom[e]n like…” should immediately set off warning bells, since it presumes that the gender of the person doing something is relevant (hint: it usually isn’t). In addition, the idea that anyone‘s opinion on “how games should be” shouldn’t be made available to the general public is absurd. Anyone who plays games or wants to play games is allowed, by virtue of being human, to have an opinion about what they think “games should be.” That doesn’t mean the industry is going to listen to them, but they’re welcome to declare their opinion anyway.

Third, the commenter claims that “This is why innovation in games is getting more stale and less appealing to because of those like Anita, who believe the game world should be the real world and reflect their wants and needs.” Um. The game world does and should reflect the real world and reflect the “wants and needs” of the people who play in it. That doesn’t mean that all game worlds are going to reflect the “wants and needs” of Sarkeesian, but that there ought to be game worlds that do – as well as game worlds that do not. Gaming is a new medium in the grand scheme of media, so it’s still (slowly) playing catch-up on this one, but other forms of popular culture (tv, movies, books) already reflect multiple worlds and worldviews, and it’s not only appropriate and desirable, but inevitable that game worlds will, too. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Finally, this:

Selfish americans are what is the true underline issues, not guppy-politics on how the smallest inch of mesh fabric on a female game model is a derangement to all the poor and unfortunate real-life woman out there. We waste so much of our money, time, and attention on things like optional video-games that don’t matter in the whole-run where us as a nation is actually going. Instead we’re like brainless sheep, following the face of random feminist women or anyone that tickles our ears with their ideas and agendas. We have become color-coded followers of the popular social “norms” of those who just want to ram their ideals quiet frankly, up our butts. I surely do miss old america, the new america is nothing more than a joke.

This commenter clearly has no concept of how popular culture reflects and shapes society, and I’m fairly certain I’m not going to be able to convince him (presumably) that it does, since he appears to be one of those people who doesn’t realize that his opinions about the universe have been constructed by his life-long exposure to media (including games) and society. Clearly his opinions were plopped into his brain by Truth Itself. That aside, the commenter claims to be above the rest of us who “waste” our time and money on games, yet has obviously decided to “waste” his time reading and then commenting on a post about gaming because he clearly does consider it important.

I am also curious what, exactly, “old america” is supposed to be. America in the 1950s when women were meant to stay in the kitchen providing for their husbands and children, and suffered from severe depression as a result of oppressive social norms? The 1850s, when slavery was still legal? Or maybe 1776, when the Founding Fathers chose to create a nation based on the very principles of free speech that the commenter seems to think apply only to him and not to me or to Sarkeesian?

Yes, it is true that people who are in extreme poverty should care more about food than videogames. But the vast majority of Americans are not – fortunately for us – in that category and do choose to dispose of our time by playing games (I’d imagine, the commenter included). And since we do, it is not only our right, but our responsibility as socially conscious and conscientious individuals to make sure that medium represents our viewpoints and does positive work toward the shaping of our sociopolitical ideals. Popular culture shapes our world in far more ways than we even realize, and taking responsibility for demanding that pop culture be accountable to its audience is a vital part of our society’s ideological formation. Yes, there are other very important concerns: education, poverty, crime, etc., but games (like any other popular media) impact the abstract ones: racism, sexism, homophobia. And if we can use games to change our society to become less bigoted, then that is a laudable and valuable goal.

Do I think that Anita Sarkeesian is the best person to do that? Probably not. But she is doing it, or at least trying to, and the very fact that her voice is out there and public has perhaps done more in the last few years for starting the conversation about gender equality in the gaming industry than a lot of other, less controversial and less public voices. Ultimately, I guess my stance has changed since that first TLF post: I’m a feminist gamer, and I’m all about Anita Sarkeesian.

Edit: Cross-posted on TLF.

Flapping at Windmills

So today’s internet explosion of quasi-idiotic behavior has sent me running back to my feminist soapbox, lance firmly in hand and plumed helmet fastened. Today’s rant is brought to you by Flappy Bird and unmitigated internet rage.

I remember seeing the first tweet that Kotaku sent out about their article on how Flappy Bird is imitating Mario art. The original headline said “ripped-off” art, specifically, and has since been updated to say ”Mario-like art” instead, along with a couple of updates on Dong Nguyen’s (the creator) tweeted response and their own later apology to him. In short, someone at Kotaku noticed the striking similarities between Nguyen’s pipes and bird and the pipes and creatures from Mario in terms of appearance, as well as the nearly-identical sounds in both games. Their point was not only that Nguyen had “ripped off” these sprites and sounds from Mario, but that there was something inherently unfair that he was able to make $50,000 a day from ad revenue on the game.

The internet subsequently exploded, cataloged on a page entitled “Flappy Birders not Happy.” This has prompted a few other things to happen. First, speculation that the subsequent removal of Flappy Bird from the App Store is the product of legal action (it isn’t), embarrassment over being called-out for “ripping off” Nintendo, and/or the result of harassment from internet trolls, as on Eurogamer and the EscapistSecond, this has set off a series of pro- and anti-Flappy Bird blog posts, including one from Robert Yang, called “An Alternate History of Flappy Bird.”

There are several things about this whole fiasco that bother me. First and foremost, it’s never acceptable to threaten a game developer with death, dismemberment, or other bodily harm whether or not their work is derivative. Not cool, should not have happened.

Second, it irritates me to no end that there is so much coverage of Nguyen’s harassment and comparatively little about that leveled at female designers. Bryce Mainville makes this point on twitter:

Yes, the comments leveled at Nguyen are inappropriate and should not have happened, but he is not the only developer (not even the only male developer) to be so targeted by rabid fans and anti-fans. But it’s frustrating to see the kind of attention that this case receives when comments aimed at women online (developers or not) are just as bad or worse.

Second, I’m unconvinced by Yang’s argument that this has exploded primarily because Nguyen is Vietnamese:

Dong Nguyen committed the crime of being from Vietnam, where Electronic Arts or Valve or Nintendo do not have a development office. The reasoning is that no one “outside of games” can become so successful, except through deceit. The derivative nature of Flappy Bird’s assets and mechanics was taken as confirmation that technologically-backward Southeast Asians were “at it again” — stealing and cloning hard-won “innovation in games” invented by more-beloved developers.

None of the articles I read and most of the hate-filled tweets mentioned Nguyen’s ethnicity as a point of contention. Nor do I think that, as Yang suggests, “if Nguyen were a white American, this would’ve been the story of a scrappy indie who managed to best Zynga with his loving homage to Nintendo’s apparent patent on green pixel pipes and the classic ‘helicopter cave’ game genre.” I think that perhaps some of the comments he received would not have borne a racial tenor, but I do think that they would have been just as vitriolic.

Why?

Because my final point is that his game’s graphics and sounds are far too close to Mario‘s to be anything but intentionally derivative. If the same percentage of similarity were present in a student’s paper in comparison to Spark Notes as Nguyen’s graphics are to Nintendo’s, I’d haul them in front of the Honor Council for plagiarism. Do I think that Nguyen’s act merits his harassment? No, of course not. But neither do I see any merit in defending his “artistic choices” when those choices reflect artistic laziness rather than originality. Flappy Bird‘s green pipes and style are about as original as Ms. Pacman.

Nguyen made an app that used the background style of Mario. He didn’t copy it directly, but used the earlier images as the basis for his own. It’s lazy, but it isn’t worthy of death threats. However, responses like Yang’s suggests that there is a certain level of martyrdom that accompanies being the target of trolling. Yang seems to go out of his way to find a socially acceptable reason for Nguyen to become a poster-child for internet harassment victims (because he’s not white) in order to legitimize the reaction against said harassment and the removal of Flappy Bird from the App Store.

Here’s the thing, though. Even if the harassment aimed at Nguyen has no racial valence whatsoever, it’s inappropriate and unacceptable. Even if Nguyen did directly copy the pipes – he didn’t directly copy them, a point he makes on his own twitter

- he wouldn’t deserve the anger directed at him, first for imitating Mario and second for taking down his game. There doesn’t have to be an ulterior racial element to the harassment to “justify” reacting against it. It’s unconscionable no matter what.

Ultimately, though, I think that what bothers me the most about this is that Nguyen is being valorized as a heroic champion of indie developers, and I find that highly problematic (not as problematic as the harassment he’s faced, but I’ve said plenty about that before). My concern is not that he’s male and therefore in the “dominant” majority of developers, but that he’s being held up as a paragon of “scrappiness” for what is, ultimately, “ripped-off” in the sense of “derived from” or “based on” (not copied directly). The art in Flappy Bird is unoriginal and relies entirely upon Mario-esque nostalgia for its attractiveness. It isn’t just that the game has pipes - Pipe Dream has pipes, too, but they don’t look almost identical to those in Mario. The pipes in Flappy Bird do, so much so that when I saw a student playing it before class on her phone, I thought it was Mario.

The gameplay may be addictive and the overall concept unique enough to say that Flappy Bird is an original game – and it probably is (I haven’t played it). But the artistic concept just isn’t. It’s derivative and lazy from an artistic perspective. Does that mean it shouldn’t exist? Of course that’s not what it means. But it does mean that journalists, critics, and gaming sites should fully be able to criticize it because of that. I’d hate to think that the reaction of ill-behaved trolls might result in the fear of critical voices to speak out about games that are derivative or ill-made in some way because they don’t want to be included in the bridge-dwelling label. I’m afraid that now, because Nguyen is being lifted up (by some) as a “scrappy” hero, other developers will feel justified in similar artistic laziness. I’m also afraid that genuine criticism will be lumped in with trollish rage and dismissed.

Ultimately, though, I’m concerned about our inability as members of the gaming community to keep our discussions civil. I’m concerned that instead of saying “Hey, guys, this is derivative and that doesn’t seem fair,” we have to over-hyperbolize our headlines and incite one another to death threats. I’m concerned that anyone considers death threats to be an appropriate response to pretty much anything. And I’m concerned that we’ll allow ourselves to degrade a burgeoning art form in the name of making quick money.

I don’t have a solution. I wish I did.

Industrial Silence

I want to begin by clarifying that I don’t work in the game industry as a developer, just in case anyone had the thought. I have never worked with or for a development company, and I don’t make videogames. I am an academic, a cultural critic whose job is to analyze and present criticism (both positive and negative) of popular media. I happen to work in two genres: early modern drama (think Shakespeare) and videogames. Yes, these two things may seem disparate, but both are the popular culture artifacts of their respective generations.

In that sense, I work “in the industry” because what the game industry produces, does, and says are of immediate relevance to my profession and my productivity. I am lucky enough, however, to have the buffer of academe between me and the people who make life hell for women in the industry in the traditional, blood-sweat-and-tears sense. I’m also a bit saddened that the academy, with its own problems with misogyny and bias, is an infinitely more pleasant place to be a professional female than the game industry.

Western society as a whole has a huge problem with latent misogyny, linked to the pervasiveness of rape culture, most often manifest in casual comments, presumption, and paternalism. Just this week I’ve witnessed or heard anecdotes about men defaulting to diminutive nicknames for women without asking, men assuming that women are secretaries rather than managers, men assuming that women know nothing about technology, and men assuming that women are not in positions of authority.

Women everywhere in the US have to deal with this on a minor scale, often so culturally ingrained that they dismiss it or even fail to notice it when it happens at the store or on the train. But women in technology and in the game industry, whether as journalists or developers, may as well be the modern-day equivalent of the women in the 1950s who dared to make a living outside the home.

This story from Kotaku by Rachel Edidin, “She Was Harassed By a Games Reporter. Now She’s Speaking Out” highlights a lot of the problems faced by women in the game industry. (This is also why I’m trying to put together a panel on this for NWSA.) As upsetting and depressing as this story is, it pales in comparison to some of the harassment and threats received by other women in the industry.

However, I’ve talked about this before, and I want to take this opportunity to talk specifically about the kinds of things said by Josh Mattingly to “Alice Mercier” (not her real name). Mattingly didn’t threaten “Mercier.” He didn’t suggest that she needed to be raped or assaulted or murdered. He did offer to give her “My penis. For your vagina,” in what was presumably meant to be a consensual act.

So, to play the troll’s advocate for a second, what’s the problem? If Mattingly wasn’t threatening her, why did this exchange warrant a lengthy apology (which he did make on his blog, although not directly to her)? As one of the first commenters, penenasty, remarks,

Who wants to take bets on how many posters who are probably white males, say “this isn’t a problem” and bonus points for “why didn’t she just tell him to stop”

As “Mercier” explains, she was taken aback by the nature of Mattingly’s comments and tried to ignore them so that he would stop. It didn’t work, but her instinct was to not reward his sexual comments by giving them attention (much like one might ignore a child’s tantrum to not reinforce the behavior). Should she have spoken up? She certainly would have been justified in doing so, but she shouldn’t have to even think about whether or not to have to make that choice – he shouldn’t have said any of it in the first place.

The problem as I see it is that our culture permits men to “hit on” women without censure so long as the “hitting on” doesn’t take a violent tone. But unwanted advances are just as unwanted whether they are violent or not – and Mattingly’s comments are not only unwanted, but wildly inappropriate to a business discussion (which is what it was originally meant to be).

But – the troll might say – why do advances have to be curtailed? What if the speaker is genuinely attempting to initiate a romantic conversation? Are men not allowed to say anything “nice” anymore?

The simple truth is that if someone ignores your first advance – especially when it’s of such an unsubtle nature as “I will kiss you on the vagina if you do,” which has all the subtlety of an armored rhino with bells on – then it isn’t wanted. Cease and desist. Immediately.

Secondly, there is a difference between a polite “Hey, do you want to go for coffee?” and what Mattingly suggested. I have offered to take a colleague out for beer or pastry for doing me a favor with no nefarious intentions. Those things are normal exchanges for professional favors. Mattingly’s suggestion would not be considered an acceptable business exchange anywhere outside of prostitution.

But the real problem isn’t that Mattingly did it (although that is a problem), it’s that he works in an industry where the culture enables him to think – even drunk – that such an exchange would be appropriate. It’s symptomatic of a larger problem not of misogyny, per se, but of androcentrism that suggests that (straight cis) male desires are the default and take primacy. At its heart, it’s the same problem that gave rise to the demand for a “sexuality toggle” in BioWare games and the same problem that permits trolls to demand sandwiches in online forums. And it will continue so long as we shake our heads and say that “boys will be boys” or tell victims that they should “get over it,” or, worse, that they “had it coming.”

No Need to Hide

So today Gameranx is apparently feeling like messing with my (perhaps excessive) emotional attachment to the Dragon Age series. First, they post that

I have a small, private freakout because that’s one of my favorite components of BioWare games, click on the link, and discover that the story was clearly the result of misinformation, as Gameranx had already updated it with a tweet from Mike Laidlaw assuring fans that romances would still be included (and optional) in the game.

The next tweet from Gameranx reads as follows:

I go to this link with a good deal more annoyance than fear, not at BioWare, but at the idea that this is even somehow remotely newsworthy. The article begins, “Dragon Age: Inquisition lead writer David Gaider won’t hide the game’s homosexual options behind some sort of sexuality toggle.” Yes, sexuality toggle. Because players shouldn’t have to be subjected – apparently – to unwanted advances from a person of the same/opposite gender. Because that never happens in real life.

Of course, what the request really means is “Please create a toggle so that I can continue to live my privileged straight male existence without ever having to be hit on by a man.” Gaider responded with this:

“when it comes to content options like the so-called ‘gay toggle’ …my question would be ‘why?’ We don’t allow the player to de-select other sorts of content. A ‘violence’ toggle? A ‘mention of slavery’ toggle? A ‘sexual situations’ toggle? Why would we have a ‘gay’ toggle? Even if that was just to set the player’s personal preference, and we didn’t think that was incredibly on-the-nose to put up front, would de-selecting the ‘gay’ toggle mean a player should expect to encounter no gay characters? Ever? You don’t think there are those who would interpret it as exactly that?”

The point of including certain experiences in the game is to allow players choice, not privilege. In fact, the whole of the Dragon Age experience is largely about confronting privilege and persecution, teaching players how to negotiate persecution of either themselves or their family/friends (especially in Dragon Age II, where the player must either play as a mage or have a sibling who is a mage, an oppressed class in Kirkwall). The game forces its player to confront these things, so why would Gaider’s team allow players to deliberately avoid something that might make them uncomfortable and force them to broaden their perspective?

And that’s not even addressing the bigotry that a demand to “un-gay” a game actually demonstrates.

Good on BioWare for taking the high road here and supporting diversity in games and the gaming community, despite the fussing of certain privileged fans. Good on them for being willing to take the risk of alienating their supposed demographic of the 20-30something straight white male by forcing “him” to experience the possibly unwanted advances of male digital characters. Good on them for being unwilling to compromise their ethic just to cater to the supposed image of what a videogame should be – and good on them for creating a precedent that future games will hopefully follow.

Threat of Followers

So today Anita Sarkeesian tweeted about an article by Pacific Standard journalist Amanda Hess, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” Although I usually reserve this blog for posts about games and the gaming community, there’s something significant about Hess’s work, and about the way Sarkeesian framed it:

Every woman I know in games writing has been viciously attacked for her work. We can’t ignore these epidemic levels of sexist harassment. Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) January 6, 2014

Let’s take a moment to think about that: every woman I know in games writing has been viciously attacked for her work. That list includes Hess, Julie Larson-Green, Alyssa Royse, Carolyn Petit, Jennifer Hepler, Kathy Sierra, Maddy Myers, Lindy West, Zoya Street, Dina Abou Karam, Mattie Brice, Catherine Mayer, Sarkeesian herself, and many others. In fact, these days, women’s voices in games criticism are noted not for what those women say, but for what is said to them.

In short, it has become a horrific badge of credibility of a female game developer or games writer has been threatened, verbally abused, harassed, or otherwise “attacked” (online or off) by members of the online and/or gaming community. If a woman isn’t being harassed by the body of trolls that comprises a portion of gaming fandom, she isn’t a significant voice – or so the trope seems to go.

One of the dangers of this – in addition to the dangers that come part and parcel with the threats themselves, including actual physical danger, emotional scarring, PTSD, depression, and general discomfort in one’s own skin – is that these acts of harassment will come to be dismissed as a “sign of making it”: if you haven’t gained someone’s hatred, then you aren’t making enough waves.

This has been an historical problem in any rights movement throughout history – racial, religious, cultural, sexual. Part of the issue is that there is some truth to it; any change to the status quo rocks the proverbial boat and upsets those among the privileged who want things to remain unchanged. So yes, a challenge to the way things are does tend to create hostility, but (and this is a very large BUT) that doesn’t mean that 1) it should, or, 2) and more importantly, that it should become permissible that harassment is simply “part of the game.”

The attitude of “that’s what you get for…” is one that has justified bigotry and violence against women, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and LGBTQ folk for decades, even centuries. “That’s what you get for being drunk.” “That’s what you get for dressing like that.” “That’s what you get for going into that neighborhood.” “That’s what you get for going out with a white man.” “That’s what you get for crossing the line,” in which the line could be miscegenation, the proverbial “tracks,” sexual promiscuity, flirtation, social mores, or any number of other things.

Harassment is not “what you get for” posting online. It is not a necessary rite of passage that should be undergone by any vocal minority speaking out against silencing or bigotry. It is not simply to be tolerated or shoved under the rug.

It is also not “no big deal,” as Hess’s account suggests. Nor should it be dismissed out of hand by the law simply because it exists in the ether of “online.” Our laws have yet to catch up to Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn, as victims have very little recourse or defense against online harassment, which can and does end lives, whether because the online harasser is mentally disturbed enough to follow through on the threats or because the weight of them becomes so much that it drives its victims to suicide.

It’s important to acknowledge the power of online actions – to recognize that there are real dangers in anonymous tweets and posts, and to attempt to ensure that there is an avenue to which victims of harassment can go when they feel threatened. It is also important that those of us online who are not direct victims remember to support those who are, in whatever way(s) we feel we can.

CFP: Gender and Gaming

I’m posting this call for proposals here so that it can easily be found and revisited. If you see it and are interested, please feel free to submit a proposal.

Call for Papers: “Technological Futures” at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference (November 13-16, 2014 in Puerto Rico)

Abstracts due 2/1/2014

The relationship between feminism and technology is a fraught one, whether we are discussing the dearth of women in technology-related fields, the treatment of women in online forums, or the representation of women in video games. A series of recent events have drawn both critical and media attention to the persistence of misogyny in and around video gaming: the online harassment of Anita Sarkeesian for her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” feminist video series; the public backlash against the appointment of Julie Larson-Green as head of Microsoft’s XBox division;protests mounted against female game developers Jennifer Hepler and Dina Abou Karam (among others); and the hypersexualized digital representations of female characters and avatars in popular games like World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto. These examples all reflect the extent to which a highly vocal segment within the gaming community has been resistant not only to feminist analysis and criticism, but to the presence of women – both real and digital – within that community.

Whether a cause or a product of this vocal resistance, women are under- and often mis-represented both in the industry and in games themselves. While women make up approximately 45% of the consumer gaming market and 70% of women aged 12 to 24 play video games according to Entertainment Software Association, they represent only 11% of designers and only 3% of programmers in the game industry. Despite the significant presence of female consumers, however, only 15% of video game characters are female, and even fewer are protagonists.

Drawing on NWSA conference sub-theme “Technologizing Futures,” this session invites papers focused on the role of women in video games and the gaming community more broadly. We welcome papers from a range of disciplines that analyze the role of women (and/or trans*women) in games and gaming culture, including both humanities and social science methodologies. Potential topics for analysis might include, but are not limited to:

*analysis of the relationship between individual games and the institutionalized (and often unintentional) misogynist culture of the industry

*critical challenges to the culture of video game misogyny, including online activism

*feminist narrative and/or ludic analysis of individual video games

*feminist interventions in and alternatives to mainstream gaming culture

*narrative and/or ludic analysis of recent feminist “indie” games and production companies

*intersectionality and gaming culture, including resistance to marginalized identities and/or the development of intersectional “indie” games (such as Dys4ia)

*feminist pedagogy and the place of video games in the women’s studies classroom

Please send a one page abstract accompanied by a 100 word truncated abstract (an NWSA requirement) to both Dr. Kristin Bezio (kbezio@richmond.edu) and Dr. Jennifer L. Airey (jennifer-airey@utulsa.edu) by February 1, 2014. Each panelist will speak for approximately 15 minutes with time for Q&A after the fact.

 

TLF: Girl-Game of the Year

By “Girl-Game,” I do not mean “game designed for girls”; I mean “game featuring a female protagonist which I’m calling ‘girl-game’ for the sake of alliteration.” I was asked to make a year-in-review post for The Learned Fangirl – so here it is.

Originally, I wanted to make it a top ten list. But then I discovered that I couldn’t find ten major releases with female protagonists. In fact, several of the games that make most lists of “female-protag” games don’t actually have female protagonists as the game’s central hero; they have females as secondary protagonists, such as Ellie from The Last of Us (which won Gamesradar’s Game of the Year this year) or Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. It turned into a top five – but, really, the competition wasn’t that intense.

I guess this leads us back to the fundamental problem of games that have female protagonists… they very often just aren’t that good, OR they’re so concerned with the fact that they are games about female protagonists – like Gone Home – that they lose something in the way of larger narrative and/or mechanics. This has led, I think, to the misperception on the part of fans and publishers alike that games with female leads don’t sell. It isn’t that games with female leads don’t sell, it’s that weak games don’t sell, and many games with female leads are weak games. It’s correlation, not causation – after all, Metroid and Tomb Raider games sell and are good games. It just so happens that most games have male protagonists, so the percentage of good games with male protagonists is higher (because the percentage of GAMES with male protagonists is higher).

What I’d like to see in 2014 are good games that happen to have female leads, not games that force female leads just for the sake of feminism. I’d also like to see more games that allow for gender-choice, like Skyrim, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Saints Row, Fable, and Fallout, but I would also like more stories that feature women as heroes, as well as men. Really, I’d like to see a wider variety of stories, period, which (theoretically) would yield a wider variety of protagonists of all genders, ethnicities, ages, and cultures. Heroes that really reflect the vast diversity of the people who play them.