A Tiger Can’t Change

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

Let’s look at why.

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

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

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

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

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

SVU Does GG

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

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

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

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

And Sarkeesian had this to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get Rid of the Black Marker: A Post Against Censorship

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

Censorship of any kind is a detriment to culture. It stifles voices that can contribute to a discussion, and it also exposes places where a society needs work. This is one of the latter cases. If our art – and yes, videogames are art – contains the glorification of sexual violence, then we need to consider why, just as we need to consider why our art contains the glorification of racism, sexism, homophobia, and genocide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Gender Matter Behind the Pen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the Problem You Are Looking For: “Nerds” are Not Game Culture’s Problem

Gaming culture – particularly in its pseudo-journalistic internet form – has problems. A lot of them. Some of them are problems it shares with every other culture on the planet and are a simple byproduct of being human. Some of them are particular to the First World comprised mostly of North America and Europe with a dose of East Asia. Some of them are the project of a previously homogenous straight white male demographic derived from the US military industrial complex of privilege. And some of them are the result of a demographic that is, by and large, educated and wealthy and interested in esoteric subjects, technologies, and fantasies – otherwise known as “nerds.”

But “nerds” are not the biggest problem in gaming culture, contrary to an opinion piece published by Destructoid which claims that “nerds” are the problem with gaming journalism. The piece suggests that

1) nerds care about shit that is completely unimportant to everyone else, and 2) nerds want other people to see how important this unimportant shit actually is. A nerd is a guy who can’t help spend hours trying to convince his loathing in-laws that The Game Grumps are way funnier than Mel Brooks. A nerd is a girl who sits you down in the middle of a hurricane and babbles about how the latest Legend of Zelda game completely sucks compared to the prior, nearly identical Legend of Zelda game. A nerd is in their own world. A nerd wants you to be in that world with them.

Although I suppose this is the point where a responsible blogger admits to being a nerd  (and I am), I take exception with the suggestion that nerds only care about “unimportant shit.” Sure, relative to starvation or global war or sex trafficking, games may be “unimportant shit,” but within the confines of a First World audience who does not face those problems on a daily basis, games are not “unimportant shit.” Games are very important shit.

Here’s why.

Games, and videogames in particular, are a rising form of consumer media that comprises one of the fundamental cornerstones of twenty-first century popular culture. More people in North America, Japan, and South Korea own or have regular access to videogame systems (PCs, consoles, handheld devices) than don’t. Videogames (esports, in specific) are rapidly becoming professionalized, and have international competitions from which players earn a living. Colleges are giving scholarships to esports players. There are classes taught on games, people earn a livelihood making games, and the games industry has a higher gross budget than Hollywood.

Do not tell me that’s “unimportant shit.”

Now this doesn’t invalidate the other main point of the article, which is that journalists are swayed by a kind of rabid fan-boy- and fan-girl-ism which enables AAA developers to manipulate (some of) them into giving rave reviews on games that don’t fully deserve them, while causing indie games to be criticized viciously because they don’t conform to the so-called industry standards. Developers with reputations become demigods who cannot be criticized (Peter Molyneux or Ken Levine, for example), even when they deserve it.

Yes, there are industry parties designed to cater to reviewers in an effort to garner positive reviews in exchange for swag. Yes, there are “journalists” who actually work for publishers and developers (and some companies release their own “magazines,” whose articles are obviously going to be biased if one thinks about it for five seconds). There are blogs that are little more than shill-sites for companies which tout the latest “great” games, all of which just happen to be made by the same people.

But “nerd-dom” is not the cause of these problems. Nor are they as wide-spread as the author seems to think. There are a LOT of journalists – many of whom have, admittedly, been attacked for their opinions in recent months – and critics whose work attempts to maintain that mysterious thing called “integrity” or “critical distance.” A lot of people working within the industry, within journalism, and within academia who believe in doing a service to their readers and to the industry by criticizing it for the things which deserve criticism.

And those people don’t do what they do because games are “unimportant shit.” They do what they do because games and the gaming industry are very important shit, and because that shit reflects and informs our broader cultural milieu. Because our culture is our past, present, and future, and it’s very important that we engage with it in a thoughtful and critical way.

[Redacted] – Games, Censorship, and Sexual Violence

One of the big news stories in gaming at the moment is about Australia’s refusal to issue classification to Devolver’s Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number due to sexual violence (link to Kotaku Australia). In Australia, media that “depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults” may be denied classification, and would therefore be made unavailable to consumers.

The report from Australian Classification includes a description of the scene which caused the game to fail classification (**trigger warning for sexual violence** – highlight below to read scene description):

In the sequence of game play footage titled Midnight Animal, the protagonist character bursts into what appears to be a movie set and explicitly kills 4 people, who collapse to the floor in a pool of copious blood, often accompanied by blood splatter. After stomping on the head of a fifth male character, he strikes a female character wearing red underwear. She is knocked to the floor and is viewed lying face down in a pool of copious blood. The male character is viewed with his pants halfway down, partially exposing his buttocks. He is viewed pinning the female down by the arms and lying on top of her thrusting, implicitly raping her (either rear entry or anally) while her legs are viewed kicking as she struggles beneath him. This visual depiction of implied sexual violence is emphasised by it being mid-screen, with a red backdrop pulsating and the remainder of the screen being surrounded by black.

I don’t think I need to explain how the above scene might “offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults,” emphasis here on “reasonable.” I don’t think that there’s any question that this scene is distasteful, violent, misogynistic, and disturbing, made all the more so because this is the protagonist engaging in this behavior, rather than a villain or other NPC.

Response to the Australian Classification decision has been mingled approval and outrage, with responses that include “It’s a video game” (the implication being that it’s therefore somehow acceptable or “not real” violence); “there are movies that have rape scenes in them and they are given R18+ or AV15+”; “I’m 100% anti censorship, If any line is crossed the statement should be made with our wallets, Not by the fun police”; and this example of eloquence:

Then don’t buy the damn game. I am fed up with all you Fucktards who just beg for the opportunity to be offended. It is simple. You don’t like it then stay away from it. Jeez who are we now just a bunch of whiny fucking pricks who are not happy unless we are stating our useless fucking opinions. Pretty much just pissing on anyone who has the drive or guts to do something like make art be it games or film or whatever. SHUT YOUR STUPID FUCKING MOUTHS AND LET PEOPLE GET ON WITH THERE PASSIONS.

Grammatical and lexical issues aside, this final commenter strikes at the heart of much of the present discussions about gender and gaming. Said commenter clearly does not understand the implicit cultural valuation present in the creation and dissemination of cultural artifacts – the idea that what is contained within a work of culture (popular or otherwise) somehow impacts or reflects some aspect of that culture.

I do not think that Hotline Miami 2 has the same kind of cultural cache as Selma or The Imitation Game, or even Dragon Age: Inquisition orGTAV, so my guess is that there are far more people who haven’t heard of the game than have, thus minimizing the actual impact of its censorship. But at the same time, denial of classification to the game is censorship – plain and simple.

As horrified as I am by the content of the above quoted scene, I can’t support banning it.

Here’s why.

Censorship of any kind is a detriment to culture. It stifles voices that can contribute to a discussion, and it also exposes places where a society needs work. This is one of the latter cases. If our art – and yes, videogames are art – contains the glorification of sexual violence, then we need to consider why, just as we need to consider why our art contains the glorification of racism, sexism, homophobia, and genocide.

Would I prefer that this game did not exist? Absolutely. But since it does, it has every right to continue to do so, and to be available with clear warnings to the general (adult) public. And that’s one of the primary distinctions between my viewpoint – and that, I think, of many feminists speaking out in gaming – and that which is attempting to silence mine. While I might think that GGers shouldn’t hold the opinions they do, I believe they have the right to hold them. I believe they have the right to speak up about them, so long as that does not infringe upon the rights of others.

And that last point is the key to all of this, for me. Anything has the right to exist – any art, any speech, any opinion – so long as it does not bring harm to others. That might mean restricting the age of those eligible to purchase an item. It might mean putting warning labels on it. It might mean putting it in a special section of a store. But it does not mean refusing its right to exist.

Much of what has happened re: GG in recent months does bring harm to others. It has not only further marginalized the already outcast, but it has brought active harm to people for having opinions about games. People have lost homes, income, and health as a consequence of the actions of a few whose impetus for protesting is that they disagree with an opinion. That is not free speech – that is censorship of the worst kind.

So while I do not like Hotline Miami 2 and will never play it, while I will criticize its developer’s decision to include interactive rape and say that such a thing should not exist, I will never say that it must be silenced, eliminated, or censored. It should be treated carefully, but respectfully, as should any work of art or culture.

What I – and, I think, other so-called “social justice warriors” hope for is not the censorship of offensive and harmful material, but the decision to not make material that has little value other than offense and harm. We hope for a society that considers its impact and takes action to make sure that what it has to say is said to contribute to the world rather than to detract from it. We hope for artists and creators and, yes, fans and critics who consider a variety of viewpoints and take the initiative to “first, do no harm.”

New Year, Same Old Sh**

So yesterday I returned to the internet (for all intents and purposes) after two weeks of travel, holiday celebrations, and other things that kept me away. I did not read Twitter for two whole weeks, checked Facebook maybe once every few days, and answered only emails that I wanted to answer.

It was great.

Yesterday, when I finally returned to Twitter, it was with hope that 2015 would be better than 2014, which – let’s be honest – pretty much sucked for everybody.

And the first Tweet I see is about how GamerGate is currently doxxing and harassing transwomen, outing them to people in their workplaces and communities, and generally making their lives hell. I read about how 8chan claims no affiliation with GamerGate, but how they clearly support forums devoted to it. I read about how women I know are making “public” Twitter accounts for their businesses because they can push that off on PR people and not have to read lengthy streams of hate every day.

Same old sh**.

I’m not a New Years resolution type. I don’t believe in declaring the first of the year as the time to start a diet or a new exercise regimen. I believe that if you’re going to make a change, “today” is the day to start it, not a specific date on an arbitrary calendar. And yet, I had some hope that the holiday season might inspire people to be kinder to one another, to respect one another a little more, to acknowledge the humanity in each other.

Apparently not.

If you are the resolutions type, let’s all try to do each other a favor this year. Let’s treat each other with respect. Let’s be kinder, more sympathetic, more thoughtful. Let’s consider how our actions, our words, and our creations impact one another before we put them out into the world. Let’s consider how we would feel if we were in another person’s shoes. Let’s try to let go of our privilege and share it with those who have less.

Let’s try to be a little more human, and a lot more humane.

Invisible Benefits

Today, Feminist Frequency released a new video – “25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male” - that has almost nothing to do with Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series. I say “almost nothing” because it’s pretty clear that many of the things listed in this new video are the product of many of Sarkeesian’s own experiences in playing and speaking about videogames.

The video is a series of men listing off some of the “invisible privileges” of gaming while male and is based on a post made several months ago by Jonathan McIntosh. (At the time, I wrote a response to some of the comments on McIntosh’s piece). I still agree with my assessment: that while I take issue with the comments – obviously, they’re comments – the piece itself is not really objectionable.

Upon second thought, though, I found that the video did raise my awareness about something else that’s often made invisible in gaming, and which isn’t acknowledged in the video itself. We’ve been doing a lot of talking about gender in games recently, but we haven’t really been doing much talking about race in gaming (which is kind of pathetic, given the very important conversations about race that are being had outside of games due to the events in Ferguson, Missouri). At one point in the video, a black man says that he won’t be sexually harassed at a convention – which may well be true, but just because he won’t be sexually harassed doesn’t mean he won’t be harassed for the color of his skin or his choice to wear his hair in dreadlocks.

One of the things I remember most vividly from the time I spent playing various Call of Duty games is that most of the chatter coming from other players wasn’t sexist (okay, so I wasn’t talking to them, so they didn’t know they were playing with a woman), but it was very racist. My modus operandi at the time was generally to mute everyone else in my game so I didn’t have to hear what they said, but what I caught in the few seconds that took was almost always either racist or heterosexist or both. I didn’t say anything, mostly out of concern that then the tide would turn against me for being female, but that’s always bothered me about CoD.

The video made me realize that in our attempts to rectify sexism in the industry we often end up ignoring the intersectionality of oppression – the overlap of oppressive systems that simultaneously marginalize multiple groups. Because the black man in the video has probably faced racism at conventions and while playing online, just as women face sexism in those spaces – and it’s just as important that we recognize his experience as it is that we recognize women’s experience.

Now imagine what it’s like for a woman of color, who receives both types of harassment. Now imagine being a queer woman of color.

I’m not saying this to criticize the video – we can’t always do all the things. I’m saying this because it’s important to remember that there are other systems of oppression in place that are very harmful in very real ways to multiple groups of people, and that we need to remind ourselves, even if we choose to focus primarily on one of those ways, that we can’t forget about the others (either the issues or the people they represent).

All of us need to remember that our experience is not the experience of everyone – and for some of us that means we need to acknowledge our privilege and other people’s oppression even as we are ourselves oppressed.