Growing Pains

I just read the best summary of this week in gaming that I’ve seen thus far by Chris Plante on Polygon:

Two groups are at opposite ends of this moment:

One side has folded its arms, slumped its shoulders while pouting like an obstinate child that has learned they are getting a little brother or sister but wants to remain the singular focus of his parents affection.

The other side has opened its arms, unable to contain its love and compassion, because they understand they are no longer alone.

This week, the obstinate child threw a temper tantrum, and the industry was stuck in the metaphorical grocery store as everyone was forced to suffer through it together. But unlike a child, the people behind these temper tantrums are hurting others. It’s time to grow up. Let’s not wait until next week to start.

It’s a fantastic summary of what’s happening between the so-called “hardcore” gaming fans (a group into which I’m pretty sure I fit by any definition other than one that involves gender- or physical hygiene- or dwelling-place-stereotypes) and gaming’s diversity critics (those talking about race and sexuality as well as gender). The final paragraph in particular sums up the horrible feeling of embarrassment that I have as a gamer and a critic over being forced not only to watch, but to take part (partially against my will), like the parent or babysitter or older sibling.

What can we, as the responsible party in this tantrum, do? As with small children, we can’t abandon them, we can’t smack them, and we don’t want to be seen with them, but they are our responsibility and even our family. They, like us, are a part of this community, even sometimes against both our wishes. So we have to do what good parents do: don’t encourage, don’t take the bait, and wait – patiently or impatiently, as the case may be – for the child to wear itself out and grow up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexism is the New Social Justice

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

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

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

Today, I saw this tweet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Fix or Not To Fix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critics and Creators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girl Gamer Identity

Earlier this week I talked to Elizabeth Ballou of Bustle about sexism in gaming (and found a fellow BioWare fangirl – always great). The resulting article, which discusses gender representation in games and talks to several other gamers, both male and female, made me think about what it means for women to identify as gamers.

One of the gamers Ballou interviewed presents a sad-but-true perspective that echoes the problem of the “fake geek girl”: “’I know I’m afraid to call myself a gamer,’ said my friend Mackenzie. ‘The moment I do will inevitably result in a guy or two calling me out, scoffing at my puny list of favorite games or lack of shooters among them. I’ve had someone say I play video games to get attention from boys. I’ve had someone say that I’m a fake. Honestly, I just love playing games.’”

The “fake gamer girl” is a subset of the “fake geek girl,” that mysterious female who appears at cons or game nights and who is automatically accused of using games or cosplay or a geek tshirt as a way to gain male attention. Nevermind that the kind of attention female gamers often garner is crude, abusive, sexist, dismissive, and demeaning. Nevermind that women might actually attend such events because they like gaming or comics or anime.

Last fall, I spoke to a class of seniors in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at UR about gaming and gender, and about fandom and gender in the gaming community. They were appalled at the kinds of treatment women received as gamers, but they weren’t really all that surprised. What surprised me was that at the start of the conversation, they all said they weren’t gamers. By the end of it, two of them admitted that they probably actually were gamers, they just didn’t want to identify as gamers because of what that meant – both within and without the gaming community.

There is still a perception outside of gaming that it’s a waste of time – and that it’s primarily done by teenage and college-age males. Within gaming, I think the community is aware of the age spread (from very young to the very old, with an average age in the late 30s), but I think there is still a misperception that “gaming” is still predominantly male. The male gamers asked about it often admit that women play games, but they play Angry Birds or Flappy Bird or Candy Crush or Wii Fit – that they’re casual gamers rather than “real” or hardcore gamers.

When I was talking with Ballou, she identified as a “casual gamer.” And then we proceeded to spend a lot of time talking about Mass Effect and Dragon Age, about Jennifer Hale’s amazing voice acting, and about whether we’d played through as both manShep and femShep (I have, she couldn’t make herself do it). We talked about the weakness of level design in Dragon Age II (seriously, all the caves are exactly the same), and she talked about how much better the narrative complexity was in Dragon Age: Origins.

This is not a conversation one has with a “casual gamer.” “Casual gamers” don’t know the names of the voice actors, they don’t talk level design, and they can’t pick apart the narrative versus gameplay nuance of an RPG series that takes 40+ hours to play. And yet women are far more likely than men to identify themselves as “casual” players as a kind of defense mechanism – particularly if they don’t play FPSs.

It’s safer to say “I’m a casual gamer” to avoid the kind of harassment or disdain that is so often targeted at gamers, particularly female gamers, so that it becomes something we often say without even thinking about it. We think about what kind of person is usually labeled as “hardcore” and we say “No, that’s not me,” and default to “casual.” But there’s so much in the middle – and so many genres of games. I’m an RPG gamer, but I also enjoy shooters and casual games (like Angry Birds or Peggle). I’ve played RTSs (Starcraft II, Age of Mythology) and tower defense and puzzle games. I’m not a stereotypical “hardcore” player – I don’t devote endless hours to Call of Duty (at least not anymore), and I’d rather play single-player than multiplayer almost any day.

I’d encourage more women to start identifying as gamers – and not as “casual” gamers, unless that’s what they really are – in large part because the more we embrace that identity, the more others will recognize it as legitimate.

Tired

So over the past week or so I’ve graduated to a new level of reaction to the rampant sexism that surrounds women in media and, especially, gaming. It’s getting to the point now where I’ve become exhausted just looking at the tweets, posts, articles, and videos. I’m tired of it being a topic of conversation, not because I think it isn’t worth remarking upon, but because I’m just tired of it being a problem.

And this worries me. It worries me because in the last month or so I’ve seen women driven out of the industry by harassment (Samantha Allen, in particular, who explains that “For Women on the Internet, It Doesn’t Get Better“), I’ve seen other women and gay men on the verge of giving up their passions and careers in games criticism and journalism, and yet the comments sections of articles just don’t stop.

Keeping up with the stories and tweets about sexism and harassment in games takes up at least three hours of my day – three hours that I could be spending working, but (because I write on gender and games) which I instead spend “keeping up with the conversation,” if a conversation it can be called. Three hours which leave me tired and depressed and wishing that either the world were a better place or I’d been instead interested in makeup and fashion or born a straight white male. (No, not really either of those last two things, but you get the idea.)

And I’ve been lucky enough not to suffer harassment beyond the occasional “You’re dumb and you don’t know what you’re talking about because you’re a woman.”

I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to write for The Learned Fangirl, where the writers are an amazing supportive group of women (and the occasional dude) of many walks and creeds and colors. Where most of the comments are civil, and even those that cross the line don’t leap across it wearing rocket boosters.

But something has been happening recently, in life and online, that strikes me as a little disturbing. I get comments that say things like “You aren’t like other women,” or “You’re not one of those feminists,” and I’ve been told that I “don’t count as a woman.” Apparently I possess the bizarre ability to “pass” as male without trying… and I’m not discussing transgender. I’m pretty much cisfemale with no effort put in (little/no makeup, jeans, tshirts), so there isn’t any confusion about my gender identity, either in person or online, where my name makes my gender pretty apparent.

And yet I “don’t count” as female. Whether this is because I don’t coo over pink things or because I don’t immediately begin to scream about the objectification of women in every game I play, I’m not sure, but it’s starting to bother me quite a bit. As much as I’m in favor of gender neutrality in terms of our valuation of skills, being told that I “don’t count as a woman” isn’t actually gender neutrality.

I’m being exempted from the gender paradigm – it still exists outside me, somehow, and is still problematic in that other women – people who “count” as women – are still being excluded or marginalized where I’m not. (I don’t WANT to be marginalized, mind you, I’m just pointing out that my exclusionary status is an indicator that sexism is very much alive and well for all I wish it weren’t.) And it’s an odd place to be. It’s odd to watch sexism and harassment from the outside, to have mansplainers talk to me as though I understand their perspective because I’m not “that kind” of woman or because I “don’t count” as the female enemy.

I wonder why I’m excluded even as I’m thankful not to be the target of threats and verbal assault, why my voice is somehow more palatable to those who would see women relegated to kitchens and bedrooms and stripclubs – and I wonder if that’s a problem. I don’t see the world as a dichotomy of “us” (women) versus “them” (men), nor do I see games as either “evil” (sexist) or “good” (feminist). I see them as products of our culture, which is deeply flawed and patriarchal, and I see some games doing good in the world, some for gender egalitarianism and acceptance, some protesting violence, some protesting racism or religious exclusion, and some not really contributing anything of quality to the cultural milieu.

But what does it mean that voices that struggle to be rational and reasonable, to acknowledge both the positives and negatives in the fight against the -isms (sexism, in my case), become co-opted by the dominant and oppressive paradigms? I don’t want to be irrational in my responses to games, but neither do I want to be aligned with misogyny simply because I won’t lambast games for their use of a damsel in distress…

And all of it makes me tired.

Fan Effect

So I was one of many people disappointed by the ending of Mass Effect 3. I was not, however, one of the people for whom the ending “ruined” the entire series. Nor was I one of the people calling for the death, destruction, or public flogging of any of the members of the BioWare staff. I did appreciate some of what they did with the new ending, even though I still think it fell far short of what people wanted from the series.

At PaxEast 2013, BioWare ran a panel at which they offered to answer fan questions about the series – and at which they presented a host of interesting demographic information about what players prefer – manShep vs. femShep, romance choices, etc. The ending of course came up.

All this serves to preface not another rant about Mass Effect 3, but as background for BioWare’s choice to ask fans for their input via survey on Mass Effect 4, which doesn’t yet have a release date (but will not include a Shep of any gender).

I’m not sure what I think of this. On the one hand, this seems like a way for the developer to get in touch with what their fanbase actually wants. On another, I know that the most vocal fans are often the hardcore fans, and do not accurately represent the desires of the majority of fans of any game. (Visiting fora for games, for instance, will give one a skewed perspective on what people like about that game.) On a third (this is an alien with more than two arms, go with it), as a cultural critic I don’t want to see developers giving up their creative freedom to the fickle and contradictory wishes of the unwashed (or even washed) masses. On a fourth, what I really don’t want to see is the inevitable internet backlash from those masses who believe that they were “ignored” by a highly experienced and decorated developer who really does probably know better than they do what makes a good game. Finally (yup, five-handed alien), I don’t want to see a game produced by crowdsourcing that is either schizophrenic or contains a lot of gestures toward things fans think they want.

What I want out of Mass Effect 4 is whatever BioWare wants the game to be. Despite the debacle of the Mass Effect 3 ending, I trust BioWare’s writers, designers, and artists to produce a high-quality game. Sure, it will have bugs. It will have things that I personally don’t like or contain narrative elements that I would not have chosen. But you know what? So does every other form of entertainment on the planet. That’s part of why BioWare games are good – they are crafted, designed, and produced by people who care deeply about the worlds and characters they contain.

This is not to say that the fans don’t care deeply, too. They do (some of us maybe too much…). But they are ultimately fans, not developers. They’re welcome, of course, to create fanart, fanfic, and whatever other fan-content they wish. They can rewrite the ending to Mass Effect 3 in their heads or on their blogs as many times and ways as they wish.But they are not the developer and they therefore don’t have – and, I would say, shouldn’t have – extensive creative input.

Of course the desires of fans are ultimately important – if a fan hates something, they won’t buy it. If they don’t buy it, the company might never make another game or will change their focus. And fans have every right to whine, complain, praise, or buy/not buy anything they wish. But what I don’t want to see is a sudden turn, especially in a company like BioWare, to a democratic system of production. Democracy is great for politics, but isn’t (usually) great in art.

Edit: xposted to TLF

Stay Out of My Plot!

A piece today at Polygon, entitled “What if ‘he’ and ‘she’ were interchangeable in a game’s story?” seems on the surface to be asking a legitimate question about the role of gender in videogaming. However, given the piece’s brevity and failure to understand the argument with which it opens, it ends up serving more as an open door for the kind of trollish commentary that we’ve all come to expect from any attempt to rationally discuss gender in gaming.

It opens with a reference to the recent kerfluffle about Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity‘s lack of female assassins in the cooperative portion of the game. It concludes by suggesting that providing a gender-neutral option functionally deflates the game’s narrative, since “an interactive story has to be written with unique relationships between characters of various genders,” at least according to Sande Chen.

The comment section – read at your own peril – is a morass of people putting forth BioWare games as examples where this gender-neutrality works effectively, people howling about how “Tomb Raider wouldn’t work if it had a man!,” angry debates between people who believe that men and women are inherently biologically disposed to certain behaviors and those who believe biology is indeterminate, and people desperately attempting to suggest a middle ground in which we ought to just make games more diverse only to be yelled at by people crying out for “pirate diversity.” (I’m not going to address the “biological differences” bullshit in this post.)

First of all, to suggest that the problem Ubisoft brought to light is that “feminists” want all protagonist characters to be gender-neutral is silly. No one ever said that. The problem with Unity is that in a multiplayer cooperative situation gender was not one of the customizable options, when the developer went on proudly about how the character could be customized in just about any way and is shown in a whole variety of outfits. No one said that the central protagonist in a single-player narrative had to be gender-customizable.

Similarly, when people complained about GTAV, the complaint was not that all three playable protagonists were not customizable – it was that all three of them were male and that women were otherwise horribly represented in the game and the series as a whole.

Put plainly, the outcry is not that every protagonist should be gender-customizable. The outcry is that when plot and narrative do not matter and a character is otherwise completely customizable, gender should be included on that list. Even Call of Duty allows players to choose gender (as of Ghosts). Other games that do this in multiplayer: Gears of War, Mass Effect 3, Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, Dead Island, Monaco. Many of these have blank slate characters. Others have given characters personalities and traits. All of them have a choice in gender for multiplayer.

Yes, there are games that do have a gender-neutral protagonist – Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fable, Skyrim – and most of them do it well, or at least well enough. But there are also games where the identity of the protagonist in terms of race and gender are important – Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed (all the single-player campaigns), Red Dead Redemption. There are others where gender and race seem less relevant, but still have a set player-character, like Dishonored orDead Space, who does default to white male-ness, and I can see an argument being made that the “default” could be mixed up in these cases, but really I don’t care that Corvo and Isaac happen to be white men. It would be nice to have some variety, but I’m not offended by their existence.

I am offended when a new game comes out in 2014 that offers a customizable multiplayer experience in which character identity is irrelevant (because otherwise they wouldn’t all be the exact same thing, either) and gender and race are eliminated from the slate of choices. Because that’s just a sign of laziness and lack of consideration, a statement that women and racial minorities aren’t important enough to make it worth their time and effort. Sure, Ubisoft and the Assassin’s Creed series has a great track record, but that makes it more disappointing, not less.

So, Polygon, if you’re going to represent an argument for greater diversity and gender equality, at least do us the dignity of getting that argument straight. We’re not asking for all the things to be gender-customizable. We aren’t trying to “change” stories or bleed the significance from game narratives to make room for a “shell” of a player-character. We are asking that when a game is about multiplayer and customization, that the game actually be customizable, both in terms of the color of the character’s pants and what happens to be underneath them.

The New Frontier

In preparation for a co-authored piece on Tomb Raider and Red Dead Redemption, I’ve been doing some reading about frontier space and American masculinity, and something I read yesterday in Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America struck me as particularly pertinent to a lot of the sexism-related issues we’ve been seeing recently online.

Kimmel’s discussion of the West and the Western genre of novels (and films) suggests that part of the allure of the West is that it offers an escape from the drudgery of everyday life that is seen as feminized and emasculating. He writes,

As a genre the western represented the apotheosis of masculinist fantasy, a revolt not against women but against feminization. The vast prairie is the domain of male liberation from workplace humiliation, cultural feminization, and domestic emasculation. The saloon replaces the church, the campfire replaces the Victorian parlor, the range replaces the factory floor. The western is a purified, pristine male domain. (150)

In addition, Kimmel suggests that any new space was first and foremost considered masculine space, or at least space in which to prove one’s masculinity: “Finally, other men sought to revive manhood in the real jungle. If the frontier was closed, some reasoned, why not extend its boundaries beyond the borders of the continental United States and create new frontiers where men could test and prove their manhood?” (111).

In our increasingly globalized – and therefore shrinking – world, there are no new frontiers for us to explore (we haven’t yet gained the capacity to go into space, “the final frontier,” although I will bet anything that we’ll see a revisitation of the masculine frontiersman in the “space cowboy” when we do). This means that the only space left for us to treat as a frontier is digital space – the frontier of the internet and of digital gaming.

For a variety of reasons, the tech industry has become increasingly a male domain (there are a lot of books that deal with why this may have happened, even though the first programmers were actually women), which has marked digital space as masculine space in our social consciousness. As such, games, which occupy digital space, have also become marked as masculine space.

It becomes an issue when men – no, not all men – become defensive about digital space as their sole purview and domain. This is a long-standing pattern that appears to be symptomatic of Western civilization; men become highly defensive of space when they believe it is about to become “sissified” (to use Kimmel’s term) and attack those they perceive as encroaching on that space.

The inherent problem seems to come back to this idea that there must be a distinction between men and women beyond basic biology. Kimmel’s book lists a historic trajectory of trends that includes things like the fact that originally pink was a masculine color and blue was feminine, high heels were for men, and other examples of cultural gendered tropes that have been inverted over time. Given this, it becomes nearly impossible to say that “boys just like X,” or “girls don’t like Y”; the masculinization of digital space is as socially constructed as pink or blue. The whole idea of having “male” or “female” space is silly, and our social pressure for men and women to embody certain traits is equally detrimental to both.