My most recent post is up at TLF – part review of From Barbie to Mortal Kombat and Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat and part stroll through my past. If you can do math, you can figure out about how old I am.
My most recent post is up at TLF – part review of From Barbie to Mortal Kombat and Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat and part stroll through my past. If you can do math, you can figure out about how old I am.
Several recent things have come together to spur this post, including the always-unfortunate reading of internet comments, my Twitter feed, and my academic research. First, I’ve recently read From Barbie to Mortal Combat, published in 1998, and have started working my way through Beyond Barbie and Mortal Combat, published in 2008. Second, I recently read a news story about how women are no longer to be permitted to teach Bible classes at some Christian colleges. Third, the following tweet:
— Todd Harper (@laevantine) May 17, 2014
What they all have in common is the assumption – or, in Todd’s case, challenging the assumption – that women must somehow want something inherently different than men, or, as the next sequence of tweets suggests, that women are somehow biologically deficient when compared to men:
“the reason women aren’t on equal footing in fighting games is pure science.They don’t enjoy the same interests&the same genetic advantages”
— Maddy Myers (@samusclone) May 17, 2014
I love how this whole thread is about how there are NO barriers for women to compete, other than bad reflexes & bad spatial recognition ofc
— Maddy Myers (@samusclone) May 17, 2014
Maddy’s tweets (and I did skip several intervening ones that illustrate rather colorfully just how angry this concept makes her) show another fundamental problem facing not only women, but all minorities in most situations (not just gaming). It’s the kind of warped Darwinian logic that was used in prior centuries to explain why people from Africa were intellectually inferior to people from Europe – and, like that argument, the claim that women have poor reflexes is the consequence not of genetics, but socialization.
Men have better game-playing reflexes in general because more men than women play games from an earlier age. More boys are expected to play videogames than women. More boys are taught to play sports. All of which hone coordination and reflexes. Mythbusters recently did an experiment about the myth of “throwing like a girl” in which they learned that men and women throw exactly the same with their off hand – meaning that men’s supposed natural ability is conditioned by their expectations, both taught (in playing) and observed (watching men play professional baseball, for instance).
That aside, the notion – which seemed to be accepted without much problematization in From Barbie to Mortal Combat – that women must necessarily want something different than men (physical abilities aside) is equally ludicrous. While it is true that women are socialized to like pink sparkly things, unicorns, and rainbows, women and girls are not genetically programmed to like them. In fact, a few centuries ago, blue was considered feminine (one of the reasons the British Army wore red).
Women and girls are no more genetically predisposed to like Barbie Fashion Designer than they are anything else; their supposed preferences are entirely socialized. Socialization doesn’t make those desires any less real, of course, or any less valid, but the point I’m making here is that there is no intrinsically “feminine” way that games must be in order to attract female players.
The answer to Todd’s question above shouldn’t be “What can games do to be more attractive to women?” but “How can games be less hostile to women?” Really, that’s the point where we (still) are in games; games objectify women, they victimize women, they place women in positions of little to no agency or control. And the gaming community is no better – perhaps even worse.
If you are a developer who wants more female gamers, then make your community and your game inclusive of women, rather than exclusively for women. Men and women don’t have to be dichotomized, and in fact shouldn’t be. Instead, games – any component of a modern and egalitarian society – should include everyone, catering not to a generic player (who is by default white, male, and straight), but to all players.
My review of Nick Yee’s recent book, The Proteus Paradox, is up over on TLF. Bonus points to anyone who can identify the reference in the article title.
(Yes, I’m that much of a nerd.)
A few days ago, Border House writer Gunthera1 posted a review of the new Nintendo 3DS Tomodachi Life that highlights one rather glaring absence, the ability of players to choose to “marry” someone of the same gender in the game. The premise behind Tomodachi Life is life simulation; the Miis in the game interact with the other players’ Miis as friends, enemies, and even romantic partners, as long as both Miis are straight, of course. Same-sex couples – or even bicurious Miis – need not apply.
In response to a fan outcry and hashtag #Miiquality campaign (started by Tye Marini), Nintendo released the following statement:
Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of ‘Tomodachi Life’. The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation. We hope that all of our fans will see that ‘Tomodachi Life’ was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game, and that we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary.
Aside from the at-best-privileged-ignorance-and-at-worst-bigoted assumption that the vast majority of their players would have no interest in pursuing virtual same-sex relationships (which is a strange assumption), Nintendo’s insistence that “we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary” does a couple of highly problematic things. First, it assumes that games do not inherently contain “social commentary” simply by virtue of being cultural artifacts. They do. (So do tv shows, movies, books, and every other form of popular culture in existence.)
Second, it assumes that their audience isn’t smart enough to realize that someone had to code in heterosexuality as not only the default, but as required. Including a “romance” mechanic between Miis without gender distinction seems to me (and I’m admittedly not a programmer) to be a simpler thing to code than a “romance” mechanic with prohibitors based on the gender identity of a Mii. In other words, somebody made the choice to make all the Miis straight. Somebody (maybe the same somebody, maybe a different somebody) approved that choice, or even demanded it. Which means that even if the company at large didn’t mean “to provide social commentary,” somebody did.
Gunthera1 rightly suggests that this is an obvious, glaring, and even deliberate oversight on the part of Nintendo’s design team: “They decided who is included and who is excluded.” Games writer Samantha Allen made a similar post on Polygon, saying that “The more words a company needs to use to justify its exclusionary choices, the more simple its motivations. Call it a queer version of Occam’s razor. Behind all the corporate jargon and flowery public-relations language lies hatred, pure and simple.”‘
Whether or not Nintendo’s exclusion of non-heteronormative couples is “hatred” or privileged ignorance or a horrific miscalculation of audience demographic may be debatable, but – no matter how you read Nintendo’s intentions – it nevertheless sends a harmful, hurtful, and even (yes) hateful message to players. Those whose preference for same-sex Mii romance is precluded are rejected from fully participating in the game. Those whose personal preference might include same-sex partnerships feel insulted and marginalized (even more so than they already are). And, perhaps worst of all, those whose paradigmatic view of the world suggests that anything outside of heteronormativity is condemnable have their warped ideological position ratified.
To be fair to Nintendo, following the posts from Gunthera1 and Allen, the #Miiquality campaign, their PR department issued a second statement on May 9, 2014:
We apologize for disappointing many people by failing to include same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to change this game’s design, and such a significant development change can’t be accomplished with a post-ship patch. At Nintendo, dedication has always meant going beyond the games to promote a sense of community, and to share a spirit of fun and joy. We are committed to advancing our longtime company values of fun and entertainment for everyone. We pledge that if we create a next installment in the Tomodachi series, we will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players.
Gunthera1 also posted a follow-up on Border House, stating that although
I am disappointed that this was not included in the original game. I am angry and hurt by the words of that first press release…I am hopeful for the future. This new statement shows that Nintendo realizes that lesbian, gay, and bisexual players ARE their fans and that their representation in games (or lack thereof) does matter. My hope is that this realization spreads within Nintendo and into the mindset of other companies. This is a matter that goes beyond Tomodachi Life and into all games.
I’m not sure that I feel the same sense of “hope” that Gunthera1 does, although perhaps that is simply a matter of my generally jaded response to PR statements that seek to shove dirt and grime under the rug by wailing “we didn’t mean it!” as loud as they possibly can. But I do see the point here; at least Nintendo did make a second statement that recognizes the diversity in their player-base. I’m skeptical of the claim that Tomodachi Life can’t be patched to permit non-heterosexual relationships, although I do understand that it may more be a matter of “we’ve already moved on to our next project” than it is “we can’t do it.” This is even more likely to be true of the company doesn’t expect Tomodachi Life to be particularly lucrative.
The May 9 follow-up is, as Gunthera1 suggests, better. It is more hopeful than a dismissal of diversity or a claim that – as we so often see in response to demands to include more women in games – “that’s not what fans want.” While I’m hesitant to call it a step forward, it at the very least is not a step back, and I suppose that’s something worth validating, even if not celebrating.
For now, I’ll wait to pass judgment until the next game is released, and will continue to look forward to games – like BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition due out in October – that deliberately embrace diversity instead of (deliberately or not) excluding it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Did a spot on the radio today on the Kojo Nnamdi Show with some pretty cool people: Kate Flack, Mike Williams, and Larry Frum. Kinda wish I could have made it up to the studio, but it was still a good conversation.
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 Escapist. Second, 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:
“The harassment that was thrown at Flappy Bird creator–it’s unheard of!” hey there, welcome! you must have been dozing for awhile.
— Bryce Mainville (@Khazar222) February 11, 2014
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.
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
— Dong Nguyen (@dongatory) February 8, 2014
- 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.
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.”