Category Archives: Gaming Community

[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.

Being Heard

So a few weeks back, the University’s PR firm inquired about taking a post from this blog and pushing it out – with minor modifications – to the world at large. This was, first and foremost, a minor source of terror.

It went out on Friday, with additional news outlets continuing to pick it up this week.

Here’s a link to one of the outlets – Seattle Times - chosen because a student came up and mentioned seeing it to me. It’s more or less the same as an earlier post, but I like to document publications here.

No, I’m not reading the comments.

Really Warm Fuzzies

So I recently returned from the National Women’s Studies Association conference where I moderated a fantastic panel on gender in games – looking at perceptions of players, perceptions of developers, journalism media, and pedagogy through a feminist lens. It was warm and comforting. Really warm. Like, tropical island, sunning by the pool with a pina colada warm. Really. It was awesome.

The panelists were fantastic, the audience was supportive and interested, and no one left the panel feeling overtly threatened or attacked. It was a space where it was safe to talk about the threats faced by women in the gaming and tech industries in a real, honest way. It was a genuine discussion of ideas and innovations, and it reminded me that in spite of all the hatred and vitriol out there, there are a lot of people quietly doing good work.

What I’m afraid of is that those people will be driven away from the industry, whether they’re journalists, gamers, or academics, because of the kind of attitude of privilege and hostility that gave birth to GamerGate. Because, let’s be honest, it isn’t just about GG. Anita Sarkeesian was harassed before GG was a thing. Women were feeling marginalized, harassed, and ostracized by the heteronormative masculine practices of their companies and of cons long before GG. The “fake geek girl” produced a backlash against women in “geek culture” (including gaming) before GG.

GG isn’t some insidious new movement or suddenly-sprung-up cohort. It’s yet another symptom of a disease that has plagued the tech industry and geek culture more generally for decades. It’s part of a system designed by those in privileged positions who were not the ultra-privileged but were smart enough to create their own escapism. And now that the worlds they created (sci fi, fantasy, videogames) are no longer the realm of straight white male nerds, that space – that “safe” space – is being threatened.

This has been true since sci fi started becoming mainstream, since videogame consoles began to appear in the average household, and since it became worthwhile to reboot as major films comic book characters like Batman, Superman, and the Avengers. In other words, since the 1990s. It’s taken a long time for the facade overlaying this culture to rupture, but it has, and as more and more people partake in geek culture, the more the culture itself will shift, embracing the variance and diversity of its changing identity.

GG is, as more than one person has suggested, the alligator death-roll of “old” geek and videogame culture. It’s a last desperate attempt to keep the elements of a culture that used to represent “safety” to a select and homogenized group of people who no longer make up the majority of its members. The problem is not that those members feel safe, but that so many others do not feel safe, that the price of the “old” safety is the discomfort and harassment of everyone else.

The thing is, there can be many safe spaces within geek culture. There can be spaces that hold to the old “traditional” stories of gaming. There can be spaces that reject those traditions in favor of other, new stories. There can be spaces that allow for crossover between them. There can be space for all, if we are willing to shrink our own personal bubbles and share the couch.

Making Things Official

So this is the week in which academic organizations are making their official statements about GamerGate. First, there was the ICA (International Communication Association), declaring its position on harassment and doxxing, along with some helpful tips on how to minimize one’s chances of being doxxed. It’s a little disturbing, quite frankly, that being an academic now carries with it the possibility of online harassment, death threats, and doxxing – if you aren’t Salman Rushdie. DiGRA (the Digital Games Research Association and target of OperationDiggingDiGRA) also released their public statement condemning “bullying.”

As a member of the DiGRA listserv, I got to see this when it was sent out, and also was able to see the responses to it. Some people applauded DiGRA’s willingness to make a statement, some warned about the impending GG-related fiasco now that DiGRA has engaged with the discussion openly, some questioned the intent of the statement coming so late in the game, some remarked that making such a statement would hurt DiGRA’s standing with the industry (how?), and still more expressed their concerns that DiGRA hasn’t been critical enough of the movement, citing the ICA’s more condemnatory stance.

While I do see the point of view that wants desperately to stay out of the line of fire, I (obviously) think there is more harm to be done by remaining silent out of a sense of self-preservation, particularly since DiGRA itself was dragged unwillingly into OperationDiggingDiGRA. In large part, I think the biggest threat of remaining silent is a loss of the very thing which so many of us in academia value above all else – academic freedom.

For many of us, academia represents a locus of intelligent and open conversation about the major issues and concerns of our day – filtered through the media of our disciplines, but relevant nevertheless. To have our voices functionally silenced is to threaten the very core of what it means to be an academic – something that is already happening elsewhere with the University of Kansas Board of Regents‘ policy on social media.

Proponents of ODD will argue that academics ought to celebrate the opportunity for wider discussion and embrace the “peer review” and “fact checking” coming out of ODD. As I’ve said before, “fact checking” is always welcome, but “peer review” comes out of academia itself. The purpose is not to silence a viewpoint or theoretical approach, but to make sure that the discussion itself has merit. Some of the best pieces in academia are controversial, and spur arguments and counter-articles; discussion, not finality, is the aim.

What ODD threatens to do is to functionally harass academics out of the discipline of game studies – or at least to harass feminist and queer theorists out of game studies. It aims to silence academic freedom when that freedom doesn’t agree with gamergaters’ conception of the status quo. And that is the key here – academia has long been a source of challenge to the status quo, whether socially, politically, religiously, or otherwise. Progress – scientific, social, political – comes out of challenging the status quo by demanding answers to unanswered questions, by asking questions that others are afraid to ask, and by innovating in the lab and in the classroom.

ODD threatens to stop that conversation by making the emotional and mental cost of producing academic work in game studies too high. It is vital that academics in all fields have the freedom and the ability to continue to challenge the status quo, irrespective of whether they are feminist, conservative, games scholars, queer theorists, historians, literary critics, political scientists, hard scientists, communications scholars, or anyone else laboring in academe. ODD – and the Kansas Board of Regents, although entirely unrelated – is employing coercion in order to maintain the status quo through silence, and that is anathema to everything academia represents.

Day of the Dead

So this is not going to be a post about Anita Sarkeesian’s appearance on The Colbert Report last night, although I will say that it was not one of the best interviews I’ve seen. I think Colbert had a hard time trying to make sure that he wasn’t “attacking” her (since that’s his persona), given what she’s been through and the kind of message that would send, and balancing his perodic style. It’s hard to quip about horrible harassment and sexism when your subject is both nervous and not trying to be funny (I’m not saying she should have been funny, just that she wasn’t and that made the interview a little more awkward than some).

This is a post on Chris Plante’s piece from The Verge stating that GamerGate is dead. While his opening premise – “As an activist movement with the ability to inspire positive change, Gamergate is dead” – is not wrong, it is a tiny bit misleading, since I’m not convinced that GamerGate ever had the capacity to “inspire positive change,” given where it began. That’s not to say that the now-infamous byline of “ethics in games journalism” doesn’t need some “positive change,” just that I’m skeptical that GamerGate was ever really about that (also, that the kind of change that would benefit games journalism is what they were talking about in the first place).

His point that “GamerGate died ironically from what it most wanted: mainstream exposure,” is also accurate (and ties in to a post I made the other day), insofar as it suggests that GamerGate is not benefiting from mainstream news coverage or the list of celebrities who have now spoken up against it or in favor of feminism (now including Stephen Colbert). And Plante’s quip that “When a fictional ideal of repressive rhetoric thinks your movement is too much, then it’s time to reconsider,” is amusing – although I would suggest that Colbert’s “response” was more in line with his actual politics than his persona’s.

The problem, as I see it, is that Plante’s piece is more hopeful than it is reflective of what’s going to happen within the GamerGate movement. As of this morning, for example, OperationDiggingDiGRA (more on that here) was still examining the work of games academics for signs of feminist conspiracies. GamerGate isn’t about journalism ethics, and that is a conversation that Plante rightfully suggests can take place elsewhere and in a healthier way.

GamerGate is about couching privilege as a “right” and defending that privilege as though it were the most basic tenet of human dignity. And it just isn’t. It’s about mostly straight white men desperately attempting to cling to the (oppressive) power they possess in a “culture” (is gaming really a “culture”? But that’s another post for another day) that they feel has always belonged to them. It’s about the deliberate exclusion of diverse voices in a medium that is rapidly expanding and already includes those voices – which is where the whole backlash came from to begin with. GamerGate, specifically, is about a retrogressive desire to maintain a fictional status quo that never really existed as compensation for perceived loss.

And I’m just not seeing that as “dead.” Women have been able to vote in this country since 1919, and we still don’t make the same amount as equally-qualified men. Jim Crow laws were abolished in 1964, and racism against African Americans continues to be pervasive and institutionalized. GamerGate isn’t on the same scale as these, certainly (although it is the product of a similar social problem), but it isn’t going to just go away in three months.

I hope Plante is right, and this is the beginning of the end for GamerGate. I’m just not going to hold my breath… or my tongue.

Dirty Laundry

One of the big developments this week in GamerGate is that the world – as opposed to the internet – has taken notice. The “movement,” such as it is, has come into the public eye. Pieces have appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The New York Times, twice in The New Yorker, and five times on CNN.com (to say nothing of on tv), at least at my last count (which might be off). This is in addition to pieces on Gamasutra, Kotaku, IGN, GameSpot, and Polygon, which are too numerous for me to even think about linking. Celebrities like Felicia Day, Chris Kluwe, and even the Hulk* have weighed in, and others – like Joss Wheedon – have tweeted their support for those being harassed. (*Not the ‘real’ Hulk.)

GamerGate, just in case you’ve lived somewhere off-grid, started as a hashtag from Adam Baldwin, ostensibly over corrupt gaming journalism ethics, and derailed so quickly that it never actually made it to any sort of legitimate discussion thereof. That’s not to say that there aren’t things to discuss concerning “ethics” and “games journalism,” just that the hashtag went off the rails so quickly that this particular discussion never went anywhere useful, actionable, or productive. Even the initial “scandal” which spawned the tag – that developer Zoe Quinn had exchanged sexual favors for a positive review from a journalist working at Kotaku - is blatantly factually erroneous (neither the journalist in question nor any journalist at Kotaku never reviewed her game, Depression Quest).

Since then, the internet – and Twitter especially – has exploded with pro- and anti-GGaters howling insults, sending threats, and generally behaving like infants, with a few staunch adults thrown in here and there. (For a sense of what the conversation on Twitter looks like, check out Andy Baio’s research project.) Many gaming, feminist, and pop culture outlets – like Feministing and Geek Feminism - have been cautious about engaging the discussion out of fear that they will become subject to the rage of GGaters – like Quinn, Day, and Anita Sarkeesian. Others – like Mangotron - were covering GGate and withdrew that coverage because of harassment.

This isn’t a post attacking GGate or defending feminism or bemoaning the state of women in the games industry (although I have done all of the above before). This is a post reminding all of us that when we write on the internet, whether on Twitter or Facebook or a blog or in the comments section, we are writing in a public space. Whether or not we are read or retweeted or shared, we are nevertheless in public.

Many members of the gaming community – whether GGaters or not – have long been accustomed to the sense that they are screaming into the void. Recent news attention shows us now that the void has both eyes and ears – it has been watching and listening all along. (I’m also not going to digress into a post about how everything we do, say, and post online is being recorded by Google, the NSA, and various nefarious spybots, either, but it is.)

What remains to be seen is whether the creatures of the void are going to prove to be monsters or angels or something in between; whether the airing of GGate’s extremely dirty and smelly laundry will galvanize an army of detergent-wielding knights or coalesce into a stained-sock-golem that will wreak havoc on the gaming community.

I hope that we’ll find out that there are a lot more people who recognize that with the maturation of the games industry comes the responsibility to act like adults and do the damn wash.

The Darkness Beyond the Gate

I have learned a lot about privilege since the beginning of the Gate-that-shall-not-be-named. I have learned how privileged I am. I have also learned how privileged I am not. It is the second of these that was most surprising, and more than a little terrifying.

I am privileged because I grew up in an upper-middle-class family, went to a private school, and never really wanted for anything in terms of finances or material goods. I am privileged because I had an excellent education. I am privileged because of the color of my skin and the nation into which I was born. I am privileged because every day I have enough to eat. I am healthy and insured. I have a husband and two cats. I can pay my rent on time. I have enough income to do things “for fun.” I love my job.

I was raised by loving parents who taught me that I could do anything I wanted and be anyone I wanted. They told me I could speak my mind without fear of repercussion. That my choices were mine and mine alone to make. These are the things we tell privileged children.

They are not true.

Fortunately, my parents also taught me that the world was unfair, and that sometimes people who don’t deserve things (good or bad) get them anyway. They taught me that sometimes people would hate me for no apparent reason, that other kids could be unreasonably cruel, and they gave me tools to deal with that reality that mostly worked.

They taught me to stand up for people who were being mistreated, to speak for those who could not speak for themselves, and to be kind to those in need. To give back. To give forward. To not judge someone because they look or speak or think differently from the way I do.

They taught me that some people were racist, and that racism was wrong. They taught me that I could love whomever I wanted, and that love was good. They taught me that my body was beautiful, no matter what it looked like.

My parents did not teach me that my gender would limit the things I could do. They taught me that girls could play as hard and well as boys, that girls could learn to build and play with trucks and do hard manual labor.

They did not teach me that when I grew older, men would try to take away my power tools, call me “little lady,” and assume that I was weak. They did not teach me that men would catcall me on the street or presume that they had the right to look at or touch my body without my permission. They did not teach me that I was not privileged, that I was oppressed, that there was a one in five chance that I would be sexually assaulted.

They did not teach me that one day, when I was an adult with a career and a good job, married with a place to live and cats, that I would be afraid to speak up, to post on a public forum, because of men on the internet. They taught me that it is okay to be afraid, and that, if it’s important, I should do whatever it is that frightens me anyway.

I do not say this to condemn anyone who has chosen not to speak up – there are many reasons why someone might not. I do not have a history of trauma or depression or mental illness. I do not have a “checkered past.” I don’t have children to worry about. I am not a celebrity, a journalist, or a developer. For all intents and purposes, I am irrelevant to the vast majority of people on the planet or even in my state, country, or city.

But I am an academic, and academics are public people. We are expected to speak, and to speak from a position of authority and certainty. We are expected to assume a public identity – minor though it may be – as a part of our job. We can earn or lose a career or tenure based on whether or not we have engaged with the public in our chosen field.

In other words, because I chose, some years ago, to write about videogames and to write about gender, it is part of my job to say something about what is happening in the gaming community right now. This is also true of other journalists, critics, and developers. This is our job.

And it’s terrifying.

There are people who are speaking up for whom this is not their job. People who simply love games and want them to be better. They have chosen to engage in an ugly, bitter mud-slinging disaster of their own free will because they believe it is the right thing to do. They are risking themselves, their reputations, and their sanity simply because they want games and the gaming community to be better. And today, this week, this month, this year, and possibly forever, those people are my heroes.