SJWs and Mega-Women Warriors

So Gameranx tweeted today about yet another feminism-related gaming Kickstarter debacle, this one concerning Mighty No. 9, a reboot of the apparently beloved Mega Man series. Interestingly, Ian Miles Cheong’s piece begins with the phrase “Be respectful and considerate,” because, apparently, commenters on the Kickstarter have been anything but.

Cheong presents the “issue” as the consequence of a posted piece of fan art made by a new community manager named Dina which depicts Mega Man as a female character. Said character – as we can see – is not wearing ludicrous armor, is carrying a large wrench, and has tastefully applied eyeliner and lipgloss with wispy red waves. (Note: she is not wearing a bow.) This is clearly a piece of fan art, a genre that depicts fan preferences rather than (necessarily) original content from the work in question. Quite a bit of fan art alters the original work – for instance, a representation of the Mass Effect crew in Dragon Age gear (with Joker riding a dragon). Not in the original.

No one gets horribly bent out of shape when fan art alters the setting, time period, or even species of many characters (MLP Doctor Who, anyone?). But apparently swapping up genders of videogame characters is an act that is beyond even the fan art pale. One fan, as Cheong notes, complains that “it’s Mega Man, not Mega Woman!” as though the existence of fan art would cause us all to forget.

However, the comments themselves, while beyond irritating, are not where this story goes into horribly wrong places. Cheong reports the following:

Finding fault with her presentation, these persons decided to pry into Dina’s personal life by combing through her Twitter account for other transgressions against the human race, and found that she had written tweets supportive of feminism and linked to one of Anita Sarkeesian’s videos. In a similar case, her being initially hired as a community manager and artist became tantamount to BioWare’s employment of Jennifer Hepler as a writer for the Dragon Age games—sometimes dubbed as the “cancer that is killing BioWare” by particularly well informed readers.

These vocal individuals went so far as to produce a video “calling out” Dina’s past with “dirt” on her—because sympathising with the feminist cause is indeed enough to demonize someone according to these people. The vocal, well informed fans have since been calling for her resignation from the developer. At this point, these individuals have flooded the game’s development forums, and are trying to hold the game hostage by asking for refunds.

One user, a Mr. Nicholas Day, wrote: “This is a bad idea guys. I don’t want any anita sarkeesian feminism all up in my megaman reboot. I don’t want a sjw [social justice warrior] monitoring the forum, deciding who has good opinions and who has bad ones.”

In essence, the response to women speaking out in the industry – whether as critics, fans, or employees – is apparently grounds for their termination by the Men’s Rights powers-that-be. It is unconscionable that women should voice their opinions about games – like Carolyn Petit’s review of GTAV or a more recent review of CoD:Ghosts by Patricia Hernandez on Kotaku that has garnered hysterics by commenters.

Those of you who read this blog or TLF regularly know that I’m not Anita Sarkeesian’s biggest fan in terms of agreeing with what she says, but you also know that I will, to quote an oft-misattributed quote, “fight to the death for [her] right to say it.” (Note: that quote is usually attributed to Voltaire but in fact comes from his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, a woman.) And while I also believe that the commenters have the right to dislike Dina’s female Mega Man, they do not have the right to demand either its removal or hers.

I think that, ultimately, this sort of behavior is symptomatic not of internet or gaming culture, but an increasing insistence across the US (and perhaps elsewhere) that we have the right to not see anything that disagrees with us, and, if we do, that we have the right to demand its removal. Increasingly I see people insist that they have the right not just to publish or produce offensive material, but that they also have the right to be free from criticism when they do. Both of these are anathema to the concept of free speech; free speech means that someone can post something controversial, but it also means that others have the right to criticize it.

But this leads me to one more place, the place where Cheong starts his article: “Be respectful and considerate.” As human beings, people have the right to not be brutally attacked, online or off, for expressing their opinions. People do not have the right to abuse one another, online or off, for being or believing different than the status quo. Commenters should have the right to state their disapproval of Dina’s art, but they do not have the right to attack her, demand her firing, or be rude and cruel about their disapproval (especially because Kickstarter is not a public forum – it has regulations and rules which participants have to follow).

In short, as a culture we have become both too sensitive and not sensitive enough; we demand that everything we see and hear conform to our beliefs and opinions, and yet we express our own views with absolutely no respect or consideration for the feelings or situations of others. It seems to me that this is one of our severest failings as a society; we have lost the ability – or inclination – to respect others while disagreeing with them.

“Characters who look cool…”

So today Gamers Against Bigotry posted on their Facebook page about an interview on Rock, Paper, Shotgun with Blizzard developer Dustin Browder about the new Heroes of the Storm. Much of the interview is pretty straightforward, until Nathan Grayson (of RPS) asks the following question:

RPS: You have some interesting alternate outfits for heroes. Roller Derby Nova, especially, caught my eye. On its own, that’s totally fine – just a silly, goofy thing. A one-off. But it got me thinking about how often MOBAs tend to hyper-sexualize female characters to a generally preposterous degree – that is to say, make it the norm, not a one-off at all – and StarCraft’s own, um, interesting focus choices as of late. How are you planning to approach all of that in Heroes? 

The question is fairly clear – how are you, as a developer, going to respond to the current demands of some of your target demographic to less hyper-sexualized female models? In essence, the question is, “are you going to continue doing what you’ve done, or are you going to accept that feminism has a point?” The answer is not terribly heartening:

Browder: Well, I mean, some of these characters, I would argue, are already hyper-sexualized in a sense. I mean, Kerrigan is wearing heels, right? We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool. Our sensibilities are more comic book than anything else. That’s sort of where we’re at. But I’ll take the feedback. I think it’s very fair feedback.

Yes, Kerrigan (Starcraft) wearing heels is definitely the problem here. Because hyper-sexualization is putting women in silly shoes. I’m not a fan of silly shoes, either, but this woman is not being hyper-sexualized by heels.

Now at least she’s… sort of wearing something covering most of her body. Okay, so it appears to be an exoskeleton that isn’t exactly detachable from her body, but she’s not the scantily clad Dark Elf from Warcraft, either. These images, Browder says, aren’t “sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool.”

Browder may not realize that his team is “sending a message,” but when images like this become normalized – whether in gaming or, as he suggests, in comics – they in fact do send a very clear message, one that has been picked up on by gamers, non-gamers, and developers around the world (Do I need to reiterate how horrific Warface‘s female soldiers are?). There are plenty of ways to make characters “look cool” without all-but-exposing their breasts and giving them waspish waists that perpetuate an unrealistic image of female beauty.

In his defense, Browder also says that the backlash against such hyper-sexualized characters is “very fair feedback,” but it is said as almost an afterthought to the defensive insistence that the creation of such characters is based on “comic book sensibilities.” While this may be true, it deflects responsibility for a more egalitarian aesthetic on a medium that originated in the 1940s and 1950s (not a time of glowing gender equality) and is itself known for horrifically sexualized portrayals of women (and men, but, as this spoof indicates, to a much lesser degree).

So what do the Heroes of the Storm characters look like? Well, they appear not to have sexualized the Panda.

There are, of course, other heroes – including Kerrigan and Diablo – in the game, some of whom are sexualized (the women) and some of whom are not (the not-women – in which I include pandas, irrespective of gender). And that’s really the issue. Is it okay to have some characters sexualized and some not? Yes, of course. But when all of your sexualized characters are female (and humanoid female, specifically), and all (or almost all) your female characters are hyper-sexualized, that should be an indicator of gender inequity that needs much closer examination.

Will Heroes of the Storm change its models? I really rather doubt it. But I do think that it’s time to stop considering scantily-clad characters the epitome of “cool” in gaming, and to use the same standards of “cool” for both genders – armor, weapons, clothing details, rather than lack of clothing. Because, really, as long as we continue to encourage the hyper-sexualization of women in our media, whether games or tv or movies or music performance, we won’t be able to get away from the attitude that women are sexual objects designed and purposed for male pleasure – in other words, rape culture. So instead of excusing sexist designs as “cool” or a product of our preexisting “sensibilities,” let’s create some new ones.

Gaming Criticism and Ms. Men

Yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent video in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series came out on the “Ms. Male Trope.” As is likely predictable by this point, the internet, in all its trollish glory, reacted with its usual backlash, including, but not limited to, death and rape threats, complaints of censorship, and howling about how feminists are going to ruin videogames.

Today, I submitted my reaction to The Learned Fangirl, so I’m not going to rehash it here. Suffice it to say that I think – as I have consistently thought – that there are good things and bad things about the video, but that for the most part, she has a point. I do think that this time she missed the most important part about this trope in an effort to take on BioWare’s Mass Effect series, which may have been a poor choice on her part for a variety of reasons (some of which my post at TLF goes into).

But that’s not actually the point of this post. Yesterday, a petition went up at Care2 concerning Sarkeesian’s series. My initial reaction – as I’m sure anyone familiar with the gaming community could probably guess – was a heavy sigh of “Aren’t we done with this yet?” But the petition isn’t quite what I expected. First of all, it’s articulate, and expresses concerns with the nature of internet debate that I think are eminently valid… even if I remain unconvinced of the overall conspiratorial tenor of this particular petition.

For the record, I do not think that Sarkeesian has “effectively silenced any genuine criticism of her often erroneous and intentionally misleading point of view by portraying all of her critics as a ‘cyber mob’ of misogynist internet harassers,” since 1) I criticize her work every time she puts out a video and have yet to be called either a misogynist or a cyber-harasser, and 2) I know someone who invited her to speak on a campus who had to deal with very real threats of physical harm against her. I think that there is a very vocal contingent of the gaming community who lack a certain level of basic human decency but who also don’t realize that what they say and do online can have very tangible emotional consequences – they believe that their “harassment” is funny and harmless, not that it causes psychological trauma. I don’t believe that most of the people who threaten Sarkeesian will ever do anything to her – but I also believe that their threats are a valid cause of upset for Sarkeesian, who is fully within her rights to protect herself and expose online harassment.

I don’t think that she automatically dismisses “any legitimate criticism of factual inaccuracies in her statements, differences of opinion, or any other disagreeing response as part of a ‘misogynist hate campaign,’” rather, that her dismissal of criticism becomes overwhelmed by the tide of hate-filled misogyny she genuinely receives. Does that mean she doesn’t address all the valid points made about her work? Of course! As a functional internet celebrity, it would not physically be possible for her to do so. Should she attempt to address at least some of the reasonable critiques? It’s her choice whether she does or not, and petitioning her to do so is, quite frankly, childish and silly.

But here’s the one point that I think may actually have some validity: “both gaming and mainstream media outlets have extolled Ms. Sarkeesian’s viewpoint uncritically, we feel that it is time to demand that our voices be heard.” While I myself have been critical of what Sarkeesian has had to say, I am not a major media outlet and people do not flock to my blog (or even to TLF, more’s the pity) to read my opinions on games. I was surprised, however, when Wired featured her because, although she is doing critical work on gaming, she isn’t a part of the industry, either in games journalism, games criticism, or game development. Like the petitioner, I find it a little disturbing if, in fact, Sarkeesian was “likened Anita Sarkeesian to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk” by PBS, because – again – while she is engaging in a much-needed critical discussion, she isn’t facing anything like the level of hatred, bigotry, or violence that was faced by Parks, King, and Milk.

Sarkeesian has become something of a feminist darling (something I’m sure she would hate to read written about her… sorry) because, in part, she is young, female, and fairly attractive. She’s also articulate and knows how to put together a video that is straightforward and clear. What she isn’t is in the industry – yet. Maybe this series will springboard her into a career in games journalism or games criticism (she’s a pop culture critic, which is a lovely thing to be, but is much more general than a games critic because it encompasses tv, books, and movies, too, and typically engages them on a more surface level because it talks about so many things rather than in-depth in one thing).

Now I do have a problem with the impression that has been created around Sarkeesian that she is neigh-on-untouchable because she is standing up against gaming misogyny, either because she has been sanctified by taking on this impossible battle and/or because of the fear that maligning her will place a media outlet or journalist into the undesirable category of “misogynistic troll.”

But this isn’t a problem exclusive to Sarkeesian, nor is it worthy of a petition (although there are a good deal of things unworthy of petitions that end up with online petition sites… I remember a similar impulse among my third and fourth grade classes with notebook paper). In essence, the problem is that journalists, websites, Sarkeesian herself, and people in general have the inability to evaluate anything by degrees: we want things to be either good or bad, and attempt to shove anything into either the square or round hole, whether it is square, round, triangular, or rhomboid.

What we need to do, in games criticism, games journalism, and life in general, is recognize that all things are grey, composed of good and bad elements, and worthy of both praise and criticism (although not dolled out in equal measure). We should be able to criticize Sarkeesian, but we (and she) should also be able to criticize games for whatever we see fit, provided we do so with decorum and reason. And that’s really the problem here. We’ve abandoned logic for emotional impulse, gradation for extremity, and no conversation can be reasonably carried on about anything if every game either feminist or misogynist, every comment an attack or a defense, every participant a princess or a troll.

Leadership in Games, or Why I’m not Insane for Studying This

So today I was pointed in the direction of this article about leadership by Brendan Sinclair at Games Industry International, focused on Dr. Ray Muzyka (one of the co-founders of BioWare, the makers of Mass Effect and Dragon Age). Sinclair’s piece examines Muzyka’s theory of leadership, namely, that “The unfortunate truth is it’s easier to be a half-assed or outright bad leader.”

While I know very little about Muzyka’s style as the leader of BioWare (a position which he has since left), what I do know is that both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series are obsessed with questions of leadership, both good and bad, and work very hard to train their players on making the proverbial tough choices that leaders have to make. One of the best things about both series, in my not-very-humble opinion, is that both games ask their players to become leaders within the virtual gamespaces of the Milky Way galaxy and Thedas (respectively), forcing them to consider issues of ethics, of compromise, of loyalty, and of – to paraphrase one of the characters from Mass Effect – ruthless calculus.

Muzyka suggests that leadership is more important now than it ever has been – which is a phrase that has appeared in the literature (philosophic, fictional, and nonfictional alike) of every culture capable of writing. While I don’t subscribe to the “now more than ever” mentality, I do think that leadership is always important to social, political, and even scientific progress, and that it serves as the core reason for the success or failure of a work of art, an individual, or a civilization.

Muzyka suggests that the primary challenge in the twenty-first century is distraction:

There are a plethora of gadgets that enable people now, but technology can be overwhelming, and even paralyzing. It doesn’t replace good leadership or focus, Muzyka said. Good leaders need to cut through the noise and provide a clear path forward for their team. That starts by providing clear and consistent core values. It’s not just about what you consider important; it’s about what you don’t consider important.

Although Muzyka focuses more on the leadership capabilities of an industry developer than he does on the overwhelming presence of leadership in the company’s games, it’s clear that the development team as a whole has a good idea of what leadership is and what it should be, given their depiction of it through both narrative and mechanics in their games.

What’s a Gamer, Anyway?

If you follow me in the Twitterverse, you’ve probably already gleaned the purpose of this post. If not, I’ll recap for you:

81% of people are gamers, 48% of whom are women, according to Playspan #GDCNext

— Zoyə Street (@rupazero) November 5, 2013

 

Half of men are console gamers, half of women play games on smartphone. #gdcnext

— Zoyə Street (@rupazero) November 5, 2013

A “gamer,” Zoya also says, “plays games of any kind,” including cell phone, Wii, indie, and AAA games, at least according to GDCNext. Which raises a couple of red flags for me. On the one hand, I’m not trying to “dismiss” the value of cell phone or Wii games – the “casual” market – in favor of some sort of AAA-games-related elitism, or, perhaps worse, the “hipster-academic” indie-sanctity. On the other, I’m not sure the term “gamer” applies to my Wii-playing grandma, or my Angry Birds-playing mother-in-law in the same way that it does to me.

This is a question my students attempted to address back in September when they learned that 46% (now 48%) of gamers are women. They were flabbergasted. And then they wanted to know what, exactly, I meant by “gamer.” Unlike in Zoya’s tweet, most places don’t give us a definition of a “gamer.” They don’t specify electronic versus tabletop, casual versus “hardcore,” console versus PC versus iPhone.

But in the industry, I see terms thrown around for which I’d like to see more concrete definitions. There are “causal gamers,” “hardcore gamers,” “mainstream gamers,” and “indie gamers.” The first appear to be players of cell-phone and Wii/Kinect games, physical games like Wii Fit or Just Dance or Lips. Mainstream gamers play AAA titles – GTAV and Call of Duty – while indie gamers play primarily indie titles purchased on Steam or XBox Marketplace. “Hardcore” gamers, however, seem to be the breed we really mean when we say “gamer.”

“Hardcore” gamers play AAA titles, indie titles, and often also cell phone/tablet games. They play on more than one platform (XBox, PS3, Wii, PC) and often own peripherals that are exclusive to or primarily used for gaming (not just the WiiFit platform or Rockband set, but a gaming mouse or gaming PC). “Hardcore” gamers go to gaming cons, like PAX or GenCon, and will stand in line at midnight for releases of their favorite titles. “Hardcore” gamers own collectable editions of games as well as “action figurines” and other gamer gear (tshirts, posters, etc.).

These are the gamers people call to mind when someone says “gamer.” These are the “fans,” the primary LEGOs in the framework of gamer culture. The loudest voices of support or derision for new games and for games criticism.

So who are they?

I don’t know if we have a real answer backed up by solid facts. The demographics we use now to talk about gamers are inclusive, and I think that, ultimately, that’s a good thing, but it’s important that we not forget that at the core of the gaming community is a different demographic from the one that we see represented in our statistics.

I do know that within the development side of the industry, the vast majority is white and male (more than 85% in both categories, according to a study done in 2005, and although those numbers may have shifted, they’re still biased in that direction). My extrapolation is that hardcore gamers, while likely more diverse than the developer pool, are probably more similar to it than they are to the current “gamer statistics.” (After all, most developers are probably drawn from that “hardcore” fan base – you have to really love gaming to become a game developer.)

So what is the value of this information? Put simply, there is a disparity between the current push toward inclusivity and diversity within the industry based on the statistics from the general “gamer” category and the population producing the games and generating the loudest feedback response. The stereotype of the “gamer” continues to be perpetuated and reinforced from within the gaming community because that stereotype makes up the largest portion – I would think – of “hardcore” gamers, the people who go to cons and post on forums. While moms and grandmas play games, they aren’t a part of the outspoken gamer culture that has been recently pushing to “save” games from feminist corruption – that culture is still predominantly white, predominantly male, and predominantly straight.

And it will likely continue to be, at least for a while, simply because that kind of aggressive demographic (which is likely not inherently coupled with its straight-white-male-ness, but is instead correlated with it for a variety of reasons) creates a cycle of self-perpetuity. It alienates those who are Other to its experience (which includes, for what it’s worth, many other straight white men known colloquially as “bros”), thus reinforcing its insularity and perpetuating the trend of territorial behavior. It also leads to industry claims that the “fans” won’t buy games with female protagonists or realistic clothing (apparently, if Warface is any indication).

The solution, it seems to me, is to keep pushing the proverbial envelope, whether “we” who wish to change the industry are developers, fans, or critics. And for that reason, although recent statistics on “gamers” are somewhat misleading in the sense that they do include my grandma, they are also invaluable to the process of industry transformation, because if publishers have to account for my grandma’s tastes, they’re less likely to create a homogenous slate of scantily-clad snipers swooning over an equally-unrealistic hunk of military man-flesh. They’re more likely to make games like Plants vs. Zombies, or Words with Friends, but they’re also more likely to count on players like me, who play casual games and AAA games and indie titles – that rare species of “hardcore” gamer over the age of 30 with two X chromosomes, a gaming PC, an XBox, and maybe even a couple action figures.

You say Potato… I say Misogynist.

Gamers Against Bigotry posted a link to Wired piece about female soldier skins (character art, basically) in the online game Warface that struck a chord with me about a recurring problem in videogame – and fantasy – depiction of women.

The piece seems, at first, to be about the developer’s use of different female skins in different localizations (regional adaptations) of the game. But, as Wired‘s Philippa Warr says of the issue, “you say ‘cultural relativism’, I say ‘inherently problematic’.” That’s because no matter which way you look at it, the skins are not even remotely realistic. For instance:

The male versions of both characters appear to be fairly “normal.” They’re wearing armor, carrying weapons, etc. I’m sure there’s something unrealistic about them, but I would believe that those people were appropriately attired for a combat zone. The female rifleman, however, has a shocking lack of sleeves, and her decolletage has got to be getting in the way of her aim.

And I haven’t even said anything about the female sniper. Warr says that she is “likely to get extreme nettle rash all over her bosom as she lies down to line up her shot,” and that’s being quite kind, all things considered. After all, why have a hood if you’re going to expose the brilliant whiteness of your heaving bosoms to the sky?

Now here’s the thing. Warr is talking to developer Joshua Howard about the localization of the game, and Howard has a lot of really interesting things to say about the conflict created in cross-regional competition by the fact that different areas – he mentions China and Russia – have different spec preferences for their weapons in terms of damage and kickback. And that is really interesting.

But the sniper’s cleavage is just too prominent for me to allow the piece to stay there. Howard tries – valiantly – to excuse the female models by arguing that they’re “better” than what the fans expected: the fans, he says, “were very comfortable with the fact we have these very realistic-looking men but they wanted the women to be not what we would think of as realistic at all. Up to and including running round in high heels which is just silly, right?” In short, Crytek is trying to respond to fan requests for the kinds of skins they want, and, Howard says, “They’re not what our players at first requested in the Russian region. They tended to be considerably more extreme that what we ended up shipping with.”

So Crytek tried to make these models more realistic. I don’t think I want to see what they started with, especially considering that sniper apparently also began by wearing high heels. But here’s the thing. Catering to a fanbase is all well and good – and is generally a good strategic marketing choice – but at what expense? Does anyone seriously believe that a more realistic female model is going to cause Warface‘s fans to stop playing the game? Because I don’t.

Any more than I think that putting some clothes on the sniper (what is it with female snipers, anyway?) in the new Metal Gear Solid V is going to make fewer people play that game. The Metal Gear series has had buxom female snipers before, but at least Sniper Wolf wore a body suit. Sheesh. (Kotaku has some theories about this.)

I think that if either Konami or Crytek wanted to include realistic models of women in their games, they would have just as many players as before. At least, I suppose, Crytek put a few more articles of clothing on their sniper than Konami.

Both companies could easily include female models that are attractive and reasonably clad, as in Tomb Raider or Bioshock Infinite or Gears of War. Instead, by pandering to the input of the fans who are asking for admittedly ludicrous models, Crytek is enabling the misogyny that’s already rampant in the industry by perpetuating an unrealistic image of women that is not only highly sexualized, but designed explicitly for the viewing pleasure of (straight) male gamers. And this last is really why I have a problem with it – because images of women in games should not be designed as sex objects; rather, they should be created as characters serving a purpose – as soldiers, medics, explorers – first and foremost, the exact same way their male counter-models are created.

And that’s really my point. We aren’t going to see equality in gender-representation in games until characters are created as characters, rather than as sex objects. I’ve heard the argument that female gamers won’t ever be happy with female characters unless they’re “ugly” or “fat” or “completely covered,” which is silly, and I’ve heard the argument that “if you want good female characters, then they have to be designed by women.” Sure, women could design good female characters, but to suggest that only women can design women is just as silly. All that needs to happen is that characters need to be designed as characters, as their purpose (soldier, healer, mage, adventurer) rather than as proverbial “eye-candy,” no matter what their gender.

Games Are Not Weapons

Yesterday’s tragic events in DC – near somewhere I go on a weekly basis where people I know and care about work – once again have people in the US considering the problems of violence in our society, its causes, and its solutions. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this has not only produced the usual gun control debate, but yet again brought up the argument that violent videogames were some part of the cause of Alexis’s actions, as Stephen Daly notes in a Gameranx piece today.

Daly remarks that the Telegraph reported Alexis was “obsessed with violent video games”  and “carried a .45 handgun ‘everywhere he went.’” The Telegraph piece also says that “The darker side to Alexis’s character saw him playing violent ‘zombie’ video games in his room, sometimes from 12.30pm until 4.30am.”

What is particularly infuriating about the Telegraph‘s take on this is that they spend a considerable amount of time contrasting Alexis’s playing of violent videogames with his dedication to Buddhism, suggesting that this is a bizarre paradox. What they don’t spend enough time on is the fact that Alexis seemed paranoid – he carried a gun everywhere out of fear that someone would steal his belongings, even into restaurants and his workplace. But instead of pulling out the idea – put forth by someone he knew – that he was traumatized by 9/11 and may have been suffering from PTSD, the author (Nick Allen) instead gives the piece this title: “Aaron Alexis: Washington navy yard gunman ‘obsessed with violent video games.’”

I’ve talked about this before. At length. And in the Christian Science Monitor. The scientific evidence just doesn’t bear out what fear and ignorance want to repeatedly claim: playing violent videogames doesn’t make us more violent. It doesn’t even really make us more aggressive beyond the extreme short-term, in which case its level of elevation is akin to that of a sports fan (possibly less), an athlete, or someone playing Risk around a table (which produces a lot of aggression, let me tell you).

But we’re not banning sports or board games. We aren’t even talking about it (even though sports fans can be and often are much more violent as a demographic than videogame players, as the horrific incident involving the referee in Brazil tragically shows). We are, for some reason that still escapes me, talking about how violent videogames (might) cause shootings.

As a society, we are violent. We are aggressive. It’s built into our genetics by the evolutionary flight-or-fight response, which triggers adrenaline and causes us to become hostile or fearful (or both). We react negatively to stressors and become less likely – as in one psychology experiment – to pick up someone else’s dropped pencil. But the failure to pick up a pencil in a post-Call of Duty period of cool-down does not equate on any level to homicide.

Games do not kill people. Weapons kill people. People kill people. Games provide an escapist outlet. Yes, violent people and disturbed people play videogames. So do pacifists, academics, moms, dads, college students, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, writers, filmmakers, ministers, and millions more. Violent and disturbed people also breathe air, drink water, and eat french fries. Yes, violent and disturbed people will be drawn to violent videogames, but to suggest that the games make them violent is to fail to understand the causal relationship at work.

If we’re going to talk about what caused Alexis to do what he did, we shouldn’t be talking about videogames any more than we’re talking about television, books, or movies (and we’re not).  We should be talking about PTSD. We should be talking about the stigma in our society against seeking psychological help (especially among men). We should be talking about how this country under-serves its veterans. We should be talking about the ease with which an individual can carry a loaded weapon into public places. We should be talking about what we can do as a society to support our veterans, our victims, and each other. We should be talking about change, not blame.

On the “Concept of Being Masculine”

So today’s grand internet explosion related to gender and gaming has to do with a comment made by the lead developer of the Grand Theft Auto series Dan Houser at Rockstar games and printed in The Guardian, and picked up by Polygon:

Despite Rockstar’s sometimes secretive aura, Houser is very direct and has strong views on GTAV’s relationship with the movies (“We don’t need to hark back to film when technology allows us to produce our own response to real places”), on the lack of playable female characters (“The concept of being masculine was so key to this story”) and on game conferences like E3 and Gamescom, which he no longer attends (“You don’t play a videogame in a room with 20,000 people doing the same thing unless you’re a lunatic”).

The reason there aren’t playable female characters in GTA is that “The concept of being masculine was so key to this story” that having a playable female avatar seemed inappropriate. I am a staunch advocate for more playable female protagonists. I think a lot of games could be improved – and reach a broader fan base – by making gender one of several customizable options in character creation.

But I don’t care that GTA wants all their protagonists to be men. (And not just because I have no personal interest in playing it – I played Braid and I think that needed to be a male protagonist, too.) The reason I’m entirely unconcerned by Houser’s comment is because I think that telling a story about masculinity is the only reasonable explanation for having only male protagonists. Could they talk about masculinity from a female protagonist’s perspective? I’m sure they could, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is a story about masculinity, machismo, and its relationship to an urban environment replete with vice and crime. It’s a very particular story and it actually has a legitimate claim to a specifically-gendered protagonist.

Yes, you could have a woman or a gay man or a trans*person in the same setting, but then the story wouldn’t be about cis-masculinity. It would be a different story, and one probably worth telling, but that isn’t GTA‘s story, any more than the story of a young man coming of age is Tomb Raider‘s story.

So while I do think there should be more female protagonists in videogames, this isn’t another Call of Duty: Ghosts problem; where Activision proffered a lame excuse about ‘technology’ being the limiting factor for their lack of women in the COD series, GTA has an aesthetic, meaningful reason for their choice, and that, in my estimation, is actually a justification for the continued exclusion of female protagonists from the game.

This is not to say that I consider GTA to be a paragon of games. While its open-world layout has revolutionized the industry in many ways, I find its depiction of prostitutes and women in general to be rather heinous. I despise the fact that the player can beat women and is even praised for doing so. But in this – and possibly only this – case, I think they’ve given a justification for why their protagonists are and will remain (for the time being) men.

Of Wolves and Men

So a few days ago I made a post about the resurrected dickwolves debacle at PAX. Since then, quite a few people have also made posts about said debacle, including Rachel Edidin on Wired (“Why I’m Never Going Back to Penny Arcade Expo”), Elizabeth Sampat (“Quit F***ing Going to PAX Already, What is Wrong with You”), Christine Love (“An Open Letter to Jerry Holkins”), and (my favorite) Gamers Against Bigotry’s Sam Killermann (“DO NOT ENGAGE: Dickwolves, Again”). There’s a lot of anxiety out there. A lot of disappointment. A lot of anger.

I (obviously) sympathize with a lot of it. I think that repeatedly invoking the now-infamous dickwolves scandal of 2010 is only asking for trouble on a wide variety of fronts. I think it opens old wounds for those who were emotionally impacted by the original strip. I think it concerns people who want to see dickwolves die a silent, ‘dignified’ death rather than become a rallying cry for those who want to see women leave their precious games industry and geekdom alone. I also think that the problem is not actually the dickwolf itself. The problem is how it was handled originally. Because if we’d heard an apology along the lines of “Gee, we didn’t realize this was going to bother people because our point was the ludicrous nature of MMORPG missions, we’re sorry,” and they never mentioned it again, it wouldn’t be an issue.

But they did. Repeatedly. And they merchandized it. And that’s what has upset so many people – that something which should not have been and really was not that big a deal became a vehicle of ideological assault on conscientiousness.

Well, Mike Krahulik has apologized. Again. Sort of. Well, mostly. I’ll give him a “mostly” for this one. I say “mostly” because there was a good deal of “re-contextualizing” going on in that apology, adding in things that were not included in the original statement and which seem to blatantly contradict the tenor of the comment that “I think pulling the dickwolves merchandise was a mistake.” While in the retrospect of a few days and a huge flamewar later Krahulik may well regret saying what he did, while he may now understand that the whole dickwolves thing needed to never have happened, and while he may now recognize that what he should have said was “we never should have had dickwolves merchandise to pull,” those things are not, in fact, what he said to a crowd full of fans who cheered his comment in the spirit of attacking those pesky feminists who want to censor the male-centered comedy of PA.

I’m not saying that Krahulik and Holkins – as the creators of PA – want to attack the pesky feminists. I am saying that there is a non-insignificant contingent of people who have been using and are going to continue to use the dickwolf as a symbol of male dominance over “feminist censorship” with the pathetic excuse that “You can’t tell me what to joke about” because there’s “no harm in a joke.”

And here’s the thing. I don’t think that Krahulik and Holkins ever intended to attack rape victims who were upset by the original strip. I think those victims were collateral damage in a larger reaction against what some view as “excessive political correctness.” And, if I’m going to be honest, I’m not a big fan of being PC just for the sake of being PC, and I do think that parts of our society are overly sensitive to certain things. That said, I am also a fan of being conscientious about whether or not what you’re saying or doing is going to cause someone pain and then either adding a warning (that’s what “trigger warnings” are for) or not doing it. And I’m also a fan of apologizing if you offend someone unintentionally.

I still respect what PAX is supposed to stand for. I still think I’ll attend in 2015 (I can’t go in 2014 for other reasons). I will also, however, be paying attention to the kind of example that Krahulik and Holkins present in the meantime, because that example is going to form the community’s attitude to things like dickwolves, like feminist gamers, and like criticism of games and the gaming community.

And that’s my biggest problem with the repeated invocation of canis lupus phallus – that the gaming community, which already has problems accepting the opinions of half the planet based on gender (to say nothing of minorities of race or sexuality or trans*ness), is being shown that aggressively sexual and offensive behavior is acceptable. When women have to struggle to be seen as “real gamers,” when they have to deal with online and voicechat harassment simply for being (perceived as) female, when female developers and feminist game critics are threatened with rape and murder, it’s important for leaders in the industry – which Krahulik and Holkins are, whether they meant to be or not – to step up and not encourage the perpetuation of rape culture. It would be better if they were more proactive – if they ENGAGED – in promoting inclusion publicly in words as well as in PAX policies.

I also understand that Krahulik and Holkins can’t be everything to everyone. They can’t satisfy all their fans or be aware of the possible repercussions of their strip or their words all of the time. They are only human. They also have the right to free speech and free expression. BUT.

It is important, too, for them to acknowledge that it is not unreasonable for us to ask them to allow the dickwolves to become extinct. To ask them, as industry leaders (whether they wanted to become leaders or not), to take a little bit of time to think about the repercussions of their actions and speech. To consider not only whether they will have to apologize for something, but to think about how it will resonate with the gaming community – and whether that resonance will be positive or negative. Dickwolves are not a positive. Rape culture is not positive. While they have the right to say and do whatever it is they wish, they have a responsibility as leaders to make the choice not to.

Edit: Also a really great post from MC Frontalot that’s worth reading.