“Peer” Review

So there’s a new thing happening in the internet gaming-verse, and it’s called #OprationDiggingDiGRA. DiGRA is the Digital Games Research Association, and they have regional and global conferences all over the world every year. They offer venues for scholars of games to present their work, and they publish papers both from their proceedings and from outside scholarship.

DiGRA is an organization of affiliated and independent scholars, most of them with advanced degrees (PhDs) or industry experience or both. They make a living (or part of a living) by doing research into various components of games, whether through the hard sciences, social sciences, or humanities. Their job is to engage games and gamers with thoroughly researched, thoughtful, critical theses based in academic rigor.

#OperationDiggingDiGRA was formed by a few #GamerGaters to “fact check every DiGRA article relating to games,” tweeted by @RogueStarGamez which quickly morphed into “Fact-check, and verify all of feminist papers in DiGRA” when tweeted by @ramzaruglia, who then altered the goal to read “Peer-reviewing and fact-checking of every DiGRA papers [sic] written by feminists.”

Just on the surface level of intention, there is a problem with #ODD – it isn’t actually about fact-checking academic papers, as @ramzaruglia’s tweets reveal. If it were, then no one would care, as academic papers should already be factually accurate (and most academics are willing to make the changes to them if they are not, because no decent academic actually wants to make an argument based on factual inaccuracy). In fact, more than one academic has requested that #ODD either publish or make public factual errors so that they can be remedied.

The idea that gamers could be a useful critical audience for academics working in gaming is actually one that I would embrace in any other context. I think having more gamers reading academic writing on games can do a lot to improve the field, and to educate gamers about the significance of their chosen form of entertainment. It’s good for both the primary audience and the critical audience of a medium to talk to one another, to share opinions and ideas, and to keep each other honest. The concept of fans fact-checking both journalists and academics is, at its core, a good thing.

But that is not what I see happening here. Both because of its origins in #GamerGate and because of some of the tweets made by participants, I am not seeing that kind of open intellectual exchange taking place, irrespective of the assertions of several #ODDers.

What is problematic about #ODD is that it very rapidly morphed in tone from “fact check every DiGRA article” to “papers written by feminists.” That’s a specific biased targeting of a particular type of theoretical approach – and one that is difficult to “fact check” because it’s based in sociological and cultural theory (Butler, Barthes, Foucault, Greer, etc.) and not in anything that can or cannot be proven. An author might get the theory wrong, certainly, but if a #GGer takes issue with Judith Butler, what then? Judith Butler’s theories may be accurately used by an academic, but if the #GGer in question doesn’t like the notion of gender performativity, is it likely that the academic will then “fail” the supposed “fact-check”? I’m thinking that such a thing is more than likely. I hope it isn’t, but it seems to me that gender theory itself is what will fall victim to the “fact-checking,” rather than the criticism of games.

Which brings me to another point. “Peer-review” is not something the average #GGer is capable of offering, because the average #GGer is (and correct me if I’m wrong) not an academic. That’s the whole point of peer review – that the people reviewing the work are the author’s peers: academics. The point of having academics (and gaming academics at that) review the work of other academics is so that they understand the theoretical background possessed by the author, they have a full knowledge of the critical literature, and they know the acceptable methodologies within the field. I’m going to guess (and, again, I could be wrong) that the #GGers engaging in #ODD do not possess this kind of knowledge, and therefore cannot actually offer “peer-review.”

So what I see in #ODD, then, is an agenda-based attempt to “discredit” feminism as a valid form of cultural critique, whether in journalism or in academia. It’s a direct attack on gender and queer studies as valid disciplines, and its intention is to dismantle these fields and discredit those who practice them as being “not real academics” (and practitioners of the humanities in general have been lumped in, as well).

I object to #ODD not on the basis of “fact-checking” (go ahead, and yes, please do share any factual inaccuracies with the authors), but on the presumption that non-academics should be allowed to critique the theoretical approaches of academics in any medium other than that in which academic debates take place; in other words, if you want to discredit Critic X’s work, then publish an academically rigorous article in a peer-reviewed journal explaining why X is wrong… just like X’s actual peers (other academics) would be expected to do.

To offer publication or inclusion on DiGRA panels to #ODDers (without requiring them to undergo the same blind peer review as anyone else) would be to diminish the academe and devalue what it means to be an accredited scholar (not that I think anyone is seriously doing so). But to give credence to #ODDers is to suggest that their version of “fact-checking” is actually fact-checking – a “fact” of which I am very much in doubt.

So do I care if they “fact-check” DiGRA? Not of they’re actually fact-checking. If they are looking up citations, making sure that the citations are noted properly, checking to see that dates and page numbers are accurate, giving accurate data (with citations), and so on – FANTASTIC. I’m all for it.

But if what #ODD is about is finding social and cultural theories and pointing their fingers and howling “I don’t perform my gender! My penis is why I’m male!” or “The panopticon is not a good symbol for a culture of surveillance!” or “The camera lucida doesn’t represent an eye!”, then I want nothing to do with it. It isn’t that I think these theories are all great ways to read games (I don’t, actually), but that a variety of theoretical approaches to a subject is what advances a field, whether each individual use of a theory is “ideal” or not.

What I hope happens is that #ODDers start reading, find a few factual errors, and then become overwhelmed by the enormity of the cultural discussion that they give up in exhaustion, because it takes 5-10 years of advanced study to actually get a cohesive picture of any field, and another 20-40 more to really fully master it, and, let’s face it, #ODDers just don’t have that level of commitment. Not to mention, that by the time an #ODDer were to put in the work? Those papers would long since have become obsolete.

Comfort Zone: The Problem with Seeking the Status Quo in Games Journalism

So as #GamerGate continues to fizzle on the internet, despite its disappearance from much of mainstream Twitter and news, it’s becoming increasingly clear that what GGers are attempting to do is not hold gaming journalism accountable for corruption or shoddy reporting, as they so often claim, but to attempt to restore a perceived status quo from the early 2000s.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a paper considering the toxic fandom of videogames for next week’s PCAS conference (more on that after I give the paper), and looking in particular at what’s been happening with Anita Sarkeesian, #GamerGate, and online harassment, and how all that relates to the history of videogames themselves.

I’ve been following developer Zoe Quinn on Twitter, and watching her expose of 4chan forums; following Feminist Frequency (Sarkeesian); and seeing multiple journalists (Jenn Frank, Samantha Allen, Mattie Brice) disappear from my feed or cease to speak about games. I’ve also been watching other journalists, academics, and developers (Rhianna Pratchett, Leigh Alexander, Maddy Myers, Todd Harper, Zoya Street) continue to talk about harassment, speak out against it, and continue to teach and preach tolerance, diversity, and accountability.

What has struck me – in particular after discovering that my lovely TLF editor has been on the receiving end of GGer tweets on my account – most recently is that GGers aren’t actually trying to reform journalism (which I never thought they honestly were, to be frank), they’re trying to reclaim their perceived identity as gaming “experts” from the 1990s and early 2000s when women were an invisible presence in gaming. When gaming wasn’t as widespread (when 59% of Americans weren’t gamers*), when it wasn’t as diverse, it was a lot easier for the “hardcore” fans to be experts, for their opinions to be reflected broadly across little-known gaming sites and in gaming magazines.

When GGers seek to “reform” journalism, they’re demanding a return to the days when the voices in the games industry on all levels – fans, development, journalism – were homogenous, reflecting a bias created by industry marketers in the 1990s.** In the same way that people (mostly white men) talk about the “golden era” of the 1950s, GGers are looking to reclaim a period in videogame history when they were the dominant demographic in gaming, and their opinions went unquestioned and even catered to.

This is a response – cultural lag – that is ubiquitous within any rapidly changing form of popular culture (I’ve said this before here, here, and here) in which the “original” (“hardcore”) audience feels that the medium to which they have become attached changes on them, and that any change must necessarily be for the worse.

Games journalism is changing, yes. It is changing because the world around it is changing, and because games are changing to reflect and respond to that world.

This new world is a place that GGers find disconcerting and uncomfortable because it is not the familiar place to which they have become accustomed which reflects back their already-held opinions and preferences. It is a world in which people don’t all look like them, don’t all think like them, and – especially – in which people question their right to remain dominant.

This is a problem not exclusive to GGers, or to gamers, but to the whole of Western society, which just happens to have a high concentration among 30-something straight white American (and European) males with access to the internet (aka. middle and upper class). This demographic suffers from privilege – a phrase which is not intended as sarcastic, but as realistic. Those with privilege have a natural inability to see that privilege, and when it is pointed out to them, it causes “suffering”: discovering privilege is uncomfortable, disconcerting, guilt-inducing. Learning about your own privilege is a demand that you then do something about that privilege, that you cease to take for granted that your views are “normal.” To realize that the identity which you have so long identified as “default” is in fact alien to many of the people you know.

It means learning that instead of the hero you’ve long imagined yourself to be, you’re an unwitting – and perhaps unwilling – villain.

And that experience is uncomfortable, disconcerting, even painful. So yes, I understand why GGers want to demand a restoration of their comfortable dominance. But this understanding is not acceptance.

This comfort comes at the price of oppression, of subjection, of dehumanization. As has been true throughout history, privilege is bought at the cost of other voices and viewpoints silenced in the name of “purity,” “conformity,” and the status quo.

If you want to demand accountability in journalism, by all means go ahead. But when you define “accountability,” be sure to also hold yourself accountable – ask yourself, “Whose voice am I silencing? Whose opinion am I erasing? Whose life am I making more difficult? Would my life/work stand up to the demands I make of others?” And if, in the pursuit of what you believe is the truth, you are taking away someone else’s privacy, freedom, security, or speech, you aren’t seeking accountability; you’re seeking comfort, at the expense of human dignity.

It’s time to get out of the comfort zone.

*ESA 2014 demographic report
**Tracy Lien, “No Girls Allowed,” Polygon

Define Your Terms: “Criticism,” “Review,” and “Academia”

So today a friend tweeted about a piece in the New Statesman on gaming criticism… sort of. The piece, entitled “Criticism vs. Reviews: Sometimes it’s OK to Care Only About How a Game Plays” by Phil Hartup, makes certain highly problematic claims about the differences between reviews, criticism, and “academic criticism” that sent both the friend and I into fits.

First of all, Hartup conflates “mechanics” and graphics with reviews and “narrative” with “academic criticism,” which makes no sense at all. Certainly, there is plenty to be done with game narrative by academic criticism, but academic criticism also talks mechanics, the impact of graphics, and the demographics and reactions of players… and so on. Narrative is but one component of a game, and is thus only one component of academic criticism, reviews, AND “general” criticism. To assume that an analysis of the “fun” of a game would only appear in a “review” is to fail to understand the scope of criticism (both general and academic).

Hartup also claims that

there’s a problem with this academic criticism, and it’s that modern big budget games – the AAA titles as they are called – often don’t stand up to criticism very well. When you bring that extra level of scrutiny to bear on a Thief, GTA V or Watch_Dogs, they fall apart. Daft plots full of holes, stupid or unappealing main characters, absurd mechanics – AAA games are heaving with them.

This kind of evaluation of academia and the games industry is endemic to developers’ and fans’ frequent dismissal of academics in the field; they somehow assume that if things fall apart when an academic lens is applied to them, that the fault is with the academic lens. I’m sorry, but no. If a game can’t hold together under scrutiny, then the fault lies with the game, not the eyes looking at it. Perhaps instead of saying that the problem is with academia for exposing these holes, that the problem is instead with theholes themselves. We don’t blame Ebert when a movie is bad and gets a bad review – nor do we blame Laura Mulvey when we see an instance of objectification in film. The same principle applies here: if academics expose flaws in a game, the fault is with the game.

And here’s my other issue with Hartup’s assumption – he seems to think that we cannot enjoy a game that has problems, which is equally silly to his assumption that the lens is at greater fault than the game. No one would venture to suggest that Die Hard is a great piece of cinematic art. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun movie (or that I haven’t seen it well over a dozen times in spite of the fact that I know it’s not a great work of art). Watch Dogs or Call of Duty don’t have to be hole-free in order to be enjoyable or to contribute something to games.

Hartup’s final assessment is that we can’t have reviews that engage with all three genres – review, “general” criticism, and academic criticism. Certainly, his point that the time-commitment for games is considerably greater than film or theater is a valid one; as an academic who writes on both plays and games, the time I spend prepping for a games piece is significantly higher than I do for one on Shakespeare (I can read a Shakespeare play in 3 hours or less – playing through Dragon Age II takes a lot longer than that, to say nothing of having to replay it to make different choices, or the final exhausted turn to the Wiki to cover the myriad of choices that I can’t possibly make).

It explains why a review might be cursory or why an academic article can’t contain all components of a game, but ultimately Hartup fails to actually explain why a piece couldn’t still engage on a complex level with the content (gameplay, narrative, graphics, “fun”) of a game in terms that fit all three ostensible “styles.”

In fact, what it comes down to is that Hartup seems to want to justify laziness rather than make a cogent argument for why games criticism should have genres. Now, as an academic, I actually think that his conclusion isn’t wrong: it’s important for us to have reviews that answer the “should I buy it” question; it’s good to have casual criticism written by fans; it’s also important to have academic criticism of a burgeoning art form. It is also true that not every piece will (or should) combine all three components, but it should not be the case that anyone should have to restrict themselves to only one of these. In many cases, a piece of general criticism will contain elements of review-style evaluation, and an academic piece might in fact do the same.

What bothers me about Hartup’s argument isn’t his ultimate conclusion, then, but the way he gets there. He suggests that because it’s hard, it shouldn’t be done. He suggests that because AAA games have significant flaws, that we should only focus on the “fun” (which is how games got into the current mess about misogyny and non-representation in the first place), and not consider them from a critical/academic standpoint. In short, he suggests a division between popular culture and academia that displays lamentable ignorance about how powerful popular culture is.

Games, whether they have plot holes or not, are one component of a popular culture that both reflects and shapes the way human beings interact with one another and the world. To presume that “fun” things (like Call of Duty) do not engage in this discussion is to ignore their power. To do so is dangerous. It has the potential to silence many voices, to enable propaganda, and to ignore the influence of media on our lives. To engage in criticism is to recognize the power of the milieu and to interact with it, to accept or deny or seek to change those components that have the potential to influence the world at large.

I’m Still a Gamer

Amid the toxic fallout from August in the gaming world is an idea that’s being championed by several feminist critics, including Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra, that the term “gamer” ought to be disposed with.

On the one hand, I completely sympathize with the sentiment that’s behind the argument. “Gamers,” by which she means the trollish minority of anti-feminist vocal MRA-supporting feminist-conspiracy-theory-touting subset of gamers, have of late been behaving like spoiled toddlers who have been told that they can’t eat their entire birthday cake because other people should also get a slice.

But on the other, I think the knee-jerk impulse to excise the term from our vocabulary runs the risk of erasing a lot of what is good about being a gamer. Identifying with the rest of gamer culture – sharing common fandoms and conversations; enjoying the thrill of victory, whether in solo, co-op, or competitive play; experiencing the excitement of new game mechanics or technologies… all those things are also a part of being a gamer. I’ve found more friends by identifying as a gamer (both board games and videogames) than I have by identifying as anything else. I’d hate to lose that.

I understand, too, the argument that games are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous part of our culture. They are. More people play games – especially casual mobile games – than ever before… or do they? Solitaire has been a staple of people’s lives since they could make cards. Dice (or knuckle-bones) can be solitaire, co-op, and competitive, too. In short, whether playing a sport, a board/card game, or a videogame, human beings have been gamers of varying degrees for all eternity. Just because more people play Candy Crush and Flappy Bird than used to play Minesweeper doesn’t mean that there isn’t a distinction between those folks who are gamers, and Gamers.

Certainly, there isn’t a level of monetary commitment one can give to become a Gamer (per a current argument), nor dedicated hours to gaming, nor ownership of a particular set of machinery. Being a Gamer is about attitude and ownership of the identity (not the paraphernalia). It’s about putting games before a lot of other things, and wanting to put games before other things because of the positives that gaming represents.

Being a Gamer, to me, means being willing to take risks. It also means wanting to never let go of the impulse to play. Playfulness, and the embrasure of the fantastic that comes with it, is something our society as a whole is sorely lacking. Playfulness can manifest in many ways, not just through gaming, but gaming is, to me at least, one of the most concrete ways that adults have the opportunity to remain playful in a world that is otherwise harsh, unfair, and stressful.

Play is important – physical play, cosplay, identity play, virtual play… all kinds of play that help us to define and redefine ourselves and our beliefs, to experiment with new patterns of thought and ways of engaging with the world, to work out our frustrations in a safe way. And Gamers are (some of the) people who value play more than most.

And that’s why I want to not just hold on to the Gamer identity, but to reclaim it and encourage people to embrace it.

Growing Pains

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

Two groups are at opposite ends of this moment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexism is the New Social Justice

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

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

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

Today, I saw this tweet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Fix or Not To Fix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critics and Creators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girl Gamer Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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