Comment-ment Problems

So I’m starting to dread comment notifications on TLF. I guess I’m lucky that most people haven’t found this blog, since it means that I’m not inundated with depressing comments on a more regular basis.

Today’s featured comment is in response to a cross-post here about another comment from TLF. It suggests that by pointing out the problematic nature of the phrase “wom[e]n like…” I am thereby effacing any sort of distinction between men and women.

Well, in the case of criticism, yes, yes I am. I don’t think that the gender of a critic, an academic, a journalist, etc., is a relevant criterion when one is discussing – whether positively or negatively – their opinions. I did not say that Sarkeesian’s “female experience,” to borrow the most recent commenter’s phrase, was irrelevant to her viewpoint. Nor did I ever once suggest that “everyone is identical,” as the commenter concludes.

Instead, I said that one’s viability as a critic is not determined by one’s gender. Nor, for the record, is one’s viability as a critic determined by race or sexuality or religion. That does not mean that one’s experience as a member of any of those groups is invalid or not valuable. But it does mean that if I, as a white woman, wanted to criticize the racial depiction of a character in tv or a videogame that my race and gender are irrelevant to the quality of that criticism. I can’t personally speak to the “Black experience,” to quote the commenter, but I can suggest that, for instance, Bioshock Infinite contains a highly vexed depiction of race (and gender).

To reduce my disparaging of the phrase “women like…” in regards to the first commenter’s dismissal of Sarkeesian’s opinion as being intrinsically female to the statement that there is no distinction between male and female experiences of the world is being intentionally obtuse. Sarkeesian isn’t writing about the female experience. Neither am I. I’m talking about a critic’s perception, an academic’s observations.

Are they colored by whatever other components influence my life? Of course they are. But to say that my voice should be subsumed into the general category of all women before it should be considered academic or critical is both dismissive and reductionist.

For that matter, to suggest that there is a single “female” or “male” or “Black” experience that is shared by all people of that designation is equally reductionist and problematic (if that is in fact the intention of the commenter… which I hope it is not, as to assume so is to be guilty of the very crime of which I stand accused).

In the grand scheme of internet comments, this one is banal, even benign. Yet the perpetuation of the attitude that biology or genetics must inherently make us categorically unequal is infuriating. Of course every individual is skilled or unskilled, good or bad, at different things. I am not a construction worker or rocket scientist and do not pretend to be. But I am a trained carpenter and electrician, a gamer and an academic, an aerialist and a stage manager. Those things are not categorically part of the “female experience,” and my gender is irrelevant to all of them (with the exception of the kind of costumes I wear in aerials)

In fact, what the commenter calls the “female experience” is almost entirely socialized – the product of socialization far more powerful than biology. And anything that is socialized rather than inherent, any experience that is the result of a false inequality, although all too real to those who experience it, should not determine their competence or identity. Yes, women are treated differently than men, but aside from purely biological functions, they should not be, nor should Blacks be treated differently than Asians or Native Americans or Hispanics or Latinos or Arabs or Whites. They are – but they should not be.

So when I suggest that the phrase “women like…” is problematic, I don’t mean that women don’t experience sexism, but, rather, that they should not, and that the evaluation of their work should be on its own merits, on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin or the chromosomes in their DNA.

“Woman like Anita”: What’s (Not) Wrong with Critical Fandom

About a week or so ago, I received a new comment on an old TLF post on Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Videogames” project. The original post was written before Sarkeesian actually released any of her videos (there are subsequent posts on TLF that talk about each video once they were released), and has garnered more attention than any other post I’ve made at TLF, which bothers me a little if only because it’s since been dated by the release of Sarkeesian’s videos (Post #2, Post #3, Post #4)  and I’d like to see people follow the conversation, not react to the original post. But that little complaint aside…

This most recent comment bothers me quite a bit, and I was having trouble figuring out why, exactly, since it’s a far cry from the kind of internet troll harassment that people talking about Sarkeesian’s work usually get (i.e. no threats or demands for sandwiches). However, there are several things about it that bother me.

First, the assumption that “No one has yet come to the realization that this anita sarkiseen woman has done it for the attention and the money? Thanks internet for giving this woman a free ride in cash and picks with universities” is irrelevant. Yes, Sarkeesian is making money with this series. So what? People make money doing what they do for a living. This is what she does for a living. The idea that somehow her publicizing her work and speaking about it in public is a sign of corruption is ludicrous. I talk about gender and games, I publish about games, I teach about games, and part of the reason I get paid is because of that. It’s my job. Sarkeesian may be self-employed, but talking about “Tropes vs. Women” is nevertheless her job and she should get paid for it, irrespective of whether or not anyone agrees with her opinions.

Second, this sentence: “Woman like Anita are a waste of time and nothing more than a media-eyelight eyesore forcing their way on how games should be.” Any sentence that contains the phrase “Wom[e]n like…” should immediately set off warning bells, since it presumes that the gender of the person doing something is relevant (hint: it usually isn’t). In addition, the idea that anyone‘s opinion on “how games should be” shouldn’t be made available to the general public is absurd. Anyone who plays games or wants to play games is allowed, by virtue of being human, to have an opinion about what they think “games should be.” That doesn’t mean the industry is going to listen to them, but they’re welcome to declare their opinion anyway.

Third, the commenter claims that “This is why innovation in games is getting more stale and less appealing to because of those like Anita, who believe the game world should be the real world and reflect their wants and needs.” Um. The game world does and should reflect the real world and reflect the “wants and needs” of the people who play in it. That doesn’t mean that all game worlds are going to reflect the “wants and needs” of Sarkeesian, but that there ought to be game worlds that do – as well as game worlds that do not. Gaming is a new medium in the grand scheme of media, so it’s still (slowly) playing catch-up on this one, but other forms of popular culture (tv, movies, books) already reflect multiple worlds and worldviews, and it’s not only appropriate and desirable, but inevitable that game worlds will, too. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Finally, this:

Selfish americans are what is the true underline issues, not guppy-politics on how the smallest inch of mesh fabric on a female game model is a derangement to all the poor and unfortunate real-life woman out there. We waste so much of our money, time, and attention on things like optional video-games that don’t matter in the whole-run where us as a nation is actually going. Instead we’re like brainless sheep, following the face of random feminist women or anyone that tickles our ears with their ideas and agendas. We have become color-coded followers of the popular social “norms” of those who just want to ram their ideals quiet frankly, up our butts. I surely do miss old america, the new america is nothing more than a joke.

This commenter clearly has no concept of how popular culture reflects and shapes society, and I’m fairly certain I’m not going to be able to convince him (presumably) that it does, since he appears to be one of those people who doesn’t realize that his opinions about the universe have been constructed by his life-long exposure to media (including games) and society. Clearly his opinions were plopped into his brain by Truth Itself. That aside, the commenter claims to be above the rest of us who “waste” our time and money on games, yet has obviously decided to “waste” his time reading and then commenting on a post about gaming because he clearly does consider it important.

I am also curious what, exactly, “old america” is supposed to be. America in the 1950s when women were meant to stay in the kitchen providing for their husbands and children, and suffered from severe depression as a result of oppressive social norms? The 1850s, when slavery was still legal? Or maybe 1776, when the Founding Fathers chose to create a nation based on the very principles of free speech that the commenter seems to think apply only to him and not to me or to Sarkeesian?

Yes, it is true that people who are in extreme poverty should care more about food than videogames. But the vast majority of Americans are not – fortunately for us – in that category and do choose to dispose of our time by playing games (I’d imagine, the commenter included). And since we do, it is not only our right, but our responsibility as socially conscious and conscientious individuals to make sure that medium represents our viewpoints and does positive work toward the shaping of our sociopolitical ideals. Popular culture shapes our world in far more ways than we even realize, and taking responsibility for demanding that pop culture be accountable to its audience is a vital part of our society’s ideological formation. Yes, there are other very important concerns: education, poverty, crime, etc., but games (like any other popular media) impact the abstract ones: racism, sexism, homophobia. And if we can use games to change our society to become less bigoted, then that is a laudable and valuable goal.

Do I think that Anita Sarkeesian is the best person to do that? Probably not. But she is doing it, or at least trying to, and the very fact that her voice is out there and public has perhaps done more in the last few years for starting the conversation about gender equality in the gaming industry than a lot of other, less controversial and less public voices. Ultimately, I guess my stance has changed since that first TLF post: I’m a feminist gamer, and I’m all about Anita Sarkeesian.

Edit: Cross-posted on TLF.

Industrial Silence

I want to begin by clarifying that I don’t work in the game industry as a developer, just in case anyone had the thought. I have never worked with or for a development company, and I don’t make videogames. I am an academic, a cultural critic whose job is to analyze and present criticism (both positive and negative) of popular media. I happen to work in two genres: early modern drama (think Shakespeare) and videogames. Yes, these two things may seem disparate, but both are the popular culture artifacts of their respective generations.

In that sense, I work “in the industry” because what the game industry produces, does, and says are of immediate relevance to my profession and my productivity. I am lucky enough, however, to have the buffer of academe between me and the people who make life hell for women in the industry in the traditional, blood-sweat-and-tears sense. I’m also a bit saddened that the academy, with its own problems with misogyny and bias, is an infinitely more pleasant place to be a professional female than the game industry.

Western society as a whole has a huge problem with latent misogyny, linked to the pervasiveness of rape culture, most often manifest in casual comments, presumption, and paternalism. Just this week I’ve witnessed or heard anecdotes about men defaulting to diminutive nicknames for women without asking, men assuming that women are secretaries rather than managers, men assuming that women know nothing about technology, and men assuming that women are not in positions of authority.

Women everywhere in the US have to deal with this on a minor scale, often so culturally ingrained that they dismiss it or even fail to notice it when it happens at the store or on the train. But women in technology and in the game industry, whether as journalists or developers, may as well be the modern-day equivalent of the women in the 1950s who dared to make a living outside the home.

This story from Kotaku by Rachel Edidin, “She Was Harassed By a Games Reporter. Now She’s Speaking Out” highlights a lot of the problems faced by women in the game industry. (This is also why I’m trying to put together a panel on this for NWSA.) As upsetting and depressing as this story is, it pales in comparison to some of the harassment and threats received by other women in the industry.

However, I’ve talked about this before, and I want to take this opportunity to talk specifically about the kinds of things said by Josh Mattingly to “Alice Mercier” (not her real name). Mattingly didn’t threaten “Mercier.” He didn’t suggest that she needed to be raped or assaulted or murdered. He did offer to give her “My penis. For your vagina,” in what was presumably meant to be a consensual act.

So, to play the troll’s advocate for a second, what’s the problem? If Mattingly wasn’t threatening her, why did this exchange warrant a lengthy apology (which he did make on his blog, although not directly to her)? As one of the first commenters, penenasty, remarks,

Who wants to take bets on how many posters who are probably white males, say “this isn’t a problem” and bonus points for “why didn’t she just tell him to stop”

As “Mercier” explains, she was taken aback by the nature of Mattingly’s comments and tried to ignore them so that he would stop. It didn’t work, but her instinct was to not reward his sexual comments by giving them attention (much like one might ignore a child’s tantrum to not reinforce the behavior). Should she have spoken up? She certainly would have been justified in doing so, but she shouldn’t have to even think about whether or not to have to make that choice – he shouldn’t have said any of it in the first place.

The problem as I see it is that our culture permits men to “hit on” women without censure so long as the “hitting on” doesn’t take a violent tone. But unwanted advances are just as unwanted whether they are violent or not – and Mattingly’s comments are not only unwanted, but wildly inappropriate to a business discussion (which is what it was originally meant to be).

But – the troll might say – why do advances have to be curtailed? What if the speaker is genuinely attempting to initiate a romantic conversation? Are men not allowed to say anything “nice” anymore?

The simple truth is that if someone ignores your first advance – especially when it’s of such an unsubtle nature as “I will kiss you on the vagina if you do,” which has all the subtlety of an armored rhino with bells on – then it isn’t wanted. Cease and desist. Immediately.

Secondly, there is a difference between a polite “Hey, do you want to go for coffee?” and what Mattingly suggested. I have offered to take a colleague out for beer or pastry for doing me a favor with no nefarious intentions. Those things are normal exchanges for professional favors. Mattingly’s suggestion would not be considered an acceptable business exchange anywhere outside of prostitution.

But the real problem isn’t that Mattingly did it (although that is a problem), it’s that he works in an industry where the culture enables him to think – even drunk – that such an exchange would be appropriate. It’s symptomatic of a larger problem not of misogyny, per se, but of androcentrism that suggests that (straight cis) male desires are the default and take primacy. At its heart, it’s the same problem that gave rise to the demand for a “sexuality toggle” in BioWare games and the same problem that permits trolls to demand sandwiches in online forums. And it will continue so long as we shake our heads and say that “boys will be boys” or tell victims that they should “get over it,” or, worse, that they “had it coming.”

Threat of Followers

So today Anita Sarkeesian tweeted about an article by Pacific Standard journalist Amanda Hess, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” Although I usually reserve this blog for posts about games and the gaming community, there’s something significant about Hess’s work, and about the way Sarkeesian framed it:

Every woman I know in games writing has been viciously attacked for her work. We can’t ignore these epidemic levels of sexist harassment. Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) January 6, 2014

Let’s take a moment to think about that: every woman I know in games writing has been viciously attacked for her work. That list includes Hess, Julie Larson-Green, Alyssa Royse, Carolyn Petit, Jennifer Hepler, Kathy Sierra, Maddy Myers, Lindy West, Zoya Street, Dina Abou Karam, Mattie Brice, Catherine Mayer, Sarkeesian herself, and many others. In fact, these days, women’s voices in games criticism are noted not for what those women say, but for what is said to them.

In short, it has become a horrific badge of credibility of a female game developer or games writer has been threatened, verbally abused, harassed, or otherwise “attacked” (online or off) by members of the online and/or gaming community. If a woman isn’t being harassed by the body of trolls that comprises a portion of gaming fandom, she isn’t a significant voice – or so the trope seems to go.

One of the dangers of this – in addition to the dangers that come part and parcel with the threats themselves, including actual physical danger, emotional scarring, PTSD, depression, and general discomfort in one’s own skin – is that these acts of harassment will come to be dismissed as a “sign of making it”: if you haven’t gained someone’s hatred, then you aren’t making enough waves.

This has been an historical problem in any rights movement throughout history – racial, religious, cultural, sexual. Part of the issue is that there is some truth to it; any change to the status quo rocks the proverbial boat and upsets those among the privileged who want things to remain unchanged. So yes, a challenge to the way things are does tend to create hostility, but (and this is a very large BUT) that doesn’t mean that 1) it should, or, 2) and more importantly, that it should become permissible that harassment is simply “part of the game.”

The attitude of “that’s what you get for…” is one that has justified bigotry and violence against women, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and LGBTQ folk for decades, even centuries. “That’s what you get for being drunk.” “That’s what you get for dressing like that.” “That’s what you get for going into that neighborhood.” “That’s what you get for going out with a white man.” “That’s what you get for crossing the line,” in which the line could be miscegenation, the proverbial “tracks,” sexual promiscuity, flirtation, social mores, or any number of other things.

Harassment is not “what you get for” posting online. It is not a necessary rite of passage that should be undergone by any vocal minority speaking out against silencing or bigotry. It is not simply to be tolerated or shoved under the rug.

It is also not “no big deal,” as Hess’s account suggests. Nor should it be dismissed out of hand by the law simply because it exists in the ether of “online.” Our laws have yet to catch up to Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn, as victims have very little recourse or defense against online harassment, which can and does end lives, whether because the online harasser is mentally disturbed enough to follow through on the threats or because the weight of them becomes so much that it drives its victims to suicide.

It’s important to acknowledge the power of online actions – to recognize that there are real dangers in anonymous tweets and posts, and to attempt to ensure that there is an avenue to which victims of harassment can go when they feel threatened. It is also important that those of us online who are not direct victims remember to support those who are, in whatever way(s) we feel we can.

CFP: Gender and Gaming

I’m posting this call for proposals here so that it can easily be found and revisited. If you see it and are interested, please feel free to submit a proposal.

Call for Papers: “Technological Futures” at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference (November 13-16, 2014 in Puerto Rico)

Abstracts due 2/1/2014

The relationship between feminism and technology is a fraught one, whether we are discussing the dearth of women in technology-related fields, the treatment of women in online forums, or the representation of women in video games. A series of recent events have drawn both critical and media attention to the persistence of misogyny in and around video gaming: the online harassment of Anita Sarkeesian for her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” feminist video series; the public backlash against the appointment of Julie Larson-Green as head of Microsoft’s XBox division;protests mounted against female game developers Jennifer Hepler and Dina Abou Karam (among others); and the hypersexualized digital representations of female characters and avatars in popular games like World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto. These examples all reflect the extent to which a highly vocal segment within the gaming community has been resistant not only to feminist analysis and criticism, but to the presence of women – both real and digital – within that community.

Whether a cause or a product of this vocal resistance, women are under- and often mis-represented both in the industry and in games themselves. While women make up approximately 45% of the consumer gaming market and 70% of women aged 12 to 24 play video games according to Entertainment Software Association, they represent only 11% of designers and only 3% of programmers in the game industry. Despite the significant presence of female consumers, however, only 15% of video game characters are female, and even fewer are protagonists.

Drawing on NWSA conference sub-theme “Technologizing Futures,” this session invites papers focused on the role of women in video games and the gaming community more broadly. We welcome papers from a range of disciplines that analyze the role of women (and/or trans*women) in games and gaming culture, including both humanities and social science methodologies. Potential topics for analysis might include, but are not limited to:

*analysis of the relationship between individual games and the institutionalized (and often unintentional) misogynist culture of the industry

*critical challenges to the culture of video game misogyny, including online activism

*feminist narrative and/or ludic analysis of individual video games

*feminist interventions in and alternatives to mainstream gaming culture

*narrative and/or ludic analysis of recent feminist “indie” games and production companies

*intersectionality and gaming culture, including resistance to marginalized identities and/or the development of intersectional “indie” games (such as Dys4ia)

*feminist pedagogy and the place of video games in the women’s studies classroom

Please send a one page abstract accompanied by a 100 word truncated abstract (an NWSA requirement) to both Dr. Kristin Bezio ( and Dr. Jennifer L. Airey ( by February 1, 2014. Each panelist will speak for approximately 15 minutes with time for Q&A after the fact.


TLF: Girl-Game of the Year

By “Girl-Game,” I do not mean “game designed for girls”; I mean “game featuring a female protagonist which I’m calling ‘girl-game’ for the sake of alliteration.” I was asked to make a year-in-review post for The Learned Fangirl – so here it is.

Originally, I wanted to make it a top ten list. But then I discovered that I couldn’t find ten major releases with female protagonists. In fact, several of the games that make most lists of “female-protag” games don’t actually have female protagonists as the game’s central hero; they have females as secondary protagonists, such as Ellie from The Last of Us (which won Gamesradar’s Game of the Year this year) or Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. It turned into a top five – but, really, the competition wasn’t that intense.

I guess this leads us back to the fundamental problem of games that have female protagonists… they very often just aren’t that good, OR they’re so concerned with the fact that they are games about female protagonists – like Gone Home – that they lose something in the way of larger narrative and/or mechanics. This has led, I think, to the misperception on the part of fans and publishers alike that games with female leads don’t sell. It isn’t that games with female leads don’t sell, it’s that weak games don’t sell, and many games with female leads are weak games. It’s correlation, not causation – after all, Metroid and Tomb Raider games sell and are good games. It just so happens that most games have male protagonists, so the percentage of good games with male protagonists is higher (because the percentage of GAMES with male protagonists is higher).

What I’d like to see in 2014 are good games that happen to have female leads, not games that force female leads just for the sake of feminism. I’d also like to see more games that allow for gender-choice, like Skyrim, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Saints Row, Fable, and Fallout, but I would also like more stories that feature women as heroes, as well as men. Really, I’d like to see a wider variety of stories, period, which (theoretically) would yield a wider variety of protagonists of all genders, ethnicities, ages, and cultures. Heroes that really reflect the vast diversity of the people who play them.

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.