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.

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.

Check Your Privilege… Or Not?

So when I first saw a post on Gawker’s “Privilege Tournament” I dismissed it as something weird that was supposed to be a joke. And then I saw more posts about it, including one on Jezebel that encapsulates a lot of my response, which is, essentially: “You know when someone says something, and you’re thinking: Hold up -  you did not just THINK that, you also let that s*** [redacted] come out your mouth, huh?

Yesterday, I was explaining the dickwolves debacle to yet more people who had thus far been living in blissful ignorance, and we all agreed that the primary issue with it – and with all displays of privilege – is not that the initial offense happened, not that there was offense taken (whether overreactive or not), but that there is a ridiculously large contingent of Angry Young White Men who seem to find the idea that they are privileged and therefore need to consider the opinions of others to be a horrific invasion of their personal freedom.

Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan writes: “These days, teary privilege confessionals pour forth from the lips of college students in equal proportion to the fiery critiques of our grossly unjust world that pour forth from the unprivileged masses,” arguing, it seems, that the lack of privilege is somehow itself a form of privilege. The ultimate social status symbol is to have the “best non-privilege” so that you can claim the most exemptions from “normalcy.” As the first commenter, BlackManIncognito, points out: “A white man made the game; set up the categories and tells us to fight it out. Sounds about right.”

It’s like one of those weird conversations where all the participants try to explain why they’ve had the worst day, or why their husband is the worst or their wife the most nagging. “Oh, that happened to you? How awful, but at least you didn’t have to go through what I did.” You know exactly the kinds of conversations I mean.

Here’s the thing. Those conversations are only possible from a point of privilege. People only compete about the bad things that happen to them when those things aren’t really actually that bad in the grand scheme of things. No one competes for the “worst” story of human trafficking or assault or attempted murder or slavery or genocide. People who experience actual hardship don’t compete with each other for sympathy about it.

This is not to say that the minor hardships experienced by people with privilege are not genuinely emotionally distressing. It is also not to to say that people with privilege can’t complain about their boss or their coworkers or their spouses. Complaining is a coping mechanism, and it helps us feel better.

But here’s the thing. Complaining about someone else’s misfortune, disability, or minority status encroaching on your privilege (not your rights, your privilege) is complete bull****. I’m sure Nolan claims his piece is satire, but it’s about as tastelessly privileged and arrogantly bigoted as if he’d simply typed up a genuine piece announcing how attacked straight white men are in today’s society. And don’t think that doesn’t exist, because it does (and I’m probably going to start a flamewar by linking to them through this blog). And here. And here. Now some of these sites are talking about serious issues – the bias against fathers in divorce, for instance – but for the most part, they are focused not on equal rights, but on the retention of privilege, as Kyle Tran Myhre points out (there are further links to more at the bottom of his post).

Ultimately, the loss of privilege is probably a bit disturbing to those who have become accustomed to possessing it. It feels as though the status quo, which has always catered to them and exclusively to them, is shifting uncomfortably and including all of these Other People who have not hithertofore appeared in the awareness spectrum of the Privileged. And suddenly they’re demanding not only to have the right to exist, but to speak out, to have games made that appeal to them, to have films and television shows with characters like them, to have jobs that pay them the same amount as the Privileged, which means, of course, that the Privileged are starting to lose some of their status as Privileged.

I imagine that’s a strange and scary feeling, to suddenly realize that the world is not actually made just for you. But that doesn’t mean you have the right to try to take it back.

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.

TLF: Dr. Croft, I Presume?

So in the wake of all the craziness in the gaming community last week, I offer up my review of Tomb Raider over at the Learned Fangirl as a ray of hope in a sea of misogyny and rape jokes.

Square Enix’s Tomb Raider is not only a fun game, but it’s a good game from a design standpoint. And it’s a game that features its female hero as a hero, not a damsel or a waif or a princess. She’s smart, resourceful, adaptive, and intellectual – as well as being physically capable of taking on either exploration or combat. And the new Lara Croft (unlike the old one from 1996) doesn’t have a bosom equivalent to twice the mass of her cranium, which I personally find to be an improvement.

But even the positive female hero aside, Tomb Raider is just a good game, and one that the husband enjoyed as much as I did… and he’s an industry professional. Short version – play the game. For the long version, follow the link to TLF.

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.

I Didn’t Want to Go There…

So I was at PAXEast when the Penny Arcade guys were first reacting to the “dickwolves” scandal by drawing (and then erasing) a “vaginawolf” during the LiveStrip panel in 2010. I don’t have an inherent problem with “rape jokes” that are kept from being threatening or totally obscene, simply as a matter of free speech, although they are certainly not what I would consider “tasteful” in any context, and probably not appropriate in most situations. I thought at the time, “That was insensitive and tasteless, but they apologized and we can move on.” But then PA didn’t really drop it, not really. And now Mike Krahulik announces that “I think that pulling the dickwolves merchandise was a mistake.”

I have long been a PA apologist for many reasons, including their support of Child’s Play and the fact that, generally speaking, they’ve been careful to apologize when they stick their feet in their mouths. But it’s starting to seem that PA ascribes to the sentiment that it’s easier to apologize than to actually think before opening one’s mouth, which means that the apologies are starting to wear very, very thin.

I’ve been to PAXEast more than once, and I’ve never personally felt uncomfortable there as a female gamer. Last year, I in fact noted that there were a lot of women there, and most of them were not being treated overtly as sexual objects (except for a couple of them who were wearing articles of clothing that couldn’t really be called “pants,” exactly, and the sexualization took the form of ogling, not verbal or physical assault that I witnessed, because even said “pants” are not an excuse for harassment, but were cosplay and intended to get people’s ocular attention). In short, I did feel like I could be comfortable at PAXEast because there were other people there like me, and because I was able to move around on the floor and attend panels that didn’t make me feel in any way threatened or self-conscious about my gender.

Now, I know people who have been assaulted at cons (not PAX-cons), and I know plenty of people who have been on the receiving end of lewd comments at cons. I both know and have personally been on the end of geek-incredulity for being a gamer (even from my students), which is annoying, but, again, never at PAXEast.

All of which is why I am so profoundly disappointed in Krahulik’s comment. PAX-cons did feel safe, to me, ideologically speaking. They felt like a place where I didn’t have to defend myself as “the girlfriend” or “the wife,” but could actually be “the gamer” (and “the wife,” too, but I wasn’t there as “the wife”). I did think that a lot of the reaction to the original strip was blown wildly out of proportion, although I can also see how it might be upsetting to some. An apology that no harm was intended would not – and did not – go amiss… and would likely have been adequate if PA had let it drop.

Now Krahulik probably recognizes that in the backlash against feminism in gaming there are a lot of (primarily male) gamers who would purchase a “dickwolves” item to show “solidarity” for their fellow straight male gamers, part of the “Men’s Rights Activism” movement (which I did not even know was a thing until yesterday) that sees feminism as “ruining” their games. Said merchandise would probably also sell well to the teenage-male contingent who think dickwolves are funny because they’re… well.. dickwolves, and might not even know about the negative backlash surrounding them. These demographics likely mean that from a merchandising standpoint, Krahulik is probably correct in saying that said merchandise would make PA a lot of money.

But if PA wants to retain its image of inclusivity, and its reputation for being welcoming to the entire gaming community, reselling such merchandise is a terrible idea. Deliberately ignoring the clear outcry against insensitivity and tastelessness in the gaming community in order to pander to an element of that community with a penchant for misogyny and verbal assault is a terrible idea. Encouraging the misogynist subset of the gaming community – who, let’s face it, don’t really need any additional encouragement – by standing up as a public figure to whom the community looks as a barometer of appropriate behavior and saying that an offensive icon of rape culture is a good merchandise strategy is a REALLY terrible idea.

Because whether we like it or not, PA has become an industry leader in commentary, production, and community interaction. With PAXPrime, PAXEast, and PAXAus, they’re leading the convention circuit in terms of exposure, popularity, and reputation. They’ve banned booth babes. They claim to welcome gamers of all types. They speak for developers with The Trenches and for fans with the regular PA strip. And now they’re condemning those members of the community who don’t want to see the perpetuation of rape culture by encouraging those who do.

I can’t attend PAXEast 2014 due to a scheduling conflict, but this does make me think seriously about whether or not I even want to consider attending in 2015. It makes me want to avoid PA strips, PA merchandise, and even watching the PAX twitch channels. It makes me uncomfortable that some of my favorite developers (BioWare, for instance, who does so much with inclusivity in terms of gender, race, and sexuality in games) have become affiliated with PAX-cons. Right now, I’ll wait to see where this goes, because I want to like what PAX and PA have always claimed to stand for, but I need to see them actually standing for it, rather than taking a nose-dive into the worst examples of behavior the gaming community has to offer.

Just Another World-Class Gamer

So I want to give a shout-out to professional Starcraft, both players and media coverage, today because of the way they handled this: a female gamer (handle: Scarlett, name: Sasha Hostyn) in the World Championship Series who almost won season 2.

Why do I think they did such a good job? Because the Penny Arcade report above and the live commentators (video links in the article) didn’t say a single word about her gender aside from using the female pronoun when referring to her. In fact, the lead story is that she’s Canadian (not South Korean).

We often spend a ton of time talking about how women in games need to be more visible and more vocal, so why am I so happy that when a woman wins second place in the Starcraft WCS, nobody says anything? Simple. Because they didn’t have to draw attention to the fact that she’s female. They just accepted it and treated her exactly the same as every other player in the tournament… aside from commenting that she’s Canadian. (In some ways, focusing on another difference does draw attention to her gender by virtue of it being the proverbial elephant in the room, but I still think silence was the best possible option here.) It’s a positive because they didn’t feel the need to praise her skill because she’s a girl, as though being female is a natural videogaming disadvantage. Positive, too, because there were no disparaging comments about her gender, either. No suggestions of kitchens or domestic activities or attractiveness.

Scarlett’s just another gamer, and a damn good one. And it’s about time that the gender of a gamer becomes irrelevant to their abilities and the way they’re treated from the other side of the console (or computer), so props to PA and to the WCS for allowing her to be a gender-neutral gamer instead of a “girl gamer.” Now let’s see more of that in games, in the gaming community, and in games journalism, where gender determines pronouns but not much else in terms of treatment, privilege, or assumptions of skill or even taste.

I hope this is the beginning of the end of sexism in gaming (community, development, journalism), but I know we still have a lot of work to do across the board. Nevertheless, this story is a beacon which I can come back to when I get depressed by the rest of it all, to remind myself that we are moving forward, even if slowly, and if we (as gamers who happen not to be straight white men) just keep going, just keep doing what we do, whether that’s designing, blogging, publishing, or just playing, the industry will respond and we will be able to stop hiding behind avatars and handles… if we want to.