Being Heard

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

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

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

No, I’m not reading the comments.

Making Things Official

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End of Feminism?

So one of the other reactions on the internet to movements like Men’s Rights Advocates and GamerGate is a push for the end of Feminism. On the one hand, this makes me throw up my hands and want to bash my head into a desk, because the MRA and GG are the reason we need feminism more than ever. On the other, if I take a minute to actually pay attention to what people calling for the end of feminism are saying – and by “people” I do not mean MRAs or GGers – they have some valid points.

First and foremost is what “feminism” has come to mean for many people. A common understanding is that of the “feminazi,” or “man-hating woman,” who supposedly advocates for a gynocracy and/or the extermination of all men. This image is the one that gave birth to the “Why I don’t need feminism” Tumblr and @WomenAgainstFeminism, which largely seem to display a vast misunderstanding of the definition of “feminism” (technically defined by the dictionary as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men”).

More recently, XOJane published an anonymous piece entitled “I am A Feminist And I Don’t Think We Need The Feminist Movement Anymore” which contains the following description:

American feminism has become a media-obsessed vortex of mostly coastal white women trying to make careers of giddily telling us about the hard reality of everybody’s life to prove they deserve a spot on TV.

This type of “sorority-style” feminism is, I would suggest, even more problematic than the “feminazi” version. On the one hand, it’s avowal of a kind of sisterhood makes it seem attractive, like the “Girl Power” movement of the 1990s and early 2000s. On the other, it serves – also like the Girl Power movement – to reinforce gender stereotypes and further institutionalize other forms of oppression like racism and homophobia by eliminating them under the umbrella of a “sisterhood” that features predominantly middle- and upper-class white women.

It pretends to advocate for women’s rights, when what it really does is advocate for the rights of a very specific, socially acceptable version of what women are or should be. It doesn’t advocate for the rights of butch lesbians, transwomen, women of color, poor or homeless women, or women who seek to defy gender and social normativity in any way. It states that women who are already granted a certain level of privilege within American society ought to be granted more privilege, and leaves behind the women who don’t fit into that narrow mold.* (*These women should be given more privilege, but so should all the women that aren’t included under the umbrella.)

And I would agree that this kind of so-called “feminism” isn’t helpful. It widens rather than narrows the gap between the privileged and the oppressed, and that isn’t good for anybody.

But where I disagree is with a recent trend of “giving up” on movements and terms that have been partially co-opted by the privileged. I’m not ready to stop being a gamer, and I’m really not ready to stop being a feminist (which makes me a feminist gamer, which is a dangerous thing to be these days).

The anonymous poster at XOJane is right about one thing:

We DON’T NEED feminism like this. We need some thing better; we need something that’s not just ready for Hilary but actually ready for a life that has been hard for a while and is getting harder — though for all their news hawking, they don’t seem to notice.

I hope feminism keeps failing. I hope they laugh these girls right into the implosion the rest of us are living through.

Maybe — just maybe — if it actually goes straight to hell they’ll actually remember what feminism is about.

I don’t hope feminism fails. I hope that enough women and men are able to see through this recent whitewashing (in multiple senses) of feminism as a movement and go back to its roots – fighting the hard fight in the mud and dirt because all women and men deserve social equality, not just the ones with good PR campaigns and disposable income.

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.

Pink and Purple Unicorns

Several recent things have come together to spur this post, including the always-unfortunate reading of internet comments, my Twitter feed, and my academic research. First, I’ve recently read From Barbie to Mortal Combat, published in 1998, and have started working my way through Beyond Barbie and Mortal Combat, published in 2008. Second, I recently read a news story about how women are no longer to be permitted to teach Bible classes at some Christian colleges. Third, the following tweet:

What they all have in common is the assumption – or, in Todd’s case, challenging the assumption – that women must somehow want something inherently different than men, or, as the next sequence of tweets suggests, that women are somehow biologically deficient when compared to men:

Maddy’s tweets (and I did skip several intervening ones that illustrate rather colorfully just how angry this concept makes her) show another fundamental problem facing not only women, but all minorities in most situations (not just gaming). It’s the kind of warped Darwinian logic that was used in prior centuries to explain why people from Africa were intellectually inferior to people from Europe – and, like that argument, the claim that women have poor reflexes is the consequence not of genetics, but socialization.

Men have better game-playing reflexes in general because more men than women play games from an earlier age. More boys are expected to play videogames than women. More boys are taught to play sports. All of which hone coordination and reflexes. Mythbusters recently did an experiment about the myth of “throwing like a girl” in which they learned that men and women throw exactly the same with their off hand – meaning that men’s supposed natural ability is conditioned by their expectations, both taught (in playing) and observed (watching men play professional baseball, for instance).

That aside, the notion – which seemed to be accepted without much problematization in From Barbie to Mortal Combat – that women must necessarily want something different than men (physical abilities aside) is equally ludicrous. While it is true that women are socialized to like pink sparkly things, unicorns, and rainbows, women and girls are not genetically programmed to like them. In fact, a few centuries ago, blue was considered feminine (one of the reasons the British Army wore red).

Women and girls are no more genetically predisposed to like Barbie Fashion Designer than they are anything else; their supposed preferences are entirely socialized. Socialization doesn’t make those desires any less real, of course, or any less valid, but the point I’m making here is that there is no intrinsically “feminine” way that games must be in order to attract female players.

The answer to Todd’s question above shouldn’t be “What can games do to be more attractive to women?” but “How can games be less hostile to women?” Really, that’s the point where we (still) are in games; games objectify women, they victimize women, they place women in positions of little to no agency or control. And the gaming community is no better – perhaps even worse.

If you are a developer who wants more female gamers, then make your community and your game inclusive of women, rather than exclusively for women. Men and women don’t have to be dichotomized, and in fact shouldn’t be. Instead, games – any component of a modern and egalitarian society – should include everyone, catering not to a generic player (who is by default white, male, and straight), but to all players.

That’s Just Normal

Today, Polygon ran an opinion piece by Jonathan McIntosh, producer of Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs. Women in Videogames series, entitled “Playing with Privilege: The Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male.” As far as such pieces go, this one is fairly banal – well-written, accurate, non-inflammatory, non-accusatory, and straightforward, with no intentionally upsetting anecdotes about the kinds of harassment women receive while playing or discussing gaming, either online or in person. It doesn’t illuminate any significant aspects of gaming culture that those of us in it and aware of the problem don’t already know, but its reasonable tone might make it more likely to be read and absorbed by those who still remain ignorant… out of privilege.

I don’t really have much to say about McIntosh’s piece itself. I do – following a recent theme on this blog – have something to say about the comments. First of all, the comments are fairly tolerable, all things considered. No one gets called nasty names, no one gets told to make a sandwich, and no one gets called a “white knight” (although the trope does get brought up). There are a couple of things about it that bother me, though.

1. “It’s not just videogames.” This is one of those comments that bothers me in part because of its truth. Sexism (or privilege of any kind) isn’t just a part of the gaming community. Sexism is rampant everywhere, to greater or lesser degrees. As a female stage technician, I can say that it’s present every time I walk into a Home Depot and someone asks me if I’m shopping for my husband (nope – he buys me the power tools). As a woman in academia, I’ve had my work or ideas dismissed by the male academe (although fortunately not at my current place of employment). As a gamer, I’ve been asked for photos of my body parts, demands of sexting and cyber, told to get off the headset because I’m just talking for my boyfriend, and presumed to be shopping for my male counterpart when in a game store. Yes, sexism is everywhere. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about in gaming just because it happens on the street, at the office, and in hardware stores the world ’round. It happens everywhere, we should address it everywhere, and that includes in gaming.

But the one that really gets me:

2. “It’s not privilege, it’s just normal.” Yes, it is just normal. For you, the straight white male. And that is the very definition of privilege. Because for me, it isn’t normal. It has become normalized, accepted as “the way it is,” but because I can see that it isn’t normal for you, the SWMG, I understand that it is only normal for me because I am Other than SWMG. You do not have to see that your “normal” is privileged because that is the very essence of privilege: that you do not have to see that your normal is for others the unattainable-but-longed-for. To call your normal privileged is not to insult you or suggest that you somehow have attained something you do not deserve. You do deserve your normal. But so do the rest of us who, by virtue of our birth, have been excluded from that normal.

As I write this, I am very much aware that to be able to discuss the ramifications of sexism (ablism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.) in gaming culture is itself a privilege. I have access to the money, technology, and time to participate in a culture that is a measure of my leisure and luxury. I have the ability to play videogames, the money to pay for them, and the sociopolitical infrastructure to do so online and without fear of official or legal sanction. And all those things are markers of my membership in a privileged nation, society, and community.

There are larger problems in this world than sexism in gaming. There is poverty, sexual trafficking, genocide, war, hate crime, religious persecution, and widespread sickness. There are things that many of us can – and probably should – do to improve all those things, even on a microcosmic scale. But I also firmly believe that the culture of the privileged can be changed – from both the position of those who create it and those who consume it – in order to be better, more equal, less tolerant of hatred and marginalization. If the culture of the privileged is that toward which we all aspire, then that culture should be one which embraces rather than excludes, encourages rather than excoriates.

So while, yes, there are bigger problems, larger issues, and more widespread discrimination, that does not mean that we should allow the symptoms of the larger disease to go untreated. Yes, we should be searching for a larger cure, but the disease can be managed by treating the cough, the nausea, and the pain while we labor to find the panacea it so desperately needs.

ARVA

It’s that time of the semester during which I functionally disappear from all areas of life outside my office or the conferences I’m obligated to attend, so I apologize for becoming a functional internet absentee. It’s also that time in the semester when my students put the finishing touches on their ARIS ARG (alternate reality game) projects.

Last semester, despite a good deal of effort, neither of my class development teams managed to put together anything functional. One team came very, very close. This semester, however, appears to be a very different story. If you happen to be in Richmond and own an iPhone, I’d love to have you come to the UR campus and try their games out.

Team Zed and Team Omega have both produced workable, functioning games on the ARIS platform (free download at the app store), and both are designed to encourage students to learn more about their campus. For instance, they take students to museums and galleries that most students wouldn’t go into while drawing on actual places, facts, and history from UR and the surrounding city (Omega learned that there is a real mummy on our campus in North Court, and Zed is capitalizing on the legend of the Richmond vampire connected to the Church Hill train tunnel collapse from 1921).

One of the things we study in class is the purpose of ARGs – to incorporate game components and games into the real world in order to fulfill a purpose. McGonigal’s Reality is Broken offers suggestions like Chore Wars, designed to give points for doing household chores, as a good example of this. My students’ task is to build GPS-based ARGs on the UR campus that can be used to guide new or prospective students around campus or to encourage students to go new places or learn new things about UR.

If you happen to come to campus and want to play, search for Omega or Zed using the ARIS app, and then explore! (Also, be sure to let me know how it goes!)

Tootsie Pops – for Science!

Okay, so given some of the responses I’ve gotten in other forums, I’m going to put this out there as a possible example of crowd-sourcing.

My students need YOU to lick tootsie pops for science!

Research Question: How many licks DOES it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop?

Methodology:

  • Each tester takes one tootsie pop of a randomized flavor.
  • Tester records the flavor of the pop.
  • Tester begins licking, recording each lick. (“Lick” is defined as a swipe of the tongue, bottom-to-top, applied to the smooth side of the pop.)
  • Tester continues licking and counting on a single side until the tootsie is exposed (determined by either flavor or texture change).
  • The tester may not eat or drink while licking (must wait five minutes after drinking or eating before commencing the test). The tester should not pause in the process. The tester should not put the pop entirely in the mouth.
  • Please report flavor and number of licks by commenting on this post – if you are so inclined, you may include gender and approximate age (10 or under, 10-15, 15-20, 20-30, 30-40, 40-50, 50-60, 60+).