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+).

No Need to Hide

So today Gameranx is apparently feeling like messing with my (perhaps excessive) emotional attachment to the Dragon Age series. First, they post that

I have a small, private freakout because that’s one of my favorite components of BioWare games, click on the link, and discover that the story was clearly the result of misinformation, as Gameranx had already updated it with a tweet from Mike Laidlaw assuring fans that romances would still be included (and optional) in the game.

The next tweet from Gameranx reads as follows:

I go to this link with a good deal more annoyance than fear, not at BioWare, but at the idea that this is even somehow remotely newsworthy. The article begins, “Dragon Age: Inquisition lead writer David Gaider won’t hide the game’s homosexual options behind some sort of sexuality toggle.” Yes, sexuality toggle. Because players shouldn’t have to be subjected – apparently – to unwanted advances from a person of the same/opposite gender. Because that never happens in real life.

Of course, what the request really means is “Please create a toggle so that I can continue to live my privileged straight male existence without ever having to be hit on by a man.” Gaider responded with this:

“when it comes to content options like the so-called ‘gay toggle’ …my question would be ‘why?’ We don’t allow the player to de-select other sorts of content. A ‘violence’ toggle? A ‘mention of slavery’ toggle? A ‘sexual situations’ toggle? Why would we have a ‘gay’ toggle? Even if that was just to set the player’s personal preference, and we didn’t think that was incredibly on-the-nose to put up front, would de-selecting the ‘gay’ toggle mean a player should expect to encounter no gay characters? Ever? You don’t think there are those who would interpret it as exactly that?”

The point of including certain experiences in the game is to allow players choice, not privilege. In fact, the whole of the Dragon Age experience is largely about confronting privilege and persecution, teaching players how to negotiate persecution of either themselves or their family/friends (especially in Dragon Age II, where the player must either play as a mage or have a sibling who is a mage, an oppressed class in Kirkwall). The game forces its player to confront these things, so why would Gaider’s team allow players to deliberately avoid something that might make them uncomfortable and force them to broaden their perspective?

And that’s not even addressing the bigotry that a demand to “un-gay” a game actually demonstrates.

Good on BioWare for taking the high road here and supporting diversity in games and the gaming community, despite the fussing of certain privileged fans. Good on them for being willing to take the risk of alienating their supposed demographic of the 20-30something straight white male by forcing “him” to experience the possibly unwanted advances of male digital characters. Good on them for being unwilling to compromise their ethic just to cater to the supposed image of what a videogame should be – and good on them for creating a precedent that future games will hopefully follow.

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.

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.