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.

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.

Games Are Not Weapons

Yesterday’s tragic events in DC – near somewhere I go on a weekly basis where people I know and care about work – once again have people in the US considering the problems of violence in our society, its causes, and its solutions. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this has not only produced the usual gun control debate, but yet again brought up the argument that violent videogames were some part of the cause of Alexis’s actions, as Stephen Daly notes in a Gameranx piece today.

Daly remarks that the Telegraph reported Alexis was “obsessed with violent video games”  and “carried a .45 handgun ‘everywhere he went.’” The Telegraph piece also says that “The darker side to Alexis’s character saw him playing violent ‘zombie’ video games in his room, sometimes from 12.30pm until 4.30am.”

What is particularly infuriating about the Telegraph‘s take on this is that they spend a considerable amount of time contrasting Alexis’s playing of violent videogames with his dedication to Buddhism, suggesting that this is a bizarre paradox. What they don’t spend enough time on is the fact that Alexis seemed paranoid – he carried a gun everywhere out of fear that someone would steal his belongings, even into restaurants and his workplace. But instead of pulling out the idea – put forth by someone he knew – that he was traumatized by 9/11 and may have been suffering from PTSD, the author (Nick Allen) instead gives the piece this title: “Aaron Alexis: Washington navy yard gunman ‘obsessed with violent video games.’”

I’ve talked about this before. At length. And in the Christian Science Monitor. The scientific evidence just doesn’t bear out what fear and ignorance want to repeatedly claim: playing violent videogames doesn’t make us more violent. It doesn’t even really make us more aggressive beyond the extreme short-term, in which case its level of elevation is akin to that of a sports fan (possibly less), an athlete, or someone playing Risk around a table (which produces a lot of aggression, let me tell you).

But we’re not banning sports or board games. We aren’t even talking about it (even though sports fans can be and often are much more violent as a demographic than videogame players, as the horrific incident involving the referee in Brazil tragically shows). We are, for some reason that still escapes me, talking about how violent videogames (might) cause shootings.

As a society, we are violent. We are aggressive. It’s built into our genetics by the evolutionary flight-or-fight response, which triggers adrenaline and causes us to become hostile or fearful (or both). We react negatively to stressors and become less likely – as in one psychology experiment – to pick up someone else’s dropped pencil. But the failure to pick up a pencil in a post-Call of Duty period of cool-down does not equate on any level to homicide.

Games do not kill people. Weapons kill people. People kill people. Games provide an escapist outlet. Yes, violent people and disturbed people play videogames. So do pacifists, academics, moms, dads, college students, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, writers, filmmakers, ministers, and millions more. Violent and disturbed people also breathe air, drink water, and eat french fries. Yes, violent and disturbed people will be drawn to violent videogames, but to suggest that the games make them violent is to fail to understand the causal relationship at work.

If we’re going to talk about what caused Alexis to do what he did, we shouldn’t be talking about videogames any more than we’re talking about television, books, or movies (and we’re not).  We should be talking about PTSD. We should be talking about the stigma in our society against seeking psychological help (especially among men). We should be talking about how this country under-serves its veterans. We should be talking about the ease with which an individual can carry a loaded weapon into public places. We should be talking about what we can do as a society to support our veterans, our victims, and each other. We should be talking about change, not blame.

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.

Unbreaking Reality

Fair warning, regular readers, that this blog is about to become inundated with class things. The reason for this is that this semester (and next) I’m teaching a course called Games, Game Theory, and Leadership Studies, and that means that pretty much everything my students and I do in class is going to be relevant and fair game.

That said, as part of course prep I’m rereading Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken and thinking back on yesterday’s first class. McGonigal not only suggests that “Reality is broken,” but that we have the capacity to use games to fix it. I think she’s right, and I’m going to use my lovely students to guinea-pig that theory, since it’s very rapidly becoming their reality that needs the most fixing.

Today I read a post by Ernest Adams that talks about how gaming demographics are changing, becoming older, more female, more minority. How the industry needs to accommodate the fact that many of their gamers aren’t young, straight, white men. And – more importantly – how the young, straight, white men need to stop screaming about how their games are going to be RUINED by the infiltration of female gamers, gamers of color, and gay gamers. How that screaming demographic is actually the demographic we should be ignoring, not catering to. My class gives me hope that such a future will come to pass.

My class is, I have to admit, more than 50% male. They are all freshmen. But I do have a strong contingent of women who jumped right in and got going yesterday without even the slightest hesitation, unconcerned and unintimidated by their male peers. And I have a good percentage of my male students who are not white. (I have not asked them their sexual preferences because that information is irrelevant to me as their professor, although it might be interesting from a sociological perspective, and I’m not going to.)

By their very nature, they are all probably gamers of one sort or another. Maybe mobile gamers, maybe casual gamers, some videogamers, possibly some board or D&D gamers, but you don’t sign up for a games course if you aren’t at least a little bit of a gamer. I was, however, surprised that when I poured a pile of dice in front of them, they didn’t even blink before they started talking about possible win conditions, ways to add different mechanics (guessing, math skills, rolling, matching colors or types of dice, etc.) and what their game’s goal was going to be: one group even created a game designed to teach algebra.

They did this for 30 minutes. In 30 minutes a room full of freshmen who didn’t know me or each other before they walked in and sat down collaborated with one another to make games. And that’s why I have hope that McGonigal is right that games can bring us together and Adams is right that the trolls in the wings are shifting ever more to the margins. That we can become a gaming society in the same way that our parents were a television society. And that a gaming society can come together as a community rather than rip itself apart with hatred, bigotry, and verbal assault. We have a long way to go, but it seems to me that the next generation of gamers is already trying to unbreak reality.

Now with Improved Fem-Tech!

So one of the more recent pieces of news on the gaming front is that the upcoming Call of Duty Ghosts is going to have female characters in multiplayer.

My first thought: Good! It’s about damn time. After all, lots of games have had female characters in multiplayer mode for a long time (including Halo and Gears of War), sometimes even in the single-player campaign (Halo Reach, Mass Effect, Gears of War 3, Fable, Dragon Age, and others). Now perhaps it’s too bad that it was more important to them to announce new-and-improved realistic dogs at E3 than it was for them to announce the introduction of playable female soldiers (yup, the furry, tattooed German Shepard rated higher than women), but at least they are including women, right?

Right. Mostly.

And what inspired this inclusion? Well, I’d assumed – probably like many other gamers – that Activision or the development team had finally realized that women were not only people, but people capable of combat, even in a virtual, pixelated environment. (Yes, I know the snark is coming on strong today, but it’s August and I’m an academic, so just bear with me for a bit.) As Stephen Totillo notes in an article today, apparently not.

The reason (if you don’t want to click the link)? Technology. We now apparently have the technology to include women. Because clearly creating a single female model for a soldier is far too complicated for game consoles to handle… except that they’ve been doing it for years. Yes, I do understand that the actual point being made is about complex character customization – while it’s possible in Mass Effect or Skyrim to fully customize the appearance, color scheme, and other elements of the player-character, in a game like COD the memory required to display fully customized avatars for ALL the players in a game is significantly higher than what is needed for the player-character in a single-player campaign. I get that.

But here’s the thing. You don’t need full customization in order to have female characters. You can have three models of characters that aren’t at all customizable and one of them can be female. It’s pretty easy. Halo did it. Gears did it. Unreal Tournament did it (and that one was in the 1990s). But let’s say you only have one model in your game. Defaulting to male for COD is probably the better choice for a variety of reasons, including the fact that most soldiers are male and most COD players are male. Okay. I’m fine with that.

But what I’m not fine with is the deliberate effacing of the sociopolitical issue behind the decision to include women. It’s like Activision doesn’t want to admit that they were at one point excluding women, so they blame the absence of women on technology. They couldn’t admit that the culture fostered by COD was misogynist or at least sexist, so they said “Oh, we just didn’t have the capability,” instead of saying, “Hey, we think it’s time that we include women in COD and since we’re planning to include custom characters, we’re doing it now!”

I’m one of the first people on the bandwagon to defend COD against detractors who say it makes players violent or aggressive, but I’m also one of the first to say that the COD player community is about as far from welcoming as it gets (except maybe League of Legends). Don’t believe me? See these tweets in response to the alteration of a couple of guns. So when I see women being added to the roster of CODG, I’m pleased. But when Activision doesn’t have the courage to admit that part of why they’re including women is to be inclusive, I get annoyed. Because to have a major industry leader saying “Hey, guys, it’s time to include women in our games because that’s the right thing to do” would set an example. Saying “Oh, we’re doing it because now we can” dismisses the importance of including women and also sets an example, and not the good kind.

Once Upon a Time There was a Leader…

So I’ve recently started playing Fable III. There are many reasons I hate the game so far, although I’m going to give it the proverbial college try for a little while longer before I give up completely (also, probably going to appear on TLF in the future).

I’m writing this post because of a very particular leadership element I encountered today – that of “having greatness thrust upon me” as the player-character. First of all, my opening choice as a player was “Prince” or “Princess.” Second, I am apparently “chosen” to have magical powers that no one else has (except my father, possibly?). Third, I have been told to go out, gather followers (in those words), and lead a revolution.

Here’s my objection from a purely leadership studies standpoint. Leaders do not appear because someone hands them a magical object, good genetics, and a quest arrow. If they did, more patriarchal monarchs would have been better leaders.

What really bothers me about this “go be a leader” mentality in the game is the fact that it creates a false impression for players. Being a leader isn’t about just deciding “Hey, I’m going to be a leader! I have a pretty rock! People will follow me!” It’s about being willing to stand forward, to make sacrifices, to speak up, to set an example… in short, to be a positive agent in some way, shape, or form. Leadership is ultimately about agency, and my idiotic princess most certainly does not have agency. She is unequipped to be a leader in any way, and just because her weapons instructor and her butler and her dog seem to think she’s spiffy does not make her fit to lead a revolution in any capacity, nor should they suggest that it does.

If you’re going to make a game about developing leadership, then have your player-character actually develop leadership. Have them build loyalty. Have them naturally accrue followers (don’t just tell them to go find some) through actions and decisions. Have them act.

The real problem here is that Fable III is reflecting a potentially dangerous attitude that I see more and more often in real life – entitlement. My princess in Fable III is entitled to her leadership role because she was born to it, she’s magic, and someone told her she’s a leader. But in the real world we aren’t simply entitled to things like leadership – we have to earn them, just as we have to earn promotions, grades, and awards.

No one owes us anything more than basic human rights, and that’s a lesson that far too many people have not learned. They’ve been told all their lives that they’re Special, they can do anything they want, they can be anything they want to be. But they aren’t told that they have to work for it, sacrifice for it, make choices between two things that they want because they can’t have it all. And when they find that they can’t just have, they have to earn, some of those people decide they’re going to take it anyway, even if that means lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering to do so. Because they deserve it.

It would be nice, for once, to have stories and games that aren’t about princesses. That are about simple, ordinary people who don’t become princesses or kings or wizards through happenstance or accident or marriage. That are about ordinary people who work hard, make sacrifices, and become interesting, successful people by earning it. People who don’t have an inherent advantage of birth or magic, just people who become special because they have the motivation to do so. They study hard, they work hard, they sacrifice.

Really, it’s the same problem that’s feeding the weight-loss industry (to make what might appear to be a complete non sequitur). We don’t want to spend every day thinking about what we eat, counting calories, carefully monitoring our fruits and veggies. We don’t want to exercise an hour a day, three or more days a week. We want to sit on our couch in front of our tv and eat cheetos and pizza and somehow magically lose weight because of a pill or a belt or a cream. And just as cheetos and pizza and tv will not result in a fit, healthy physique, entitlement does not produce good leaders. Work does. Dedication does. Devotion does. Agency does. Responsibility does. I’d like our games to teach us that, instead.

“Girl” on Top

Today Gamers Against Bigotry shared a story by a male gamer about what it was like to log in to his wife’s multiplayer account. It contains most of what you’d expect – the male players identified the gamertag as female, discussed booting said supposed female, then got upset when said supposed female beat them, then insulted both that supposed female and the other actual female playing in their game.

The author – who had no idea what he was getting into when he logged on as his wife – found in this experience a catalyst to promote feminism in the gaming community and to point out that suggesting that a woman “get raped” because she’s defeated a male teammate (teammate!! This is a cooperative game!) is unacceptable and should never happen or be tolerated.

Okay. Great. But I do have a couple problems with this narrative. Namely, that it takes a male narrative about abuse of women for people to pay attention to it. I’ve been the identified female gamertag. I’ve been the only female voice on chat. I’ve also been one of several women in a game who defeated our male teammates and opponents. And, to be fair, not all of them have been misogynistic assholes. A lot of them remarked only “You’re a girl?” and then moved on with their lives (although the simple fact that my gender was surprising is problematic in and of itself). Few of them made rude or crude comments, but you can bet that I remember those much more vividly than I do the good ones.

But it doesn’t seem right for a man masquerading as a woman to become our voice, our advocate. Yes, I’m glad that Caldwell wrote what he did, and I’m glad he realizes that this is a problem and wanted to share his story, but what about the fact that there was an actual woman playing, a woman who felt utterly silenced for most of the game, whose actual gender was being maligned? Yes, it’s awful that Caldwell was insulted for being a girl (even though he isn’t), but what abouther?

I also think there something dangerous about “proving” that women can game by having a man masquerade (however innocently) as a woman because the woman whose tag he borrowed wasn’t a very good player. Certainly, even a bad player shouldn’t be subject to insults and misogyny, regardless of gender, but the fact that he was male somewhat detracts from the power of the story. It’s still about his experience – not about the experience of the woman actually playing, not about his wife’s experience of being a player maligned not only for  being a woman, but probably also for not being elite.

Which raises a point about women in multiplayer games – a lot of them don’t play (or don’t play visibly) precisely because of the abuse to which they are subject, which means they aren’t skilled, they aren’t good enough to “prove” themselves because they choose not to spend hours playing a game where they are daily attacked for appearing to be female. Because that’s another point here – perceived gender is much more important than actual gender.

The two idiots on Caldwell’s server perceived his tag as female. They perceived the final player’s tag as default male (for more on “default” see my earlier post), even though she was female, and didn’t attack her until she spoke up and identified herself as such. The very perception of gender is enough to get a player verbally assaulted, booted, neglected, and otherwise ostracized from a game – so no wonder more women don’t play or don’t speak up if they do.

And that’s the real problem here. Women still aren’t being given a voice – either because someone else is silencing them, or because they’re too damn sick of dealing with this kind of thing. Last night I got a comment notification from TLF on my last Anita Sarkeesian post that seems to echo some of this in a small way:

Well read half way though and stopped couldn’t take it this become go Anita go Anita rather fast her videos are crap, she bashes literally any game she loves playing DiD herself, oh poor me save me fund my project because I got trolled, video games are made for u to go play have fun and act like a child because guess what its fun to trash talk someone and 5mins later your chatting with them

Putting aside the small apoplectic fit being had by my inner grammarian, I was particularly irritated by this comment because said commenter didn’t actually read all the way through before deciding that I must agree with everything that Sarkeesian has to say (obviously not having read the post I made about it before that…). I think that there’s a lot wrong with Sarkeesian’s project, but I do think that there’s a lot right with it, and “russell” (the commenter) decided that since I didn’t immediately dismiss her as belonging in the kitchen, I must revere her as a feminist deity.

But here’s my biggest complaint, and it’s one that Caldwell addresses, too: “video games are made for u to go play have fun and act like a child because guess what its fun to trash talk someone and 5mins later your chatting with them.” Yes, games are made to play. Games are made for fun. BUT. You are not a child and many of these games are not designed for children – they’re designed for adults, with adult themes, with commentary and complex social problems and advanced cinematic and literary allusions (the husband is playing Condemned 2 right now, which is alluding to Gaston Leroux’s novel Phantom of the Opera, and Mass Effect has references to Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Eliot, among others). They are adult forms of entertainment that require complex adult thought to understand and fully engage with.

And, furthermore, there is a difference between “trash talk” and “verbal assault.” “I got you, you bastard” qualifies as “trash talk.” “Get raped” does not. So I would invite you, “russell,” to think about how you talk to men when you play with them and how you talk to women. If it doesn’t matter – if you say the same, non-sexual things, to both genders, then you’re engaging in “trash talk.” If you’re not, if you’re sexualizing your “trash talk” to women but not to men, if you’re demeaning gender or sexuality, then it isn’t “trash talk.” And if anyone ever tells you to stop, it isn’t “trash talk.”

Because it is a game, and it is supposed to be fun for everyone playing the game. And when you’re a female gamer, situations like the one in which Caldwell found himself aren’t fun anymore. When you’ve played game after game and all the women in it are two-dimensional or victims, it isn’t fun anymore. When you habitually don’t engage with the community of which you are a part because you no longer have the patience or the strength to deal with the comments and the disparagement, it isn’t fun anymore. As a player, you should have the right to have fun, but you absolutely do not have the right to take that fun away from anyone else because of their gender, sexuality, or ethnicity.