Continuing the Conversation…

29 Jun

Something I find interesting about the recent explosion of feminist and misogynist posts and comments in gaming media these days is that it just seems to have happened in a very strange way. After all, videogames have not suddenly (or even gradually, really) gotten more sexist. If anything, they’ve become less sexist in the past five years or so (which is not to say that they aren’t sexist, just that we’re seeing many more games with realistic women than we used to).

However, whether because of trends in the blogosphere, Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency, or some other conjunction of planetary convergences, feminism in the gaming community is The Thing right now.

What I want to bring attention to in this post, however, is not what is happening in the games themselves, but what is happening between members of the gaming community. And it’s not pretty.

Game Developer‘s Brandon Sheffield wrote a fairly comprehensive piece entitled “Video Games and Male Gaze: Are we Men or Boys?” on Gamasutra, which, interestingly, is an “opinion” piece rather than a straight-up article (there are implications to the relegation of commentary on misogyny there that I don’t really need to go into, as you’re all intelligent readers, although, to be fair, it may simply be because he isn’t employed by Gamasutra).

I’ve excerpted the portion I want to address specifically:

Then why do you wear makeup, slut?

The anger that is directed toward women who speak their mind about gender issues in the game industry is astounding. A few weeks ago I wrote an article about and subsequent interview with the creator of a card game called Tentacle Bento. This is a game where you play as a tentacle monster, and grab as many girls as possible for your own “nefarious purposes.” I found the game extremely problematic, and that it trivialized the idea of rape from a cutesy male perspective. You can read those links for my full thoughts, but suffice it to say that others vehemently disagreed with me.
The amount of ire I got, which was a lot, was nothing compared to the anger directed against female friends of mine who discussed the article. One friend turned off her Twitter for a few days after too many threats of “well maybe you should be raped.” Keep in mind, I was the one who started the discussion, and these ladies who merely took up the banner bore the brunt of the assault.
More recently, female blogger Anita Sarkeesian started a Kickstarter for a web series investigating female tropes in video games. The response she received was nothing short of disgusting. There was support, to be sure, but there was also a lot of this. Puerile, juvenile responses from men getting upset about a perceived threat to their world. Comments such as “Why do you put on makeup, if everything is sexism? Why don’t you shave your head bald, stop wearing makeup and stop wearing huge slut earrings. You are a fucking hypocrite slut.”
Now, I don’t know what Sarkeesian plans for her web series, or whether she’s even got the background to do it properly. I hope she does, because this subject deserves proper discussion. But I certainly know she doesn’t deserve this sort of ignorant treatment.
Where does this knee-jerk anger come from? There is no anger quite like that of the privileged. Here we see it in the raw. In this instance; “We heterosexual males like boobs in our games, and we’ll be damned if you’re going to take them away.” Because they feel threatened, they lash out without thinking about it, like a dog that thinks you want to take its bone away. The behavior seems nonsensical, but it’s predictable.
I see it everywhere the gender status quo is challenged. Kotaku Australia’s Katie Williams’ experience at E3, in which a male PR person decided for himself that she probably couldn’t play PC games, is another recent example. The assumptions people make about women in our industry are further examples of Male Gaze, in an industry that is only 10% female. Is it any wonder that the number is so low, with the way we depict women in games? With the way we treat women, professional and hired, at trade shows? With the fact we clearly pay them less than their male counterparts, as the Game Developer magazine salary survey shows?
Worse than the initial presumption that she wasn’t able to play games were the reactions to her complaint. A thread began in Neogaf, ever a bastion of progressive thought, in which people posted images of her they’d found online, discussing whether (and how) they would have sex with her. This is a rather obvious negative example of Male Gaze. Or take the situation of a female player in Capcom’s reality show Cross Assault, in which her breasts and thighs were filmed, along with commentary from the competitor who was manning the camera. She was essentially forced to quit the show to stop being harrassed.
Believe it or not, this sort of behavior happens constantly, albeit on a more subtle level, at industry events. I introduced Mariel Cartwright, lead animator of Skullgirls, to a male developer at a party at the last GDC, saying she worked on the game. He immediately responded, “oh cool, you mean like in PR?” instantly presuming she couldn’t have possibly done any “real” work on the product. Indie game dev Mare Sheppard (N+) frequently has things she’s said about code in games attributed to her male partner Raigan Burns instead, or is ignored in a technical conversation. Erin Robinson (Puzzle Bots, Gravity Ghost) told me when it comes time to meet people at parties, she’s the only one who awkwardly doesn’t get a handshake. Several other women noted that this had happened to them as well.
Everyone looks at opposing genders differently, but above all, we need to imbue our professional interactions with feelings of respect, and not make value judgments just because someone is female and understands how to dress themselves.
Nobody does this to men in the industry. Nobody says Cliff Bleszinski is wearing such a tight shirt today, and oooh I’d love to rub my hands all over him. At least not to the point where he’s uncomfortable at tradeshows. Likewise nobody sexualizes male characters. Some may argue that Kratos represents an unrealistic image of a male, but there aren’t massive forum threads dedicated to whether and how people would like to have sex with him. Kratos, Marcus Fenix, and their ilk, are the object of power fantasies, not sexual fantasies. There is a huge difference there. You want to be as cool and powerful as Kratos. Again, nobody wants to be Lara Croft all the time.

I’ve commented before on the way in which male gamers sometimes treat female gamers (to say nothing about LGBT gamers, who may have it even worse), and commented, too, that sometimes the gaming community surprises me with its acceptance and ability to see past my two X chromosomes. And then the Sarkeesian fiasco happened (not to blame her, but it’s a convenient way to refer to the backlash), and I rather rapidly lost what faith I was coming to develop in my fellow gamers of the male persuasion.

I’m reminded of a group of people at the 2011 PAXEast, [Team_Respect], who were attempting to raise awareness of abuse that was happening within online gaming communities (although they appear to have gone defunct not long after that). There is also Girl Gamer, an online community for female gamers (which has a bit too much pink for my taste). However, the presence of these organizations simply speaks to the fact that the gaming community in general (not in specific) has an atmosphere that tolerates, if not encourages, active misogynistic and homophobic behaviors.

Sheffield is right, very few people want to be Lara Croft, and not because the idea of exploring archeological ruins and kicking ass isn’t awesome.

Edit: A followup link to a Kotaku article that makes me want to smack something: Tomb Raider Creators Say ‘Rape’ is Not a Word in Their Vocabulary.” I have no words.