Industrial Silence

28 Jan

I want to begin by clarifying that I don’t work in the game industry as a developer, just in case anyone had the thought. I have never worked with or for a development company, and I don’t make videogames. I am an academic, a cultural critic whose job is to analyze and present criticism (both positive and negative) of popular media. I happen to work in two genres: early modern drama (think Shakespeare) and videogames. Yes, these two things may seem disparate, but both are the popular culture artifacts of their respective generations.

In that sense, I work “in the industry” because what the game industry produces, does, and says are of immediate relevance to my profession and my productivity. I am lucky enough, however, to have the buffer of academe between me and the people who make life hell for women in the industry in the traditional, blood-sweat-and-tears sense. I’m also a bit saddened that the academy, with its own problems with misogyny and bias, is an infinitely more pleasant place to be a professional female than the game industry.

Western society as a whole has a huge problem with latent misogyny, linked to the pervasiveness of rape culture, most often manifest in casual comments, presumption, and paternalism. Just this week I’ve witnessed or heard anecdotes about men defaulting to diminutive nicknames for women without asking, men assuming that women are secretaries rather than managers, men assuming that women know nothing about technology, and men assuming that women are not in positions of authority.

Women everywhere in the US have to deal with this on a minor scale, often so culturally ingrained that they dismiss it or even fail to notice it when it happens at the store or on the train. But women in technology and in the game industry, whether as journalists or developers, may as well be the modern-day equivalent of the women in the 1950s who dared to make a living outside the home.

This story from Kotaku by Rachel Edidin, “She Was Harassed By a Games Reporter. Now She’s Speaking Out” highlights a lot of the problems faced by women in the game industry. (This is also why I’m trying to put together a panel on this for NWSA.) As upsetting and depressing as this story is, it pales in comparison to some of the harassment and threats received by other women in the industry.

However, I’ve talked about this before, and I want to take this opportunity to talk specifically about the kinds of things said by Josh Mattingly to “Alice Mercier” (not her real name). Mattingly didn’t threaten “Mercier.” He didn’t suggest that she needed to be raped or assaulted or murdered. He did offer to give her “My penis. For your vagina,” in what was presumably meant to be a consensual act.

So, to play the troll’s advocate for a second, what’s the problem? If Mattingly wasn’t threatening her, why did this exchange warrant a lengthy apology (which he did make on his blog, although not directly to her)? As one of the first commenters, penenasty, remarks,

Who wants to take bets on how many posters who are probably white males, say “this isn’t a problem” and bonus points for “why didn’t she just tell him to stop”

As “Mercier” explains, she was taken aback by the nature of Mattingly’s comments and tried to ignore them so that he would stop. It didn’t work, but her instinct was to not reward his sexual comments by giving them attention (much like one might ignore a child’s tantrum to not reinforce the behavior). Should she have spoken up? She certainly would have been justified in doing so, but she shouldn’t have to even think about whether or not to have to make that choice – he shouldn’t have said any of it in the first place.

The problem as I see it is that our culture permits men to “hit on” women without censure so long as the “hitting on” doesn’t take a violent tone. But unwanted advances are just as unwanted whether they are violent or not – and Mattingly’s comments are not only unwanted, but wildly inappropriate to a business discussion (which is what it was originally meant to be).

But – the troll might say – why do advances have to be curtailed? What if the speaker is genuinely attempting to initiate a romantic conversation? Are men not allowed to say anything “nice” anymore?

The simple truth is that if someone ignores your first advance – especially when it’s of such an unsubtle nature as “I will kiss you on the vagina if you do,” which has all the subtlety of an armored rhino with bells on – then it isn’t wanted. Cease and desist. Immediately.

Secondly, there is a difference between a polite “Hey, do you want to go for coffee?” and what Mattingly suggested. I have offered to take a colleague out for beer or pastry for doing me a favor with no nefarious intentions. Those things are normal exchanges for professional favors. Mattingly’s suggestion would not be considered an acceptable business exchange anywhere outside of prostitution.

But the real problem isn’t that Mattingly did it (although that is a problem), it’s that he works in an industry where the culture enables him to think – even drunk – that such an exchange would be appropriate. It’s symptomatic of a larger problem not of misogyny, per se, but of androcentrism that suggests that (straight cis) male desires are the default and take primacy. At its heart, it’s the same problem that gave rise to the demand for a “sexuality toggle” in BioWare games and the same problem that permits trolls to demand sandwiches in online forums. And it will continue so long as we shake our heads and say that “boys will be boys” or tell victims that they should “get over it,” or, worse, that they “had it coming.”