By John Walker on April 6th, 2013 at 3:00 pm.
There were two sessions in a row on Wednesday afternoon at this year’s GDC. The first was a panel of women in the games industry, discussing the causes and results of the #1ReasonWhy and #1ReasonToBe phenomena – the reasons to be and not be in the games industry. The second was Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian, talking about the positive and negative consequences of her Kickstarter campaign, and the way forward from here. I came out of the first – vivid, passionate declarations of purpose from the likes of Leigh Alexander, Mattie Brice and Brenda Romero – feeling certain that the industry and its audience was on a wave of significant change. An hour later I came out of the second – Sarkeesian’s challenging and demanding story of recent horror – re-grounded to the current reality, introspective, and further determined.
There is a clear message: Rock, Paper, Shotgun will never back down on the subject of sexism and misogyny (nor racism, nor homophobia, for that matter) in games, the games industry, and the games journalism industry. Good times are ahead – we can see them.
To remove the accusations of “linkbait”, I’ve put a complete version of this article on Pastebin – people are welcome to link to that instead should they wish to complain about it without providing us hits. And with this specific article you’re welcome to copy and paste the words anywhere you want, to avoid having to direct any traffic toward us. This is the best method I can think of to get away from the accusation. I want to communicate, not garner some hits on a graph.
PART ONE – IT MATTERS
Many women are mistreated and misrepresented within the games industry. It’s not a matter of opinion, a political position, or claim made to reinforce previous bias. It’s the demonstrable, sad truth. Ask women in the games industry – find out. That you may not perceive it does not mean it doesn’t exist. That you may not perpetuate it doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant to you. Whether you are male or female or identify anywhere between does not exclude you nor repudiate you from the matter. The amount to which you think it doesn’t exist is directly proportional to the amount to which you do not care that it exists. If you don’t care that it exists, I hope you are willing to be open-minded enough to try to empathise with others that do – at least give that a go. And if you care passionately about it, and feel offended by the tone of this piece as if it doesn’t acknowledge you, then I apologise, and hope you understand why.
I want to try to break down why people object to the discussion, why there is a concerted effort to deny the need for the discussion, and to explain how my own tangential role in it all has affected me. I want to do this because I want to dispel myths, raise awareness, and encourage others to speak out. For those who think such articles are “preaching to the choir”, were that true, I certainly want that choir to be bolstered, encouraged to sing louder and truer. Sadly it’s not entirely true, as is evidenced by the responses any such article receives on RPS. I want to speak to those people too.
So briefly, let’s observe the pervasive nature of sexism and misogyny (and we’re not going to get distracted by the debate over which is which) in the games industry, and in the reporting of it, with two examples from just the last fortnight.
There’s the ludicrously overt. Like a video from the 4th April by Machinima (this mirror now deleted due to “copyright”), featuring two women in skimpy outfits being electrocuted and spanked as they play Rock Band, described by a lecheroineineus narrator as “girl on girl action”, and showing their pink ass cheeks at the end. No, really. After outcry it was taken down by Machinima, but that doesn’t change that this is an industry in which such a video can be conceived, scripted, filmed, edited and produced, then uploaded, without anyone effectively challenging it. These extremes are not rare, not particularly unusual.
Then less in-your-face, arguably more insidious, is an article like Complex Tech’s “The 40 Hottest Women In Tech“. It is the most peculiar of pieces, seeming to want to appear as if it’s all a big misunderstanding, that by “hottest” they just meant, “ones to watch” or similar. Its introduction presents a straight-faced façade of how the technology industry has been a “boy’s club” for so long, thanks to an “unfortunate repercussion of the patriarchy”. “Here are,” they explain, “40 women we admire doing work in the field of innovation.” Oh, so the title was just a misunderstanding?! First entry, picture of Marina Orlova in a bra. Third, a shot looking down Courtney Boyd Myer’s bikini top. Jessica Chobot is described as “daringly beautiful”, whatever the crapping fuck that means. And the sum total of her achievements described are that she’s “proof that gamer girls are just as sexy we envision.” Jade Raymond is “The Canadian gaming beauty.” It’s language that would of course never be used when writing about men in tech. No man in the field is called “daringly handsome”. None is ever introduced based on their aesthetic appeal, but rather their personal achievements. This is the very patriarchy the article pretends to lament.
Both these examples are demonstrative of what a hostile, alienating industry gaming can be to so many. I think it’s interesting how the first example is more likely to be accepted by people as an example of something that’s unacceptable, and that the second is more likely to be dismissed. But both are equally powerful in communicating a simple message to women: this isn’t your place. Whether it’s being put off by the suggestion that a woman’s role in gaming is to be a physically harmed victim, or told that in order to be acceptable in tech you must first be “beautiful” – or at least be photographed in your underwear – the message is loud, and all-permeating. If you can’t see how it’s a problem that needs discussing, then you simply don’t give a shit. I’m asking people to start giving a shit.
PART TWO – PERSONAL THOUGHTS
More disclaimers are likely necessary here. Reasons why I’m writing this? Because I care about it. Because I am a part of it. And because it damned well matters. Reasons that aren’t why I’m writing this? A need to get laid, a desire to be liked by women, because I think women need me to defend them, and to win the approval of others. And for clarity, I’m using “gaming and women” as a short-hand term for “gaming’s representation of women, the industry’s treatment of women, and the media’s reporting of matters related to women”, and “women” to mean “anyone who identifies as female, no matter their biological sex.” Understood? Great.
Over the last six years of RPS, and in years previously for other publications, I’ve both given thought to, and written about, the subject of gaming and women. While my understanding of the subject remains severely limited, I’ve learned a fair amount over the fourteen years I’ve been doing this, and while I feel certain I’d be very embarrassed by how I’d have expressed things years back, my position is much the same: I like people, and I like it when people are treated well. I abhor it when people are treated badly. The root of my caring about this subject isn’t any more sophisticated than that.
In having written about the subject of women and games over the years, I’ve received a significant amount of abuse. (I’m not going to fret about saying, “But of course not as bad as…”, because of course it’s not as bad as…) Most of the abuse I receive is lazy insults, and until recently I tended to assume them fairly innocuous. Some has been extreme, such as forum threads dedicated to associating my name with acts of child molestation to skew Google results, personal threats, and deeply personal insults. All of it has one purpose: to intimidate. Whether the purpose of the intimidation is because the person wants to read about new screenshots for a game and not gender politics, or because they are violently defending their privilege, it’s always about intimidation.
It can fit into a variety of categories, but there’s always just that one intent. While a lot has been extreme, the majority just want the discussion to go away, and angrily tell me why I need to stop talking about it. And indeed the vast majority of the non-hostile communication takes the form of, “I just wish you’d stop talking about this.” But the thing is, that’s not okay, either.
Anita Sarkeesian, in her GDC talk “Equality, Or GTFO”, quoted a perfect metaphor for this, quoting Beverly Daniel Tatum’s moving walkway (those horizontal travelators you see at airports) idea from Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?. The gaming industry and those who write about it, she says, are stood on this moving walkway, always trundling toward the sexism and misogyny that infests throughout. There are of course those who march forward toward it, embracing it. But most, she says, are standing still. They don’t particularly desire or support it, but they also don’t want to think about it, discuss it, contest it. So they stand still, and in doing so, inexorably glide toward it.
The only way to make a difference, Sarkeesian argued, is to turn around and actively walk against the flow of the travelator. Something which is, it occurs to me, not easy. Not only are you walking against the flow of movement, but you’re also going to bump into everyone heading in the other direction. And some people are going to be hostile about this, especially if they think you might start a trend, start seeing others change direction, maybe even enough to see the direction of that walkway changed. The voluminous responses of wanting to talk about something else is a combined effort to stand still on that walkway, and that’s not something we’re willing to do.
Sarkeesian also talked about the responses men will receive when they’re the ones to walk the other way. A slide containing a selection of phrases that were all extremely familiar to me, that litter my Twitter comments, my inbox, and the comments on RPS articles and elsewhere across the internet:
“TRYING TO GET LAID”
The first four rely on the recipient sharing the same prejudices as the deliverer of the insult, and as a result, in my case, are rather ineffective. I don’t have a vagina, but as a rule I don’t tend to object to others having them. I’m not gay, but don’t believe it would be negative if I were. So for me, with no background in those words having been used to torment me in the past, they bounce off. But those final two, they’re the ones. For those looking for tips for getting to me, there’s your angle. They’re insidious little phrases. They rely on a seed of irrelevant truth to permeate the conscious, to give me cause to hesitate before speaking.
I like getting laid! As it happens I have a wife who’s particularly good at it, and I’m fully compensated for in that department. But I still like getting laid. And I like it when people are attracted to me, even those who are not my wife. Because I’m a person. It feels good. It’s good to be liked.
And I like it when I can help others. I like being someone others can rely on, can trust to stand up for them when it matters, and to be there to support them when they need it. I don’t pretend that’s selfless – of course I get something out of it too. It’s a part of who I am.
Both phrases contain those truths. The accusation gets a grip because of them, causes me to hesitate, to pause as I write, to worry my motivations are wrong. And that’s their purpose. Generally the motivation for my writing any sort of polemic on RPS is because I’m angry about something – constructively angry about something a person should be angry about – and I want to see positive change. That’s what causes me to start typing, including this piece. But as I go along, those words creep in. “You’re just saying this to win the approval of others.” “You’re just trying to make girls like you.” “You think women need you to stand up for them.” And so on. They get to me. They’re getting to me right now. They’re evil spells, cast to insidiously infect.
I like it when people like me. I like it when people come up and compliment me. I like the approval of others. Because that’s normal. And I write this both to exorcise the infection those words cause, and to make it known to everyone else who feels the same that these are not words that should stop you from speaking up for what you know is right. They are words that will never silence RPS on these matters, and they should never silence you either.
It’s vital that men speak out about this subject. Mostly because it’s vital that people speak out, a unified voice with whatever genitals it may have, condemning cruelty and inequality. For some men, only another man’s voice will be heard. If you’re a fellow, and you object to the portrayal and treatment of women within gaming, start saying so. You will receive abuse. And I am sorry, because it’s not fair. It really damned sucks, and it gets to me, it weighs me down. But it’s so worthwhile.
Abuse is the natural response of anyone wishing to perpetuate a privilege that by its nature demeans or diminishes others. And receiving abuse is horrible. But so long as you surround yourself by others who will support and care for you, it’s worthwhile. The louder the united voice, the more effective it is. So long as people remain silent, they provide a safe space for the cruel and oppressive to speak. When it’s clear that such behaviour is not tolerated in a space, it’s harder for it to be heard. And look at the positive change that’s already been seen. The positive change is why there’s a fight. Things are already getting so much better.
PART THREE – WHAT NOT TO WRITE
So here is a handy guide for replies to this wider discussion that just aren’t acceptable on RPS. Each is, in its own way, an attempt to derail or silence discussion. Each should be avoided at all costs, and certainly not responded to. Let’s create a space where these responses just don’t get a reaction, so we can no longer be a platform for those determined to prevent this industry from moving forward.
“Why are you writing about feminism on a GAMING site?”
This question, like so many objecting to any discussion of the lack of equality in the industry, betrays itself immediately. When a publisher issues financial results and we report on them, we don’t see, “Why are you writing about economics on a GAMING site?” When there’s discussion of the effects of violence on players, we don’t read, “Why are you writing about sociology on a GAMING site?” It’s only when the gaming-related subject is the portrayal or treatment of women do such people become enraged by any post that isn’t literally describing the content of a particular videogame.
And to answer the question: because it’s relevant, and it matters. 50% of gamers are women, and around 20% of “hardcore” gamers are women. While the majority of RPS’s readers are men, that’s not something we’re proud of. (Many gaming sites strive for this, as it performs well with advertisers. We would prefer breadth.) We write for a global audience, and we aim not to presume whom our reader might be. We know that matters affecting women affect our audience, whatever their sex, and we know they affect the games industry we cover. We believe in equality, and when we are aware of inequality in the industry upon which we report, it is relevant for us to cover, and we believe important to highlight.
“What happened to this site? You used to write about GAMES.”
This is obviously one of the more strange responses, yet certainly among the most prolific. At least 95% of the posts on RPS are directly about games themselves, as is obvious to anyone looking at it. Posts related to matters regarding women make up the tiniest percentage of our output, and it’s obviously nonsense to make the claim above.
“You’re just trying to be a white knight/get laid.”
I go a lot more into this response in my personal thoughts above, but the short version is: er, no. Personally, I’m happily married thanks. And I see no damsels to rescue. I just have the bare dregs of empathy for human suffering. And that’s apparently some kind of problem?
This particular response is designed to undermine the writer, not only suggesting that caring about equality is something inherently driven by a desire for sex/validation, but that the very idea of caring at all is so unrealistic. Either the accuser cannot conceive of the notion of caring about another’s rights independently of one’s own gratification, or they are so fearful of the potential of equality that they’re driven to undermine those who argue for it. Either way, if you’re typing the words “white knight”, you’re revealing more about your own peculiar understanding of how humans interact than anything else.
“Why don’t you talk about men’s issues?”
First of all, the question presumes the peculiar notion that writing about women’s issues precludes our writing about men’s. That’s obviously ridiculous. And secondly, sadly the question is generally used dishonestly.
There are issues that affect men, and often men who are the target demographic of gaming. Suicide is an especially serious example, and it’s something RPS has covered, and expressed concern over. Our caring about equality in the games industry, and in the portrayal of women, does not exclude our caring about matters affecting men. Obviously.
However, the question is generally designed to derail. It’s often as relevant as asking, “Why don’t you talk about digital download re-sales?” at the end of an article about the troubles of pre-ordering. Sure, why don’t we? Good thing to talk about. Not really a pertinent question in this instance. And that’s the idea – by asking this broad, presumptive question, the aim is to distort the discussion from the matter at hand, which in turn further leaves the matter at hand undiscussed. By the time you’re having tiresome arguments about whether male characters being shown as successful and strong is harmful to men, you’re no longer discussing the fact that scantily clad women are being used to sell videogames. That’s the ultimate aim of the question.
“I know a girl who thinks X, so you are wrong.”
This angle is generally used to argue against anything that is said to misrepresent women, or to represent women in a bad way. This known girl, fictional or real, likes it, so why does anyone have a problem? The argument oddly presumes that a matter is only of concern if women are exclusively and unanimously against it. Men’s views are irrelevant, and indeed all other views are irrelevant, because there’s this one girl who thinks… This is about as useful an argument as someone’s claiming homoeopathy works, against all abundant evidence, because their mum’s knee felt better.
“People are exaggerating on both sides.”
This, and many variants on it, are all about pretending to want to bring “balance” to the argument, in order to prevent its taking place at all. It’s dishonest, based on unexplained, undefined notions of exaggeration, perhaps if pressed illustrated by a single example that likely only emphasises the faux-diffuser’s prejudice. As and when people exaggerate in any debate, it’s great to call people out on it. People called out the issues in a recent post I put on RPS about gender wage gaps, which one could describe as exaggeration. That’s a good thing to do. It, however, has no bearing on the facts that there are problems that need to be dealt with, and the line is usually employed when trying to ensure nothing is allowed to change.
“It’s just a bit of fun.”
When I undermine you in front of your boss, lie about you behind your back, and play cruel tricks on you, it’s just a bit of fun! Oh, wait, those things aren’t fun because they’re happening to you? Gosh, imagine if such a perspective were available when other things that other people don’t like are happening to them? But no, it’s just a bit of fun, then. They should just get over it.
We’re going to keep banging this drum. And we will bang the drums against racism, transphobia and homophobia. The concerted efforts from both pissed off individuals, and organised groups from elsewhere on the internet, will not be effective. The vast majority of our readers are in favour of this coverage, and even if they weren’t, we’d continue. This matters, and we give one hell of a damn about it. We want to see gaming a place of equality, both in its creation, creations, and coverage.
We do not believe that in any resulting greater equality anyone will suffer. Gamers will not lose out. Call Of Duty will still be released every November, with angry soldier men shouting “FUCK!” as they shoot down a helicopter. That isn’t going to go away. Instead we fight for greater variety in those resulting games. And we fight for safer, more friendly spaces in which they can be created. And we fight for a media that celebrates equality, and discourages cruelty and inequality. When anything gets in the way of that, we’re going to say so.
Such coverage will continue to be a tiny, tiny fraction of what we write about. RPS will continue to be primarily about the games themselves, as it always has been. Still no one’s rights will be infringed by our writing about inequality. And we will carry on. We aren’t going to be bullied into silence, or shamed into shyness. And if you don’t want that, then we implore you to scroll past or read another site.
I envision a future where the gaming world is balanced. Where this shared pursuit no longer alienates half of the population, but is equally embracing. This year’s GDC was one of optimism, a recognition that change is already well under way, and a belief that it is a gathering pace. It is to this that RPS looks, and it’s going to be great! There’s lots of work to be done, there are obstacles to combat along the way, but it’s worth it. We’re getting there.
The comments are off on this post. This is a reference post, a place we can point people toward to understand our position. I am not willing to let this post become yet another platform for the people who wish to silence this debate. On this occasion I have no desire to publicly put up with the invasive ignorant spite and fearful anger that will be littered amongst the usual excellent comments from our fantastic readers. This is not an attempt to stifle discussion – RPS provides ample opportunity for it, and will continue to do so. If you want to communicate your thoughtful disagreement or unpleasant bile, my email address is at the top of this page, where your remarks will receive an audience of one. So please do use it. I will read and consider everything.