Flight Papers

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“Feminist gamers” might just turn out to be an oxymoron, and other small notational difficulties

(No offense intended, and I only kindof mean it. On which more later.)

Other people have already written about the insanity surrounding Jade Raymond, and I’m not going to rehash it all here. Suffice to say, the whole thing is just a catastrophically depressing illustration of how ridiculously sexist gamer culture is—and will for continue to be, for the foreseeable future. It’s beyond sad to me that an attractive woman can’t be the public face of a product without everyone in the damn room assuming that she was put there to titillate a male audience, that she’s being “whored out” (just a great term, by the by), and, necessarily, that she’s being degraded. It’s downright heartbreaking that said (male) audience goes on to assume that she is somehow unqualified or brainless, or that she is in some way complicit in the deeply sexualized harassment that would follow. (Inevitably, of course. These things aren’t ever the product of worthless individuals making shitty decisions, they’re inevitable, like fucking earthquakes).

(On the plus side, as Miyuki Jane Pinckard has said, Jade is smarter than all these asshats, and her career is going to keep going without skipping a beat. So that’s nice.)

And of course, when I say “everyone in the damn room,” I don’t mean literally everyone. The bloggers above, for example, have a solid take on the situation. But, look—the comment threads at Feministe are stuffed full of, “man, this isn’t that big a deal,” “this is just the internet/geeks/gamers,” “who didn’t see this coming?” Great ways to normalize deeply sexist harassment, so you can get back to Not Worrying About It and keeping girls out of your play house.

This is depressing shit, if you happen to be (1) a woman, and (2) interested in games. It gets even more depressing because I think the sentiment is, basically, correct.

What I mean by this isn’t: women will never be accepted into “mainstream gaming” (defined, ironically, as the mildly to strongly obsessive niche market that consumes the low-ish volume, high-cost games produced by large publishers). What I mean by this is: gamer culture is built on a core of sexism. You can’t work on making gamer culture less sexist, anymore than you can work on making iron less ferrous. Just try to imagine, for a moment, a gamer culture without the testosterone hierarchy and everything it entails: homophobia, objectification of women, and outright misogyny. What do you have? The Iris Network. Feminist gamers. Maybe some isolated groups of friends playing Rock Band, and Penny Arcade sitting vaguely at the edges.

That’s not a change in the current gamer culture—that’s just saying fuckitall and building a new culture. It’s moving away from radical and towards revolutionary.

I have to say, I’m all kinds of down with that. And those communities I mentioned? They’re all kinds of awesome. But a relevant consequence is that when we say, “feminist gamers,” we’re not really speaking English. Even presuming the listener somehow has a compatible definition of “feminist” (ha!) their definition of what constitutes gamer culture is like to be so different as to make the whole phrase unparseable.

The unfortunate part of all this is that “gamer” is a part of a lot of people’s identities. We don’t want to give up the word as an element of our self-definition (because that’s what it means for something to be a part of our identity). This happens in the pen and paper RPG world, too, but for largely different reasons—there’s a pretty big culture gap in that community right now, and you tend to get a lot of traditionalists outright telling new designers that their games aren’t roleplaying games, and they aren’t gamers (and their work doesn’t look interesting and could they please go away now?). In that instance, I don’t really think the label is worth the fight. Really, trying to convince people we have all the prestige and value of Dungeons and Dragons? …great. In the venue of electronic entertainment (and comics, incidentally), there’s a much stronger case to be made for trying to reshape the core culture. After all, these are large industries with significant momentum and they’re showing few signs of becoming less consolidated. In that environment, it’s absolutely necessary that we shift the culture—in slow, faltering steps—to be more in line with our ideals. If we do it enough, maybe at some point in the future, the word “gamer” won’t be saddled with all its icky connotations. Would that it could be the case today—alas.

17 Responses to ““Feminist gamers” might just turn out to be an oxymoron, and other small notational difficulties”

  1. Old Video Games « Yaruki Zero Games Says:

    […] in light of the recent stuff about Jade Raymond, some of the comments by Bushnell and Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani are particularly striking. […]

  2. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Amen. Gamers are lame. I’m just a guy who plays games, y’know? Let’s build something new.

  3. Madeline F Says:

    Why let RPGs off the hook just because they’re small/inert and fractured? I’m a feminist gamer, and the “small/inert” part argues for putting in effort, because I can directly talk to the people making the games. And fractured, hell, when (say) indie and d20 are fighting, feminism can hand them both weapons to use against each other, and perhaps they’ll get used to working with feminists.

    Seems to me organic analogies are more accurate for social interactions. Instead of making iron into non-iron, we’re making shit into compost by stirring in a bunch of vegetable clippings and such. Which is to say, disengagement doesn’t strike me as the solution.

    (Came here from Indie RPG review or whatevertheheck, I see it on a LJ feed)

  4. violet Says:

    You’re right, and my original post is missing something.

    There are times to engage with the dominant community, and times to break off from it. I was really providing arguments for disengagement, mostly writing from a stance of, ‘fuck this noise.’ There are arguments for engagement, too, and practically speaking, you probably want to do both—work on shifting the dominant culture while creating your own subcultures that better reflect your ideals.

    Definitely, the indie RPG community is small enough for dialogue to make a really direct difference. I mean, Peaseblossom’s review of Spirit was really influential in the development of New Horizons, in no small part because she was able to engage directly with the writers.

    And, in that case, we’re fighting for the inclusion of marginalized viewpoints into a community that has no essential reason to dismiss them except for the biases of the overculture (and, for that matter, the sci-Fi / fantasy / comics midculture). And that’s good, that’s a feminist fight, and it has implications beyond comics / RPGs / whatever fragment we’re talking about. I’m on the trolly.

    When we start talking about inclusion in a community for its own sake, though, is when I think we need to figure out how much energy it’s worthwhile to expend on the conflict. It’s not that I think we should compromise our principles and say, “well, whatever, they’re just being misogynist assholes, and they can be doing that over there.” It’s more that sometimes the best way to effect change is to build something different, and leave the old machines to rust.

  5. EmCeeKhan Says:

    I understand the frustration and irritation at the male dominated video game culture and how it evolves around violence, sex and more violence. I can understand when women are depicted as whores and mindless bimbos how that can also be a problem.

    HOWEVER

    There are games out there that allow women to be women without objectification. I mean, they aren’t very popular, but Nintendo is the first company I can think of where the women characters in games kick just as much ass as the male ones. They are trying to move away from that culture and more into the “cute and androgynous” playground.

    One problem with dealing with people on the Internet is the anonymity. Most male geeks are terrified of women or at least intimidated by them. Most of them won’t come up to women and say stupid, sexist things. Most of them avoid it because it’s against the law (sexual harassment) and don’t know how to social cope face to face with even their own male counterparts. So when they go online, there are no repercussions for being loud, obnoxious and stupid. Check out web forums, for example.

    Along with this anonymity, there is also the problem with the fact that men can disguise themselves as women and vice-versa and really play up sexist stereotypes. I mean, half the guys I know on World of Warcraft play women characters to fuck with other guys and girls, etc. And some of the girls I know do the exact same thing, only they pretend to be males. And it sells to BOTH sides of the fence quite easily. So the game companies monopolize on that (make sexy men characters, make sexy women characters, make it anon for the sake of allowing people to play what they want to play).

    And then there’s women who perpetrate the “women are dumb bimbos that are only good for sex” stereotype in both real life and online. Good luck changing it when not even half of your own gender will budge because they actually hold onto the stereotypes as much as the males do. That’s what happened in the Ubisoft case - Jade abashedly had the chance to do something about the sexist remarks coming her way and she can actually FORCE people interviewing her to not publish remarks that are libel. However, she’s done absolutely nothing but actually play on the attention while some lawyers from Ubisoft pressed a copyright threat at SA. Not a libel, not a sexual harassment, not a grievance threat. Great message they sent there.

    I also disagree that games push a homophobic culture. Homophobic, religious culture pushes homophobic culture on gamers, who then pass it on during interactive instances. That’s more correct.

  6. violet Says:

    I’m not sure what your point is, here. There do, in fact, exist games that don’t depend on misogyny to work. Great.

    Except, I’m not talking about games, I’m talking about gamer culture. These are different things. (Which isn’t to say that they don’t affect each other—a lot of games and gaming tropes are certainly informed by the misogynistic culture, and this helps select and inform new gamers, etc.)

    As for the rest… Y’know, the existence of Ann Coulter doesn’t make misogyny okay. I’m not going to claim to be particularly knowledgeable about the world of MMOs, but even if I accept the dubious assertion that cross-playing cements negative stereotypes, that doesn’t make the pervasiveness of those stereotypes—and the really harmful actions that result from them—in some way better.

    Nor does saying, “It’s the Internet. Of course people are assholes.”

    And I’m going to be charitable and just assume that you don’t really understand what happened when you say that Jade is in some way responsible for the creepiness of game journalists and the fucked-uppedness of the community in general. The problem is that being an attractive woman means you are perceived as a brainless object by the gaming community. Period. The fact is, the cartoonist can legally hide behind “satire,” and everyone hosting the thing can hide behind safe harbor provisions; given that, I’m going to assume Ubisoft did the best they could, knowing they likely didn’t have a case. Which doesn’t change a damn thing—the problem isn’t that their legal tactics are unsound, the problem is that they have to resort to them in the first place.

    And, finally, homophobia comes from a lot of places. For whatever reason, the fact remains that it’s extremely common in the gamer community.

  7. EmCeeKhan Says:

    Homophobic behavior is extremely common in a lot communities, not just the gamer community. Same for sexism. And racism. And fundalism (radical religious prejudice). It’s pretty prevalent in a lot of communities.

    The gamer community is made up of people from so many OTHER communities that the behavior carries over. For example, I belong to a lot of different social groups - European-descent, video gamer, board gamer (I consider the two groups entirely different because the attitude is entirely different), Christian of sorts, middle class, married, independent politically, etc. Each one of those has a different social background that identifies with a certain group of developed people (sometimes culturally).

    I have to say that out of the seven social groups I belong to, 6 of them harbor sexist, homophobic and racist people. All of those groups I belong to contribute to the gamer community. The behaviors are passed between those groups. So of course they are going to exhibit the behaviors of other groups. Why should the gamer community be any different when we can’t even control the other communities opinion?

    Just as easily, there are big groups of gamers I belong to that aren’t sexist, racist homophobes. We even go to the length of making rules to limit that kind of behavior. Those traits come from the same social groups I belong to, as well. And they are great. I prefer to hang out with them and socialize with them. Every once in awhile, we get a retard who thinks it’s okay to be that way. But I don’t leave the group because the retard is here. I either kick the retard out or wait for him to get bored and leave.

    Everytime something horrible happens in society, all society can do is focus on that one behavior until they beat the subject to death like a dead horse. Instead of focusing on the good aspects of something, we all zero in on the bad traits of that group. Never emphasis the good traits or decent behaviors of the group. Generalize, generalize, generalize. Just like you are doing.

    OR

    Society choses to ignore the bad apples to the extent that they ostracize the group. They refuse to acknowledge the bad stuff exists. Or they remain ignorant of it. But that doesn’t excuse people who act like they don’t expect something to happen. Acting like society is better than it is often causes more problems that it fixes. Of course, some prey on that. They think they can get away with being stupid because they can play ignorant.

    Now, I’ve worked in both the computer and gaming industry for over 10 years. I have NEVER seen a picture of a programming team (especially a video game prog team in a group) where they put the PRODUCER out in front like that. In that pose. With that angle. EVER. Of course, there are times when you see photos of teams with individual pictures one at a time, but that isn’t anything like this. You have to understand my reaction was this -

    “Aw, come on. You can’t tell me that wasn’t staged purely for the fact they are aiming to use the photo to attract the attention of horny gamers. If they did that with my male friend (who produces for EA games) and his team, the rest of the team and the rest of the gaming community would probably say, Oh FFS. Elitist attention n00b. (I’ve thought that thought about many a Nintendo producer who hogs the limelight of his team).”

    That thought had to cross her mind before it went out the door (or Ubisoft’s mind, but I’m sure she saw the picture prior to that). She’s been in the business as long as I have. If it didn’t, either she’s willfully ignorant of the portion of the fanbase who will see it for what it is and go nuts about it. Or she understands using the opportunity to engender more attetion for herself, Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed. Either way, she’s not using her brain there. Most producers/managers in group pictures stand on the right side of the team in the front row, or in the middle of the front row of the group. Never 10 feet out in front as in, “HEY LOOK AT ME I MADE THIS!”

    I just saw a video of her on G4, and she was giggling at the comments made to her about this whole senseless thing. “Oh, it’s just the market,” was her remark. She actually sounded unintelligent on that interview. I don’t see that as distress or trying to discourage sexist males. I see it as a total act.

  8. violet Says:

    Your belief that she didn’t have the “right” reaction is not her problem. Your perception of her authenticity or her intelligence is, similarly, not her problem.

    Ubisoft’s marketing might or might not be problematic. (In either case, it was hardly done in a vacuum—the photo that every has their panties in a bunch over? That photo was set up by a magazine, not by Ubi, not by anyone in the office.) All of which is utterly beside the point. People are welcome to think that Raymond is getting a disproportionate share of the spotlight. They’re welcome to think that the game’s crap; they’re welcome to give her and her team a hard time; they’re welcome to critique Ubisoft’s marketing and whatever participation they think she had in it.

    They are also, I suppose, free to write personal, sexualized, hateful material in these “critiques.” They’re free to make comments that they would never make of a male game developer—implied rape threats, creepy stalker fantasies. They’re free to assume that because she’s attractive, she obviously cannot be intelligent.

    They are free to do these latter things, but doing them makes them assholes (or worse). This makes them Part of the Problem ™, where the problem in this case is the alienation of women from game development and the hardcore community. When a lot of people in the community participate, there’s clearly something wrong with the community culture. When the best response one gets out of the community is a resigned sort of, “enh,” that leads me to believe that the culture sees this as perfectly acceptable.

    And that’s a serious problem.

    (Well, unless you’re white, straight, and male, and don’t particularly care about anyone else. In which case, bully for you, more free servers or whatever.)

    There do exist some people who identify as gamers who aren’t homophobic, don’t objectify women, etc. There were some people in the Antebellum South who weren’t racist. The existence of either doesn’t speak to the structure of the community. It doesn’t tell us how the tropes and practices of the community encourage or dampen these tendencies, insofar as they exist.

    It’s an extremely rare occurrence to go on X-Box Live and not get called a fag, or see someone get called a fag. Likewise WoW. Likewise the comments threads at any number of mainstream gaming sites. Insults against women are even more common. These aren’t merely imported insults, either—gamer culture has developed a misogynistic and homophobic lexicon of its very own. The people making those comments to xxxGayBoyxxx up there? They’re perfectly normal, in this community.

    So when I say gamer culture is broken, that’s what I mean.

    It’s not just that people are assholes on the Internet. Believe it or not, there exist places online where this doesn’t happen. Even quite large communities exist which just don’t have nearly as strong an undertow of misogyny and homophobia.

    It’s simply incorrect to believe that the problems in the community are perpetuated by just a bunch of individuals acting like assholes. It is a bunch of individuals, and they are assholes, but the problems run much deeper.

  9. EmCeeKhan Says:

    Those people on XBox Live are people from all walks of life, all real life communities.

    I’m from Nebraska, and every day, out in public, I hear people call other people - these are direct quotes - “fags,” “whores,” “ni**ers,” etc. all in the dergotatory sense. These are the same people who participate in regular communities all over the city and the state. They are church-goers, parents, leaders, regulars, musicians, and so on. I’ve seen it in cities in other parts of the country. I’ve seen it in cities in other parts of the world. It extends waaaay past the gaming community.

    The gamer community is not “unique” in this regard. The problem does not exist exclusively in the gamer community. If anything, I blame the predecessors of video games - radio, movies and TV. Before those, I blame printed media and demonstrations. Before that, I blame the fact that people willing participated in gatherings and groups that perpetuated the stereotypes and actively oppressed people. It’s been 200 years in the US, and a lot longer in the rest of the world, and we’re just beginning to treat women as equal workers in regular workplaces.

    It took us somewhere around 2/3’s of human development to finally stop sexist, racist, homosexual, and other types of discrimination in normal work environments. It’s still practiced in the normal circles of human interaction, on the basest levels. The online gamer community has been around for - at maximum - 15 years. It’s a relatively new society with new rules, new expectations, and new axioms. It actually forces people that would not normally interact to be in proximity with each other. It brings idiots together with the problem people.

    Problem is, again, you generalize the entirety of the gamer community. It’s not the entirety of the gamer community - it’s probably at best half the community. The problem is the morons and the pigs are the most visible - those are the people you see. And you blame us for their actions. Actions we cannot control, except to avoid them and try to work towards our own more controlled communities. The problem is the better half of the gamer community has absolutely no way to control the problem. None whatsoever. There are no ramifications for being a sexist dick on the Internet, and rarely can anyone do anyting about it. There’s no authority there. And there never will be, because the Internet is not constructed - not built - to police itself. The very thing that makes the Internet great is the same thing that allows these things to happen. In fact, over-sensativity makes things ten times worse on the Internet, because people feed off the hurt and the pain and the power trips that can be had by stirring groups like femisists, environmentalists, gay rights activists, etc.

    I have absolutely no issues with women being a part of that. I enjoy interacting with them, actually, as they tend to be politer and more intelligent. Although I don’t know what you want me to do about it. Admonish the magazines? I don’t read those things or go to those sites already. The people who should be admonishing those places are the people who are directly involved, and they won’t do a damn thing about it, because it’s free PR and the hype created has only ingrained the behavior even more. By trying to ADMONISH the Internet, you only make it worse.

    A lot, lot worse. And the good people have be grouped into the little “UR BAD BAD BAD PEOPLE” rants that every over-sensative group has. Which makes us even more insensitive to the plight. How am I supposed to care about this issue if all you people do is admonish me and people like me when we did nothing wrong.

  10. violet Says:

    Actually, I’m not asking you to do any damn thing.

    I’m not admonishing you. I’m not saying you should do more. I’m saying that this culture, one that you apparently identify with, is worthless to me. I’m saying that it has serious problems and not enough redeeming features to be worth fixing. It doesn’t really matter how many people within the community are to blame, and how many are just resigned. The environment is how it is.

    I am not blaming you or any other particular person. I know there are a lot of good people who identify as gamers. They may even be in the majority. And yet, somehow, their attitudes fail to build the community standards. Whatever desires they have to see more inclusiveness get lost in a sea of misogyny and fag jokes.

    It’s not exactly hard to see how this cycle continues. Just imagine building a gaming community which is explicitly welcoming to people typically excluded from such places. Imagine trying to make it not a niche, but an acknowledged part of the mainstream culture. Now imagine what happens when you have to tell people, constantly, that when they say X or make joke Y, they’re helping create an environment that excludes certain groups you don’t want to exclude—groups that, let’s remember, half of the community hates and fears.

    That’s just going to go swimmingly.

    Could willing members of the gamer community do something about this? Yes. Of course. Despite ridiculous arguments to the contrary, it is absolutely possible to build communities on the Internet, complete with the construction of social norms. It’s likewise possible to change those norms, by resisting them, by finding others who want to resist them. This is hard, of course, because it involves being socially ostracized and—in this context—basically getting called a fag a lot.

    I genuinely don’t believe that anyone is under an obligation to do that. And, in fact, the point of my post is that I don’t see why we should bother. Working on insulating the industry from the culture? Yes. Working on insulating the medium from the culture? Yes, absolutely. Working on changing the culture? I just don’t see the percentage in that.

  11. Chris Says:

    Hi Violet,

    I’m in agreeance with you 100%.

    The big red line I’ve noticed in gamer communities, is that while many of the “good” gamers who are willing to empathize with the cause, in words at least, are rarely willing to do anything to actually counteract the assholes. That is, “I’m good because I didn’t act like a dick, but I won’t check anyone else for doing so”. Ultimately, wishful thinking support is no support at all and ultimately boils down to assent.

    When even the “sympathetic” parties are unwilling to engage in change, there is no chance of a shift.

    On another note, I think while the current indie tabletop community has been in better balance, I wonder how much that can really hold should it grow? As long as we’re in a sexist society, growth means at some point the usual sexist folks will outnumber the anti-sexists. Even with education as a core value, since you need only look at activist groups suffering from the very oppressions they seek to overcome- equality is an easy word to say, but privilege is often too high a price to pay.

    Given my personal experiences with the community on race issues, I’ve pretty much come to the same conclusions as you- gamerdom is built on flawed foundations, we gotta build something new from the ground up.

  12. Madeline F Says:

    Sorry to vanish for a week. I’m quite impressed by the way you didn’t eviscerate Mr “no one can fix my thing until you’ve fixed every other thing I point to”. And yeah, I see your point about making the new cool thing to replace the old busted thing. So… Well said!

  13. EmCeeKhan Says:

    “Working on insulating the industry from the culture? Yes. Working on insulating the medium from the culture? Yes, absolutely.”

    You can’t.

    My point is that the gamer culture is made up of a plethora of groups - both good and bad. If you want the good, you have to take the bad. That’s how it works. In real life, and the virtual one. Exclusion will not keep the bad people out - they will figure out how to insinuate themselves into the new culture and corrupt it from within.

    Good luck trying to make a nice dream world where nothing bad every happens to anyone or bad people can intrude. Because no matter where you go, or what society you enter, there will always be that half that is horrible and could destroy it from within.

  14. violet Says:

    Madeline, I think evisceration kinda like eating sugar. Occasionally cathartic, but later…

    Chris, that’s a good point. I think the indie tabletop scene has some things going for it, though, even as it grows. For one thing, we’re talking about this stuff now, and some fairly influential people are really on-board with these kinds of issues. The indie scene is becoming less homosocial, too, which is good in a bunch of ways.

    And also, it’s just so much harder to be a total ass when someone sitting across from you, at the same table, tells you that you’re hurting them. Talking about trust and power dynamics makes us more aware of them, and that’s really helpful.

    Which doesn’t mean these issues aren’t going to come up, and aren’t going to come up more as the community grows. White supremacy exists in the overculture, and it exists in, say, the feminist movement, and hell, it exists in racial liberation movements. Likewise patriarchal power structures. I think the best we can hope for is that we have the tools to deal with these issues as they come up, and the will to really use them. I’m optimistic.

    EmCee,

    Right, because saying I have no reason to be part of a social community where half the members hate people like me is exactly like saying I can only live in a feminist, egalitarian utopia.

    I suppose it’s easier to say, “hey, society in general is fucked up, too!” than it is to try to understand why gamer culture is so much more fucked up.

    And I like how you state without evidence that it’s impossible to separate the medium from the subculture, even though that very separation has been The Trend in gaming over the past five years. I suppose it’s fair though, given how small, homosocial, and demographically locked the booker (people who read books), televisioner (people who watch television), and internetter (people who use the Internet) subcultures remain.

  15. Revena Says:

    Hi, violet. This is a really thought-provoking post - thank you. I’m also really interested by one of the things you said in the comment thread:

    “Just imagine building a gaming community which is explicitly welcoming to people typically excluded from such places. Imagine trying to make it not a niche, but an acknowledged part of the mainstream culture. Now imagine what happens when you have to tell people, constantly, that when they say X or make joke Y, they’re helping create an environment that excludes certain groups you don’t want to exclude—groups that, let’s remember, half of the community hates and fears.

    That’s just going to go swimmingly.”

    It made me chuckle, in that rueful, cynical way. We’re trying so hard at Iris to create a forum where people who are excluded from mainstream gaming can feel welcome - and safe - and it’s an uphill jog almost every day. Our core users are feminists, for the most part, and we have lots of anti-racist activists and queer activists, and people who blog very eloquently against all sorts of isms - and we still have a near-constant repetition of the “when you say X or make joke Y, you’re helping create an environment that excludes certain groups” conversation going on.

    Personally, I feel like it’s very worthwhile. But oh, is it tiring. And we’re still very much in the niche position. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if we had a lot of truly mainstream gamers trying to converse on our forums.

    So, anyway. I don’t really have anything substantive to add to what you’re talking about here. Just that your post made me think, and I wanted to share a couple of those thoughts.

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