Fighting about games: the incredibly nasty last two weeks

01 Sep

If you’re part of — or an observer of — gaming culture, you might be aware of the ugliness lately.  If not, I encourage you to click away and go back to playing happily, because this is a subject that angries up the blood.


Fighting game, not gaming fight

I’ve been watching the recent rounds of discord in the gaming community with dismay and frustration. Anthropologically, it’s a fascinating fight about cultural and sub-cultural standards. It’s hard for me to appreciate since there is no distance between myself and the topic, so this post is an opinion piece. There are some links to articles on the conflict at the end of this post, but here is a summary as I see it:

  • One side in the conflict is pointing out the widespread misogyny in video games and how female gamers are treated, with the most recent battle over the video series here. However, some of the criticisms can seem oversensitive, academic, nitpicky, and suggest that every video game should be politically correct first and entertaining… maybe. The commentary can feel like a Women’s Studies 101 class, which detracts from some of the excellent points about the treatment of women. Also, some of the writers/video makers on this side see every criticism as sexism, making a conversation impossible.
  • The other side comes across as a He-Man Woman Haters Club and the most eloquent statements I’ve seen have not been posts or videos, but comments on articles. Other responses range from whiny and uninformed to vitriolic and threatening to defensive and scared. Some feel that their hobby, their culture, and they themselves are under attack, and I agree with some of their points, too.
  • I don’t want to frame this as a fight between men and women. It isn’t. Some men are just as surprised and offended when they notice game misogyny and some women aren’t as bothered by it as others.
  • There are side arguments around the ethics of gaming journalists and dirty laundry about a female game developer that are adding to the noise.

After a lot of thought, I’d like to offer some morsels for you to to chew on, if you’ve been following this conflict and care about it.

Gaming has never been a male-only activity. I saw one whine that “girls weren’t even interested in games before 2006.”  Really?  I’m guessing that fellow wasn’t born when I was playing arcade games and bugging my parents for a console system in the early 1980s. Even before that, I used to hope to babysit my neighbor because he had an Atari. My roommate and I pooled our resources for a Sega Genesis in 1989. Yes, I was aware that games were marketed to boys and that I was somewhat unusual, but if I was the only living female gamer before 2006, I’d be much more famous. While we may never have been in the majority for some genres of games, female gamers have always been here.  Women are the majority of gamers now and that doesn’t just mean casual games on Facebook.

Game content should not have to get a stamp of approval from the political correctness police. A game is a limited peek into a world and a story line. All sexes, genders, ethnicities, belief systems, ages, sizes, occupations, etc will not be represented. Games are not epic novels and they take narrative shortcuts for emotional impact. If the narrative calls for someone close to the player-character to be injured or killed, it shouldn’t always be a woman or girl, but is it really any better for it to be a man or boy? Either is rather lazy writing. I’m particularly frustrated by the dead prostitute/stripper trope in video games, because it mixes violence with slut-shaming and dehumanization of women who wouldn’t have that work if men didn’t provide the demand. However, this trope can be seen on TV crime shows, in movies, and in countless books. It’s not ok anywhere.

Claims that female nudity, violence against women, and the lack of female protagonists in games represent historic or environmental accuracy are uninformed balderdash. I live between two of the most violent cities in the US, but I have never witnessed the casual abuse of women on main streets that sets the scene in some games. Anyone who claims a strip club is an accurate place for an expository scene, and not just a way to add in some tits and ass, must think his audience has never been to one. It’s hard to have a private conversation over eardrum-shattering Nickelback. As for historical accuracy, one refutation is Cara Ellison’s interesting essay that highlights the differences between a noir film shot in 1947 and the 2011 game L.A. Noire, set in the same year. Her essay was prompted by this piece by Emma Boyes and I don’t agree with all of Ellison’s post, but it is worth noting is that even as a woman and a film noir aficionado, it took the essay by Boyes for her to notice the reduced role of women in the game. As some diversity advocates inflate the historical role of women and minorities, others are stripping them out.

Women are complicit in the objectification of women in gaming. The stereotype of a gamer girl posing topless with game controllers in front of her nipples exists because those girls exist.  Maybe they are seeking attention and approval, maybe it makes them feel sexy, and I’m sure the answer isn’t the same for everyone. Some female gamers give their avatars sexual or flirtatious names and choose revealing clothing even when the gameplay is unrelated. I support the right to safe sexual expression, but we should admit our role in shaping this culture. I was on and off TERA yesterday as the celebrity nudes hack hit the Internet. I watched as a young woman in my guild announced the naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence with apparent delight, then broadcast the news to wider chat groups to make sure everyone was aware of them. Her motivation wasn’t clear and I won’t speculate, but it was a little uncomfortable for me to observe.

Some people, including some men who play games, like looking at naked women. Shocker, right? Representations of naked and half-dressed women predate written language, so it’s not a surprise that these continue into current day media. That doesn’t mean that the men and women who enjoy those images are misogynistic creeps. Later last night, I observed a few young men in my guild talking about the same leaked celebrity photos, clearly unaware that a woman their mothers’ age was in the chatroom. Sure, they had looked at the stolen photos, but they were actually quite sweet and appreciative; more like a surprised boy who caught a glimpse of an adored neighbor through her curtain than a stalker drooling and lurking outside that window. There is nothing shameful in appreciating the aesthetics of the human body (the ethics of these particular images aside).  Sometimes, however, the display is gratuitous sexualization and weakens the game. In TERA, some of the most important NPC military commanders, spies, warriors, and deities are female. As a player-character, you are sometimes required to escort and defend male characters as well as female. The big difference, however, is that all of those female characters have skimpy outfits and swinging breasts  — even while in a leadership role at federation headquarters — while the males are in appropriate occupational clothing. They’re lovely, but it undermines the lack of sexism in the storyline.

Men and women misunderstand each other sometimes. Did I shock you again? Sorry about that. This comes to mind when I see some images and recordings of male gamers hitting on female gamers. Yes, there are creeps but there are also mean girls.  Publicly shaming a socially awkward guy who approaches you is a bitchy thing to do, and repeatedly chatting up a girl who says she’s not interested is a dick move. Sometimes I cringe when I read these accounts because there is clearly a cultural misunderstanding at work. Online games are global but the norms for interaction are not. Also, since there are a lot of young men and women gamers, relationships are not unusual, so yes, my dears, sometimes someone might flirt with you. I had to smile when a young woman in TERA recently admitted that she had been playing another online game with a boy at her school for over a year, and he had finally noticed her and they were going to hang out together. Maybe games are like bars for a different social group; sometimes you get an unwelcome approach, sometimes you meet The One, sometimes you just have fun with friends, sometimes you wake up with a headache and a pledge never to go there again.

Bringing awareness to the issue is not a personal attack on you, gamer guy. I’m wary of some of the game critiques that connect screen misogyny to offline violence against women, correlation vs causation and all that. I believe that people can play the games that are being critiqued and enjoy them while being unaware of the sociopolitical undercurrents that others might quickly perceive. Video game violence seems to desensitize players to some level of brutality, but if we’re looking for the source of continuing misogyny, I think we need to cast a wider net. No one wants to ruin your hobby or put video game companies out of business. Most of us just want the content creators to act like better people. Does the writer of a game where women are casually murdered as a plot device want his daughter to play it? Does he want her to date a boy who is a huge fan of his work?

Doxxing, hit lists of critics, and threats of violence are not part of gamer culture. They’re part of asshole troll culture. If that’s not the group you want to be associated with, don’t behave that way.

Shaming gamers with insults about their sexual experience, hobbies, and employability is not part of feminist culture. It’s part of asshole troll culture. If that’s not the group you want to be associated with, don’t behave that way.


In this debate I’m uncomfortable labeling myself as a “gamer” or “feminist”, but I believe in equal rights for women and I play games. The word “feminist” is associated with political, social, and linguistic movements that I don’t entirely support, so that word has been damaged in my eyes though I fit the actual definition. As for being a gamer, I don’t play a lot of the games that have been criticized for one main reason: I’m lousy at them. I startle too easily to play horror games or first-person shooters and my hand-eye coordination isn’t good enough for driving or twitchy role-playing games. Wish I could, and I’m a fan, but my participation is limited by my nature, much like I love auto racing but had vivid images of certain death on the first loop I took around a track at 160 miles per hour.

Some articles if you need background on the current issues:


Posted by on September 1, 2014 in Gaming, Gender & Sexuality


Tags: , , , , ,

4 responses to “Fighting about games: the incredibly nasty last two weeks

  1. Becky

    September 2, 2014 at 8:06 am

    I’ve too been watching this escalating war of words from a distance.

    Personally, I’m a supporter of Anita Sarkeesian’s work. While these issues go well beyond Sarkeesian, she has certainly become a lightning rod for a vocal minority of gamers of both sexes that are greatly disturbed by her popularity and growing influence. What I find most disturbing are the unacceptable reactions she has generated on the side of who you call the “He-Man Women Haters Club” – reactions that range from sexually-violent insults to death threats towards her and her loved ones for simply having an opinion (that she backs up with an overwhelming plethora of evidence, I should add).

    I think Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos should be required viewing for *everyone* involved in video game development today – from the “money” to QA and marketing. I agree with you, creative output should not be governed by a political correctness police, but continued ignorance and perpetuation of the status quo isn’t a viable option if gaming is to be mature as a respectable industry. 45% of gamers are women, a growing demographic that game marketers would be stupid to ignore. The backlash, in my opinion, is long overdue.

    After seeing these videos, I think that both women and men might think twice about how they portray women (and especially violence against women) in video games. I certainly now see what I didn’t see before and that illumination can only be a good thing. One AAA gaming creative director even cites Sarkeesian’s work as inspirational in the creation and development of arguably the best female characterisation in gaming to date: Ellie in Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us” which for many reasons in a watershed moment in video gaming, one of them being Ellie’s character.

    Lastly, I’m going to take issue with this: “Women are complicit in the objectification of women in gaming.” Firstly, stereotypes don’t exist solely because living examples of them exist (e.g. “oversexualized girl gamers”). People adopt and perpetuate stereotypes to help serve an existing bias or prejudice, and these oversimplified images and ideas are accepted by other people as reality because they are lazy thinkers, or because it confirms their pre-existing biases, hopes and fears. Acknowledging that there is a grain of truth in a stereotype doesn’t excuse its continued propagation (I’m guessing you’re not doing that, but it read that way on the first pass).

    Secondly, a woman, being nude, or dressed in sexy clothing, or in a pose that accentuates her physical features, or even might strike others as sexually suggestive, relevant or not, is not an invitation or an excuse for others to objectify her. Again, I don’t believe you’re excusing it, but it bears repeating that objectification requires a *Subject* to do the objectifying, and to not place active responsibility on those who are doing the objectifying (including gamers and game developers both) is treading dangerously close to the “She’s just asking for it” defence. I agree, appreciation is not objectification. As you say, “there is nothing shameful in appreciating the aesthetics of the human body” as long as it’s accompanied with respect for her (or his) dignity.

    Which finally brings me to the current invasion of privacy of Jennifer Lawrence, as a timely example: She might have been technically naive, but I am sure you would agree that she is in no way complicit in the resultant objectification that her leaked images have catalysed. In my view, the massive over-reaction to the leaked images is a bigger story than the leak itself, demonstrating again that sexual objectification is alive and well, despite all the progress we believe has been made.

    • Kay

      September 2, 2014 at 10:50 am

      Well said. Thank you so much for commenting thoughtfully.

      Many of the responses to Anita Sarkeesian are clearly beyond acceptable behavior, and I would start with the furious and disgusting language used in some video responses to her before even considering the so-obviously-wrong threats of violence. No argument there. I don’t think that her videos are beyond criticism, however. From my point of view, she tends to make excellent points with very clear evidence, then she weakens them by trying to draw straight connections to social issues beyond the games instead of offering alternatives or solutions in the framework of the media she’s critiquing. That contributes to why she gets tossed into the “Social Justice Warrior” bin by people who don’t want to really consider the points she raises.

      It’s fair for you to call me out on my glib statement about female gamer stereotypes. Probably lazy writing and I’ll think more about it. I was trying carefully not to characterize women and girls who choose sexually suggestive names/clothing/poses in the way that many others do, as mere seekers of attention and approval from men. However, that stereotype of the controller-covered girl gamer would not exist if there was only one girl who chose to pose like that and share it.

      You’re right, I wouldn’t say “she’s asking for it” as a defense of illegal behavior. But I think there is a difficult line to draw. We don’t get a free pass to say “LOOK AT ME!!!” and then get angry when someone does. A female MMORPG player who chose Pussy4You as her avatar name appears to be inviting sexual commentary, just like the male player who chose Rammdass. (I’m not making either of those up.) Neither of those gamers deserves harassment, threats, stalking, or to be treated as less than a human being. But, I think they have forfeited the right to claim offense at sexual overtures or jokes that go no further. Some women want sexual attention and dress and act like X specifically to attract it. Some women dress and act like X but don’t want sexual attention. We are sending mixed messages and some confusion is legitimate.

      I have to disagree with you about objectification, and I disagree with much of the prevailing feminist opinion on this. When we’re talking about something as primal as the desire to mate, and the initial attraction between a mating pair is usually visual, appearance is meaningful. If I see a curvaceous statue and have a visceral response that causes my gaze to linger appreciatively, I have done nothing wrong. If I see a curvaceous stranger and have a visceral response that causes my gaze to linger appreciatively, I have done nothing wrong. It’s when I make the choice to hump the statue in the middle of the museum or to whistle and gawk at the stranger that I’ve crossed the line. I think we need to stop shaming people of every gender for acting like sexual beings even when they practice self-control, and overuse of the “the male gaze” and “objectification” seems, to me, like a way to validate female sexuality while invalidating others.

      That said, I think that game developers, artists, authors, filmmakers, and so on would be well served by understanding the difference between sexy and sexualized. The female federation commander in an MMORPG could be dressed in a well-cut uniform that highlights her battle-ready physique and her strength, intelligence, and appearance could be sexy. But the way she is depicted now, in a slinky gown more appropriate for wailing torch songs in a jazz club, cigarette in a long holder poised near her pouting lips? That’s sexualization. I don’t think that any of us are saying that characters in games can’t be attractive, appealing, or even arousing, but having character design or existence (strippers in the background) for titillation only shouldn’t be an acceptable practice. I like this blog post about sexism vs. sexy vs. sexualization:

      Ah, the leaked photos. Our embrace of celebrity culture makes the famous into targets, regardless of sex. While this particular release focused on female celebrities, over the weekend there was also a woman who recorded a Snapchat of a boy band member exposing himself for her, which she then released with his name attached. There’s been a recent round of speculation over a bulge in the thigh of Idris Elba’s pants. What do we say about those fellows? Were they not objectified? Idris Elba was fully dressed and not offering any sexual hints; was the reaction to him not sexualization? When women make ourselves into a protected class but then participate in the behavior we forbid others, I see it as hypocrisy.

      • Becky

        September 2, 2014 at 12:32 pm

        Our views are probably more similar than my initial comment might have communicated.

        On the Feminist Frequency series: I didn’t say Sarkeesian’s videos were beyond criticism. She could have made different choices that might have made them more appealing to more people. Still, I choose to consider what she’s done as highly valuable, despite being imperfect. Isn’t it great however, that despite all the hate, she still perseveres when it would have been much easier to give up on the project? We need more like her coming forward, sticking their heads above the parapet and raising their voices. Criticising her research or conclusions is one thing, but most of what I’ve seen and heard is said in such a condescending, sarcastic, threatening and ad hominem tone, it makes you wonder how anyone else will have the courage to step up without anticipating the fear and danger her opinions have raised – and that’s monumentally sad.

        I’m tending to agree, with the “look at me!!!” point that you’re making with your example of avatar names. We see this kind of thing in Second Life too, using sexually provocative names as attention seeking devices, and I can see how something as communicative (and often permanent) as a chosen name might indeed influence the way you’re reacted to.

        I suppose the real life equivalent would be going out in public wearing a skin-tight t-shirt that said “Pussy4You”. You’re right, claiming offence at sexual overtures or jokes would be silly. I’m wondering though if the same could be said for the same skin-tight t-shirt with no wording on it. Would it then be ok? I think that’s the difference actually, the first is a clear message to be considered as a sexual object (e.g. “Pussy) for the use of the subject (e.g. “You”). With the absence of the message on the same t-shirt however, would you argue the same thing? Surely, there’d be no mixed message here would there?

        On objectification, certainly appearances are meaningful and instinctive signals for mating suitability, of that there is no doubt. I’d have exactly the same responses that you suggest to similar visual stimuli, and I wouldn’t feel the least bit shameful about it. If the gazes were directed at me, surely I’d become more self-conscious, but no, I’d not be offended. That to me, is healthy appreciation. Further, I agree completely about “crossing the line”, which is why I mentioned the required respect that would accompany such appreciation.

        Yes, there is a profound difference between sexy and sexualised, and I would agree with the points you raised about that. There is something disingenuous about portraying women in only a sexualised way, and it serves to unground the work – whether it be a video game, a painting, a book, or a film.

        On the leak – touted as the “biggest celebrity scandal in history”, (the very fact that some media is calling this a “scandal” is offensive, given that the victims did absolutely nothing wrong – “crime” is a better word, but I digress…) Being a target because of your celebrity is one thing (while still not justified as a trade-off for one’s dignity and privacy), but rarely is the flavour of the attacks the same for both sexes. There were 101 names on that list of celebrities whose images were stolen. One of them was a male and he was pictured with a woman. That’s just the thing, you actually would have to search for the instances were men were publicly shamed for being sexual. And yes, if the same thing happened to men, and men and women raced to the internet to gawk at these images, they too would be objectified. There is no difference. There is no hypocrisy. The fact is, however, that men are relatively free to bare their bodies without repercussion. There is a relatively tiny market for such material, for the very reason that it’s supply is easily acquirable (e.g. a Snapchat), without the need to go to such great lengths, such as hacking into someone’s encrypted cloud storage.

  2. Kay

    September 2, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    Such good questions and thoughts. I’ve missed you, Becky!

    Where do we draw the line of what invites sexual attention and what doesn’t? Personally, I’d say that a skin-tight shirt doesn’t warrant abrupt sexual invitations or jokes, but that if she highlights certain body parts, they’re going to get more attention. If someone one is wearing a push-up bra and a low-scooped top, it’s a bit disingenuous to sniff about someone looking at her breasts before her eyes. However, that’s my opinion, and it’s shaped by my culture and age. Some cultures would find that skin-tight shirt to be flagrantly sexual and others would wonder why she was so covered up.

    For that matter, I wonder if we are completely aware of our motivations when we dress. Women’s magazines (TV shows, blogs, etc) scream at us about how to dress, starve, and groom ourselves for the gaze of others far more loudly than they tell us to love ourselves as we are. On a whim, I just checked out the website and the lead story is a fashion editorial on coats…featuring a model flashing her lingerie beneath. I’ve never worn lingerie under a coat for comfort, utility, or self-actualization, but I may have done it to arouse a partner, which then would result in pleasure for me. Was it an empowered choice? Was it a sexual choice of mine or just to please another? If we were dressing only for ourselves, fashion magazines would have to feature many more yoga pants, oversized t-shirts, and scrunchy pony tails.

    I’ve read some interesting pieces about the stolen celebrity photos today (I haven’t sought out the photos or read the list of names). That this image set is full of female celebrities says, I believe, a lot about the sexual preference of the hacker(s) and the audience with whom he/they planned to share their loot. I’ve seen a couple writers connect this hack to the attitude of revenge porn. Sure, maybe. That might tie into the behavior of the young woman I saw yesterday, wanting to knock down Jennifer Lawrence while enhancing her own status. On the other hand, I’ve also seen accusations of victim-blaming hurled at to anyone who dared to say, “this is why you should be more aware of your digital security.” No, that’s not victim blaming. Saying, “she deserved this because she took nude photos and used a stupid password” is victim blaming, but this SHOULD be an awareness raiser for everyone with digital items they don’t want to share with the world. The theft of these photos was a crime and that they were released to the public was unfair and unfortunate, but the bell cannot be unrung. I hope the perpetrators are caught and prosecuted aggressively, and that the people in the photos find peace.


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