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Incidental bias is still offensive

Recently I became a volunteer tester for a new game*. In this system, the default avatar is non-human and apparently without gender. The company currently provides thirteen additional pre-built complete human avatars: seven male, six female, with some diversity of appearance. You could think of it like the array of mesh avatars for new users in Second Life:

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In the other system, each avatar has a small paragraph of description and backstory. Though they aren’t intended to be roleplayed in that way, someone took the time to invent personalities and characteristics for these thirteen avatars. There are quite a few errors in spelling and grammar and the writing is terrible. The lack of quality reinforces the fact that these avatars and their descriptions are not the core business of the company. However, the content is public and directly associated with the company’s name (“created by companyname” is on each listing).

So, how does this connect to the title of this post?

First, there are some uncomfortable racial descriptions in the content. The one avatar that looks Asian is described as “cunning” — a bit close to the stereotype of the inscrutable Asian — and of course he practices martial arts. The black male avatar “has flavor”; in context this indicates he has a sense of style, but the shift of language from the other descriptions is unpleasant. It’s like describing a few white men as handsome and then the black one as fly.

Then there’s the misogyny, both blatant and subtle. When you read the description “organic, farm-raised”, do you think of chicken? Cows? No, silly! That’s a woman. None of the male characters are described in terms of family life, but the description for one female avatar strangely says that “she’d be an exceptional mother of five, still ready to bear more.” Earthy and maternal women are terrific, but descriptions that make them sound like livestock are not.

You can see more bias in the groupings below. I took the words used to describe each avatar — leaving out direct references to hobbies and professions, sticking to personality and appearance — pulled them into a list with the others, and alphabetized. I’ve altered them a little to make the lists more syntactically consistent (writing “put” as “puts”, for example), but not to change the content.

Words used in female descriptions: BFF, charming, courteous, cute, doll, down to earth, fills your heart, friendly, incredible beauty, intelligent, kind, lights up your life, lovely, (will) make you fall in love with life, organic, (has) perpetually perfect eye makeup, quirky, rare bird, shy (briefly), studious, sweet, (has) tenacity

Words used in male descriptions: all-around exceptional, always growing, biggest softy, built of steel, casual, cocky, confident, cool, cool-headed, (has) courage, ever-new, extra supportive, handsome, (has) muscle, kind (3 times), living proof (of how to get a great six-pack), looks soft, makes hard decisions fast, marvelous, masculine marvel, mean when mad, means business, (has) no time for jerking around, perfect blue eyes, puts life on the line everyday, quick-witted, respects authority, sharp, smooth talking, thoughtful, tough as nails, wavy hair, (has a) work ethic, works hard everyday

The male descriptions, while over-the-top, show some variety. The female words could be used to describe a single manic pixie dream girl. Heck, some of the descriptions aren’t even about the woman, they’re about the observer (fills your heart, lights up your life, will make you fall in love with life). I get sick of people pointing out “the male gaze”, but that’s a textbook example.

There’s an easy fix for the offensive avatar descriptions: they can be removed. If text is necessary, it would make more sense (for search purposes) to describe hair color, body type, and clothing. There really isn’t an excuse to leave them online as they are.

Look, in the grand scheme of things, these avatar descriptions aren’t a big deal. I know that. They might have been dashed off by an intern and not reviewed, but they are sloppy and insulting and bear the company’s name. The company is also focusing their priorities on users without disabilities but with significant tech budgets; they’re not specifically excluding others, but seem to consider accessibility someone else’s problem for the future. Taken together, these make the company seem privileged and arrogant, backward-thinking instead of the visionaries they want to be.

* I struggled with how to present this topic and still protect the company I’m writing about. Some of you will know immediately; please leave the name out of any comments. I have neither an obligation to them nor an ax to grind. I’d like to see them succeed, which is why I mentioned this issue in a relevant thread on their forums and allowed a day for the descriptions to be cleaned up before I blogged. They have not been, as of now.

So, I’ve changed a few details about the company and product, but not about the problematic content. I could have skipped this topic altogether, but I think that with all the discussions around misogyny in the tech industry, it’s valid to call out examples like this and it’s important to talk about them.

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Posted by on April 3, 2015 in Gender & Sexuality, Side Topics

 

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Reason magazine’s Video Game Nation cover: misogynist or really damn misogynist?

By way of a story link, I found myself at Reason magazine’s site. There I discovered that the theme of the June 2014 issue was “Video Game Nation”. My reaction was

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Then I saw the cover art for the print edition:

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And my reaction became

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The image is a riff on a Grand Theft Auto V ad and the man in the illustration is surrounded by paraphernalia that specifically relates to the article What’s Libertarian About Gamers? Ironically, that same article had this to say about the sex of gamers:

For those who still operate on the belief the gamers are mostly male, set the sexism aside. The gender split is nearly 50/50, though we did not determine whether women and men liked to play the same kinds of games.

So… the article says that their survey showed just about half of gamers are women. How exactly is a cover illustration showing a gaming guy in a suit and a nagging, buxom blonde in a halter, short shorts, and Ugg boots appropriate or accurate?  The image tries to show the “truth” about (male) gamers according to the survey, yet resorts to an insulting, outdated, sexist trope for the woman and the interaction between the two figures. I’m not sure who the artist is, since the piece seems to be signed with three triangles, so I’ll blame magazine Editor-in-Chief Matt Welch.

I’m not thin-skinned or overly precious, I get jokes, and I don’t go hunting for sexism. But as a woman who grew up gaming, worked in technology, and continues to write about both topics, sexism frequently slaps me across the face. I didn’t expect to see it on such vulgar display by Reason, whose articles I read often and to which I used to subscribe. I’m deeply disappointed and more than a little pissed off.

Women gamers come up against a variety of reactions. Some men — thank you very much, guys — treat us like anyone else. They judge us by our ingame skills, accept us as friends and equals, and don’t care whether we are tomboys or girly girls (said with affection not derision; I am one). Others bend over backwards to be chivalrous, give us things we haven’t earned, and treat us as special and beautiful creatures. While that’s a pleasant situation and some female gamers (and men playing as women) take advantage of it, it’s inappropriate, unfair, and unintentionally condescending. But then there is the reaction that female gamers see all too often, especially if they dare to roam into “masculine” realms like war games. A lot of gamers talk trash, but the vitriol spewed at female gamers is often gender-specific. We are threatened with stalking, rape, and mutilation. We get demands to show our tits and if we refuse, are told we must be fat ugly cows. We get propositioned over and over and over. Give the sexism tag at Kotaku a look if you want some specific examples. The Reason cover has managed to reinforce that women are not real gamers. At least the artist showed restraint and didn’t draw a stove behind her, so she could literally be in the kitchen instead of gaming — a taunt heard often enough that female gamer/artist Jenny Haniver named her harassment awareness website Not In The Kitchen Anymore.

Another area of concern for female gamers is the hypersexualized portrayal of women characters: big bouncing breasts and tiny waists in skimpy and impractical outfits. The Reason cover flaunts this type of sexism as well. The man is hefty and fully clothed while the woman is dressed for… her shift as a go-go dancer? A music festival? I’m not really sure who’s wearing that combination nowadays. Her clothes are skin-tight and skimpy and her cleavage is ample. Was the artist trying to make a dig at the male gamer, who would rather play than be with his hot girlfriend? I don’t think so. Her folded arms and scornful face don’t paint her as an alluring woman, despite her bodacious body.

Some of the articles in the issue are fairly good and others are lightweight. It’s a shame they didn’t choose to showcase male and female gamers playing side-by-side or competitively; images that would not only have been less offensive, but more accurate. In the end, I’m left with one reaction for the artist, the editorial staff, and anyone at Reason or Reason.com who saw the cover art and thought it was a fine choice to promote their content:

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UpdateReason magazine replied to this criticism already, when the cover came under attack when the issue first appeared. The rebuttal is written by Managing Editor Katharine Mangu-Ward and she says that Art Director Barb Birch commissioned the image. So, women can be insensitive about female gamers too. Apparently Matt Welch wanted a “cleaned up” recognizable image (from Grand Theft Auto V), and said, “we’re paying respect to that culture”. Removing the raunchiness of the original pays no respect to the culture of the game and keeping the non-playing, nagging woman in the artwork pays no respect to the culture of gaming or to women. Why did they only update the man’s appearance and attitude?

 

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