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Fighting about games: the incredibly nasty last two weeks

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.

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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.

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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:

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

 

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What is the “lived experience” of virtual life?

Consider two descriptions of the same event.

It’s just before seven on a Tuesday morning and people are entering the great room at the Zen Buddhist retreat.  They greet each other and make small talk as they settle onto cushions arranged among the sunbeams on the wide plank floor. The meditation leader shares a thought-provoking quote and then lightly taps a bell to begin the daily session of silent meditation. Latecomers take cushions at the back of the room and before long, the only sounds to be heard are the birds outside and the hushed exhalations of slow communal breathing.  People shift slightly on their cushions and candles flicker. At the end of thirty minutes, the meditation leader again rings the bell and shares a thought. The participants slowly rise, thanking her and wishing each other a peaceful day before going off in different directions. One young man bows to the monk in the corner with a soft namaste and slips a donation into the box nearby.

Or:

In places around the planet, people of varied age, ethnicity, nationality and belief notice that it’s almost 7:00 am US Pacific time and go to their computers.They load a viewer program and log in to the Second Life service, watching as their avatars and surroundings rez (appear), and then open the Landmarks folder in their online inventories and double-click on “Kannonji”. The screen goes black and then another scene slowly rezzes: a large log cabin surrounded by trees and flowers. There are already some avatars inside the cabin, including a man dressed as a jester and a woman in an evening gown and very high heels. An oversized cat avatar wearing Buddhist robes sits in a corner. Each person uses the arrow keys and mouse on his own keyboard to move his avatar inside, right-click on an empty cushion, and command the avatar to sit. Text floods the screen as the meditation leader’s avatar pastes a quote into local chat and then activates a bell sound file. For the next thirty minutes, while the avatars occasionally fidget because of the animation scripts in the cushions and the area background sounds of birdsong and slow breathing play, the people controlling those avatars could be doing anything at all. Then, the meditation leader repeats the bell sound and the participants click “Stand” to pull their avatars off the cushions, quickly activating animation override programs to stop awkward and jerky motions. One of the participants triggers a gesture that makes his avatar bow to the cat monk and type “@–>–  Namaste” in the local chat window, and then he right-clicks on a donation box, chooses ” Pay” from the pie menu, and transfers fifty Linden dollars (about twenty US cents) from his account to the account of the person who rents the simulator and disk space on which the Kannonji Zen Retreat is hosted. Some avatars vanish, others are moved outside the building before being teleported away.

Inside the Kannonji zendo

Inside the Kannonji zendo

For an anthropologist, could either of those be considered the lived experience of the people involved?  Does it lie somewhere between?  Can it be generalized or is it distinctly individual because not only is each person a separate entity, but in this case, at least two entities? Can we accurately describe someone as meditating in a virtual world when the avatar is in a meditation pose but the actions of the physical person are unknown?

I think this is a complex, intriguing problem and another where a researcher is well-served by lengthy in-world fieldwork rather than surveys or briefly peering in from outside. Even the self-descriptions of those involved in the meditation will have a lot of variance. While one could record either the scenario in-world or that on the other side of the keyboard, I think the richness of the experience comes from a combination of the two. As we move toward better interaction technology which makes avatar control less artificial (motion and facial expression sensors, wider use of voice or voice recognition, etc), I expect the gap between what is experienced simultaneously in RL and a virtual world will narrow. Qualitative data from this period might show the flexibility of the human imagination, which — at least for some — can construct a highly compelling, immersive reality despite the technical hurdles that must be leaped to do it.

[Sections of this post first appeared in my capstone paper on virtual embodiment for an anthropology theory course.]

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2013 in Embodied Experience

 

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