Opinion: In the sexism discussion, let's look at game culture

Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander takes stock of a rising tide favoring discussion of gender issues in games -- can we take the dialogue further by looking past symptoms?
Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander takes stock of a rising tide favoring discussion of gender issues in games -- can we take the dialogue further by looking past symptoms? In recent months, the games press and hobbyist blogosphere alike have been alight with a promising trend: To address prejudice and imbalance in game culture, particularly as concerns the portrayal and representation of women. From education and discussion on rape culture and male gaze to personal stories from women whose experience of the game industry has been impacted by sexism, these are the conversations we seem to be most passionate about right now. For the first time in my life as a video game player, there's a broad audience of people to whom this dialog has become essential. Where serious sexism and simply tacky boys-club stuff alike were once, at best, waved away with "this is just how it is," and at worst shouted down by furious mobs terrified of having their fun ruined, we now as a group rally together. We share a commitment to showing that we refuse to tolerate discriminatory behavior, insensitivity or ignorance as a status quo. Obviously as someone who works in games, my population sampling is going to be biased, but it seems to me that this topical revolution is even more prominent in games than it is in other forms of media right now. Maybe we're making up for lost time, applying the vigor required to undo years of damage caused by a young industry content for years to be insular, marketed to a male demographic of a certain age. People who've been silent for a long time are louder when it's finally time to be heard. They're courageous. We should be proud of them. This isn't just a cultural learning experience for men who either weren't interested in fighting sexism or who simply were not aware of the problem. We women are learning and exploring too, assessing our own roles in the landscape and how we want to express ourselves. Most everyone I know is reading and enjoying Jenn Frank's recent article in which she charts her journey to discover feminism as a geek girl -- and how she initially rejected it. I can relate, too: in some of my early writing I used my newfound platform in games writing to talk about sexuality in games, and in so doing I frequently found myself defending certain types of content because it didn't offend me, like see dudes, I'm a girl and I say it's okay, so it is. Like Jenn throughout her life, I had a lot of growing up to do. I talk regularly with female colleagues and what I'm learning is that it isn't easy for any of us. One friend of mine wonders how to cope with the fact that she'd rather support other women than call attention to her own struggles. I've talked with colleagues who fear that speaking up about victimization -- like Katie Williams did when she wrote about feeling undermined and judged at game demos -- might be misinterpreted as promoting victimhood at the expense of analyzing wider systemic issues. Some say our rush to quench small fires, such as a trailer or a single ignorant quote, disempowers us from coping with the big picture. I've seen people wondering that as we learn to be sensitive to others, will we become oversensitive somehow?

Speaking up

My friends have told me I'm sometimes too angry on Twitter and I need to pick my battles in a positive, respectful way. Still others say that a focus on sexism is reductive and excludes other issues, like a lack of racial diversity or the struggles of the LGBTQ community. It's confusing. We can't tell one another how to feel, and none of us is qualified to prescribe a single way to feel or operate in this climate of passion and the need for change. Late last year I was honored to be invited to keynote TIFF Nexus' Women in Film, Games and New Media day in Toronto, and as I spoke on why I think diversity on all frontiers can make games better, I also shared my own journey in trying to define what being a woman in games means to me. Ultimately my advice was that I can't advise, that this process is personal -- but that talking with one another and speaking up is a place to start. That's why it's good that so much writing from women about women and our roles and experiences is proliferating, and why it's positive that it's finding such a wide audience in the video game thought space. We're reacting honestly to troubling things in our environment, like when game developers half-bake tacky plot points for their female heroines. Or like when Anita Sarkeesian's fundraiser to explore stereotypes for women and girl characters in games results in a nauseating firestorm of hatred -- culminating in a game where the object is to beat Sarkeesian in the face. Here's the thing. Maybe it's a tall order, but I'd like us to do more.

What can we do about it?

I've read and retweeted a good-sized bushel of Anita Sarkeesian articles lately. Most of them, I find on Twitter, posted by passionate friends wanting to spread the word. We're all horrified by this, shaken to the core that anyone would express such groundless, vile hatred toward a woman collecting entirely optional donations to do a video series -- let alone people from the game community, people who are supposed to be our people. We process, we spread the word, we share our outrage and confusion. I've heard from some people who are still baffled about why most writers in games are focusing on these issues right now. Yes, it's horrible, but what can we do about it? On one hand, I am always frustrated with the idea that somehow it's no good to talk about a problem -- in this case, misogyny in the game industry -- unless we can somehow prescribe solutions. Often, talking about a problem is a good first step; sometimes, informed discussion creates a solutions-oriented culture. On the other hand, though, maybe we can go further right now than mutually agreeing to be outraged. One thing I hear a lot is that equality issues aren't any worse in the games industry than they are at large. This, I don't believe -- comics and other fandoms we'd historically call "geek stuff" grapple with the same problems. But in games, as well as comics and other male-dominated nerd arenas, the business model leverages risk aversion against a habituated, narrow audience. It doesn't favor experimenting to try to give these people newer, smarter things. More importantly, neither do the traditions of geek culture, which is founded in misunderstood people prizing their special escapes from the uninitiated, keeping sacred the spaces that make them feel powerful. For most people, this is their identity, and if you tell them you want to change it in any way they are going to fear losing their power. It's not surprising that issues of privilege get tangled in the morass. Games have it bad. Anita Sarkeesian has done a number of video series about gender stereotypes. Only when she tried her hand at games did the monsters come. Despite all the snarking and outrage about booth babes at E3 this year, when I walked the show floor it wasn't the costumed women that let me know I didn't really belong here anymore. It was the content, and the attitude to content. Men reciting marketing lines about weapons and explosions. The question every trailer and presentation aimed to answer was who do you kill and how do you kill them. I thought of all the good, smart guys I know on dev teams and struggled to reconcile it with this numb, mean litany, devoid of much aside from the quest for dollars. Shoulder to shoulder, men marched proudly in their studio tees. The more money they have made off of shooters, the higher they held their heads. We have a mainstream culture that doesn't represent what a mature, progressive audience wants to buy. It's not always a problem when this happens -- interesting, independent creation will always thrive on the fringe of any medium. But here we have a mainstream culture many healthy adults cringe at being associated with. It's not just good dumb fun: There's something sick about it. Of course I want women to speak up about what happens to them at, say, E3. The hostility this year was palpable. It's unreal how people think they can treat woman colleagues at a media event, resentment and poor social skills colliding late at night over an open bar. Every single one of us can tell you at least one horror story. Most of us have more than one. Booth babes, incidences of sexism, using attempted rape as a Tomb Raider "character builder," the way a community treated Anita Sarkeesian -- none of these are things we should shut up about. Yet to go further in tackling these issues I'd like to look at them as symptoms, not as the problems themselves. There's something wrong with our commercial games, and with the core audience that buys and loves them. There's something broken about the marketing machine that keeps feeding this ouroboros. There is a power structure in place and we need to find out who to talk to in order to take it apart. That'll keep our message from getting stalled at the echo chamber level; our goal is primarily a healthy industry with diverse products by and for anyone that wants to participate. Let's keep processing our feelings, but let's also try to ask devs harder questions. There are people who see this tide of anger and impatience at injustice and just feel assailed and helpless: Now that they know who we are and how we feel, let's give them more tools. Let's find our allies in the creative community, the people doing things that we want to champion instead of condemn. That's what I'd like to do more of from here on out.

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