On May 17th, 2012, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian launched the [Kickstarter] for the “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” video series for her pop culture commentary site, [Feminist Frequency]. It was funded in a day.
She also started receiving the targeted harassment, gendered and racial slurs, rape threats, death threats and idiocy which is unfortunately kind of the status quo response to speaking up about feminist issues in certain public and “male” spaces. You can [see some screenshots here], and, as [The Mary Sue] pointed out, “All [this] for the crime of being a woman talking about women in video games. No, not for being a woman talking about video games. For being a woman who had announced that she would, at some point in the future, be talking about video games.”
It’s now mid-October, and we’re in the middle of “GamerGate”: a convoluted shitstorm of misogyny, game players, journalists, and developers that’s associated with mass shooting threats.
What is this post?
This is going to be long, but I promise there is a plan even if it takes me a while to get around to everything I want to say. It’s no secret that there’s a lot more going on in #GamerGate than “Ethics!” and misogyny. I’m a feminist, and I play games. I don’t usually say I’m a “gamer” because even though I play games, I don’t feel like I play “enough” games--or enough of the “right” games--to call myself a gamer. I have more to say about the adoption or rejection on the gamer label later, but I wanted to get that out there.
I spend a lot of time reading about and volunteering with feminist and humanist causes, and work a “straight” job in research science. Hobby-wise, I also perform music with a feminist, nerd-themed burlesque troupe. None of this really matters, but I want to establish that I am not an expert in the video games industry, nor do I care to be. I’m a just a regular person and this is relevant to my interests. I’m not a sociologist, but I really wish I was after starting to organize all this stuff to write it down.
What is Gamer Gate? A reduction of dialogues
Before I go into detail, here’s a short version of the current conversation:
#GamerGate: a loose collection of voices and opinions converging on accusations of corruption and ethics violations in video game journalism. The unfair characterization of gamers as misogynist in both mainstream media and existing gaming-focused media.
#StopGamerGate2014: a loose collection of voices calling for improved representations of women in video games and better treatment of women in game spaces--i.e., less toleration of sexism, harassment, and misogyny in gamer and game industry culture.
So, superficially, there’s an enormous communication breakdown because each side is talking about a different issue. There are two different dialogues in the same space. Why is this happening?
What is “gamer” culture and why are they stereotyped pretty awfully in the media?
I don’t want to go into detailed industry history because I don’t really know it. I was born in 1985. We had a Nintendo. Super Nintendo, like, blew my mind. Nintendo 64 was a revelation and I played hours and hours of Ocarina of Time and Rogue Squadron in middle school--sweet, sweet nostalgia. Middle school was terrible. Games and Star Wars novels were fun. I wasn’t a loner, but a lot of other girls weren’t playing video games either.
But whatever. So who are gamers now? Short answer: pretty much everyone and their mom and their two-year-old after she stopped trying to put the smart phone in her mouth.
Yet when I say “gamer”, that’s not what I picture. I picture a white, young adult or late adolescent male, sitting on a bean bag, trash-talking into a headset on XBox Live. Based on the general characterizations of gamers in mainstream media, that’s a nice version of cultural perception of gamers. Why? I have a few theories about contributing factors:
- Self-identification and visibility
- Game marketing
- Moral panics and scapegoating
- Self-identification and visibility
I love to go to sci-fi conventions. I don’t really cosplay, but I like dressing up in my stage costume and walking around with a water bottle filled with gin. At my home convention, I moderate and participate on panels. I adore conventions and wish I had more time and money to attend them. I also wish booking a room at one of the main DragonCon hotels wasn’t such a gauntlet of session time-outs. The racial demographics of many genre conventions are still overwhelmingly white and the sexual orientations are overwhelmingly straight (to be fair, most of the general population is basically straight too). They gender demographics are pretty close to an even representation of people who identify as men and people identifying as women, plus at least a few people of other genders or gender identification.
The point is, women are at these things. And while I realize there isn’t a direct translation of fans of video games and fans of table-top games and RPGs (like Dungeons & Dragons), the “game room” hosted by many conventions is pretty telling. When you walk in the door, it’s almost exclusively--if actually exclusively--men and boys.
Pictures and footage from game conferences feature men. Gaming advertisements in the West feature white men. StarCraft/League of Legends tournaments--notably in Korea--draw huge audiences and advertising dollars. Programming and engineering classes are mostly men, a large number of them white (though many men of Asian and Southeast Asian origin/descent have been making amazing inroads in visibility and influence in the English-speaking world). So, yeah. Lots of men are visible enough to come to mind as representative of the culture.
The perception of gamers as young is partially a carryover from long-term cultural biases of cartoons, video games, comics, etc. as the province of children, or those who aren’t serious about adult pursuits. Many of these began as media actively marketed to children (cartoons were adopted as children’s entertainment later), and the perception has never caught up. That leads us up to what I think is the key problem of the perception of gamers as male, and the perception that being a “gamer” is synonymous with anti-social, aggressive, or sexist: the way games are marketed.
- Game marketing
This is really just a mess from my outside perception. AAA titles are prone to truly awful commercials. For illustration, some low-hanging fruit: a television spot for Ocarina of Time, one of my favorite games.
For those without video, the ad shows some clips from the game of Link facing different enemies interspersed with script cards reading: “Willst thou flee? Or fight? Willst thou finish? Or die trying? And in the end, willst thou get the girl? Or play like one?”
I’m going to leave some of the more offensive implications of “play like girl” for later (and I will get to it!), but this ad is clearly aimed at men and boys. For many non-gamers, ads like these clearly might be the only exposure to games they get--especially for 1998. It’s a short spot; I get it. There’s only so much detail they can give about the story in that time.
I am grateful I didn’t see this ad until I was an adult. My pre-teen self would have been completely turned off and unlikely to ask for a copy of the game. This was a game clearly not meant for me--and I even identified as boyish. To me, it boiled down one of my favorite games ever into a boring smash-and-grab for a princess, and reinforced what a lot of my peers were saying: that games aren’t for girls. Girls don’t like games. We will not market to girls because by this point, girls don’t buy games. A post at How Not to Suck at Game Design, [Why Marketers Fear the Female Geek], gives a better overview of how it came to this than I could. The short version is that messaging reinforces whom products are “for”.
So anyway, I think when ads for games feature explosions, gratuitous violence, awesome giant guns (which are really fun parts of games!) and sexualized, scantily clad women wiggling around on poles, even really interesting games seem like the same-old juvenile male power fantasy. Game advertising strategies have not broadened as much as the demographic has, leaving passerby to assume nothing has changed.
- Moral panic and games and gamers as scapegoats
To touch briefly on this, games get blamed for things. There’s research on games and whether or not they cause aggression, and I’m not academically prepared to address that at this time.The short version is that like comic books and other media before them, “video games”--and by extension gamers--are a convenient subculture to pin weirdness on.
There are lots of examples, but it’s the most fun to point out the work of [Jack Thompson], a lawyer disbarred by the State of Florida and later reiterated in federal jurisdiction. Thompson famously said the Virginia Tech shooter in 2007 “trained” on Counter-Strike, though the shooter had been [last known to play Counter-Strike in high-school].
So, in short, even though gamers are an enormous swath of the population, people still think they’re either teenagers, aggressive, or worse.
The Problem for Gamers
For many self-identifying gamers, the “otherness” or feelings of elitism as compared to perceived mainstream population are a badge of honor. It’s a good feeling to be good at your hobby, and that extends across the broad gaming demographic. It can be a close knit community of friends (online and off), playful trash-talking, relaxation, immersive storytelling/story exploration, and fun. I remember turning off all the lights in the office with the family computer, slipping on some headphones, and trying to play Clive Barker’s Undying without totally freaking out. I never finished it--too stressful. But it was still fun!
Multiplayer games lend themselves to forming communities. It’s great. Communities and subcultures can be amazing sources of camaraderie, discussion, and identity--all that fuzzy good stuff. It’s also a source of stress and a chore, as many WoW raiders or EVE players like my husband can attest. I identify very strongly with the camaraderie I’ve found through my knitting hobby. You knit in public and new friends will just kind of happen.
For the “traditional” subset of gamers, the almost exclusive marketing attention and direction of some game development helped make the group special. Having a tight-knit (yay! knitting!) group that was born of perceived lower social status (“nerd” or “geek” used as an insult, or social awkwardness toward the mainstream--which I talk about later) can definitely contribute to an “us-versus-them” mentality. (I’m talking out of my ass here, so if actual social scientists want to chime in or suggest reading, please do.)
Unfortunately, gamers have an identity based in large part on consumer products made--ostensibly--for them. Ian Williams has a pretty thorough overview of this at [Jacobin] that talks in more detail about the history and problems of this. From my viewpoint, there is less generality in “gaming” than there is in “knitting”, and I describe some of this later when talking about “hardcore” and “casual” gaming.
As more game marketing focuses on capturing a wider demographic, the “gamers” themselves are feeling less and less special; less and less attention is given exclusively to them. The internet and online gaming helped make women gamers more visible and present in formerly male-dominated spaces. It’s hard not to feel like a girl in the treehouse, sometimes. The vast majority of men don’t hate women and like having them around, or at least don’t give a shit. Or if they do give a shit and don’t like it, they kinda just deal with it like--you know--people deal with stuff they don’t like. Media scholar Jason Mittell refers to this phenomenon and the reactions to it from the dominant group of a subculture as ["taste privilege"].
Anyway, because the gamer demographic is much more inclusive, what were once totally acceptable forms of locker-room trash-talk are no longer as well received. Language and intent matter. I have a huge problem with how having sex with the women in another person’s life is used as ribbing, but there’s a world of difference between “I slept with your mom last night and she thanked me” and “I’m gonna fucking rape your mom”. Both have sexist origins, but the latter example is--well--mean.
I know I keep saying I’ll get around to things, but I’ll get around to talking about why I think trash-talk of sexual and sexist nature seems to bother women more than it has traditionally bothered men. For now, just think about women being part of the online multiplayer locker room. It’s not that they’re trying to “hang with the boys”; they just want to blow stuff up too. Trash-talk is fun. My husband and I rib each other during all kinds of games. The line between “ribbing” and harassment is admittedly fuzzy; some gamers--particularly younger ones--are prone to insulating themselves. If you don’t regularly interact with a diverse group of people, you may not learn how to effectively adapt your language and behavior based on audience. Being able to code-switch your language (in this case, diction and usage), is essential.
I’ve heard gamers/geeks/whatever say (and I can probably find documentation of this on forums or Twitter) that changing your behavior to “conform with society” is “fake” or disingenuous. It’s not; it’s a societal navigation strategy.
An aside, I despise how we tend to make jokes about socially awkward or socially unconfident people being “on the spectrum.” Autism is an actual condition. Some people with autism are well-functioning members of society, while others may face more difficulty. Some people are socially awkward or “late-bloomers” or just haven’t gotten enough practice in. That’s different.
So anyway, the short version of this section is “game culture” is expanding and the original preferred market is expected to include women and share the spaces. This requires a little more social maneuvering, which sucks for some people who just want to play games and not think about stuff--which is a legitimate frame of mind for a hobby.
Women in gaming culture and the Gaming's Feminist Illuminati
Okay. So now we’re up to women having a voice in “gaming”. Even though [Gaming's Feminist Illuminati] isn't a real conspiracy, the paranoia that is sometimes expressed toward women in gaming is very much real.
The strength and weakness of the internet is that there’s something for everyone. As culture expands and becomes more fractured, we’re simultaneously participating in a greater number of increasingly focused subcultures. As it turns out, some of these subcultures involve tons of people all across the country, and often the world. And for just about any topic, you can find your preferred flavor of that topic.
The strength and weakness of the internet is that there’s something for everyone. As culture expands and becomes more fractured, we’re simultaneously participating in a greater number of increasingly focused subcultures. As it turns out, some of these subcultures involve tons of people all across the country, and often the world. And for just about any topic, you can find your preferred flavor of that topic.
Women in “gamer culture” are sometime treated like crap in a way men are not. We are sometimes accused of being “fake geek girls” if we haven’t played this or that famous title or aren’t Pokemon Masters. Marketing and messaging from various levels and types of games have made some men feel like the space is “theirs” because the idea “games aren’t for girls” is so pervasive; i.e. the “default” gamer is a man and the “other” gamer is a woman. Books with female protagonists for children and young adults are far more likely to be labeled “girl” books, and boys are discouraged from reading them (this ties in later). Girls, however, tend to read books with a wider diversity of protagonists. A study cited in [this article] also found that gender-neutral animal characters tended to be interpreted as male by mothers reading to both boys and girls. “Male” being the default and “female” being the other is an old problem expressing itself.
And some men are creepy. It’s scary to have someone say they want to rape you, even if they’re across the country. Paraphrasing Margaret Atwood, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them”. I get it. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve grown up being told not to walk alone at night (or during the day, at times), to go to the bathroom in groups, to walk to my car with my keys held firmly between my thumb and forefinger to slash at an attacker (this was even in 5th grade), not to park next to a paneled van, not to get drunk in public, not to dress too provocatively, to dress modestly (but not so modestly as to be sexually unattractive to mainstream society), to carry a rape whistle, to yell “FIRE!” if you’re being raped so people might actually come toward a struggle, carry pepper spray disguised as a pen, keep at least a quarter of a tank of gas in your car at all times in case someone follows you home and you need to circle around to lose them, don’t be the only woman in a room, don’t use parking decks, have a fake name and number ready to go, wear a fake wedding ring, don’t open the door if you’re home alone at night, don’t tease men by flirting (or, like, being outside), don’t say the word “No” in case it makes the dude trying to chat you up angry, pretend to talk on the phone if a man is walking too close to you, don’t look at anyone if you have to walk alone at night, don’t respond to cat callers because it’s dangerous, “act like a lady”, “good girls” don’t get into those kinds of situations, don’t masturbate because you need to preserve your purity for God and He will protect godly women (lol to that one! Read [Elizabeth Smart’s account] of her captivity and why she felt so worthless about not being a virgin after she was raped that she believed it wasn’t worth running away).
These are all things that have actually been said to me personally over the course of my life. If you have more, check out the “Safety Tips for Ladies” hashtag on twitter ([#SafetyTipsForLadies]) and have at it. It started in earnest and I’m hoping to see it continue in the satirical vein it adopted. A fan favorite:
If you hide your forearms in your sleeves, the rapist will mistake you for a T-Rex and carry on his way #safetytipsforladies
— Hilary Bowman-Smart (@hilaryjfb) March 20, 2013
I bring all of this up to illustrate the specific kind of cultural baggage women bring to game spaces. Over and over, women are told that sexual violence against us is preventable, and the onus of that prevention is on us. In a similar vein, female gamers are seen as bringing rape jokes and other shittiness on themselves for occupying this “male” space (given to them by people who want their money--which isn’t good or bad). For well-documented examples, Jenny at [Not in the Kitchen Anymore] features voice recordings, transcripts, and screen shots of her interactions with men and boys who specifically harass her based on her gender. What’s weird about it is not that these men talk dicks and call her a whore, but often they utilize that as if they think that’s a normal way to interact with women. Like, many of these men attempt to add her as a friend afterward and get angry if she denies them because she’s “not giving them a chance”--no joke.
There are also problems for women in gamer spaces in person. At conventions, “creepers” are not out of the ordinary. These sometimes manifest as men following you around, demanding your time and attention even after being rebuffed, or unsolicited touching. Most of this is well-meaning and comes from a genuine confusion about acceptable social interaction. Some of it comes from men feel entitled to female attention as “payment” for occupying “their” space. Or worse, some men feel entitled to your attention, period.
Anyway, with some of the cultural conditioning and baggage I mentioned above, I hope I’ve demonstrated some context for why “creepers” make many women particularly uncomfortable. I understand that someone who isn’t practiced in social cues would interpret “Hey, I’ve really gotta run to my next game session. See you around!” as “She wants to see me around and must be legitimately busy” instead of “OH GOD GET ME OUT OF HERE BUT I’M AFRAID TO SAY NO BECAUSE YOU MIGHT [STAB ME IN MY NECK] LATER IN RETRIBUTION,” as I personally sometimes mean it. There’s no good way to do this. If you directly rebuff someone, you are viewed as a bitch or an ice-queen or stuck-up or something. If you don’t directly rebuff someone, you were leading them on and not being assertive. If you were assertive and he stabs you in the neck, you should have given him a chance before it got to that point. If you went out with him and then he stabs you in the neck later for something, you “should have known better”.
So that is a source of suspicion women may sometimes feel toward men in these situations. Because there is a media perception and first-hand accounts and experience of some men being creepers, sometimes women feel less welcome and safe in convention spaces--even when the gathering is over a shared interest.
Before getting into depictions of women in video games, I want to talk a little more about “fake geek girls”. This is a meme that pokes fun at women who are just into geek culture for the fashion or to pick up guys or feel like queen bees with helpless nerd boys worshiping them--or something. This ties back in to the “traditional” gamer value of exclusivity. The “us-versus-them” mentality doesn’t have a lot of space for women, particularly women who are socially confident, attractive, or know how to do makeup--or something. Women don’t belong in “their” space. There are and have always been women in these spaces, but they haven’t been a primary marketing demographic.
I feel the reason that gamer exclusivity doesn’t have a lot of room for women is because rejection by women is touted as a bonding point for some gamers--particularly for some young gamers. Why are they rejected by women? It varies. Some are not rejected by women. Some women are rejected. Dating is hard and confusing, especially if you have any sort of social experience deficit or inhibiting shyness.
My preferred contributing theories all come back to the influence of the patriarchy. Let’s do this!
Patriarchy and getting laid
A contributing factor to gamer exclusivity is a perceived lower social status among its members. For example, many nerds and gamers were (and still are) bullied as children or teens.
Why? Mostly it’s because middle school is a miserable wasteland.
After that, geeks don’t a lot of the attributes defined by patriarchy. So if boys are supposed to be athletic, strong, and have winning smiles, the stereotypical attributes assigned the gamers don’t fit. Are they fat? Short? Wear glasses? Too good at math to be considered cool? Gamers are anti-social, right? Weirdos. Not All-American boys. (This is, of course, untrue.) So if you play video games and are pale and wear glasses and aren’t very socially confident on top of that, you’re pretty much socially fucked for a while.
Again, why? Because we value boys based on “boyishness” and rambunctiousness. Think about a mom describing her energetic son as “all boy”. What does that even mean? That he likes to play? The epitome of a small girl is “a little lady”. To me, this means pretty, polite, and quiet. A little boy who likes to sit quietly and read instead of run around and scrape up his knees? Does he “throw like a girl”? Being quiet and not being athletic is a trait the gender roles of patriarchy assign to women. A little boy with those traits? He’s too effeminate so it’s okay for other children to bully him. A little boy (in my own state) was told by school officials that he was asking to be beaten up and bullied for [carrying a Rainbow Dash lunchbox]. All this because My Little Pony is too “gay” and being gay means you’re like a girl and being like a girl is bad if you’re a boy because prescribed gender roles and interests are not fluid or--goodness forbid--dependent on individuals. And just to be clear, I’m not saying gamers are effeminate and begin gay or a woman is bad. I’m trying to point out cultural excuses for their exclusion from being “cool” and mainstream.
If gamer spaces are by default male spaces, lower-status gamers have a means to perform masculinity despite being excluded from some mainstream definitions and expectations of masculinity. For some gamers, the tree house needs to stay “no girls allowed” for them to remain confident and dominant in this space. As I’ve seen, many of them (and assorted allies) are fighting tooth and nail to preserve this dominance in their space. Male as the default for gamers is now cultural tradition and tied to many of the same gender roles that originally drove them to identify as a subculture. Keeping “girls” out or having a reputation for being unwelcoming to women keeps the gamer identity acceptably masculine--and this has been reinforced by a sizable chunk of game marketing.
Remember the Legend of Zelda ad and “Willst thou get the girl? Or play like one?” from earlier? What does it mean to “play like a girl”?
Even though this is an ad for maxi pads, it’s amazing.
Here’s the description: “Using #LikeAGirl as an insult is a hard knock against any adolescent girl. And since the rest of puberty's really no picnic either, it's easy to see what a huge impact it can have on a girl's self-confidence.
We're kicking off an epic battle to make sure that girls everywhere keep their confidence throughout puberty and beyond, and making a start by showing them that doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing.”
If you’re without video, the gist of it is that they tell some people to “run like a girl” and they flounce around in a sexualized, unathletic manner. Later, they tell some actual young girls to “run like a girl” and they just run. It’s as if they were normal people not performing gender for the benefit of cultural norms.
Why is it bad to “play like a girl”? “Like a girl” is a way to signify weakness and lack of skill. It’s hurled even on t-ball teams as an insult. I am aggrieved in two ways: first, that being like a woman--and by extension being a woman--is bad and second, that these traits are shameful for men. I can go on about things little boys and little girls “don’t do” (read: things little boys and little girls do and don’t do to fit into prescribed cultural gender norms).
Why do we have so much anxiety about gender norms? We are so freaked out about babies and children not fitting neatly into one check box or the other that some doctors just kind of pick a gender assignment (sometimes without being honest with the parents), perform surgeries like reducing the size of a clitoris for cosmetic reasons, even though the Intersex Society of North America estimates that [one in one hundred live births] result in babies whose bodies differ from standard male or female attributes. One or two of of every thousand birth require surgery just to “normalize” genital appearance. I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to find out that something like clitoral reduction had been done to me for purely cosmetic reasons when I was an infant. I would probably be upset. Are adhering to sexual and gender norms that valuable? I argue that no, they aren’t. We have artificially made ourselves fit into two gender/sex check boxes and we hide and “correct” those who don’t. I think this contributes to anxiety over trans people or people of androgynous appearance. I have witnessed people getting upset when a stranger cooed at an acquaintance’s new baby but was upset that she couldn’t immediately tell the baby was a boy or a girl. The baby was a girl; the woman commented that, “She needs some bows so people will know!”
It’s a baby. What does it matter what its genitals are? Baby doesn’t care. Baby is mouthing your smartphone and you’re impressed by its manual dexterity to even manage that because it’s a baby. It’s not good at anything yet and is questionably sentient. Why do we need to assign gender roles so early?
There’s a lot of media coverage and some study about the lack of women pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers, and the lack of women in higher academia in general but especially in those fields. Wouldn’t toys be a great way to get gets interested in those careers? How many of you got interested in architecture or engineering from building R’lyehian monstrosities? I got interested in horticulture from reading Jurassic Park. Geek culture opens doors.
Why aren’t more girls playing with science toys?
Because science toys “for girls” blow. Check out these microscopes and telescopes offered by Toys-R-Us at one point and featured on the blog [Sociological Images]:
Original caption: “[The submitter] noticed that, for both microscopes and telescopes, the version coded “girl” (i.e., the pink one) is the least powerful one (600x magnification vs. 900 or 1200x and 90x vs. 250 or 525x). Coincidence?”
No, not a coincidence. The message is clear: boys do science; girls play at science and isn’t that precious. Have a tiara. (Disclaimer: I love tiaras. I have tiaras for home and work.)
It’s not really better for little boys, succinctly captured by this [Maximuble] comic:
A desire to nurture and parent is seen as effeminate and undesirable in boys, though men are parents too. Men do not “babysit” their own children; they parent them.
Why are children’s toys so aggressively gendered? Marketing and traditional gender roles. It’s not like four year olds are buying these things for themselves. The “pink aisle” is a thing that boys will not touch for fear of being made fun of for being girly. Girls are more free to pull from the “boy’s section” (read: pretty much the rest of the store), though there is still stigma attached to not performing your assigned or preferred gender correctly. (This carries forward even for adult women wanting women’s sizes in NFL jerseys but instead getting stuck with clothing that’s the result of “pink it and shrink it”.)
Why is being a woman (or exhibiting what patriarchy gender and social roles define as “feminine”) bad, and why is it specifically bad for men and boys? Being a woman is bad. Women are irrational, emotional, bad at sports and math, and weak of body and mind. Eve is influenced by the serpent (which was bad I guess?). She was punished by high maternal mortality rates because being a mother is super-holy and to be revered except it’s also punishment. I don’t get it, but I’m not religious. There are multiple descriptions touting women’s weaker nature by calling them [leaky vessels]--they bleed from the vagina, are more prone to incontinence after childbirth, ooze milk from their breasts, and weep freely from emotion. Awesome. Men are obviously superior because they have external genitalia and aren’t allowed to cry.
Okay. So now we’re at patriarchy pushing gamers to the margins, but gamers embracing that and reclaiming the space to institute their own subcultural structures. Nerds are nothing if not creative and resilient!
Depictions of women in video games
This brings us to the depictions of women and female characters in video games.
The depiction of women and female whatevers in video games are historically bad. I have mixed feelings on the “damsel in distress” trope itself. On the one hand, it connects modern audiences to thousands of years of storytelling and human experience. That’s pretty neat! On the other hand, it’s getting old. Let’s get some new spins on the narrative framing and/or game plots when it come to female characters (protagonist, antagonist, or sidekick) and their relationships to other people in the story who--honestly--are usually men or male. Women in games are also prone to helplessness and sexual objectification, often through provocative (and often impractical) clothing. Full disclosure: I’m bisexual. I like to look at sexed-up women as much as a lot of other people with the much catered-to “straight male gaze”. I get it. Boob physics is a thing and unrealistic or sexualized depictions of women is not at all exclusive to games. Still, it’s a lot.
This all reinforces the objectification of women, women as other, women as prizes, women lacking agency, and women unable to help themselves as a result of indecision, imprisonment, or enchantment--and that’s when female characters are included in the games at all. Women are largely absent from playable character rosters and non-player character populations. Sometimes, a female player character is available as a “token” girl, and her main character traits are being a girl or a pink color scheme or sexy outfit. Even my most-played game of all time, Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced, featured four male-only races and one female-only race.
So I’m not going to go into a lot of detail of women in video games because (like a lot of this post), other people do it better and more thoroughly (like [Anita Sarkeesian]). The tl;dr: it’s not great from storytelling or art standpoints and reinforces games being “not for girls”.
Women developers, artists, gamers, critics, reviewers, nerd enthusiasts are sometimes subjected to targeted, gendered harassment not only for speaking out, but for occupying space. To adapt [Diana Vreeland], putting up with bullshit based solely on your gender is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.
At any rate, some game-playing women criticized the sexism and misogyny in some aspects of “traditional” video games and gamer culture, and what appeared to be mostly male gamers--well--where to start? Some denied there was a problem with misogyny at all, and these denials were made with and without sexual and gendered name calling. Some conceded her point, but claimed that nothing needed to change (delivered with and without sexual and gendered name calling). Some went to threats of rape and other kinds of sexual violence, death threats, and generalized threats of violence and insults of women generally.
Why did this happen?
Identity preservation tactics
Some gamers have a vested interest in preserving their subculture just the way it is. They enjoy the marketing attention, exclusivity, and identity. I think this has something to do with excluding “casual” gamers from the gamer identity. I can play four hours of Candy Crush but not be a “real” gamer. “Hardcore” gamers raid in WoW or play the AAA FPS titles. A Wii is not their preferred console. Wii is for “casual” gamers. This is a tactic to keep “gamer” closely related to “male”, preserving the traditional identity. Taking pride in trash-talk that makes women uncomfortable enough to leave reinforces “gamer” superiority and the “us-versus-them” that makes women into the opposition, worthy of suspicion.
Some of this suspicion even extends to women who felt they were previously accepted as “one of the guys” (a problematic term that still asserts male dominance in the subculture and her status as occupying “their” space, but whatever) now feel alienated by these increased gender tensions, like described by Allison Henthorn [over on The Flounce]. For Henthorn, feminist critiques of games have served to highlight her status of “other” despite being able to “pass” for so long. Some people (including Henthorn) assert that all this attention to sexism and harassment in gamer and tech culture is scaring women away from the products and industry, which may be true because there’s sexism and harassment in gamer and tech culture.
“Us-versus-them”, “nice guys”, and the neckbeard with a heart of gold
Part of the gamer stereotype (and reclaimed identity), is being rejected by girls and women. I’ve had a thread of this running through most of the post, but there are a lot of reasons that some gamers resent and are encouraged to resent women.
There’s a problem in our culture and romantic interactions: some variation of “girls don’t date nice guys”. Some boys and men see girls dating people they perceive as oafs or jerks or any number of other unpleasant types. Male virgins are ridiculed; virginity is imposed on women and losing virginity is imposed on men. If a woman is dating a handsome jerk instead of them, the problem must be with her. She’s either shallow, too dumb to see how unworthy the jerk is, or a slut who’s using people.
Games (and pretty much all media) reinforce women as prizes. If you are persistent enough, you will win. If you jump through all the hoops, you will be rewarded with love/arm candy. Cultural (patriarchal) influences on gamer men are not certainly not that direct, but it’s not helping either. How many stories feature a “nice guy” who waits around and is a good friend to a woman and then she realizes that he was what she wanted and he was right in front of her all along. Guys who are shy or lack confidence with women (or general social confidence) can just wait around and girls will realize how great he is. When the women don’t wise up, we’re back to the “women just don’t know” script.
There’s another problem with some gamers that relates back to a general discomfort with code-switching language for different kinds of social interactions. Similarly, some gamers feel justified in just not trying when it comes to physical appearance. Sometimes the reasons for this are admirable: just being yourself, not being fake. Sometimes, it’s general defiance and laziness attributed to just being yourself. “Why should I dress up to impress girls? They’re supposed to come to me if I just wait. I am a jellyfish. If I just float around something will stick to me.” Jellyfish-style dating means you don’t need to put any effort into the dating scene or your style. The “neckbeard” stereotype stems from a perception that “gamers” don’t take good care of themselves. Like, they must just sit around and get heart disease from Mtn Dew and Cheetos and don’t shower enough. It’s not really a fair or accurate assessment, but walking into the gaming room at a convention and gazing upon the ill-fitting t-shirts and unbrushed hair doesn’t help much.
There’s an [opinion piece] from Devin Faraci that critiques some of this from a male perspective, and I think it’s really good.
I’m stopping myself from talking about how the women they pursue (or wish to pursue) are often expected to maintain at least an approximation of cultural beauty standards but that’s a super fun topic too.
So we’ve got: 1.) long-standing resentment and mistreatment of women in gamer spaces from a subculture that’s been marginalized by the mainstream, 2.) widening market and inclusivity of gaming that includes women, some of whom want more awareness of misogyny in games and game spaces, and 3.) reactionary backlash from the marginalized subculture that wants to maintain its exclusivity by further marginalizing women.
In August 2014, Eron Gjoni starts the [ZoePost] blog to expose the infidelities and emotional manipulation of his former girlfriend, indie game developer Zoe Quinn. Most of what I can glean from that site is that they are both terrible people. Gjoni has an pages and pages of annotated chat logs with Quinn, and even takes a video to prove that facebook chats weren’t being doctored. Creep-city. Quinn is prone to histrionics and is emotionally manipulative and sometimes dishonest about her other relationships to Gjoni. (And again, all of this is as best I can tell.)
The big spark here is that she had a relationship at some point with Nathan Grayson, a writer at the game blog [Kotaku]. This led to accusations that Quinn traded sex with Grayson for a favorable review of her game Depression Quest. While she did sleep with Grayson, the review never happened, which didn’t really matter after the wave got started.
Like those attacks previously lavished on Anita Sarkeesian, Quinn was subjected to targeted, gendered harassment. The bubbling resentment of women and women in “their” game space continued to be expressed by some gamers, using the traditional language. Because of continued harassment, Quinn joined Sarkeesian and developer Brianna Wu in fleeing their homes to escape possible threats.
From here, the [timelines] are easy enough to follow--depending on who you ask. There’s is a ton of squabbling over who said what when and in which chat or thread, and lots of other events that I don’t think contribute much to the explanation I’m trying to give here. Read it if you want. There’s famous people tweeting and YouTubers calling gamers to action and articles and Intel pulling ads from Gamasutra because of GamerGaters writing in and opinion pieces and other stuff. It mostly just made me want to stab my eyes out.
Game journalism and “ethics”
As the allegations the Quinn and Grayson traded sex for favorable reviews were proven untrue, the public face and dialogue of gamers involved turned to discussion of corruption in games journalism and the influence of “social justice warriors” on game media narratives.
Gamers being angry about “ethics” in game journalism isn’t new, and some of the complaints are legitimate gray areas. Games journalism, like gamer identity, is based around consumer products. I have never expected Kotaku (which I read daily) to have the journalistic integrity of Consumer Reports. For example, many of the Gawker Media sites are blogs that actually occupy space somewhere between “blog” and “news”. Regardless of their ties to industry through advertising or networking, this sites do attempt to maintain transparency and journalistic integrity.
Carolyn Petit reviewed Grand Theft Auto V [over on GameSpot] and gave it a nine out of ten, praising the gameplay and mechanics but criticizing mixed political messaging in the game and its depiction of women. Regardless, she emphasized how much she enjoyed the game. You should never read the comments, but read the comments. She gave the game a 9/10, yet people hurl slurs at her and her “biased agenda”, calling for her to resign or be fired. One commenter, Versus3, added: “Saying that GTA is ‘misogynistic’ is really weird, even more for a negative. No, I am not saying ‘it is OK because it is GTA’. What I am saying is that misogyny is part of the ‘GTA folklore’.” Does that make any goddamn sense to you? Because I’m kind of lost. You can’t call GTA misogynistic in a review (something some players may genuinely want to consider), yet GTA is acknowledged as misogynistic. This is an example of an ethics “violation” to some people.
Milo Yiannopoulos at [conservative news and anti-feminist site Breirbart London] “exposed” corruption in the game journalism industry through leaked emails from the “GameJounrnoPros”, described by one of its members as a [virtual water cooler] for industry professionals. I’ve been reading all the emails I can find, and [editorials its members]. It’s fine. There’s some inane stuff and some over-reaction stuff, but mostly it’s not that different from conversations I have at work around the coffee machine. Talking to each other about work and suggesting things to cover (and how to maintain integrity) is not collusion. Jokes about the standard rate of bribes needing to adjust for West Coast inflation is not corruption. Paid reviews are not corruption if it is disclosed, and paid reviews are not bribery. Do I trust paid reviews? Not really, but I don’t avoid them. My favorite makeup blogger does independent and paid reviews, and differentiates them. I think that’s fine.
Was Nintendo Power a bastion of unbiased reporting? No. It was a glossy (though beloved) ad pack. I think there’s a wider range of trustworthy reviews for games available than ever before, with more voices and personal lenses to filter them than ever.
Anyway, we’re at a point where people are throwing gendered slurs and accusations around, chasing women from their homes, leaking nudes, vandalizing Wikipedia pages, and generally being weird. There’s some other stuff going on at 4chan, Something Awful, and on IRC channels. Twitter is a madhouse, but that’s why I love it. Threads on reddit and 4chan were being deleted, and even threads on Ars were being heavily moderated.
Because of [paranoia] about the existence of GameJournoPros, GamerGaters pretty much flipped out when post on gaming news sites started denouncing them. Within a few days, biting pieces like [Gamers are Over] began popping up. Mainstream media coverage intensified after the mass shooting threats against Sarkeesian, and many of the media characterizations of “gamers” were what I’d expect. I think this is what got GamerGate truly focused on the “journalism ethics” message as a way to distance themselves from overt trolls and misogynists. They also adopted a side crusade to [decry the “slander” of gamers in the media by feminists and “social justice warriors” (SWJs)], claiming it was an example of GameJournoPros (or something like it) “controlling the narrative” and silencing them. I talked above about the way gamers are portrayed in the media and why I think that is, and now it’s in full swing. The “Not Your Shield” project ([#NotYourShield]) is a related means to focus on the ethics message, with the phrase basically saying “women and minorities are not your shield to use to deflect genuine criticism of ethics in games press”.
The critics of games media and GamerGate are still talking about the original problem sexism and misogyny in games, and now we’re finally at the original point of there being two different dialogues and neither side is communicating much with the other. GamerGate and “gamers” are upset at how they’re portrayed in the media--which happens periodically as games are scapegoated for shootings and moral panics. Many claim that news is only reporting “one side of the issue” and focusing on the harassment of women instead of corruption in games journalism.
However, a feminist media critic [canceling a lecture due to mass shooting threats] (whatever their origin) and lack of adequate safety measures is a bigger story than “corruption in games journalism” (though this message is usually at least mentioned).
Supporters saying that GamerGate is about corruption in game journalism is like saying flying a Confederate flag is about Southern Pride. Get a new symbol. Feel your voice isn’t being heard? [Go your own way]. Feminists like [Anita Sarkeesian] made their own spaces, and GamerGaters can too. Will anyone listen to legitimate grievances and see GamerGate become a cultural watchdog? Or will it get bogged down by the weight of millennia of patriarchal hierarchy? Already, the GamerGaters and NotYourShielders have adopted the 4chan /v/ character [Vivian James] as a mascot for the movement, though her purple-and-green color scheme is a reference to an [infamous rape joke on 4chan].
#gamergate is a smokescreen for continued, unexamined misogyny and gender dynamics are generally fucked because of the patriarchy.