Monday, March 3, 2014

How rare ARE female protagonists?

I have a tendency towards big-picture, idea-based sort of thinking when it comes to forming opinions, and the kind of opinions I share here are not an exception.  I was reading some forum thread or other about female protagonists in games when the discussion turned into an argument over just how rare female protagonists really are.  Now I'm of the mind that there is no "right" amount of female protagonists in video games as a whole, nor do I think the gender of the protagonist is even very important when it comes to how good a game is or what kind of audience it is targeted to.  But I realized that I do take for granted the conventional wisdom that there are substantially fewer games with female protagonists than male.  Some people in the thread insisted "substantially fewer" meant "practically zero" (which I think is being willfully blind), some were like me thinking more like maybe ten or twenty percent, when someone went to Steam and decided to search on the new-fangled tagging system for "Female Protagonist" and came up with something like one percent of games tagged that way.  This justifiably got people discussing the issues with searching in that way, including the fact that many types of games don't have protagonists at all (like strategy games), or allow you to choose your gender, and so the other 99% certainly should not be considered games with a male protagonist.

It got me thinking about my own preconceptions about how the video gaming space is made up and what I take into my thoughts about it, so decided to get some quick informal numbers in a way I could trust and understand the limitations of the collection method: by doing a survey my own collection of games :P.  I came up with these gender-based categories based on the character(s) you control in a game, as opposed to which genders are a part of a given game, to keep with the idea of female protagonists that a player may be asking to identify with:

Male Protagonist: The character you control is male, or if you control multiple characters, all of them are male
Female Protagonist: Same as male, but for females :P
Mixed: You control multiple characters with at least one male and one female
Choose: You get to choose the gender of your character
Genderless: The character(s) you control don't have genders, or the gender of your character is unspecified (as is sometimes the case for silent protagonists)
None: You don't control a character at all but instead play "yourself" manipulating things in the world directly as a player (such as in puzzle games)

To make sure I didn't make uninformed decisions, I limited myself to games that I have actually played long enough to know who/what is being controlled, rather than the marketing materials for a game.  And to keep it quick, I went through the two convenient lists I had for games I've played: my Steam library and my Xbox achievement record.  Because I am apparently incapable of getting sick of a series as well, I had to make a decision about what to do for multiple games within the same franchise.  To try to keep from double-counting, if multiple games in a series featured the same protagonist, I only counted it as one game, but if games in a series featured different protagonists, I would count those games separately.  So for example, I counted only one Splinter Cell game as the tally for Sam Fisher, counted two Assassin's Creed games for Altair and Ezio, and counted all of the different Call of Duty games separately to reflect that in theory (were they not military games), each new one could have a female protagonist if it wanted.

Like I said, my impression is that something between 10-20% of video games have a female protagonist or mixed protagonists with at least one female.  Before I went and counted, I also thought about it and guessed around 20% of my games allow you to choose your gender, and around 10% have you not controlling a protagonist at all.  That left my impression that a small majority, 50-60% of games, involve controlling a male protagonist.

Here are my results from the quick-and-dirty survey of my recent/conveniently-accessed gaming history:

Male: 65 (42%)
Female: 12 (8%)
Mixed: 17 (11%)
Choose: 29 (19%)
Genderless: 17 (11%)
None: 16 (10%)
Total Counted: 156

I've been writing this up as I went, choosing how I would count, then making my predictions, then counting them up, then summing them up, so I have just calculated the percentages at this point.  And I have to say I'm pretty happy with how close my vague impressions were on most counts!  My guess for "None" games was a guess on how many puzzle and racing games I've played, and "Choose" was based on how many RPGs I figured I had, so if nothing else I have a pretty good grip on my own genre habits ;).

I do admit that I did not expect the female protagonist count to be quite so low.  I did qualify my prediction for games with female protagonists by including games where you control at least one female (so including the "Mixed" category), but only because I usually group them together in my head as "examples of why people that say there are no females in video games don't know what they are talking about."  My vague impression was that there would not be quite so many multi-character games in that bunch, though, leaving less than 10% with female protagonist(s) alone.  I also wouldn't have guessed in a million years I had so many games with ambiguous or ungendered protagonists, so that was interesting.

As some final notes to put my personal counts into context, I am quite fond of action/adventure games that I can dig into and marathon through, which usually have a clear protagonist that you control that is decidedly not a proxy for you as the player, probably giving me a lower percentage of no-protagonist games than someone who might be more well-rounded than me :P.  On the other hand I do not really play JRPGs, so multi-gender casts probably aren't as well represented in my library as they are in the realm of all games.  Finally, my Steam library is the home of my Humble Indie Bundle games, so a good chunk of my list is downloadable indie titles as opposed to what you might see on the wall at a retail store.

If you would like to bore yourself, check my categorizations, or just look at a list of games from the past several years for the funsies, you can head into the post to look at my lists.

Friday, September 6, 2013

PAX being raped to sleep by dickwolves

I remember seeing the "dickwolves" comic however many years ago...

I thought it was pretty frickin funny.  One of those annoying, but occasionally endearing for sheer ludicrousness, breaks in immersion in the game you've been living in for the past 8 hours straight.  It's been done in webcomics about games plenty of times, to emerge from the depths of some new game obsession to the outside world and see the stuff you've been buying laid out in front of you in all its bizarreness.

I remembered the dickwolves comic about as well as I remembered the others posted above; that is to say, I could remember and search for it when thinking about funny comics I've seen about "game logic," but otherwise I forgot about it.  So I was pretty surprised to find in my Facebook feed an article in Wired about how this random comic not only was offensive, but was the starting point for what years later has people taking to their blogs and announcing that the PAX conference that ended last week was their last, and maybe it should be yours too (you know, if you're lucky enough to even GO... and go MULTIPLE times... not that I'm jealous...).

The non-snarky summary: Penny Arcade posted the "dickwolves" comic.  Some bloggers thought it was offensive for trivializing rape.  PA responded to the criticism with another comic.  This got even more people angry, and drew more attention to the argument.  People starting trolling and harrassing each other on Twitter.  Penny Arcade created a dickwolves T-Shirt to sell to fans.  Another PAX approached (this is two years ago, mind you), some people emailed Gabe and Tycho about the shirts and they agreed to not sell them at the convention, and then to stop selling them entirely.  People STILL kept talking about it, baiting and trolling, but the issue mostly died down.  Then at this year's PAX, real-life Gabe answered a question at a panel about something he regretted his business manager did, and he responded he wished he hadn't insisted the dickwolves merchandise had been stopped.  Fans in the audience reacted enthusiastically to the idea of bringing it back, and the issue came right back up again.  Now there are people who not only went to PAX, but volunteered to work it in various ways, that are saying they want to cut ties and encourage others to do so, too.

The snarky summary: Penny Arcade, a webcomic brimming with vulgar humor, makes a comic about game logic in WOW after an update comes out.  They point out the sad humor in leaving a slave captive in a torturous existence because of WOW's infamous numerically-based quest objectives.  But they make a mistake, a mistake they would pay for for years in lose-lose PR situations, bad blood, and flame wars.  This tortured slave was woken up by savage beatings, and who knows what horrors he faced during the day, but he went to sleep being raped.  Raped!!  By dickwolves!!

They set up a hyperbolic situation of misery, and they dared to mention being raped as part of that suite of horrors.  Almost everyone seems to agree that the original comic had nothing to do with trivializing rape, that if anything it used repulsion at the idea to highlight just how bizarre the "heroic" quests of WOW can be.  But that's not important anymore, critics say.  It doesn't matter if the comic trivialized rape or not.  What matters is that some people felt it did, and to do anything other than meekly apologize and accept the criticism was to personally attack rape survivors, to bully victims into submission, and surely any further action beyond the comic itself is evidence that they really do want to trivialize rape.

This is kind of pointless to say several paragraphs in, but I don't really want to talk about the dickwolves comic itself.  I honestly think it is obvious to anyone who has ever played a quest-based RPG that the comic was not about rape at all, that being raped by dickwolves could have been replaced with being forced to eat the bones of their fellow captives for breakfast, or having to give pedicures to the Thousand-Toed Beast of Toejams, and the comic would have been just as funny (excepting that dickwolves is much more Penny Arcade-ish than my pathetic replacements).

From the Wired article:
In Krahulik’s mind, he’s still the underdog rebelling against an unfair world bent on keeping him down. Despite decades of success and influence, he’s never learned to distinguish between criticism and censorship or understood the relationship between power and personal responsibility. He’s an angry teenager with the clout of an industry baron, and he’s cultivated a horde of followers who respond to criticism with death and rape threats. This are the sorts of people Penny Arcade courts when it digs in its heels and goes to the mat in defense of its right to punch down.
The article ends with the reason why the author doesn't want to support PAX anymore:
Mike Krahulik is not a brave upstart defending freedom of speech, even if that’s a defense Penny Arcade has hidden behind time and again. Freedom of speech is not and never has been in danger here: Krahulik has every legal right to be shitty to rape survivors and trans*people and react like a child told he can no longer break the other kids’ toys. There is no law preventing him from flaunting the fact that he has a lot more financial and social power than the people criticizing him for abusing it; nor is anyone arguing that there ought to be.
To paraphrase the immortal words of the Dude: Krahulik isn’t wrong. He’s just an asshole...
...Being an adult is about recognizing that the right to say something doesn’t make it okay to say. It’s about recognizing that you are not the only person with feelings and opinions. It’s about understanding power differentials and the difference between criticism and bullying, and learning to examine and be accountable for your own actions and their consequences. It’s about caring more about not harming other people than about whether their subsequent upset inconveniences you. It’s about being decent as well as being right.
The way critics of Penny Arcade see it, they made a comic and responses that ended up offending people, people that have been hurt bad in the past (and the people that haven't been hurt, but imagine what it'd be like to be hurt and can feel offended, too).  All these people asked was to please apologize for what you posted and stop posting it.  But Penny Arcade insisted on escalating the situation, which caused even more offense and pain, and their refusal to recognize this and stop is evidence that they want to hurt these people, and so shouldn't be supported anymore.

On the surface, it's not exactly unreasonable to argue that if something is deeply offensive to some people, it's nice to apologize if you did not mean to hurt them and move on.  In fact, the folks at Penny Arcade recognized this themselves: when explaining their decision to not sell the dickwolves shirts at PAX, Gabe explains how some people attending the expo emailed him personally with their concerns about selling the shirts there and how they would feel more comfortable if they weren't sold there, he figured not selling them was an easy solution towards the goal of making PAX as accessible and great as possible for whoever attended.  So if he was willing to compromise on dickwolves merch at PAX, why was he unwilling to just simply apologize for the comic and move on?

I think it's important to see that it's not just an apology that critics of the dickwolves comic were looking for.  If it was, they got a pretty definitive one in PA's response comic, straightforward saying "rape is wrong and of course we think it is, end of story."  But that apology just ticked people off more because it wasn't apologizing for the "right thing."  Yeah yeah, you think rape is wrong, but that's not what our beef was.  It was that you talked about it wrong.  It was that you talked about it at all.  You're just making it worse now because you didn't just let us criticize you in silence.  We say you are trivializing rape, and unless you agree you are trivializing rape and apologize for that, or just shut up, you will be trivializing it even more.

That is what the guys at Penny Arcade decided to stand up against.  Not the idea that the critics were going to take away their freedom of speech.  They did not agree that they were trivializing rape.  They did not agree with the criticisms leveled against them.  They did not agree with the insinuation that they think rape is fine because some people couldn't understand a joke.  It would have been easiest for them to just leave the comic as it was, just let people say what they would and let it slide with no comment.  Instead they decided to vocally disagree, to voice their argument that just because some people say a joke "perpetuates rape culture" doesn't mean that it does.  It wasn't censorship by the tools of the state that they decided to stand up against, it was the everyday pressure to keep silent through shame, by attacking an author's intentions.  If critics of PA thought that their arguments were untouchable because they chose not to try and enforce the silence they sought with threats of jail and guns, they found that people actually disagreed with the idea self-censorship as a moral imperative as well.

Arguments about the First Amendment are moot in most of these "political correctness" clashes.  That people of very different ideologies can agree that it's not a good idea to silence your opposition by throwing them in cages or shooting them is not exactly remarkable.  This does not mean that any sort of meta-discussion about the nature of social and political debate is resolved as well, though.  So both sides agree not to shoot each other.  Now what?

On one side stands the people that think that making sure no one is kidnapped or shot is not sufficient ground rules for controversial debate.  People can be hurt by more than guns, they say.  They can be hurt by words, they can be hurt by their impression of the world, they can be afraid or threatened by the opinions of others.  Therefore, it is also important to make sure people participating in a debate aren't being hurt in these more subtle ways.  As the author of the Wired article says,
Being an adult is about recognizing that the right to say something doesn’t make it okay to say. It’s about recognizing that you are not the only person with feelings and opinions. It’s about understanding power differentials and the difference between criticism and bullying, and learning to examine and be accountable for your own actions and their consequences. It’s about caring more about not harming other people than about whether their subsequent upset inconveniences you.
On the other side stand the people that think that while speaking your opinion, your moral imperative stops more-or-less at the "don't actually harm and threaten them" line.  Speak your words and make your arguments as you will.  By all means recognize that rudeness or crassness may not be persuasive, but it's your choice if you are going out there to change minds or just to speak yours.  And the idea of being able to speak your mind without offending someone by somehow predicting and taking responsibility for the reactions of others seems impossible and ridiculous.  This was the flavor of Gabe's first response to the dickwolves critics in his blog:
I just don’t understand that. Did the comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture not bother them? Or how about the fruit fucker? I mean, we have a character who is a literal rapist. What comic strip have they been reading all these years?
For the most part I think that people are perfectly happy to laugh at offensive jokes until the joke offends them. Then it’s not funny anymore. There is no way we can know what each and every person who reads the comic has decided to find offensive.
In the end I just disagree with these people about what’s funny and that’s perfectly okay.
Gabe says it's "perfectly okay," but the problem is that, for people of the former turn of mind, "just disagreeing" however you will is not okay.  He's willing to accept that not everyone agrees with him.  For them the moral discussion of rape goes beyond rape to the very nature of the discussion itself.  Not only do the issues being discussed have a non-neutral moral value, but the way it is discussed can be right and wrong as well.  For all the Wired author's use of the quote "You're not wrong, you're just an asshole," it's apparent she is not criticizing the rudeness of real-life Gabe.  People don't write giant articles about choosing to not go to a great, influential, and fun convention of such magnitude in the industry (and encourage others to choose the same) just because one of the guys that started it rubs them the wrong way.  People don't worry about participating in a charity event because one of the coordinators is a jerk.  And they certainly don't consider participation in the event a danger because "[there is] no longer a clear line between uncomfortable silence and complicity " with the personal jerkish character of the coordinator.

No, people aren't being thrown into a fervor over fear they will be complicit in some ass-like behavior.  They think that the very way Gabe speaks his opinion is wrong, morally wrong, and they don't want to accidentally have some of this wrongness rub off on them.  For them, discussion about social issues is not a debate with logical arguments and open minded consideration of any and all points.  The very discussion itself is a minefield riddled with traps that must be deftly avoided, with procedures that must be followed and a virtuousness all its own.  It's not important that Gabe thinks rape is wrong, it's not important that no one is being threatened by actual dickwolves, it's not important that no encouragement of rape has occurred and no one has actually been hurt.  What's important is that Gabe blundered his way into the discussion like an oaf and refused to follow the rules of PC, or acceptance of feelings without questioning if those feelings are defensible or not.  He was sarcastic with the wrong social group, he was dismissive of those labeled as the dismissed, and he dared to even consider himself, a white heterosexual male, as attacked by the criticism leveled at him such that he felt the need to defend himself.

Also in the Wired article, a quote from Emma Story, who used to work with Penny Arcade:
"Mike’s reaction when he’s criticized for this kind of behavior is always to comment on how he hates bullying, and how he sees himself as fighting back against a bunch of internet bullies,” Story told WIRED. For her, the primary conflict is about Penny Arcade’s continual abuse of power. “The unexamined privilege in [Mike's] viewpoint is sort of breathtaking — the fact that a straight white male, a celebrity with countless followers who will agree with anything he says, doesn’t see that he is in a position of power over other significantly marginalized groups is almost beyond believing. What he is doing is bullying, no question, and it’s not excused by the fact that kids were mean to him when he was in school.
To PA's critics, the very idea that "victims and advocates" could bully a white male does not fit in their definition of power and privilege.  To them, victims and their advocates are the weak, and white males are the strong, apparently is such a real way as to find it as inconceivable that they could have any sort of effect on Penny Arcade as a gnat could to a brick wall.  So what that they are calling the heads of Penny Arcade rape apologists, so what that they are arguing that they now share responsibility for any rapes in this "rape culture," so what that they are taking to their own considerable spheres of social influence and calling PAX an unsafe, female-hating environment and seeking to sabotage support for it?  Sure, this would be considered action which the folks at Penny Arcade might feel the need to argue and defend themselves against, would be something that they felt compelled to deal with... if it was coming from a more privileged group, of course.  But the people doing this insist they have no power, insist that their accusations and arguments are just the poor quiet moans of the oppressed, and insist that Penny Arcade's attempts to confront and refute them amount to a wrestler putting a toddler into a headlock.  After all, they aren't even calling for the government to shut PA up, so no freedom of speech arguments please, so no one is forcing you to shut up so what's the big deal with just shutting up? (Nevermind that bullies do not use the government to get people to do what they want either... Gabe just can't possibly feel he's being bullied as a man of privilege).

This whole situation is so out of control, it boggles my mind.  I have friends on Facebook who live in Seattle and go to or work PAX every year vowing to never set foot in there again.  There are indie developers crying oppression for being "forced" to attend PAX to promote their games in a hostile moral environment created by Gabe, rather than recognizing just how amazing it is that there even IS such a giant convention for indie games to be showcased as an alternative to E3, and recognizing just how important PAX has been to the entire movement, and recognizing it as the valuable opportunity it is.  PAX is a celebration of gaming, a meeting of creative minds, a giant interface between the gaming community, charity, and the industry.  And not just the state of discussion of sexual assault, but the state of the state of the discussion, is so hypersensitive and poisonous that people would be willing to bring down something as valuable as PAX just to prove that they are better at playing the discussion game.

People defending Penny Arcade are perfectly willing to hear the complaints and arguments about dickwolves and threatening T-shirts and rape culture.  But they are going to speak their minds about why they think the complaints and arguments are wrong or straight-up ridiculous.  No amount of actual discussion can take place as long as the critics view the very act of counterargument as morally indefensible because of the class or gender of the defenders, or the language used.  Only one side is accusing the other of being scum, only one side is insisting that the other side should just shut up and stop speaking their mind.  And it's not Team Dickwolves.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Insights from anonymity

A less-typical viewpoint that video gaming (and digital interaction in general) can offer on gender issues in society, I think, may come from the prevalence of anonymity or alternate-identities.  Most gender discussions, analyses, etc. about society have to come from the perspective of that society itself, to be voiced in that same society and be responded to in the context of the same society.  Arguably, any gender dynamics informing the general interactions between members of a society will necessarily also inform the interactions between people analyzing that society.  We see recognition of this in, for example, claims that feminist analyses are subjected to biased criticism by dint of being written by a woman, or opposing claims that such analysis is getting undue attention for the same reason, depending on a given person's particular opinion of the dynamics of society.  Basically, taking a step back to analyze alleged core forces in society can raise a lot of questions about the ability to step back at all, and turn into a confusing circular mess :P.

The digital community, however, offers a level of anonymity unique in our society.  Not only is a single subject anonymous, but almost EVERYONE is.  Sure you may use the same fake name to identify yourself, or even just mash up your real name for the purpose.  But regardless of the identity you adopt online, you can take for granted the fact that the people you interact with do not know who you are, and will probably never interact with you outside of the current context.  In effect, the large and anonymous makeup of online communities separates it from the societal rules that govern its members' normal day-to-day interactions by separating them from the consequences of breaking those rules.  Of course, if an online community sticks around long enough, they will form their own "societal rules" that violating will cause consequences.  But online personas can be rebuilt, reputations restarted, and the consequences are minimal.  You have only one "meatspace" society, though, only one identity, and consequences in that space have a meaningful effect on your life.  This is the society we analyze, the society we live and breathe in, the proverbial water to the fish.  And online communities are places where people from this society can interact largely free from those rules.  That is to say, they can be the outside perspective from which to gain more insight into the dynamics that normally cannot be escaped.

We joke about this all the time.  We make jabs at the raging name-callers for hiding behind a fake name, we shake our heads at the vulgarity people spew behind their gamertags, we call bullshit on the bizarre or unlikely.  This reflects that we (and the liars and trolls and creepers) know this is a place separate from real life, a place where the regular rules don't hold.  It's a place where people can act in ways most would not dare to act around people they had to live with day in and day out.

So I wonder if this alternate-society can give us insight into the society we analyze, legislate, and argue about.  Not about the characteristics of digital society per se, but what those characteristics say about society; or, more importantly, what digital society HAS that meatspace society has NOT.  We take note of the vulgarity of the Xbox chatter precisely because it is unexpected, because it is something that in our society we do not normally tolerate from complete strangers supposedly joining us to have a good time.  We question the bravado of the anonymous poster because we expect saying such things to the face of people that knew them would result in backlash.  We approach things with more skepticism because we know people online can get away with lying in ways we would expect them not to when dealing with people they have to live with for the foreseeable future.

And this says something about the weakness of pointing to behavior in the gaming community as some kind of litmus test for gender dynamics in society as a whole.  You can point to the colorful harassment you got from xXBonerrrrrrrXx, make a collage of all the nude pic requests you've gotten, keep a tally of how many times you've been told to go make a sandwich, but if you think this is a jackpot of evidence to back up all your claims of misogyny permeating society, you're wrong.  If anything, it's decisive evidence that this kind of behavior is something that society does NOT tolerate, since every perpetrator has struck from the safety of anonymity.  And you know, and they know, that they must have this protection when acting like this, because they'd be personally attacked otherwise as the douchebags they are behaving like.

Or if you write an opinion piece about the injustices of being a female gamer and get criticized by Mr_Snuffles and the Guest posse for being overdramatic  hypocritical, or bitchy, think about what your reaction and those of your supporters would have been if you knew their real names.  Think about if they'd even feel they could say such things without being personally attacked, without it putting real-life connections in danger.  And think about what that says about what ideas really are mainstream, what voices really are promoted by society.

Anonymous online interaction is not indicative of normal human interaction, but if you are shocked and offended by something said or done behind the fortress of anonymity, realize that a good chunk of your reaction comes from the fact that something like that just isn't done.  Realize what it says about the standards of behavior you take for granted in day-to-day life.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

#1reasonwhy: Is feminism an ideology of empowerment?

A relatively recent notable moment in the gaming community was the #1ReasonWhy twitter hashtag that floated around for a few days.  People in or related to the game industry wrote up little blurbs on twitter giving "1ReasonWhy" there are not more women involved in the video game industry.  Both men and women in the industry jumped in, giving little observations or anecdotes of personal experiences pertaining to gender issues in the industry.  These ranged from poor treatment by attendees at conventions, to email responses to blog posts and interviews they had done, to being confused for a marketing person instead of a producer or developer.  Some mentioned discomfort at having to work on games involving scantily-clad women, or annoyance that a pitch for a female-target game was not accepted at a company meeting.  The idea behind the spontaneous movement was to give people a chance to voice their concerns about gender issues in the gaming industry to a wider audience, in hopes of "starting a dialog" or "working to fix problems from a point of understanding."

My coworkers talked a bit about it around the bullpens, sharing article links, their own stories, and generally shaking their heads shamefully at the stories they read.  I didn't chime in, but I followed the tweets, and got more and more upset as I read them; but probably not for the reason most would assume.  Finally the tweets I was dreading popped up towards the end of the work day.  Young women in high school and college, talking about how worried the tweets were making them about their intentions to go into gaming or tech industries.  I finally snapped when I saw a post from a girl in high school saying she was now seriously considering rethinking her plan to study computer science.  I replied more light-heartedly to her, assuring her that these blurbs were isolated anecdotes, not the norm, and reminding her that "female dev has a normal day at normal job with respectful coworkers" does not make for very good tweets.

But as my contribution to the #1ReasonWhy "discussion" as a whole, I finally spoke up: maybe #1ReasonWhy there aren't more women in the industry is that things like #1ReasonWhy are considered by the women already there to be a legitimate path to shrinking the gap.  That highlighting your worst experience in years of a career, or listing all the times you've been offended, is not exactly an effective recruiting tool :P. Some women in the industry also saw this and started the #1ReasonToBe hashtag in response, but it became  a footnote, or just another example of one of those "reasons why."

I think this highlights a fundamental issue with so many of these spontaneous movements or acts of activism intended to deal with gender issues.  People will say they are giving voice to these women in the industry and thereby "empowering" them.  People will say that it is only by recognizing the problem (and focusing on it again... and again.. and again...) that any solution can be found.  And yet the consequences of such a strategy are easy to see (and not particularly surprising): highlighting every bad gender-related experience a woman could have in the industry, bombarding the community and the media with tales of woe -- devoid of context or hints at scale -- drives young women away in anger or fear or apprehension.  And that leads to the question: if the goal of female industry members truly is to empower women, why do they not recognize that they are accomplishing the opposite?

Feminists, or those used to coming at gender issues from such a worldview, tend to be the biggest voices in the "gender gap" dialogue in the industry.  And like I mentioned in my previous post, a key feature of feminist critique of social issues is the tendency to objectify women, aka work under the assumption of female hypoagency.  I see it as a fundamental failure to address the reality of the situation, causing them to focus on the wrong issues and completely miss the core forces at work, and incidentally causing them to work against the very thing that they claim they are fighting for.  Because regardless of how feminists choose to view women, it does not change the fact that women ARE people, are acting agents that have thoughts and make choices.  Regardless of whether a woman's path to the game industry is a waterfall or a leisurely walk by a stream, not a single additional woman will participate in the game industry if none of them CHOOSE to.  That is the point of action, that is the first domino: an individual woman's choice to embark on a career in the gaming industry.  The reality of the situation is that women already have the only meaningful power to address the gender gap in the industry.  It is literally by their choice alone that the egalitarian ideal can be realized.

THIS is true empowerment, recognizing your fundamental self-agency and ability to lead your own life.  Not only that, but individual women exercising this power and choosing to enter the game industry is, almost tautologically, the only way to increase the number of women in the game industry.  But conventional feminist wisdom insists this not be the focus.  Despite saying it is the ideology of empowerment, it denies this very fundamental power all women have.  It does not seek to encourage women to recognize that power in themselves, but instead reinforces the idea that women are at the mercy of outside forces.  In its rabid pursuit to prove that these outside forces are significant and devastating so that others will take action to change them, they turn attention away from women and their power to the world and their circumstances, and further cement the impression in new minds that the power a woman has as a human being is trivial compared to her vulnerability to things outside of her control.  And that doesn't sound like an ideology of empowerment to me, but an ideology of fear.  I KNOW, in a very deep, fundamental way, that I am an equal, acting agent in society.  I know, in a fundamental way, that I am equal to any man or woman by recognizing the agency I have over my own life.  I am an "empowered woman."  And refusing to recognize this core, humanist truth in favor of pushing a narrative of oppression and helplessness is fundamentally not empowering.

So a new generation of young women get to go on twitter and be subjected to bombardment by their predecessors of why they shouldn't be there, why they are right to be scared, why they are smart to be scared, why they would totally understand if they just gave up, why it's not even "giving up" but just being pushed away.  This coming from women that should know better, having exercised their own agency as human beings to get into the industry in the first place.  And the entire "dialogue" goes on under the pretense of empowering these young women, so that this poisonous worldview can take the moral high-ground as it boldly sabotages this ostensible goal.

Side Note:
I had a related thought while thinking up and drafting this post.  Besides the obvious fact that denying female agency is fundamentally dis-empowering, I also saw parallels between the feminist viewpoint of gender issues and psychological effects relating to anxiety and depression.  Something that can cause a person great anxiety or depression is the feeling of being stuck, not having control over your life, or being at the mercy of outside forces.  People have defense mechanisms for such things, like superstition, rationalization, or arrogance, and most people seem to get along fine dealing with things they legitimately don't have control over and controlling the things they can.  However, it can be extremely emotionally taxing if you see fundamental aspects of your life as being out of your control, or if it begins to feel as if more and more of your life is trapping you and throwing you about.  And because it's the brain and it can be silly or sick, it doesn't matter if those things really ARE out of your control, all that matters is that you THINK they are, and the feelings of anxiety and depression can overpower you.  Therefore, an important key to mental health is to make sure you don't get into such habits of incorrectly identifying when you are stuck or at the mercy of something you can't affect, and burning out what emotional fortitude you have dealing with completely fabricated threats.  This all sounds very similar to the sorts of things I end up seeing in feminist critiques of different aspects of society, and the idea of female hypoagency.  The idea that women are not makers of their own lives, but souls at the mercy of the whims of society and outside circumstances I could see being VERY anxiety-provoking, or as beliefs that at the least would elicit a strong emotional response.  When caught in the throes of those strong emotions, it can be very difficult to step back and look critically at the beliefs causing these emotions.  As someone who has suffered with anxiety before, it really angers me that such dis-empowering beliefs about the nature of society are purposefully reinforced and propagated, and that logical refutation them is so vehemently challenged.  Anxiety is absolutely no fun to deal with, and the thought that there are women out there who are having such anxiety-provoking beliefs constantly drilled into them by "fellow sisters" makes me sincerely sorry for them, and I can only hope that they do not let their fear blind them to the fact that they DO have control, and can steer their lives in the direction they want.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Getting Women into Gaming: How female hypoagency makes gamers look bad

What got me interested in writing about this topic was an article posted by Anita Sarkeesian, a high-profile and infamous feminist gamer, about a tweet she made after Microsoft’s E3 conference.  Basically her tweet was about how none of the games that Microsoft showcased featured female protagonists; fair enough, and an expected issue she’d bring up.  But it was the responses to her tweet that moved her to make a compilation on her blog that “exemplifies the male entitlement and male privilege endemic in the gaming community today.”
Now this being the internet and all, I expected to see a list of moderate length with plenty of “bitch,” “cunt,” and a kitchen joke or two.  You know, standard vulgar ad hominem fare when the target is a woman.  (Side note: gender-based insults are not unique to women; men are called dicks, fags, or sad little boys in basements who can’t get laid).  I clicked on the article mostly so I could, I don’t know, roll my eyes at the Twitter drama.  However, after a handful of these at the top, the tweets just became… people that disagreed with her.  Among the offensive tweets were disturbing gems like:
“Seriously, big friggin deal.  Far more to complain about.”  
“Then code your own video game.”  
“Video games are not social movement groups.  I can enjoy a good game no matter what gender the protag is.”
Shocking stuff, I know.  The nerve of the first tweet to say there was more to complain about after a conference about a console whose internet connection requirement and inability to rent or lend games alienated entire sections of the loyal, existing fanbase.  And doesn’t the person who wrote the second tweet know that Anita very well can’t code her own video game because society is subtly steering her away from gaining the math knowledge she would need to be a programmer?  And the last tweet, bringing up the fact that ANY sense of entitlement is essentially meaningless when talking about a collection of businesses trying to create and sell something with their own property.  Typical male privilege, not needing or expecting the industry to come to their aid.  They have no idea what it is to be oppressed by completely private and voluntary consumer industries.
But in all seriousness, the reason I bring up this article is that it’s a pretty good snapshot of the “gender issue” debate in the video game community.  This is basically how it goes: there are not as many female “core” gamers, nor as many females working in the industry.  This is because of subtle sexism, social pressures, the patriarchy, and all these other buzzwords of feminism.  The evidence for this is the fact itself: there aren’t as many women as men in this community, so therefore something must be keeping them out.  The gaming community has the additional mark of shame for being a place where bringing this up does not always elicit nods of agreement and plans of action, but instead debate about whether this oppression of women in the community and industry even EXISTS.  And not only that, but people that hold this opinion often say this out loud and shamelessly, and get support!  This of course is just more evidence of how fallen the gaming community is, how hostile to women it is, and how desperate it is to keep it a “boys club” by actively keeping women out.  So most gaming news media and saavy, progressive types like Anita take as a given that the gaming community is actively misogynistic, women are actively threatened, and discussion about gender issues always starts with this presumption and a lengthy explanation of how it must be changed.  And the comments section just refuses to listen by arguing with the premise, and people shake their heads sadly at how far there is to go.
This is illustrated in small in Anita’s blog post.  Anita makes a long-suffering comment about how none of the games shown at Microsoft’s E3 conference have a female protagonist, mood best described as “sadly expected.”  This is assumed to be something anti-female going on, under the assumption that this alienates female gamers because they, for some reason, require a “relatable” protagonist, aka a protagonist with the same genitals as they have.  This is responded to favorably by some, and opposed by others.  Arguments against this premise are considered illustrative of “male entitlement” rather than good old-fashioned disagreement.  And other social networks explode with support for her and disgust at the gaming community today.
So this got me wondering: is the gaming community special?  Is there something backwards about it, or something refreshingly different?  I mean, the narrative of a subculture or profession being anti-female is a familiar one, to say the least.  When there is a demographic gender gap, you can be sure there is opinion and analysis about why this is, and how subtle social oppression of women is causing it.  But these views are accepted in the mainstream, assumed, taken for granted.  Real political and financial power is turned to the task of finding these sneaky social mores and exorcising them with policy and money.  But the gaming community seems unrepentant, thus earning itself an even blacker mark than it already had from the mere existence of the gender gap in the first place.
Like STEM fields and politics and other such gender gap areas, the assumption of female hypoagency is alive and well.  This is a term I borrow from girlwriteswhat’s video here, that I particularly like and think provides a key part the worldview of feminism when it comes to tackling “gender gap issues” like these.  Basically women are viewed as lacking agency, lacking the ability to make things happen in their own lives.  They are, ironically, objectified by the very ideology that claims to hate such objectification.  When feminism sees a lack of women in a given area, their first question is not “why might a woman choose not to get involved here,” but instead “what is keeping women out?” or “What encouragement is lacking to steer them there?”  A gender mismatch is framed as a problem to be solved by guiding, encouraging, removing obstacles from the path of women to get into the area, without an expectation for them to take any action to get there themselves.
This is reflected in the gaming community discussion on gender.  It’s always “What must be done to encourage women to play video games?” “How can we get more women into the gaming industry?” “What is keeping women from being gamers?”  Gaming is not portrayed as what it is: a pastime, a field of interest that people can freely participate in or not.  Instead of being a loose collection of people whose literally only common trait is the fact that they “play video games,” gamers are portrayed as a group with intentions, a group with some greater purpose in mind, and one that is driving women away.
And when a given female decides to check out this gaming thing more, or just dive right in, she often doesn’t consider this enough to be “accepted.”  If she plays video games, she is a gamer.  If she likes playing AAA video games, and plays them often, she is a core gamer.  If she follows the news about games, goes on forums, talks with people about the games she is part of the “gaming community.”  Despite these basic facts, it is common for a female gamer to still express notions of feeling oppressed, harassed, or ignored.  Some female gamers will switch mid-thought from having an enthusiastic discussion about that Halo match she played with you last night to disgust about how a comment by some guy in the audio chat or the shape of her Spartan’s butt makes her feel “unwelcome,” or makes her question every day why she puts up with all this just to be in the gaming community, and is it any wonder more girls aren’t here?  Even after choosing to play video games, even after displaying her own agency, she still sees herself as an object being “pushed away” by her environment.  And the girls that haven’t even chosen to give gaming a try are just as helpless as her, being unfairly “kept away.”  Vulgarity and offensiveness towards women in an anonymous audio chat in a mature game is considered purposefully threatening; never mind that such vulgarity makes an appearance in all trash-talk, regardless of the people involved, often comes in hilariously unintelligible strings, and that revealing that you are a girl pretty much just earns you lovingly-customized insults with some kitchen jokes thrown in rather than the generic curses and insinuations about your mother you would have been subjected to otherwise.  Instead of viewing something like a bad audio-chat experience as an opportunity to take the very minimal action of, you know, MUTING the chat if she doesn’t want to hear what is being said, it becomes a community problem, a Big Thing that has to be dealt with if the gaming community wants to prove they want to keep her around.  
And why doesn’t the gaming community try to keep this stereotype of a female gamer around?  I can only offer my best guess.  The perception of female hypoagency necessitates that a community looking to get more girls involved be “made safe” for those women.  You can’t expect an inanimate object to stick around in one place if there is a force trying to push it away, after all.  So this is the thrust of the feminist critique of the core gaming community: it is uncomfortable for women, and so to get more women in, it has to be made more comfortable.  Though I can’t say I’m old enough to remember, I have heard of this taking place in some professions by doing things like discouraging coworker competition, tightening rules on cursing or making jokes, or changing systems to be more “female-oriented.”  And I think the core gaming community’s “problem” is that it is just too young to have accepted this.  Video gaming may have really come into its own in the past decade, but not that long ago it was EXPECTED to have this gender gap.  Video games were something children played, specifically little boy children that liked to shoot guns or jump on enemies or play sports without going outside.  Playing video games was like reading comic books; it was a hobby indulged by a geeky subculture.  Video games were about monsters or role-playing or spaceships.  They were just another hobby that people didn’t pay much mind to.  And just like how we do not debate or analyze the demographics of the kayaking community or the cross-stitch community, the gaming community did not merit attention.  But unlike kayaking or cross-stitching, video games could ride the wave of incredible technological advancement in computers and electronics we’ve experienced recently.  With more power came more ideas, more experiences that could be delivered through the medium, experiences of higher and higher quality and at lower costs.  The people that grew up on video games made their passion a career and started making the games they wanted to make, and made money doing it.  More people got into this “video-gaming thing.”
  More money meant more talent and, resources, and products, ever-newer ideas being able to be implemented, new experiences to draw new people in.  And before we knew it, video gaming was not just some kids’ toy you outgrew; it was an entertainment goliath, with dev studios making more money than record companies, and releases to rival the biggest Hollywood blockbusters.  Video games took their place in pop culture as a popular and meaningful entertainment medium.  And now gamers weren’t just a small subculture that could be ignored, and the sociologists and people-watchers turned their eye on this new kid on the block, and the eye narrowed; for there was a GENDER GAP.  These flashy blockbuster games drew a distinct lack of female interest, and prevailing wisdom tells us this must be because of something keeping women out.  For lack of a better word, this subculture, which I can remember being scoffed at or all but ignored, became coveted by feminists.  It’s like they were afraid that some party had just popped up right under their nose, and no one invited them.  And so gaming culture started to get the social analysis treatment.  Because a gender gap exists, it obviously goes without saying that something must be done about this.  Women being the inanimate objects they are considered to be, it is up to the gaming community to change their ways to become more female-friendly.  And resistance to this change must mean an ulterior motive of wanting to keep the women away.
But I grew up gaming, grew up loving gaming, and I know their narrative is flawed.  I played video games when they were played by a geeky subculture, when you didn’t use them to break the ice with a stranger, or as a topic of discussion around the lunch table.  There is no conspiracy here, no plan to keep the girls out so that the boys can freely indulge their hatred or disdain for them.  Gamers just are what they are.  Your “invitation” to the gaming community, as it ever was, is the first game you play and love. Your “fellow club members” are the people that like to play the game, too.  And when you are a small, ignored subculture, this seems obvious and normal.  Kayakers are people that kayak.  Scrapbookers are people that scrapbook.  Gamers are people that game.  I imagine due to its tech background, gamers happened to be mostly young males in the earlier days.  The rapid rise of video gaming is recent enough, I think, that to be someone who would be considered a “core” gamer — a gaming enthusiast that follows the hardware cycles, the birth of new IPs, the announcements of new sequels to beloved franchises — they probably have been around since those earlier days.  The franchises, like Modern Warfare, and the technologies, like the Wii and iPhone, that caused gaming to hit the mainstream just weren’t AROUND all that long ago.  And at its root, I think the core gaming community is just an extension of that small, ignored subculture of video game enthusiasts, and reflects their ways.  And the lack of women now is just an extension of the lack of women then.  Just because video gaming as a whole has gone mainstream doesn’t mean AAA fandom for it has, so it’s a little weird to expect its demographics to have gone diverse and mainstream in a short time, too.  But now people know and care about its existence, and that has some women humphing and waiting for those aspects of it they find distasteful to change so they can get in on the fun.  
And perhaps having been free from this sort of politically-laden scrutiny before, the enthusiast gaming community is responding with what I find to be a refreshingly honest “wtf.”  A gaming enthusiast is, by definition, a person that likes playing games.  To be someone that likes playing games, you have to play said games, and to be an enthusiast, all you need do is have a great time doing it and want to play more.  The gaming community is nothing more than a collection of free-thinking, free-choosing individuals that thinks buying games and playing them a lot is a pretty awesome way to spend free time.  There’s no “culture” to change here, no “agenda” or “system.” Is it any wonder that calls from the feminist-minded to make the experience of gaming more female-friendly are met with ridicule or confusion?  It’s like a person saying they’d really like to get into that surfing thing, if you guys could go ahead and make it so you don’t have to be by an ocean in order to enjoy it.  Being into video games means enjoying playing the games THAT ARE HERE; if you don’t enjoy your time playing video games because you don’t like the other people playing, or you don’t like the games that are available, or you don’t like the things being done in the games, doesn’t that imply you don’t like gaming?  If you don’t like video games, why is it so important that you do?  Why do you WANT to like them?  I think it is this confusion, this beef with the premise of feminist critiques of gamer culture that keeps feminist analysis from going down smoothly with the online gaming community like they’ve come to expect.  Video games are not a political body with power; they are not a profession with a lot of money; that is to say, they are not something that a feminist could argue being deprived of disenfranchises a woman or denies her any power.  Video games are a consumer product and a way to spend your free time.  So even those people who would be nodding and agreeing with a portrayal of women as lacking agency in an area of society considered valuable or powerful, like politics or executive positions, sometimes can’t help but wonder why, if a woman wants to get into gaming, she doesn’t just start PLAYING VIDEO GAMES.  And if she is not interested in video games because of what they are, they have a hard time understanding why this is something that should cause them distress, or something that oppresses them.
Well, what about the industry then?  I mean, more female gamers means more money, more market share, right?  Why do the development studios insist on alienating women, why do they insist on making games that don’t actively entice them, or target men instead?  Why don’t they make games that target women?  Well, it’s important to realize that they DO.  The myth of the gender gap in gaming as a whole has been debunked.  Women make up nearly 50% of the video game playing populace now.  In fact, adult women make up a larger percentage of the gamer demographic than the stereotypical teenage boy does.  This is because companies HAVE found and developed games that interest women, and they are happily making money off of these games.  With the explosive growth of the industry, and explosive growth of the tech and available platforms, so has come the growth of new genres, new gameplay styles, new experiences, and some of these have struck big with women, like mobile and social gaming.  Just because they aren’t showcased at E3 does not mean they are not there, nor does it mean they are somehow less “important” or have less “focus.” I hardly think that EA finds The Sims, the best-selling PC game of all time, to be “less important” for the barrels of cash it brings in.  People in the industry don’t scoff at the idea of making the next great Facebook game to catch the obsession of millions.  The “core gamer” market is about the games that push the hardware, about gamers that enthusiastically follow the release dates of new games, keep tabs on their favorite studios, agonize over how to budget and get the most value out of their available money to be able to drink it all in.  Being like this is not necessary to be a gamer.  If the games being made and the atmosphere of the community doesn’t appeal to you, this is not oppression or discrimination, even if you are a girl.  Gaming is mainstream now, its offerings diverse, and to be a “gamer,” all you need do is find a game you like and play it.  I generally don’t enjoy RTS’s, but this does not make me less of a gamer, nor does it mean those that do enjoy them and make them should change to help me feel included.  Being a consumer industry, the video game industry does not owe you anything.  It does not owe you a protagonist this year that you will immediately identify with.  It does not owe you an implementation of that cool gameplay idea you’ve had rattling around in your head.  It does not owe you your new favorite game, your new obsession, your new hang-out with your friends.  And if your tastes are picky enough, or sensibilities delicate enough, it’s possible no one will decide it is worth the time and money to cater to them.  So find something you do enjoy doing; not “enjoy if this changed,” but truly enjoy.  And if that’s video games, here’s a friendly welcome from me.  Unless you think Halo sucks, then screw you :P.