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Game Changer

Game Changer
Article by Katherine Cross, appeared in issue Habit{at}; published in 2012; filed under Internet culture.
Why Gaming Culture Allows Abuse... and How We Can Stop It

Illustration by Jasmine Silver.

You're a Bolshevik feminist jewess that hates white people... and you expect to be taken seriously when you're "critique-ing" video games? Fucking ovendodger. 

Like water through a bursting dam, the deluge came first in pinprick spouts and then rushed through in a pitiless torrent. E-mails, tweets, and YouTube comments attacked feminist videoblogger Anita Sarkeesian for proposing this past May to make a documentary about sexism in video games and crowdfund it through Kickstarter. In addition to comments like the misogynistic, anti-Semitic gem above, sexually violent images of her were mass-produced and circulated among male gamers and offensive, explicit edits were made to her Wikipedia page.

A similar attack was launched on Jennifer Hepler, a senior writer for the video-game developer BioWare. Her crime was to suggest, in a 2006 interview with KillerBetties.com, that in story-based role-playing games (or RPGs), "there is no reason on earth that you can't have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting." But when Reddit users dug up her statement this past February, they aimed a remorseless stream of abuse at her like a fusillade of excrement.

Around the same time, at a Street Fighter X Tekken televised tournament, a team coach named Aris Bakhtanians began verbally abusing and sexually harassing Miranda "Super_Yan" Pakozdi, one of the women he was supposed to be coaching. Later, when Jared Rea, a Twitch.tv community manager, asked if it was possible to "get my Street Fighter without sexual harassment," Bakhtanians responded, "You can't. You can't because they're one and the same thing. Sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting-game community, it's not the fighting-game community."

More quotidian examples of harassment in the gaming world can be found on sites like Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, a blog devoted to documenting and mocking the daily abuse women receive in the world of online gaming. Such sites only verify what any gamer can tell you about the prevalence of sexist behavior in video game culture, which also has plenty of racist, transphobic, homophobic, and ableist variants.

The three incidents above were so public and brutal that they raised the profile of harassment beyond the gaming community itself, where debate on the matter has raged for years. Suddenly it was on CBC Radio, in the New Statesman, in the Guardian, in the mainstream feminist press, as well as in other outlets. By August, an article ("In Virtual Play, Sexual Harassment Is All Too Real") appeared on the New York Times' front page.

** 

More people are finally taking notice of the abuse. But there's still a dearth of discussion on why it's happening. The culprit isn't anonymity, often the go-to answer for why the Internet can't have nice things. Instead, it's believing in the exceptionality of the Internet—and online gaming—that allows the abuses within, and it is enabled every time someone utters "It's just a game."

That phrase is the machine to which oppressive power dynamics are the ghost. How many times have you heard someone say "It's the Internet; you shouldn't take that seriously"? This kind of thinking supports the idea you can do anything you want with no consequences, when in all actuality, virtual actions like sexual harassment, stalking, abuse, prejudice in all of its forms—racism, sexism, transphobia, or all of the above—do have consequences.

Let's start with that distinction between "online" and "the real world." In the virtual world, there is a clear, aggressively policed distinction dictating the boundaries of both cyberspace and its social practices. In online gaming spaces in particular, this distinction is similar to the difference between "play" and "nonplay." As child psychologists have long recognized, the act of saying "this is play" makes the real seem unreal, and thus malleable and less threatening. It allows for experimentation and learning, as well as simply finding out who you are. But in online gaming spaces, when combined with a culture of zero accountability and prejudice, it becomes a way of denying the impact of one's words and actions—putting no limit on how nasty they can be.

"It's just a game" is another way of saying "this is play," and is often the first line of defense against someone who calls out certain gaming culture behavior as disrespectful, offensive, or triggering. On the Shoryuken forum, one man defended Bakhtanians's sexual harassment by saying, "I'm not saying go around in real life acting like an asshole, but on [gamer forums] and at tourneys it is perfectly acceptable to talk some shit and have some fun." In other words, in the "real" world this wouldn't be okay, but in the (unreal) gaming world, it's just fun. As one YouTube commenter condescendingly told Sarkeesian: "It's just a game, those girls [depicted in games] aren't real now, are they?"

Another example can be found in Bonnie Nardi's 2010 book My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. While playing World of Warcraft, a male member of her guild requested a naked picture of her—an action quickly glossed over as "just a joke!" and made light of. "Females were implicitly asked to agree to the condition that they were participating in an activity in which males were the dominant gender," she reflected. "I was being tested and put on notice that the guys were in charge." 

So why are the guys in charge here? Gaming cyberspace provides a virtual refuge for a certain kind of masculinity, one constructed in opposition to a rapidly changing world. In his book Guyland, sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that for today's young, heterosexual men, "The fantasy world of media is both an escape from reality and an escape to reality," capturing the dualism of real and unreal spaces. Kimmel's interviews with young male gamers are illustrative. One avers immediately: "We all know the PC drill...but c'mon, man. It's only a goddamned game...it's just entertainment." Another young man says: "I don't care that [video games are] not PC; I like that. It's the one place I can go."

These quotes are several years old, but when compared with a Shoryuken forum quote from February about the tournament incident—"For Aris and a lot of other people (mostly guys, but it can include women too), the fighting game scene is a chance for them to relax and be themselves, away from an insane, politically correct culture"—it's clear not much has changed.

Kimmel points out that the "reality" of the virtual spaces male gamers create is one that "many of these guys secretly would like to inhabit" and that video games "provide a way for guys to feel empowered." His analysis of men's relationships to virtual space concludes that these men feel "it's nice to turn back the clock and return to a time when men ruled—and no one questioned it."

It is hardly surprising that some men perceive the gaming world as, in Kimmel's words, a "virtual men's locker room" threatened by the presence of women. When women inhabit this space, claim visibility, and attempt to shape it, their presence becomes an existential threat to that "not PC" safe space that some of these young men enjoy. When abuse occurs, the conceit is that it's "just a game," which enables people to—in the words of one of Kimmel's interviewees—"offend everyone!" It's not like real life, which is too, well, real to risk flagrantly violating norms of decorum. But, at the same time, these male gamers know that the space is a real, tangible thing, in need of protection. Their "offending" serves to police the boundaries of who can and cannot inhabit gaming culture, and to keep out people who threaten "their" space.

Critics are antagonized on websites, forums, and in games themselves by this claque of gamers for "taking games too seriously" or, as with my own past writing about transgender life in online gaming, "bringing politics into our game." This, too, is an effort to say that such critiques don't belong because games are a magic circle of unreal play, and neither critical thinking nor politics have any place there since they are real and serious.

But it's a selective reasoning: gaming spaces are unreal enough to blunt criticism, yet real enough to defend against undesirables. Consider the bacchanal of hate that swirled around Jennifer Hepler about her combat-skipping idea. However benign Hepler's intentions were, she was read by many male gamers as making RPGs unmanly. It did not help that she was also a strong proponent of writing gay and lesbian characters into games.

A sampling of how her ideas were greeted: "You are the worst piece of shit writer ever, stop ruining BioWare you dumb cunt"; "You [sic] games have a poor completion rate because they suck. Forced gay romance and half-assed gameplay"; "Why was there so much gay sex in my Dragon Age 2?" "Depends what kind of people play DA more, normal gamers vs. middle aged women who read yaoi fanfics."

Some accused her of getting her job by "sucking dick," others attacked her weight, and the words "cunt" and "bitch" appeared on the regular. But what was especially telling was the number of people who claimed Hepler and her defenders weren't "real" gamers, and "proved" this by asserting that Hepler did unmasculine things like write gay romance novels or like fan fiction. It was a robust, collective effort to define the space: "good" games were masculine ones, "bad" games had feminine elements, like queerness, romance, and less combat.

If it's really all "just a game," why would this matter so much? Because the unreality of online culture allows certain male gamers to morally justify defending what is real to them—it's what Street Fighter coach Bakhtanians meant when he asserted that sexual harassment was intrinsic to fighting-game culture.

"Joking" and other ways of expressing prejudice under this rubric are how certain people—especially men, as demonstrated by the foregoing ethnographic work—can journey into the forbidden and be "un-PC." It requires the moral sanction of "unreality" but uses language designed to police boundaries by having real impacts. The bullying directed at Hepler and Sarkeesian was meant to put each woman back in her place and away from the ramparts of male gamedom.

When the borders of these "unreal" spaces of play are breached, responses based on a very "real" social urgency surface. One man, in a particularly well-known BioWare forum post, spoke out against the impact of women's and LGBTQ people's presence in a long piece titled "BioWare Neglected Their Main Demographic: The Straight Male Gamer."  In it, the author, known only by the pseudonym Bastal, publicly denounces the gay and lesbian relationships portrayed in BioWare's more recent games. He inveighs against "exotic" romance choices for heterosexual male players (an elf and a dark-skinned human woman), and expresses concern about BioWare "catering" to LGBTQ people for the sake of "political correctness."

The post is an excellent cultural artifact illustrating the anxiety of white, heterosexual male gamers and the perception that their space is being violated. It begins, "I don't think many would argue with the fact that the overwhelming majority of RPG gamers are indeed straight and male," despite the fact that nearly half of RPG gamers are women. He attempts to frame the discussion in terms of a "straight male" space where the majority's will is being ignored by large game developers. Most interesting is his observation that "It's ridiculous that I even have to use a term like 'Straight Male Gamer,' when in the past I would only have to say 'fans.'"

Despite his incorrect assumption about role-playing gamers' genders, he seems to recognize that the growing visibility of women and nonhetero people goes against traditional assumptions about who gamers are. He grasps that he no longer has the privilege of generalizing his interests onto those of all gamers; rather, he must name his subject position. Suddenly it seems as if it's no longer all fun and games.

**

Making further progress requires knowing that this problem lies in this double-dutching between real and unreal, and breaking this dichotomy is one of the first steps we should take. We have to give up the idea that certain behavior is innate to the Internet, or to gaming culture. How we interact in gaming spaces should not have to be defined by silence, extra precautions, fear, and deception. Those experiences are a real consequence of the "playing around" that occurs in these spaces. We should continue to frame them as such.

Further, we should pay the majestic compliment to games that they deserve by averring loudly, proudly, and in every way possible that games are more than "just" games. Shedding this illusion is essential if we're to enforce standards of respectability in game culture and ensure we can all have fun equally, without fear of harassment, stalking, or threats.

But it's worth repeating: Anonymity is not the problem. In 2011, Facebook's marketing director, Randi Zuckerberg, piously observed: "I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away…I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors." This conventional wisdom, shared by countless people across the political spectrum, is a red herring.

The real issue is a lack of accountability, fostered by the idea that what happens online does not have "real world" consequences. Whether people write their hate using a pseudonym or witha real name and picture attached, they're culturally supported in doing so because "it's just a game." But one's avatar or screen name can be a vehicle of accountability as surely as any other. When you level in an online game and garland yourself with the rewards of dungeon-delving, raiding, or player-vs.-player combat, you develop a personality and reputation that you cannot easily shed. Even if no one ever knows your legal name or face, accountability and responsibility can still accrue to that avatar. Such a person becomes unaccountable not because of anonymity, but because too many gamers throw their hands up and say "This is the Internet, what can you do?" It's similar to "boys will be boys" in its handwashing of responsibility.

The popular phrase "don't feed the trolls," however well intentioned, is in some ways also a product of the same kind of thinking. This malignancy is always going to be there, so why waste energy fighting or confronting it? In response to this kind of thinking, s.e. smith at the blog Tiger Beatdown may have put it best: "[Threats and harassment are] grinding and relentless and we're told collectively, as a community, to stay silent about it. But I'm not sure that's the right answer, to remain silent in the face of silencing campaigns designed and calculated to drive us from not just the Internet, but public spaces in general.... This is a reality, and it doesn't go away if we don't talk about it."

And we have to keep talking about it because we are at a turning point—one where developers and writers are beginning to take responsibility for their creations, and where gaming companies are seeing themselves increasingly responsible for dealing with troublemakers who play their games. We have witnessed multiple traumas of late, but unlike in the past, the maelstroms seem to be yielding to rainbows rather than whirlpools. Sarkeesian's project, modestly budgeted at $6,000, ended up netting over $150,000 when all was said and done.

The hatefest surrounding Hepler ended up with a huge community outcry against bullying, a $1,000 donation to an antibullying charity by BioWare, and ever-stronger statements from the company about protecting its employees from bigoted abuse.

Aris Bakhtanians, meanwhile, was met with a groundswell of criticism from across geek culture and ultimately apologized.

The critical study of gaming is gaining momentum, LGBQ characters are here to stay (and hopefully some properly written "T" characters won't be far behind), and more and more commentators within the gaming community are attacking the culture of prejudice festering in its ranks. For instance, writers from websites like the Escapist; Eurogamer; and Rock, Paper, Shotgun have become ever more forthright in attacking the smoldering remnants of prejudicial culture in gaming. Progressive and feminist geek websites, like the Mary Sue and the Border House (where I am an editor), are also gaining prominence. It is no longer uncommon to see men speaking out against sexism in gaming culture. We as women (and LGBTQ and people of color) geeks are making ourselves more visible than ever. GeekGirlCon is in its second year, and panels addressing gender and sexuality politics are increasingly a fixture at other events—PAX East notably played host to a panel on transgender issues in gaming. The historical invincibility of this little sociopsychological trick—"real" when it's convenient, "just a game" when it's not—is over.

It's still only just a beginning, with a lot more work to be done and a lot more hell to be endured, I fear, but we are reaching a point where the classic model of unaccountability that the real/unreal dyad has produced in cyberspace is at last being robustly challenged on all fronts, in increasingly high-profile and public ways. As gaming becomes a significant part of public and artistic life, feminists, antiracists, disability advocates, and LGBTQ activists have all been able to effect major changes.

If I had to make a prediction, I would say that in several years we will consider hiding behind the "unreality" of the Internet immature and socially unacceptable. As more and more social life migrates to the web, it's becoming increasingly backward to believe that what happens online is somehow independent or less real than the "real world." More of us are making our reality manifest through the virtual world—whether it's finding a job, finding love, or finding community—and it's becoming increasingly senseless to say that what happens there is somehow illusory.

It's more than just a game, and for that we should all be thankful.

 


This piece originally appeared in a different form on quinnae.wordpress.com. Katherine Cross is a research assistant in Hunter College's sociology department and is preparing doctoral research on gender identity formation in virtual worlds. She's written for Feministing, Kotaku, Questioning Transphobia, and the Border House.

Comments

18 comments have been made. Commenting is set to read-only for this post.

This is one of the finest

This is one of the finest pieces of prose I have ever read on Bitch. I initially came across the article several weeks ago, and haven't stopped mulling it over. The article is superbly written, and discusses privileged space in an insightful manner.

I had never really considered that the gaming culture and the internet were realms of exceptionalism, though I certainly realized that they can both be very escapist at times. I feel like the article has given me mental ammunition (if there is such a thing), and a more adequate framework in which to place these types of behaviour.

Truly brilliant article. Thank you.

Agreed that this is one of

Agreed that this is one of the best pieces you've published; I just read it in my print copy and came here to link on my blog.

I'm not a gamer but am active in science fiction fandom, which certainly has plenty of gamers (both male and female); their culture is at times one of the disturbing elements, since they can bring in or intensify the sexism and issues described in this article. Fortunately, there are also many fans who are feminists and allies (some of whom are gamers too), and fandom is actively grappling with the issues.

Thank You. :)

Thanks much for your kind words, I'm very humbled! I wrote the piece with the intent that it be intelligible across geek communities because there are somewhat similar problems all over the place-- in fanfic geekdom, or comic geekdom, et cetera. I'd love a link to your blog if you'd be so kind!

~Katherine Cross

I missed this one the first

I missed this one the first time around but I'm glad I caught it when a friend shared. Great article, very well written!

What's sickening, is this

What's sickening, is this kind of mentality is even present in "family friendly" games like Wizards 101. They are indoctrinated into the behavior as kids and only escalate as they get older. On a side note, someone needs to start up Geek Girl Con East! I'd love to go to a con like that!

Bravo.

Were this in a theatre I would be giving a standing ovation right now. Thankyou for taking all of the disparate threads and scattered discussion on this vital topic and bringing it together into such a frank and readable form. Magnificent. I'm sharing this with everyone I know. As a male gamer and a video games journalist, it breaks my heart to see women, queer people, people of colour, and everyone else targeted by this childish abuse driven away from the joy that gaming can provide. The sooner we can make the online space safer, the better off we will all be.

IRON Ribbon

Great article! There is a movement among gamers to change the culture for the better - have a look at www.ironribbon.org.au and their facebook page. Clearly gamers want things to be better and some are willing to put their hand up and create accountability that this article talks about. I think Iron Ribbon might actually work if enough people get behind it.

Thanks for giving me a new

Thanks for giving me a new perspective on the way these games are made and played. It's a great article, and it's too bad it didn't get a wider audience than it did.

Thank you

I do not believe I have ever seen anyone manage to put into words exactly how I have felt about the gaming community for so many years so perfectly.

I've been an online gamer since the late 90's, and in that time I have done as you have mentioned above. I learned to not feed the trolls. Many times, antagonizing those that spout such hatred is exactly what they want someone to do. However, accepting this behavior as something that is just normal and that there is nothing that can be done about it, has not changed the behavior. Hatred and Sexism has not only not declined during my time as a gamer, but I feel it has increased.

I imagine if I polled the female gamers that I interact with regularly, we all can give the same stories similar to those above. These are not isolated incidents. They are an integrated part of the community that has become not only acceptable, but expected. It is a sad state of affairs and deeply tragic in today's society.

Additionally, you are indeed correct. The last time I was told by a fellow gamer that it was "Just a game. People shouldn't take it so seriously," was last week. What those that believe this fail to understand is that anytime one deals with real people, rather face to face, over the phone, or via an on screen avatar, it is no longer just a game. This isn't a first person shooter where the pixels just disappear and new ones spawn. The avatar that is the target of such prejudice is connected to a real person that has real emotions. Saying it is "It was just a joke." or "Its just a game." doesn't lessen the impact of the words. It only makes those that have emotional reactions to such filth feel even worse because now, not only do they feel bad because of what was said, but they also feel like idiots for feeling bad.

Its a vicious cycle, and really, it needs to stop.

Gaming and sexism

I have just one comment "50 Shades of Grey". The feminization of men in our school system and throughout our society is what has produced this hyper-masculine community of gamers. When normal masculinity is suppressed by the society, it will find an outlet somewhere, and this is it. Interestingly, this same phenomenon has also spawned a counter-part in the eager audience of women for a book that promotes sexual abuse of women. You are looking at a symptom, not a problem. Dig deeper. . .and don't forget to look in the mirror.

RE: Gaming and Sexism

Yeah, I'm autistic. I'm not going to go into mainstream society where I'm expected to act like a traditional female. I'm not one. Although I don't participate in sexual abuse, gaming is a safe haven where I am allowed to act in a logical manner with my friends without dealing with social backstabbing, people getting offended over every little thing, etc. - I can't function in that kind of environment, and so I don't. You can't try to change the way things work.

I don't even think it is a man / woman issue, as both men and women can act like traditional men / women. It's not going to go away. I personally prefer an environment (I don't care if its with men or women) where I can be *myself* and have the freedom to express myself and be open and honest with people instead of always having anxiety attacks.

This is utter bullshit.

This is utter bullshit.

Jennifer Hepler

“there is no reason on earth that you can’t have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting.”

People are right to deride her, for multiple reasons, for this suggestion.

Firstly, most modern RPGs DO have this option. It's called "run away". I remember you used to do it by holding down L and R together and, after a delay, as long as you weren't facing a particularly agile enemy, you could retreat from combat.

Simply asking to "skip" the combat is stupid though. I suppose if you want a "commit suicide and let the monsters kill me" button that could be arranged, but does she expect to just automatically win battles or something like that? Battling is part of the roleplaying.

In fact, in most RPGs, even with all the dialogue options getting progressively more complex, there's usually so much plot railroading that it's the most involved players will ever get in decisionmaking.

Why? Why are you so attached

Why? Why are you so attached to this particular paradigm of RPGs that you say that "people are right to deride" Jennifer Hepler? I really am curious, because I think in the end the only answer you can come up with is "because I think this is the way games should be played."

list of things Anna Sarkesian

list of things Anna Sarkesian has done:

Promised to Make a documentary
taken massive amounts of money
Purchased herself games and equipment
Become Famous speaking about feminism

List of things Anna Sarkesian hasn't Done:

Not made a documentary
Not return the money
impacted in anyway women's advanceent

If you think it's more than a game...

I hate to burst the bubbles of ignorance here, but video games really are just video games... Emotional attachment to video games due to addiction and many hours of participation DOESN'T make video games real or significant. Video games have and always will be a form of entertainment, something to do when you're not working or doing something else fun and relaxing in real life with friends and family. People too often make the error of making video games out to be more than they actually are. This is also due to cognitive dissonance and confusing virtual reality with actual real life reality. It's quite a disturbing form of addiction.
Conclusion, all things must be done in moderation for your own health and well being. This is a fact, not an opinion. Bottom line is that these internet and gamer children, much of them being children trapped in an adults body, need to GROW UP.

Edit: trapped in an adult

Edit: trapped in an adult body*

More than just a game...

You're confusing the term "real" with "actual." Video games do not mascarade as being actual because they are designed and packaged as limited and virtual. They do, however, foster real experiences, real relationships, and real emotion. As a female gamer, I approach video games in the context of "play," as I am willing to bet many other gamers do as well. I try to have fun, create memories, and connect with other gamers online. But when I am met with sexist and bigoted language, how can this not be considered real? how can its effect on me not be real? What makes an MMOG real is the "multiplayer" aspect of its structure. Once video games became a social space, they applied a very real component of consequential participation, the sense that what you say and what you do in a video game matters. The actions of one player directly affect the experience of another, therefor implying real consequence. I agree that playing video games, like any other "past time" activity like watching tv or knitting, must be done in moderation, and should be one of many forms of personal entertainment. But the friends that I play with, the family members I play with, and the strangers I play with, are very much aware of this.