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Why talking about sexism in games sucks: you cannot win.

You know what’s an amazing column if you enjoy intelligent, well-reasoned articles on all aspects of games and game culture? Scoot right over to GameSetWatch’s This Week in Game Criticism and you’ll find it. In fact, this is often the first place i’ll go when I’ve been out of town for awhile and need to catch up, something I’ve just been doing after a week of HTML5 conference-going and training.

It’s also wonderful because it pointed me in the direction of Leigh Alexander’s recent piece at Kotaku entitled, wonderfully: I’m Tired of Being a “Woman in Games.” I’m a Person.

Yes. Oh lord, yes. This piece will piss you off if you are precisely the sort of person who thinks “issues” have no place in games/games writing, or if you fit the following description from the very first paragraph:

“some of you will hear the s-word [sexism] and roll your eyes and go, “oh, this again?” You guys can piss off-–go click on some new screenshots or a trailer consisting of a release date slowly fading into view. You’re hopeless.”

Followed up by:

“It’s just that I’m shocked that grade-school concepts like “diversity is constructive” and “treat human beings equitably” are concepts that somehow still need championing, still need arguing for. I mean, really? I have to explain many times that the convergence of varied perspectives makes creating things-–like video games-–more fruitful? Or more simply: You think boys’ clubs are better than spaces where everyone gets equal respect regardless of their gender? What’re you, five?”

Sweet, delicious honesty – I could drink it in all day. I agree with her, in case you cannot tell, that it would be wonderful if the default position for game fans is to respect one another instead of act like angry, bitter children afraid of words that end in “ism” and obsessed with stereotypes.

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It’s the main reason I get annoyed by things like Duke Nukem’s “Titty City” and the “whore” achievement that was axed from Dead Island. It’s not the exact instance that’s troublesome, its the bland, casually sexist, ridiculously pervasive attitude that it signifies. It’s the insufferably whiny “well, why don’t I get special treatment if you do?”; childish attitude that so many privileged people display when someone else (any “other” will do – woman, non-white, LGBT, disabled, etc.) is trying to point out that the way they have been portrayed – or seem invisible – really sucks, and gee, wouldn’t it be cool if it sucked a little bit less?

I agree with her ambivalence – that the sexism war in games is an unsolved problem (thanks, lowest common denominator marketing!) that needs champions, but it sucks to have to be pigeonholed into the “lady games journalist” or “lady writer” or what have you, as if all women who play games — or even all women who play games and write about them will have precisely the same opinions and ideas.

I’ve had many (oh, so many) developers/PR come at me at game conferences with “girl games” and insult my intelligence time and time again, giving me “great examples” of games “women will love!”. I refrain from telling these people that I’ve been teaching university courses (as faculty, not as a student teacher, mind you) since I was 24, that I know a thing or two about gaming, and that despite being female, I’m actually not a moron. There’s a whiff of this about the game press as well, though it’s usually not as obvious. I’m polite in person and in all my communications, but I’d be lying if I said that didn’t grate on me.

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Her overall point is simple, and very (almost comically), easy to follow – treat other people with a modicum of respect:

“What I mean by “err on the side of respecting people” is this: when peers and friends speak up and let me know something is hurting them, I usually feel that the need to respect their feelings is way more important than obtuse arguments over someone’s all-important right to say “whore” in a codebase.”

Amen, sister.

Danielle Riendeau

What I do for work: spend my days as the ACLU design/code/video ninja, write about games, make (tiny) games, teach digital media at Northeastern University. What I do for fun: all of the above, plus lots of running, fitness fun, filmmaking, outdoor exploration, world travel, sci-fi everything.

23 thoughts to “Why talking about sexism in games sucks: you cannot win.”

  1. On the one hand, she argues people need to include more feminine input and viewpoints. On the other hand, she hates being labelled a woman. So we should simultaneously ignore and pay attention to gender?

    I understand that sexism in games is something that needs to be dealt with, but if we’re going to compare the gaming world to any other medium that’s taken seriously, I think we’ll quickly realize that games have arrived for the most part.

  2. I don’t think it would be contradictory to say we need more Black voices in film and literature, yet not make their inclusion all about race. Being more inclusive while at the same time de-emphasizing stereotypes as a basis for identity is something that needs to happen more everywhere.

    And no, when a game like Duke Nukem Forever can come out with relatively little censure for its sexist content, games have not arrived. Movies and music haven’t really arrived, either. Society has not arrived.

  3. Being pigeonhold, especially for something as arbitrary as gender, is bad. Including many different viewpoints in any project/industry/endeavor is good. The former is unfairly limiting to the individual, the later expands opportunities and productivity. It is really that simple.

    I realize that this post has already been replied to and dealt with by Gormongous, and probably in a more civil tone than I’m managing here, but the sort of willful ignorance it displays seriously chaps my ass, and it saddens me that it accurately reflects much of the current level of discourse in the gaming community. And if that constitutes arriving, I think some *substantial* re-evaluation is in order.

  4. Being pigeonhold, especially for something as arbitrary as gender, is bad. Including many different viewpoints in any project is good. The former is unfairly limiting to the individual, the later expands opportunities for the larger community. It is really that simple.

    I realize that this post has already been replied to by Gormongous, and with a more civil tone than I’m using here, but the sort of willful ignorance it displays seriously gets under my skin, and it saddens me that it accurately reflects much of the current level of discourse in the gaming community. And if that constitutes arriving, I think some substantial re-evaluation is in order.

  5. Ms Alexander is saying that there are experiences that it is more common for women to have than for men to have. As an example: almost all women can speak to direct, first hand experiences of sexism. Very few men can.

    What she is not arguing is that all women experience everything that any woman experiences. She is saying that she is _a_ woman, and not _the_ woman. She is making the rather banal point that her interests in gaming extend beyond her gender.

    For instance: if someone walks up to me and says “Punning Pundit, as a man, what do you think of the way Nightwing was repeatedly called names in the new Batman game?” I’d be baffled– it isn’t out yet.

    On the other wrist, if someone comes up to me and says “Punning Pundit, as a PC gamer, what are your thoughts about the continued delays of Batman: Arkham City?” I’d have something to talk about.

  6. Sorry, I love women and have no problems with women gaming or having more games aimed at women but her opening paragraph is garbage.

    Why say “some of you will hear the s-word [sexism] and roll your eyes and go, “oh, this again?” You guys can piss off-–go click on some new screenshots or a trailer consisting of a release date slowly fading into view. You’re hopeless.”

    Really, why? In other words her article is ONLY for people who agree with her. She is trying to alienate the exact audience she wants to change. That is very odd. I don’t like the idea that her rant is just for a bunch of yes men that want to agree with her.

    Is sexism in gaming an issue? Maybe, but no more then in any other field dominated by either men OR women. There are plenty of things a guy can’t do without being teased. Ballet, figure skating (oh I know), nursing etc… it’s a moot point and until we talk in terms of equality and leave terms like racism or sexism behind we will just force pendulems to swing back and forth with no real progress.

    I don’t know anyone who takes games like Duke Nuke’m seriously, does such a person exist? There are very few female gamers, that’s a fact, so companies don’t really market to them very much. Why should they? It’s all about the bottom dollar anyway, I can hardly blame them. And what is targeting a female audience anyway? Isn’t it just another form of sexism? Isn’t Duke Nuke’m sexist toward MEN for assuming we’re so assinine that this stuff appeals to us? I find it FAR more insulting that women assume we all like this stuff because some company aims this humour at teenage boys. Seriously I do but no one mentions this.. ever.

    I find it sexist that companies assume I want every woman in my games to be uber hot and slutty (ME2, Arkham…). I don’t think it’s sexist to women any more then it is to men. Making assumptions about how libido driven we are is the same thing as objectification as far as “ism’s” are concerned but no feminist will ever mention this.

    The best feminist I ever read said this: “In the early feminist movement we made the mistake of assuming that men were already emancipated.” Exactly, now we’re like 4 decades behind. We have more of us in jail, dying young, getting diseases, going to war, doing poorly in school, addicted to drugs, living on the streets, killing each other in random and gang related violence… the list goes on and for just once I’d like to see one of these articles mention that. It’s november for chris’ sakes.

  7. I had a good comment (I think) disagreeing with both you and her. I did the math correctly but it still didn’t get posted. I asked (e-mailed) Bill, perhaps you can fix it I have a fear his hand takes priority.

  8. Sexism in games is really indicative of a larger macrocosm in society as a whole. It’s only there because there’s an audience for it, and frankly I’m not completely against it. In the same way that I myself enjoy putting myself into, say, the boots of a soldier or a wizard, there’s a ton of young hormonal males that love to go visit “Titty City”. It’s a fictional world that, yes, caters to the raging hard on for the almighty dollar. You don’t just see it in gaming, you’ve seen it in movies, tv shows, etc.

    We know not all women look like Ivy from Soul Calibur, but we also know that we don’t look like Tom Brady or Edward from Twilight. Some of the anger you might experience from anonymous assholes in the gaming community is likely pent up anger built out of rejection on a very primal level. I’m not saying that makes it right, but while we’re highlighting social problems, let’s not leave this out, either. When I was in high school, no girl was looking at an acne-ridden, glasses bearing face and admiring how dreamy his personality was. They ogled the high school quarterback and the rich kids with their parents’ Mercedes. The pendulum swings both ways. I think as a guy, our fragile egos tend to react outwardly in anger, so you tend to see it more in an online forum where the risk of any consequences is minimal.

    Along the same lines, the same shithead that’s mouthing off to you in a XBL FPS lobby is most likely going to be verbally assaulting me if I’m in the same position. They’re schoolyard bullies made manifest on the online world. It doesn’t matter who you are, they’re just going to pick the first thing they pick up on and throw the most heinous crap they can think of at you for no other reason than they want to tear you down to compensate for their own insecurities. It could be your race, sex, sexuality, whatever.

    Yes, some guys just hate women, too. I’ve also seen the opposite effect. I’ve been in multiple WoW guilds where a female member was given preference in dungeon runs simply because she was female. Nevermind she couldn’t heal her way out of a paper bag.

    I have a little girl who just turned 5 who’s already shown an interest in gaming. The birds and the bees speech is certainly one I’m loathing, but explaining online behavior and the ridiculous amount of negativity that’s so pervasive is another one. The call for the overall better treatment to fellow human beings is one that certainly needs to be echoed. I’m pretty thick skinned, but she’s already shown some emotional sensitivity. I have real concern about how she’ll handle adversity in that arena. I hope it’s at least a little better by the time she gets there.

  9. Is that we should, in fact, treat everyone with respect, and not pay so much mind to labels and stereotypes. Absolutely, there are men out there who are oppressed. There are white men who are oppressed economically, etc. as well. That’s absolutely a fact.

    I think the biggest problem in all of this is that people (of all stripes) are fundamentally egocentric – when they hear about oppression (or even just unfairness), they think about being treated unfairly themselves. It’s how our brains work. Add that in with the fact that there are so very, very many levels of varying privilege (money, status and class tie in just as much as race, sex, sexuality, etc.), and you have a whole world (very literally) of people who are treated unequally in one way or another.

    However, anyone who thinks sexism isn’t a problem in games, movies, most workplaces, popular media, the friggin sidewalk, etc. is fooling him/herself. And you’re absolutely right that it’s sexist that developers/marketers think every male is a 15-year-old horndog. It goes both ways, and what I (and Ms. Alexander) are advocating for is more diversity, and LESS emphasis on reinforcing stereotypes. I think you’re arguing for the same point as well.

  10. to respect one another instead of act like angry, bitter children afraid of words that end in “ism” and obsessed with stereotypes.”

    It would also be wonderful if gamers could be mature about a review that is only somewhat positive about their favorite game, or have Pauline Kael-level discourses on the relative merits of Battlefield and Call of Duty. The problem with this is, as it turns out, a lot of gamers don’t just *act* like angry, bitter children: they *are* angry, bitter children in many respects, not the least of which is that they tend to lack the tempering effect of a few years in a good liberal arts program. It doesn’t help that it’s a community that has grown up parallel to the Internet, the single biggest creator of anonymous asshole content since revolutionary pamphleteering (lookin’ at you, Thom Paine).

  11. Part of the problem here is privilege – no one ever really sees their own. Being non-white made me think, in my youth, that I understood everything I needed to understand about the challenges of being a minority. Because I am a non-obvious brown denomination, I’ve also been on the business end of a few casually bigoted “I don’t know what YOU are” conversations. (If you don’t know, buddy, I guess I don’t either. But I seem to get called Justin a lot; let’s start from there.)

    But I am a straight man. So for the record: my opinions on feminism are suspect by definition. Doesn’t matter how respectful I am, doesn’t matter if I’ve never called a woman a bad name. Because when it comes down to it, I have no effing idea what it’s like to have a uterus. I have seen vanishingly few of the attractive men I know get side-tracked in the middle of a conversation by a sexual comment; I have yet to know a single woman for longer than a week, who hasn’t been.

    The abuse men may or may not also receive is beside the point. It doesn’t change the things that women can and do deal with on a daily basis. In the face of that reality, my only responsibility in this matter is to listen and offer support. I dare not pretend for a second that my opinion means more than their reality.

  12. I’d be happy if I could join a vent channel for team based games such as LoL and not have the first comment I hear be an exclamation of how crazy it is that I’m a girl. Actually, I would even be fine with that if it wasn’t almost always followed up by at least a couple of people immediately harassing me for sexual favors. It’s uncomfortable and it greatly detracts from the fun of playing the game.

  13. I think a big problem is the lack of male allies (in the same sense of straight LGBT allies). It’s the gaping silence of male games journalists who never say anything about horrible sexism, etc they see. Listening to some of the bigger podcasts I know there are some reasonably intelligent people on them but I also know they never address the issue or even address debates about the issue. So the few, almost inevitably, women who address the issue get a big field of crickets when they do discuss it from all the male journalists that populate the industry. I’m sure some of them may even support the voices talking about the issue but they aren’t out there saying they do or bringing up the issue themselves on behalf of others.

    Here’s an example of a different issue area but an analogous issue in certain ways. On the Rebel FM podcast, which isn’t a really big gaming podcast or anything, Arthur Gies refuses to allow them to use the word “retarded” or “retard” to describe things or people. They got a letter from someone after they used it on a podcast and agreed not to use it because it was a good point. Subsequently, when they get other people on the podcast those people are completely shocked when Arthur politely says not to use it on their podcast. That’s the kind of support that doesn’t exist for sexism either—calling this shit out and addressing it and not just by the people directly affected. It’s the same way with sexism. There are no male allies calling out sexist attitudes, games and features etc or stopping the boys club atmosphere of games journalism and design. Instead its left to the few women in the industry to address the issue, and as you rightly said, without that support from others they can’t win and look shrill.

    That’s my personal take from consuming a fair amount of gaming press/media stuff.

  14. I think you’re correct in this – for all intents and purposes, women in the game industry are still a minority, and it always helps to have allies who consider the problem.

    That’s not to say there aren’t men who are allies in this regard. Off the top of my head, Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku, Russ Pitts (formerly at The Escapist), and yes, the Rebel FM guys (who don’t talk about this every day, but they are definitely against defamation of women and LGBT people as well as against using the word “retard” on their show) come off as a couple of good examples of male game journalists who care about the issue.

    They’re still in the minority, so to speak, but I wanted to give them an appropriate shout-out!

  15. Thanks for your response — I think you’re correct in that privilege – and failing to see when it exists – is the core of the problem. There are literally hundreds of ways in which people are treated differently with regards to their various attributes (race, class, gender, the list goes on), and I really think people have a hard time acknowledging that they have had it easier in some respects (especially if they have had it harder in others).

    Nothing exists in a vacuum, and hell, human behavior is complicated, to say the least.

  16. I like her stuff a lot. I don’t always agree with her points, but Ms. Alexander always has interesting things to say and is a great, entertaining writer. I do agree with the point of this piece, there should be less sexism in games. The portrayal of a lot of women in games is ridiculous.

    That said, the one thing that I’ve always struggled with a bit when it comes to Ms. Alexander is how she always pushes back against the notion that she is a female gaming journalist. I understand her point. It’s not like the men in this industry are referred to as male gaming journalists. That said, she also blatantly injects her gender into her work. Her blog is called Sexy Videogameland blog. She’s totally free to call her blog whatever she wants, but I feel like it really puts her gender at the forefront of her material. How many predominantly male websites have a similar title that really put there gender and/or attractiveness at forefront?

  17. as gaming becomes more mainstream, but industry marketing will continue to be predicated upon the assumption that their market is just that: a treehouse subculture of teen males or males that act like teens who play games as an alternative to a reality where they are unable/unwilling to interact in a healthy way with society in general and females in particular.

  18. Gaming isn’t “becoming more mainstream”, it has already become mainstream. The average gamer is a +30 year old woman. The industry does not at all seem to realize this.

    Try and think of another industry where the majority of the audience is called “casual”, and “core” is actually a fringe.

  19. The real problem with competitive gaming on a large scale is that anonymity combined with an audience turns 90% of people into psychopaths.

    The racial and sexist slurs are just fuel for the fires of hatred many people like to direct at others. They will use anything they can somehow turn into an insult.

    Regarding the article itself, I didn’t like it. It’s asking, “why can’t we all just get along,” but in a very tangential manner. As a result, the article’s goal is obscure and most people have no idea what it was supposed to be about. Check out the comments.

  20. You know what pisses me off? TV.

    Why is every man a big, clueless, simple minded dumbass on commercials and television programming. All the while, the witty, charming, do all wife is there to save the day.

    Jane Doe and her friend drink coffee and watch from the kitchen as Jane’s husband puts too much lighter fluid on grill… nearly blowing his face off.

    John Doe walks face first into a sparkling clean glass door. Oh silly, asshole husband… didn’t you know that only your brilliant wife is smart enough to purchase such superior cleaning products?

    John Doe: THE MCRIB IS BACK!
    Jane Doe: I married a fourteen year old..
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA… men are simple minded and effing stupid!

    He went to Jared! He went to Jared! At least the stupid douche knows how to shop for jewelry!

    Ever watch football? Football advertisements think I’m a “bro” and a “dude” and little else. I like chilli, beer, and tits… and the Army.

    As a man, I can’t tell you how infuriated I am at how I’m portrayed on television. We are so helpless without our wives and girlfriends. In fact, if it wasn’t for our sperm I daresay they wouldn’t need us at all.

    But you know who watches the most TV? Women.
    You know who frequents McDonald’s more than any other demo? Minorities in poorer neighborhoods. Ba Da Ba Ba Ba… I’m black and lovin’ it.
    You know who buys/plays/talks about video games more than any other demo? Males… ages 18 to 30. You know what I do in the privacy of my own mind, or in the privacy of like minded friends? I observe and admire attractive women. I daresay I may objectify them at times. As a man, it’s in our very fiber to want women. It doesn’t mean we’re all he-man woman haters. I love my fiance. She’s my rock.

    But it also doesn’t mean that I sit around and have a wank or giggle like a school girl while playing Duke Nukem, either. I’m not that much of a simple-minded ape. But, I can play it and maybe I can have fun with it as a game. It doesn’t mean it’s going to indoctrinate me with it’s own ideals. That being said, I like that Harley Quinn and Catwoman dress the way they do. I don’t know why, but it makes sense. Hey, at least they’re dropping some hurt bombs and kicking ass, don’t you think? They’re pretty empowered. Catwoman has been Batman’s equal for quite some time.

    Do FPSs cause school shootings? Eh?

    Ok, this is starting to ramble on… but the point I’m making, which has no doubt been made already, is that we’re all victims in one way or another. Have a beer, grab a bag of doritos, call up a few of your best bro’s, sit on your couch for the big game, and chill out. Video games imitate life and the world around you for the most part. Best maintain your composure and observe the natives…

  21. You know what pisses me off? TV.

    Why is every man a big, clueless, simple minded dumbass on commercials and television programming. All the while, the witty, charming, do all wife is there to save the day.

    Jane Doe and her friend drink coffee and watch from the kitchen as Jane’s husband puts too much lighter fluid on grill… nearly blowing his face off.

    John Doe walks face first into a sparkling clean glass door. Oh silly, asshole husband… didn’t you know that only your brilliant wife is smart enough to purchase such superior cleaning products?

    John Doe: THE MCRIB IS BACK!
    Jane Doe: I married a fourteen year old..
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA… men are simple minded and effing stupid!

    He went to Jared! He went to Jared! At least the stupid douche knows how to shop for jewelry!

    Ever watch football? Football advertisements think I’m a “bro” and a “dude” and little else. I like chilli, beer, and tits… and the Army.

    As a man, I can’t tell you how infuriated I am at how I’m portrayed on television. We are so helpless without our wives and girlfriends. In fact, if it wasn’t for our sperm I daresay they wouldn’t need us at all.

    But you know who watches the most TV? Women.
    You know who frequents McDonald’s more than any other demo? Minorities in poorer neighborhoods. Ba Da Ba Ba Ba… I’m black and lovin’ it.
    You know who buys/plays/talks about video games more than any other demo? Males… ages 18 to 30. You know what I do in the privacy of my own mind, or in the privacy of like minded friends? I observe and admire attractive women. I daresay I may objectify them at times. As a man, it’s in our very fiber to want women. It doesn’t mean we’re all he-man woman haters. I love my fiance. She’s my rock.

    But it also doesn’t mean that I sit around and have a wank or giggle like a school girl while playing Duke Nukem, either. I’m not that much of a simple-minded ape. But, I can play it and maybe I can have fun with it as a game. It doesn’t mean it’s going to indoctrinate me with it’s own ideals. That being said, I like that Harley Quinn and Catwoman dress the way they do. I don’t know why, but it makes sense. Hey, at least they’re dropping some hurt bombs and kicking ass, don’t you think? They’re pretty empowered. Catwoman has been Batman’s equal for quite some time.

    Do FPSs cause school shootings? Eh?

    Ok, this is starting to ramble on… but the point I’m making, which has no doubt been made already, is that we’re all victims in one way or another. Have a beer, grab a bag of doritos, call up a few of your best bro’s, sit on your couch for the big game, and chill out. Video games imitate life and the world around you for the most part. Best maintain your composure and observe the natives…

  22. Okey-doke. First off, Ankhare…I don’t mean to be mean, but that last post looks a hell of a lot like spam.

    Anywho. I just read the weekly “gender in games” post over on Kotaku, and as I read the comments block, I began asking myself: where the hell do I go to add to this conversation? ‘Cause the Gawker media comments threads are troll-filled trackless wilds.

    The answer might be the “Valkyrie” blog that I eventually clicked through to, from the aforementioned article. But I am already certain that there’s a really good chance that we might be able to make ourselves an honest-to-Pete, okay-for-any-gender-to-talk-about-it space right here. We’ve already had a few conversations about it here; we all seem to be able to organize many sentences in succession; we don’t seem to be burdened by the point/counterpoint logic argument format so readily adopted on the internet.

    ‘Cause let me take a minute to talk about my Man Feelings. I read that Valkyrie post that’s linked to the Sorrell blog (“No Flat Girls”) and I didn’t feel like adding a thoughtful, we’re-not-all-like-that post to the comments block. I felt like I should sulk into a corner and neuter myself.

    Which brings me to what little point I have: I suspect that, at least on this point, women may be in better touch with their feelings, and therefore “more prone to cry about it” or whatever, but it’s men that are the hypersensitive ones on this topic.

    That’s why the “good ones”, when confronted by blatant sexism, don’t back women up: they’re ashamed of what they are.

    That’s why others respond to your statements of why sexism makes women feel bad with rationalizations: by and large, men have made almost zero effort to separate their feelings about women into boxes labelled This Girl Is a Person, This Girl Is Attractive, I’ll Never Know True Love, and I Need to Dominate Everything boxes. So when a woman attacks one box, the man thinks she’s attacking everything, and thus responds with some Ain’t-I-Smart bullsh*t.

    Well, I’m running out of time, and I think that’s what I wanted to say. But you still have this post in the banner, I’d rather say this here than anywhere else, and I hope you keep writing about this when the mood strikes, Danielle.

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