Thoughts Of A Feminist Gamer. Does Gaming Have A Sexism Problem?

So recently I was invited, as a feminist and a gamer, onto the BBC World Service internet radio show World Have Your Say to discuss whether or not the gaming industry has a sexism problem. The experience for me proved to be somewhat pointless since the segment before it overran and I ended up with only a very short amount of time to speak (the last minute of the show) but the show itself was interesting and is well worth a listen (Here from the 36 minute mark) However I had so much more to say, about sexism in gaming in it’s entirety, so am going to say it here instead.

Now the question that was asked was does the gaming industry have a sexism problem? Now I define the industry as those that MAKE the games, not those who play them, and the simple answer to that question is yes. I do believe that there is a sexism problem in the game industry and technology industry in general. You only have to look at some of the accounts on the Everyday Sexism website, particularly accounts by those that work in technology industries to see examples. As for the gaming industry itself it is clear that they are behind the times in terms of who their audience is. According to a study by The Entertainment Software Association 48% of gamers, including those that play mobile games, are now women. ”Female representation equal to males among gamers is imminent,” wrote the report’s author, Jeffrey Brand. ”We saw girls increasingly get into gaming in the late 1990s and of course these girls are now women (playing games) and many of these women have children,” he told The Sunday Age. An industry tracking group found in 2009 that 28% of console gamers are women, 2009 is five years ago so it’s likely that number has increased since then. Yet the mainstream AAA gaming industry still predominantly markets it’s games to men, often completely ignoring that women too buy and play these games. Some publishers will actively fight not to make their marketing less male oriented. When making The Last Of Us the developer Naughty Dog had to fight game marketers to have the game’s main story focus Ellie, a teenage girl, on the front cover of the game box along with the other main game character Joel, a gruff middle aged man. Game developer Ken Levine made remarks about the box art for Bioshock Infinite, which featured the male protagonist, Booker DeWitt, in prominent position on the front of the game box while the female protagonist and main story focus, Elizabeth, was relegated to the back. This was despite complaints from fans of the game series.

Herein lies the problem, the game industry ASSUMES that male game players are sexist. The industry ASSUMES that male players will not buy a game with a female protagonist or if there is a woman on the cover. The game industry ASSUMES that male gamers will not want to play as a woman avatar, to the extent that including the option to play as women is often still seen as an optional extra. I don’t believe this is necessarily the case, look at the outcry from gamers when Ubisoft revealed there would be no playable women in Assassin’s Creed Unity. Immediately gamers of all genders took to Twitter to express their outrage under the #WomenAreTooHardToAnimate tag. It seems that the industry exists in a male dominated bubble (only 22% of the mainstream game industry workforce are women) and it has completely lost touch with how it’s own audience has moved on. The mainstream industry clings onto the bog standard white male protagonist like a security blanket, terrified to put it down and try something new once in a while.

So does gaming itself have a sexism problem? Well having covered the industry let’s move on to the media and heaven knows the media is trying to make it look like it doesn’t have a sexism problem. The gaming media has wholeheartedly embraced feminist criticism, however they only seem to focus on sex negative feminism and it’s focus on sexy female characters as a bad thing The gaming media is very quick to tell us that a game is ‘sexist’ in some way, examples of this can be found in the criticisms of Dragon’s Crown for it’s character design to the point where the artist was forced to apologise. Another recent example would be the release of Bayonetta 2, a game featuring an attractive female protagonist. In his review of Bayonetta 2 for Polygon Arthur Gies marked the game down, saying the the game’s “blatent over-sexualisation puts a big dent in an otherwise great game” Yet Bayonetta is a strong, capable hero with a very particular skill set and a very strong backstory and universe built around her, it’s also worth noting that she was designed by a woman. Yes she also happens to be sexy and obviously celebrates her sexuality, does that make her sexist as a character? Many non-male gamers actually find her empowering as an example of a confident woman that enjoys being sexy and in control of her sexual destiny. The problem with game media is that it can no longer tell the difference between sexualised and sexy. There is a major difference between female characters that are acutely designed to appeal and nothing else, basically nothing more than a pair of walking breasts such as DOA, and games that contain strong, well-rounded, confident women that also happen to be sexy. One of the most discussed female game characters is Lara Croft of Tomb Raider and she is often held up as an example of a strong female protagonist, yet the main focus by the game media has always been how she looked. Whether this be how her look has changed since her character was first created to how her face was changed in between console generations. The game media is rapidly becoming in danger of criminalising sexiness in female video game characters in a desperate move to not be seen as sexist and avoid criticism by sex-negative feminists. What they are failing to understand is that many gamers (certainly the ones I spoke to for my blog about whether sexy video game characters influence buyer choices) are not really concerned whether or not characters are sexy, as long as they are well designed and game play and story are good. The media only concerning itself with how female characters look is, in itself, a form of sexism, however good their intentions may be. The other issue that the game media like to talk about is violence against women in video games. Games such as GTA V are lambasted for giving the player the option to commit violent acts against women. Gamespot reviewer Carolyn Petit criticised the game, saying “All the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism” This raises a question for me, why are acts of violence against women in video games such an issue while acts of violence against men are seen as ok? Why is it  that having a video game in which the player violently kill thousands of men it’s no big deal but if one woman is slapped it’s not on? As the video game audiences has matured (the average gamer is now in their 30s) so has the demand for more mature content in games. I have no problem with this provided these games are not being exposed to children, a responsibility of parents and carers. Violence in video games is a discussion all in itself that is being had but from my own perspective, if video game violence is bad then it is irrelevant who that violence is aimed it. The game media and critics can’t say violence against women shouldn’t be tolerated and then be ok with violence against men, either violence is wrong or it isn’t. They can’t have it both ways.

So that then leaves us with those that play video games, gamers themselves. Whether or not gamers are sexist is currently a very hot topic of conversation online and in the media at the moment, particularly since #GamerGate started. Now I am a woman and I have played video games my entire life. I talk about video games, game culture and feminism on Twitter all the time. I have made many friends doing so. Not everyone I talk to agrees with me, just as there are plenty of gamers that have opinions I disagree with. I have said some things that could probably be viewed as controversial (I have said I don’t like The Last of Us and I think it’s overrated) Here’s the thing though, if someone disagrees with me or any woman it doesn’t automatically make them a misogynist any more than disagreeing with a man would make me a misandrist, they’re only misogynist if they disagree or devalue my opinion BECAUSE I’m a woman, and that is not something that I have personally encountered. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I know there are some male gamers that believe that women are ruining video games just as there as some gamers, of all genders, that engage in harmful harassment behaviour. However I don’t think this represents the majority of gamers, Yes they can be a passionate bunch, yes they can get defensive when they believe they are being treated unfairly but does that make them sexist? Well no more than the rest of society, in that yes some do think less of those that don’t share the same gender but most do support equality and fairness for everyone. Stifling discussion because of fear of being called sexist will only cause resentment. The media perpetrates a myth of gamers as a strictly homogeneous group, composed of mostly white males, however you only have to look at the #NotYourShield tag to know that that is not true, Gamers are a varied and diverse group of people from all genders, ethnicity, backgrounds and walks of life. So why then the perception? Perhaps because it suits the media and industry purposes to do so, in order to use the weapon of privilege against them. The concept of privilege has become a big part of third wave feminism, it was originally meant to be a way to ask people to recognise that their background may make it difficult for them to fully understand the struggles of someone from a different background. But now the idea of privilege has become a way to shame people into silence. As Meghan Daum puts it in her LA Times article ” What used to be called “class consciousness” — the awareness of how social and economic structures shape the self — might as well be called privilege shaming now” Gamers are being shamed for their apparent privilege and it has made some of them angry and resentful, being told to “Check Your Privilege” whenever someone disagrees with them because of things that are accidents of birth is unhelpful at best, damaging at worst. Nobody wants to be silenced, nobody likes being told that their opinion is invalid particularly because of some arbitrary thing they can’t control. Even as a feminist I find the idea of privilege shaming abhorrent, after all I may be a woman but I am a white, cisgender, western one. My privilege card isn’t exactly empty. I would never support gamers that harass or threaten people and I do not believe the wider game community does either.

So do I think that gaming has a sexism problem? Well yes and no, yes problems exist in certain sectors as they do everywhere else but I don’t think the sexism is where feminist crititcs and media are looking for it. I honestly believe that the majority of gamers are good, decent, ordinary people that just happen to enjoy a hobby, this is certainly true of the gamers I have encountered. There is room for all kinds of games (if only the industry would allow it) and there is room for all kinds of gamers too. Disagree with me all you want to (as long as you do so respectfully) I won’t automatically think you’re sexist :o)

Thanks for reading

Angela

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8 thoughts on “Thoughts Of A Feminist Gamer. Does Gaming Have A Sexism Problem?

  1. Good piece.

    I find this gamergate thing tiring and absurd. It’s not like gamers are strangers to stereotyping and stigmatization, but at least Jack Thompson never called me a misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, socially inept, basementdwelling, rape apologizing, pissbaby, manchild, virgin, MRA, white straight cisgendered male.
    If certain portions of the gaming press were less confrontational, perhaps we could stand against the abuse and threats together.

  2. “There is a major difference between female characters that are acutely designed to appeal and nothing else… and games that contain strong, well-rounded, confident women that also happen to be sexy”

    What about strong, well-rounded, confident women whose special attacks involve most of their clothes flying off for no particular reason (aside from “hair magic”)? I think I get what you’re saying about why you find Bayonetta empowering, but would you consider it unreasonable for someone to have a hard time seeing that particular design choice as something other than “acutely designed to appeal and nothing else”? You said it yourself, the gaming industry tends to assume that its audience is heterosexual males. So yeah, maybe it was a carefully thought out artistic choice to symbolic express of a woman’s ownership of her sexuality… or maybe it was boobs. I’ve gotta say I have little faith that it’s the former, and based on the comments I’ve read elsewhere, I know the latter is what a lot of people are taking from it.

    And that, I think, is what the Polygon reviewer was getting at: from what I’ve read and seen of the game (mostly gameplay videos, since I don’t have a Wii-U but wanted to see for myself), yeah she’s a strong, well-rounded character… and in a way, that just makes it more sad when there are still significant elements that seem sexualized in a really pandering way, which is frustrating, which would affect my experience of a game, too.

    It’s not sex-negativity, it’s wanting to see sexuality done without sexualization, and because of the sketchy track record a lot of games have had with this in the past, I think it’s understandable why for many the tolerance for blatant sexualization is lower than it might be without the baggage of history (not to mention the present, real life issues of representation, etc) that each instance evokes.

    From reading opinions like yours I can see the case for Bayonetta being more of a step in the right direction than I would have thought, and I’m glad for that, but I don’t want to pat the industry on the back for what it did right without at least a “…but seriously, those fight poses? Who were those really for?” to go with it.

    1. I wouldn’t find it unreasonable if someone were to be put off the game by it’s design choices, that’s absolutely a question of personal preference. Lots of people don’t play particular games because they don’t like the look of them, there is no problem with that it’s the right of every consumer. The problem is having reviewers say that things are sexist and that we all should be offended by them rather than that being their own personal opinion or even trying to see it from the perspective of those that don’t find it sexist. I would like to see more diversity in game characters but I don’t think we should banish sexy, like anything else it is a tool at the disposal of the artist. If there is to be feminist critique of video games it would be nice to see more of it from the sex positive angle. Personally I’m tired of being told by predominantly male journalists that I should be offended by something because it’s sexist and if I am not offended then I must not understand it properly or I must have internalised misogyny. They should offer a perspective, make it clear that it’s only their opinion, then allow us to make up our own minds. After all if feminism is about anything, it’s about having the freedom to make our own choices.

      1. A critic’s job is to say what they liked and didn’t like about a thing and why, and it’s part of our job as readers to decide whether or not a given critic’s whys resonate with us. A review is by definition someone’s opinion.

        One critic thought parts of Bayonetta 2 were sexualized to an extent that detracted from his experience of the game. He praised it where he thought praise was due, and was completely up-front about where and why he felt the game suffered.

        Given this, if it’s all about choice, why are certain crowds not responding with “this person’s reasons are not ones I see myself sharing, so I will adjust the weight I give his review in my decision-making process accordingly”, but instead a concerted campaign to silence Polygon (c.f. “operation Bayonetta 2”)? Does that really sound like something driven by “ethics”?

        And again, nobody’s talking about “banning sexy”. You yourself talked about the importance of differentiating between sexy and sexualized, and I reiterated that point in my comment. Though we may draw the line in different places, sexualization, not sexy, is what we’re both talking about, and even in the case of sexualization, objecting to something, refusing to praise it, is not the same thing as banning it.

        I for one am glad to have a critic out there who appears to draw this line in about the same place I would. If it’s that important for others to just not hear from people who would have these issues with Bayonetta, it seems they have almost literally every other reviewer to turn to for a different opinion. I’ve got mine, they’ve got theirs, and that’s choice.

  3. Hmm. I’m not sure I buy the argument presented here.

    Let’s think about Grand Theft Auto V, since the line about no criticism of the violent content is a bit of a strawman argument.

    In 2013, there was specific issue taken with that game in media circles, specifically about the content itself. Like, in some countries, the game is rated M (17+), yet parents would still buy it for their underage kids. The primary objection being that the game is pretty violent. Like, this opinion piece from Kotaku in 2013 is a good example of this criticism (http://www.kotaku.com.au/2013/09/i-sold-too-many-copies-of-gta-v-to-parents-who-didnt-give-a-damn/). Notice it’s the overall game itself, with the issue being the themes as perhaps a bit much for children.

    And then here’s another article from 2013, from the Huffington Post, from a media professor talking about the violence of the game itself (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brad-j-bushman/dont-buy-your-kid-grand-theft-auto-v-for-christmas_b_4440477.html). This is the type of study that I’ve seen gamers dismiss from academics; namely, that violent video games have nothing to do with violence in general.

    The Guardian ran an opinion piece from a 20 year old young man who defended the violence in the game, comparing it to the media violence. So, this young gamer dismisses the violence against the men, although says the game shows the consequences of those actions (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/31/grand-theft-auto-5-torture-violence-video-games).

    So, it’s a bit of a stretch to say no one talked about the violence of Grand Theft Auto V. I only used three examples, but that was a subject. The violence issue was one that, arguably, most gamers routinely dismissed. That goes to a larger trend of anyone dismissing a link between violent content and violent behavior.

    In the case of Grand Theft Auto V, there were people who talked about the violence in the game, some of it specifically about the violence against the men. It’s just, their concerns were dismissed, as most of these kinds of concerns about violent content are routinely dismissed, especially by fans of the work.

    Which then brings it around to the feminist criticism. Perhaps the issue isn’t the content, necessarily. Rather, the question is why do people enjoy this kind of content? Why the need for a game that lets you brutalize other people? Why would someone make a mod for this kind of game just to allow someone to rape women in it? Those mods were fairly new to the game. Why would someone write that? Why would someone play it?

    It’s not necessarily that the violent content leads to violence. Rather, why do people enjoy it? This question isn’t often pondered, but it’s part of what Anita Sarkeesian has been discussing in her videos.

    Which then goes to the larger question: how did GamerGate start, and who supports it? One of the first articles written about GamerGate, and Zoe Quinn, came from @Roosh. He’s been part of that hashtag movement since the beginning, and remains a part to this day. Roosh owns ReturnOfKings.com. Within a week of the original post about Zoe Quinn, came this article …

    “How Zoe Quinn Screwed Her Way Through The Video Game Industry” 8/21/2014 By Billy Chubbs
    https://archive.today/dPBq5
    Shortly after, @Roosh started tweeting about it
    Tweets from @Roosh
    8/31/2014: https://twitter.com/runsonmagic/status/505952766607773696 (scroll down)
    9/03/2014: https://twitter.com/rooshv/status/507314718210818048
    9/12/2014: https://twitter.com/rooshv/status/510460382360899584

    He’s not the only one. There’s more examples, and I know it’s poor form to just leave one and not include links to all the other misogynistic members, or the outright MRA advocates that helped form #GamerGate.

    It’s just worth noting this is how it started, and continues. There’s something to be said for bringing ethics to gaming journalism. But there’s other banners to do that from.

    There’s also the question of efficacy. In all of this, the journalists who GamerGamers dislike are punished. But, what about the companies doing the collusion in the first place? Why is the consumer boycott against the small websites, and not against, say, Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment for only giving review copies to YouTube stars who would agree to give positive reviews?

    If you want to change the ethics, it’s one thing to go after people you believe who are taking “bribes.” But the only real way to change something is to get the people offering bribes to stop. That seems to be where the real ethical line could and should be drawn.

    To me, at least. Pleasant day.

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