Over the past few months I’ve had an interesting experience being the designated feminist at a small online gaming community: a Facebook group dedicated to the Joystiq Podcast. Since Facebook uses peoples’ real names, there is next to no flaming and discussions are generally thoughtful, funny and interesting. The group of regulars are a bunch of pretty cool people. Even so, there’s still a problem with institutionalized sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and fatphobia. It’s been very challenging addressing these problems because I really have to pick and choose what to point out and what to let slide. So for example, I felt compelled to point out the problems with a photoshop of one of the podcast hosts in blackface, but asking people not to use “bitch” or “retarted” seems like it is going “too far.” It helps that I participate in other stuff regularly, so people recognize my name and don’t think I’m just a random person coming out of the woodwork to complain; and to be honest, I really enjoy participating in the group because about 85% of the time everything is peachy. But on the rare occasion there’s a pretty big problem, it’s really upsetting, especially when no one else sees it as a problem.
I’d like to compare two incidents where an offensive picture was uploaded to the group’s photo album. The group (called the JPAG) has a tradition of hilarious and skillful photoshops, often featuring the podcast hosts and sometimes the group members. So I think it’s worth noting that both of the offensive photoshops were simply stock photos with captions; they weren’t really very good, or funny, or had any effort put into them–neither added anything to the group even aside from being offensive.
The first was a picture of George W. Bush with a caption containing the word “cunts”. The second was a picture of an old woman with a caption containing the word “faggot”. On both I pointed out the sexist or homophobic (respectively) nature of the words and pointed out that it was inappropriate for the group. On the homophobic picture, someone else agreed and asked for the picture to be removed, and it was removed shortly thereafter. On the sexist picture, however, the creator tried to tell me that the word “cunt” isn’t sexist in the context because it was also directed at a man, and because the word wasn’t offensive to all women, everywhere (!?!?). The argument got a bit heated. Since I was clearly not getting through to this person and didn’t want to keep arguing, I appealed to the moderator of the group, who informed me that he appreciated my concern, but after consulting with a few of the group admins (all men, naturally), they decided that the picture would remain. I asked for an explanation and never heard one. In fact, the picture is still there. (ETA: It’s gone now.)
There is one clear reason that the sexist picture was left up and the homophobic one removed: the sexist language was condoned by people in authority in the group, namely one of the podcast hosts. The sexist picture is a reference to a listener email from that week’s podcast, where the listener spouted nonsense and called his parents “cunts.” One of the hosts thought this was particularly hilarious. In all fairness, he responded to my concerned email with a full apology, which tends to happen whenever a listener has a concern, which is one of the reasons I stick with the podcast. However, this apology never made it on-air or to the group, so for all intents and purposes, nothing really changed. (As a side note: this person also wrote a post on Joystiq decrying homophobic and racist language on Xbox Live. This led to a lot of commenters chiming in against such behavior.)
The point of all of this is that, despite claims by games bloggers that they have no control over what random people say on the internet, they actually do have a lot of control over the community on their sites, without even getting into moderation: it’s all about tone.
Tone is why Destructoid and Kotaku are sexist cesspools. When you post sexist headlines like “Jade Smells Pretty at London Games Fest“, when you post pictures of booth babes that are completely irrelevant to your post, when you think the height of humor is using the word “pussy” as many times as possible, you are not only engaging in sexist behavior, you are inviting sexist people to your site and making them feel at home, while simultaneously turning away most women and non-sexist men. It is truly the editors that build their site’s communities.
Joystiq generally does not do the above things, so things are marginally more civil there. However, any time a relevant picture of a woman accompanies a post, there are always a slew of sexist comments that go unchecked. I saw this happen to two posts that went up within hours of each other; the first was about a new executive at EA, who is an older woman, and many of the comments were extremely violent and objectifying (one charming example: “I’d hit it… with a crowbar”). The other was about the Lara Croft model, and since she’s young and beautiful the comments were instead about how much they would like to fuck her. It’s true that the posts did not encourage this sort of behavior the way they might at Kotaku, but at the same time, allowing these comments to remain up does–silence is the same as agreement.
When Joystiq posted about Feminist Gamers’ reaction to the game Fat Princess with an exasperated headline (“So it begins…”), it encouraged its readers to spam the blogs with hundreds of comments reading nothing but misogynistic, racist, fatphobic language that I’m not going to repeat here. Other gaming blogs were complicit in this as well, and much of it was probably a coordinated attack. It’s clear these bloggers were not aware of how common and severe cyberstalking and harassment on the internet is for women, especially women with opinions.
Contrast all of this with the MTV Multiplayer blog, which not only responds publicly to reader concern, but generally has thoughtful and respectful posts to begin with. And that attracts thoughtful and respectful people. It’s no safe space like IRIS, but it’s got a solid foundation.
I guess my bottom line is that gaming sites and their communities are what the editors and writers make it. If they care about fostering a community for all gamers, not just the young, white, straight, male crowd, they will not encourage behavior that is hateful toward other people, either deliberately or through inaction.
Note: Comments, as always, are more then welcome, but please stay on topic. I will not publish comments that derail the thread by turning the discussion to questions about basic feminist ideas, no matter how polite you are. If you want to know why the word “cunt” is sexist, use Google, or even better, check out the Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog.