The Importance of Leadership on Gaming Websites

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.

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11 thoughts on “The Importance of Leadership on Gaming Websites

  1. “…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.”

    Yes, thank you!

    A while back, we had to deal with this exact thing on our forums. A regular poster started a thread in the off-topic section entitled something like “random stuff, sexy girls that play games.” His OP had some random harmless musings, but he also threw in a tidbit about “sexy girls that play games, do they exist? lol probably not.” As a staff member, I politely called him on it, he didn’t get my drift, I nudged him a bit harder, he got defensive and even hateful, and it escalated into ugly drama. I tried to explain the very point that you made — that such language alienates women and invites more bad behavior — but he kept arguing back. The other staff (mostly males) backed me up and the matter was considered dropped. He eventually left in a huff.

    Having been in the game journalism world for a while (though in the minor leagues, so to speak), this nonsense is nothing new to me. I’ve gotten all sorts of comments and fan mail, ranging from “omg ur hot and u play games, that’s so cool” (which is more funny than offensive) to sexist diatribes filled with slurs, threats, and other forms of alienation (including the intelligent gentleman who informed me that “gamers are 90% MALE and CONSERVATIVE, so GTFO with your feminism, thanks and good bye”).

    I’ve pretty much put my foot down about sexist behavior on the site where I now work, not only because it bothers me but also because it makes other women recoil and become even less vocal in online communities. The thing is, it makes some of the guys scream “censorship” and “omg PC police,” and that can be difficult to deal with. While you can’t accuse a moderated private space of “censorship,” the “PC police” label can be very hard to shake, as it tends to make other community members feel like they are walking on eggshells and that anything they say could be deemed offensive. It’s a tricky balance — stopping the hate speech but keeping the discussion rolling without awkwardness.

  2. Hi, Alethea! Thanks for your comment. I think a lot of game journalists don’t realize how much power their words have and might not think about it much. But it’s heartening to hear from someone working to keep that balance. Rock on~ 😀

  3. For a long time, I was the Designated Feminist of sorts at a webcomic forum. The demographic of this webcomic is the late-teens-early-twenties guys that probably populate your Facebook group, and I had very similar problems. I finally left when the sexist attacks finally started targeting me (“I’d fuck her if she did her hair right,” “I didn’t say she would be GOOD, just INTERESTING”). Since then I’ve checked back on the forums twice. The first time some dude was talking about how it was offensive to minorities to complain about sexism because women have it so much better than minorities (I don’t have to tell you how many problems there are in that idea). The second time ended with someone telling me that if two people are involved in a rape, who’s to say the needs of the victim are more important than the needs of the rapist?

    So I hope your experience doesn’t turn out like mine. I miss the jokes and stuff from that forum, but when the bad outweighed the good, I finally had to go. The other token feminist also left recently because of similar reasons, and now there’s no one to call these folks out on their bullshit. Not that many of them listened when they got called out anyway, but I’d like to think that one or two of them learned one or two things. The role of “Designated Feminist” is an important one, because adolescent gamer dudes probably don’t have very many feminist perspectives in their lives. So…Godspeed! I wish you the best of luck.

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  5. Eleniel, this post is so very awesome in every way.

    The thing is, it makes some of the guys scream “censorship” and “omg PC police,” and that can be difficult to deal with. While you can’t accuse a moderated private space of “censorship,” the “PC police” label can be very hard to shake, as it tends to make other community members feel like they are walking on eggshells and that anything they say could be deemed offensive. It’s a tricky balance — stopping the hate speech but keeping the discussion rolling without awkwardness.

    Yeah, we’ve definitely had some problems with that here at Iris. I’m glad to hear that you’re standing strong over at RandomNPC, though! I have been meaning to sign up for the forums over there for a while now, but have hesitated since it seems to be pretty male-dominated but sounds like the space over there is pretty safe then? I could never bring myself to join RPGamer for that reason–there were always stray comments and demeaning remarks that put me off so I never moved beyond lurking.

  6. I agree. The tone of blog authors heavily influences what the community is like. There’s a reason why I don’t feel comfortable reading or commenting on Kotaku, Destructoid, and why I no longer participate in the Joystiq community — the culture is extremely hostile and abusive. No matter how often I flag posts for moderation, the tide of stupid is never stemmed. I definitely feel like the big blogs condone negative behaviour through _inaction_.

    It’s a big contrast with MTV Multiplayer, where the editors are responsive and even if they disagree with you, they seem like they take your concerns and questions seriously. I agree that MTV Multiplayer isn’t free of assholes or the kind of editor behaviour you talked about above (I got trolled last week, for instance, and none of the editors stepped in to tell the troll that their behaviour was unacceptable), but it’s _so_ much better than the three other game blogs I named.

  7. Well said. And while writers and editors set the tone, diligent moderation and clear expectations of community members is also critical.

    One of the sites I frequent operates from the perspective that its visitors are guests, welcome only as long as they maintain certain standards of acceptable conduct. On the rare occasion that hate speech or other trash pops up in the forums, it’s dealt with immediately. Depending on the conduct the offending member is either warned or banned. The resulting community is one that’s not just tolerable–it’s enjoyable.

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful read, “Eleniel.” It’s especially valuable for me, running an influential blog that reaches millions of readers every month: On the one hand, it’s easy for me to believe that the comments section is a cesspool – despite the introduction of peer moderation – and rest comfortably knowing that the vast majority of the audience doesn’t wade in there. I’m far more engaged and proactive in maintaining the quality of our editorial product, admittedly, often to the detriment of the comments section/community.

    On the other hand, it’s easy to forget that there ARE people that go into the comments and that the lack of moderation can be attributed to a tacit approval of the subject matter therein. The reality is, we have a ton of comments but not so many that we can’t do a better job of policing that content. It’s a matter of resources and budget (as glamorous as that sounds) and, historically, I always lean on the side of investing in my writing staff versus investing in comment moderation. (This is another reason you’ll find a lot of us in Facebook at the JPAG versus in the Joystiq comments – that community is, for the most part, self-moderated).

    Speaking of moderation there, I’ve gone ahead and removed the offending image (which I, regrettably, had not seen before) – I understand that many people (especially Brits and Australians) feel differently about the term than you or I might, but the JPAG is a global community and there should be more empathy when someone raises umbrage with something posted.

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone! I’m happily surprised this post has sparked such a great discussion. This comment is going to be a bit jumbled as I respond in vaguely chronological order…

    I think equally as important as the Designated Feminist, or perhaps moreso, is the ally/allies. As is unfortunately true pretty much everywhere, people are more likely to listen to a dude about sexism, a white person about racism, and so on. But it’s tough to show how important allies are when a lot of the more mature straight white dudes just ignore it and don’t want to take sides (and have the privilege to do so). What’s interesting about the JPAG is the ages do skew a bit older; I think most are college students, but many of the regulars are married and some even have young children. I think that definitely helps.

    I really like MTV Multiplayer. I’m sure it helps that they get a lot less traffic than other major gaming blogs. Gamertell is also pretty good (though I read it less); it’s linked in the post. Jenni Lada has a great column on imports.

    Thanks for removing the pic, Chris, and for explaining about the budget. Ideally, of course, there wouldn’t be budget concerns! But I think investing in writers also helps set a good tone for the site; good writers can keep things entertaining without resorting to alienating humor. And I think that’s something the Joystiq staff does really well.

    Unfortunately I think Ludwig had a point that can be applied here when he said it’s not an XBL problem, it’s a human race problem. But that doesn’t mean we should put up with it 😉

    Thanks again, everybody =)

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