Is This Only Entertainment?: My Click Moment and Why I Write About Games

One of the most common responses to feminist critiques–or indeed any sort of critiques–of games is, “It’s just a game!” Feminist critiques of games outside of specifically feminist blogs are often met with not just outright hostility in many cases, but an attitude of befuddlement; gamers wonder what is the point of writing about video games when women face so many other, bigger problems in the world. This is a question that has been answered over and over. Mighty Ponygirl from Feminist Gamers explained that video games contribute to sexist social conditioning:

…But behavior is more than just action — it’s a way of internalizing what is expected of you. Little girls are taught almost from birth to be quiet, compliant, passive, and that the most important thing is to be attractive to men. These lessons are reinforced when they play games that push women off in the corner to be rescued, or only allow them to pick up a sword if they’re wearing a bikini.

Andrea Rubenstein, aka tekanji, wrote a four-post series explaining why studying popular culture is important. One of her main points is that fighting oppression has to occur on many different levels and in different areas of or society:

Studying popular culture is probably my main focus, but since I love cross-sections I also keep abreast of other topics such as feminist issues, human sexuality, and general oppression work. I don’t think that this is inherently better or worse than someone who chooses one topic, or even a smaller subset of topics, to focus on.

In fact, I’d go one step farther to say that the only way I think we’ll ever have a chance at winning the battle against oppression (as much as one can “win” such a thing) is if we wage this war on multiple levels. I believe that every fight we fight — whether it be against domestic violence or raising our voices against the overabundance of “sexy girls who kick ass” in popular media — is a valuable one. I believe every stride we make, however small and however flawed, should be appreciated.

And I absolutely agree with both points. But there is something I would like to add, something I see as another reason writing about video games and popular culture in general is worthwhile: talking about pop culture is a great way to reach out to people. Not every feminist-minded individual is going to take a women’s studies course or pick up a bell hooks book from their library, but plenty of folks love discussing games, television, movies and so on on the internet. Looking at these things from a feminist perspective can introduce these concepts to people who may hold feminist ideals and just don’t know it yet.

I’m an example of this. Feminists sometimes talk about their “click moment”–the moment or event that led them to realize they were feminists. My click moment happened a little over two years ago. Ubisoft Montreal was promoting the shit out of Assassin’s Creed, a daring new IP that they hoped would turn into a franchise. The producer for the game was a woman named Jade Raymond, and in her role as producer she gave interviews and helped promote the game. The backlash she received from the online gaming community–as well as from so-called game “journalists” from Kotaku, Joystiq, and Destructoid–was swift and horrific, because she dared to be a woman speaking with authority about games.

It was my own outrage over the incident that led me to The IRIS Network and the aforementioned Feminist Gamers, as well as general feminism blogs like Feministe. I stayed up late night after night reading everything I could find, all these passionate and critical essays that put words to things that I had always known on some level, and opening my eyes to new manifestations of injustice that I’d never thought about before; I took the red pill and I never looked back.

But that one incident wasn’t the beginning of my feminist education, merely the catalyst that fused everything I had already learned and seen with newfound knowledge, giving me the tools to describe all those events that made me deeply uncomfortable in my gut but I hadn’t been able to explain. I’d had plenty of lessons before then on oppression, even if I didn’t know what to call it. And a lot of them came from fandom, the feminists and womanists and social justice advocates who cared enough to call people out in various venues. I clearly remember, ten years or so ago when I was still in middle school, getting educated on what “sexual orientation” means and why it’s wrong to assume everyone is straight until they say otherwise, on the now-defunct FanFiction.Net mailing list, of all places. It was a webcomic that first introduced me to the idea that sex and gender are two different things. During the first season of Heroes, I learned about subtle racist biases from a post about racism and the show on the heroes_tv LJ community.

And I learned more and more about feminism every day on the girl_gamers LJ comm, where feminists weighed in on sexism-related drama that popped up fairly often, and every time I would learn something new, or someone would put words to an issue that was previously only a minor itch at my brain that told me something is wrong here.

All of these people prepped me for my click moment simply by participating in fandom, by talking about their favorite shows and games in their own way, braving the inevitable backlash and meeting it head-on. I benefited so much from these discussions, though many of the participants were never aware of it.

My greatest hope with my writing is that I can pay the favor forward as much as possible. I try to reach people in a different way than scholarly writing does; and while this may not be the most convincing reason games are a worthwhile topic of feminist discussion, it’s an important one to me, because it is deeply intertwined with my understanding of both topics. I know I’ve already succeeded once; I received an email a few months ago from a reader who had enjoyed my article about gender and Mass Effect. As he described how he had been ravenously reading the Feminism 101 blog and suddenly everything made more sense, I realized I’d given someone their own click moment. It reminded me of all those lessons I’d learned, and how the seemingly frivolous act of chatting about games on the internet can actually be important, even if you think games are “only” entertainment. And that’s why I write about games.


On Satire

Alternate post title: Alex Explains the Joke So It’s Not Funny Anymore!

Okay, so. There have been many instances where a person who is white and/or a dude has said some mind-bogglingly racist and/or sexist things, and when called out on it they claim that they are so not racist/sexist! It was SATIRE. This happens all the time. Many of these are actual racist/sexist jerks trying to defend themselves in any way possible. HOWEVER, I have found out that it is entirely possible that these white people and/or guys are, in fact, well-meaning and did actually intend for their racist/sexist comments to be satire!

This is similar to “hipster racism/sexism” as it is called in some parts of the internet, where a person tells racist or sexist jokes in order to show how NOT racist and/or sexist they are. Because it is ironic, right? Like wearing a Fall Out Boy shirt to show how much you think they suck? Except with the oppression that people have to deal with every day.

I never understood the logic behind such jokes, or all the not-really-satire… UNTIL RECENTLY! And it’s not that the people saying these things don’t understand what satire is.

The logic–and let me preface this by saying that I still think this stuff is damaging and just bad satire–is that the people who make these jokes or say these things in the name of satire think that saying something like, say, “this game sucks because a woman made it” is sufficiently ridiculous enough to be laughable. The problem is the people who say these things are too privileged to see that other people say exactly the racist/sexist crap they are supposedly saying “ironically”, but with a straight face, or simply a nasty veneer of joking. They don’t realize–because of privilege–that racism and sexism are still very much mainstream. It’s ridiculous to us, but there are plenty of people out there who believe these things, and that fact still affects us daily.

One reason it doesn’t work is that, when you have a person of color saying something racist about their own group, or a woman saying something misogynist, the sarcasm is a lot clearer because they are talking about themselves (even women with internalized sexism generally count themselves as exceptional, or “not one of THOSE women”). You don’t have this extra “sarcasm indicator” when it is a white person saying racist things or a dude saying sexist things.

The other reason is that there’s generally no criticism of what is being said. There is a lead-up but no payoff. The racist or sexist comments are just put out there without any real absurdity or criticism. For a great and succinct example of this, see this paragraph from the Girl vs. Robot post about #EAFail:

Women don’t like science fiction, Peter Jackson (who you got to meet), or comics. They just don’t. Let’s settle that right now. All those women you’ve met who like all of those things were robots. Robots created by the feminist conspiracy to fool you.

It’s pretty much perfect. It starts out with a stupid sexist remark that a surprising number of people actually believe, and then it goes on show how absurd that remark is (although I’m sure there are some people out there who believe in robot feminist conspiracies, most don’t–a sufficient level of ridiculousness has been met, you could say). The intent is crystal clear: to make people who believe the first sentence feel stupid.*

Racism and sexism are quite stupid, really. This type of humor tries to show just how stupid it is, in a funny way. But if racists and/or misogynists are laughing along with you (and not in an embarrassed chuckle sort of way), you’re doing it wrong. Simply repeating racist or sexist comments isn’t enough to be funny or satirical, it just makes non-racist or -sexist people uncomfortable.

This is an excellent example, about romantic comedies, that happened to be posted today! Or hell, just read Sady’s entire blog already. I recommend this one.

EDIT: Silly me, Sociological Images already has it covered! Have I mentioned how awesome that blog is? It is awesome.

* I am so sorry for ruining your awesome joke, Derek!

Are Female-Oriented Communities or Publications Sexist?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: No, and here’s why.

Let’s start with a definition of what sexism actually is: prejudice + power. In this case, prejudice based on gender. The linked article explains that while individual women can discriminate based on gender against men, women simply don’t have the power as a group to be sexist against men. In other words, when feminists talk about sexism, they aren’t usually referring to individual acts of explicit gender-based discrimination, but to the greater societal system that conveys certain privileges upon men just for being born male.

I’m writing this post because a little while ago, I received a comment about Cerise that said by being labeled a gaming magazine for women, it “discriminates against 50% of the world’s population” and that “sexism goes both ways.” The comment was snarky and meant more as a personal attack than an actual concern, but I think it’s a point that should be addressed (if only for my own education at this point).

Because here’s the thing: sexism can’t go both ways, for the major reason briefly outlined above. Certainly not in the way meant by the comment, which is that a magazine aimed at female gamers is somehow sexist against men.

The reason that claim is ridiculous is that in the gaming world women have extremely little power, especially when it comes to online publications and communities. Go to any major “general” gaming site–GameSpot, Joystiq, Kotaku, IGN, 1UP, etc,–and count how many female editors or contributors there are. Most gaming sites have a token woman or two. Joystiq has zero. The only site I can think of that has more than a handful of female contributors is GamerTell, and even there all of the people in charge are male.

One reason for this I’ve been told is that more men play video games than women. This may have been true in the past, but it is rapidly becoming outdated. Regardless, men clearly have more say as a group in the world of video games. It is the male audience that is catered to (and specifically an assumed white, straight, young, cisgendered male audience). Women and girls are treated differently in gaming communities*: their opinions and concerns are dismissed, their gamer credentials are questioned, and they are targets of sexual harassment. Moreover, male-dominated communities are hostile to women even if most of the members believe there aren’t any women present at all: they make sexual and/or violent jokes that dehumanize women; they use “woman” as an insult and throw around gendered slurs; whenever a picture of a woman surfaces they talk about whether or not they would have sex with her, to the exclusion of all else. All of these things create a boy’s club environment that is actively hostile to women–on websites that are supposed to be for a “general” gaming audience that includes men and women.

Gaming sites and publications aimed at women such as Cerise were (and are) created as a reaction to the imbalance of power in gaming. They explicitly privilege female gamers’ opinions and experiences in order to counterbalance the way male gamers are privileged on gaming sites that are supposedly aimed at a “general” gaming audience. In addition, they create a space for female gamers so they don’t have to deal with the bullshit outlined above. Guys, female-oriented gaming spaces are created because every single other place is yours. Every single other place, places that claim to be for “all” gamers, are all about you. These places are so much about you, the men and boys, they drive women away. We can either put up with being marginalized, told we don’t exist, harassed, and dismissed, or we can create our own spaces.

Furthermore, while on IGN and other sites you’ll find plenty of articles that objectify and disrespect women (“Top 10 Boobs In Gaming” being a particularly egregious example), you will find nothing of the sort on most female-oriented gaming sites, and certainly not at Cerise. At these sites men are talked about as if they are actual human beings, not dolls that are only good for fucking.

So: prejudice? No. Power? Definitely no. Therefore: no sexism!

And then people come here and try to say this is where the real sexism is? It would be funny if it weren’t so prevalent and damaging.

*And the internet in general. I find this personal account of a man playing a female character to be continually interesting in that regard.

A Brief Summary of Sexism in GTA IV

(… with informative links! Last updated: 6/1)

[Edit 16 Oct 2009: It has come to my attention that this post contains a factual error, which has now been corrected, and more content has been added. All changes are in italics, with the date.]

As someone who is completely in favor of games as a recognized art form, and who will be attempting to critique games with that mindset in the near future (I swear), I feel compelled to call out sexism in video games when I see it. And nowhere in video games is it more blatant than in GTA IV.

First, some facts:
— I am not in favor of having the game banned or otherwise censored. Free speech and all that.
— No, I haven’t played the game. But the things I bring up here have been confirmed by people who have played the game, or by gameplay footage. Along with that, I can only actually point out things that I HAVE confirmed happening, so there very well may be more.
— I am well aware of the style and history of the GTA series.
— I do not think GTA IV will cause healthy, balanced adults or teens to go out and rape women/shoot cops/whatever.
— I do not think the game is completely void of redeeming qualities. For example, the graphics are very nice.

The game world of Grand Theft Auto IV is an environment of misogyny. The most grievous evidence of this is the sexualized violence against women, though other details contribute. Together, the evidence suggests a deliberate attempt to create a world that devalues women and reinforces misogynistic attitudes.

Sexualized Violence Against Women
In GTA IV, the player character can pick up prostitutes, have sex with them, and then kill them. Even if the sex isn’t rape, which hasn’t yet been confirmed as something that can occur in the game, murder just after sex is still sexualized violence. In GTA IV, the player can only do this to women. There are no male prostitutes and the player cannot have a boyfriend. The only characters the player can commit sexualized violence against are female ones [Edit: This is incorrect, though the point stands: there is one exception. See below.]. That is a misogynistic environment.

(Added 10/16/09:) One oversight from when I originally wrote this post was leaving out the case of one mission where you take a gay man out on a date in order to assassinate him, which is the one exception to my previous statement that only women are victims of sexualized violence in the game. (Chalk it up to straight privilege.) Since homophobia and misogyny are so deeply connected, it’s not surprising that the one man the player can commit sexualized violence against is gay. Source. Thanks to Kateri for pointing this out to me, and for the link.

Further, the game presents the mature subject matter in a very immature way. Suggested further reading on this point: “Mature vs Mature” — Man Bytes Blog.

Lack of Female Characters with Depth
The only major characters in GTA IV are male. The only female characters in the game are nameless Liberty City inhabitants, prostitutes, and random enemies [Edit 10/16/09: This is incorrect, though there still aren’t any female characters of importance and/or depth. See below for more thoughts on the female characters in GTA IV.]. This is a serious flaw in a work of fiction. There is no reason to have no major female characters with as much depth as many of the male characters apparently have.

Edit 10/16/09: Two people who have played GTA IV had this to say on Twitter about the female characters in the game. I am quoting them and linking to their tweets with permission.
From @fyreball13:

The statement that women are faceless and nameless is a gray area. There are two women you interact with often, one being Roman’s cousin* [see correction below], another being a girl that is working for the police and the third being a woman who deals drugs.
*One is Niko’s cousin Roman’s girlfriend/wife. She does help a fair bit, but neither are MAJOR players.
However, the MAIN characters that Niko hangs out with etc. are all male and the female charcters seemingly disappear after they have moved the story along, usually introducing you to a man who can give you newer missions.

From @stillgray:

Most, if not all of the male characters (even the “likable” ones) are misogynists in GTA IV.
The moment you step off the boat in GTA IV, your cousin Roman goes on about easy American women and denigrates those from home.
The whole intro sets the tone for the rest of the game. We know where the developers stand on views of gender.

Other Details
There exists an internet cafe called Tw@, pronounced “twat.” Twat is “vulgar synonym for the human vulva, vagina, or clitoris, and is used as a derogatory epithet” (Wikipedia). It’s not clever or satirical to name a place after a derogatory term for female genitalia. It’s immature and contributes to the atmosphere of misogyny.

Also, a female fast food worker asks the player character if he wants a handjob with his burger. Because clearly a female character cannot exist unless there is the possibility of some sexual interaction. The immaturity paints games as something for young teens.

Update: Via Feminist Gamers, an interesting comment by Cola on Feministing about a certain mission in GTA IV, quoted in part (full comment here):

“Just as I was starting to think Niko was really great, I realised he was a moralising hypocrite. Oh, and then he hit a woman he was kidnapping for trying to get away and referred to her as ‘the bitch.’ Then he hit her again to get her to look at him so he could take a picture of her gagged face to send to her father.

It was really hard to keep playing after that. This woman was portrayed, in contrast to the protagonist, as selfish, shallow, and bitchy. I had nothing but sympathy for her, because she was justifiably scared and angry, but she was being cast as this shrieking whore (she hit on Niko before he kidnapped her).”

Clearly the portrayal and treatment of women in this game leaves a lot to be desired.

The fact that this game is receiving nothing but the highest marks from game reviewers and is being hailed as the greatest game ever made upsets me. Is this really something we want to hold up as gaming’s finest? (I can’t help thinking back to the analysis of No More Heroes I linked to last post, and how NMH is a direct satire of Western GTA fans.) I realize the game does technically impressive things, but what is it saying with that technology? Isn’t that just as important?

General Reading, or People Who Put it Better Than I Do
“GTA discussion… over there” — Feminist Gamers (with a link to Feministing)
“Some GTA IV Questions” — Man Bytes Blog
“I’ve Decided That It’s Simple After All” — The True Confessions of an Hourly Bookseller
“How Can Grand Theft Auto Transition from Base Entertainment to Art?” — Latoya Peterson, Cerise Magazine (May 2008). Fantastic article, highly recommended.
“Grand Theft Auto IV” — Scholarly Gamer. A general (but interesting and thorough) critique of the game, but contains some concise examinations of the misogyny and homophobia in the game.
“Oh, right… Grand Theft Auto is coming out…” — No Cookies for Me. (How did I miss this the first time around?)
Edit 10/16/09: Added this post by Thomas Cross:
Blog Banter: Quitter! — Shouldn’t Be Gaming (Tom describes why he stopped playing the game.)

Common Defenses
It’s just a game!”
No. Games are creative expressions just like books, movies, and television, and are thus open to critique.
Suggested reading:
“The Problem with That Line ‘It’s Just a Game’ — Are Our Games Our Fantasies?” — MTV Multiplayer
“It’s Just a Game” — Feminist Gamers

But you kill men, too.” Or, “Why is killing a prostitute worse than killing a pedestrian?
The problem is not just the killing. I do not think you shouldn’t be able to kill female characters in a video game. The problem is the sexualized violence that is directed only at women, as well as the greater misogynistic atmosphere the game reinforces through other details and the lack of any female characters with depth. The rampant violence is NOT equal-opportunity.

But sexism is a problem in this game/movie/any and all other media.”
Yeah, it is. But right now I’m talking about GTA IV.

There are no incentives to killing prostitutes.
Yes, there are. You gain health back by hiring them and you get back the money you spent after killing them. That’s more incentive than mowing down pedestrians.

It’s not part of the story. Rockstar isn’t promoting doing this sort of thing.
Except that they are promoting it by allowing it to happen. Liberty City is not a real world, it is a deliberately crafted piece of fiction; things just don’t happen. Everything in the world and everything that happens has to be deliberately allowed by the creators. Isn’t it unrealistic how there are no children at all in Liberty City? That’s because the game would definitely get an AO rating if the player were allowed to kill children. Developer choice.

On this point, see also: “On IGN’s Grand Theft Auto IV Video” — Cruise Elroy