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 GameCritics.com 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.