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 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.

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Mixed Reactions: Even Progress Comes With Sexist Dynamics

This week’s Context Clues went up today and it gave me quite a bit of food for thought. Although it (rightfully) focuses on both Modern Warfare 2 controversies from last week, there are a few articles about gender and sexism in games. The thing is, three out of the four posts were written by men. It’s problematic when men’s voices dominate a discussion of gender and sexism (unless the topic is specifically masculinity, but that was not the case here).

This isn’t the first time this has happened, either. Both of these “This Week In Video Game Blogging” posts discuss topics related to women and games yet link only to reactions by men to those topics. Critical Distance’s Grand Theft Auto IV Compilation references “genuinely-offended feminists” but the only linked posts that bring up the misogyny in the game are written by men. This Experience Points post makes two mistakes, first suggesting that social criticism of games is a new thing (when Shrub and Token Minorities have been around for years: since 2005 and 2006, respectively), and secondly linking to a post by a white man (ETA: correction, a non-POC Jewish man, see comments for clarification) as an example of writing about gender and race in games (no offense, Simon!).

And really, I didn’t find any of the posts about gender by men to be wrong or offensive or anything–most are actually pretty good. That’s not the point. The point here is the gaming blogosphere only seems to take notice of topics like gender when it’s men who are doing the writing. And that perpetuates sexist dynamics even as the people involved are denouncing sexism.

But that’s not quite what I was thinking about today as I read the posts linked in Context Clues. Dudes taking notice of sexism and saying “hey, this is bad, you guys!” isn’t a bad thing–it’s a sign of progress. Opinions vary on this, but personally, I would rather guys wrote about sexism than not, if only because the more voices speaking out, the better. But as the title says, progress doesn’t come without sexism of its own.

This is where my mixed reactions come in. When I read an article about sexism by a man (or a person of any gender, really) and he makes good points and seems to mostly get it, I’m happy. And yet, particularly now with this upswell of men talking about women and games, I’m also thinking “fucking finally,” and, “but why the hell didn’t they listen to me or people I know the million times we’ve said the same damn thing?”

This was the excerpt Erik chose to highlight from one of the posts, Self-destructive sexualism by Evan Stubbs:

Depressingly frequently we, as men, seem to want it all ways; we want women to be knowledgeable and “one of the guys”, but at the same time we claim to appreciate “a woman’s perspective” when it comes to games. We don’t want them to call attention to their femininity, as that would be manipulative marketing, but “we’d hit it” and we won’t watch, read, or listen if “she’s fugly”. We like hearing about the things they enjoyed, but we don’t want to hear about all that non-core crap like Peggle and The Sims. Somehow, we want our women to be nurturing and supportive of our interests, to be overtly sexy, and, as impossible as it is, to be pure and virginal.

This is a good point, but at the same time the idea that women are held to impossible standards and simply cannot win is also something that feminists have been saying for decades. Why is this being treated as an important, unique insight?

And this is not meant to be a dig at either Erik or Evan. Evan makes a lot of great points in his post–and he does link to posts by women–and I’m glad I found it through the Context Clues round-up. The problem is it’s nothing new, it’s stuff that women have been talking about for a long time. But now that it’s a guy saying it, people pay attention.

I said on Twitter, “I totally appreciate dudes writing about sexism in games, but it’s a bit frustrating to see old ideas treated like revelations, heh.” And though I didn’t have room to describe in a nuanced manner how I feel exactly and why, I still got some thoughtful comments from my friends. Ryan Gan and Justin Keverne both pointed out how being very knowledgeable on any subject and discussing that subject with newbs is frustrating. And while that is absolutely true–and is certainly part of my frustration sometimes, like when I’m explaining what male privilege is for the billionth time–it’s not the whole story. The other part of it has to do with what I’ve described above: continuing and changing sexist dynamics that exclude women’s voices even as we are making progress with bringing gender issues to wider attention. This problem is a lot more personal than most subjects because it affects me directly; when I talk about women’s voices being excluded, I am one of those women.

So what can be done to help minimize this sort of sexism? The biggest thing is to simply seek out writers from different perspectives. This goes for all social issues, not just gender but sexuality, race, disability, and so on. Reading and linking to writers of different perspectives will help diversify the gaming blogosphere. Also, if you’re writing about a social issue in games, search around and see if it has already been written about, particularly by someone who has personal experience with that issue. If it has been written about, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write about it, just that the previous writing should be acknowledged, and it can help to illuminate the issue further.

Another thing–and the Context Clues post helped me to realize this–is to focus on specific instances of sexism or specific games. Evan Stubb’s post uses some specific examples, but it’s a general “games and gamers: really quite sexist!” post. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it contributes to my frustration for reasons described above. It would be stronger and seem less like old ideas masquerading as new ones if it were focused around a specific incident or game. This post by Chris Dahlen, also linked in this week’s Context Clues, is a decent example of that, using Brutal Legend as the focus of a discussion about romance in games–he even links to two articles by female bloggers (disclaimer: one of them is mine! The other is by Emily Short).

We are making progress, and I’m really glad for that. But we still have a long way to go, and it’s imperative that we always expect more, or this progress we’ve made will stagnate, or even begin to roll backwards.