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Asian Dad

Asian Dad

12/14/2012 12:52:04 AM
At first glance, looking back, 2012 looks like a sobering and rather dispiriting year for women involved in video games. Time and time again, flashpoints surrounding sexism and prejudice in the games industry have flared up and caught the attention of not just gamers, but the mainstream media too. From the Hitman murder--blam!- trailer furor to the extraordinary abuse that Anita Sarkeesian was subjected to over a series of feminist videos about games, from the Tomb Raider -blam!- controversy to the Cross Assault tournament sexism scandal and Borderlands 2's girlfriend mode and #1reasonwhy, it's come up again and again and again this year. I've been thinking a lot about why this is, and what it means. It's a very complex issue, and there isn't one easy answer. One thing is absolutely clear, though: we're limited by the nature of the conversation about sexism in video games. Every single time, it gets horrible, degenerating into abuse on both sides. What you think about the issue becomes a judgement about who you are as a person. If you object to it, then suddenly you're a raving white-knight apologist who hates freedom of speech, or a censorship-favouring femi-blam!-. If you don't, then you're a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal who hates women. These extremes are misleading and unhelpful, and they are standing in the way of reasonable, intelligent discussion about these issues, and about why they keep coming up. For me, watching the reactions to these gaming controversies over the past few months has been far more interesting than the controversies themselves, which are often (but not always) blown out of proportion. Why is a vocal minority of the gaming audience seemingly so threatened by anyone pointing out that they have a problem with the way women are sometimes treated or portrayed in the games industry? Why do we keep coming back to this same conversation, and why is everyone paying so much more attention to prejudice in gaming than they ever have before? It's important to understand the context, first. The reason that casual sexism and homophobia matter so much to many people is because they're symptomatic of something broader and deeper that has a long and unpleasant history in gaming and in wider society. It's not necessarily these individual issues by themselves that are getting people so heated up, it's everything together, over the course of years and years. It's the context. I'm a white Scottish woman, and I speak from a position of comparative privilege. Scotland is a progressive and egalitarian society that I've always been proud to be a part of; early this year it became one of the first countries to have full-blown legalized -blam!- marriage. I don't know what it's like to be properly persecuted. But I do know what it's like for people to think less of me, and people like me, because I'm a woman who's passionate about video games. I know what it's like for people to assume, based on practically nothing, that I can't play games, that I don't know anything about them, that I'm one of those mythical "fake geek girls" invading a sacred male space, that I'm Fat, Ugly or Slutty because I play online. I've had people send me obscene emails and -blam!- threats and all sorts. You've probably read plenty of stories about this kind of thing already. It's not uncommon, and it's nothing compared to what Anita Sarkeesian had to deal with earlier this year. Put yourself in that position, and it's not hard to understand why something like the Hitman trailer might really push your buttons. Or why hearing a developer of a high-profile game like Borderlands 2 jokingly imply that women can't use two analogue sticks at once might make you a bit depressed. What's happening now is that a generation of people who have spent the past decade reluctantly accepting casual sexism as a part of gaming because there was no widespread discussion on the matter have suddenly gotten fed up with it all at once. And they've discovered that a lot of other people feel the same way. It's a straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back situation: some of the individual incidents that have sparked controversy over the past year might seem inconsequential on their own, but if you dismiss them, you're not fully understanding the nature of the complaint. Let's take girlfriend mode as an example. There is nothing at all wrong with Borderlands 2's BFF skill tree. I don't think many reasonable people would genuinely believe that the developer who was the source of the quote is actually a sexist who dislikes women, either. But what he did, by jokingly nicknaming it girlfriend mode in an interview, was turn a seemingly harmless generalisation into a universalization, reinforcing a stereotype that a lot of people are thoroughly sick of. It was a joke, a casual mis-step, but it tapped in to a prevailing mood that people are fed up with that kind of generalisation. That's why it became an issue. Not because people are desperate to find something to be offended by, but because sexism in gaming has been and still is a genuine problem and honestly, if you don't believe that, then you haven't got your eyes open. Even casual allusions to it are a small part of that problem. Anyone who genuinely believes that sexism isn't a problem in games that it's a straw man, that people are just looking for something to complain about, that everyone gets harassed but women just complain about it more need only look at some of the responses to #1reasonwhy, a Twitter hashtag that offered a place for women working in the games industry to offer an opinion on why there aren't more women making games. It turned into a very sobering window into the heart of this issue: the small day-to-day ways in which some women are made to feel unwelcome. Have the reactions to some of this year's sexism issues been overblown? You might think so. I've thought so, on occasion. But that doesn't make these reactions invalid. It is vital that they be understood in context. These complaints, overblown or not, are the sound of progress. They're a sign that people are actually thinking about how video games come across, and the impression that they make hardcore games like Borderlands 2. They're a sign of gaming's slow but inevitable progress towards a more inclusive environment that's leaving the boys-in-their-bedrooms stereotype in the distant past, which is a good thing for everybody who loves gaming. Bringing these issues up can only be a good thing. The fact that there's even discussion about sexism in gaming at all, when five years ago you couldn't really broach the issue without being accused of attention-seeking or told it was Just The Way Things Are, is progress. The fact that it's happened so frequently this year is a sign that everyone is paying close attention. This is good. This is a sign of maturity. This is a sign that the games press and games developers are thinking about things for more than five seconds before deciding everything is totally fine. In my ideal future, gaming really will be for everyone. It will be something that you can enjoy without fear of abuse or prejudice from your fellow gamers, where the sexism issue has become so obsolete and irrelevant that people don't need to examine everything in the games industry for evidence of deep-rooted casual prejudice. In my ideal world this stuff is not even an issue any more. But I'm not naive; I know that ideal world is still some way from becoming a reality, even though I do passionately believe that we're working towards it. In the meantime, the solution is not to ignore these issues, nor dismiss them, nor patronize the people who care about sexism or racism or homophobia in games and the gaming community by telling them their concerns aren't valid. We need to listen, and engage, and make this an intelligent discourse rather than an unpleasant shouting match. 2012 has been a tough year. But it's also been a year of progress.

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