Standing up to be counted
The Border House, a feminist gaming blog which from now on I am going to read more often, did a great piece a few days ago pointing out just how stupid are the stupid arguments trotted out by developers in an attempt to explain why their female characters are rare/stereotypical/absent (delete as appropriate). The answer: very stupid. Not only are the excuses not right, they’re not even wrong – the supposed justifications are bullshit. (J confirms that most of the so-called technical limitations they talk about are nowhere near as limiting as they claim.)
I’ve touched on this before, but it bears repeating. (And will always bear repeating until the message damn well sinks in.) As a woman and a fledgling gamer, it varies between irritating and soul-destroying to observe the extent to which women are erased, stereotyped, objectified or all three in a medium that should be capable of so much more.
For male readers, seriously. Read the Border House piece and imagine for a minute how offended you would be, how hurt, if people were trotting out that kind of crap in all sincerity. Now please remember that those are real quotes, with a few gender markers changed. How does it feel to be told you and the rest of your sex are inherently less than? not worth putting in? or worth putting in only as passive eye-candy for an audience who is not and is assumed cannot be you?
And that’s just the developers – that’s just the stuff the professionals are prepared to say in public interview. Once you add in the fans, who have neither name nor reputation to safeguard, you get sexualised harassment and abuse, gendered responses to your achievement (either “You’re good – for a chick,” or this), demands for pictures, belittling of genuine concerns, accusations of Looking For Stuff To Be Angry About, accusations of hating men or claims that We’re All Equal Now and It’s All In Your Head.
That’s what female gamers deal with every damn day. And add to gaming a lot of sci-fi, a lot of fantasy, certain corners of the internet . . . I could go on.
I don’t think it needs explaining to sensible people that ignoring, dehumanising and otherwise marginalising any group of people for a reason entirely beyond their control is inhumane and cruel. But arguments from principle don’t tend to work terrifically well on corporate megaliths, so yeah. In this case, though, the sections of the gaming industry that keeps churning out unrealistically-proportioned, antigravity-bosomed, impractically-dressed, impossibly perfectly-made-up female characters are shooting themselves squarely in the foot. According to this report in 2009 by the ESA, 40% of gamers are female, and the percentage is rising. Alienating forty per cent of your potential customer base – great business strategy, right there.
The thing that makes this so incredibly ugly – which is touched on briefly in the BH comments thread – is that there are two battles overlapping here.
One of them is sexism vs. feminism, which, though it’s being fought in the gaming community every day, still extends far more widely, and its basic issues (representation of women, non-stereotypical representation of women, non-objectifying representation of women) are equally important in other media.
The other is hardcore vs. casual. In this particular instance, it’s less to do with equipment owned or hours put in – though those are both undoubtedly factors – than it is about the kind of games you play. This particular debate reached sickening levels in the semi-final of The Escapist’s current March Mayhem tournament (users vote for their favourite developer, basically), when industry favourite Valve went up against Facebook heavyweight Zynga.
Admission of interest: regular readers will know that I would basically marry Portal if I thought it wouldn’t break my heart and kill me, and so yeah, I voted for Valve because that title of theirs in particular has given me hours of fun. But the Zynga fans who basically voted for the same reason – someone told them “hey, there’s a contest, go vote if you like our stuff” – got flamed to crispy charcoal on the forums. Some of them were trolling, sure. And so were some of the regulars.
There were effectively two arguments going on in that epic, 550+ page thread, only one of which was reasonable. The reasonable argument was that Zynga shouldn’t win because of a) dubious promotions – within the rules, but people were questioning whether this should have been the case – and b) making games that don’t work very well. (The lists of complaints and bug reports on the FarmVille and Mafia Wars pages tell their own story, I think.)
The other argument was that Valve are somehow better, more valid, than Zynga just because of a) the nature of their product and b) the nature of their fanbase. A) is easily dismissible: there’s no reason a Facebook-hosted shiny Flash game shouldn’t be as much fun as anything else, it’s just that Zynga’s current crop don’t seem to be terrifically well made. B) ought to have been easily dismissable, but it isn’t, because this is where the hardcore vs. casual argument collides hard with the sexism vs. feminism argument, and the result is . . . unpleasant.
It’s pretty solidly attested that women are a greater proportion of the audience for browser-based games and games marketed as ‘family-oriented’, like some of those designed for the Wii. The common moonbat response to this is “Well, clearly women don’t like real games!” Newsflash: There are many women! We do not all like the same things! And has anyone ever considered that, given a girl picking up a ‘real game’ is likely to get weird looks, mockery, denigration and outright abuse, that’s maybe quite a big deterrent from doing so?
But the other, and more insidious argument – that I saw brought out on the Valve/Zynga thread at least once – is that “These little games are not real games because women play them. Real gaming is for MEN.”
Who the fuck is so insecure in their masculinity that they feel the need to immediately disown any activity women happen to do, or alternatively carve out narrower and narrower fields that are acceptably manly? You might as well say that breathing is unmanly because, y’know, those molecules that are – gasp! – penetrating you! have probably been through about a million women. (And guys, actually. Which probably makes you GAY!!1!)
I think the contingent desperately resisting putting half-realistic women in games is probably the same bunch arguing that Zynga can’t be a proper developer because their games have girl cooties. God forbid that anything impinge on the Fortress of Masculinity that is Real Gaming! It’s the same people who call one another girl and fag as insults denoting weakness, or – especially vilely, given its triggering nature to many survivors – use rape as casual slang for ‘failing at’. (As in: “Your team got raped! HAHAHA!”) It’s probably the same bunch who slavered over First Ed D&D art; before there were animated anti-gravity breasts, there were drawn ones. It’s a small bunch, but they are goddamn loud.
Well, sod ’em. I’ve been hesitant to claim the label ‘gamer’, precisely because of the amount of asshattery collectively exhibited by the people who already use it: I sure as hell do not want to be associated with the people I’ve been railing against. But I’ve pretty much now come to the conclusion that it’s one of those terms that’s got to be taken back from the inside: if women decline to include themselves in that category, it only reinforces the case of the bastards claiming that we don’t belong there.
So yeah. Female gamer. Anyone want to complain?