Sexism in Gamer Culture, Take Two

Alright, let’s deal with this.

Last time I wrote about sexism amongst gamers, it was largely targeted towards the casual harassment that women receive in convention spaces.  That’s still not cool, by the way.

This time, I’ve been thinking about the casual harassment of women in online spaces.  The big story of the gamer community for the last couple weeks has been the harassment of Zoe Quinn by various internet people who disapprove of her personal choices regarding her sex life.  Quinn, who is an independent game developer, has become the target of abuse since an ex-boyfriend of hers publicized a rant where he accused her of cheating on him with multiple men in gaming journalism in exchange for positive reviews of her game Depression Quest.  Because of Quinn’s perceived promiscuity, she has become the victim of relentless online harassment.

Mixed up in this scandal of misogynists behaving like misogynists is a legitimate conversation about the ethics of gaming journalism and how reporters who cover video games can avoid bias when they are embroiled in a relatively close knit community with developers and publishers.  This is an important conversation to be having, but it doesn’t require the villainization of Quinn, especially considering that the source of the accusation is a disgruntled ex.  How Quinn chooses to exercise her sexual agency is no one’s business but hers and her partners’.  The discussion of whether the journalists who did review her game compromised their integrity is still a valid one, but it doesn’t require further personal attacks on her.

Even accusations of Quinn being unscrupulous in her game’s promotion strike me as absurd, because the game is freely available online.  No money is asked of people who wish to play Depression Quest, and people who do donate can judge for themselves based on the merits of the game (I played through it once, and I found it to be a fairly well-crafted interactive fiction; I suspect that some of the negative opinions surrounding the game stem from its text-based design).

Following on the hooplah surrounding Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian also released the latest video in her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series.  Sarkeesian has been producing these videos for about a year now, and I think she’s done some truly excellent criticism of how video games mistreat female characters.  Nonetheless, a very vocal group of detractors have continued to harass Sarkeesian simply for having the temerity to discuss problematic elements in popular video games (following this most recent video, Sarkeesian received death threats that were deemed serious enough that she involved authorities and evacuated her home for a few days).

This kind of treatment of women bears all the same markers of the harassment that we see at conventions.  It’s a case of men assuming that they have a right to ignore the autonomy of women, either by trespassing against women’s bodies or, if they’re not physically present, against their reputations and personal spheres.  It’s been said elsewhere, and I’ll say it here: this kind of behavior is a form of terrorism.

Beyond that, I honestly don’t know what else I can say.  I’ve been following this issue as it’s continued to blow up, and there doesn’t seem to be anything else to say other than this vitriol that’s getting directed at women in the community just for being women is not an aberration.  It just happens that in this case two relatively high-profile personalities in gaming got particularly bad doses of abuse, and everyone’s paying attention because of it.

Given all that, I’d just recommend looking at what other people have been writing about these events.  I’ve compiled a short list of articles that I’ve seen below.


More on Female Protagonists

Last week I wrote a piece discussing what Gavin Moore said about the reasons why he chose to have a male protagonist in the upcoming game Puppeteer.  The general thrust of it was that in developing a game (or writing in general) there is nothing wrong with choosing to make a protagonist male for the purpose of telling a good story.  Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to make a protagonist female for the sake of telling a good story.  What is problematic is choosing to make a character who is supposed to be a proxy for the player male by default and then saying that people who ask why it couldn’t be female are whining over something that’s unimportant.


It sucks being by yourself. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got a little bit of feedback on this post with someone pointing out a couple of examples of recent games that did indeed have female protagonists.  It’s true there’s Tomb Raider, the long running action-adventure series that stars Lara Croft, perhaps the most iconic female character in gaming.  Also we have games like Mirror’s Edge, Portal, the recently released Remember Me, the PS3 launch title Heavenly Sword, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, Final Fantasy XIII and its sequels, the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, Lollipop Chainsaw, and a myriad of other games.  It is fair to say that these games are not nonexistent.  If you’re curious, here’s a list of games featuring a female protagonist; it has nearly 800 entries.  That’s not bad.  Then you see a database like this that has over 85000 entries for video games ever made.  Even if we take into account that the first list comes from a wiki, and most likely is not an exhaustive list, it’s still disproportionately small compared to the total number of games published.

Heck, if that looks like skewed disparity, then let’s pare the 85000 down a little bit.  Since 2000, beginning with the sixth generation of consoles (Gamecube, PS2, Xbox) and going up to the present including games published on all major home and portable systems, there have been just over 4700 games published in English-speaking countries.  I excluded PC games from this count, though those would probably expand the number considerably(it does; games developed for Windows alone add 3800 entries).

Stop and compare those two numbers again.  The number of games published in this century comes in at 4700.  One list of games that feature a female protagonist (and that list includes games that were not published in English-speaking countries, mind you) comes out to just under 800.  That’s about a 1:6 ratio of games featuring women to games published period.

Does this not strike anyone else as imbalanced?

When the ESA publishes its market demographics report that says that nearly half of all game consumers are female, that suggests there’s a problem with how the market is being served.

So, yes, I will concede that there are a lot of games that feature women in the lead role.  Some of them are even great games.  But when you take that in comparison to the total number of games that the industry produces, it becomes clear that there’s a portion of the gamer population that is being underserved.  It’s not fair to tell them “Well, you don’t mind playing as a guy, so what’s the big deal?”  The big deal is that women are not afforded equal opportunities to play as women.

Why Do Protagonists Have to Be Male?

I came across this interview with the director for an upcoming platformer called Puppeteer yesterday while reading through my newsfeed (I have a newsfeed; I feel so professional!), and I was struck by what this guy Gavin Moore had to say about his decision to make the protagonist of his game a boy.

He says it very poorly (I’d honestly say that he comes across as an arrogant jerk), but I think his point that the protagonist should fit the story is a fine one.  I generally don’t mind not having a choice in who I play as.  If this game really requires a male protagonist in order for the story to work, then go for it.

This protagonist has to be male?

Except I don’t think it does.

From what I’ve seen of Puppeteer (which is the gameplay trailer embedded in the article I posted), it’s a story that takes place in a puppet world where strange things are going on and the protagonist keeps losing his head (literally).  It’s a whimsical game.  The protagonist is male, but as far as I can tell he doesn’t really have any sort of personality, which means he’s a proxy for the player.  Moore even says as much towards the interview’s end.

If the protagonist is supposed to be the player’s proxy, then the player is the one who imbues the protagonist with personality.  If the sex of the protagonist matters to the player (to a lot of people it does) and the protagonist is already a blank slate, then what is the issue, creatively speaking, with allowing the player to choose the sex?  If there are resource issues, then I understand not being able to add sex selection as a feature, but then I have to ask, why is the default for a blank slate protagonist always male (Rachael wrote a great post a while back about how female is the actual biological default for humans; check it out)?

Moore makes the point in the interview that lots of girls play male protagonists, so he doesn’t see the problem with forcing someone to play a character whose sex they don’t share.  I honestly don’t have a problem with that either, because I believe in making the best story possible, and if a particular kind of protagonist is needed then go right ahead.  The problem here is that Moore’s failing to recognize that it’s just women who are forced to play male characters, because of the dearth of female protagonists in games.  The situation is not equal.

Essentially, what I’m saying about Moore’s reasoning is that it’s sexist misdirection.  He works in Japan, which I’ve pointed out before is a pretty sexist culture, and he admits at the end of the interview that questions of sex selection aren’t discussed because Japanese developers don’t think it’s important.

That is not an artistic justification for making a protagonist male.  It’s creative laziness and appeal to male privilege.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty 7/11/13

Back from vacation, and finally caught up on all the stuff that’s been going on since the last roundup.  Look for thoughts on my vacation tomorrow, and for now, enjoy these links!


Lightning (Photo credit: Pete Hunt)

1. A student of design at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem has come up with a design for a compact living space that’s made from two sheets of fabric stitched together.

2. Over at i09, we get a history lesson on a time when the Pope decided everyone was going to skip ten days on the calendar, and some people didn’t like that.

3. Fred Clark at Slacktivist has an answer to Richard Beck’s post about mattering that I discussed today.

4. The Avant/Gard Diaries recently published an interview they did with the Seattle vigilante Phoenix Jones.  I’m doubtful that what this guy is doing is really safe for the public, but I have to admit that he seems to have a real conviction about improving his community.

5. I love The Simpsons.  I enjoy Game of Thrones.  I adore Game of Thrones Simpsonized.

6. Rachel Held Evans is taking a break from the internet for a few weeks, but before she left, she posted this excellent rumination on the problem with biblical literalism as most people understand it.  Evans is a truly remarkable person in the blogosphere, because she very adeptly walks the fine moderate line.  Even if she’s not posting anything new for a while, take some time to check out her older content.

7. I am quickly becoming a fan of Richard Beck’s blog Experimental Theology in a big way.  Here’s a post he wrote two days ago in regards to an ongoing series he’s doing where he reads through the complete works of theologian William Stringfellow (that’s an awesome name).  There’s so much that’s interesting about this post, but if I have to pick out one thing to draw your attention, read the section regarding Stringfellow’s thoughts on prayer following his diagnoses with a debilitating disease.

8. A write-up on an incident that happened recently at a convention where someone thought it would be funny to slap stickers that said ‘fake geek girl’ on the rear ends of women attending the convention.  The behavior of the person who did this is reprehensible, but I can’t help feeling that Harris O’Malley, who blogs as Dr. NerdLove (his schtick is that he gives dating advice to nerds) and who originally created the stickers that the perpetrator used, made a misstep in trying to satirize the issue this way.  It probably speaks more to my own ignorance, but just looking at the sticker I couldn’t tell that it was meant to be making fun of the issue.

9. This one’s a downer, because it’s a story about how a child recently died after she had received a highly experimental trachea implant that was grown from her own stem cells.  The implant appears to have been a success, but other complications eventually killed her.  Despite the sad end to this story, I’m glad to know that treatments like this one are being researched and that the state of our healthcare technology is always getting better.

10. This couple had a Batgirl/Nightwing themed wedding, and it looks classy as heck.  Also, the photography’s really good.

11. Another brief post from Experimental Theology.  There’s something profound about boiling your understanding of the world to “sin and mercy.”

12. I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons in the past with some very good friends.  It never threatened to harm my immortal soul.  Mostly there was just a lot of goofiness and endless attempts to frustrate the DM.

13. This one’s mostly just a horror story, but it’s a true one.  I’d put it in the same category as the above link regarding the unfortunate girl with the trachea implant as something that saddens me because it happened, but also leaves me happy because people continue to expand and refine our scientific knowledge so that better, more effective treatments for all the malaise in the world can be found.

14. Striking a blow for gender equality, this guy’s taking a firm stance that he is not doing anything special by being a stay-at-home dad.  I love that he rejects the hero rhetoric by pointing out that he can’t lose no matter what he does while his wife can’t win with the same set of choices.  Kudos for writing the article, now get back to work; your children need you.

15. Following up on the last trailer for Sharknado we have this new one featuring a guy slicing a shark in half with a chainsaw.  The made-for-TV movie airs tonight, and for once, I regret that I don’t have cable.

16. I’m sharing this mostly because it references Watchmen heavily in its discussion of the different kinds of intelligences that humans display.  They make a good point that what we typically emphasize when we talk about intelligence relates to logic, while if we’re looking to enhance human capabilities in order to improve society, we should be thinking more along the lines of improving empathy.

17. Yet another post from Experimental Theology (just go read Richard Beck’s blog yourself; it’ll save me time sharing all this stuff), this time discussing the issue of gender dynamics within the Church.  Beck’s response to the whole mess is very thoughtful, and he cuts through the arguments to one simple question: are we grasping for power when we enforce gender roles, or are we seeking to serve one another as Jesus commanded?

18. And to wrap up, something amazing.  Rachael and I recently had our own personal experience with the awe and wonder of lightning, and I can say that seeing it this way is much cooler.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty 6/29/13

I’ve written quite a bit before about my thoughts on gamer culture and sexism.  I think there are some real issues with how participants in the culture approach the issue, both on the development and on the consumer side.  So, when I saw a link to this video, I got very excited.  It’s David Gaider, a senior writer at Bioware, giving an hour long talk at the 2013 Game Developer’s Conference about the issues of sex and sexism in video games.

Dragon Age: the game where you’re always covered in blood and a Spanish elf hits on you–after he tries to kill you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some highlights include his discussion of the evolution of how romance subplots were implemented beginning with Baldur’s Gate II running all the way up to Dragon Age II, a succinct explanation of privilege, and a very informative anecdote about an incident with his writing team on Dragon Age: Origins.

If you have an hour to spare and you’re interested in this stuff, then check the video out.

Moving on to some lighter fare, I came across this video where a pundit for Fox News essentially argues Franklin Graham to a standstill on the effect of video games on culture.  It’s kind of bizarre because Fox News usually leads the charge on anti-video game fervor, but in this case John Stossel, the pundit, goes to great lengths to dismantle Graham’s argument that video games promote a culture of violence and should therefore be taxed the same way tobacco and alcohol are.  Stossel’s reference to the difference in murder rates between America and Japan was wonderful, because it so clearly points to the fact that there are a lot of factors that contribute to a violent society, and it’s ridiculous to point to one relatively new entertainment medium as the source.

Seduction of the Innocent

Seduction of the Innocent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I also have to give Stossel props for referencing the great comic book panic of the 1950s when Fredric Wertham caused an uproar with his book Seduction of the Innocent (here‘s an article that discusses some of the problems surrounding Wertham’s book and why it was eventually discredited).  Wertham is a figure who’s almost universally scorned for the damage he did to the early comics industry, although I have some sympathy for him because by all accounts he was a major advocate for children growing up in poor communities.  He genuinely cared about the people he was trying to serve, but he pushed way too hard against a medium that couldn’t possibly take all the blame for social ills.

At best, Wertham was just a misguided activist who really wanted to do better by the population he served.  I can’t say that about most popular figures today who scream in the same way about the harm that video games do to the youth.  Most of them strike me as ideologically driven, desiring to advance an agenda rather than expressing a legitimate concern about the very real problem of violence in America.  Typically they claim that this industry is having a negative effect on children.

As Gaider points out in the video I linked above (you did go watch it, didn’t you?  It’s fantastic), the non-gaming population has a skewed idea of what gamers look like.  The latest demographic data from the ESA shows that the average age of gamers is 30.  I’ve been playing games since I was like five, and technically I’m still on the young side for the gaming population.  More telling, the breakdown in age ranges shows that only about a third of gamers are under 18, while a third are over 35.  People of all ages play games.  It’s unproductive to maintain the stereotype that gamers are all teenage boys.  The industry knows that its audience is primarily adult, and that means that when developers make games, they are going to include themes that appeal to adults.  Should children be playing games with mature themes?  Depends on the kid.  I’d prefer to leave that judgment up to a child’s parents, who should seriously educate themselves about what their kids are doing.

So, that’s the nifty stuff.  I thought it was all pretty cool because it tied together a couple of my favorite hobbies in unexpected ways.  I just hope that one day, when the next big media thing comes along I’m not one of those stuffy old guys who are angry about it ruining society because I don’t understand it.