Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Forgotten Passive Skill of the Video Gaming Scene: Misogyny

I’ve been thinking a lot about gender diversity in the video game community recently or, rather, the lack thereof. The competitive circles—your Halos and your Soul Caliburs—are my biggest concern, but this is an issue that encompasses most aspects of the scene, so it would seem careless to be too specific. Anyway, first I need to apply some foundations.

I’m going to try to pre-empt the invariable negativity here and say that this isn’t about blaming any particular group of people for how male-centric things are; everyone is conservative to a degree. We learn what constitutes ‘normal’ and then adapt and that’s fine, up to a point. But what if the ‘normal’ is deeply flawed? It takes a certain amount of conscious thought and effort to propagate something better. I simply feel like this idea of progress is worth holding onto, even if it feels laughably optimistic at times. 

So, with that said, I’ll be blunt: the vast majority of gaming communities are wrapped in a passively misogynist demeanour (as well as being fairly racist and ableist, but these are distinct issues).   The reinforcements pervade through every active voice: from concept and 3D artists, whose objectifying designs apparently trump any kind of continuity of pragmatism; a user-base that thinks it’s totally fine to just assume ‘everyone is a man by default’; and marketing departments that push ‘AAA’ games like they’re Action Man for Man-Children. If these three things alone were ceased —the most outstanding examples of accepted widespread misogyny in the industry—we would find within a short period that video games really aren’t the ‘Other Man’s World’ they’re so often sold to us as. 

It’s no secret that the attitudes around what gaming is (and what a ‘gamer’ is) result in environments where people feel they have licence to be hostile and derisive. Hell, to this ‘Aris’ guy it is, quite literally, a licence to sexually harass. I’m not talking about what could be called ‘the nonsensical hate-stream’ here; that non-differential and aimless kind of rage is often more absurd than threatening to the average non-gendered player. It can potentially make an irritating experience for anyone, but for all of the lashings of hate-spiel a guy might come to receive while playing a game, he is never going to be made to feel that he shouldn’t be there because of his gender. The real issue is that—thanks in part to the ‘everyone is a man’ imperative—the attention towards female players becomes much more severe, and focussed.  Women are often made to feel compelled to remain silent in online games and not convey their gender, because ‘man’ isn’t just the default: it’s a casually-enforced standard of ‘normality’, and to deviate from it actually justifies harassment to some people. 

This point is largely rhetorical, but if men are the default, what does that make women? The harassment and shit-talk is the ugly forefront (and it is obvious by this point that it is not ‘just children’ who perpetuate it), but the justifications are laughably callous: things like ‘she should expect it if she’s so blatantly a girl’ or, ‘you should just not use your microphone if you can’t deal with it’. So, you can only be treated equally if you go out of your way to keep your gender to yourself? No one would ever say this to a guy because he was using an explicitly male name, so what does this really amount to other than silencing female voices and denying femininity? This line of thought is what happens when people conflate the average bad manner of online communities with what one should expect for having the audacity to be openly female. Put simply, treating everyone equally cannot possibly align with ‘everyone is necessarily a guy until stated otherwise’, but these positions, apparently, settle down together with disturbing ease.
This excellent piece explains eloquently how different kinds of privilege can be hard to perceive. This does not mean that everyone who has never paid thought to fixing things is at fault: societies are steeped in it. Unless you live in a sealed culture-proof box, this is normal. And by ‘normal’ I mean ‘something we are collectively saturated in.’ Still, I feel the need to say flatly this isn’t a zero-sum game of attributable ‘Privilege Points’ being picked at: trying to make the culture around video games more gender-inclusive simply serves the best interests of everyone who enjoys games. Well, maybe it doesn’t serve the interests of people who hate women? I don’t know, fuck those guys.  Explicit boundaries on gender are largely a thing of the past; no one (who gets taken seriously) says that women flat-out shouldn’t play games.  Implicit barriers, though, are very much alive, and out-dated ideas on gender are not unusual. In fact, they are usual: just look at a magazine or a music video and try to reach the conclusion that society offers us a balanced presentation men and women. The threads between different media can’t just be severed, and I feel that the video game sector is far less independent of the toxic mainstream than many of its fans might like to believe.

This position often leaves me feeling that all people can reasonably do is minimise the issues caused to children who grow up with nothing but subtle (and sometimes very un-subtle) codes and messages that mediate their gender expression. This coding is a fundamental presupposition to pretty much any cultural work that involves humans: in representing a fictional world the author invariably draws upon the environment around them (as well as other works) to fill in the holes of an initial concept. The suppositions of ‘useful generalisations’, of generic conventional tropes and out-dated—but simple and effective—narratives and expressions: these things cannot be undermined with little effort. The conventions are so ingrained that even skilled and well-meaning artists are beset by the ease with which their attempt at a subversive concept can fall into clumsiness; opportunely ‘marketable traits’, hackneyed dialogue or setting, or maybe just an end so heavy-handed and fantastic that the audience doesn’t take the ideas seriously.

The point where people will lazily defend the status quo (and so their own apathy) is, generally, where I get dismayed. Calling out a person’s recycled ‘jokes’ is sometimes decried as “feeding the trolls” or “white knighting”, while shameless marketing practices are shrugged off with a cynical “sex sells” mantra. Put simply: if Sonic fans were able to mount a defence for SEGA’s choice to give Shadow a gun and a motor-bike—and, sadly, they were—what can’t people defend?  There is simply no positive end to these positions; it’s conservative acceptance masquerading as cunning aloofness.

There is also that oddly defensive slant that it is ‘equally sexist’ for male protagonists to so often be muscly, chiselled and/or athletic. Well, no, it isn’t. To hold this view is an example of privilege taken to an extreme. I could point to many titles, but I may as well stick to competitive games. So, Starcraft: this is not the same as this. Not even close. Then there’s the fact that—when you step away from just protagonists—male bodies are represented in just about every light imaginable in video games, though they are almost never sexualised to the degree that women are. The conventional approach to design, from narrative to characters, caters implicitly to some theoretical adolescent man who consults their penis before every financial transaction. I have never known anyone to whom the level of sexual content was a contributing factor in their purchase of a game.

I guess what I’m getting at is that any position that doesn’t accept the idea that it’s easier to be accepted at face-value as a ‘male gamer’ than as a ‘female gamer’ (and that there is something inherently wrong with that) is ultimately empty.  It’s obstructive to adopt a demeanour of presumed powerlessness that must cede its judgment to the mighty gods of Commerce & Marketing. It’s untenable to hold that the enforcement of masculinity is an equally pressing issue for men when the function of this trope depends on promoting a kind of superiority in ‘manliness’: any inadequacies in the presentation of men are a triviality against the non-stop objectification and marginalisation of women. I think everyone could benefit from the binary of gender itself being broken down a little, but that's a whole other post. Anyway, that’s my position: it is never beyond communities and individuals to reform or refine their standards.

With all that said I’m going to skip back to where I started: the lack of gender diversity. There’s the sexualisation, the outright misogynist ‘everyone is a man’ mind-set, and the perceived masculinity of coordinating and competing to win; the protagonists are almost always male, while their female counterparts are almost always half-naked. Then there are the conservative marketing elements that carelessly perpetuate all of this mundaneness. Given these facts, the perceived infrequency of women as ‘gamers’ does not seem odd at all, nor down to some sweeping biological disposition: we are just exceptionally conservative. The only way to change it is to actively consider it, and to call people out—from developers to players—on their terrible standards or pitiful demeanours. Gaming has grown to be mechanically and visually fantastic, but the underlying values and sensibilities are too often regressive and lazy by comparison. I think we’re entitled to voice our disapproval of that.