I don’t play many console or PC games anymore, but I do watch them a lot. The last game I played all the way through was Crimson Skies, a shoot-em-up flying game set in an alternate reality of Nazis and Tesla-tech.
However my daughter, SW, is a serious gamer and I really enjoy sitting next to her and watching her play. It’s companionable and because she’s so fluent I might as well be watching a movie. When SW was little and I’d just discovered computers we played a lot of games. The first game we played together right through was the legendary The Secret of Monkey Island. And we had a pretty hilarious time last night with Harvest Moon (especially with the pig and the cats).
SW is also very good at ironising games for me. So Resident Evil 4 becomes saturated in hilarious misogynist stereotypes and idiotic macho posturing, rather than the kind of displays of brutal sexism that would once have made me grind my teeth. I’ve realised that if you’re a woman or queer gamer, you need a strong sense of the ironic and a mind of steel to be able to breathe and thrive in a culture that can often seem to despise you to a remarkable degree.
In a sense it has always been much easier for me to rail against misogyny and homophobia because I don’t have to experience its prejudices in action; I just get to actualise them. It’s the white male’s final act of narcissism. And though SW’s mother, and the gang of lesbian punk bikies who became SW’s godmothers, did their best to teach me this, it was only when I was actually responsible for the welfare of a baby girl that the understanding slowly became visceral. Even then, as the years passed, it has more often been a case of SW explaining to me: ‘No, Steve. This is how it works.’ I don’t think it’s because I’m an idiot – though this may well be true. The reality is that white male privilege bequeaths one an amazing array of blind spots, one of them being the excuse that you’re a nice person.
Whether it’s Tomb Raider or Game of Thrones, male geek culture has a lot of trouble incorporating feminist and queer narratives. Women in games are often magical helpers for men or pieces of sexualised meat – and they are always hot. Misogyny is not just about the privileging of particular models of male power but, more importantly, the explication of types of male pleasure. Very often in male geek narratives, the woman becomes the McGuffin.
‘McGuffin’ was Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the magical item or secret object that the hero of the narrative has to locate, eat, destroy, rescue, wake or marry to end the story. It’s part of the portrayal of the woman as an idealised object, and parallels the idealised magical Black characters we find in writers such as Stephen King, and, with the exception of Studio Ghibli, it’s a stereotype common to a lot of anime too.
If she’s playing online games SW has historically not disclosed the fact that she’s a woman for two reasons, both tied to different versions of misogyny. When other male gamers discover her gender she generally receives either a deluge of hate comments – similar to those at Fat, Ugly or Slutty – or what SW calls the ‘creepy Victorian gentleman’ response. The latter involves other gamers being excessively polite and giving her lots of free stuff to make it easier for her. If she doesn’t identify herself as a woman, everyone assumes she’s male. It’s the default identity in the gaming world.
Anybody born after the mid-1980s who has an interest in gaming grew up with the values and narratives of male geek culture. Women gamers and LGBT gamers are becoming more vocal as they become more numerous, but they are up against an army larger than Sauron’s orcs and about as bright and implicitly endorsed by influential gaming figures and organisations. ‘Troll’ is in this instance perhaps something more than just a designation or a metaphor.Even so, morons though they are, the geek troll’s viciousness, frightened stupidity and sense of entrenched privilege shouldn’t be underestimated.
For a young woman or queer person working her or his way through the challenges, strictures and transformative possibilities of gender, one way of challenging gender norms could be to engage with gaming. What’s not to love? You can be a sassy Elvish warrior with an axe the size of a door and high ratings for sarcasm if you want, and kicking ass has got zilch to do with your actual appearance, physicality or sexuality.
In recent years, to the distress of the misogynist male geek there has been a bit of an upswing in the portrayal of gay and lesbian characters in games. One would think this is a good move, and in some ways it is. In an environment of bloody slaughter and sexist stupidity, any game that has a window on gender equality and positive sexual difference is like a spotlight from God. On the other hand, as SW suggested to me, it can also be the male designer’s enlightened idea of catering to women gamers. If you are a woman gamer, thinks the male game designer, you obviously want the opportunity to put women in bed with women or men in bed with men. None of that sexist stuff about women being bedded by men. We get that that’s not OK.
I’m not arguing that geek culture doesn’t have its radical margins. It does, and it often involves women and queer gamers and writers.But such marginality rarely finds its way into game content and narrative, and it has been unable to come to grips withthe political nature of an exploitative and unregulated industry that creates its products in sweatshop conditions. Activision CEO Bobby Kotick said of the people who design his company’s games, ‘I think we definitely have been able to instill the culture, the skepticism and pessimism and fear that you should have in an economy like we are in today. And so, while generally people talk about the recession, we are pretty good at keeping people focused on the deep depression.’
Another games executive put it like this:
I think unions are there to protect people who can’t protect themselves. I think once you get up to a certain wage level you’re charged with being able to take care of yourself and if you can’t handle it, don’t work there.
These attitudes aren’t limited to sleazy US work practices, of course. The Australian games industry is completely non-unionised and the controversy at game developer Team Bondi over the production of blockbuster LA Noire a year or two back, laid bare a neoliberal work-culture of exploitation and managerial grandiosity. The story broke at games website IGN in mid-2011 after a leak of anonymous tweets. Questioning of the veracity and motivation of the tweets was quickly followed by a series of commenters, obviously employees of Team Bondi, testifying to appalling working conditions, abusive managers and a culture of compliance and abuse.
The various professional bodies to which gaming professionals can belong have no teeth and the developers know it. They are ‘advocacy’ and networking bodies only, timidly waving voluntary codes at a rapacious industry. For every job in game development, there are a hundred super-keen kids willing to step into a toxic workplace if you complain. The reporting on the Team Bondi scandal was very light on the gendered nature of the work environment, but I’d guess that a game-design workplace is overwhelmingly male and macho, with a high index of practices of humiliation.
While there are greatly increasing numbers of women and queer gamers, the game-design environment is not just overwhelmingly male but consequently stridently misogynist in ways that are hard to comprehend. Last year the 1reasonwhy hashtag took off as women gamers and designers shared their stories of discrimination, harassment, insult and assault. And they are not unique: these stories are everywhere on the net, and they occur again and again in stupendous proportions.
It’s probably a bit of a stretch to expect either innovative narrative or complex characterisation in the games such an industry produces. The result is games like Assassins Creed , which look amazing but have the subtlety of soap opera and slaver adoringly over men engaging in balletic and pompous violence. In fact, the most interesting character in any video game anywhere is probably GLaDOS in Valve’s Portal – and she’s an evil supercomputer with a woman’s voice.
Designing a game with smart women or queer characters in it is not like trying to build a machine to find the Higgs-Boson, but it may as well be. The gaming industry seems to scratch its head over ‘games for women’ or ‘games for queer people’. If men generally play games about sports, shooting and racing, then perhaps women want games about empathy and talking? Well, they might. But they might also, as SW does, want to play first-person shooters and RPGs with protagonists who can be straight, gay or transgendered; who are intelligent, don’t need a man to tell them how to do things, and aren’t privileged because of their bodacious look.
Games company BioWare’s recent solution to queer-inclusiveness was to incorporate a gay planet, Makeb, into its Star Wars Old Republic universe, the equivalent of having a gay bar in town where you are gay on the premises, but magically not-gay while off them. And if you want to hang out on Makeb and engage in what BioWare promise is ‘flirtatious’ dialogue, you’ll need to pay extra for it.
For most game designers, sexism and homophobia just doesn’t rate. It doesn’t really exist for them any more than Xenu the Galactic Overlord exists for me. Hate speech against women, gays, lesbians, trans or intersex people is someone else’s fantasy.
Just as Studio Ghibli’s children’s films make the most spectacular offerings of Pixar look like the dismal sexist vessels of deep stupidity they are, so the eloquent refusal of queer and women gamers to be silenced, and their imaginative desire to see the possibilities in games narratives, makes it blindingly obvious that misogyny and homophobia are snugly cuddled up together inside geek culture like a yolk in an egg. And the gaming industry acquiesces to this.
Portrayals of women right across mainstream geek culture are almost too misogynistic to believe. At Women In Refrigerators there’s an extensive list of all the women comic-book characters who have met grisly ends. It’s quite a compendium. From Batgirl to Wonder Woman, female superheroes are routinely maimed, sent insane, tortured, raped, murdered, kidnapped, enslaved and addicted to drugs; their children are frequently murdered and often they’re turned into vampires or zombies.
The extraordinary hatred that women and queer gamers have to endure from male gamers obscures the fact that gamer culture is actually many cultures, as Melbourne gamer Ben Mckenzie recently pointed out in a recent thoughtful blog in which he discusses the decision of his outfit PopUp Playground to pull out of the massive PAX Aus game conference held in Melbourne, because of its orchestrated misogyny.
Such protests from male gamers are uncommon. As with a lot of expressions of misogyny, for every vicious troll there are several other men who don’t endorse them but who don’t speak up. It’s the bystander problem that men can have a lot of trouble getting their head round.
Most men, gamers and non-gamers, have at some stage found themselves in a men-only situation where misogynist or homophobic comments are made – these incidents are much more common than men are generally prepared to admit. To refuse to speak up – for fear of offending one’s friends, or workplace disapproval, or because it’s ‘just a joke’, or whatever – is to give implicit consent.
It’s not about standing up for women and queer gamers but of standing with them, and not just when they can see and hear you.
It’s astounding that geek culture is still so stridently and violently misogynistic, and that women can expect to be routinely groped and insulted at gaming cons. It’s not enough for men who don’t support vicious misogynist practices to sympathise with their female or queer friends. Male gamers need to get active and speak out, with some force and clarity. Anyone can say to a troll, ‘I’m a man. I support women and queer gamers, now shut the fuck up,’ though I’m guessing not enough do. Making it clear to your best geek bud that what he’s just said makes him sound like a sexist jerk, and furthermore that you don’t agree, is harder. But I’d put money on there being even fewer male gamers speaking up in private than are doing it in public.
Still, that’s not enough. It’s a structural issue and it needs to be called that way. Writer and trans gamer Samantha Allen recently wrote a terrific open letter to the editors of several major gaming sites, imploring them to take public action on hate speech and the toxic discrimination in the gaming world. She was very clear and blunt:
Your chagrin is not good enough. You have more power and authority than you’re letting on, you’re simply choosing not to exercise it …You can no longer treat sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia as niche issues. These forms of marginalization have real effects on real people and, as you know all too well from your vantage point, they are painfully exaggerated in gaming spaces. They are problems that permeate every aspect of videogames from their production, to their player base, to the websites that write about them. (My emphasis) ..When few people besides straight men feel automatically safe on your sites, it’s not our responsibility to come in and change your communities for you. It’s your responsibility to take a bold stand for what’s right.
Given that a community of geeks is a community of geeks perpetually connected in cyberspace, who could pull a website together quicker than I could a cheese sandwich, it’s telling that male geeks, as individuals and as representatives of significant organisations, have not banded together in large numbers and made it publicly clear that misogyny, hate speech, and abuse of gays, lesbians and trans people is not okay.
Anyway, I’d have thought it’s in a geek’s genes to want to take on trolls. In Jackson’s version of Lord of the Rings Boromir famously says, ‘One does not simply walk into Mordor.’ Actually, one does.