Gender Debates and Civility in Gaming Culture
I’ve previously mentioned some of my views on gender inequalities in games and gaming culture. I thought I’d come back to the topic today, since there’s been a nice convergence of recent events on the subject – I can fill this article with links and make it look like I’ve got my finger on the pulse! The two main incidents on my mind are Penny-Arcade’s ‘Dickwolves‘ saga and this conversation between Destructoid‘s Jim Sterling and The Internet‘s Daphny. Specifically I want to talk about reactions to those incidents, and their place in the broader issue of gender in games culture – if you want to get into a discussion about their specific details, there are plenty of other blog posts and forum threads where you can do that.
The story began last August when when Penny-Arcade published a strip based on World of Warcraft in which an NPC slave begs a player to rescue him from a life of being raped by “dickwolves”, and the player ignores them because they’ve already rescued enough slaves to complete their current quest. It seems to me that the joke is about RPG mentality, how people ride around performing acts of heroism (or villainy) strictly to quotas set out in their quest log. I think it’s a good concept for a joke, but controversy arose from their choice of ritualised rape as the terrible life that the NPC wants to be rescued from. I would guess that they wanted to make it sound as awful as possible – to highlight the callousness of the player’s attitude – but many people feel that rape should never be brought up in the context of humour and, predictably, a number of readers complained.
So far this sounds like a pretty normal story about an edgy joke that offended some people. The reason why it’s snowballed into an ‘issue’ is Penny-Arcade’s reaction to the controversy. Gabe has said that his response is always “if you don’t like it, don’t read it”, except in this case his actual response was to engage in a campaign of mockery against the complainants. A follow-up strip appeared, in which Gabe and Tycho talked in a patronising manner about how they think rapists are bad people and how they think people should stop raping, which seems to be either missing the point of the initial complaints or (more likely) deliberately trying to make fun of the complainants. When the complaints kept rolling in, they made a t-shirt featuring the word “dickwolves”, seemingly as some kind of badge of ‘anti-censorship’ pride. They’ve also made a few other jokes along the way, but I think selling a t-shirt – capitalising on the back-slapping “lol, people are offended by rape humour” attitude of some of their fans – pretty much capped things off. They have since begun to come to terms with the problem and removed the t-shirt from sale, although even that seems questionable when Gabe still plans on wearing his at PAX.
I really don’t mind the original strip. Aside from anything else, I’d say it clearly makes the player out to be a self-centred jerk – it doesn’t condone rape, or the player’s uncaring attitude. Quite the opposite – it satirises the uncaring attitudes of RPG players to the plight of NPCs, and implicity carries the same message about real-world apathy, which I would think is a pretty positive thing! But I can’t begin to understand why, when people wrote in to say how the joke offended or upset them, Penny-Arcade’s response was to ridicule and attack the complainants. It’s one thing to defend your work, explain the joke, or refuse to apologise, but to publicly roll your eyes and make new jokes at the expense of people who don’t find rape amusing (such as rape victims, the friends and family of rape victims, or any decent human being) is just terrible behaviour. Through their responses, they have started to act like the uncaring jerk who was the butt of the original joke, except they’re doing it in the context of actual, real-life rape. That is why people have become so upset, and that the Penny-Arcade guys apparently haven’t grasped this in the six months since the original strip was published boggles the mind.
Last week, David Jaffe made a pretty embarassing remark relating the NGP (or PSP2, as anyone with any sense is calling it) to a vagina. As far as I can tell he was deliberately trying to sound like an idiot in order to get into Edge magazine’s monthly roundup of ridiculous quotes – good man. Meanwhile, on the other side of the internet, a young woman called Daphny laughed at the idea of David Jaffe confusing computer hardware with female genitalia, and began to imagine fictional scenarios in which he has sex with his consoles.
Jaffe later apologised (in a bizarre “if you were offended then I think you are an idiot who deserves to be offended, unless I know you in real life in which case I am truly sorry and didn’t mean it” way). Jim Sterling, reviews editor and apparent firebrand-in-residence at Destructoid, chimed in on Twitter to say that an apology was not necessary. At this point, Daphny tied the incident in with a blog post from 2008 in which Jim Sterling failed to identify a female game character’s mons pubis. She began to imagine fantasy scenarios in which David Jaffe and Jim Sterling might meet up, so that they could fail to identify vaginas together… and then make love (NSFW). Having blogged about this, she then made the questionable decision to Tweet a link to her post to both Jaffe and Sterling.
David Jaffe’s response : “Man if I was still in the vulgar and crude business I’d have some fun stuff to say! Sheesh! Peeps got time on their hands!”
Jim Sterling took a different approach. There followed a lively conversation in which Daphny makes fun of his apparent inability to recognise vaginas, and suggests that he is a closeted homosexual. Sterling, taking this as an insult, began escalate the aggression in his responses until he reaches the following incredible climax:
I’ve been following the fallout from this exchange, and the most common argument in defence of his comments seems to be that he was provoked, or that Daphny was being just as homophobic as he was being sexist. I find it difficult to accept the idea of Daphny as a homophobe, given that she herself is gay, and regularly supports gay pride events, and is all in favour of homosexuality – and many other kinds of sexual activity, as it happens. If she had used words like ‘fag’ then I could understand the argument that she had used homophobic language, but suggesting that a person could be a closeted homosexual in those exact words does not, in itself, sound very homophobic to me. His sexuality is none of her business, of course – I can understand why a person would be upset by someone digging into their private life like that – but it’s hardly an insult. And if he did consider it insulting, then that seems to say more about his attitude to sexuality than hers.
In any case, he responds by identifying her a feminist and then throwing out all kinds of gender-centric abuse – such as calling her a slut, a bitch, and asking “Does your husband know you’re using the computer?” – before attacking her ‘hypocritical faux-feminism’. Evidently he considers himself to be the more feminist participant of the conversation. In the following days people blogged about it, word got around, and he ended up offering varying degrees of apology to some of the more famous people he offended, while also refusing to take back anything he said because she ‘deserved it’. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a person to be upset to learn that some random person on the internet was publishing sketches of them in strange sexual situations. I imagine it can feel pretty violating, and I would probably feel a bit disturbed if it happened to me. I am reminded of that Girls Aloud murder-rape fanfic trial, although it seems to me a lot more obvious that Daphny was being light-hearted. But while it was rude of her to push her blog post in his face, I just can’t believe the kind of language he used in response.
Both of these incidents have involved prominent figures within the gaming community acting like jerks, and a large crowd of their fans rising up to support their behaviour and attack their detractors. In the first case, a relatively inoffensive comic strip that was broadly sympathetic to rape victims sparked off a disagreement that has led to Penny-Arcade – and many of their fans – mocking people who feel that rape isn’t funny. Maybe you could say that they’re making fun of them for failing to understand the original joke, but if a rape victim told me that they didn’t appreciate the finer points of a joke involving rape, I think I would understand. This – frankly terrifying – page of statistics informs us that around 90% of rape victims are women, and I am confident that most of the people complaining about the strip were similarly gendered. Let’s bear that in mind for a moment.
In Jim Sterling’s case, we see a loudmouth critic (I am referring to Daphny, so that we’re clear) sparking off a flamewar that sees him very quickly pulling out every kind of sexist label imaginable in response. Other members of the gaming community have picked up on this and questioned his behaviour, facing opposition from Sterling’s fans who have come out to defend his right to dismiss people as “feminazi sluts”. The comments under Anna’s blog post on the subject are good examples. Some commentors have accused her and Daphny of trying to engineer the whole controversy, failing to understand that the whole incident was sparked off by David Jaffe’s thoughts on the NGP and Sterling’s touchingly bromantic show of support; others tell her to stop talking about politics and get back to talking about games, as if gender politics aren’t a central theme of every single one of her games; some guys come straight out and say that feminism is a load of rubbish and women should lighten up and get a sense of humour. Women should be able to laugh off being called bitches and sluts, in exactly the same way Jim Sterling couldn’t laugh off a dumb sketch of him covered in dildos.
It seems to me that what we are looking at here are groups of male gamers coming together to defend prominent male community leaders by shouting down women who feel alienated by gaming culture. Sexism is rife in all aspects of gaming culture, whether you look at the demographics of people working in the industry, the characters and scenarios featured in games themselves, or the attitudes of the gaming community. Obviously not every game is sexist or every gamer misogynistic, but the atmosphere ought to be plainly obvious to anyone with any sense of awareness. The secret third thing that’s come to my attention in recent weeks is the existance of Fat, Ugly or Slutty?, a blog of sexist abuse that has spewed from the fingers of gamers. I remember reading an article in The Escapist years ago about how girls don’t exist on the internet which matched up with many of my friends’ stories about life as a female gamer, and it’s kinda depressing to think things haven’t changed much since then, despite the fact that the majority of PC gamers are women.
Or have things changed? All of these stories are just anecdotal evidence, and as a stat-obsessed economist I can’t say I’m entirely happy with relying on them as a basis for a worldview – I have witnessed some more positive movements against sexism in games, like the ill-fated Female Player’s Alliance, although these have been rare. If you, dear reader, have any stories or evidence of positive developments in gaming culture, I would love it if you’d leave some links in a comment.
The Point, Continued
I think it’s pretty natural for people to be a bit sexist during the earlier stages of their life. The opposite gender is curious and alien and unknown, so it’s not surprising people make strange assumptions about them – boys smell, girls have cooties, etc. I can forgive a lot of sexism among the screeching 13-year-olds playing Call of Duty because they just don’t know any better, and I’d like to believe that most of the quotes on Fat, Ugly or Slutty? come from these ignorant teens. But it’s clear that sexism in gaming culture extends far beyond children, and I think that’s a real problem. Not just in the sense that it makes gaming more exclusive for women, but in the sense that, if those screeching teenage boys are growing up in a culture that supports that kind of behaviour, they won’t grow out of it. Some commentors have said that Daphny and Anna are picking a fight over something trivial, and that if they were REAL feminists then they would be flying around Africa in a helicopter and rescuing oppressed women from tribal violence (or some other ‘worthy’ feminist cause). It really doesn’t wash with me at all. If something is harmful, then I think people should root it out – and if it’s something trivial, they ought to be able to do it quickly.
I doubt that Jim Sterling really is such a terrible misogynist in real life, and I’m sure the Penny-Arcade guys don’t support rape in any way, but I think part of the problem is just to do with our culture of smack-talk. Ever since Bitchmaker-in-Chief John Romero first instructed his co-workers to “SUCK IT DOWN!” while play-testing Doom‘s deathmatch mode, bellowing in your opponents’ faces has been a common element of the game experience. Some people don’t like that, and that’s understandable – part of the reason why Nintendo keep developing such utterly useless online play systems is to benefit these people. For other people, hyper-aggressive screaming is an integral part of their culture – Penny-Arcade themselves have commented on the issue (cf. John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory). Personally, I am totally in favour of smack-talk, although I think there’s a degree of real-world courtesy involved in judging how far to take it.
However, I think part of the reason these two incidents played out the way they did is because gamers tend to carry over that same kind of attitude into their everyday social interactions. Arguing with people on the internet seems to be treated the same way as arguing with an opponent during a game – people say deliberately inflammatory things they don’t mean, and (in a reversal of logic) assume that anyone who criticises is some kind of ‘enemy’. They are not. People on the internet are actually real people (except when they aren’t), and even though many of them still choose to adopt wacky new personas and act like a different person, I think the majority of people these days are just trying to be themselves. If someone approaches you to say that you have upset them, I think the least you should do is try to engage with them and understand why they feel that way – not turn on them for failing to interpret you actions in the same way you do.
Also, I think a lot of male gamers consider sexist language like ‘bitch’ or ‘feminazi slut’ to be an acceptible part of this. They don’t see these terms as being sexist – probably in part because they’re coming from a fairly monosexual culture – so they just throw them around like any other insult whenever an argument kicks off… although in the case of Jim Sterling he seems to recognise that they would offend a ‘feminist’ like Daphny and fires them off in a deliberate attempt to upset her (and fails to realise that they would upset a lot of other women too). I’m not trying to defend this behaviour, I’m just suggesting that it’s a two step process: first they decide they want to shout abuse at you, regardless of your gender, and then secondly they consult their compendium of insults and realise that there’s a whole load of abuse that relate specifically to women. The relative lack of insults relating specifically to men goes unnoticed.
Sexism needs to be addressed, but that’s a universal problem. I think a more specific problem with gamers is that they need to stop being so habitually mean and aggressive! That’s something that applies to pretty much everyone in these stories – that Dickwolfgate has culminated in death threats against Gabe’s family is absolutely insane, and I don’t think it would have killed Daphny to keep her private jokes private. The only person who comes out of all this looking good is David Jaffe, who seems like a cooler guy than his games suggest. On that note, here’s another excellent Tweet from Jim, following a very civil confrontation with well-known female gamer Felicia Day:
“I don’t think I’m fighting with @feliciaday. She’s one of the people I offended who I respect, so I want to try and explain”
How about people stop cherry-picking who they can be bothered to respect?