On June 6th, the BBC released an audio commentary called “Guns, Girls, and Games” in which narrator James Fletcher delved into the world of sexual harassment in online gaming. He spoke with notable women in the harassment awareness movement, such as Jenny Haniver from Not in the Kitchen Anymore, and Grace from Fat, Ugly, or Slutty. Fletcher sought to gain perspective on the kind of unprovoked harassment that women face on a daily basis in the gaming world and highlighted grotesque examples, such as the incident with Aris and Miranda at the Cross Assault tournament.
While Fletcher does a thorough job of exploring the experience, origins, and ramifications of online harassment, he himself commits an unconscious microaggression at the end of the podcast,
“...nobody cared much about that loud minority because the gaming world was dominated by men. But that's changing, women are now one of gaming's fastest growing demographics. So as the gaming world continues to grow, it is likely that the loudest voices will be those demanding that it grows up, too.”
The 'loud minority' are those who are currently spewing sexual harassment. Fletcher suggests that the exact same kind of misogyny was present in the gaming realm before the influx of female gamers and that everyone was fine with it, but now women are complaining about said misogyny. While there undoubtedly were other forms of harassment, I highly doubt male gamers were asking their bros about their bra sizes, smelling their hair, or telling them to put down the controller and get back in the kitchen. The misogyny has become more present as female gamers have become more present and the gaming community more expansive and interconnected. I remember playing online in Halo 2 and I never experienced the kind of harassment I currently do in Halo: Reach. One girl playing video games was something cool, a novelty. But as the female population begins to grow, have influence, and dare to ask for something as controversial as female characters with substance and depth, the novelty seems to have worn off.
Don't get me wrong – I enjoy a good trash talk sparring as much as the next person, but there's a difference between banter and aggression. Banter happens in any competitive and even non-competitive environments, but aggression is a defensive strategy that emerges from threat. For many, the threat is that women are not in the kitchen anymore and we are doing things like playing video games and building rocket ships. We are no longer solely demure housewives and baby makers. We have lives and wants and dreams of our own that exceed the traditional societal expectations. And who is threatened when societal norms are questioned? Those who benefit or are made comfortable by those norms.
The PMS Editorial Team featured an article earlier in June about Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency and creator of the upcoming web series Tropes vs Women in Video Games. The aim of this project is to highlight the tropes of female characters found in video games. Harmless enough right? Apparently not. The backlash Sarkessian received from her resoundingly successful Kickstarter project has been beyond belief. From death threats and defacement of her Wikipedia page to vicious attacks that brought down her site, the gaming community has certainly proven hat hatred, racism and sexism are not issues of a time long gone.
What's even more disheartening is the complacency of others with those attacks. After hearing about her project, I posted a journal on Rooster Teeth naming her my new hero. This is one of the comments I received,
“It's not just women getting stereotyped, its all gamers and to be frank, just people in general.”
Many times when I write about the misogyny or stereotyping of female characters I get the response, “Guys are stereotyped too!” and “Oh well, it's everywhere, so deal with it.” No thanks. It is true that male characters are stereotyped as well, but in a very, very different way. John Walker from RockPaperShotgun.com articulated it best:
"I feel compelled to react to one particular theme: That men are poorly represented in gaming too. They are. Men in games are often represented as huge, muscled heroes, essentially weapons of war with biceps, gruff and focused and all-powerful. It’s not an accurate representation of men at large, indeed not. Because it’s a power fantasy. It’s aspirational (as much as very many men may have no desires to be anything like that). It’s about being big, and strong, and in control. Oh boo hoo. Yes, it is daft, and cliched, and tiresome. But to compare it to the default representation of women in games – either huge-titted, scantily clad sexual fantasies, or helpless, pathetic and weak – is deeply erroneous. And yes, of course there are exceptions to both, although I can immediately think of vastly more exceptions for the better presentation of men than I can women." - Tropes vs Women in Video Games vs The Internet
Are there exceptions to these kinds of tropes? Of course, there are exceptions to everything. But the sheer magnitude of the disparity between male and female character representation is staggering. One study by Leonard (2007) found that only 15% of playable characters are female and 50% of those female characters are merely props or bystanders. Another study found that only 14% of video game characters are female, female characters wear significantly less clothing than male characters, and 41% of female characters are portrayed in a sexualized manner vs 4% of male characters (Beasley & Standley, 2002). Dill and Thill (2007) found that 80% of female characters can be categorized as either sexualized, scantily clad or vision of beauty and 30% of characters fit all three categories.
Even when you think of strong female characters in video games, such as Kat from Halo: Reach, the influence of a male dominated world-view is inescapable. Yes, Kat was strong and smart and badass with her one robotic arm. She, more or less, commanded the troops and came up with all of the plans. Then she died. She died in the worst possible way imaginable to any soldier. When Kat died, you were supposed to feel sad with the music evoking a sense of tragic loss. Personally, I was pissed. All of the other Spartans receive glorious, heroic deaths – Carter kamikazies into a Scarab, Emile fires the MAC gun with a sword sticking out of his chest, George dies arming a bomb that destroys an entire Covenant crusier. And Kat? She gets shot in the back from a random patrol.
Now I understand that Bungie was trying to get across that in war anyone can die at anytime. What I don't understand is why they decided use Kat as the example. Why not Emile, who is the stereotypical bad ass with a skull on his helmet? If you're trying to prove that all can and will die, why not start with the biggest and strongest, the one who wears death on his face? Why is it that you cheer and feel pride when Carter crashes his ship into the scarab, sacrificing himself for he team, but feel sadness when Kat is random sniped?
I believe the answer lies in why they died. All of the male Spartans died for a purpose and their deaths demonstrated part of their inner character – brave, strong, and self-sacrificing was part of who they were. For Kat, her death serves no purpose other than to further the plot and the only character demonstrated is that she was not paying attention. Either this was done intentionally, which I do not believe to be true, or it was done accidentally because not a single writer on the Bungie writing team stopped to think about how Kat's death might be perceived by those who identified with her.
The bottom line is that sexism exists in both the industry and the larger gaming community. The only way that it can be stopped is to realize that you are not alone, believe that change can happen and take action.
Realize That You Are Not Alone – I made a comment on Twitter about Ubisoft's recent video using featuring a hypersexualized Coco to promote Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Basically, I called bullocks on Ubisoft for “promoting female gamers” with the FragDolls (who are all awesome) and simultaneously putting out something as degrading as the Coco video.
This is the kind of thing I received in response:
First of all, it's fine to disagree. However, it is never okay to invalidate. By saying I am “choosing to create issues that might not be there,” this person is flat out saying that my experience, perspective and feelings are not valid. My view of reality is somehow wrong just because it does not align itself with his world view. Just like the harassment itself, invalidation breeds devaluation and isolation of the individual. This is why sites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty are so important – they reinforce that you are not, in fact, crazy and that your experiences have merit. There is strength in numbers, and realizing you are not alone in your experience gives strength to take the next step.
Believing Things Can Change – I have become so incredibly sick of hearing, “that's just the way it is” when talking about discrimination and harassment in gaming. While it might truly be the way things are, that does not mean that they must be that way. There is no denying that the change process is slow and difficult, but it can and does happen. If people never fought for change, I wouldn't be allowed to vote. Heck, if we strictly upheld the status quo, we would still be sitting in caves eating raw meat because we fed the guy who wanted to try to invent the wheel to a dinosaur.* All things worth having take time to come to fruition, whether it is a souffle or fighting to be fairly represented. Once you believe that the world can change, the next step is to take action.
Taking Action – Taking action may be the easiest part of the entire process because there are so many ways to help the cause. When someone online treats you inappropriately, don't just mute them – report them. If someone is treating someone else online in a malicious fashion, say something! Share your experiences, send screen caps to Fat Ugly or Slutty, retweet articles that discuss the topic of harassment and stereotyping in gaming, armor yourself with knowledge by reading blogs and articles about these issues, and most importantly of all – keep gaming!
Although taking action may be easy, it can also be frightening. These internet bullies, for they are nothing more, are not used to having others stand up to them. It is important to do only what you feel comfortable or safe doing. We know the kind of putrid phlegm that can be flung across the internet, and unfortunately you can expect to get some sort of retaliation. Always remember that you are not alone and that change is possible.
I do wish to emphasize that many of the reasons for harassing behavior are typically unconscious and usually born from ignorance. It is no easy feat to put yourself in the shoes of another person who has an entirely different experience than your own. So many nuances of social structure are embedded into our brains before we're even really cognitively aware, but this is exactly why raising awareness is such a vital aspect of fighting this particular battle. While this article has focused mostly on harassment against women, there are a variety of other social issues to be addressed in the gaming industry. Although our causes might not have the identical targeted audience, all are welcome to take part, speak up, and work toward defeating discrimination in the video games.
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*Yes, I realize that dinosaurs and humans never coexisted.