Thursday, May 5, 2011

Feminism and video games

Okay, this is going to be a long post about feminism and gender politics. It's no secret or surprise that this blog has become increasingly political, especially in regards to books, which is pretty much the only thing I blog about nowadays, aside from the odd music track or meta post. One of the reasons why I've become more interested and incensed about politics is that I'm getting older, and I'm developing a greater awareness of a world outside of myself. With this in mind, let's start this post with a bit of biographical details, as I always love to talk about myself, regardless of increasing awareness.

In 2005 or 2006, I joined Barbelith.com, a forum that developed from a Grant Morrison fan community. The forum prided itself on being extremely inclusive when it comes to people of all different stripes, but it also prided itself on being extremely exclusive when it comes to trolls, misogynists, homophobic people, racists, and all sorts of other undesirables. The forum tended to attract posters interested in more esoteric or arcane things, such as magick or Aleister Crowley and stuff like that. I was there because it was the only forum that didn't seem like 4chan or SomethingAwful.

Barbelith was an intense learning experience for myself. I learned as much about argument and logic as I did about acceptance and feminism. I had never in my life been called out for being intolerant or ignorant in the way that Barbelith did. Things I had just assumed were acceptable were viciously derided and I was expected to either defend myself or change. I saw the light, and converted to a more militant view of inclusivity.

It wasn't a matter of tolerance. I wasn't expected to tolerate anything. Tolerance sounds like I was doing people a favour. In reality, it was accept diversity or be banned. I chose diversity not because of my desire to stay with Barbelith but because I was genuinely won over by logic, reason, and getting to know quite a few people, without ever knowing their real names. A few in particular, such as Ganesh and alas and some others. Quite a few posters came from increasingly different backgrounds than myself. I was being exposed to a whole different view of the world, of politics, of gender, of psychology. I was being exposed to my own assumptions of the world and forced to acknowledge their invalidity.

I read over some of the PMs I received in my three years at Barbelith, and I had forgotten the amount of support I received privately from members. They didn't necessarily agree with my views or opinions, but they respected them, because I wasn't some foaming at the mouth extremist. I was convinced and swayed by logic and reason, and they respected that. Essentially, Barbelith taught me feminism.

Now, it's 6 years later (jesus time flies) and I'm no longer a student at university and I'm no longer a young adult with a gigantic chip on the old shoulder. Now I'm edging closer and closer to my thirtieth birthday and I'm expanding my presence on the Internet, not only with a blog, but with attempts at writing for video game sites. But something makes me leery of this. Something is making me want to stay in my own little corner. (Well two things, with the second thing being that I'm intimidated by the sheer volume of excellent writing out there!)

I'm concerned with the male presence on the Internet. I don't just mean the average Anonymous on 4chan, who scares the bejesus out of me with his casual racism and fervent misogyny. The anons on 4chan are close to the extreme end of the spectrum, and are beyond convincing, beyond reason. The male presence that I'm concerned most about is the ostensibly legitimate writers of sites such as IGN.com and Destructoid.

In terms of IGN, I tend to check them if only for their exclusive news stories. I find their reviews to be irritating, poorly written and often riddled with syntactical and grammatical errors. And god help the comments sections and forums. Typically these forums are havens of ignorance and 12 year olds.

Superficially, Destructoid appears to be of higher quality. However, things aren't always as they seem. I don't generally follow specific writers on video game sites, like I follow writers such as Tucker Stone or Dorian of postmodernbarney, so this means I can't point to any one journalist at Destructoid who has filled me with dread. Nonetheless, I am often left feeling sick after reading reviews and previews.

And this is all because of murky gender politics. Many male writers have their hearts in the right place when it comes to tolerance and acceptance, especially of the idea of the female gamer. They argue that anything that brings in more people and diverse people will enable the video game industry, often very insular, to grow and change. These male writers also accept the growing trend of the female nerd or geek as this is always good for social interaction and for allowing nerd culture to become more mainstream.

All very heartwarming. But there is a darker undercurrent. This very same subtext can be found in the comic book industry, but that's a far larger discussion and has been touched upon by countless writers before me. Rather than try and shout in a deafening crowd, I'll let writers such as Douglas Wolk and Tucker Stone handle comics criticism. Instead, I'm going to highlight a few writers that are examining this gross world of sexism that operates on the legitimate level.

Firstly, there has to be no better writer than wundergeek's Go Make Me a Sandwich. A self-described cranky feminist blogger, she writes about the godawful things being bandied about on Kotaku and Destructoid, including the latter's gallery of nearly naked gamer girls. Go Make Me a Sandwich is about how not to sell games to girls. Before you assume that it's an overly negative blog, consistently pointing fingers, the writer also features positive portrayals of females in games, and female gamers. One of the more recent posts looks at the female version of Shepard from Mass Effect 2. Go Make Me a Sandwich also deals in data, looking at the proliferation of misogynist words like "slut" and "cunt" on the video game sites. This blog is absolutely eye-opening in its approach to how the industry advertises to the male gaze.

Secondly, Fat, Ugly or Slutty has to be mentioned. The conceit of this blog is that male gamers assume that all female gamers fit into one of the three eponymous tags. If you play games, you're either fat, ugly or slutty. What makes up content on the blog is screenshots of messages from male gamers to female gamers that exemplify this behaviour. The messages run the gamut of "have sex with me" to more violent and disturbing things such as barbecuing genitals. I'm not making this up. Reading even a few pages of content on this blog sickens me and gives me a headache. A lot of these screenshots are presented with minimal or no comments at all, leaving the male gamers to - really - speak for themselves. Of course, they do a abysmal job of doing so.

Thirdly, and this is the blog I'm least familiar with, is GJAIF (which I'm honestly not 100% sure what it stands for). This blog seems to be the most famous, as it tends to engage with other video game sites. The content is a mixture of highlighting egregious examples of poor writing and featuring more insane illustrations of rampant misogyny and sexism.

There are tons of other sites out there, including specific feminist blogs. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to sift through the entire internet trying to find the good examples of video game journalism. All I can do is to try and uphold the ideals of my betters.

I know that there are moments on my own blog where I step perilously close to sexism myself. We all carry around assumptions and beliefs that are frankly illogical and sometimes dangerous. What makes us better people is to consistently challenge those conceptions about the world and question our own knowledge. I am a strong believer in examining my own beliefs. Just recently, I doubted my own opinion on the electoral system in Canada. Should I partake in a system I don't believe in anymore? Is it better to not vote when you don't accept the system, or is it better to try and vote in change, but by doing so, become part of the problem that you want to fix? I'm not entirely sure either way, but I think it's extremely important to be aware that our opinions and moral compass are not set once and left for the remainder of our lives. It's quite the opposite in fact. Our systems of belief are protean and mercurial, constantly shifting due to environmental factors and personal factors.

What shouldn't change is an acceptance of people. Not just feminists, or LGBT individuals, but of people. Now, here's the tricky part. I'm not arguing for moral relativism. Not in the slightest. There exists a line. You know it. I know it. There exists a moral line that separates acceptable behaviour from unacceptable. Murder is not right. Rape is not right. Sexism is not right. Racism is not right. When these are clear, the line is also clear. It's when these things are part of the subtext, or unconscious is when it becomes an issue.

I guess my long-winded point is that people need to be made more aware of their issues. Just like with Barbelith and myself, if it hadn't been pointed out to me, I would have been walking around with all these poisonous assumptions and prejudices. I think it's extremely important that we are forced to face our own beliefs so that we can take stock of them, engage with them. If you don't engage with ideas on a deeper level than simply, "hey what's up, racism" then you are never going to learn. If you don't learn, then you're not human, you're simply an automaton.

When I read these blogs and these videogame sites, I'm constantly concerned. I'm concerned that gamers of all backgrounds and genders and races will be offended by a minority that is unfortunately the most vocal. Everybody should be welcomed to the industry, whether as a consumer or as a developer, or whatever. Call of Duty, the most popular online game in the Western world right now, is just rife with homophobic and violent misogyny, making it hard for females and for males such as myself to want to engage with this.

The problem with hatred and abuse is that it's the abuser that speaks the loudest. It's their voice that we hear, and not the voice of the abused. Which is utterly ludicrous. It's everybody's voice that we should hear, not simply the one filled with hatred.

Everybody should feel welcome on video game networks. Everybody should feel comfortable. Those that hate the opposite sex are confused and insecure. The rest of the world, the small minority that feels misogyny and homophobia is unacceptable, well, they're not as confused. At least in regards to hatred.

As I said at the beginning, this is a long post about gender politics, but superficially speaking unfortunately. I'm not a philosopher, nor am I educated in women studies or cultural anthropology. All I can say is that the bullshit people are spewing from their mouths appalls me. I wish I could write for Destructoid and IGN and bring a level of intelligent discourse. Thanks for reading.

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