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Screenshot from Firewatch

Feminist Frequency has begun producing a newsletter called FREQ, and their first edition is an interview with Jane Ng. Ng is a 3D environmental artist who most recently worked on Firewatch, which looks like an amazing game. You can read the interview with her here.

My favorite part about the interview, aside from learning that Ng originally started out studying theater and compares environmental design to scenic design (long ago, I studied theatrical scenic design myself), is this:

 I think games that are trying to appeal to young men can have kind of a macho thing going on, and it can create this culture where even the development team is kind of bro-y. A lot of it is determined by leadership. But with [the game] Spore we had Lucy [Bradshaw, executive producer of Spore] and she wanted the game to appeal to everyone, so the team didn’t have that attitude at all. There were women everywhere. I don’t think I had a single “did that happen because I’m not a dude” moment the entire time I was there. It was just about the work.

“Did that happen because I’m not a dude” is a great turn of phrase.  It’s a question that all kinds of women ask themselves when they suspect that they’ve encountered sexist attitudes in the workplace, because– contrary to popular belief– sexism in the workplace does not generally take the form of a co-worker or boss announcing “You’re a woman, and therefore I think less of you.”

Rather, it can be an environment in which women are treated differently, taken less seriously.  They might be outright harassed, but far more often they might be treated as if their views are less important. They might be interrupted or talked over. They might not be consulted on something they know about, in favor of a male co-worker who has less mastery of the subject.

When things like this happen, that woman’s first thought is likely to be “Did that happen because I’m not a dude?” She will ask herself this, and then maybe ask a co-worker who she trusts. The co-worker will hopefully commiserate, but even if so, there’s really not much the woman can do about this subtle sexism, especially if it comes from above.

So I can imagine what a tremendous relief it must’ve been for Ng to be in a working environment where she didn’t get that DiTHBINAD feeling; an unexpected relief because of the male-dominated industry in which she works.

I suppose a general term for behaviors that stir that DiTHBINAD feeling would be “microaggressions,” but I like the specificity of DiTHBINAD. If a woman in a male-dominated industry says that in a certain working environment she doesn’t get that feeling, we should sit up and take notice– that team, that department, maybe even that company as a whole, is doing something right. They should be recognized for that.

Beyond Boobs n’ Butts

The creator of a fictional character can make that character what the creator wants.  Obvious, right? If you’re an author or an artist (or both), and you invent a character to be in the story you tell, you can make that character look and behave however you see fit. The only limits are in your imagination. That’s an amazing power indeed.

And with great power comes….yeah, yeah, you saw this coming: great responsibility. This power and responsibility have belonged to every storyteller since people started to tell stories, and continue to do so as the methods of storytelling have changed.  It seems like everywhere you look, the conversation is taking place about how women are depicted in the forms of storytelling known as “comics” and “video games,” and this blog is no exception. But I didn’t want to just keep rehashing the point, so after those two posts I pretty much only commented when there was a new development on the subject that I actually knew something about.

Or, in this case, something made the point particularly well. That something is Buzzfeed’s article We Had Women Photoshopped Into Stereotypical Comic Book Poses And It Got Weird, in which female Buzzfeed writers tried to emulate the pose of a female superhero in a specific image, and….failed miserably. And then in an attempt to help them along, their pictures were Photoshopped to make them look like the superheroines.

Here’s the video:

It reminds me of fantasy author Jim C. Hines’ hilarious photo shoots of himself posing as the featured female character on the covers of various fantasy novels.  In addition to just being awesome, those photos were intended to show a) how a man would look adopting the same pose and wearing the same kinds of outfits as the women were, and b) how uncomfortable it would be for him to do so. In case readers dismissed this discomfort based on Hines’ age/gender/non-martial artist nature, he linked to a female martial artist/contortionist who had similar findings.

The Buzzfeed women, on the other hand, were primarily showing how for comic book heroines a) the poses are highly difficult to impossible, and b) the bodies themselves are impossible.  If you’ve ever looked at the Escher Girls blog, you’re very familiar with this.  You might even know that the most popular highly-difficult-to-impossible (hereafter referred to simply as “impossible”) pose is the classic “Boobs and Butt,” in which the female character manages to turn both breasts and her ass to the “camera” simultaneously, often in a way that suggests her spine is made of rubber and/or some or all internal organs have been removed.

Boobs n’ Butt example 1

Kristin, one of the Buzzfeed writers who took part in this horrifying experiment, describes the B&B pose this way:

Unless you completely lack object permanence, you can deal with not seeing both boobs and butt at the same time. Like, give readers some credit: When a character turns around, it’s not like we all go “BUT WHERE DID THE BOOBS GO? ARE THE BOOBS GONE FOREVER? I NEED ASSURANCES THAT THERE ARE STILL BOOBS HERE.” In fact, the only people who actually think this way are real-life babies, and they can’t read comics, anyway!

You know the typical policy of not reading the comments on internet articles?  This is an example of an article for which that is especially the case. Readers accused the women who took part in the creation of this article of having “body issues.” They accused them of trying to “ruin comics.” They claimed that hey, it’s the same for men, man!  They just outright made fun of the Buzzfeed writers’ appearance, calling them fat, ugly, etc.

I don’t seem to recall any of the same crap being directed at Jim C. Hines.

Some of the readers, though, had a slightly different complaint– What’s the point?  What are you trying to prove? they asked.  And I’d like to try and answer that.

I think a general principle can be applied to storytelling, which is that whatever reality your story is set in, if your characters differ from the what is normal for that reality (in terms of abilities, appearance, etc.), you need to account for that difference. It’s sloppy storytelling– or worse, a mistake– to have characters deviate from reality with no apparent purpose or explanation whatsoever.

So, for example, if you make a movie that’s set in downtown Atlanta in 2004, and you have your main characters walking down the street surrounded by people and all of those people are white, you’re deviating from reality in a way that needs an explanation.  Did everyone of a different ethnicity get vaporized by aliens?  Did Georgia experience a holocaust?  If the answer is “We didn’t bother to hire any non-white extras” or “We purposefully didn’t hire any non-white extras,” that’s not going to cut it.  There are really only two possible interpretations for your viewer, and those are:

  • The movie-makers are sloppy story-tellers, or 
  • The movie-makers are making a statement about their preferred reality, and that reality doesn’t include non-white people. In other words, the people who made this movie are probably racist.

Now take that and apply it to comic book women with impossible bodies in impossible poses. That would make sense if, and only if, we’re talking about superheroines whose powers include the ability to morph self. And then, I suppose, there would still be a need to explain why they chose to manifest this ability by doing the Boobs n’ Butt pose…mid-battle, fighting off fearsome enemies.

Boobs n’ Butt example 2

Because you know that, absent an explanation along these lines, the reader is forced to reach his or her own conclusions again. And there are (again) two of those:

  • The comic book artist is a lousy artist. He/she has poor grasp of anatomy and should invest in some manikins ASAP, or
  • The comic book artist deliberately manipulates female forms to exaggerate certain features that are sexually attractive to the artist or his/her audience, or both, at the risk of appearing ridiculous to people who have a good sense of anatomy and/or don’t think Boobs n’ Butt is an acceptable trade-off for realistic-looking human figures.

I think it’s fair to say that an increasing number of us do not find it an acceptable trade-off.  We’d prefer better storytelling than that.

Tropey criticisms of Tropes vs. Women

I am a blogger but not a vlogger, and the video below might be a good reason why.

I decided to make a video reply to Ashley Paramore aka healthyaddict on Youtube regarding her criticisms of Anita Sarkeesian’s video series Tropes vs. Women (sexism in video games, yanno). Ashley’s video here; mine here:

Edited to add: If you want to hear more about video games, agency in video games (and in general) and my thoughts on the first Tropes vs. Women video please read

Thoughts on the first Tropes vs. Women video

Thoughts on the first Tropes vs. Women video

So the first Feminist Frequency Tropes vs. Women video has been posted, and I was very excited to see it. I was not disappointed. If you haven’t seen it yet, have a watch:

What we have here is a thorough, polished bit of media analysis with obvious effort and expense put toward editing, research, design, and production generally. If the rest of the video series is like this, it’s so worth having helped fund the Kickstarter. Even if it wasn’t like this, it would be worth it– I contributed because I saw so much value in doing the project in the first place, so the fact that it’s being done so well is icing on the cake so far as I’m concerned.

This video is the first part of a discussion on the “damsel in distress” trope, in which the female character is taken from the hero in some way– by being literally kidnapped, or possessed, or otherwise removed and her rescue made a goal for our (male) hero to accomplish. Anita Sarkeesian spends some time talking about how this trope has appeared in film before moving to video games, so that it’s clear this trope isn’t something video games invented– it existed long before they did, but video games tell stories like movies and other media tell stories, so it’s not at all unexpected that the same tropes which show up in other media would appear in video games as well. Sarkeesian gives many examples of games in which this trope is employed– the sequence of heroine after heroine calling out for help after/while being kidnapped is particularly effective– and focuses on a couple of situations in particular to talk about how how the game’s story came to be structured that way.

Still from the ToM test video

Now, if you read my blog regularly, you know that I’m all about agency. It’s more than an interest; it’s a borderline obsession. Video games are interesting to me because I enjoy playing them and have since I was a kid, but they’re also endlessly fascinating psychologically because I love to see how people who can depict agency any way they want– video game designers– end up doing so in practice. A well-known psychological test for theory of mind– the ability to recognize others as having thoughts, intentions, and emotions and comprehend what they are– is to show the subject a video involving geometric shapes on a screen moving around in a way that suggests, to a person with a normally functioning theory of mind, a story about agents. What the subject sees are a larger triangle and a smaller triangle moving in and out of a square shape, but this sequence is commonly interpreted as two figures– two agents– interacting, with one “deliberately” “blocking” the other from “leaving” the “confined space.” Autism researcher Uta Frith explains it here. That’s us applying our theory of mind to the images on the screen, making them characters.

Combat. Pictured: two tanks in fierce (but slow) battle.

If you’re old enough to have played video games on the Atari 2600, you’re quite familiar with geometric shapes being presented as having agency. Two of the favorites played in my house as a kid were Combat and Adventure, the former being a series of different games played between two people operating planes or tanks and trying to kill each other, and the latter being a single-player game in which you are a hero who attempts to take a chalice from a castle while killing dragons with a sword. Or, according to what actually appears on the screen, a square which can become attached to an arrow which changes the shape of three differently colored patterns. Even though these games weren’t realistic in the slightest, it only took a few seconds of manipulating the joystick to figure out what shape on the screen was “you.” You pushed the joystick in a particular direction, and looked for which shape on the screen was moving in that direction. That was you. Even though the shape looked nothing like you, or indeed looking like nothing in existence, you knew by its behavior that this was your representation on the screen. Your agent.

Adventure. Pictured: the chalice, a dragon,
a sword, and you (really).

The thing about the damsel in distress trope is that it takes the female character away– she’s removed from the story, effectively, by being turned into a goal. We see her be captured; we see her cry out for help; we see her locked up, and maybe we see the villain torture her a bit, perhaps in view of the hero so he can have that added impetus to spring into action and save her. She’s locked in a tower, tied to the railroad tracks, in the grip of a giant ape scaling the Empire State Building, etc. She is, for all intents and purpose, incapacitated. Her job to is to look pretty and wait to be saved, while occasionally perhaps struggling and/or yelping in fear. She is a non-agent. She’s doing nothing, going nowhere.

It’s common enough to hear complaints about this trope– it’s a central feature in fairy tales, and there’s a cool children’s book called The Paper Bag Princess, now on its 25th anniversary, which subverts it completely. The notion of the woman always needing to be saved from something, and falling for her savior— what if Snow White, as it turns out, just wasn’t that into Prince Charming?– is actually more than a trope; it’s the most tired of tired cliches. But when it shows up in a video game, it’s a little different. And, I think, a lot worse, because when the damsel in distress is the focus of a video game story, it’s a story in which you, as player, are the protagonist. You control the central character of the story, the hero who must save the damsel in order to win the day, and the damsel is a thing to be won– literally. She’s a non-being, an NPC (non-player character), made of pixels and memory, and reaching her is the object of the game. Not only is she being treated as a non-agent; she is a non-agent, whereas you are not. You have goals and thoughts and feelings, as both player and character, and you are almost invariably playing a man. A straight man, presumably, because gay men don’t give a damn about kidnapped princesses.

I’m not sure if it was happenstance that just as the Damsels in Distress video came out, I started seeing people tweet and post about this parent whose three year old daughter wanted to play Pauline, the kidnapped heroine in Donkey Kong, rescuing Jump Man (aka Mario) instead of the other way around, so her father hacked the game to make it possible. You can see the result at that link; there’s a video. He says

Two days ago, she asked me if she could play as the girl and save Mario. She’s played as Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Bros. 2 and naturally just assumed she could do the same in Donkey Kong. I told her we couldn’t in that particular Mario game, she seemed really bummed out by that. So what else am I supposed to do? Now I’m up at midnight hacking the ROM, replacing Mario with Pauline.

Donkey Kong, as you know if you’ve watched the DiD video already, is one of the games discussed there in pretty significant detail. It’s awesome that this father had to skills to actually re-make the game his daughter loved in order to make the protagonist a girl saving a boy rather than the other way around, which is something most parents obviously wouldn’t have a clue how to do and probably wouldn’t trouble themselves about to begin with. I’m guessing most parents would reply “Sorry dear, but that’s not how this game works” and that would be the end of it. So this story has caught on like wildfire because of the extraordinary lengths this man went to in order to make his daughter happy, and it just happens to be the case that the thing his daughter wanted was to play herself in a video game (or at least, to play someone more like herself than Jump Man/Mario).

Or does it?

In some of the heated discussion that has already taken place about the DiD video, I’ve seen people argue that it shouldn’t matter whether the character you’re playing in a video game is at all like you and therefore there’s nothing wrong with the damsel in distress trope, which is a bit like saying that it doesn’t matter whether the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance is religiously significant or not, and therefore you’d better not take it out, so help me, goddammit! Clearly it does matter, or the model in which the player’s character is male and the object of the game is to rescue a female NPC wouldn’t be so angrily defended. The player doth protest too much, and all that.

But I don’t think that most of us who do see a problem with it want to simply swap the roles around like in Donkey Kong and make all video games about female heroines saving dudes in distress– Sarkeesian sure doesn’t suggest that, and it doesn’t sound like an improvement on things to me. Of course it would be better to have more opportunities to play a female character as the protagonist, and there has been some significant improvement in that area in terms of at least making it possible for the player to have a choice about his/her character’s gender in character creation at the beginning. But really, it doesn’t seem like we suffer very much as video game players by not being able to play a character that resembles us closely– not if we’re just fine playing a square who fights dragons using an arrow. Rather, the problem with the damsel in distress trope in games is the fact that there is gender, and for half of us the gender isn’t ours, and can’t be ours. It’s clearly possible for the game to allow us to play as female, and yet it doesn’t. Instead it compels us to play a (straight) male character while dangling a female character in our faces and saying “You can’t be her. You can only save her. We assume that’s all you’d want to do, anyway.”

That’s the rub.

Recommendation: Metadating

When the Geek & Sundry channel started up on Youtube, I was excited but decided that there was really only one show I wanted to watch regularly, Tabletop. That turned out to be a bad idea because their lineup has changed quite a bit since, including the addition of a show I only discovered this weekend but already love: Metadating. Metadating is a long– usually almost two hour– show that’s really a Google hangout of three guys playing (well, one guy playing and two others watching) a video game involving romantic relationships and discussing it as they go. Now, this already has potential if you just enjoy gaming and you’re the kind of person who likes watching other people play (and I do), but what really makes the show special is who these three guys are.

The show is hosted by Sean Plott, or Day[9], an e-sports commentator for Starcraft 2, and two game designers, Bill Graner and Sean Bouchard (Bouchard did a TEDx talk on the intersection of gaming and education which you can see here). The three have a ritual of introducing each episode by talking about what they’re drinking that evening and the show moved from “family friendly” to “parental advisory: explicit language” on the second episode, and a good time is had by all. But the best part, by far, is that these guys actually know what they’re talking about, and it’s really cool to watch and listen to people who know both gaming and relationships discuss the depiction of relationships in games. Especially when, as you know quite well if you’re a gamer yourself, the topic isn’t exactly central most of the time. Slaughtering people via one means or another– explosives, swords, guns– generally take precedence, for understandable reasons. It’s exciting, and it’s easy. Relationships are hard. Or at least, they’re hard to depict in a way that makes sense and is compelling rather than seeming laughably fake, and laughably fake is more acceptable or even welcome in a lot of aspects of gaming, but relationships aren’t one. Especially romantic relationships, which are conspicuous in video games by their rarity and are even more rarely a central focus or goal, and when they are a goal are often depicted….questionably. I guess my standards are low, because I was gobsmacked  when the word “narrative” first came out of the mouth of one of the hosts (Bouchard, most likely) and I realized that this wasn’t just going to be a show of three guys drinking and laughing at video games.

On Youtube the comments are, as you’d expect, full of reactions from people who love the game being discussed in that particular episode who are bristling to criticism of it (“You just didn’t play enough to get the full experience! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”) and the occasional person wishing that they’d “get a lady on.” Yeah, it makes sense that if you’re going to do a show about the depiction of romance in video games, you might just want a female perspective. But Plott, Graner, and Bouchard all went to grad school together (USC’s School of Cinematic Arts) and seem to know each other well, and rapport is so valuable for shows like this. And I’ve honestly been impressed by the even-handedness of the discussion so far.

So. You know. If you’re into that sort of thing….check it out.

And I now have two gaming-related books on my Goodreads “want to read” list:

PAX panels on harassment in gaming

From an article in Slate this morning, What It’s Like For a Girl Gamer, I learned that there will be at least two panels on harassment in gaming at the upcoming PAX convention in Seattle– Ending Harassment in Gaming and Harassment and Bullying in Online Games: Technical Solutions v1.0 (Elisa Melendez, author of the Slate piece, is on the panel for this one). Excellent! Hope they have some fruitful discussions. And, of course, wish I could be there.

Here’s PATV’s Extra Credits episode on in-game harassment. Check it out.

There’s harassment going on in the X community. I’m an Xer. Now what?

The topic of sexual harassment in video games has received attention in Forbes, the New York Times, and NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” recently– if you’ve been actively following the topic at all you probably won’t hear anything new, but it’s good to see it being discussed in publications and programs like these. If you listen to the BBC’s “Assignment” on the topic of “Guns, Girls, and Games” you can get the added benefit of actually being able to hear what in-game sexual harassment sounds like, and it’s every bit as simultaneously disturbing and stupid as you might expect. The program also includes interviews with Grace of Fat, Ugly or Slutty and Jenny of Not in the Kitchen Anymore, two sites devoted to compiling experiences of in-game harassment, who describe (with a tone of “Can you believe this?”) how unprovoked and frequent it can be.

What Grace and Jenny talk about is mainly comments heard in voice chat while playing FPSs (first person shooters) online as well as private messages sent during or after playing these games, mostly but not entirely on Xbox Live. I don’t typically play these games, and when I do it’s only with people I know, so I’ve never personally had these experiences. It’s hard to imagine dealing with the simple awareness that you’re female being taken as permission to unload sexist abuse on you, again and again, and they do describe it as incredibly fatiguing– people play video games to relax, to escape from their everyday life, and the everyday life of a woman can include a lot of sexist nonsense that is the last thing she wants to encounter in her recreational time (not that there is a time when she wants to encounter it). But Grace and Jenny point out that this isn’t the norm for them– it’s regular and unending, but not the majority of what they have to listen to while gaming. I suppose that would have to be the case, in order to retain some sanity.

There’s an identity issue here– a lot of people play video games, and there has been some sniffing at the stated statistic of 47% of video game players being women because the classification is “so all-encompassing as to be meaningless, bundling Solitaire alongside Diablo III.” The people who just play games like Solitaire or FarmVille probably do not think of themselves as “gamers,” but the people who play Diablo III or Cross Assault almost certainly do, and almost certainly play other video games as well. I really like what The Mary Sue’s Becky Chambers has to say about what this discussion has done to her concept of herself as a gamer:

A lot of people (mostly men, it seems) have said that this sort of behavior makes them ashamed to be gamers, or that they want to stop calling themselves gamers altogether. A friend of mine — a man I met through a game, and who I have continued to be friends with thanks to multiplayer games — echoed this same sentiment last week. Though it’s encouraging to see that so many people won’t stand for harassment in any form, I don’t think that separating ourselves from the community as a whole is the answer. On some level, it doesn’t matter at all what label you give yourself. I don’t care if you call yourself a gamer, or a fan, an enthusiast, or whatever. What concerns me is not the label itself, but the underlying implication that the community behind that label is not one that people want to be associated with. This then further implies the bullying and harassment we’re witnessing is the gold standard for how gamers are supposed to behave. Yes, the guy who threatened me in WoW was a gamer, but so, too, were the guys who supported me afterward (and so am I, for that matter). The only commonality any of them had was their hobby. Their respective actions were markers of personal character, not of the pastime they all shared. To be fair, there are a few assumptions I will make about you if you tell me you’re a gamer. First, I will assume that you get excited about games, and that you will be happy to talk about them with me. I will also assume that there is at least one game that we both like very much. We will then be able to converse about this game, probably at length and with great enthusiasm. If by some rare occurrence we haven’t played any of the same games, then we’ll each recommend some of our favorites to the other. If we both play a specific multiplayer game, or at least play on the same platform, and if we’re getting along really well, we’ll probably exchange usernames. If the exchange doesn’t progress that far or if we don’t hit it off, we’ll have enjoyed sharing some geeky pleasantries with a kindred spirit. And that’s it. 

I see some useful similarities and differences between the discussion going on here and the one about sexual harassment at skepticism conferences.


1. In both communities, women are a minority in terms of pure numbers as well as degree of power and influence.

2. In both cases, there are people who aren’t defending sexual harassment per se so much as claiming it’s just part of the atmosphere and reacting as though trying to remove it will destroy or at least damage this special community where people aren’t PC and you can say anything. They like things the way they are, don’t care if others are bothered, and fear what will happen if the people who are bothered obtaining any kind of power to change things because they think it will lead to the creation of a language police state where simply joking around will get them punished or banned.

3. In both cases, aspersions have been cast on the gaming/skepticism community as a whole because of incidents of harassment. Some people embrace this criticism with a sense of guilt or at least a feeling discomfort by association, while others angrily resent the suggestion that they have anything to do with it.

4. In both cases, there are status quo supporters–male and female– who think that the complainers are complaining over nothing and should either a) shut up or b) go away or c) shut up and go away. This includes “chill girls”/“cool chicks” who think “It was just a joke” means something (something vindicating), believe any kind of attention is good attention, and/or don’t believe that anyone else has been harassed because it hasn’t happened to them.


1. Skepticism/atheism is a cause, a movement, whereas gaming really is not. Gamers generally would prefer that the world look more positively upon them and not assume that they’re pathetic basement dwellers at best or serial killers and terrorists in training at worst, but they don’t really have a political battle to wage. And they don’t really have a PR problem on the scale of the majority of the country considering them immoral and untrustworthy people, the last minority they’d support for president.

2. Gaming is a community of consumers– the majority by far do not design and create games; they purchase them (and of course those who design and create games purchase them as well). Inevitably articles about sexual harassment in gaming will also include sexual harassment about gaming (such as that which Anita Sarkeesian received) and then address measures that game makers can take to make it more difficult to harass people in-game, and sometimes whether the game is itself designed in such a way as to encourage harassment. These are interrelated but distinct issues that deserve independent consideration, and too frequently I see the ball being dropped there. Gamers can be nasty, but that isn’t the fault of game designers. There’s a line between participants and creators that exists in gaming which isn’t nearly so much the case with skepticism/atheism. The discussion about what objectionable content there might be in a game should really be held separately from that of how players act, and are allowed to act. The “get more female speakers” discussion with regard to skepticism conferences is not the same as the “get more female developers” discussion in gaming.

3. Again when we’re comparing an interest (gaming) to an ideology (skepticism/atheism), the latter is going to have cases of people arguing against harassment from the ideology whereas the former isn’t– generally speaking, anyway. There is nothing in particular about enjoying video games which makes a person more egalitarian, more considerate, more generous, etc. even though participation in online gaming gives people who do have these traits endless opportunities to express them, as any social occasion would. People argue that a person who presumes to be a skeptic has an obligation to reject bigoted thinking, or claim that since there is so much sexism in religion then an atheist has a responsibility to repudiate that along with faith, though I’m not sure these arguments are actually convincing to anyone who doesn’t already agree. With gaming that proposition is basically a non-starter, and this will be pointed out by gamers who see absolutely no sense in having a discussion about harassment or sexism in gaming at all– “We’re having fun here. That’s the point, right? End of story!”

There are plenty of other things to compare and contrast that can be pointed out, and I couldn’t hope to list them all right now. But given that these two enormous discussions are going on in both community-specific and now in big name general publications, I think it’s important to see whether people engaged in these discussions in either community could perhaps learn from each other’s experience. There’s a lot of geek/nerd overlap between atheism/skepticism and gaming, and it would be cool to see more celebrities of both cultures speak out– and to each other– on this topic. Phil Plait and Wil Wheaton, I’m looking at you! “Don’t be a dick” could hardly be a more applicable message.

What we need is more conversation. Smart conversation, with both talking and listening. Given what I’ve seen so far, I’m optimistic.

…Not yet

I often say that offense is a valuable thing– as appealing as it might seem, you really wouldn’t want to be a person who isn’t offended by anything, because that would mean losing your humanity. People who go through life being oversensitive are in a bad state because they’re suffering more than they really should, but people who develop a rock-hard emotional shell and take nothing seriously have trained themselves to be callous and uncaring, which isn’t good either.

Sometimes I re-think that, however. Such as when I see that someone created an interactive game allowing the player to beat up a woman for wanting to make a video series on sexism in video games.

Does it get easier?

Gaming as Women has an excellent advice post up today. The letter-writer wants to know if it gets easier to be a feminist:

Right now it is very hard to be a feminist when I am constantly told that I shouldn’t be one, that I’m doing it wrong somehow, and that I’m ruining everyone’s fun. I can’t unsee misogyny or the kyriarchy anymore, and now I’m starting to hate myself for seeing problematic things all the time because no one I’m with ever sees it with me or even wants to. I work in the game industry so I’m immersed in sexism on daily basis, but some people aren’t and just simply can’t see why I am the way I am. How can I tell if I’m a bad feminist? Or is this just how it feels constantly? If so…does it ever get better?

Melody, Elin, Vivian, Jess, and Dympha all give very good answers to this, which you should read. Their answers include two important reality checks: 1) that in one sense being a feminist today in the West is far easier than it has been further back in history or elsewhere in the modern world where women have it a lot worse, and 2) we all have our biases and prejudices, which is good to keep in mind when addressing those of other people so that you can avoid shaming the whole person while talking about a particular thing they said or did that displays bias or prejudice. Right on the money with both of those. However I would also point out that the historical/cultural comparison shows how it can be more difficult to be a feminist in a modern Western context, because it’s much easier to see and acknowledge a disparity in how men and women are treated when, say, half of them can’t vote or own property than when half of them tend to be represented primarily as sexual objects. You often have to start by getting a person to agree that gender representation even matters, and head off the assumption that even discussing it means that you don’t care about those poor women in Saudi Arabia who can’t go out of the house without being completely covered and why don’t you care about them anyway? If you’re going to be all fired up about treatment of women, why not focus on that?

Well, we are. We’re capable of caring about more than one thing at a time, you know.

Once that hurdle is cleared– if it’s cleared– you can talk about representation, and face the accusation of wanting to ruin everyone’s fun. Because feminists, as you know, don’t like fun. They enjoy misery and want everyone to be miserable with them, which is why they’re even less funny than women are generally (thanks, Adam Carolla). Actually feminists like to have fun and laugh just as much as anybody, but as feminists they tend to notice when that “fun” is at the expense of women and feel compelled to say something about that. It’s understandable that making bigoted jokes and viewing the sex you’re attracted to as existing mainly for your own purposes is fun, but it’s also unfortunate that it’s fun, because eventually the people who have been made the butt of those jokes and the object of that…objectification are going to speak up. Because they want to have fun too, and that’s getting in the way.

This is an impossible thing to make people (yes, including women) understand if they can’t manage to switch perspectives a bit. You’re marching right up to people who are enjoying something just the way it is, and demanding that they change it, and they can’t see why. It seems unfair. It seems pushy and entitled. Nobody wants to view themselves as sexist, so they will fight tooth and nail against the mere suggestion that there’s some sexism present in the movie/TV show/video game/comic they’ve been enjoying so much for such a long time. And if you change it to rectify this “bias” you see, that will make it worse. It’s just fine as it is, leave it alone.

I get it.

In the discussion on feminism and sexism in all things geekish, I’ve seen a number of attempts to force empathy on people by getting them to see what it would look like if men in movies/TV/video games/comics were depicted like women are. Male superheroes wearing the costumes of female superheroes and posed all coquettishly, male characters on the covers of science fiction and urban fantasy novels posed and dressed like the female characters, and so on. I’m not sure if it really does any good, aside from providing amusement for many and pointing out with stark clarity that men who are depicted as wanting to look sexy will look ridiculous even if they’re not also dressed revealingly (and all the moreso if they are).

Which, now that I say it, should be helpful since the point being made is that women appear ridiculous if they’re trying to look sexy as a default. If they’re trying to look sexy while fighting demons on a burning countryside, or sneak past guards and break into an enemy’s compound, or bound through the jungle pursued by wild animals, or wage a battle against an aliens species, or just generally trying to save the world. It’s not a Revlon commercial; it’s more like the Army. Portraying women as if they have confused the latter for the former makes them look stupid and inept– they styled their hair, put on makeup, and wore their most revealing bustier and six inch heels to kick a cave troll’s butt in battle. What were they thinking? That doesn’t say “strong woman;” it says “When they said Dungeon, I thought they were talking about a night club.” This does not do women a favor. Sometimes they do want to dress in bustiers and six inch heels, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but making them do so inappropriately is not good. It says that their being sexy is the most important thing about them, all the time. It doesn’t have to be that way.

If you can get to this point and your fellow conversant is still listening, my hat’s off to you. Getting to this point is hard. That’s because of all the hurdles preceding it which have labels like “It’s just a game; get over yourself” and “We like it this way, and there aren’t as many of you” and of course our old friend “Don’t you have something more important to worry about?” That’s what our letter-writer is dealing with, and she has my sympathy.

But the question remains, though– does it get any better? My answer: We’ll have to see, won’t we?

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