Tuesday, 11 December 2012

An Open Letter to the Video Game Industry's Feminist Critics

I meant to write this blog much sooner, shortly after my piece on #1ReasonWhy. Unfortunately, I came down with an illness and I've spent most of the last week lying in bed. That's pushed back this blog by a few days and, more annoyingly, one of the sites reporting on #1ReasonWhy has updated the Twitter posts it had embedded in the article. Try as I might, I haven't been able to find the tweet I wanted to write about. It was a #1ReasonWhy about being afraid to read the comments sections on articles about feminism in gaming.

For all the people who are critical of those comments sections, this (informal) open letter is addressed to you.

I can't imagine there are many feminist critics of the video game industry who ask "why are the people who leave those comments so mean?" because gaming sites and high-profile figures have a habit of portraying them in very black-and-white groups; either they support the feminist argument being made, or they're misogynists. By the mainstream gaming sites, the logical arguments about men's issues in games -- the sensible, fair-minded ones -- either don't exist or they're not worthy of discussion and are dismissed along with the misogynists. I have a theory that this has a lot to do with why there are so many misogynist comments beneath feminist articles on gaming sites. I'll go into that towards the end.

On the off-chance that this post brings any new readers, I'd like to give a bit of backstory; this was the year that I decided to start a blog about misandry in video games because this was the first year I noticed such a dismissive attitude towards misandry in video games. Getting annoyed at a polarising game journalist like Jim Sterling is a bit like going to a KKK rally and then complaining that it's a tad on the racist side but earlier this year, he wrote this article in response to criticism of Anita Sarkeesian's upcoming video series, Tropes Vs. Women in Videogames. It highlights all the typical responses that men's rights activists receive when raising concerns about men's issues. Dismissiveness. Insults. Lack of counter-arguments to existing criticisms. The strange belief that these men's issues don't exist unless in response to someone raising issues about women. That one, in particular, is a head-scratcher; the only reason Sterling and the other critics think these issues don't exist without provocation is because they don't take an interest in men's issues. If they did, they'd see the concern, but because they don't, they don't. It's not rocket science.

Sterling wasn't the only one. There was a blog post earlier this year called "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is" that focused on how it was impossible -- or ridiculously difficult -- for men to be discriminated against because they have "privilege" (although the article was written specifically to outline how easy straight white men had it without using that term. All it did was provide a rather smarmy definition of what privilege was). This blog post gained plenty of publicity in video game circles even though it didn't have anything to do with video games beyond the "difficulty setting" analogy. As for its content, it doesn't tell men's rights activists anything they're not already used to reading. Like the Sterling example, it doesn't state any counter-arguments or cite examples. It outlines why you, straight white male reader, have it better and it won't take "hold on, what about ..." for an answer.

The reason I'm bringing up these blogs and articles now, months after they were originally posted, is because the #1ReasonWhy movement and all the responses to it over the past two weeks has brought back all the same reactions to men's issues. The dismissiveness, the hostility, the insults and so on. There's also an oddly condescending attitude towards the people who disagree with the movement; a "the guys who don't get it" phrase tends to crop up and "guys who get it" are praised. The "lowest difficulty setting" blog post had a hint of this too.

For anyone with a morbid curiosity, take a look where that link leads to. A highly misandric "poem" by Carol Diehl that suggests men don't know what it's like for other men to be raped by women, have women promoted over them because of their sex or mock the appearance of their genitals. Looking at (video game journalist, Gameranx editor-in-chief) Ian Miles Cheong's tweets, he seems to believe every stereotype about men's rights activists without doing any research into men's issues. Once again, no counter-arguments. I hope my feminist readers are starting to notice a pattern here.

It seems like the critics think the only reason why anyone would disagree with the #1ReasonWhy movement -- or any previous feminist campaigns, such as Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes Vs. Women in Videogames -- is because they don't "get" it or they're misogynists. Again, it seems like an excuse to avoid acknowledging the genuine criticisms. Criticisms like the fact that women aren't the only people who face verbal abuse during online multiplayer games but sexist insults are the only insults acknowledged as a problem, for example. Much like, say, the unrealistic standards of beauty in games, it's an issue that faces both sexes but is treated as one that only affects women. That's before issues that predominately affect men are brought up, such as making up the majority of victims of violence.

I wanted to write about this because last week, Gamespot posted one of their Feedbackula videos -- as far as I can tell, a video series highlighting and examining their members' comments from previous articles, usually about upcoming games -- and the arguments left a lot to be desired, to say the least. Here it is, if you'd like to take a look:

Hosted by Gamespot UK's Johnny Chiodni, it was basically an excuse to mock the opinions of people who disagreed with them. Now, there are certain comments on every article about misogyny in gaming that I wouldn't mind receiving insults but what galls me is that Gamespot would sooner make a video criticising "easy" comments than -- you guessed it -- providing counter-arguments to sensible ones. In fact, for those who chose not to watch the video, at the mere mention of men suffering discrimination in games too, Johnny "humourously" bangs his shoe against his head, bemoaning "why'd you have to ruin it?"

Johnny himself doesn't even seem to have a very good grasp on the issues that affect women, let alone men; when discussing the sexualisation of women, we see a picture of a female Skyrim character wearing heavy armour. Johnny describes this as "titillating" because the armour has breasts. To me, this completely undermines every single other argument about sexualised women in games; what's the point in criticising the skimpy outfits and bouncing breasts in Dead Or Alive if an aesthetic choice to make the female characters visibly female in Skyrim suddenly counts as "titillating"? When that becomes an example of sexualised female characters, absolutely anything can be. I think a commenter on Gamespot called yamilvirginio said it best:

- "Ironic" hipster beard and glasses: Check
- Arrogant and annoying personality: Check
- Putrid stench of white knight anyone can smell from their monitor: Check
- Cherry-picking the most radical comments and reading them in a silly, ironic voice: Check
- Homophobic undertone of the ending message
Yep, everything clears out here. Thank you Gamespot® for enlightening these poor sheep!
The homophobic undertone of the ending message, for anyone who didn't watch the video, was suggesting that anyone who had a problem supporting #1ReasonWhy go join the navy, while the song and video for The Village People's "In The Navy" played in the background. The implication being that if you don't support the women of #1ReasonWhy, you're gay.

The list goes on and on. The #1ReasonWhy site itself is dismissive of men's issues in its FAQ (emphasis by me):

Given the reaction of some of the other figures in the video game journalism industries, I'm actually slightly appreciative of the fact that the owner of 1reasonwhy.net thought to say he/she agreed. I'm no fool; I'm sure it was simply to mollify men's rights activists and to avoid an inundated inbox but frankly, I'm thankful even for that. Other people make no bones about dismissing and insulting people who dare to mention men's rights:

And there's an underlying idea, backed up by things like the Feedbackula video and the idea that guys "don't get it", that critique of movements like #1ReasonWhy isn't allowed.

I'd like to contrast this tweet with everything else in this blog; men complaining that women are complaining about sexism is wrong. Men complaining that men are complaining about sexism describes Jim Sterling's article, Johnny Chiodni's videos, David A Hill Jr's tweet, etc. I went into this quite a lot last time but, again, all these tweets, articles, videos and so forth, all this misandric "men can't be discriminated against" dismissiveness, it all has the unintended effect of making women seem like children. What's being said here is that women have the monopoly on victimhood and how dare those men try to claim otherwise.

Speaking of which, this isn't just men criticising #1ReasonWhy. Someone sent me a link to a PC Gamer article on #1ReasonWhy and directed my attention to one of the comments below. Read it yourself and see what you think:

What we have here is a woman called Iara who refuses to accept her status as a supposed victim and two men (I assume glix is male) who are telling her, "no. You're a victim". The conversation continued beyond these two replies but there wasn't much else of substance.

Let's break this down, bit by bit. First of all, glix's comment that Iara's experiences don't speak for everyone's. That's fair enough but on Twitter, we have thousands upon thousands of examples of people who are claiming that they're providing evidence of institutionalised sexism in the gaming industry. Now what exactly would happen if one of the critics of #1ReasonWhy actually pointed out that the experiences of the women using that hashtag weren't the same as everyone else's?

In fact, I think we might end up with a response much like the one I posted by Kevin VanOrd in my last post:

Maybe this is just my interpretation but it seems to me as if when a woman uses the #1ReasonWhy hashtag on Twitter, it's evidence. When a woman disagrees with the movement, it's subjective; we see the sentence "your experiences don't speak for everyone's".

It's much the same case with Tom Hatfield's comment. Tom has apparently read the "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is" blog post, judging from his comment about guys having an "easy mode". That's neither here nor there though. What's important is how Tom's reply unintentionally highlights the hypocrisy of the #1ReasonWhy movement.

Put it this way; if a man objected to a #1ReasonWhy example written by a woman in the same way that Tom did, the backlash would be quite severe. Let's say a woman wrote a #1ReasonWhy where she stated she had been groped at a convention. Then, let's say a man wrote to her and said, "that's not sexism". Presumably, he'd receive lots of hate messages. I can imagine he'd be called a misogynist for not denouncing such an act as sexist and he'd be criticised for daring to tell a woman how to interpret her own experiences.

What we have here is a reversal of the positions on sexism. Iara is stating how she doesn't see the verbal abuse she's suffered as an example of sexism but no sooner has she done so than Tom Hatfield rushes in to say "that's sexism"! He's telling a woman how to interpret what she herself has experienced, just as in the first example. Do me a favour; quickly scroll back up and look at Tarryn van der Byl's tweet (@nxtrms). "Because we can't even complain about sexism in the industry without men complaining that we're complaining". That's a complaint about men thinking they know better than the women giving their experiences but isn't that exactly what Tom is doing here? Although just because Tom supports the "right" position on sexism ("everything is sexist, women are children, they need help") and Iara supports the "wrong" one ("everyone is verbally abused, I can deal with it, I refuse to play my victim card"), Tom doesn't suffer the same criticism that a man in Iara's shoes would.

I have nothing but praise for Iara for having such a wise head on her shoulders and, thankfully, I didn't notice any "she might not even be female!" accusations in the PC Gamer comments section (and it wouldn't really matter if she wasn't; Tom Hatfield didn't seem to think so and his reaction is what's important, rather than Iara's gender). However, just in case there was any doubt about women taking issue with #1ReasonWhy too, the genuinely wonderful InuitInua steps in to remove all doubt:

In my last blog, I came to the same conclusion as InuitInua about the #1ReasonWhy movement being about special treatment rather than equality and she had a few specific topics from tweets she wanted to pick apart too. It deserves a watch.

Now, something that I imagine a lot of feminist video game commenters and critics don't get is that people who support men's issues in games support equality in games. That's important. I've heard people say, "people object to women entering a field that has been male-dominated for years and expecting it to immediately change to suit them". I don't think this is the case at all. None of us object to women being given the floor to air the issues that affect them in games, no matter how few there are or how short a time they've been a part of the industry. If they're here, they deserve their say. It's when women are the only ones who are given the floor that things become a problem.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened to the video game industry. I'd like to go into two completely separate tangents to illustrate this point. Remember what happened to Ryan Perez? He was a writer for Destructoid who, to quote my own blog on the subject:
"... Tweeted that he believed that actress, writer and internet 'celebrity' Felicia Day was 'a glorified booth babe' and asked the question, 'does she actually contribute anything useful to this industry, besides retaining a geek persona?'. After a massive outcry from many, many of Felicia's friends, fans and coworkers, Ryan lost his job."
Now, the reason Ryan lost his job was because his comments were deemed "misogynistic", even though there was nothing sexist against women about them. He disliked Felicia Day and that, apparently, was enough to brand him a woman-hater. The point I want to make about Ryan is that he made those Twitter comments about Felicia Day in his private time and yet still ended up losing his job over them. Meanwhile, Jim Sterling professionally wrote an article expressing very misandric sentiments and presumably got paid by Gamefront to do so. I'd say that's a lot worse that Ryan's not-quite-misogynistic barbs that were directed at Felicia Day.

The second point I wanted to make was about our old friend Anita Sarkeesian, of Feminist Frequency. The latest blog post on her website outlines the talk she gave at this year's TEDxWomen in Washington, DC. Thankfully, she provides a transcript of her speech, which is predominately about the abuse she suffered when launching her Kickstarter project. As I've said before, I don't encourage that kind of abuse -- I looked over the comments again before writing this post and the racist language made me cringe -- but there are a few parts of her speech that I'd like to quote that highlight why people are critical of Anita:
"And whether it’s a cyber mob or just a handful of hateful comments, the end result is maintaining and reinforcing and normalizing a culture of sexism — where men who harass are supported by their peers and rewarded for their sexist attitudes and behaviors and where women are silenced, marginalized and excluded from full participation.
A ‘boys club’ means no girls allowed. And how do they keep women and girls out? Just like this. By creating an environment that is just too toxic and hostile to endure ...
... Everyday I am encouraged by the women who persevere, who continue to engage and who refuse to be silenced."
To me, this seems like a biased view of things, probably the main criticism of Anita. One thing I hope I've achieved with this blog is build a case for a view of gaming culture where not only are men not supported by their peers for sexist attitudes and behaviour -- look at the Sterling article/Feedbackula video/the entire #1ReasonWhy movement and you'll realise the idea of men being rewarded for sexist behaviour is nothing but fantasy -- but sexism against men is overwhelmingly supported. Whether it's insulting men who support men's issues outright, dismissing the issues, ignoring them or portraying certain issues as only affecting women when they actually affect both sexes, there's a lot of examples of men being silenced and marginalised in the gaming industry. That's what I'd describe as a toxic environment. If that's what Anita considers a "boy's club", I'd hate to see what a "girl's club" looks like! Meanwhile, women had tens of thousands of #1ReasonWhy tweets, every high-profile gaming site (and several mainstream ones) supporting the cause and Anita Sarkeesian receiving $150,000 for a video series. Hardly what I'd call being "silenced", in spite of the abuse Anita received.

So finally -- finally -- we come to my theory about misogynist comments in feminist articles on gaming sites. To every feminist reader of this blog who has ever wondered why so many of those comments exist, take a look at all the examples involving men and men's issues above. Where they've been ignored. Dismissed. Insulted. Where the men who make them have been told "grow up", "you don't get it" or "you have it easy". Meanwhile, women's issues are being given "air time" on every website that's reporting on Anita Sarkeesian and #1ReasonWhy.

Why do those misogynistic comments exist? Well with all this anti-male sentiment, how do you think people are going to react? What do you expect? With intelligent, well thought-out criticisms of these movements completely ignored, why would people bother writing them and just say "to heck with it" and throw out some misogynist comments to get a reaction? You can say it's immature but, hey, so is the attitude towards men's issues. The fact that plenty of the writers of this content are male is also pretty telling, in that male writers have carte blanche to say what they like about men in a way that female writers can't. I don't want that to sound like a paranoid cry of "the women forced the men to do it!" but rather an acknowledgement of how feminist critics frame things; a woman in the gaming industry can't very well write a scathing attack on male gamers who don't support, say, Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter project in the same way that Jim Sterling can because, if she does, all those misogynist comments will actually be easy to justify. If Jim Sterling writes the same thing, however, the worst insults that'll come his way are "white knight" and "mangina", making the commenters look a bit mental.

I have a second theory but this one needs to be tested. This is where any feminist readers of my blog will come in very handy, especially on the off-chance that any of you are in high-profile positions. Next time you run an article about sexism in video games, give the male point of view as well as the female one. If you intend to criticise Bayonetta for sexual poses, criticise Final Fantasy's trend of flawless teenage male characters at the same time. Don't just throw it in as a single "oh, yeah, men are sexualised too" at the end of the article either. Point out the lack of real-life teenagers who bear any resemblance to, say, Vaan and the unrealistic standard of beauty it promotes.

My theory? Acknowleding sexualisation of both sexes in video games will reduce a huge amount of the hostility towards the article in question. The frustrating thing is that there is no reason for feminists in the gaming industry not to do this, other than to claim victimhood as a specifically female trait. There are tons of sayings that justify supporting both men's and women's issues in games and you'll have heard them all before; "what's good for the goose is good for the gander". "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar". Even the classic "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". You can even quote Jim Sterling (in the name of equality rather than misandry) and say "Start. Fucking. Sharing". So why do feminist critics of the gaming industry make it such an uphill battle for themselves? Why support women's issues and then complain about misogynist comments when you could support the same issues for both sexes and have your approval rating skyrocket?

Obviously, misogynist comments would never completely disappear, even if arguments about men's issues in games were taken seriously. There are always going to be some unsavoury characters in every industry, regardless of how much progress is made. Valve's Christine Phelan said much the same thing in her interview with FMV Magazine. That's certainly a shame but there are things that I think could be done right now to reduce the sexist comments (outlined in the two paragraphs above). If feminist critics are genuinely critical of these misogynist comments and genuinely support equality rather than special treatment, like I said, there's no reason not to support men's issues in interviews/comments/tweets too. Don't "pull a Sarkeesian" by claiming to find misogyny morally wrong but then choosing not to do anything about them just because having more misogynistic comments supports your viewpoint. Again, that just portrays women as children in need of help rather than adults who have the power to change things.

I suppose that's all I have to say. I'd like to finish by linking to a video that a friend of mine posted in the comments of my last blog, by a Youtuber called Billy Clement.

While I don't agree with everything Billy says, there are a few things I like about the video. His comparison to a man in the cosmetics industry is quite entertaining and, most importantly, he reads out a statement from a male developer in the video game industry who'd like to remain anonymous. Assuming it's true, it's quite a damning indictment of "equality" in the gaming industry and wouldn't look out of place on a male version of the #1ReasonWhy movement. One of his final lines sums up the #1ReasonWhy campaign's flaws in their entirety, however, and I'd like to quote it here:
"I'm not arguing against inclusion. Inclusion's good and we all want to see more female gamers. But exclusion is bad and what we really don't want is a games industry to turn into a mirror of television, with weak, stupid, ineffective male characters only appearing to make the superwomen look good."
The part about inclusion and exclusion alone hits the nail on the head; just like I said last time and just like InuitInua says in the video above, it's special treatment -- not equality -- that people are recommending as a solution to the #1ReasonWhy movement's problems. That's exclusion, masquerading as equality.

Well, that's that. Now I suppose I'll just have to wait for my sexuality to be called into question by a "progressive" Gamespot personality.

Please feel free to leave a comment or write to me at themalesofgames@gmail.com.