Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Microsoft "Rape" Joke at E3

This isn't what I planned to write but I've been thinking about it all morning and I've got more to say on the subject than I realised. For those of you who don't know, Microsoft showed footage from the upcoming Killer Instinct reboot (sequel?) on stage for its conference a couple of days ago and during a match between a man and a woman, this joke was made:

Basically, the female player was losing heavily and her male opponent at one point uses the phrase "just let it happen, it'll be over soon". Cue internet outrage.

First of all, although I didn't find the "joke" funny, I didn't think it was about rape either. That, however, was the conclusion that legions of gamers and game journalists came to immediately after it happened. The idea being that the phrase "just let it happen, it'll be over soon" sounded like something a rapist would say during a rape.

Or possibly something a torture victim would be told during torture. Or a doctor might tell you during an uncomfortable medical procedure. Or a colleague might jokingly tell you during an awkward lunch with your boss. I can recall being told something similar by my parents when I went to a wedding as a kid and got bored during the speeches.

People are free to interpret that line as a rape joke if they like though. Even though it shows an unwillingness to accept different interpretations and give the benefit of the doubt, the phrase being interpreted as a rape joke isn't what bothers me. It's fine and, if that's how you feel, I'm also sorry if it offends you. I hate being offended myself and don't enjoy other people feeling offended. What does bother me is people thinking it's indicative of a larger epidemic of sexism in the gaming industry. That's what these two articles claim, unfortunately.

On its own, I probably wouldn't have much to say about the claim that rape jokes represent sexism against women in the games industry. At this point, I think we've come to expect that reaction. What I want people to take note of is just how low an opinion of women the writers of those two articles have decrying the rape joke.

Personally, when I saw the Killer Instinct gameplay, I figured that maybe the female gamer hadn't played it before. Maybe blocking in Killer Instinct is a fiddly thing to do; I found blocking to be tricky when I played the Injustice: Gods Among Us demo, so my mind immediately went to that. I thought the female player's difficulty was either to do with her opponent's experience, her own inexperience or Killer Instinct itself.

Those two articles I linked to, on the other hand, decide to bring gender into things. Take a look at these quotes:
"In this scripted event the man, of course, kicks the woman's ass at the fighting game. "I can't even block correctly and you're too fast," she says, playing a video game like a girl."
"There's another layer of troubling to this - bringing out a man who worked on the game to beat on a woman (the only woman presenter, I've read, but I did not watch the entire presentation to be sure) feels an awful lot like an attempt to reinforce the 'girls can't play games' elitism that permeates the lower strata of game culture."
These two articles, from The Atlantic Wire and Badass Digest, are quick to try and brand the woman a victim, as well as judge her skills as a gamer and enforce gender stereotypes about the way she plays. They're quickest to draw conclusions about Microsoft's intent, the male player and the male audience members who laughed at the joke:
"That this is the trash talk that a man feels comfortable directing at a woman on a stage in front of thousands of people says an awful lot about that man. That people laughed says an awful lot about that crowd."
"And even if it's not conscious, there's a boy's club mentality to gaming that ends up making women feel very uncomfortable."
Essentially, the writer of the Badass Digest article, Devin Faraci, is quick to brand people sexists because they laughed at something he didn't find funny. Nothing more.

I'm not defending a rather petty, unfunny joke but I am willing to defend a bunch of innocent people from being victimised for enjoying some playful trash talk. Faraci writes about elitism and goes on to say that the rape joke was "indicative of a larger cancer eating away at the gaming community". The only cancer eating away at the gaming community is the game journalists who feel increasingly comfortable insulting people who they disagree with, whether it's George Kamitani of Dragon's Crown fame, the male player of Killer Instinct at E3 or even the portion of the audience who enjoyed the joke.

As for the female player, Ashton "Vulcan" Williams, what did she think of the joke?

I came across the Williams' name in this follow-up article from The Atlantic Wire, which is a mess of contradictions; the writer, Rebecca Greenfield, acknowledges that Williams doesn't care. She quotes this progressive female poster from Reddit, who didn't care. Yet Greenfield, still has the gall to write, "this kind of 'smack talk' not only alienates female would-be gamers but also mimics the rampant sexual harassment in gamer culture". She still makes assumptions about why Williams doesn't care with, "so maybe Ashton Williams doesn't mind the rape joke because she's so used to putting up with that kind of stuff just to make it in the gamer world".

Greenfield's justification for this attitude?
"Yes, gamers talk like this all the time. Others responding to the Xbox exchange, particularly on Reddit, note that gamers — even girl gamers — tend to use similar phrasing all the time while playing, which by their logic makes the E3 incident acceptable."
Okay, so why is their logic wrong but your logic right? They're both opinions so why does Rebecca Greenfield's call for a moratorium on rape jokes make more sense than simply telling people not to care about a throwaway phrase between friends while playing a game? Given that the person on the receiving end of the "rape joke" didn't care, that seems like the more sensible option.

There's a tone involved in articles like these that suggests if you don't agree with their opinion, you're wrong. No room for negotiation. Personally, I don't mind if they're offended by the joke and if that was all they criticised, I could sympathise with them. Unfortunately, their stance being "our opinion is fact" and their insistence on insulting anyone who disagrees has diminished any sympathy I could possibly have for them. Here's a few facts that Rebecca Greenfield and Devin Faraci might want to take into account; men aren't all sexists if they laugh at something you dislike. Women aren't helpless children who need to be mollycoddled even when they don't want to be. Although you can say a lot about the XBox One -- and trust me, I have -- Microsoft having a male player defeat a female player in an on-stage demonstration doesn't mean they're horrible people enforcing a "boys' club" in mainstream gaming. Quite the opposite, actually; they're encouraging female participation of mainstream games by featuring a female player during their biggest conference of the year.

Speaking of that, back when Sony announced the Playstation 4, they were criticised for having no female presenters. Does anyone else find it a little odd that when Microsoft does feature a female presenter, they're hugely criticised for not being a good enough gamer. Not only is it very reminiscent of the supposed attitude towards "fake" geek girls -- having to prove their worth as a gamers (or knowledge of whatever fandom they enjoy) before being accepted by other gamers -- but it comes across as moving the goalposts. There were no claims from the critics of the lack of female presenters that the female presenters had to be good at gaming (and I'm not saying that Ashton "Vulcan" Williams isn't) so this is another case of feminist critics -- you guessed it -- creating a no-win situation. While also being far more critical and judgmental of Ashton Williams than the supposed "boys' club" that they speak out against.

Still, both Greenfield and Faraci are fans of Feminist Frequency. I think we know where they get it from.

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